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Photograph by Michael Amsler

Suds N' Grub: Executive chef James Lloyd of the Ross Valley Brewing Company brings a certain classiness to the brewpub menu.

In the Valley of the Brew

In a welcome inversion of the brewpub equation, Ross Valley Brewing Company's food outdoes its beer

By Sara Bir

On a Monday around the very unfashionable hour of 6pm, you'd figure Ross Valley Brewing Company would be dead. That was my logic in planning a casual drop-in visit; I thought I'd just swing by. But the joint was jumping, throngs of thirtysomethings still in their business attire, clogging every conceivable surface--the bar, the tables, the floor between the tables and the bar. I panicked and goosed my way to the back door.

It was a disappointment. Visions of a heady pint of beer and a plate of pub food had danced in my head all day--only at Ross Valley Brewing Company, they call it "pub cuisine" on account of the fare being more on the 2003 Lexus SUV tip than the 1976 Chevy Custom Deluxe tip. Press clippings from their four-year history all seem to have a "worthwhile food at a brewpub" slant. Recently James Lloyd came in as the new executive chef, and his background at Auberge du Soleil, Gordon Biersch Brewery, and Zinsvalley Restaurant make him well-suited to dish out pub cuisine.

So for the next attempt, I decided to be formal about it, making reservations and inviting our home-brewer friend Matt along as an adviser. It's hard to tell you are there until Ross Valley Brewing Company's facade is right on top of you. There are a few tables for patio dining out front, near the hugest doors I've ever seen. These massive slabs of blond wood are as foreboding as the Florence Baptistery doors, just without the Ghiberti reliefs, and it's not exactly clear that they're the entrance to a brewpub.

As you walk in, rust-colored drapes obscure the dining area and the bar. We walked right past the area we were supposed to be walking into.

Matt, who was there already, flagged us down and reported that, even though I had made reservations for 6:30 two days before, no such reservation was recorded. But it was early still, so we were able to snag a table ASAP. In the dining room, it was peak family hour. I saw a little girl scribbling away with a bucket of crayons, while on the opposite side of the room, beer lovers socialized under the chrome accents of the bar.

The napkin rings are gaskets--maybe because gaskets are important in the brewing mechanisms, who knows. No such cutesiness permeates the remainder of the décor, with its warm earth tones and clean but not sleek lines. Along the far wall of the dining-room wall hang custom-painted panels depicting rustic folk brewing and drinking beer. It's a charming notion, that tradition of beer as the common people's manna, but it's a little strange when juxtaposed against the well-off yuppie types who seem to populate brewpubs.

We ordered a round to get our Friday underway (pints are $3.75). The Fairfax Station Wheat, a light-bodied hefeweizen, was much less crisp, fruity, and aromatic than typical hefeweizen styles, though it was a fine starter beer. The clean, gold Kolsch reminded me of Hamm's. "It's like a high-quality classic American pilsner," Matt opined. I agreed; even though Kolsch is an ale, it tasted like Hamm's squared--that is, light and refreshing.

Matt scored with his glass of the Belgian abbey-style St. Marks Ale, a muddy brown puddle of an ale. Smooth and full in the mouth, with a long, fruity finish and subtle hop character, the St. Marks had great potential for food pairings.

Looking over the menu, some errant specks caught Matt's eye. "There are some deposits here," he said. My menu had a few petrified crusties, too. That's fine for a Lyon's, but when you're paying $15 for an entrée, it would be nice to have a menu that doesn't look like a soiled bib.

For a brewpub, the selection of beer-friendly, graze-friendly starters was thin. We ordered the quick-fried artichoke hearts, served with a lemon-garlic aioli and topped with grated parmesan cheese ($7.50). The light breading shattered under our teeth, its addition of cornmeal imparting a sweet crunch. The deep-frying rendered the artichoke hearts tender, meaty, and steamy. I fished the lemon wedge out of my hefeweizen to doctor up the not very lemony aioli.

We shared an organic Anjou pear salad with frisée, mizuna, spiced pecans, and Shaft blue cheese ($8.75). The slices of pear were thin and crisp and ripe, the spicing on the pecans was subtle and not overbearing, and the plentiful crumbles of blue cheese were creamy and mild.

Our entrées arrived at the table with bungled timing, and the table was getting cluttered with uncleared dishes. To her credit, our endearingly overapologetic server scrambled to quickly restore order.

Earlier, I had spied a plate of mashed potatoes and a huge slab of meat. "That's what I'm getting," I thought. The entrée turned out to be a pan-seared pork porterhouse ($15.95), a hefty chunk of pig indeed. Atop the creamy, golden mashed potatoes (which tasted like it was half butter, though they were also laced with roasted garlic) rested half a savory-sweet roasted pear smeared with whole grain mustard.

The pork chop itself, moist and flavorful and ringed by a strip of fat, sat under an overpowering amount of chopped fresh sage. I picked off the majority of it and thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the entrée, with its flavorful sage pan gravy and braised Swiss chard. It all went especially well with the St. Marks Ale.

Mr. Bir du Jour ordered a special, seared rock cod over mushrooms and fingerling potatoes with spinach and balsamic onions ($16.95). This was another winner. The cod was seared to a golden crunch on the outside and flaky-moist on the inside. I think mushrooms with cod is a little over the edge, but all of the components of the plate were prepared well and were full of flavor.

Matt tried the other special, a Cobb salad with prawns ($13.95). Ross Valley's version had all of the classic components--hard boiled egg, blue cheese, substantial hunks of bacon--but it deviated with a sunny mango vinaigrette that brightened up the salad's heavy-duty components. The prawns were a little tough, but they burst with citrus flavors.

To go with his salad, Matt got the Shakedown Stout (unconventional, yes, but the main thing in food and beverage pairing is to get what makes you happy, not what makes Robert Parker happy). The stout was respectable, but we felt it to be on the wussy side, like it was withholding something from us--not enough robust body, not enough rich bitter or sweet undertones. One thing I appreciated about Ross Valley's beers was their restrained hoppiness. So many West Coast breweries seem to be engaged in a contest of bitter hoppy machismo.

The desserts (most items priced at $6) didn't deviate from the simple comfort food of the dinner menu. We got the banana cream pie only to experience a rather baroque version once it arrived at the table: a graham cracker crust holding layers of ripe banana slices in a chocolate custard, topped with whipped cream and toasted, desiccated coconut. A ring of caramel sauce surrounded the whole works.

So what is pub cuisine? Pub food that's not as sloppy? "Cuisine" removed of the snobbery? In Ross Valley's case, it's notable food that matches particularly well with decent to excellent beer, and not in a pizza-and-beer sense. A lot of brewpubs totally miss the mark in this aspect by not acknowledging that beer, in all of its fascinating permutations, was meant to be enjoyed with food.

Considering that Ross Valley offers a few Belgian-style beers, I'd like to see a Flemish-inspired entrée on the menu. It certainly would not be a deviation, for all of Ross Valley's food is hearty, respectable grub of the highest order.


Ross Valley Brewing Company. 765 Center Blvd., Fairfax. Lunch, Saturday­Sunday; dinner daily. 415.485.1005. www.rossvalleybrewing.com.

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From the June 12-18, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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