Welcome to the New Year! There is a lot to celebrate, some of which is that last year is in the rearview mirror, but let’s not dismiss 2016 as a total loss. I’m all about new beginnings right now, stepping in the right direction, if you will. There were, however, a few things we gained over the past 12 months.
For the Mobile food scene, 2016 was a period of activity, most of which was growth. We came to know many new restaurateurs who made their homes in our downtown area, and some familiar faces and owners of our downtown establishments expanded westward. Such was the case for Old Shell Growlers.
The success of the beer-heavy menu at LoDa Bier Garten prompted owner Matt Golden and company to follow the path of the sun for a new concept: a growler station with refillable jugs of beer (available to take home) along with a menu that seems pretty high-end for a bar.
This foray out of the downtown area is not as much of a leap as some of Golden’s Dauphin Street neighbors. While restaurants such as Dumbwaiter and Mediterranean Sandwich Co. actually crossed Interstate 65 into higher area codes, Old Shell Growlers didn’t trek much farther than the Kenneth intersection, in the former Red or White location.
The laid back atmosphere is quite the departure from the downtown hustle and bustle of the Bier Garten, and the staff is in a much more attentive position, ready to suggest beer pairings with menu items.On the particular evening I darkened the door for the first time, Catherine and I were meeting her parents, Pete and Carol, for dinner and drinks. There was cause for minor celebration as I had new things going on at work and Pete had settled a case. When we arrived the two had already started without us, with drinks and Hot Crab Dip ($12).
Not a bad way to start the evening, I could see I wasn’t about to give up carbs for the New Year. Claw meat is the centerpiece of this creamy dish with caramelized onions, tomato and basil altering the hue. We wiped the bowl clean with our bread and I believe our waiter could tell we were getting serious.
Everyone, it seems, is doing Brussels Sprouts ($6) these days, but you rarely see them in a bar setting. These bacon-roasted beauties were a little firmer and a departure from the charred versions you find around town.
We all ordered something different and pretty much made our way through the entire menu, sharing as we progressed. Pete began the round with a Lobster Roll ($12). This came out like a small poboy cut in half and standing on its ends with bread that embraced chunks of lobster, shallot, capers and lemon garlic aioli. Everyone received a piece and we almost ordered a second.
Carol had her eye on the Tuna Poke Martini ($14), pretty much stealing my preference. A bit of microgreens accented the sashimi-style tuna with a blend of sesame and soy as a dressing that increased in flavor as we made our way to the bottom of the glass. There was just a little heat in the mix. It wasn’t much, but it encouraged another beer.
I knew exactly what Catherine was going to order. She loves tacos. She loves pork belly. So when you have Pork Belly Tacos ($10) on the menu there is little doubt. It was John Prine who said, “A question ain’t really a question if you know the answer, too.” Goat cheese, a honey glaze for sweetness and apple radish slaw for tartness contrasted deliciously with the beer-braised pork belly on crispy flour tortillas, held together with toothpicks so they stood upright.
I loved the thinly sliced apples in the slaw. It’s hard to split two tacos four ways so we ordered another pair.
When it came my turn, I needed help choosing between the seared duck breast and the mussels. My waiter was quick to describe both dishes, but didn’t bat an eyelash suggesting the Beer Braised Mussels ($14).
Necromangocon is the fruity, mead-style beer used for the liquid part of the braising process, as these rope-grown shellfish are finished in a cider beurre blanc for a creamy effect that has a bit of tang. Thin cuts of bread are needed for the sauce to prevent you from drinking from the vessel once you have discarded the shells from the perfectly cooked mussels.
There were only two items on the menu that did not find their way to our table. One of these is the duck breast, which I guarantee I’ll be returning to sample. The other was a roasted cauliflower salad that sounded like a healthy option.
But what we have neglected to discuss is the catalyst that prompted Golden and the gang to open this establishment in the first place. It’s even in the name, plain as day. Growlers. This is a beer-loving city and beer in general is celebrating a healthy reputation, with craft brews getting the respect in food-pairing circles that was once reserved for wine.
To be able to sit at a bar and order so many different options is one thing. To be able to fill a jug and take it home for a dinner party is something to which we are not yet accustomed. We see these things in cities that are less socially conservative. It’s good to find a place like Old Shell Growlers breaking ground in Mobile. And for those who don’t love beer, they do have a few wines on tap.
The menu is well executed and better than any bar menu I’ve seen in this city. The location across from Dew Drop Inn gives it a neighborhood bar feeling. So thank you, 2016. You gave us a gem.
Old Shell Growlers
1801 Old Shell Road