I've been looking forward to trying out Freehouse since I first heard rumors of it brewing late last year. I have been a fan the Edina Grill and 3 Squares (also Blue Plate restaurants) for their casual but still upscale menus and good beer lists. That being said, I have more recently been disappointed in the dwindling beer selection at Edina Grill. So, a brewpub to open under this aegis? Sounds like a perfect idea to me. However, the place has sparked some controversy: even before officially opening, Freehouse made the national news with a somewhat ludicrous beer pricing scheme, that luckily they seem to have revamped since then. I always like to give breweries and restaurants a little to time get through their initial growing pains before making an official ruling on them, which is why I waited a bit to get out there.
I picked up my mom in Maple Grove and headed downtown on a Tuesday for lunch. The day was a bone-chillingly cold -6 degrees F, and we parked a few blocks away in a metered spot. As we shambled ourselves over the poorly shoveled ice-slicks that Minneapolis calls sidewalks, we did see some parking spots near the restaurant that may have been fair game. Oh well, I'm a suburb guy and don't know my downtown well! The place is near Be'Wiched and Burrough, an easy walk to Fulton in warmer days. A large metal grain silo emblazoned with an orange Minnesota, led the way to the building, drawing me like a beacon toward beer and blessed warmth.
A smiling hostess quickly opened the door for us and hustled us into the warm interior. Upon entering the large one story brick building I was struck by the contrasts. Industrial girders and piping painted in white and black lined the ceilings and some of the walls--stark and monochromatic. A large stainless steel square bar appeared just to the left of the entrance with a metal hanging shelf structure above it loaded with empty growlers. Lots of windows offered good lighting, even on this overcast day. Once we were seated in the restaurant proper at heavy light-grained wooden tables, I had time to continue looking around myself. The dining area itself had soft booths of muted colors and despite the stark nature of the place it felt at the same time very comfortable and relaxing. One can see the brewery itself behind glass at the other side of the dining room, with an animated Freehouse sign across the glass, bubbling with simulated carbonation.
The menu seemed a bit schizophrenic. Classic pub fare like sandwiches, burgers and fish & chips vie for attention with breakfast items all day. The appetizers were a bit out-there: oysters, bone marrow, oxtail croquettes, salmon Scotch egg, Korean riblets. We ended up splitting two dishes so we could each try more things. The fish & chips was very good, served with a wonderful house made aoli/tartar sauce, and a mint pea puree. The star of the show was the strangely named $1000 Burger. Served on a house made English muffin, the patty is a combination of flavorful cuts of brisket, short rib, sirloin and rich duck fat. The flavors in this burger are crazy good and any extra juices soak into the muffin rather than escaping to the plate. I'm usually a ketchup fiend, but I didn't even use any on this burger. After trying these solid dishes, I'd like to sample some of the other wacky concoctions on this menu.
Let's talk beer, shall we? Brewpubs are a difficult proposition, needing to succeed at both brewing good quality beers, as well as having great food. This is the main reason there aren't a lot of brewpubs going up in the state. With new taproom laws in Minnesota, breweries can sell pints at their own places without having to deal with running a successful restaurant as well. However, nearly every brewery we went to in Oregon had their own restaurant, and most seemed to be doing great business. The brewer for Freehouse is none other than Tim Piotrowski, (Pio for short,) most recently an alumni of the Minneapolis Rock Bottom. Check this link to see last year's interview that he was kind enough to do for this blog. At this point Freehouse has four house beers which I will touch on, but they also serve a limited supply of other craft beers along their own. They serve beers in a pint, "middy" and 5 ounce sample glass so you can choose how you want it served. I like having options.
1) The kolsch is a very light beer, obviously aimed at the casual beer drinker. A subtle brew with a light fruity flavor, but I picked up a hint of plastic in the nose that I didn't love. Luckily that faded quickly.
2) The brown ale was slightly more flavorful than a Newcastle, but in that vein. Dry finish without a lot of body. A light roasty flavor adds some complexity.
3) The stout seemed like a dry Irish stout but the lack of nitro tap to smooth the dry astringency of the finish and add mouthfeel knocked this down a bit for me. My mom described it as "watery."
4) The IPA was pretty mellow, but very well balanced. This seemed more like a modern day pale ale, since IPA's have gone more over the top in recent years. If I had tasted this 5 years ago I would have thought it was hoppy, but not today. This was my favorite of the bunch, and I'd be happy to have a couple pints of it. Very good with the fish & chips too!
When it comes down to it the beers were all fairly safe, but all were clean and drinkable. Pio is known for well balanced, drinkable beers, and as such he is a good choice for this type of brewery. All of the beers went well with the food choices we had, not overwhelming the flavors in the food--an important thing to consider when running a brewpub! They are apparently working on a hoppier West Coast IPA and a wheat beer now, which bodes well for further experimentation in their line up. It also sounds like they hope to feature some of the beers in the other Blue Plate restaurants as well, much like Town Hall and Fitgers have done with their off-shoot sites.
The service we had at Freehouse was stellar. From the pleasant hostess to our knowledgeable and attentive server, I felt well cared for during my visit. My empty sample glasses magically whisked away, and I never felt rushed or pressured. At one point a jovial, bearded manager stopped by and seemed genuinely interested in what we thought of our experience and the beers in particular. Everyone I dealt with seemed to know their beer and food well.
Overall, I had a very pleasant experience at Freehouse. Excellent service, good food and decent house-brewed beer made this a great place for lunch. Having read an entertaining but less than glowing review prior to my visit, I had somewhat low expectations coming in. I was almost disappointed not to be served a Lovecraftian dish, but my experience was apparently much better! The setting was an interesting juxtaposition of industrial and comfortable. At this point they lack a "killer" beer that I would make the trip out for specifically, but I look forward to stopping back in here again to try more beers over time...and to have another of those amazing burgers.