Bru Grill and Market Features Drunken Masters
I'm willing to bet that most people have never met beer-can chicken in the flesh. You may have seen the dish on a recent episode of Top Chef: Texas; you may have had every intention of someday shoving a can up a bird's tochis while it roasts. But sightings of it in settings other than a backyard barbecue will be so rare the dish might as well be mythical. "Beer Can Chicken" is listed on the menu at Roy Choi's A-Frame in LA—but you'll discover the beer is merely a marinade for a bird that's ultimately fried. It's a cop-out to not use the can. Why call it beer-can chicken if you're not going to take it literally?
Joseph Gotti, executive chef at Brü Grill & Market in Lake Forest, takes it literally. And when you finally see it, you can't help but chuckle. The golden-roasted Cornish game hen on your plate has been violated in the worst way, with a can almost half its size, the sight looking as though it's a proctology worst-case scenario. It's a gimmick for sure—the thing still tastes like roast chicken—but it sets the tone for the new restaurant, which has to have some of the oddest and most alcohol-involved food of any gastropub in OC.
The fact that alcohol finds its way into more than the usual share of dishes makes you wonder whether the chefs are way too cozy with the bartenders. There are oysters on the half shell laced with vodka, an add-on as unexpected as the cocktail-sauce balloons formed by molecular-gastronomic action; the blood-red globules resemble overgrown tumors on top of the oysters. If you forget for a moment that neither component was necessary—that the cocktail sauce could've done just as well on the side and in its original form—you appreciate that they dared themselves to do it. If anything, it keeps the kookiness introduced by the beer-can chicken in play.
By now, you shouldn't be surprised they use beer as the steaming medium for a Dungeness crab, half-submerged in the butter-and-cream-enriched broth, with roasted heads of garlic slowly turning to mush. Though too bitter to sip, the liquid seeps into every recess and crevasse of the meat, undercutting the sweetness the same time it greases up your hands as though it's oily lotion. If the crispy-on-the-outside, warm-and-dense-on-the-inside, excellent pretzel-bread appetizer didn't already come with a house-made cheese fondue and a ground-mustard sauce for dipping, the crab broth would've been the thing to dunk it into.
The burger, of course, has "drunken caramelized onions," and the sausage in the house hoagie is IPA-infused. Even the tri-colored beet salad isn't immune to a dose of booze in the form of "drunken goat cheese" shaved into thin sheets that adorn a mound of micro greens. It's a refreshing salad: crisp, sweet, salty—and strikingly pretty, thanks in part to the reduced-to-syrup balsamic smeared in artsy skid marks on the plate.
Though you gravitate to these items, in truth, a majority of the food you'll eventually eat here doesn't lean on alcohol as flavoring. The "braised for 24 hours" short rib could've actually used the assist of more red wine. It fell apart dutifully into shreds, but the beef lamentably suffered from blandness. As a result, the savory bread-pudding side dish became the most interesting thing on the plate. And there's really no better word than "interesting" to describe this puzzlingly weird, wobbly as Jell-O, soft as oatmeal, squat cylinder of almost-custard with bits of ham embedded in it.
A few fish dishes are more conventional. Pan-seared albacore sits atop a mustard-inflected mound of potato purée with wilted spinach and drizzled with a Thai-chili sauce that, for once, doesn't taste like it came from a bottle. A wild-salmon steak spackled with a Meyer lemon vinaigrette was pan-fried to a delectable crispiness despite missing its advertised "forbidden rice" side dish. The ordinary-looking white rice that came in its stead was cooked properly, a little al dente.
It must be noted that the bar mixes up particularly strong libations. And as expected of a restaurant that calls itself Brü, there is a stash of wines on sale in a room dedicated to the bottles, as well as a carefully curated list of beers whose only fault is that some varieties run out too quickly. It is for these reasons, not just for inherent humor of the beer-can chicken or its tendency to booze up some of its dishes, that you should come to Brü Grill & Market. It's one of the few dining options on El Toro Road that isn't a chain. And the fact it answers to no corporate overlords allows it the liberty of doing such things as . . . well, sodomizing a chicken with a can of beer.
This review appeared in print as "Drunken Masters: Brü Grill & Market gives Lake Forest beer-can chicken and other delicious, alcohol-laced oddities."
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