SACKETS HARBOR — Good morning. It's Father's Day!
If you've given Dad that 100-piece socket wrench set and now you want to do something a little extra special for his special day, I've got the perfect idea.
Beer. Lots of beer!
Hop in the car and head for the Hops Spot in Sackets Harbor. It's a new gastropub that's got more beer on the menu than Dad's got sockets in that box from Sears.
Beers from around the state. Beers from around the country. Beers from around the world. In bottles, cans and on tap.
Owners Ryan and Cheryl Chaif have renovated the former Karen's Kafe and Bistro on West Main Street. Cheryl describes the food menu as "beer-focused comfort food," with regionally sourced meats, cheeses and breads.
Salads with organic greens from farms in Jefferson County. Hot dogs and sausages from Syracuse. Locally baked sourdough, rye bread and hot dog buns.
But the real star of the show is the beer and the guy who knows everything about beer: Ryan Chaif. He's behind the brushed stainless steel bar, telling customers all about the Pork Slap Pale Ale from upstate New York, the Dogfish Head Fort from Maryland and the Smuttynose Imperial Stout from New Hampshire.
Ryan clearly loves beer. Despite being hampered by having only six taps due to keg space, he has made up for that with a HUGE list of carefully selected beers and ales. He and his wife have traveled the world, enjoying craft beers and international cuisine that they have incorporated into their restaurant.
The food really goes with the beer, making the Hops Spot like a year-round Oktoberfest. German beer brats, corn-battered dogs, poutine four ways, Montreal smoked meat, fish and chips, beef on weck, beer cheese and (if you really have to) fresh salads with mixed greens, micro greens and goat cheese from the Finger Lakes.
Of course, we began with a round of beers.
On tap the night we visited, Kasteel Rouge ($8) from Belgium was like drinking cherry soda. It is brewed with cultivated yeast, giving a simpler, cleaner flavor. At 8 percent alcohol by volume, this innocent sweet-tasting beer can be dangerous to the unwary.
A bottle of La Fin du Monde ("the end of the world," $7), an effervescent wheat beer from Unibroue in Montreal, is a tripel. Tripels are strong pale ales (this one is 9 percent alcohol by volume) first brewed in Belgium in the 1930s. The Quebec brewery does a superb job of re-creating it on this side of the pond.
From Pennsylvania, Troegs Sunshine Pilsner on tap ($5) was clean and refreshing, everything you want in a pilsner. Rogue Juniper Pale Ale from Oregon was pleasant with a slightly piney taste from the juniper berries.
And now, a round of food.
Poutine, the Canadian favorite, was a must, especially because Ryan hails from Canada. "Le Canadian" ($10) was over the top: hand-cut "frites" with duck confit, Hudson Valley Camembert and green pepper au poivre. But if you want to keep it traditional, "The Classic" is french fries in beef and beer gravy with local cheese curds containing all the fat needed to qualify as genuine Quebecoise cuisine.
The Chaifs make their own jalapeno poppers ($6), very hot chilies filled with mozzarella, then battered and deep-fried. We're used to a cream cheese filling and a flaky crust. But they hadn't perfected the batter yet, so they didn't quite get to the "golden crisp" stage. Cheryl recognized this, and there was no charge for the poppers.
OK, we broke down and ordered from the "Greens 'n Things" section of the menu. Pakora — veggies dipped in Indian besan batter and deep-fried — was unavailable because their purveyor was unable to supply the besan, a flour made from chickpeas.
Instead, we got "the Amantani" ($6.50) a fun and original dish featuring squeaky chipotle cheddar warmed on the griddle, served with rounds of refreshing cucumber and slices of beautiful, ripe tomatoes — a caprese salad, of sorts.
Germany's Dunkel Weisse on tap ($6) was great, a hearty wheat beer with good body and a nice head. The Breckenridge Agave wheat ($4) from Colorado was OK, but a little light and low on carbonation. Unibroue Maudite ($7) was a decent reddish medium-body ale that got more interesting the warmer it was. Full Sail Amber Ale ($4) from Oregon was a bold malt and hops blend, but nothing about it really jumped out at us.
Now it's time for the real beer-drinkin' comfort food.
"The Slaw Dog" ($5) was a Liehs & Steigerwald hot dog. This Syracuse-made wiener (no political statement intended) was heaped with house-made cole slaw. The dog wasn't all that appealing, almost neutral-tasting. But that allowed the crunch and taste of the slaw to overwhelm the roll, making it messy to eat — and that's not really a complaint.
"The Harvest Dog" ($6.50) began with the same hot dog but was gussied up with warm apple slices, New York cheddar, local maple bacon and maple syrup.
There's a spicier Glazier jalapeno cheddar dog on the menu, but the Glazier trucks haven't been able to find their way from Malone to Sackets quite yet. Glazier makes a mighty tasty dog, and we were anxious to try this new version.
Liverwurst, coarse chopped onions and mustard on rye ($6) was right up my alley, a family favorite from long ago. Not just any old liverwurst, though — it was slabs of braunschweiger, slightly smoky, made with pork liver.
Funny, growing up I hated liverwurst. Then again, I didn't like beer, either.
The Chaifs make their own Montreal-smoked meat in-house, thinly shaved brisket layered on rye bread with their own spicy mustard. They did a nice job of capturing the flavor of this Quebec favorite, similar to pastrami. Get ready to unhinge your jaws for this great sandwich, priced at $8.
There's more than meat on the menu. We saw a lovely salmon salad sandwich go by ($9), wild-caught Alaskan king salmon mixed with lemon aioli, capers, celery and parsley on sourdough with local organic greens.
We knew that the Chaifs make their own beer cheese but never got around to trying any. The perfect way would have been to order the grilled beer cheese sandwich ($6).
For dessert, or those who may not appreciate beer, Italian sodas are available in a dozen different flavors. But we'd been staring at huge Saran-wrapped stout-made brownies piled in front of us on the bar all night long. We're not sure if they were for sale, but we managed to have them cut one into four pieces to top off our night.
Well, maybe just one more beer.
No review of a beer lover's restaurant would be complete without the beer the owner ended his shift with, Bosteel's Tripel Karmeliet ($12). This Belgian Tripel is smooth and clean with more complexity of the aroma and flavor than the Fin du Monde. There's just something special about a beer that's brewed in breweries that have centuries of tradition.
Our evening of suds and sausages and fun for four cost $116.37 before tip.
While it's clear that Ryan and Cheryl know a vast amount about beer and the food they serve, it remains to be seen whether they can hire and train staff who are willing and able to learn an equal amount about the product they're serving. The Chaifs made the night for us, while another server behind the bar didn't know which cooler the beers were in or which buttons to push on the cash register.
The Hops Spot is the college dive bar all grown up, the perfect spot for all post-college kids 30 and over who want their beer more sophisticated but still want an excuse to eat french fries and hot dogs at the same time.
I'm giving four forks for a place that's just so different, with owners who aren't afraid to follow their vision.
You can contact restaurant reviewer Walter Siebel via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Hops Spot
214 W. Main St.
Sackets Harbor, N.Y.
A place with four kinds of poutine, six kinds of hot dogs, sausages and brats, a fried baloney sandwich and close to 100 unusual beers should be called Nirvana, but in Sackets Harbor it's call the Hops Spot.
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Friday
9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday