Sunday, November 29, 2009

Grassy, Spicy, Fragrant... Beer?! (And Some Great Food and Floats to Boot) - The Golden State

Ask the general public about "beer" and you're liable to get a full spectrum of reactions, from love to hate, with many only knowing of the mainstream breweries like Budweiser, Coors and Miller. And while we're seeing some smaller labels like Sierra Nevada or New Belgium (Fat Tire) popping up around town, there's a whole other world of microbrewed beers waiting to be discovered: Craft beers that are as engaging and aromatic as a mainstream beer is one note. The problem is how does one go about learning and trying all the interesting microbrews? L.A. is blessed with a few great beer havens (like Blue Palms), but it's only a smattering compared to the potential clientele to be served. So when The Golden State opened up earlier this year - a restaurant opened by genuine beer aficionados focusing on great microbrewed beers, good food, and featuring Scoops Gelato - it was a cause for celebration.

Located across the street from the wondrous Animal on Fairfax, The Golden State is the embodiment of a dream realized for co-owners Jason Bernstein and James Starr who've always wanted to open up a restaurant that they'd want to eat at personally, and that celebrated California. For the kitchen, they hired Chef Rene Garcia (from Rustic Canyon and Le Merigot), to create a simple, casual menu to enjoy alongside an ever-rotating roster of craft beers. And to top it all off, the excellent, creative flavors of a So Cal icon, Scoops Gelato by Tai Kim (which is reason enough to stop by :).

The Golden State's decor reflects the laid-back, casual style of the restaurant itself: A simple brick wall lining one side, ordering done at the register, and self-seating with the food brought out to your table, usually by one of the owners themselves.

During my first visit, in the mood to try some great microbrewed beers, I ask the person manning the register for some recommendations. That person turns out to be co-owner Jason Bernstein and after a few queries, he recommends the Stone Cali-Belgique IPA (India Pale Ale) on draft, from Stone Brewing Co. (Escondido, California).

With the first sip, a nice citrus floral aroma interweaves with the bitter hops. It's an IPA for sure, but the Belgian yeast and citrus flavors really shine. I've learned over this past year, that IPAs aren't my favorite, but this Cali-Belgique is one of the better IPAs I've ever tried on draft.

In the mood for more exploration, Jason recommends the Craftsman La Luz, a brand-new seasonal Saison / Golden Ale on draft that they just got in, from Craftsman Brewing Company (Pasadena, CA). There's a nice floral, herbal quality, refreshing and milder than what I thought a Saison would've been. But overall, another interesting, great recommendation from the staff of The Golden State.

But it's during my 2nd visit that really ignited my love for this place, starting with a rare offering: Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout on Nitrogen Tap(!), from North Coast Brewing Co. (Fort Bragg, CA).

There's a beautiful head, but then the taste: A sultry dark chocolate with a bit of coffee, and the Nitrogen Tap is amazing in giving off a silky, lighter mouthfeel. I wish more beers were offered on Nitrogen Tap with the sexiness in the Old Rasputin, but I've learned that most beers don't work well with this setup. The good news is that Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout on Nitrogen is one of the anchors at The Golden State (i.e., it won't get rotated out), and it's an excellent partner with Scoops Gelato. :)

Already stunned, I'm given another recommendation by Mr. Bernstein: Allagash Curieux, a Tripel aged in bourbon barrels, on draft from Allagash Brewing Company (Portland, Maine).

After the deep, chocolaty Old Rasputin, the Allagash Curieux was the perfect foil: A light, easy drinking beer, with pleasing vanilla notes, and smooth mouthfeel. I could drink this beer every day and not be tired with it. :) On a side note, while the vast majority of the menu is from California, the Allagash Curieux on draft from Portland, Maine, was too good not to put on the menu, according to Jason (the menu jokingly lists it as "kinda near California" :).

We move on to the AleSmith Grand Cru on draft, a Belgian-style Dark Ale from AleSmith Brewing Company (San Diego, CA).

It has a beautiful, deep amber / copper color, and has some nice stone fruit / cherry flavors coming through, reminding you of a Port in some ways.

As a comparison point, we try the humorously-named AleSmith Horny Devil on draft, a Belgian Strong Ale from AleSmith Brewing Co.

It's a potent beer, with an almost mead-like quality, some honey and fruit, and a surprisingly spicy finish. It's a little too much for my palate, but I'm glad I tried it.

On another visit, The Golden State is serving a new seasonal offering: Firestone Walker Lil' Opal Saison / Farmhouse Ale on draft, from Firestone Walker Brewing Company (Paso Robles, CA).

Made with leftover mash and Belgian Saison yeast, there's a bit of a barnyard funk, grassy, with a slight tang.

As interesting as their rotating craft beers on draft are, their food stands out as well. On one visit, we start out with a side of their Persian Cucumber Salad (served with Shahi and Lemon Vinaigrette).

There's a surprising floral aroma leading to some refreshing, crisp Cucumber slices. The Lemon Vinaigrette is a bit dull, but it also doesn't distract from the green vibrancy in the Cucumbers.

Their French Fries are served with a Housemade Hazelnut Romesco.

The Fries have generally been nicely crisped on the outside with a fluffy interior over multiple visits, but it's their Housemade Hazelnut Romesco that steals the show: A wonderful dipping sauce, made with Tomatoes, Roasted Bell Peppers and Hazelnuts, leading to a sweet, nutty, addictive quality. They also offer a Housemade Curry Ketchup (a sweeter, exotic sauce that's delicious), regular Ketchup and a variety of Mustards if you prefer.

Much has been made of The Golden State's Burger, with many calling it the greatest Burger in L.A., while others have met that fervor with their own strong counter-reaction claiming it's "terrible." Burgers are a very personal thing, so it's not surprising to see such a wide variety of reactions, from those that lift it up on the highest pedestal, to those that vehemently tear it down. Before tackling the Burger, I try to manage my expectations: It's a humble *Burger* on a menu, at a casual, simple eatery. It makes no pretenses that it's their "world-famous Burger!" for example, and is simply presented as: The Burger (Harris Ranch Beef, Fiscalini Farms Cheddar, Glazed Applewood Smoked Bacon, Arugula, Housemade Aioli & Ketchup).

The Burger arrives, served with a Rockenwagner Bun (from Rockenwagner Bakery (Santa Monica, CA)). Taking a bite, and it's a delicious combination of flavors: The medium-rare Wet-Aged Beef is juicy on the inside with a nice sear on the outside, lightly beefy, with the Fiscalini Cheddar matching well, and then the smoky salty-sweet of the Glazed Applewood Bacon, a little background note of pepperiness from the Arugula,and the lightly sweet Rockenwagner Bun finish things off properly. It's a very good Burger, but it depends on what one is looking for in a Burger. It's not the greatest Burger I've had in my life (pretty close :), but when I'm in the area hanging out with friends and wanting to enjoy a good Burger and Beer, this fits the bill nicely. Delicious. :)

The Burger (and all Sandwiches) come with a choice of one Side Dish, so we decide to try their Fried Sweet Potato Wedges (with Housemade Garlic Aioli).

These turn out to be truly what the menu states "Sweet Potato Wedges" and not "Sweet Potato Fries" which is what I mistakenly thought they were. In this recent craze spreading around L.A. / O.C., more and more places are adding Sweet Potato Fries to their menus, and I was thinking this was the same thing. Instead, these are hefty wedges that celebrate their primary ingredient: Sweet Potatoes. It's softer, moister and far more about eating a slice of Sweet Potato, than the more ubiquitous "sweet French Fry" (Sweet Potato Fries). I prefer the crispier Fry version, personally, but this is a solid choice for those who enjoy the Sweet Potato in a more concentrated state.

On Friday and Saturday nights only, The Golden State serves their Fish 'n Chips (Line-Caught, Wild Icelandic Cod Battered in Craftsman 1903 Lager).

The batter is crispy and puffy and the Icelandic Cod is tender, moist and flaky, and clean-tasting. It's one of the better Fish 'n Chips I've had this past year, and a nice change from the normal menu.

While waiting for the Fish 'n Chips, I decide to try their Angel City Dunkel on draft, from Angel City Brewing (Los Angeles, CA). It features a deep, rich, dark chocolaty taste with a decent finish.

And besides the Craft Beers on draft and food, The Golden State is the only outpost of the legendary Scoops Gelato from the ever-creative Tai Kim, owner and culinary artist of Scoops.

The beauty of this setup is that Scoops' owner personally delivers and creates new flavors daily, and the flavors are always interesting: On one night, you might find a Jim Beam Nutmeg Gelato, or a Blackberry Balsamic, or the most popular flavor, Brown Bread Gelato.

But perhaps the greatest fun to be had is in The Golden State's wonderful Beer Floats. Combining top-quality Craft Beers with Scoops Gelato is something so interesting and different, it's even caused Jonathan Gold to wax poetic about these creations. :) For our first try at these Beer Floats, we decide to try 2 flavors. First up is Scoops' Malt White Chocolate Mocha Gelato with Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout (on Nitrogen Tap).

It's a bit wild and off-putting at first: Your taste buds are expecting something like the more commonly found "Root Beer Float" - something sweet and ice creamy - but a Beer Float is something far different: The bitterness of the Old Rasputin really helps to act as a compelling foil to the sweetness of the Scoops Gelato. So instead of "sweet on sweet" (like a Root Beer Float), you get a nice contrast of "hops / bitterness / earthiness / grassy qualities on sweet" (from the Gelato). Once your taste buds get used to it, it's a delicious experience. (^_^) The Malt White Chocolate Mocha is a great pairing with the Old Rasputin.

We also try their more classic / original flavor pairing: Scoops' Brown Bread Gelato with Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout (on Nitrogen Tap).

The malty qualities from the Brown Bread work spot on with the similar qualities in the Old Rasputin. And due to the Nitrogen Tap, the silky, more refined bubbles from the Old Rasputin really blend well with the Brown Bread Gelato, to give a nice mouthfeel. :)

Of course, if you ever see them feature the other winning combination from the 1st Annual Beer Float Throwdown (earlier this year) - Scoops' Raspberry Yuzu with The Bruery's Hottenroth Berliner Weisse - forget what you were going to get and immediately place an order for this amazing combination that completely transforms your notion of what a Beer Float is all about. Simply outstanding! :)

On another visit, I stumble upon a new daily special featured only on Thursdays: The Golden State Lamb Burger (Colorado Lamb, Gruyere, Arugula, Applewood Smoked Bacon).

I love Lamb, so I'm excited to see how this Lamb Burger would turn out. Taking a bite...

Mouth-wateringly delicious! :)

A perfect medium-rare, with a beautiful char, the melted Gruyere Cheese serves as a great complement to the Colorado Lamb itself, which has a subtle, but distinct gaminess (in a good way), that stands the test of eating it straight by itself (with no toppings).

But adding in the Applewood Smoked Bacon, the pepperiness of the Arugula, a bit of Yogurt and Dill, and the light sweetness from the Rockenwagner Bun, and you have the makings of one of the best Lamb Burgers around town. :) (And thankfully, in the 3-4 times that I've ordered this Lamb Burger, it's always been consistently delicious.)

The California Greek Salad that's served with the Lamb Burger is a decent Salad, with Romaine, Capers, Feta Cheese, Kalamata Olives, Tomatoes, and a Creamy Lemon Vinaigrette. The flavor combination is spot-on, but it's been overdressed each time we've gotten it.

During my 6th visit, The Golden State is featuring Port High Tide IPA on draft, from Port Brewing Co. (San Marcos, CA).

Mr. Bernstein explains that this is a Wet Hopped Beer, available only for a few months during the Fall. It has a really fragrant nose, an initial bitterness, leading to a nice grassy, green, herbal taste. For an IPA this is really drinkable by itself, and a great pairing with their Lamb Burger.

The Golden State also features Let's Be Frank Hot Dogs and Sausages, which are grass-fed meat, free from nitrites, nitrates, hormones and antibiotics. I decide to try their Let's Be Frank Pork Bratwurst with Caramelized Onions and Sauerkraut.

For all of its all-natural, high profile exposure, the Let's Be Frank Bratwurst tastes like a good, lightly-spiced, standard Bratwurst. It's not bad, but it's nothing spectacular.

As with all their sandwiches and dogs, you get a choice of one side dish, and their seemingly simple, innocuous Potato Salad turns out to be one of the hidden highlights of their menu: The Golden State Potato Salad is made with Red Potatoes, Chives, Egg, Mayonnaise, Mustard and Shallots, and is easily the best Potato Salad I've had outside of homemade while growing up. The Red Potatoes are still firm, but have a nice pliability (not the usual overcooked mush). It's creamy, but not too heavy, with a great herbal undertone. Add to that, the crunch of fresh Shallots and it's a Potato Salad worth stopping by for. :)

For those looking for a lighter meal, their Chicken Sandwich (Grilled Chicken Breast with Arugula, Tomato and Homemade Aioli) fits the bill nicely.

The Grilled Chicken Breast is moist and lightly seasoned with Salt and Pepper, but it's the pairing with Arugula, Tomatoes and the Housemade Aioli on Breadbar Bread that makes it enjoyable.

For our next dish, Mr. Bernstein recommends the New Belgium Fall Wild Ale on draft, from New Belgium Brewing Company (Fort Collins, CO).

It's spicy, a little tart with some fruit, but there's a distinct barnyard funk when you finish a sip. It's unique and a little surprising, but the beauty of this Wild Ale is the great pairing with our next dish, BLTA (Glazed Applewood Smoked Bacon, Lettuce, Tomato, Avocado and Housemade Aioli).

Like many of their offerings, the simple, mundane names belie the greatness within: The Applewood Bacon is wonderfully crisp, crunchy and works perfectly in this classic combination with the fresh Lettuce, Tomatoes and Avocado. The Breadbar Ciabatta Bread tastes fragrantly fresh with a soft chew. It's arguably one of the best sandwiches on the menu. And with the great recommendation from the staff, the barnyard funk from the New Belgium Fall Wild Ale is completely removed when eaten with the BLTA. Excellent. :)

Their Jalapeno Cabbage Slaw (Shredded Red and Green Cabbage, Carrots, Jalapeno, Red Wine Vinaigrette) is a great choice for spice fiends.

It's a very light Slaw, with crisp, sharp vegetables, and a refreshing, welcoming spicy kick from the Jalapenos.

I finish off one of my latest visits with another seasonal, rare beer they just got in: The Bruery Two Turtle Doves, a Belgian-style Dark Ale on draft, from The Bruery (Fullerton, CA).

It's a deep, dark brew, and the flavors are incredible! Nutty, cocoa-y, chocolaty, it's a terrific holiday celebration beer and a nice "dessert" sipper. And it's a great pairing with many of the Scoops Gelato flavors available this evening. :)

I also try their Virgil's Root Beer on Draft(!), from Reed's (Los Angeles, CA).

While Virgil's is showing up more and more at markets around town, this is the first time I've had it on draft, and the difference is impressive: This all-natural Root Beer is just bursting with spices and bright effervescence, an incredible Anise flavor, with a great Wintergreen finish.

Service has been just fine for this type of informal restaurant: You order at the counter, take a number and find a table. It can be a little hectic at times, when they're at 100% capacity and you're waiting for a table, but the turnover is generally pretty fast, and the servers are always willing and able to assist you. It's especially nice since both co-owners (who also serve the food), can answer your questions about the various beers and make great recommendations.

Prices range from $3 - $10 for Food, $2 for a scoop of Scoops Gelato, $8 for a Beer Float, and most of these amazing Craft Beers on draft, from $5 - $9 a glass.

The Golden State represents a welcoming, easy-going entry-point into the fascinating world of Microbrewed / Craft Beers, with a constantly changing menu of interesting Beers on draft. In addition, their small, but focused menu of food items are expertly executed, with some great offerings (despite the simple-sounding names), like their amazing Colorado Lamb Burger, BLTA, Golden State Potato Salad and more. Add to that, the always interesting flavor combinations of Scoops Gelato, and it's easy to see why The Golden State draws a good crowd on most nights. And with co-owners / beer scholars Jason Bernstein and James Starr always willing to discuss the ins and outs of a great Tripel vs. a rare IPA vs. a Brandy Barrel-Aged Imperial Brown Ale and more, it's like getting a free beer crash course, along with some excellent craft brews and great food, all at reasonable prices in an informal setting. Recommended.

Rating: 8.3 (out of 10.0)

The Golden State
426 N. Fairfax Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90036
Tel: (323) 782-8331

Hours: Tues - Sun, 12:00 p.m. Noon - 10:00 p.m.
Closed Mondays.


Banana Wonder said...

Wow did you end up trying every beer there? I love lamb too - and lamb burgers! I will have to go on a Thursday - thanks for that hot tip.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Anna A.,

Thanks. :) No, no, that's the beauty of The Golden State: They update their Beers on draft every week, so there's always something new / interesting whenever I've stopped by. :)

I don't think I'd be able to ever finish trying every single beer. :)

DL said...

Hi EK,

Love that you made so many trips before finally writing about it! I'm curious about that 'Nitrogen' tap...what's the difference between it and a normal tap beer dispenser? I've never seen one before. Craving a burger now too. :)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi DL,

Thank you. :) I'm not an expert on Nitrogen Taps, but from what Mr. Bernstein explained to me, the vast majority of Beers on Draft/Tap are using CO2 (Carbon Dioxide). A Nitrogen Tap gives a much more refined, silky Bubble / Mouthfeel with the Beer (and I can attest to that). The Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout on Nitrogen is awesome! :) Great bubbles and nice mouthfeel. It's definitely rare.

Let me know how the food and beers turn out if you go. :)

jeesung said...

Nice beer reviews! I have to say a place can't be casual and state the farm of origin for their cheese-burger (Fiscalini Farms Cheddar) ;-)

DL & EK - Nitrogen taps are rare, but more common than you think. All Guiness on draught is from a nitrogen tap. You might also see the yellow Boddington's ale which also uses a nitrogen tap. When you buy cans of these in the store the thing rattling around inside after you pour them is a little nitrogen pack which open when you pop the can. The nitrogen is what makes the curtain of fine bubbles and helps to form the thick head. Also, it's usually a mix of nitrogen and CO2. Guiness specifies a 75/25 mix be used.

weezermonkey said...

This is on my list of burgers to try!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi jeesung,

Thanks! :) Ah that's right. Guiness has that as well. Thanks for the insight on the Nitrogen Taps. :)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi weezermonkey,

Nice! :) Please let me know how your burger turns out (and try their Lamb burger as well). :)

Kung Food Panda said...

Another place on my to-go list. Thanks for the write up, I think I know what to get now! :)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Kung Food Panda,

Thanks. :) The Golden State is definitely a must visit if you enjoy (or want to learn more about / explore) Craft Beers (so much better than the standard, mainstream offerings), some tasty Sandwiches & Burgers and the wonderful Scoops Gelato. :) Please report back if you end up going. :)

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