If our breweries were bottles, they would fill a case. Today, 24 local beer producers are working hard to distinguish their efforts from the competition. This pint-sized arms race has produced a steady stream of sophisticated brews, a blessing to area drinkers thirsty for something besides macrobrews.
This one’s aged in rum barrels, that one’s flavored with rare hops, made in a little-known European style or packing fruit, like apricots, cherries, or elderberries.
Unfortunately, the food menus of brew pubs and brewery restaurants haven’t shown a comparable level of imagination and finesse. At most area brewery-restaurants I’ve visited, the food seems like an afterthought.
Humans cannot live by beer alone, but the skimpier brewery menus make me think about trying it. Do Buffalo craft beer lovers deserve a place where the food is made with as much care as the beer? Thin Man Brewery says yes.
The space that was once Faherty’s and Toro has been turned into a vast three-story restaurant with a rooftop patio. During a sporting event or a mild weekend night, crowds packed shoulder-to-shoulder can drown out conversation, unless you can find a quieter spot on the second floor. When I visited for dinner, there was soccer on the television, and plenty of room on the first floor.
Developer Rocco Termini and craft beer restaurateur Mike Shatzel put the place together. Chef Bruce Wieszala was last at Bourbon & Butter, and Tabree before that, and he’s backed up by Dustin Murphy, another ex-Tabree chef. Head brewer Rudy Watkins helped start Community Beer Works’ program.
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A flight of six 5-ounce pours ($15) will get you reasonably familiar with Watkins’ work. (Brews from other producers near and far, and a full bar, also are on offer.) Two that particularly pleased were Bliss, an Imperial India Pale Ale with heady, floral hops and a tropical fruit finish, and Myrna, a sour beer flavored with apricots whose aromatic tartness balanced out some of the fat-celebrating dishes I encountered.
Fat-celebrating is not a crime. Here, it’s more of a mission, enough to make you wonder if "Thin Man" is ironic. (It’s a reference to the first crash test dummy, invented in Buffalo at Calspan.)
Toward this end, Thin Man offers bacon nubs ($12), inch-thick bite-sized cubes of housemade bacon in a glaze of maple syrup and cider vinegar. Crouton-crunchy but tender inside, tangy-sweet and fragrant with charred rosemary, they were hardcore bacon without distractions. Perfect for ordering when dining with a vegetarian, because then you know you’ll get them all.
Thin Man poutine ($13.50) wasn't diet food either. It was loaded with braised beef cheek, meat that’s even more meltingly rich than short ribs. Its glossy au poivre sauce was more piquant than ordinary gravies, too. The French fries were just adequate. Texas-style chili ($9) was full of cooked-down brisket, but lacked chile zip.
[LOOK BACK: Starters at Thin Man Brewery]
Poutine packs some calories, but my purest fat appreciation came with the charcuterie plate ($17), seven types of house-cured meats made from T-Meadow pork. Lardo is cured pork fat, here shaved thin and wrapped around slices of ripe pear. It softens then melts, as you chew, for a subtle wash of sweet pork flavor.
Between nibbles of baguette, we explored the differences between Spanish-style chorizo, saucisson sec, fennel-laced finocchiona, and soppressata sausages, each enjoyable in their own way, plus bacon-wrapped pork terrine and dried beef bresaola. Accompaniments of pickled cherries and eggplant were achingly sweet, so I left them alone and munched kohlrabi cubes.
Even slices of pure fat were overshadowed by the blot-out-the-sun excess of the Tokyo Burger ($19, pictured as lead image). It's the sort of burger you order when you have something to prove. An 8-ounce beef patty enriched with bone marrow rested atop toasted brioche, with remoulade, gruyere cheese, and a fried egg, crowned with a thick slice of glazed pork belly and then a fried onion ring, all surrounded by au poivre sauce. The burger was accurately cooked, its supporting cast of high caliber, making it a plunge worth taking, at least once.
Gnocchi in gorgonzola cream ($16) offered petite dumplings that were tender, but not as light as my memory of Tabree’s. A plate of housemade Filipino-style sausage ($15.50) with pork fried rice satisfied with a juicy garlicky link, and rice imbued with wok-smokiness.
Thin Man Brewery does serve vegetables, including three salads ($6-$9). A roasted vegetable combination plate ($18) offered four selections: beets with whipped feta and greens; brussels sprouts with bacon, dried cherries and mustard; cauliflower with golden raisins, pine nuts, maple butter and sherry vinegar; and carrots with herb ricotta, smoked pistachio butter and orange blossom honey.
The vegetables were cooked well, caramelized here and there but never mushy. Sampling them, I wished I’d met them as individuals. The subtleness of their accessories was lost as they were piled together.
For dessert, we enjoyed a classic crème brulee ($6.50), spoons shattering a pane of caramel to find vanilla custard. A slice of dense pie with an oatmeal cookie crust and a salty toffee filling had me nodding at its name with the first bite: “crack pie” ($7). Thin Man’s execution of the Momofuku Milk Bar classic had me hankering for more.
From start to finish, my dinner at Thin Man was the most satisfying brewery restaurant experience in town. The biggest difference: I’d return just to eat. There's no way to get around the tavern setting and real possibility of din at dinnertime. But showing it’s possible to offer excellent beer and skillfully prepared food under the same roof? I’ll drink to that.
Thin Man Brewery – 8 plates (out of 10)
Where fine beer is just the beginning.
Where: 492 Elmwood Ave. (923-4100)
Hours: 3 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 3 to 11 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday; brunch 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., regular menu 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.
Price range: Appetizers, $6-$16; sandwiches, $12-$16; large plates, $16-$19.
Parking: Street, validated parking across street in Gallagher Ramp.
Wheelchair access: Yes.
Gluten-free options: Most of the menu, including beef cheek poutine and housemade sausage plate.