Brewery Vivant

(Grand Rapids, MI) Having popped into the newly-opened Brewery Vivant for a quick beer after our recent Brick Road Pizza Co review, we have been eagerly awaiting the launch of their full-fledged dinner menu. Finally, we received notice that Chef Drew Turnipseed had created dishes inspired by rustic Belgian fare, with ingredients sourced locally whenever possible. To avoid the usual Saturday night crush of beer-lovers, we opted to meet some friends for an early dinner...

He Fed:
As instructed by the website, I called 15 minutes ahead to be put on a waiting list for a table, since Brewery Vivant does not take reservations. Only problem is, no one answers and I end up leaving a lame voicemail. Oh well, I hope we can snag a table! As it turns out, after we park in their spacious lot, our timing is perfect. We secure a booth with no trouble; only 15 minutes after we are seated, though, the place begins to fill up with noisy, thirty patrons.

There is so much on the menu, we decide to start by ordering nearly every single offering on the “Bar Snacks & Frites” list. I looked forward most to the Redhead Bacon Peanut Brittle...which, unfortunately, is an imported item from New York City. Quite the anticlimactic moment when the server unzips a pouch and pours the mixture into a small bowl. Tada! Regardless, the brittle is yummy and addictive. The Toasted Truffle Walnuts are too heavy-handed with truffle seasoning. The Whipped Duck Butter is too rich and gamey. The Beer Cheese is smooth, spreadable, golden deliciousness. The Truffle Frites are likewise overwhelmed by truffle seasoning. However, the Garlic Parsley Frites are crisp, oily, and tasty.

We also order one item from the “Sharing Plates & Appetizers” section: the Winter Mushrooms. The fungi arrive on a bed of what is supposed to be capsicum (a kind of red pepper) and onion cream, with housemade sweet potato chips. Instead, it’s more like goat cheese dip with some roasted mushies sitting on top. Only, there is no mushroom taste at all! You’d think with my past mushroom-hating ways, this would be a good thing. Not so. I don’t mind the taste of the little buggers; I just dislike the spongy texture. The dip completely overwhelms the fungus.

As I knew I would the first time I saw the menu online, I order Farmhand Cassoulet for my main course. On paper it is white beans, braised beef cheeks, pork sausage, bacon, and crispy shallots. When they deliver my little skillet, everything looks as advertised. My first bite, though, reveals a number of disappointing facts: the beef cheek is too dry; the pork sausage is a strange amalgamation of meat that is not unlike mild breakfast sausage; and (worst of all) the beans are undercooked. I muddle through, but it’s clear that this is the worst cassoulet I’ve ever eaten (and I’ve eaten quite a few). It really needs some duck or rabbit or something to give it a little oomph. I don’t taste bacon at all. In the end, I leave it unfinished.

I also get to try a bite of JoJo’s Cremini Mushroom Ravioli with Roquefort cream, caramelized onion, toasted hazelnuts, and lemon zest. The taste profile is phenomenal but, again, there is a problem with the ravioli itself. It is undercooked as well. Something is not going right in the kitchen! Juliet’s Roasted Hen turns out to be overcooked and rubbery. SC’s Cast Iron Pommes Anna contains more veggies than potatoes; he leaves his unfinished as well. Only Ivy is completely satisfied, proclaiming The Burger the best in Grand Rapids! (It does look damn good.)

Luckily, we are able to drown our disappointment in good beer and cider. In fact, they debut a red IPA named “Red Coq” while we are there, and it is one of the best beers I’ve ever had. In the final analysis, we really love what Brewery Vivant is trying to do but feel there is just something lacking in the kitchen. Maybe it will take some time for them to get comfortable with the relatively new menu, and we’re certainly going to give them another try. In meantime, we’ll take another round of Belgian brew, please.
She Fed:
Jeremy has been chomping at the bit to get to Brewery Vivant now that their kitchen is open. Because they don't take reservations but will add you to the wait list if you call 15 minutes in advance, he calls them promptly at 4:45 pm eager to get us on the list. Unfortunately an answering machine picks up and he has to leave a message, worrying we won't score a table.

We are in luck and promptly seated at a booth. JoJo and Ivy join us for another culinary adventure along with SC. Before he arrives, we order several starters because they all sound so darn good. Never mind we have five people in our party; we order seven apps: truffle frites, garlic parsley frites, bacon peanut brittle, duck butter, beer cheese, Michigan mushrooms and truffle walnuts. Our waitress warms up after we place such a large order. Throughout the evening she stops by to check on our table as do numerous runners who also bring extra plates, deliver beers, refresh ice waters, etc.

The frites are very good. Thick meaty cuts of potato, still shiny and hot from the deep fryer, are stacked in a cylinder and served up with bearnaise mayo. I adore truffle and thought the truffle frites would be my favorite. They used a heavy hand with it in the kitchen though and I find the garlic parsley frites to be much better. The truffled walnuts are overly strong as well.

A runner brings over a bag, announces "Here's the bacon brittle" and begins to tear it open. Poor Jeremy has been drooling over the prospect of housemade bacon peanut brittle for weeks and come to find out it's commercially made out in Napa. We also discover that it's really not traditional brittle, but peanuts coated with a sweet shellac and bacon tidbits. It's sweet and salty, but disappointment lingers after watching it being poured out of a bag.

The duck butter schmeared on bread is almost overwhelming with its gaminess. I've enjoyed duck several times, but I've never had anything this wild-tasting before. I'm not sure I like it and I don't go back for seconds. The beer cheese is piquant with a nice hoppy essence while the "Michigan mushrooms" are actually roasted mushies sprinkled atop a creamy goat cheese dip. It's sweet, rich and slightly tangy, but I'm not tasting any goat cheese and the mushrooms are lost in the mix somehow.

Our entrees arrive and I can smell a familiar feral scent wafting up from my potatoes fried in duck fat. I try one potato and again find the duck to be too gamey for my palate. The roasted hen I ordered has been halved and the breast deboned. The presentation is absolutely beautiful with the hen halves sitting on the potato cubes. But when I cut into the hen I find it to be very rubbery. A few bites into the breast meat and I catch a mouthful of wishbone shards. The real surprise of the evening for me is the sauteed chard nestled between the hen and the potatoes. I've never been a fan of cooked greens, but this chard is amazing and I gobble it all up. It's still got some bite to it and a bit of spice and tang. Not a trace of sliminess to be found.

Once we order a round of drinks for dessert, our server is clearly trying to rush us out the door, which I understand on a busy Saturday night, but she could finesse things more delicately. Brewery Vivant is a mixed bag in my opinion. Do interesting architecture (the building was a funeral home) and some innovative food overcome rubber chicken with bone shards and bagged brittle? I still can't make up my mind, but if I do return I will steer clear of anything with duck fat and truffle.

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