Almost two years ago, my first column here at the Zenith reviewed Canal Park Brewing Company, at 300 Canal Park Drive in Duluth. How much has changed since those first visits when the brewery was still struggling through growing pains (like not being able to keep their signature beers on tap)?
Since I wanted to give them every benefit of the doubt, we picked a couple different times to visit—once during lunch, and again during their “happiest of all hours,” which are Monday through Friday from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. and again from 9 p.m. to close.
It doesn’t hurt that pints during this time are $2 off and appetizers are half-price. Unfortunately, they offer no price break for wine or on the full bar selection, but, still, it is a better offer than when they first stubbornly refused to offer any happy hour whatsoever.
As we walked back into the joint for the first time in almost two years, I was pleased to see it still looks all shiny and new. The tables have been rearranged somewhat, but overall it is virtually the same place.
Another thing that has remained regrettably unchanged is the menu—still a mess of the same sandwiches (thankfully no longer referred to as “Sammies”), burgers, and appetizers. Even more disastrously, these are still prepared in the same wilted way.
On our happy hour visit, we were met by one of the last remnants of the original staff—a perfectly delightful young lady—but the fact that the entire staff has turned over in such a short time speaks volumes. Turnover can be expected in such a volatile industry, but seldom at such a high rate, particularly in a brewpub, where knowledge of the craft brews is necessary.
I opted for the Rediscovery IPA, and was pleased with its hoppy, yet not overpowering and very clean finish. My wife went with a glass of Wente Chardonnay, which is light with subtle hints of pear and citrus. It also happens to be a selection that is sustainably grown.
With our drinks ordered, we turned to the happy hour menu. The mussels, along with the meat and cheese plate, are not available for the happy hour deal. We opted instead for the calamari plate, breaded and flash-fried, served with house tartar sauce.
Tartar sauce (or remoulade, if you want to be fancy) is one of the simplest sauces to make—mayonnaise, capers, vinegar, lemon, and a crack of pepper. Not so here.
Not that any sauce was going to be able to help this belabored calamari dish. I don’t know if it’s the temperature of their frying oil or the skill of their fry cooks, but apparently, “flash-fry” means “fry just long enough to get the item soggy.”
Still, it could be worse. At least we’ve got tasty beer and wine, and an engaging server, who is taking a considerable amount of time to answer our queries.
We move on to a full-price serving of Coco Lime Ale Mussels. I always let my wife gobble the mussels (I’m not a fan of these tough, sweaty little beasts that spend a lot of time in the wrong places on the ocean floor as far as I’m concerned), while I savor bread dipped in the sauce created by sautéing the sea creatures in beer, spices, and butter.
These mussels are cooked to perfection. The broth and bread, however, lack the chops for such a delicacy. Made from coconut lime green curry and their own Wheat Beer, the broth is bitter where it should be mild and thick where it should be delicate.
While Canal Park Brewing endeavors to use locally sourced items (Thousand Hill’s Beef, The Rustic Olive, Superior Fish Company), their bread leaves something to be desired. A switch to Positively Third Street or even a Minneapolis bakery would do a world of good.
We enjoyed our later lunch visit more. We stuck to the basics—beer cheese soup, Caesar salad, and a Reuben sandwich, but stayed away from the fries. They also do the Mac and Beer Cheese well, with cavatappi pasta tossed in a creamy beer cheese sauce, and topped with crispy panko crumbs.
Canal Park Brewing recently added a new general manager, Richard Selz, who has spent many years up north successfully running Papa Charlie’s at Lutsen. Selz, in turn, has just hired Chef Jonathon Kapzmark to lead the kitchen out of the obscurity to which it has sentenced itself.
So, things may be looking up for Canal Park Brewing. Or it just may be that the slickly marketed college hangout is what it is—a perfectly amiable brewpub, with erratically available but seriously substantial beer, and a menu meant to dissuade you from intoxication simply by filling you up.
Thomas Walchuk has worked in the restaurant industry for most of his long life. He is currently an event and social media consultant with Tippy Toe Tunes, a collaborative endeavor he founded to help small business entrepreneurs. Visit TippyToeTunes.com.