Tapping Potential with 16 Mile Taphouse

Menu reboot offers exciting new dishes.

16 Mile Taphouse

115 E. Main St., Newark, 266-8111, www.16miletaphouse.com
Prices: Appetizers $8-$12, Sandwiches $10-$13, Entrées $22-$24
Recommended dishes: Curry salmon, house burger, monthly beer-infusion dinners

Rich Gustafson’s first attempt at cheese-flavored beer didn’t work out so well.

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As the official Flavor Infusion Specialist at 16 Mile Brewery on the outskirts of Georgetown, Gustafson’s job is all about mutating and twisting the dials on the flavors of his favorite microbrews. You name the ingredient, and he’s soaked it, steeped it or blended it into several gallons of whichever surplus beer he happens upon at his job. Peppercorns, thyme, coriander seeds—they all go in. Cranberries. Oak chips. Popcorn. Smoked apples. Beef jerky. Elbow macaroni. If it has a flavor[1], it’s in play.

But even Gustafson winces at Cheese Beer Trial Batch 1.0. In hindsight, the fistfuls of shredded Sargento cheese were a daring if slightly imprudent choice of independent variable, and today he’d just as soon forget the oily monstrosity it spawned.

It’s the nature of the experiment. A few batches later, through tweaks, persistence and the collaboration of sous chef Ben MacGuinness, Gustafson was ready to unveil his findings to the beer-drinking scientific community. Upstairs, 80 miles away at the 16 Mile Taphouse in downtown Newark, glasses of Cheese Beer Beta plonked onto tables about halfway into a private, five-course beer-infusion dinner. Gustafson and MacGuinness, on-hand with 16 Mile Brewing Company founders Brett McCrea and Chad Campbell, reveled in the subtle nutty, sour notes imbued into a batch of 16 Mile Blues Golden Ale (cheese rinds, it turned out, were a much more hospitable infusing agent).

16 Mile Taphouse, which hermitcrabbed its way into the former Stone Balloon Winehouse[2] last September, hosts an infusion dinner once a month. They should have more. What better way to showcase for New Castle County the creativity, fun and DIY ethos that propelled 16 Mile into one of Delaware’s second-wave craft brew success stories. Simple, yet carefully mapped dishes—like roasted beet salad with a gentle shaved horseradish jab—accompanied the funky beer fusions to create all new flavor profiles. Granny Smith apple- and cardamom-infused ale formed instant rapport with toasted cauliflower and candied bacon. Earthy, herbal short rib stew quieted the smoky static of oak chip- and beef jerky-infused beer, allowing the gentler infusions—carrot, celery, fennel seed—to shine. And yes, even the popcorn, white chocolate, graham cracker and caramel-flavored beer tasted fantastic alongside a deconstructed ice cream sundae, with pulverized almonds and thick berry gastrique.

At $40 a head (which also nets some sweet 16 Mile take-home swag), the monthly, five-course infusion dinners represent the best of what 16 Mile Taphouse has to offer: great beers, great ideas (wacky or unhinged though they may be), and the gumption to slam the two together until it works.

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Frustratingly, just a few months after opening, operators were still figuring out how to infuse that creative spirit into the rest of the Taphouse, not to mention the other 30 boxes on the calendar. While management continued to tinker early this spring (while searching for a full-time head chef), customers clung to the excellent beer list, while enduring the Taphouse’s serviceable but boilerplate menu of crab dips and cheeseburgers.

Straightforward, no-frills dining can be virtuous stuff indeed, but it’s an odd, incongruous fit for the Taphouse. Inside the beautiful Rose Giroso-designed dining room—with the brick archway, Tuscan earth tones and curvy sightlines that gave the Stone Balloon Winehouse its Olde Worlde panache—tomato soup and BLTs were destined to underwhelm. Somewhere in the chasm between food and atmosphere, between Winehouse and Taphouse, a noticeable discordance emerged, and no amount of stamped tin wall hangings or limited edition beer tap handles could bridge the gap.[3]

The air of adventure and outré approach[4] that made the infusion dinner so much fun went AWOL during the Taphouse’s daily grind. From ho-hum tomato bisque (though the crumbled Goldfish cracker “gremolata” deserves style points) to the over-the-counter barbecue sauce that graced pulled pork pierogis, 16 Mile’s scant list of lunch-and-dinner options had all the thrills of an insurance seminar. Fried, $25 Maryland crab cakes jumped from boring to mildly insulting when they revealed the stringy “special”-grade crab meat inside, while duck confit springrolls zapped a perfectly neat idea with greasy, sapless abandon.

There were a few glimmers of promise. From just slightly left of the dial arrived beautifully pan-seared salmon filet and its subtly delicious red curry sauce that spiked flavor levels without careening overboard. Flakey sweet potato crisps and pitch-perfect jasmine rice rounded out a finely composed and calibrated dish. The house burger, and particularly the house-blended schmear of melty pub cheese, held together with unconventional twangy flavors and robust beefiness.

Still: What happened to the mad scientists who threw Delaware Bay mollusks and wood chips into their boil and gave the world 16 Mile Oyster Stout? Are the auteurs who commissioned Hot Fudge Sundae Stout in Georgetown the same guys pushing green beans and mashed potatoes onto every plate in Newark? Where’s the invention? Where are the beer flights? How about some nightly specials? How about any specials?

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More importantly, where’s the beer? Frosty pints aplenty at the bar, but shouldn’t 16 Mile beer be an indelible ingredient in the kitchen, too? Cooking with beer was a commonly accepted practice even before Delaware’s gastropub revolution. Is it asking too much for some stout-braised short rib? Lemon-pale ale gastrique? Beer can chicken?

Toward the tail-end of my visits, there were indications that a dining overhaul was afoot, and that former sous chef MacGuinness would be handed the reins and oversee the creation of a new, chef-driven menu.[5] That’s encouraging news.

As the official upstate presence for 16 Mile, the Taphouse should do more to mirror the independent spirit of the brewery, and the zealous, ever-experimental homebrewers who founded it. Creativity should be a given. But if Cheese Beer taught us anything, it’s that experiments don’t always work the first time around[6], and that the real mother of invention comes in a pint glass.

[1] Sorry, rice cakes.

[2] Which, for its part, spat on the graves of a million former frat bros when it rose from the crumbled remains of the original Stone Balloon, between 2005 and 2009. If future restaurants and condos struggle to take hold here, we have to consider the possibility of a legitimate Poltergeist situation.

[3] The shoe-horning of 16 Mile Taphouse into the Stone Balloon Winehouse is a sticky situation, and deserves more discussion. This place, and the gentrified luxury condos that sit on top of it, was clearly built and designed with a sole purpose in mind: to house an upscale, elegant, Tuscan-inspired hangout for well-to-dos who read too much Williams-Sonoma (and also probably “Eat Pray Love”) to eat cheese and drink wines from around the world. They could drink them by the glass thanks to the state-of-the-art, temperature controlled Cruvinet wine tap system. Former Winehouse chef Jason Dietterick’s artisanal, hardline playbook of nouveau farm-to-table cuisine may have been too ambitious for some, but it fit perfectly within the overall concept. Rustic, but polished. Thoughtful, but romantic.

The point is, does that seem like a good place for a gastropub? 16 Mile inherited a very nice bar when it moved in, but the rest of the space? They must’ve picked this spot for a reason. I’m just not sure what that reason is. As it stands, the swooping burgundy booths and nearly empty wine closet are strange, slightly sad totems to the Winehouse.

[4] The same ingredients that drive the American craft beer revolution, not coincidently.

[5] The perils of a monthly publication schedule. I can’t tell you how often I’ve filed a story, only to see the restaurant unveil a new menu (or decide on a new chef, or concept…or close the doors completely) the next day.

[6] Remember those crazy aluminum bottles?


Left: Pan-seared salmon

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