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Venue Review: Heist Brewery

Can Charlotte's Heist brewery pull it off?
Heist Brewery
By "Helen Schwab"
The Charlotte Observer

Naming a place Heist begs one question: Can you pull it off?

What Heist is trying to pull off is multifaceted. Think “Ocean’s 11,” with owner George Clooney – oops, Kurt Hogan – calling the shots, while some of the guys create a brewery, others whip up a restaurant and a few others aim at conquering the insidery world of off-premise catering. Zach Hart is brewmaster and has some awards under his belt, notably a silver medal for an IPA at the 2001 Great American Beer Festival. He offers seasonal brews in addition to a standard lineup that includes IPA (India Pale Ale), oatmeal stout, red ale, hefeweizen (a wheat beer; think Blue Moon, though that’s not actually hefeweizen) and more. I liked the IPA, but I loved the stout’s smoothness. Hart says he aims at fresh and simple brews.

Simple is decidedly not where chef Rob Masone aims.

From Himalayan Shrimp Stix (“asian shrimp, lemon-wasabi cotton candy”) to Kurobuta pork belly corn dogs with root beer barbecue sauce, his menu seeks to, as he puts it, “break every rule possible on the way to the plate ... or lack thereof.”

That tells you, too, that Masone – from Rock Hill via Johnson & Wales and years of catering (including Vegas casinos) – leans to unusual tableware: He sticks tuna onto forks stuck into a curve of acrylic with teeny spray bottles of wasabi-soy sauce on the side, and puts bits of beef and papaya into mini martini glasses. Lobster bisque comes in test tubes, beer cheese dip with a serving spoon folded onto itself like, say, Ocean’s little contortionist.

But amid the bells and whistles, tubes and sprayers lies the difficulty: The food must be perfect, or it’s a gimmick. And if it’s a gimmick, you’re not pulling it off.

Our problems ranged wide: Flatbread good one night, dismally dry another. The tuna, “Forked-Up Ahi,” perfectly seared, arrived without its promised ginger, and that teeny sprayer worked for exactly three sprays before breaking. (We got another. It clogged after two.) Lamb “tomahawks” sported thick, squishy breading and came atop unseasoned, watery potato puree. I had no shrimp stix; in three visits, it was never available. Masone said it should be back next week – when the cotton candy machine’s fixed.

A handsome salad nearly spilled out of its angled bowl, and our server noted carefully: “The dressing’s on the bottom ... it’s not very user-friendly.”

Indeed. But it was the corn dogs that hurt most. Beautifully golden and seemingly firm, they collapsed in the mouth, as if the pork belly within – braised in milk and honey – had begun to melt, then turned tough. An unpleasant sequence: thin layer of delicious crunch, gelatinous mass, bit of fat, then chewy shard of meat.

Whether this was an execution problem or a conceptual one is hard to tell, though I’d lean toward the latter. With other dishes, I suspect the former – flatbreads, for example, simply overworked or overcooked.

Masone works to use everything, he says: That milk-and-honey braising liquid is used to make brioche, grain (from brewing) goes to a farmer whose beef Heist will eventually buy. And several things do work now, like a smoked salmon that’s delicate and memorable. Housemade pretzels – long, straight and stacked in a lattice pattern – were the best dish we had, with a molten beer cheese that both sparked the appetite and complemented the drink of choice.

Servers do well counseling about those beers, too. On the other hand, diners at the table next to us asked if they could have our menus, since they still hadn’t gotten any. The place can run a little behind.

The space is interesting: A glass wall lets diners, mostly at bar-height tables of gorgeous wood, view the brewery’s tanks in the double-height main dining area. Though the crowd was mostly 20-somethings on our visits, there were children and older diners, too.

Pulling off this Heist will require food consistently well-executed, which means impeccable teamwork and training and timing – from all the players.

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02/01/13 - The Charlotte Observer - Helen Schwab

Naming a place Heist begs one question: Can you pull it off?

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