The Wild Brew Yonder at Birreria
It's been nearly six years since Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich opened a real restaurant in the city. Yes, they are nominally responsible for all of Eataly, which includes a series of perch-and-dine culinary counters, each focused on a single set of commodities, and Manzo, an excellent refectory in a drafty hallway that sometimes seems like a promotional stunt for beef. But now the pair has premiered the unpronounceable Birreria, a beer garden on the roof of the office building that houses Eataly. There's something off about it, too, but at least it feels like a real Batali-Bastianich production.
Getting to Birreria—15 stories up—is like climbing an Italian Alp. After elbowing your way through a superstore thronged with milling tourists, then weaving through piles of vegetables, obstacle-strewn seating areas, and narrow chasms between shelves of bottled beer, find yourself in line at the first checkpoint. Once approved, you'll feel like a janitor as you ascend in a freight elevator, walk down an institutional hallway, through a clogged landing that smells of cleaning supplies, and up a steep stairway, only to arrive at a second checkpoint, where you must prove yourself again.
The place is humongous, with a retractable glass dome, an often ear-splitting volume level, furniture that looks like it came from Home Depot, and a view that's only so-so. (Most spectacular sight: the Empire State Building's antenna.) Luckily, the food is superb, and my guests and I never had a bad bite. For a beer garden, the menu is odd in the extreme: No puffy pretzels! No fried potatoes! And no chicken wings of any sort! In fact, the food is nobody's idea of pub grub.
The single thing that connects Birreria with other beer gardens is a pair of bratwursts ($21). But these are way larger than normal specimens, and instead of a subtle mixture of sweet spices, these John Holmes links taste gloriously of pure pork. They join three others in their own private menu section, of which the best is probusto, a beef-pork combo from Trentino mildly scented with ground coriander. All recline on a bed of homemade sauerkraut—hilariously styled "krauti" on the bill of fare—so sour, it's only good for nibbling.
Not only are there no pretzels (pretzli?) on the menu, there are virtually no carbs, period, apart from two slices of bread that arrive wrapped in paper like a Christmas present. Instead, the menu favors 'shrooms. Maitakes fringed like Davy Crockett's jacket come dabbed with pecorino crema ($15), while oyster mushrooms are presented as carpaccio, flooded with green oil and topped with squares of grana padano. Other mushrooms come grilled or fried, and you won't find more interesting fungi anywhere in town.
There are nice assortments of salumi (cured meats) and formaggi (cheeses), but one is always painfully aware that the selections are effortlessly sourced at the mountain's base, rather than from boutique-style providers. Sadly, there are no salamis made by Mario's dad. Indeed, the city's most celebrated chef has done all the cooking at Birreria (via chef-of-record Alex Pilas)—though he was clearly constrained to do much of the sourcing at Eataly, making the triumph of the food all the more amazing. The pork chop ($24) with Calabrian hot peppers is outstanding. So is the seared skirt steak in a pool of perfect Florentine salsa verde. Unfortunately, the beef arrives unaccompanied by starch or vegetables.
Though no one has ever been known to order one in a beer garden before, the salads are magnificent—big generous plates of scintillatingly fresh produce. Best is shredded kale with grapefruit in an anchovy vinaigrette ($13), so substantial it could be an entrée. The flagship of the dinner fleet is pork shoulder braised in beer and apricots, a putative bargain at $19, though it, too, comes unadorned, and there's little in the way of sides available. Dr. Atkins's acolytes will be delighted.
And what about the beer? Missing are the popular Germanic lagers and pilsners of the standard beer garden. In their place are quirky locavoric drafts (Captain Lawrence, Ommegang, Victory) and pricier bottled oddities sold in the beer department down below, often in a Belgian vein. Among them are many Baladins and Dogfish Heads, both brewing partners in the Birreria enterprise. Also available are a pair of cask-conditioned house ales, which are served warm and nearly flat. The lover of the obscure and experimental will be impressed, but normal beer drinkers might be flummoxed. But then isn't that what you'd expect at a great restaurant masquerading as a beer garden?
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