What makes a gastropub?
The word — exotic when swept into the lexicon via Great Britain in the 1990s, then both exciting and comforting, now slowly getting drummed into the ground by its widespread adoption — conveys at least three distinct ideas. One, there’ll be a serious selection of drinks, notably beer. Two, there’ll be a serious selection of thoughtfully made food. Three, the food won’t be too fussy. It won’t be cheap, either, but it won’t be precious little bites served on huge plates.
Open since July 1, the tastefully appointed Stone Tap Gastropub in Hudson represents an attempt to bring the concept to the hinterlands of the Twin Cities (or, if you’d rather, one of the twin focal points of the thriving Hudson-Stillwater metro area). In a variation on the theme, Stillwater has the excellent Domacin (which we reviewed earlier this year), and from the ambition on display at the The Stone Tap’s website (“exceptional American style farm-to-table fare”) it seemed poised to give as good as it got.
The devil of course is in the details. Before we transition to aspects infernal: The pub side of things at the Stone Tap is functioning quite well. The draft beer list is nimbly balanced between local (Dave’s BrewFarm, Lift Bridge), regional (Hinterland, Ale Asylum), and national beers (New Belgium, Three Floyds), with a number of fun Wisconsin options in particular that should tantalize the taste buds of any Minnesotan willing to cross the border.
In short: a beer lover (likely general manager Catherine Pflueger, former GM at The Happy Gnome in St. Paul) designed this menu. If you find yourself in Hudson and you like beer, drink here. You will enjoy it.
A food lover didn’t design the food menu, or — probably more accurately — a food lover didn’t design it, drill the kitchen crew in executing it, or educate the waitstaff. On a recent visit, everything we ordered (save the excellent French fries) somehow went awry.
The Charcuterie Plate ($15) was less substantial than you’d hope for the money. Worse, it didn’t make a lot of sense; cubes of mostly moist, relatively young cheese sat next to pepperoni-like disks of meat, and the waitress struggled to recall and recite the contents of the plate. (The blue cheese, for example, was not actually from Ama, Minnesota; it was AmaBlu cave-aged blue from the Caves of Faribault).
There is absolutely nothing wrong with serving a lazy susan or relish plate for $7 at a local bar and not having your waiter or waitress know precisely what’s going on, other than it’s a bunch of stuff you can eat while you drink. But call yourself a gastropub and charge $15, and expectations change.
The smoked ham / aged cheddar Big Pig sandwich ($10) was a bit light for the money (more of a Moderately Slender Pig) and overly salty, but not a total loss: apple slices lightened the flavor load, and the overall package was edible. (Compare it, though, to the superior experience offered by any given sandwich at France 44 and the St. Paul Cheese shop; and sure! That’s a high standard! BUT GASTROPUB. Gastropub! You can’t have the power without the responsibility, man.)
The Stone Tap’s hamburger, however, was where the wheels fell off the wagon, and the wagon slid over the cliff. At $12, any hamburger should be perfect, and in many respects the Stone Tap burger was: It was big and meaty and beautifully charred, sported a bun with real, chewy character to it, and came with a number of attractive local cheese options (we went for the Carr Valley four-year cheddar).
We ordered it medium rare, and it came out medium rare. It could have rested a bit, as a tablespoon of reddish liquid shot out of it after the first bite, but that’s a quibble. Whatever.
But the burger was salty. It was not ambiguously salty, or “on the salty end of the acceptable spectrum” salty. It was mouth-actually-burning-after-you-bite-into-it salty. It was grab-your-compound-bow-and-shoot-a-deer-attracted-by-the-salt salty. I offered the burger to my dining companion, who tasted it, initially enjoyed her bite, and then grimaced broadly at the burger’s mile-high wall of salt.
I informed my waitress, straight up. “The burger was too salty,” I said. “Wicked salty. Can’t eat it.” This may be the first time in a couple years that I’ve proactively complained about food; I generally suffer in silence, hoping that an alert waiter or waitress will inquire as to how things were going. But this was off-the-rails bad.
There was a long, stunned silence — we’d gone off script, and she was going to have to improvise. The same lack of training — no fault of hers, mind you — that had muffed the presentation of the charcuterie plate reared its head again.
She eventually offered to take the burger back to the chef for evaluation. It seemed likely that the chef would take a bite of the burger, realize his error, and send out a perfect version for our enjoyment. Better still, future burgers would be crafted with an awareness that too much of a good thing can, in fact, be a horrible thing.
The chef’s response, delivered by our server? He would either take it off the bill, or send out an unseasoned burger. Unseasoned! Here’s the implication: The burger had in fact been perfect; the customer was the issue; and if the customer wants a bland, crappy, $12 hamburger, that’s his problem.
This brand of baldfaced culinary arrogance is, at a certain level of achievement, both fun and admirable. Customer can’t handle medium-rare pork? LET HIM RIOT. Customer freaks out about liquid nitrogen dessert? TELL IT TO YOUR AUNT. Customer wants his money back because he didn’t properly parse what “trachea and viscera” meant on the menu? CHARLIE DON’T SURF. But that spirit doesn’t cut it when a hamburger, the cornerstone of the American bar menu, can’t be eaten due to improper seasoning. We had it struck from the bill, and headed home.
The Stone Tap
Gastropub in Hudson, WI
517 2nd St
Hudson, WI 54016
CHEF / OWNERS: John Bender / Anthony Dabruzzi, Ed Bremer, Aaron Kearnes
HOURS: Sun-Wed 11am-10pm
ENTREE RANGE: Burgers and sandwiches $10-13
BAR: Beer and wine