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- The Draw:
- Hearty food and an intriguing range of ciders in a beer-hall space.
- The Drawback:
- The kitchen hasn’t found its way with an expanded menu.
- Noise Level:
- Don’t Miss:
- Cider flights, pretzels, charcuterie, bratwurst, doughnuts.
On paper, Lafayette’s Acreage by Stem Ciders offers many of the comforting virtues one seeks from a cold-weather dinner out: wood-fire cooking; robust alpine European flavors imported from the Basque region of Spain and Alsace in France; an impressive variety of hard ciders; and cheery communal tables with views of the Flatirons. You can easily build a layer of winter insulation there via its snappy cider bratwurst lashed with hot mustard and sauerkraut or perhaps a plate of charred pork belly with a soft egg and an order of fries. Pair your meal with something a little off-piste—perhaps Stem Ciders’ dry Chile Guava. For a sweet ending, order the warm, spicy cider doughnuts. Eat hearty, knowing that tomorrow, you Orange Theory at dawn!
It all sounds like so much fun. Alas, Stem Ciders’ ambitious offshoot from its original RiNo taproom—consisting of a large cider production facility, cider hall/restaurant, and small farm over several hillside acres—suffers from Failure to Focus Syndrome. In October 2018, its counter-service menu evolved and expanded into a full-service model under executive chef Eric Lee, but Acreage has yet to figure out what key it wants to play in, what song it wants to sing. The result is a restaurant which is good for a deep dive into cider styles with accompanying snacks but which falls short of its grander dining ambitions.
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To start with, the kitchen makes too little of its wood-fire oven and grill, and when it is used, the results suggest cooks who are chary of flames. Ash-baked carrots, for example, which I expected to be charred, supple, and caramelized, were bordering on raw. This wasn’t just my view: I passed the plate to a curious young couple sitting beside us at the bar for a second opinion. (They were on a Tinder first date and shared with us that they were discussing—I kid you not—the merits of having children.) The woman munched the carrots for a moment, then announced, “They need to be cooked more!” As with relationships, so too with carrots.
Similarly, on two separate occasions, Acreage’s burger lacked conviction. The first was overcooked, and both could have benefited from a fire-licked sear. Beets in a small plate had a boiled texture, which is a poor fate for a vegetable that finds its apotheosis in coals. Charred rainbow trout really wasn’t (charred, that is), nor crisp of skin. And why confit a chicken when you can grill or rotisserie it over wood?
There even seemed to be a bit of internal conflict among the Acreage staff over the whole fire thing. When my wife asked for her burger cooked a certain way, our server indicated that her preferred doneness was unlikely because of the unpredictability of, you know, cooking with fire. When my neighbor at the bar exclaimed about the crunchy carrot problem, another server nodded in agreement, rolled his eyes, and suggested jurisdictional reasons as to why he didn’t bring up such things with the kitchen, located 20 feet away.
I dwell on this because solid wood-fire cooking can get a restaurant like Acreage about 80 percent of the way to where it needs to be, especially if the overall idea, as Lee has said, is simplicity and seasonality. I recall a meal shared in a vineyard trattoria in Tuscany that was built around a wood oven, manned by an elderly chef who swayed and sweated like he was about to have a heart attack. He paid no attention to the customers, working the rabbit, beef, pork, and vegetables around the oven’s various hot spots with tremendous concentration. He had, in short, command of the fire, and if his was not the best food I had in Italy over many visits, it was some of the most elemental and memorable.
There were other problems at Acreage, too: flavor logic failures here, ingredient promiscuity there. Items clashed or didn’t quite add up. The addition of compound butter to the Basque frites, for instance, which were already buried under a cloud of grated Manchego cheese, was puzzling. A simple punch-up with powdered piment d’Espelette would have made more sense.
Mushrooms on toast came with too-sloppy Burrata, compound butter, and cured egg but would have benefited from one or two fewer of those things. And the candied nuts in my salad were jarringly sweet. I admit that I loathe candied nuts in salad—they taste like a six-year-old’s idea of vegetable avoidance—but the greens in the salad were also too stemmy. As to the aforementioned beets, had they arrived roasted and sticky from the flames, with something salty and acidic as a counterpoint, that would have been brilliant. Instead, the dish was a jumble of those watery beets, toasted almonds, glops of herb-flecked ricotta, torn parsley, and pomegranate arils—all of which was entirely too fussy.
When we advanced to the entrée part of the menu, the kitchen’s trencherman approach left a lot of food on a lot of plates. Ironically, the pork belly spent too much time over the fire, resembling big rashers of dry bacon, and arrived on a sweet potato galette, which was basically potato enrobed in a buttery pastry crust. As if bacon on rich pie weren’t enough (it was), a soft egg crowned the dish, along with some “green soubise.” Usually, soubise is a mild, creamy onion sauce, but in this case it was more like sweet onion jam. There was too much going on; I wanted to cry uncle.
The daily cut of pork, which on that occasion was a beautifully slow-cooked piece of shoulder, was crusted on the outside and melting within, served with poached pears and Carolina rice. But the rice had been treated like risotto, and the meat didn’t get along with the resulting gloppy starch. As I ploughed ahead through my three meals there, I felt increasingly puzzled: Why complicate simplicity?
It may seem that I am painting Acreage as a disaster. It is not. It is a ciderhouse with friendly, prompt service and interesting beverage options; it’s just not a full-on restaurant yet. Should you go, sit at the bar and discuss the list of more than two dozen Stem Cider offerings with Acreage’s well-informed staff. You can order flights of four small glasses to compare; if you believe from past experience that hard ciders lean sweet, au contraire. Many versions at Acreage are dry, and some, like the Granny Smith– and crabapple-based Crabby Neighbor, are puckeringly so. I enjoyed the funky seasonal Brett Peach; the Farmhouse; and the Cascade and Citra dry-hopped Hopped cider. The Hibiscus Session, rosy in hue from that flower and slightly sweet, was delicious. The Banjo, aged for nine months in Laws Whiskey House barrels, was a worthy experiment full of caramel notes.
As you sip, your eating strategy should include the pretzels, served hot and soft, with cider mustard; homemade potato chips, which have been spanked with malt vinegar powder; buttery olives, redolent of lemon peel and rosemary; a charcuterie board (which comes with shards of the same brown butter pastry used in the galette, but made into crumbly crackers); and, if you require something bigger, the bratwurst, which is juicy, satisfying, and served on a split-top bun. Finish with those spicy cider doughnuts. They’re small, though, so maybe splurge on a couple of servings to fuel yourself for the long ride home—and tomorrow’s workout.