Philosophers have long romanticized the idea of an infinite multiverse: parallel universes existing concurrently with our own, one for every single possible outcome.
If such a phenomenon exists, we can find solace in the notion that there’s an alternate reality where Prohibition never happened, where area German immigrants were neither persecuted nor discriminated against, where Over-the-Rhine was still a bustling hub for more than a dozen prospering breweries and where steamboats marked the location of the Ohio River’s most vital port city.
For area beer enthusiasts like Chef Michael Shields, downtown and its riverbanks are Ground Zero for what could have been. But they’re not about to let this city’s rich, hoppy history be forgotten without a ‘flight.’
Shields opened BrewRiver GastroPub along Riverside Drive with local craft beer and thoughtfully paired cuisine in mind. You will find no Budweiser, Guinness or other popular (inter)national brands here, only a rotating list of his more than 50 hand-picked, locally brewed draughts, bottled and canned beers.
The “GastroPub” term in BrewRiver’s name hints of upscale cuisine, but it’s so often used nowadays that it immediately evokes scenes from old Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares episodes. You can almost hear Chef Ramsay shouting, “We’re gunna open this town’s very first craft beer micro gastropub, yeah? F#@%ing hell, mate, it’s gunna be huge!” For BrewRiver, though, the description seems apt, as Chef Shields earned his chops in New Orleans under Emeril Lagasse.
We arrived just ahead of the dinner rush one Sunday evening.
Stepping through the side entrance next to the outdoor patio, patrons are immediately greeted with a full frontal view of BrewRiver’s pretty lady: an impressive antique bar of dark mahogany and hammered copper trim, adorned with enormous ornate beer steins and flaunting rows of beer taps. Cincinnati steamboats, for which many of BrewRiver’s signature beers are named, are prominently showcased in black-and-white photos, sending diners to our city’s coal dust-choked past in the heart of the Industrial Age.
BrewRiver’s curiously awkward menu is a stack of paper clipped to an office file folder. While this made leafing back and forth through the pages a minor chore, it punctuated how often beer lists and menu items get refreshed.
Everything unfolds at a deliberate pace at BrewRiver, a very Southern-like characteristic that might test the patience of some Cincinnatians. The waiters are well-versed in beer pairings and menu selections: They’ll tell you how the beers are brewed, where local ingredients are sourced and how they’re treated, slowly unfolding minute details like a mouth-watering bedtime story.
House draughts are specially brewed for the gastropub by Great Crescent Brewery in Aurora, Ind. A choice of up to six four-ounce draughts is available as tasting flights ($2-$3.50 each), which we eagerly ordered. Our picks included the smooth and fruity Island Queen Blonde Ale, the roasty Rapturous Dark Ale, a mildly hopped Calliope India Pale Ale, a limited-release Belgian Style Dubbel Stacks and the Ubiquitous Coconut Porter, whose nutty flavor made it our surprise favorite.
Our must-have appetizer was what the waiter called the “dangerously good” Curried Beef Short Rib Poutine ($12), which pairs perfectly with beer. The salty, hand-cut fries are a piping-hot standout, the unexpectedly spicy heat of the Thai green curried beef a unique and addictive take on the Canadian classic. The fresh, semi-soft curds had melted just enough to impart soft pools of cheesy relief.
My girlfriend’s Roasted Root Vegetables ($14) of bitter greens and farro grains enjoyed a salty upgrade from the Indiana-based Capriole farm goat cheese. The barley-like farro, while disproportionately abundant, offered a satisfying, necessary texture to the dish.
My “Fish of the Day” entree was a pan-seared, ecologically sustainable Idaho Golden Trout ($16), served atop a mashed potato-smooth cauliflower puree, with earthy Sheltowee Farm oyster mushrooms, asparagus, tomatoes and chimichurri sauce. The trout’s pleasing pink flesh and rich, clean flavor was reminiscent of its salmon cousin.