There is wine on the program at the Thirsty Bear Brewing Co. -- the latest entry in the city's brewery-as-smart-restaurant phenomenon -- and maybe that's a sign of the kitchen's considerable up-market aspirations. But the reality of beer is overwhelming and seductive, from the huge, gleaming stainless-steel vats that line one wall to a short list of truly superior brews (including a citrusy wheat beer better than anything you can buy in a bottle) to a mostly Spanish menu featuring dishes that match nicely with the various lagers and ales.
These days it's tapas, tapas everywhere; the little plates are seriously in vogue. Thirsty Bear's menu is definitely tapas-heavy, but while the offerings are traditional and occasionally flirt with the overfamiliar (there is, yet again, fried calamari, this time with paprika aioli), the portions are generous, the ingredients fresh, and the preparations straightforward.
At lunch we sat near the back, on a slightly raised platform across from a open kitchen separated from the rest of the restaurant only by a lane of pedestrian traffic. Thirsty Bear, with its exposed brick walls, stainless-steel trimmings, plate-glass doors, and ultra-high ceilings (there's a pool hall on the mezzanine), occupies a loft space of dreamy splendor. The brick, in particular, fascinated me with its echoes of the East and Midwest; it was easy to imagine the restaurant being, say, a sports bar in Chicago's River North neighborhood, or the on-location site of a thirtysomething reunion episode.
The Out of Towner seemed to be daunted by the menu's Spanishness, so the Boss and I took charge, ordering up a storm equally from the cold and hot choices.
First across the finish line at our table were the setas a la plancha ($6.75), a large pile of fragrantly sauteed sliced mushrooms served with slices of buttery garlic toast. Then the calamares fritos ($5.50), rather heavily battered but tender inside. The paprika turned the accompanying aioli a pumpkin color but didn't have enough muscle to give it a distinct flavor.
Pan con tomate ($3.25) consisted of several large slices of cold, crusty bread, spread with a paste of chopped tomatoes. It sounded wan and looked garish, like mop-up leftovers from a crime scene, but the high-season tomatoes were propulsively tasty. The montadito ($3.95), a chorizo sandwich, had a similar bright-red cast, but the Spanish version of the sausage, sliced thin, had a subdued and subtle flavor that seemed to shrink in the chilly bread.
Two tapas -- one warm, the other not -- were substantial enough to be meals in themselves. The butifarra ($5.75) combined a warm sausage link and a dollop of aioli with a small rock slide of white beans, cooked attractively al dente. And the salpicon con mariscos ($6.50) was a kind of cold seafood salad of calamari, shrimp, and cod dressed with lemon and cilantro -- the sorts of sharp, acidic flavors that don't fade at room temperature.
At dinner the Boss' sopa del dia ($4.25) combined clams, mussels, shrimp, and calamari in a simple, spicy broth whose remains we sopped up with the none-too-fresh bread. And the calamares a la plancha ($5.50) -- sauteed squid rings on a bed of julienned carrots and red cabbage, dressed with a citrus vinaigrette -- were a welcome relief from deep-fried batter slathered with mayonnaise.
Main courses, alas, while good, were not quite the match of their smaller brethren. The paella a la Valenciana ($14.95), for instance, promised -- and delivered -- the sea: clams, mussels, calamari, and shrimp, along with green and red peppers, peas, and a dishful of beautifully golden saffron rice. But the paella was desperately undersalted, and the chorizo listed on the menu was nowhere to be found. Paella without sausage is like pizza without, well, beer.
Chuletillas de cordero a la brasa ($14.95) -- dainty lamb chops, grilled properly rare -- left the Boss and me of two minds. He thought they were flat; I liked the simply grilled, tender meat (good lamb needs so little help) and the quiet support from the rest of the plate -- the lumpy mashed potatoes and the melange of balsamic peppers arranged around the main event.
We did agree that the desserts were astounding, even better than the tapas. The sagrada familia ($5.75) assembled a pair of sugar cones (sticking up like magicians' hats) on a bed of chocolate mousse and chantilly cream, with a scattering of blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries for color and contrasting tartness.
I thought that was a show-stopper, but the fruta tebia con helado de vanilla ($5.75) was even better -- a true destination dessert. Around a single scoop of vanilla ice cream the kitchen arranged a mix of fruit (blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, and halved Mission and green figs) along with almond slivers and chunks of chocolate. Then, over the top, a liberal ladling of warm, buttery Grand Marnier sauce, which began to melt the ice cream slightly and bound everything together in a rich stickiness. Hot and cold, sweet and tangy, soft and crunchy -- the dessert covered all the ground there is to cover in the universe of after-dinner confections.
Too fattening? Maybe one last beer. It's smooth, fragrant stuff, and you won't find anything like it at the grocery store, no matter where you shop.
Thirsty Bear Brewing Co., at 661 Howard, serves lunch every day but Sunday from 11:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m., and dinner every evening from 5:30 p.m. until 10:30 p.m. Call 974-0905.