Edmund's Oast Brewing Co.
“This is going to be a weird request, but can I have a little bit of ketchup?”
To the patron who asked the question, the request presumably seemed strange because she was eating a pizza. But to the bartender who fielded it, and all of us seated within earshot, nothing registered as especially weird, because the woman was eating a pizza at Edmund’s Oast Brewing Co. Piling on eccentric flavors is the new restaurant’s favorite pastime. Witness the Kewpie mayonnaise latticed over chicken livers and hogshead hash. The wettish green olives and romesco tossed with squash.
Maybe a lashing of ketchup was just what was needed to bring puffy baked egg yolks, bits of smoked pork, potatoes, cheese and a pasture of slivered green onions into formation atop the chewy crust. In culinary roshambo, acid beats fat.
But there’s only so much a condiment can do. It will likely take something far more substantial to repair the overall topsy-turviness that afflicts EOBC.
When Edmund’s Oast last spring revealed its plans for a brewing complex alongside Workshop on far upper King Street, the details made good sense. Immediately upon opening in 2014, Edmund’s Oast established itself as a renaissance restaurant, excelling at food, service, cocktails and wine. The only downside to all that supremacy is it sometimes eclipsed owner Scott Shor’s first professional passion: Beer.
So Edmund’s Oast Brewing Co. was pitched as a 20,000-square-foot beer showplace. Edmund’s would use the facility to make beer in quantities to supply a national distribution network. And to feed the on-site beer guzzlers and brewing equipment gawkers, there would be a kitchen serving wood-fired pizzas and smoked sausages. Industry insiders didn’t feel like they were being overly optimistic when they predicted the project would transform the local brewhouse format and invigorate the sadly listless Workshop food court, especially at night.
From the looks of EOBC, though, someone crumpled up and pocketed the original plans, washed his pants and then tried to follow the outline anyway.
Architecturally, the major elements are in place. The building’s aft is devoted to beer production, although customers who don’t wander that way may never know it: The service portion of the dimly lit space is done up in full sports bar, with three big-screen TVs hanging over the bar. Its aesthetic is industrial, but that’s become so much of a design trope that it’s unfair to expect people to see an exposed air duct and hard metal-edged chairs, and know they’re in the vicinity of manufacturing.
Also, as promised, there is a kitchen, but its output isn’t limited to the touted Euro snacks. In addition to three pizzas, the menu includes sweet potato casserole, chicken wings, kimchi, a meatloaf sandwich with fried onions and cheese, a brisket-based Reuben and soft-serve ice cream.
On Sundays, Edmund's Oast Brewing switches to an all-day brunch lineup, featuring bread pudding and bacon, biscuits with chorizo gravy and Chinese-style sausage with scrambled eggs. With so many dishes in direct opposition, trying to fashion a coherent meal is a bit like figuring out peaceable seating for a wedding reception.
The drinks selection is even stranger. Despite a long row of liquor bottles behind the bar, the only cocktails available are an Old Fashioned, made with a healthy dose of syrupy mixer, and three batched drinks on draft. As a server explained, the brewery doesn’t have shakers, mixers or cocktail glasses — although she heartily recommended gluten-free nuggets from the children's menu.
Wine also is scattershot. But whatever, it’s a brewery. Yet none of the beers I tried made much of an impression. Granted, I’m not a beer geek: The experimental streak that runs through the dozen on-tap choices is surely of academic interest to practiced beer appreciators.
And in fairness to head brewer Cameron Read, it’s also possible I made a mistake by sampling beer and food at the same time. There are certain spice combinations that cry out insistently for beer to join them: Consider the peppercorn-forward Sichuan dishes that David Schuttenberg is serving at his Kwei Fei pop-up, for example. By contrast, the flavor muddles on offer at Edmund's Oast Brewing don’t leave much room on the palate for anything else.
Items such as a roasted vegetable sandwich blasted with a yogurt sauce spiced in eight different vaguely Asian directions aren’t just conceptually messy. Many of the handheld foods at EOBC are so dramatically drippy that my napkin looked like a dropcloth by dinner’s end.
Sometimes you get the sense chefs Geoff Marquardt and Johnny Singleton actively resent their customers. Which is fine: The world has enough food made with love. Still, there’s a difference between channeling anarchistic tendencies into a punk masterpiece like “God Save the Queen” and randomly throwing bombs. Thickly blackened catfish dressed with pickled banana peppers and a kimchi that amounts to Scotch bonnet slaw taste more like the latter.
None of that aggression is apparent in the dining room. The front-of-house staff is uniformly warm and well-informed, although it seems they’re most frequently called upon to explain operational procedures. At Edmund's Oast Brewing, guests are supposed to approach a designated area of the bar to place an initial order, and then find a seat. Once they’ve set the meal in motion, everything proceeds as it might at a table service restaurant. In any case, the employees are terrific, which is one reason to go there.
Another two reasons are the pork-and-peanut stew and the hot dog. The hot dog is flat-out phenomenal. Packed with almost more complexity than its gossamer casing can contain, the beef-and-pork sausage would hold its own against any mere burger. It's in keeping with the meat mastery displayed on Edmund's esteemed charcuterie plates. And the lush stew, made with peanuts prepared five different ways, is a triumph of vinegar and soul.
My request? More like that, please.
Officially, all that’s changed at Edmund’s Oast since its opening, besides the brave and artistically necessary removal of pickled shrimp from the menu, is its chef. Bob Cook, late of Artisan Meat Share, this spring became the restaurant’s third executive chef.
But for diners who recall the restaurant’s former refinement, symbolized most obviously by owner Scott Shor’s suit jackets and Underberg served in long-stemmed crystal glasses, it’s clear there’s been an atmospheric shift of late. The restaurant now feels more like a rathskeller, with bustle and raised voices ruling the room. That’s a value-neutral observation, by the way: Namesake Edmund Egan, an 18th-century beer merchant, surely would have enjoyed a boisterous saloon.
What hasn’t been lost is the air of curiosity that has informed Edmund’s Oast’s doings from the start. Cook has gone down a forest’s worth of paths in developing his menu. A few of them are dead ends, but the dishes that are just a tweak or two away from becoming local icons make traveling with him worthwhile.
Cook is openly infatuated with Asian ingredients: He sidelines in Korean mustard production. At Edmund’s Oast, he’s spritzing gochujang on fried tripe, weaving curry into cauliflower and playing matchmaker for Thai chiles and salad greens. Generally, when dishes don’t work, it’s because those distinctive flavors are granted too much airtime.
The roar of fish sauce overwhelmed a bowlful of greens, while a somber black garlic congee was too weighty for the cooked-down mushrooms it was meant to support. Errors of excess also doomed a pork hock smothered in goopy, glossy sauce, and a beautiful wreckfish collar rendered almost unrecognizable by dill.
But the kind of controlled cooking responsible for a lovely sliced hanger steak, rosy within and crusted without, usually wins out. Vision helps too.
Mac-n-peas sounds humble, but delivers a ridiculous amount of pleasure for $7. The side dish consists of yellow-curried peas and teensy-weensy ditalini pasta, tossed with cheesy bechamel. A Root Baking Co. baguette and aged Tillamook Cheddar, which together could constitute a legitimately good meal, are crumbled atop the casserole before it's baked into spoonable comfort and joy.
And then there’s the salt chicken, armored behind crisp skin that lives up to the dish’s titular adjective. The green curry sauce is reasonably silky, but it’s the underlying Charleston Gold rice that makes the chicken so special. You’ll want to smuggle it to every takeout joint in town.
Finally, the best change at Edmund’s Oast may involve its dessert department. When the restaurant first opened, it outsourced pastry responsibilities to a gluten-free bakery. Now, Heather Hutton is on board as pastry chef, a position she’s held for just over a year. Her tart muscadine pie, enveloped in a husky sugared crust and seated in a swirl of tenacious molasses caramel, is magnificent.