Typically, restaurants in shopping malls are not the kind of thing I choose to discuss via Big Hungry. I mean, y’all don’t want to read about, like, the epic salad bar at Ruby Tuesday or the piquant nuances of the bourbon chicken in the food court, right? But up in Watertown, at the fabled Salmon Run Mall, closed this week due to the “Artic Vortex,” (Whomever came up with that name has got to be like the cat who ate the canary today), is a new bar and grille born from my favorite Sackets Harbor haunt The Hops Spot. Surely, a mom and pop- owned, craft beer-focused eatery helmed by a graduate of the International Culinary Center’s California campus must be the exception to this rule, no? And so, with joyous anticipation, my parents and I supped at Skewed Brewing on Christmas Eve; a festive repast indeed.
Now, to be clear, they aren’t actually brewing anything yet at Skewed. That endeavor takes some time, and it appears that the equipment is in, but maybe the beer isn’t ready yet. Rest assured, there ARE lots of good choices on the bar menu, and while Dad went for a berry-tinged Abita Purple Haze, I very much enjoyed my dark and stormy cocktail, which featured the new haute ice in Foodieland: the gigantic, solid ice ball. This behemoth melts slower than puny cubes of frozen H20, thereby dissolving less water into your drink and diluting all your liquor. I’m a lightweight, so a watered down drink has never really been a peeve of mine, but man, does the big ball make your drink cold! I also loved the high quality ginger beer rather than boring Schwepp’s ginger ale in this spicy little number – it leant the cocktail personality and kick it otherwise would have lacked.
You guys know how into appetizers I am of late. At Skewed, I was dying to sample the duck wings, baked brie, fried pickles, and lamb carpaccio. But there were only three of us at the table, my Mom’s appetite isn’t all that ferocious anymore, and wanting to try both starters and entrees, we settled on the perogies. I don’t regret this choice one, single iota. Because: yum. Yes, these were a frozen perogies, but they were pan fried in duck fat, then dolloped with house-made bacon jam and crème fraiche, sour cream’s chicer cousin. This dish was great, and I suggest down the line, Chef Andy considers making the perogies from scratch and naming this a signature starter for the restaurant, because the bacon jam is aces, and this plate of homey delight could really become something more than the sum of its parts and a real draw if he kicked it up just one more notch (excuse the Emerilism there). I know I throw this term around a lot, but the bacon jam at Skewed is literally meat candy: sweet, tangy, and salty, and when paired with the crème fraiche, hit all the flavor notes you want to kick up your comfort food.
Chef Andy knew I was in the house that night, and sent us out a starter of his own accord: butternut squash soup with truffle oil, fried pepitas, and fried sage. I’m traditionally a dissenter of squash soups, because they almost always finish overly sweet and are spiced solely with sweet pie spices, but this bowl had heat, complexity, warmth, yes, but also earthiness and funk from the truffle oil to ground all that sweetness. The texture was ultimate velvet pleasure, and the crunch of the fried pumpkin seeds gave your mouth something to do besides moan. Order this if it’s on special when you go, and don't you dare sass me about it.
Mom, our simplest palate and the diner you should trust if you’re bringing any kids with you to eat, went with her stalwart chicken tenders as her entrée. But unlike rote, pedestrian fried chicken strips she’s been served almost everywhere else in Upstate New York, these suckers were beer battered with Yuengling Beer. The beer leant the whole works much more depth than you get from simple breading, and quite simply, we all loved them. The chicken was juicy and tender (as the name implies), and that batter brought tremendous flavor to the table. These are Mom’s new addiction, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s finding all sorts of new excuses to go to the mall and sneak in an order in 2014;)
I went for the truffled duck, savory with lots of sage and sweet with dried cherry demi. The duck breast was perfectly cooked medium, and perhaps the most tender I’ve ever had – not a trace of resistance to the meat. This dish, with its herbed spaetzel, or tender little noodle dumplings, was perfectly suited to a winter’s night – woodsy and deep. In fact, if you can get your car out of the driveway this weekend, you should go and try it. Those spaetzel were like tender little butter nuggets, dense but light, and great with the duck. I don’t know a ton of places in the North Country doing duck dishes right now, but this is a great place to try it if you’ve been hankering.
Dad chose the steak au poivre, which is sometimes local NY-raised, grassfed beef, but because of the holiday, was run-of-the-mill NY strip. No matter, because the cognac cream sauce is stealing this show. This sauce was everything – round with butter and cream, silky, earthy, masculine. Other sauces have pictures of this sauce on their vision boards. The steak was solid too, with great grilled charcoal flavor and very juicy, but the sauce was the star of the dish. We all sampled, and enjoyed, the crisp, bright green beans served alongside, and Dad quite liked the creamy mashed potatoes.
We were perusing the dessert menu when our lovely, friendly waitress let us know that Chef Andy had a surprise for us. Do you remember the Vegan Nightmare, from Bella’s in Clayton, that I raved about a couple summers ago? Well, Chef Andy was working in Bella’s kitchen that summer and was largely responsible for that dish, alongside Chef Gabe Aubertine, and now he’s come up with its delicious mess Frankenstein grandchild, The Vegan Nightmare 5.0. A crispy bacon brownie sundae with sriracha-spiced chocolate-covered bacon, Nutella-stuffed fried dough, and a boozy cream sauce, anchored by vanilla ice cream. This monster is enough to feed four, and a delightful chaotic exclamation point to a good meal. I particularly liked the spice of the sriracha to balance the sweetness, and those little Nutella doughnuts were a glutton’s wet dream.
I feel like this review has been almost too rosy so far, so let me say that Dad complained that the steak knife was cheap and kind of tore the meat, and the squash soup was too spicy for Mom to eat. I happened to love the assertive flavors and how hard Skewed is trying to advance and challenge palates in little old Watertown. I’ve also heard grumblings through the grapevine that people think the prices are high here for bar food. But honestly, my dish was really fine dining, and $27 for duck is bargain basement cheap compared to what you’d pay for that same dish in NYC or DC. Yes, some of the appetizers are a little high, but again, what are you paying these days at Olve Garden for a starter? Take a look and you get back to me, and tell me if duck wings for $9 are really that big a stretch. Because I don’t think they are.
The important thing about Skewed Brewing is that it’s a step forward. The fun, witty menu, clean, modern interior, and adventurous world cuisine are unlike anything going on right now in the area, save Café Mira, which is really a white tablecloth place. Skewed and The Hops Spot are making cool, new American cuisine accessible to the masses, in place you can go in jeans and a t-shirt, get great food, and then move along. More importantly, it's owned, run, and staffed by real people. This food is being crafted by someone who cares very much about dining as an activity, and about delighting his customers. He wants to talk to you about hot sauce, and discuss why duck fat is the coolest ingredient since kale salad stormed the country. We are fortunate to have people like Andy, Gabe, and Lori Wells (Café Mira) in this area, people who care about quality and the unique art of hospitality. We gave Skewed Brewing a nine on the BHS scale, and I can’t wait to go back for lunch and try the mac and cheese, plus the pizzas, which look wicked.
If you’ve been to Skewed, sound off in the comments, and let me know what you thought! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!