Don't plan on wearing what used to be called your Sunday-go-to-meetin' duds to the Schlafly Bottleworks. It's as casual as a well-worn pair of sandals. Larger inside than it appears from the street, it's the scene of farmers' markets, private meetings, a bar, a restaurant and, oh, yes, a brewery, too. The imaginative and interesting ground-breaker for the Maplewood-Manchester strip is a sibling of the Tap Room downtown, but except for a single item, the menus are totally different.
Interestingly, the bar has plenty of televisions but no servers; orders must be placed with the bartender. Evenings seem to start with a combination of people in post-work relaxation mode and families, probably post-work themselves, with young parents feeding younger diners. As the evening ripens, the crowd morphs into more singles and dates, probably paying more attention to the beer than the earlier group.
The Bottleworks kitchen, always a fan and supporter of local suppliers, has strengthened its connections through the years. Many farmers and ranchers have names familiar to patrons of farmers' markets, including the one that operates just outside the front door. The hamburger, for instance, is made with bison commercially raised within a hundred miles of St. Louis.
We didn't have the burger this visit, though previous tastings have proven anywhere from adequate to good. Instead, we kicked things off with a cup of elk chili, thick and studded with beans and bits of tomato. Just enough of a kick in terms of spiciness, and quite satisfying. The sausage platter, one of several appetizers large enough to share comfortably, offered slices of lamb, Italian and andouille. The lamb was outstanding, the others probably pork (the meat was not specified) and satisfactory, though the andouille was very mild indeed. Too mild, in fact, but then again, we have deep affection for spicy food. Thick slices of smoked gouda and an Iowa cheese called Prairie Breeze, semi-firm and creamy, marked the plate, along with a delicious, perfectly cooked head of roasted garlic, some seasoned crostini that we think are from Companion (in lieu of the promised toast points), and Centennial Farms' delicious strawberry-chili jam. The only thing lacking was some mustard, but our server rustled some up in a hurry.
The Bottleworks may well be the only restaurant in the area to offer a sardine sandwich. While this may evoke some wrinkled noses, we love sardines, and did long before they were considered healthy food. Large, skinless and boneless fillets, the kind Joe always described as Portuguese, as opposed to the smaller, skin-on variety from Norway, were on sourdough bread that had been grilled on the outside. It was topped with lettuce, a little mustard and a squeeze of lemon, but no sign, darn it, of the promised pickled onions. Very messy to eat, with the sardines falling out all sides despite a double-fisted grasp. Extremely tasty and a good idea but really needing more attention in terms of execution. The side dish was a cup of exemplary potato salad laced with horseradish.
Bison stew? Sure. Dark brown gravy, small pieces of the tender, beef-like meat, nuggets of sweet potato and mushrooms, along with a few carrots and, of course, onion. Riding atop the stew like a buoy was a muffin-shaped piece of delightful real cornbread, tender and corny.
Another sharing thing could be the sticky toffee pudding, the Schlafly signature dessert that is one of the three or four best in the area, and one served downtown, too. While the serving is immense, it's so good that the other side of the plate should face someone the diner feels very kindly towards. If you've never had it, think of a tender brick of cake, spiced and sweet, the dates in the batter having dissolved in the baking, topped with a warm and very sticky toffee sauce, sharing the plate with a baseball-sized scoop of real whipped cream. Some people go for the ice cream made with Schlafly stout, but that's gilding the lily. Try it in the original version first.
Good service, but a kitchen that, at least early in the evening, tends to rush diners by cramming courses together too quickly. We know it's quiet, guys, but let us relax and enjoy the food.
Beer, of course, much of it made in-house, and also a wine list, both local and farther afield. No reservations on Friday or Saturday evenings, and there's a brunch menu available Sundays.
7260 Southwest Ave., Maplewood
Lunch & Dinner daily, Brunch Sun.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Excellent