In a town like Kansas City, where there’s smoke, there’s barbecue. At least, that’s what we expect anyway. The newly opened Brewery Emperial in the East Crossroads is harnessing the power of open-fire grilling and smoking and combining it with great craft beer, but there’s nary a rib in sight.
Ted Habiger knows a thing or two about food. The successful chef-restaurateur has long provided thoughtful, seasonally creative dishes at Room 39. Now, he’s adding the same attention to detail to a more rustic concept—the Brewery Emperial—a laid-back brewery with a side of well-crafted cuisine inspired by his wood-fired grill.
The restaurant is truly centered around beer. Partner and head brewmaster Keith Thompson has created six base beers: a pilsner, a kölsch, an extra-special biscuit, a porter, a stout and an IPA. After years as head brewer at McCoy’s Public House and with the assistance of veteran Boulevard brewer Sterling Holman, Thompson has the knowledge and skill to experiment freely. Instead of focusing on high-octane beers so popular among craft brewers, Habiger says that they plan to focus on lagers, the “low and slow” of the beer world.
Focusing on lagers means that fans of Budwieser or Coors will have an easy transition to craft beer. The kölsch, pre-Prohibition pilsner and ESB are all light in body but rich in flavor. For those that want a more robust brew, the milk stout offers a subtle sweetness. The IPA is hop forward with a strong malt backbone. And while the IPA clocks in a little higher on the ABV, it’s still not overwhelming.
Together with partners Rich Kasyjanski and Julie Thompson—the front of house and atmosphere team—Brewery Emperial is the perfect blend of beer and food culture. The restaurant uses many of the elements original to the building—exposed brick, old graffiti from local artist Scribe visible in the bathrooms, and reclaimed wood paneling throughout. The dining room features long communal bar tops along with two tops lining the exterior wall. Those that want to see how the sausage is made, so to speak, can sit at the counter looking into the open kitchen.
The menu is a unique take on pub food—that is, farm-to-table freshness applied to bar standards. Exhibit A: fried pickles. The fried pickles are made in-house and feature a light, crispy tempura batter that includes the brewery’s kölsch. A sour lime tang, reminiscent of my grandmother’s home-canned variety, flavors the pickles. Dipped in the accompanying smoked tomato sauce, they are best with a sip of the pre-Prohibition style pilsner.
Other bar favorites are also re-imagined. The Scotch egg, which normally features a layer of sausage around a soft-boiled egg, is instead swathed in duck confit. With a swipe of pistou and the bite of fresh mustard greens, the dish tasted fresh and seasonal.
The black bean and chorizo meatballs are delectable. The texture was perfect—comparable to a falafel with a crisp outer shell and soft center. The chorizo, which could be overpowering, is balanced by the black beans. And the grilled scallion aioli was the kind of good that could be smeared on nearly everything on the menu.
Among those highs, a featured special stood out. Rabbit rolls employ the expected sushi rice and nori, but inside, pulled rabbit replaces fish. The rabbit is braised for several hours in a soy and porter mixture and then fried in a kölsch tempura batter. Poblano and jalapeño peppers added to the braising liquid forms the accompanying dipping sauce. The sauce has a great kick without burning the taste buds, pulling all the flavor available with just a touch of heat.
A kiss of wood fire marks four of the entrees—a half chicken, trout, duck and at dinnertime only, steak. Served with a wild rice pilaf, roasted root vegetables and a red-wine sauce, the duck took the smoke without being overwhelmed with it. Subtlety is key to so many of Brewery Emperial’s dishes.
Several sandwiches, veering from a massive burger to a falafel sandwich to a short-rib hot dog, dot the menu. But the inside-out grilled cheese is most memorable.
This twist on the classic starts with aged cheddar on the grill, with the slices of bread placed on top. The crisp cheese toast is then sandwiched together with sautéed leeks, scallions, chives and more aged cheddar. It’s the most decadent take on grilled cheese you can find in Kansas City, hitting all the right textural notes of creamy, crispy and chewy. A side of thick, hand-cut fries accompanies every sandwich.
For dessert, Habiger is tapping another local talent, Elise Landry of Sasha’s Baking Company, another of Habiger’s projects. Sasha’s cakes, an apple cobbler topped with homemade cheddar-cheese ice cream, and rotating varieties of cookies all pack the dessert list. Beer floats may show up in the future as well.
Habiger says that although he feels the brewery is off to a good start, this is just the beginning. As spring draws closer, he says that they will begin experimenting with spring fruits added to the lighter beers and that no fruit is off limits. Sour beers may also make an appearance.
He’s also looking forward to incorporating more vegetables into the menu. Right now, a roasted root-vegetable hash is the sole representative, but Habiger looks forward to grilling summer vegetables, such as eggplant. In a standout moment of service during my first visit, our server stopped specifically to get feedback on a new dish so that the kitchen could tweak it if needed. That attention to detail stood out.
In milder weather, guests will be able to enjoy seasonal brews and bites in the ample beer garden, which will feature a variety of yard games, picnic tables and a fire pit. Landscape architect John Galloway is working on creating a space that defines the fine art of the hangout.
It seems the hangout is the goal and a worthy one at that. When you combine the talents of the likes of Habiger, Thompson, Kasyjanski and Thompson, that hangout is sure to be memorable.