It says a lot about the irrepressible progress of our local beer scene, not to mention burgeoning Ambler, when the young owners of a quirky new brewpub tucked into an old house just off the borough's downtown decide - in an effort to slow the crowds - to start serving their best-selling beer as warm and flat as possible.
It's not as if the "cellar temp" British-style ales at Forest & Main needed that much help during this sweltering summer. Just as many people could be seen sipping pints and nibbling bacon-glazed popcorn over chessboards on the breezy yellow clapboard porch of this renovated Victorian home, or lounging out on the front lawn like a house party, as were eating in the vest-pocket-sized pub or the rambling warren of little rooms inside.
But something special happened when co-owners Daniel Endicott and Gerard Olson took their popular Kinch IPA off the fizz of a chill draft used mostly for their Belgian beers and let it rise to the bar instead through the uncarbonated, uncompromisingly tepid temperature of a hand pump. It was a matter of beer-geek principle: What was already a perfectly fine hoppy ale, in fact an award-winner at this year's Inquirer Brew-vitational, suddenly revealed itself to be so much more than it first appeared, the lemony hops more pronounced without the bubbles, the bitterness in balanced check, the almost creamy malt coming forward to a final floral ping of American hops. A sip of Kinch at 60 degrees is not your typical brewpub IPA experience. This is not beer for the Corona crowd.
But Forest & Main is not your typical brewpub. In a world largely dominated by mostly corporate-minded chains - some of them quite good, the likes of Sly Fox, Victory, Iron Hill, and McKenzie's - Forest & Main is refreshingly small-scale, tailored to the quirky passions of two likable brewers with a vision for a neighborhood place. They spent a year-and-a-half in this 1880s house, hand-sanding the old pine floors and plastering the walls, installing a modest brew house with aging barrels in the cellar, and decorating with antique lamps, family photos, a stuffed bear head named Roosevelt, and darts for an upstairs room. It all makes for a surprisingly cozy and offbeat addition to Ambler's budding restaurant roster - with eight ever-changing taps of unique beers being the primary draw.
For Endicott, a schooled glassblower-turned-home brewer, a trip to England for a university crash course in cask-conditioned ale is the driving force behind the fresh and largely low-alcohol brews that make up half of Forest & Main's list. The toffee-rich malts of the Tyneside Best make it another recent favorite. The funkier, flamboyant beers of Belgium are inspiration for Olson, who worked five years at McKenzie's and is turning out his own array of ales (including some blends) with a brisker fizz than the British styles, but no less challenging flavors, including sour notes (in the Reveche), funky wild yeasts from wine barrels (in the Lunaire), and an almost peppery dryness from fermented wildflower honey (in the Palomino) that put a cross-eyed pucker on one of my unexpecting neophyte guests. The second sip was better, as taste buds began to find the frequency, tuning to something special indeed.
The small and affordable pub menu from chef Kaylin Miska is not quite as dynamic, but it's still a genuine homemade step up from the chicken wing/nacho options of typical bar fare. Fresh popcorn in brown-paper-lined tins glistens with cilantro-lime brown butter, or rendered bacon fat with a mild smoke ideal for stoking a thirst. There are good artisanal American cheeses, like Kunik, paired with pickled vegetables to linger over while sipping through a four-beer sampler that arrives in a clever board marked with chalked names.
The fish and chips are especially notable, hand-battered in Palomino beer batter that is light and crisp, with fresh chunks of cod inside, and tartar sauce made with capers and cornichons. The rich cup of creamy corn soup touched with coriander and citrus was a hearty evocation of summer.
The big braised lamb shank over couscous might also be something I'll crave, too - in winter - its tender meat perfumed with exotic cardamom and star anise. But in the middle of this heat-wave summer, and a dining room where the AC was about as "cold" as those cellar-temp beers, a big stewy hunk of braised meat was the last thing I wanted. Ditto for the plate of zaftig handmade pierogi stuffed with Dijon mashed potatoes and smothered in brown-buttered leeks - flavorful, but heavy for a hot August day.
Just a hint of seasonality would go a long way toward bringing this limited menu up to the level of some of our better gastropubs. The butter lettuce and shaved beet salad dressed in light poppy-seed-Greek-yogurt vinaigrette is the right idea, as is the side of fresh zucchini fries that are breaded and baked.
Forest & Main's roasted chicken should also be the object of cooler-weather appetites - juicy from a spiced beer brine, and sloshing on the plate with mushrooms and jus-soaked Swiss chard. Perhaps by then, the kitchen will have worked out a few lingering kinks. The mussels with olives and tomatoes were piled too high over a bowl without enough of that good broth made with Solaire beer, leaving half the pile dry and overpowered by garlic. The oyster sandwich was nearly a brilliant success, the mollusks perfectly fried in a delicate cornmeal crust and neatly paired with an avocado mousse. This novel combo, though, was lost in the cloud of an overpuffy brioche roll when a little crunch of delicate crust would have been better.
I was thinking just the same thing of the pub's big $15 burger. The meat is so good, why envelop the patty in an oversized brioche bun that overwhelms it with eggy sweetness? What comes to the forefront is the thick slathering of F&M's bacon mayonnaise, which, with a burnt aftertaste, only emphasized my recent realization that I'm officially over the "bacon makes everything taste better" trend. Better to serve that on the side. And speaking of burnt flavors, a pub that deep-fries so much of its menu needs to change its fryer oil frequently, or all the labor that goes into hand-cut frites will be wasted on potatoes that tasted, at least on my final visit, like tired oil.
There was more spark, it seemed, to the pair of homey desserts, a mini-Black Forest chocolate cake ringed by cherry-rhubarb compote, and a layered parfait of blackberries in elderflower syrup, shortbread, and whipped lemon-curd cream called a "fool." It's a nod to another cheeky old-time British delight - much like those flat warm beers. But as long as Forest & Main crafts them all with such heart, I can't see the crowds slowing any time soon.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @CraigLaBan