The Cask Republic, New Haven
★★½ (Very Good-Superior)
The Cask Republic is a province where beer is the prevailing passion. Over 125 bottled beers are on offer and 53 are available on draft. If you sit at the bar, the colorful pull-down handles are lined up in front of you, ready to splash amber elixirs into your glass. Kegs are clearly visible through a window in the wall. Vintage beers are stored in a temperature-controlled walk-in glass case and rotated on and off the beer list—which is updated and printed daily. Ennui is not the norm. Conviviality is.
Small bulbs (wires exposed) bathe the room in the precise low level of dusky light conducive to exchanging confidences and feeling at ease. The noise level depends on the day of the week—quiet on Sunday, raucous on Saturday night. Sometimes there’s background music (R&B when we were there), but there are no TV screens; the freedom to savor subtle nuances of flavor is presumably writ large in The Cask Republic’s unwritten constitution.
Experimentation is also encouraged with beer flights of four 5-ounce pours on offer. The men at our table asked our impressively knowledgeable server to choose for them and discovered a new favorite: Thornbridge Jaipur, an India Pale Ale made in Derbyshire, England.
Turning our attention to the food menu led to the question, what goes with beer? The answer: “It depends.” Certain foods go well with certain beers, other foods go well with other beers. We took the subject off the table and ordered what we liked.
What I liked, and liked a lot, was a crispy blue crab cake with cucumber-apple salad and lemon-ginger aioli. Usually I prefer my crab cakes unadorned, but in this case I made an exception.
Emboldened, we ordered sweet-potato clam chowder, although we feared it would be a thick bisque that would muffle the clam flavor. What arrived was a pleasant surprise, a bowl of brisk, clear clam chowder with finely diced, roasted cubes of sweet potato merrily afloat.
My dinner companions liked the oyster sliders better than I did. There was nothing wrong with the oysters, large and sweet inside their thick, crunchy deep-fried crust, but enclosing them in a mini burger bun struck me as a mistake. In this instance, two crusts—three, actually—were not better than one.
At this point we decided to leave the safe harbor of traditional pub food in favor of seared ahi tuna over julienne vegetable and soba noodle salad with sesame Thai peanut vinaigrette. The tuna was high-quality and perfectly prepared, the mélange a spicy but not too spicy success. Listed as an appetizer, it was so balanced and plentiful it would probably be called a small plate elsewhere.
The Cask Republic’s menu takes a devil-may-care approach to categorization—which is all to the good because pub patrons tend to eat at odd hours, when what they crave does not always comprise what used to be called a “regular meal.” Listed as a salad, warm duck confit tossed with endive, arugula, red onion, grapes, Granny Smith apples, goat cheese and caramelized honey vinaigrette might hit the spot as a side at dinner or a meal at lunch—stunning whenever at $12.
The Cask Republic offers other affordable minimeals; we availed ourselves of a second salad made with crisp slices of Anjou pear, fresh, buttery Boston lettuce, endive, candied walnuts, Roquefort and champagne vinaigrette—for $10. Listed under burgers and sandwiches, a roasted lamb wrap for $12 was unequivocally a meal. Packed with slices of roast lamb, cucumber, tomato, red onion and feta cheese, it was so thick you’d have to open wide to get your mouth around it. No problem—a plate and a fork were at hand and with the stroke of a sharp knife we had half a wrap to take home.
We were having fun with fun food but knowing that there was a seriously good chef in the kitchen, I was eager to test his mettle in the entrée arena. Executive chef Carl Carrion has cooked at some of New York’s finest restaurants, including Union Pacific under Rocco DiSpirito, and Patria with chef Douglas Rodriguez. In Connecticut, he cooked for the Barcelona group and was chef de cuisine at Max Downtown in Hartford and Max Fish in Glastonbury.
His pan-seared sea scallops with oyster mushrooms, applewood-smoked bacon, roasted Yukon golds and sweet corn sauce, the first entrée we sampled, was a revelation. Sea scallops may be old hat, but this presentation was a three-cheers-and-hats-in-the-air triumph.
Braised short ribs, comfort food’s current little black dress, were simmered in a barbecue sauce that packed a tiny ping of heat. Jalapeño? Perhaps. Tasty? You bet. Cheddar polenta was perfect alongside, as were gently wilted fresh greens.
Long before looking at the short but sweet dessert menu (peanut butter cheesecake, ice cream or malted chocolate crème brûlée), I had resolved to pair my dessert with a glass of Lambic, the Belgian sour beer that goes so beautifully with sweets. I hadn’t had a glass in years. Boon Kriek cherry, perhaps, or Lindemans Framboise?
But Cask Republic was a step ahead of me with a last-but-not-least dessert listing: Lambic Float. “With vanilla ice cream?” I ventured. “I prefer chocolate myself,” our server replied. By now, we knew each other well. “Make mine chocolate,” I said, and when the gloriously, frothy, frosty concoction arrived, I couldn’t resist making a toast. Here’s to beer!
The Cask Republic
179 Crown St., New Haven, (475/238-8335; thecaskrepublic.com)
Monday through Thursday 11:30 to 10, Friday and Saturday 11 to 11. Wheel-chair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $5.50 to $12, entrées $16 to $22, desserts $5 to $6.