Sunday, 21 July 2013

Amsterdam Brewhouse: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

During a summer visit to my home town, I always enjoy a Blue Jays game, some staple beer bars (The Only Cafe, BarVolo, Bellwoods, Barhop, and some others at times) and often a new place (whether new or new to me).  This year, post-game (and, alas, post-loss), the destination was Amsterdam's new Harbourfront, lakeside Brewhouse on Queen's Quay.  I don't generally like to post negative reviews, but I feel that I will herein mention the great with some suggestions for improvement as the goal of the critique insofar as the cons seem easily repairable.

The Good:

While Amsterdam began serving standard, fairly bland, fairly mild, if good but unremarkable beers, it has certainly evolved with aging sours, barrel-blends, a stellar unfiltered IPA I have been known to call Ontario's best (Boneshaker), and an Imperial Stout raved about by the beer geeks (Tempest).

Flights and pints allowed a refresher of Boneshaker and of their Tempest Imperial Stout (which seems to have corrected the light body flaw in an otherwise strong beer I have noted before) and new tastings of their Fracture (Imperial IPA which is excellent too, offering a great citrus nose and resiny citrus taste alongside a full body!), their Vicar's Vice (Traditional Strong Ale - complex and enjoyable in a style I often find too sweet with some peat and smoky tobacco notes), their Rye Baltic Porter (a simply stellar baltic porter with a malty caramel taste that I'd love to find 'creamed-out' on cask sometime), and the cask version of their Market Pale Ale (a solid PA, if not legendary).

These beers ranged from good to great and, were I not being budget conscious, sour bottled options abounded tempting a return visit - though I may not be so quick to do so, for the reasons yet to come.

The interior was gorgeous with wood trim, a sporadic balcony-esque layout with a trendy gastro-pub atmosphere while we longed for the exterior alongside the lakeshore in the fine afternoon sun.  The spot itself is worth its weight in beer - and with an 800 person capacity (500 interior, 300 exterior) it weighs a lot!

The Bad:

Though I didn't try much of the food, and though it would be unfair to call the 1-lb wings bad, they were certainly a touch pricey at $13 for 6 wings (in Boneshaker marmalade that tasted more like a mediocre mild barbecue sauce).  The food looked interesting and desirous indeed, but seemed their target was diners with beer as an afterthought.  This, I thought, is a restaurant for a nice date with some great looking wood-fired pizza options and a pretzel that looked unbelievably delicious, but less like the beer locale we'd sought.  This may not be bad, but simply didn't meet our expectations.

and The Ugly:

Upon our arrival - promptly and ahead of ANY coming from the Jays game as we planned for this - we encountered a substantial lineup.  This is fine and boded well, but before waiting we thought we'd check the cask and tap selection, so my friend held the spot and I checked with the friendly hostess at the front.  Despite her friendly assistance, she seemed to know little of the beer and said she'd find out, but didn't think there was any cask.  Before her return, two women came to the front, flirted a bit with the security guard and asked if they could wait at the bar getting a drink first - and were let through.  "Great," I though, "we will do the same."  Upon mentioning it to the same guard, we were told that wouldn't be allowed until it was verified that all in the line ahead of us had the opportunity - which is fine were the standard held uniformly.

Upon the return of the friendly hostess, I was informed of merely the four beers they didn't have and not of which they did, and that it could be up to an hour wait.  I said, again, that might be fine, but I'd greatly like to know what they do have - especially on cask - if we would wait that long for a table (or even the bar).  I was politely told that she'd happily get me that after seating the next customers and she returned with the beer menu and a statement that, "I am pretty sure there is no cask."

The menu was enticing enough, so we waited nearly 30 minutes and the line moved regularly though it grew immensely during our wait.

Upon entrance, we were frankly shocked.  No less than four hostesses took turns seating people, though less than 1/3 of the interior and 50% of the exterior was occupied, and we had been told there was only interior space available.  Minimal wait staff struggled to meet table orders while hostesses killed time and the place sat mostly empty and yet - though an exterior sign bragged of their monstrous space - there were people outside waiting for up to an hour to enter a nearly empty restaurant?!?  It seemed like a staffing issue, though with a few months under their belts, one would presume that could and should have already been resolved promptly!

Then, despite her charms and patience, our server brought me the draught, rather than the cask version of the first beer I ordered (after not originally being sure of what the cask was).  She almost seemed to be shocked that I could tell the difference and checked with the barkeep before telling me - without apology - that she'd bring me the right drink.

I don't, however, actually fault her, but with 20+ beers (their own and others), I'd think a little beer education is necessary for what seemed a remarkably under-educated and under-prepared staff.  It worked out fine, but seemed more in line with what one would expect at a finer dining restaurant where beer is secondary to the wine of some note and not what we were craving after a macro-imposed self-denial through the game at the Rogers Centre Skydome.

Flights were nicely organized into types and the Leaside offered Boneshaker, Fracture, Tempest, and Vicar's Vice which pleased both myself and my friend, though a make-your-own-flight (even if a dollar more) would certainly add to the beer-worthiness of the establishment.

In Conclusion:

I enjoyed myself, though I felt as if I were a drinker in a dining room, burdening the wait staff by asking questions about beer they had no answers to.  The food seemed intriguing, and the location (interior and exterior) is remarkable, but I'd pay more for great beer and knowledgeable service than for ambience and an experience replicable in many a restaurant around the city.  The wait time, however, despite the emptiness was bizarre and almost seemed like an effort in hype-building and I have heard this is a regular practice.

I enjoyed the beer and the place enough to go again - but not for a few drinks without assurance things have changed.  Perhaps only for a meal.

However, the harshness of this review serves mainly to provoke these very changes.  Hiring and training staff seems a minimal requirement in any business and the strengths here are clear, but without nurturing them Amsterdam risks bringing in the pretentious and alienating the beer-geek.  Maybe that's their market though and if so, you've been alerted - whoever you may be!

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