By Gretchen Giles
Editor's note: First Bite is a new concept in restaurant writing. This is not a go-three-times, try-everything-on-the-menu report; rather, this is a quick snapshot of a single experience. We invite you to come along with our writers as they—informed, intelligent eaters like yourselves—have a simple meal at an area restaurant, just like you do.
Beer heaven has landed firmly on Earth in the form of the Hopmonk Tavern. The project of mega-restaurateur Dean Biersch of the national Gordon Biersch chain, Hopmonk provides an equal Nirvana to both 22-year-old men and middle-aged moms. Biersch, who lives in Sonoma and wanted to create a one-of-a-kind establishment that reflects his passion for European beer and local food, did his homework to create a vaguely Germanic experience that goes all night in western Sonoma County. Plans have just been announced for a California-wide expansion of his new Hopmonk empire.
And sure, there have been glitches. Anyone who has watched the blogosphere for others' news of the place knows that the pretzel ($2) is a disappointment, the amount of meat in the Reuben sandwich ($11.50) suspect and that the service and food both took a tumble when Hopmonk opened in April to an instantly rabid crowd who overwhelmed the place with their desire for artisanal beer, live music and thoughtful food at affordable prices.
On a recent Friday night, the glitches were basically smoothed, though the kitchen, led by the capable Lynne McCarthy, has stepped away from such lofty goals as homemade potato chips. Nor is this a fine dining experience, at least not if one slides in at 9pm on a weekend when young beer drinkers crowd the place and the volume of noise and staff chaos opens wide.
The main dining room, with its handsome wooden floors and open beams, is dark and unadorned with bare-set tables and plenty of booths that offer a vaguely Denny's-like experience. But Hopmonk is so much more than just a utilitarian dining room that could double as a Bavarian ski hall. Housed in what was in recent times the Sebastopol Brewing Company and the Powerhouse Brewery, this heritage building is the town's former power station. Biersch is the first to use the terrific outdoor area between the main room and what surely used to be the power station, now known affectionately as "the Abbey." Boasting a fountain, lounge area, communal tables and sun-protective lattice work, the outdoor area is inviting both during the day and at night, when the live music and DJ slate from the open-doored Abbey spill sound and revelers into the courtyard.
Our brief meal at the bar started with crisp, toothsome curried samosas ($12) served with a slightly sweet 'n' spicy cilantro-lime dipping sauce. The menu at Hopmonk travels from Asia to Mexico to Italy to California to Germany using fresh local ingredients to make the best fit with its slate of local and European beers. Next up were fish and chips ($14) in a buttermilk batter, a good test of any kitchen, as the oil is so easy to taste. This was fresh and crisp, the oil tasteless, the fries crisp and the tartar sauce heightened with dill. The slow-roasted pulled-pork sandwich ($10) is piled on a Costeaux French Bakery roll, sauced with mole and served with coleslaw in the bun, resulting in a saucy fork and knife sanny with the dark notes of the mole playing against the brightness of the slaw. This is more than serviceable bar food and a perfect foil for a night of dancing in the Abbey.
Hopmonk Tavern, 230 Petaluma Ave., Sebastopol. Open for lunch and dinner daily; brunch, Sunday. 707.829.7300.
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