Sunday, January 4, 2009

If It Works, Don't Fix It: Motor City Brewing Works

Motor City Brewing Works in Detroit's Midtown neighborhood has long been known for its hand-crafted Detroit-centric microbrews, with names like "Motor City Muscle," "Old Gear Oil," "Corktown Stout," and everyone's favorite, "Ghettoblaster." I've half-wondered if it was merely the clever naming conventions that made their brews so popular. Ghettoblaster, "the beer you can hear," has even inspired its very own compilation albums.

Truth be told, the brews at MCBW are good, but not great. Ghettoblaster is a medium copper-colored English dark mild ale, with hints of citrus fruit and caramel on the nose and tongue. Slightly nutty. Hoppy, but not overtly so. A little thin. Inoffensive, but not earth-shattering. What makes this beer great isn't the beer itself, but the fact that the name alone has made it a Detroit institution; any bar in the city that has local brews on tap always has Ghettoblaster, and most people who would normally stick to PBR or Miller Light find themselves compelled to order it whenever they see it's available. It isn't so much a great beer as it is a great concept, and if nothing else, MCBW should be showered with accolades for producing a B- beer and being able to market it so tremendously well.

The Honey Porter (and oh how I love my porters and stouts) is everything expected and nothing out of the ordinary. It poured black like a stout with a creamy tan head, showing notes of chocolate, oats, roasted malts, and only the faintest hint of honey. It had a definite creaminess, but the body was still a little thin.

Motor City Lager is the brewery's Bud Light, and nothing more needs to be said about that.

But this isn't just about the beer; this is also about the bar. Motor City Brewing Works is a favorite spot for locals and suburbanites alike; walk in on any given night and you're sure to find the bar lined with chain-smoking, Ghettoblaster-drinking hipsters and a couple of tables of Tigers fans or other forms of Detroit tourists. And it's tiny: I would venture that the capacity inside hovers around 45, and there are only so many places to sit.

MCBW is a great place to visit in the summertime when the upstairs patio is open, but a word to the wise: the patio fills up quickly, so come early or don't come at all.

But Motor City Brewing Works is more than just a decent brewery and hipster hangout; it is also a popular art space, in the tradition of other Detroit restaurant-cum-art galleries such as Cass Cafe and the Majestic Cafe. The place looks "arty" with the tiny multi-colored broken tiles covering one wall and the wooden chairs painted bright orange...not to mention the 4-1 hipster presence (hipster = arty). But every Wednesday night, Motor City Brewing Works hosts "This Week in Art," a weekly-revolving single-artist showing currently curated for the past two years by Graem White, who will be turning it over to Christina Gibbs after January 7th. Artwork is affordable and is one of the best opportunities to view Detroit's up-and-coming unknown talent. Plus, it brings more hipsters.

Early in 2008, Motor City Brewing Works introduced their newly-built brick oven pizza kitchen, to much local acclaim. I've heard many refer to it as "the best pizza in Detroit," and possibly it is. Granted, I'm not a fan of most Detroit pizza and there really aren't that many places (as in, sit-down restaurants with bars and other people) in the city that offer pizza on their menus. So, you know, it could very well be the best in the city, which is kind of like being named the creme-de-la-crap.

What I do like about their pizza is that they offer a host of specialty pizzas as well as build-your-own options. Previously I've had the Margherita pizza (fresh mozarella, fresh basil, and sliced tomatoes with an herb-tomato sauce) and was quite pleased; I also recall a four-cheese blend no longer on the menu with Gorgonzola, Fontina, Mozarella, and goat cheese (globs of Fontina and goat cheese tend to be a bit much, FYI). This time around, I sampled the Roasted Pear pizza with olive oil, Gorgonzola, pears roasted with figs, and red onion. The flavors of roasted pear and gorgonzola pair well together, but the occasional crunch of a fig seed was off-putting, and the pizza as a whole would probably have been better with a mozzarella cheese base with just a smattering of gorgonzola for flavor, as opposed to it being the sole cheese flavor. It's a bit overwhelming on its own, and not fully tempered by the pear. The red onions were, thankfully, mostly unnoticeable.

Other specialty pizzas include a Middle Eastern-style pie called "Mary Had a Little...", made with lamb, garlic, mint, tomatoes, pine nuts, feta, cucumber, labneh, and zatar spice. There are also Meditterranean and Mexican -style pies, as well as a pizza-fied version of the Rueben sandwich. A la carte ingredients for the build-your-own include 5 kinds of sauce, 7 kinds of cheese, 8 kinds of seafood, poultry, and meat (including smoked clams), and a variety of spices. A+ for creativity, but the execution depends on the pie itself. Roasted Pear gets a nice, round B. The crust, always cooked to perfection in the brick oven (I will definitely give them that) and of an absolute perfect thickness- to doughiness- to airiness- ratio, could have more flavor. A perfectly balanced chewy and crispy cardboard is still chewy and crispy cardboard. Throw some olive oil in there. Herbs. Something.

For an appetizer, I followed my heart and went for the cheese board. Cheese offerings are noted on an overhead chalkboard (pity the people sitting beneath it), as are the current beer and wine offerings. Intially I went for the Sharp Cheddar and Stilton, only to find the Stilton gone and ending up with Swiss instead. The cheeses were served as two nice-sized wedges on a wooden slab, with sliced baguette bread and this god-awful horseradish/mustard seed spread that I would recommend be banned from the planet. Both cheeses were mild and satisfying. MCBW also offers Artichoke Dip and Crab Dip, as well as three different hearty salads to whet your appetite.

Beer is not your only drinking option, either: while the brewery does not have a license for hard liquor, they do also carry a modest, funky assortment of wines by the glass, including locally-made wines. On my most recent trip I had a sweet and tart cherry wine; in the summer I remember sampling an interesting blackberry wine. While neither were noteworthy enough to bother learning the names of the producers, both were an interesting addition to the already ecclectic if limited offerings at MCBW. And if you're not in the mood (or old enough) to imbibe, try one of their house-made all-natural sodas (choose from Natural Root Beer, Natural Ginger Beer, or Orange Cream), made with real cane sugar and caffeine-free.

As noted previously, the place fills up quickly and seating is limited. Once full, service immediately becomes abyssmal. Expect long waits for everything--to place your order, to receive your drinks, to receive your food, to receive your check. I had to hunt down our frazzled server to ask for the check, which makes this the second time in a row I've had to do this at this establishment. Granted, when capacity is only about 45 people, it should be a bit easier to manage; however, when there only appears to be two people working the floor and one is constantly pouring drinks, I can see how this would be a problem. Previous trips pre-kitchen have seen me waiting long periods for a beer at the bar (or to be so much as acknowledged)...really the only time it is good to go here and expect decent service is before 5:00PM on a weekday. Though I don't know what the peak lunch crowd looks like, so I will ammend that to say "between 3:00PM and 5:00PM on a weekday."

Also, don't think that just because there is a big, pretty parking lot out front that parking is free. The lot is owned by Traffic Jam & Snug and they are not very generous with it. All hours of the day and night that MCBW is open for business, there is a guard out front who will immediately ask for your $5.00 the moment you step out of your car. MCBW has a tiny lot of its own right in front of the doors; the five spots allotted to it are tyically taken by staff and regulars long before you'd stand a chance at acquiring one.

Overall, Motor City Brewing Works in more of a necessary Detroit experience than it is a good place to dine. The artistic hipster vibe is oh-so-Detroit, as are the cleverly-named beers and creatively-designed culturally-inclusive pizzas. The food, beer, and service really aren't that great, but the ambiance of it all is enough to keep the place crowded seven nights a week.