Pub food is to be eaten at a bar, with one hand, while holding a beer in the other.
That's the final line on the menu at Next Door Brewing Company, one of the near east's newest brewpubs.
The combined effort of head brewer Keith Symonds, general manager/partner Pepper Stebbins and head chef Kevin Rikli, Next Door comes across like a casual neighborhood restaurant that happens to brew beer.
But given the success of the brew versus the menu, that ratio might eventually reverse.
Next Door opened in September on Atwood Avenue, about half a mile from One Barrel Brewing. The team has already made some fruitful connections — Stalzy's airy challah appears on the Atwood Burger ($10), which is made with Knoche's ground chuck; "guest taps" on a recent visit included two beers from Karben4. Dessert is a pint of Madison-born Calliope Ice Cream.
The two sides of Next Door have a contrasting feel. On one side, an L-shaped bar and a window looking into the brewhouse lend a cozy, welcoming vibe; the other, larger area feels like somebody's partially-finished basement. (That's the side that gets loud.)
In a thoughtful design touch, inconspicuous wooden cabinets hide large televisions when they're not in use.
True to the pub's unofficial tagline, the best bites at Next Door are the snacks. A Mason jar full of crunchy pickled beets, shallot, carrot and sweet celery ($4) made a fine contrast to dark, meaty balls of sausage and sauerkraut ($5), served with a creamy, tangy remoulade.
Sweet and salty yam crisps with chimichurri dipping sauce ($5.50) put typical bar chips to shame. A friend raved about the poutine ($7.50), made with Sassy Cow cheese curds and a surprisingly light gravy.
Beyond that, though, the food at Next Door was fairly inconsistent. A trio of mix-and-match skewers ($9) ranged from good (sausage links with a satisfying snap) to OK (dense little chicken hearts) to bland (raw mushrooms). Chicken liver pate ($7) was rich and buttery, but needed something else — some spice or an acidic element, either in the pate or with it — for balance.
Chef Rikli makes frequent use of Next Door's own brews, using a strong stock ale called Sevex in the batter for corn dogs ($7.50), a white onion soup ($5 small/$9 large) covered with a thick, gloppy layer of cheese, and a thin, unexpectedly spicy Wisco Beer Mac ($10). There is beer in the dressing for a decent chevre and bacon spinach salad ($6 small/$11 large) and in the rye bread used to flavor the patty for the Atwood burger.
That burger was the worst casualty during one visit, when something must have gone wrong with the grill in the kitchen. The meat was thick, nearly all pink and topped with Swiss cheese and caramelized onions, but the overwhelming flavor was of lighter fluid. The skewers tasted like it, too.
A "ssam" (a Korean spice) roasted pork shoulder sandwich ($9) topped with crunchy slaw promised more flavor than it delivered, but was otherwise fine. The house fries with it, though, were simply excellent — rustic and dark brown, with just enough salt. Those fries, as well as those addictive yam crisps, prove Rikli's team has a sure hand with the fryer.
Even a simple roast half chicken ($13) felt like a contradiction. The fryer itself was succulent and sprinkled with herbs, while chunks of potatoes were nearly raw. (Our server agreed, and comped half the entrée.)
For all that the kitchen struggles with execution, the service at Next Door Brewing is top notch. I was impressed with the wine list — definitely try the citrusy Mercat brut cava ($6.50) if you're not a beer drinker, or a gingery Moscow Mule with Tito's Vodka ($7).
Next Door is really a beer lover's homebase. My friend David, a beer buyer for a local store, former bartender and a home brewer, has made Next Door a frequent haunt. According to him, beers brewed at Next Door ($5 a pint, $4 between 4-6 p.m.) are complex, straightforward and consistently solid.
Among his favorites are Wilbur!, a cream ale he calls "a beautiful take on the style … soft, with a rustic note" from oatmeal mash. At 4.5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), it's what beer drinkers call a "sessionable," meaning you can drink several of them in a row.
David likes the English malt-based C-Hop-A-Lulu, with its wonderful aromatics, flavors of "pithy citrus" and yeast, and dry palate, with "graininess" from the malt. He started one visit with a chocolatey oatmeal stout called Ady, a 6.5 percent ABV brew with more bitterness than a typical stout.
"It's nice," David said, "a little bigger than normal — usually stout is soft and easy and to drink."
After more than a dozen visits, David has concluded that "everything is good and distinctive."
Even better, with most beers clocking in at six percent ABV or less, you can drink them all night. That's something any neighborhood brewpub can be happy about.