767 Congress St., Portland
On damp wintery nights, the comforts of warm fire and cold beer are unparalleled. Bramhall, which opened last fall in the Congress Street space formerly known as the Bramhall Pub, is a good place to bask in that comfort. Scores of fat candles cast soft light around the room. The tap list is short, but big on choice local brews. Exposed brick, bearded bartenders and rustic wooden tables complete the look.
On just such a night this winter, my boyfriend and I descended into the old pub’s cozy depths and scored the sole open table. Pints of Bissell Brothers Substance ale ($6) were an easy first choice. The small menu, printed on thick paper and mounted on rough-hewn swatches of leather, offers pub-style comfort food. It’s the work of Chris Beaulieu, a former sous chef at Duckfat, who apparently has a weakness for silly names: Flip ’Em the Bird, Porky’s Revenge, etc.
We started with the loaded crisps ($8) and a garden salad ($5). The salad was uninspired: greens from a bag and bland grape tomatoes tossed in a vinegary dressing. The fact it was named What Food Eats should have tipped me off to Bramhall’s lack of investment in the dish. The loaded crisps were even more disappointing. How do you ruin a dish that has crumbled applewood-smoked bacon, scallions, cheese curds and decadent crème fraîche? Bramhall found a way: toss those toppings on conventional, store-bought potato chips. (I later learned that Bramhall had to resort to commercial chips after it was determined that their method of frying their own crisps violated some city or state code; they claim the barbeque-style seasoning is their own, and hope to have the kitchen issue resolved someday.) We ended up eating all the curds and bacon bits we could pick off with our fingers, then sent the crisps back to whence they came.
My Caribbean jerk tacos ($9 for three), the special of the night, were a mess of fall-apart-tender jerk chicken. Topped with both a mango pico de gallo and an apple cabbage slaw, the tacos leaned on the sweet side; the slaw pulled double duty by adding a pleasing crunch. Though the filling was succulent and flavorful, it’s almost not worth serving tacos on tortillas this dry. And each taco came with only one tortilla; the Mexican standard is two fresh tortillas per taco.
The Cow & Pig Burger ($9) is made with a mixture of bacon and steak, prepared sous-vide and finished on a flat-top. The result is a meltingly soft patty with just the right amount of char. Tart pickled onions and coarse-ground mustard added kick. A garnish of three vinegary, thin-sliced, slightly sweet pickles didn’t get a chance to become toppings — they were too good on their own.
My boyfriend’s qualm was with the sandwich’s uniform texture. The English-muffin bun didn’t provide much ballast against such a tender patty. Crisp Romaine lettuce or even a cabbage slaw similar to the one on my tacos could have helped. We would have thrown a few chips into the mix to add crunch, but we’d already been down that dead end.
Still shy of our $50 limit, we ordered a cocktail, The Scofflaw ($7): rye whiskey mixed with Cocchi Americano, a fortified wine aperitif whose herbal bitterness complemented the drink’s strong lemon-zest finish.
Disappointments aside, we couldn’t honestly say we weren’t sated and happy by the end of the meal. Maybe it was the candlelight, or the whiskey’s warm glow, but we promised ourselves we’d return.
— Hannah Joyce McCain