Never ask Ted Kim a simple question about beer. If you do, you're in for a discourse on the qualities of craft beer, its history and nuances, the growth of the industry, and the subtle differences between an IPA and a Belgian dubbel. The man is encyclopedic and passionate about beer.
Kim opened Steins Beer Garden in downtown Mountain View in March in the space last occupied by Villa 8 Buffet. It has a mammoth, 8,000-square-foot interior with an additional 4,000 square feet outdoors, seating about 300 in all. Steins is reminiscent of beer halls in Europe with its vaulted ceiling, festive atmosphere and first-class eats.
Inside, it's noisy with long tables suited for groups, but there are smaller tables and booths as well. Conversation is possible at smaller tables even when the place is busy. Adding to the din, large flat-screen TVs abound -- showing sports, of course. The decor has a contemporary feel, polished woods with pale walls that reflect light as well as sound. An L-shaped bar anchors the room.
Kim defines Steins as "a modern American beer garden." With 30 beers on tap, the choices are not quite overwhelming. Some beer halls have more than 100 beers on tap. Unless one is an aficionado, the tendency would be to simply order something familiar. Kim has authored a thoughtfully composed beer menu that describes, in detail, each of the beers offered.
A Sunnyvale native, Kim became interested in beer while working in Disney's international labor division. "I lived in Pasadena and frequented a local beer bar that had 120 beers on tap. I went through them all several times and became extremely interested in crafted beers." Lured back to northern California, he was in charge of launching Paris Baguette in Palo Alto and Santa Clara before getting the bug to do his own thing.
Steins isn't just about libations; the food is noteworthy, too. Executive Chef Colby Reade turns out quantities of good food, quickly. Reade worked at two benchmark San Francisco restaurants, Hawthorne Lane and Joyce Goldstein's Square One, both sadly gone and sorely missed. Reade knows what he's doing in the kitchen.
Steins original plan was for continuous kitchen and bar service from late morning until closing. "We were slammed from the beginning. So much so that we had to define lunch and dinner hours so the kitchen could recover," Kim said. To bridge the gap between lunch and dinner, the bar remains open with a happy-hour menu.
For appetizers, the three mini corn dogs ($8) with slaw, and pickled mustard-seed vinaigrette had been reshaped as orbs, two bites each of breaded, deep-fried happiness -- perfect with beer.
The summer squash salad ($12) of mixed greens, roasted corn, cracked wheat berries, herb pesto and lemon vinaigrette didn't have much oomph. What flavor there was came from the roasted corn kernels. A livelier vinaigrette would have helped.
Two of the Steins sandwiches are worth a special trip. The fried chicken sandwich ($12) was layered with green apple slaw, spiced honey, pickled red onion and aioli, on house-made ciabatta. The sandwich was mouth-watering, the french fries absolutely addictive. By the way, Steins makes its own breads and buns.
The Steins burger ($11), served on a house-made brioche bun, competes with local top-end burgers. The meat was a house-ground blend of dry aged short rib, brisket and sirloin. It gave the burger texture and personality. I happily paid an extra dollar each for grilled onions and Vermont cheddar cheese. Fabulous hamburger with the same addictive fries.
Of the entrees, "breakfast for dinner" ($15), was fork-tender smoked pork belly, topped with frisee and poached egg, drizzled with maple Dijon vinaigrette and surrounded with toast points -- high in both protein and flavor.
The slow-cooked melt-in-the-mouth short rib ($19) topped a bread pudding: strips of brioche that soaked up meat juices. Rainbow chard and onion jam finished the plate. Both these entrees were delicious.
Desserts were worth saving room for. The chocolate beer float ($7) was made with Hangar 24 chocolate porter ice cream, brown sugar and Devil's Canyon root beer. It was a delicious float. The porter in the ice cream, though, was more an interesting thought than reality, as the flavors were too subtle. But I didn't care: A well-executed float can't be beat.
The huge wedge of lush devil's food chocolate cake ($7) was a triple-tiered affair with chocolate mousse separating the layers. Raspberry sauce and creme fraiche added to the excess. Best chocolate cake I've had in ages.
The flourless almond cake ($9) was buried under a mound of fresh mixed berries and raspberry sorbet. No complaints.
House-made cruller cinnamon-sugar donuts ($8 for 3) came with creme anglaise and a cup of drinking/dipping chocolate. Cruller-style uses denser dough than regular donuts. Delightfully decadent.
You might not be a beer drinker, but there are also wine and cocktails. You might not like the noise level, so go early. You might not like the beer hall ambiance, yet it is upscale and contemporary. You will definitely like the food, and if you have a chance to chat with Ted Kim, you will take a sudden liking to beer.
Steins Beer Garden
895 Villa St., Mountain View
Hours: Lunch: Mon.-Thu. 11a.m.-3 p.m. Sat.-Sun. 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Dinner: Sun.-Thu. 5:30-11 p.m. Sat. 5:30-11:30 p.m. Happy hour: 3-6 p.m.