Foam, fare & flair

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Those who prefer the grape to the grain, or even food to drink, should not be put off by the Detroit Beer Co.'s name. Like many "beer companies," Detroit's version on Broadway across from the Detroit Opera Theatre is more a full-service restaurant than a microbrewery, although it does offer a half-dozen unique quaffs.

Part of a trifecta of beer companies that includes the Royal Oak Brewery and the Rochester Mills Beer Co., the Detroit Beer Co. has been "hopping" for three years. Those who have been to the suburban locations will find the downtown menu familiar but not identical to the other two, with the Rochester site, as befits its more upscale clientele, the most adventurous.

However, they do differ in their settings, with the Detroit Beer Co.'s renovation of the century-old Hartz Building, with its tin ceilings and brick walls, looking especially attractive. As many as 250 patrons could squeeze into the long narrow rooms, which include a spacious second floor devoted to nonsmokers and those who prefer an elevated view of Broadway. Added attractions are the sweet smells of brew emanating from the basement, as well as the fact that manager Tom Balish will validate parking for as many as two hours at the kitty-corner public lot.

Along with such traditional pub grub as buffalo wings, nachos, quesadillas, burgers and pizza, executive chef Mark Bailey, who last worked at the Hill, and sous chef Matt McGrail offer a variety of dishes that transcend the genre. For example, the generously portioned appetizers that emerge from their second-floor kitchen, such as seared, Cajun-seasoned chicken dippers, thoughtfully accompanied by a mildly sharp honey-mustard sauce ($8.50). Another appetizer worthy of dipping is silky-smooth hummus with warm pita ($6.95), though the otherwise respectable, tangy spinach and artichoke mélange may strike some as overly cheesy ($7.95). Several bean and cheese dips round out the starters.

The soups — beer cheese, clam chowder and black-bean steak chili — served in signature beer-grain bread bowls are another hearty way to launch a meal at the brewery. Indeed, considering the crisp side salad that comes with, they are filling enough to constitute at least a lunch, with the thick beer-cheese soup, composed of a Muenster and ale blend, the most unusual of the trio. Entrée-sized salads, which average around $8 and range from Michigan cherry and Santa Fe chicken to barbecued-chicken chop, also quite easily can constitute a meal for those unwilling to confront the rich and heavy mains that reflect the Detroit Beer Co.'s culinary approach.

Cheese and beer dominate many of the entrées, most of which are slightly less than $10. Characteristic is Muenster chicken, a large breast smothered in a beer-cheese sauce floating on a raft of spaetzle with steamed broccoli scattered about to make the artery-clogger seem more healthful. You can also find vegetables in the baked brewmaster's shepherd's pie, made up of ground beef, corn, onions and cheese (again), all of which are overwhelmed by mashed potatoes.

On the other hand, the beer-battered fish and chips, featuring a crispy crust and tender moist cod, is ship-shape. More ambitious is Louisiana jambalaya, constructed of Andouille sausage, ham, chicken and shrimp in a tomato-based sauce laden with peppers, onions and mushrooms. On one occasion, that Southern classic was marginally undone by the paucity of shrimp as well as by the incendiary ingredients that left a bitter taste in one's mouth.

Fried chicken, Asian-influenced chicken stir fry in a ginger soy sauce, blackened catfish with white rice and red beans, chicken tacos and barbecued St. Louis ribs basted in the brewery's Red Ale are other options. Vegetarians looking for an entrée can select from a handful of pastas and some of the aforementioned salads. The spinach and artichoke calzone, alas, although similar to the appetizer, contains chicken.

All of this can be washed down by the Detroit Beer Co.'s splendid brews, best introduced by a tray of five-ounce samples of five of their finest ($6.50). These may include Broadway Light, Detroit Red, an Indian pale ale with the curious name Local 1529 I.P.A., an even more curiously named German lager, the Detroit Dwarf, and the cute Weiss Happening? — the name given to a changing selection of wheat beers. All are available for take-out.

If you are not a beer-drinker, the Detroit Beer Co. presents a modest array of six dependable wines ($24), such as a Jacob's Creek merlot and a Beaulieu coastal pinot noir. Or you can go for the harder stuff with its more extensive list of martinis that flaunt colorful names such as 007 and Snickers.

After all those sturdy dishes, anchored by beer and cheese, what better way to end the meal than with tempura-battered, deep-fried Hostess Twinkies?

No one will ever confuse the fare at the Detroit Beer Co. with haute cuisine. But that is not the point. Aside from its laudable beer, the brewery pleases diners with global comfort food dished out in a bustling, homey setting. Moreover, the beer company enhances the recreational opportunities in the once moribund area around the Opera House.

Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to [email protected].

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