When I was younger I wanted to open a movie theater / bowling alley / record store / coffee shop / bar. I was a little worried, before visiting Ermanos Craft Beer and Wine Bar, that they suffered from the same sort of indecision—rather than being excellent at one thing, they’d try to be all things to all people. They have a beer fridge with to-go bottles, a swanky dining area, a large bar with big screen TVs, a tasting room / library / game room, a patio, and sometimes they feature live music. Is it possible to have so many disparate parts and still feel whole? I was about to find out.
In many ways, this challenge is inherent to the restaurant’s location. I was able to talk with Mark Erman, one of the Erman brothers behind Ermanos. He’s very aware of the challenging role they face as a new spot sandwiched between a burgeoning downtown and the student-fueled bar culture of 4th Avenue, and he wants to provide a space that caters to both crowds.
Ermanos is a beer and wine bar first, and a restaurant second, but their innovative menu suggests otherwise. They specialize in small plates designed with sharing in mind, and the food is anything but simple.
David Valencia, the head chef, was kind enough to provide me with a Food Tour. Offered for $35 on their menu, the Food Tour features at least four (but really more like six to eight) courses, some of which are available on the menu, and some of which deviate. While the menu items are new takes on old standards (grilled cheese, ceviche, burger), the Food Tour additions taste like dishes made on a chef’s playground. Chef David explained that, for him, the Tour is a way to experiment. He’s clearly a food nut, and while he’s happy to make crowd pleasers, his mind is always moving to what’s next. He has a lot of ideas, and while they might not always be successful, they’re never boring. If you’re in the mood to have your tastebuds challenged, let David share with you some of his work in progress.
He started me off with a soft-boiled egg that had been marinated in soy sauce. It was amazing—slightly sweet, slightly salty. It was the umami I needed to get my palate ready for the wild flavors that were about to descend. The texture was exactly right. The egg managed to be simple and exciting at the same time, making it everything I hope food to be.
The first course was fresh fig with cilantro, lime, and almond. The figs were bright and sweet, the zip of cilantro was unexpected but nice, and the almonds helped ground the dish. There was also a powerful kick of lime and a foam over the top. While I very much enjoyed the unexpected flavor combinations in some of the dishes, others, including the figs, called to mind Coco Chanel’s famous advice—before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory.
Ermanos uses beef from Double Check Ranch, and the quality shows. I had a perfectly cooked piece of NY Strip with a small side of powerful, but complimentary, garlic confit. The steak tartar, a dish I was initially skeptical of, proved to be a success. The meat was seasoned with plenty of lemon and mustard, and it was served beside a vanilla aioli. I tasted the aioli first, thinking it an odd accompaniment. It seemed too sweet, too vanilla. More custard than aioli. But then I made myself a little bite on one of their brioche toasts, and the vanilla provided a beautiful undertone to the spike of citrus in the beef. Chef David had garnished the dish tableside, with an ash-cured egg yolk.
Ermanos’ beer and wine offerings are extensive, though it’s clear that beer is the owners’ first love. This was confirmed when I learned that Eric, the other Erman brother, had been a brewer. Ermanos offers flights of wine, and you can get a 4oz pour of any beer for $2. Given their willingness to try innovative things with food, and their focus on beer and wine, I was surprised they didn’t have more of an emphasis on pairing. Servers, I’m sure, can suggest things, but there isn’t an equivalent of a Food Tour with wine or beer pairings on their menu. They do offer flight and bite nights, where you can taste four beers and four bites for $20. Their latest one featured Dogfish Head’s Ancient Ales series.
During my Food Tour I was able to sample two beers and one wine. With the PB & J, a deep fried pork belly croquet, I had the Nebraska Brewing 311 Amber Ale. It was hoppy for an amber, which was great because the hops helped cut through the richness of the dish. With the Braised Short Ribs I had a glass of Kermit Lynch Vaucluse Rouge. It opened up nicely and, at $7 a glass, was just fine. With dessert, a panna cotta ginger cake, I had the Founder’s Porter. The Porter’s flavor developed beautifully over time, which I gave it plenty of because I was SO FULL.
Ermanos is trying to do a lot in one space. You can make it a destination for a fancy date night—their dining area, made from reclaimed wood, provides the atmosphere. You can go there to play games and drink beer or listen to a band. You can have a $7 burger or a $17 entree; an $86 bottle of wine or a $6 glass. The Ermanos team has taken on a great challenge in trying to cater to the desires of a diverse group of patrons. They have only been open for six months, and in that time I think they’ve come very close to achieving their vision, to finding common ground between their myriad parts and creating something that feels whole. I can’t wait to see where they are in another six months, when, doubtless, they’ll have become a fixture on the edge of our ever changing downtown.