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A Brewery With Little a Miss

Beers hit the spot. Most of the time, menu hits the nail on the Steelhead too.

June 26, 1997|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

IRVINE — A brew pub suits a college town the way a wine bar suits a Parisian working class neighborhood. Case in point: Steelhead Brewing Co., right across the street from UCI in the University Center shopping center.

It's a huge, noisy, boxy space, all brick walls, stone floor and track lighting. Three huge stainless steel brewing tanks stand behind a glass window. Go to the front, where a line of Steelhead Brewing Co. T-shirts and baseball caps are sold. (Yes, STB is a chain.) There you're given a choice of patio or indoor seating.

Choose the patio if you want to have a conversation, but sit inside for comfort. Many of the overstuffed armchairs are next to towering potted plants. Add the raw wood ceiling and exposed ducts and you get the sense of a fern bar for the '90s.

Hard-core brew enthusiasts probably will want a seat at the long mahogany bar, where they can be closer to the actual suds. Different beers are brewed daily, so you ought to order the Sampler, five beers served in 4-ounce tumblers. Don't worry about getting them confused. The beers are arranged on a long paper mat with the name and a description printed under each.

Most of them are pretty good. The one that goes down easiest is Hefeweizen, a mild, cloudy lager served with a slice of lemon. "Ryzbery" is dry and flavored with Oregon raspberries. I expected to dislike it, but the fruit is subtle and the finish impressive. There's barely a trace of residual sugar in this lighthearted beverage.

McShern Erb is a hoppy, copper-colored brew a bit on the bitter side. Steelhead Amber, mild-flavored and medium in body, suits a good number of the dishes on the menu. Finally, for the brew-pub stalwarts, there is Java Stout--rich, dark, bitter and malty. Here it's served ice cold, a l'ameericaine, rather than lukewarm in the English manner.

The menu is extensive. Irvine's tastes are eclectic, which explains the broad range of dishes. Besides the usual pub snacks--chicken wings, fried calamari, burgers and nachos--it trumpets wood-fired pizzas, pasta, specialty salads and a variety of entrees, plus a short list of rich, homey desserts.

The pizzas, all thin-crusted, are especially impressive. Their springy dough gets its unusual tang from barley--suitably, since the brewing operation is already using barley heavily. The Roman pizza is topped with pepperoni, onions, little cloves of nicely caramelized garlic, Kalamata olives and basil. The three-cheese pizza uses mozzarella, provolone and Reggiano-Parmigiano, the savory flavors offset by a thin schmear of pesto between the crust and the topping.

The appetizers are less polished. The 12-pack of wings uses large drummettes fried in a cornmeal crust and dressed in an excessively salty hot sauce, but it's a massive amount of food for $6.95. I found "tender smoked salmon" to be the hard, brittle hot-smoked sort, served in unappetizing ingot-like chunks.

Brew-kettle chili is made with black beans, lots of beef and (of course) Steelhead Stout; an interesting blend, though it could use more spice. The excellent calamari fritti have a deliciously spiced breading, if perhaps a little too much of it.

I like the burgers, big one-third-pounders served on good whole-wheat buns. The peppered bacon cheddar burger, in fact, is just about perfect of its type: a juicy patty, two pieces of lean, very smoky bacon, fresh cracked pepper and a nicely melted umbrella of sharp Cheddar cheese.

The entrees are of variable quality, as might be expected from a menu attempting to offer such a variety of cuisines. One that succeeds beautifully is the grilled bratwurst, which seems like the perfect beer platter. You get two smoky sausages (imported from the Bay Area), some sweet sauerkraut, a bacony German potato salad, a crock of grainy German-style mustard and, for a little final touch, a chewy oven-baked pretzel.

The grilled pork chops are fine, served with garlic mashed potatoes and good zucchini, eggplant, bell peppers and carrots roasted in the wood-fired oven. But the wood-fired smoked chicken enchiladas, which sound so enticing, are a disappointment. Basically they're a gooey mass of melted cheese, sour cream, guacamole and bland chicken inside flour tortillas.

The Steelhead jambalaya is unspeakably bad. The andouille sausage, chicken and shrimp are OK, though there's no Louisiana flavor to speak of, but the dish is hideously oily; the unnaturally red oil looks like something spilled by a supertanker.

Unless you plan a liquid dessert, don't miss the restaurant's terrific strawberry shortcake, for my money the best one around. It's a 5-inch-high biscuit cut in two and slathered with fresh whipped cream and fresh sliced strawberries, in glorious season right now. Chocolate lovers can content themselves with the brownie sundae, a glacier-sized dessert composed of a nut-studded homemade brownie, chocolate and vanilla ice creams, caramel and chocolate sauces and (of course) whipped cream.

But if you want to go lighter and with a kick, try a glass of Wyder's hard cider, cold, refreshing pear or the sweeter peach. On the other hand, if you have an exam tomorrow, don't even think about it.

Steelhead Brewing Co. is moderately priced. Beers are $2.75 to $4.50. Starters are $2.25 to $8.95. Pizzas are $7.95 to $8.95. Entrees are $8.25 to $15.95.

BE THERE

* Steelhead Brewing Co., 4175 Campus Drive, Irvine. (714) 856-2227. Open 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m. daily. American Express, MasterCard and Visa.

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