It's not enough to recognize Karbach Brewing Co.'s new on-site restaurant as the best new restaurant in the weird quasi-industrial DMZ between Spring Branch to the west and Garden Oaks/Oak Forest to the east; that's an easy enough task to accomplish in an area of town that's otherwise rightfully regarded as a culinary wasteland. What Karbach's chef Joseph Stayshich is accomplishing in this restaurant is enough to compel a journey from Montrose or Midtown or Upper Kirby or Rice Village—all areas saturated with excellent eateries. Here, you'll find the former Benjy's executive chef executing dishes far finer than your average pub grub, and all of them infused with the spirit of Karbach (and, less euphemistically, the brewery's beer itself)—adventurous yet studied, and better than they have to be.
A brewery may also be the last place you expect to find creative, thoughtful vegetarian dishes, but Stayshich's years at Benjy's —a restaurant known for its own clever vegetarian offerings, among other attractions—taught him to appreciate produce in its own right. This is why you'll find local greens from Animal Farms in a huge salad beefed up with smoked potatoes and pickled eggs on Karbach's menu (which—don't worry, omnivores—is also heavy with burgers, steaks and wings), as well as my own current favorite: malted ricotta gnocchi.
In that salad, Karbach's beer is snuck in via a vinaigrette laced with Rodeo Clown Double IPA. The introduction of beer into the gnocchi is far more subtle, however; it's the result of Stayshich adding a ground mixture of sweet and bitter malts to the classic potato dumplings. The malts, which are simply sourced from the other side of the glass wall that separates brewery from restaurant, give the dumplings a far richer flavor than your typical gnocchi, dark and savory and altogether intriguing. Stayshich agrees. "The gnocchi turned out better than I expected," he chuckles.
The gnocchi are topped with a few more unexpected items: toasted hazelnuts, sweet English peas, a decadent wild mushroom cream sauce and delicate dill fronds. The first three dig deeper into different aspects of that sweetly malty flavor profile, while the bright dill offsets it all with a fine, herbal flourish. "People are really surprised this is here," says Stayshich, not just of his brilliant gnocchi dish but of the restaurant itself. "In other cities there are lots of brewpubs with great food, but you don't necessarily expect to find this quality of food in Houston."
Karbach Brewing Co. has already sought to raise the bar when it comes to craft beer in Houston, drawing national attention in 2013 as the second-fastest growing brewery in the US only two years after its founding, so it's only natural that its restaurant should seek the same glories. Or not. "I'm not trying to change the world," says Stayshich. "I'm just trying to make good food."
Karbach Brewing Co. Restaurant, 2032 Karbach St., 713-680-8886, karbachbrewing.com/tours/restaurant/restaurant