Walking through the archway at Penn Brewery is like entering a Nuremberg castle. The stately building, located at 800 Vinial Street at the foot of Troy Hill, reopened its restaurant to serve faithful patrons who missed the owners, Tom and Mary-Beth Pastorius, their award winning Penn Pilsner, and of course, Executive Chef Greg Schrett’s menu.
As I walked into the cobblestone beer garden, the historic aesthetics stood out to me, care of the German immigrants Eberhardt and Ober who established the brewery in 1848. Plenty of shade from the tall brick building allowed for a nice retreat from the sun and a perfect place to enjoy a frothy mug of your favorite craft brew. Nearby, two hatchways open to old beer caves where the beer was once stored at cooler temperatures 30 feet underground.
On this night I met with Chef Greg, whose menu is concentrated in traditional German recipes with a few successful updates and personal touches. German cuisine is steeped in a few simple flavors, and this menu offers enough variety without being repetitive.
I enjoyed miniature craft brews, samples served from an iron rack that resembles a coat hanger, and the range of amber colors was appealing. I thought it was classy, not the kind of service one might expect from a German restaurant.
As Chef Greg explained his grandmother’s authentic pierogie recipe, which he uses at the restaurant, an assortment of buffalo chicken, classic rueben and potatoes and cheese arrived. The latter is, by itself, a great dish, but it came across as hum drum simply because the first two were his signature dishes that nailed all of my taste buds.
The buffalo chicken is roasted crisp, pulled and tossed with buffalo sauce, celery and onion, and stuffed into handmade dough garnished with blue cheese dressing. The balance was just right. I tasted heat, cream and blue cheese and caught the flavor of homemade dough on the end.
The rueben was my favorite. The corn beef had a chiseled texture with gooey Swiss cheese and Thousand Island dressing. What kicked this up several notches for me was the kraut garnish, easily the best I’ve tasted with the addition of shaved onions, caraway seeds and vinegar.
The salad dressings are handmade. I sampled the balsamic, which was so good I could drink it with a straw or, in my case, a spoon. I was hoping to see a classic German dressing made with cream, lemon and sugar, but it wasn’t cause to complain.
For my entrée, I had the Koenigsburger klopse, a handmade beef and pork meatballs served in ivory caper cream sauce over crisp, buttery toast. This was billed on the menu as an appetizer and was one of, if not the best, classic German flavors I’ve tasted anywhere. It is simple, straight forward and delicious. But simple doesn’t mean easy, and what makes the difference here is the level of understanding and experience that put this combination of simple flavors together.
Spaetzle, similar to the Italian gnocchi, is my favorite German comfort food. Aside from a missing pinch of nutmeg, Penn Brewery showed yet again the level of culinary skill in the kitchen by perfectly handling the spaetzle from pot to sauté pan, while maintaining the bounce in spaetzle and the seared, buttery exterior.
The dining room has a great view of Downtown and was packed with patrons of all ages. For a Wednesday evening, that says a lot. The dining room is a wide open space that’s a little noisy as the sound bounces from all directions, but this is typical of a traditional German environment. As an added bonus, Tom Pastorius has handcrafted the tables and chairs from solid wood.
On an unannounced visit, the menu reflected consistency and I finished my meal with strudel and crème anglaise. Superb! A live band played spirit-lifting polka music, which aided a good digestion to a great meal.
I entered Penn Brewery wearing my culinary hat designed for critique, and fortunately Chef Greg made it difficult for me to find any valid negatives beyond my own preference for a classic German dressing and a pinch of nutmeg with Spaetzle.
The Penn Brewery is one of the only destination restaurants on the Northside. I plan on going back, especially anytime I am jonesing for homemade pierogies.
Steven Hughes is the director of The Mind of Chef Cooking School at In The Kitchen.He is a graduate of Pittsburgh Le Cordon Bleu. Hughes hopes to one day produce a food television show in Pittsburgh.