At Wrecking Bar, now it’s not just beer that’s good

I eat entirely way too much pub food.

I could blame this on professional obligation to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but mostly, it is because I spend a lot of my free time in pubs. Mediocre pub grub is easy to do, and exceptional bar food is rare. And with so many serious chefs and kitchens creating excellent pub food these days, I no longer have the patience to eat at a bar if the food is merely passable.

Such was the case for me with Wrecking Bar Brewpub in Little Five Points. Until very recently, the last time I’d actually eaten at Wrecking Bar was probably about a year and a half ago, and it was memorable for many of the wrong reasons. To call the meal mediocre would be generous, and I remember leaving horribly disappointed that the food was so far off in quality when compared to the beer. The menu was safe, and the execution was amateurish. So, I relegated Wrecking Bar to a drinks-only spot, and would occasionally stop in when I wanted a good pint.

Aside from the food, Wrecking Bar had a lot of things going for it, not the least of all the incredible space it occupies. When owners Bob and Christine Sandage purchased the Victor H. Kriegshaber House , a 113-year-old Victorian-style home between Inman Park and Little Five Points, it needed more than a little TLC. With busted-out windows and graffiti-covered walls, this once-grand 18,000-square-foot home was an eyesore. After a top-to-bottom renovation, the Sandages converted upper floors into an event space and the lower level into a cool, granite-walled hobbit-hole of a pub. It feels as if it were carved out of the earth, and the pinewood floors and polished pine bar make this the wine-cellar-turned-man-cave that every castle wishes it had.

And then there is the beer — Bob Sandage is the current poster child for homebrewers with fantasies to one day make a living doing what they love. He began brewing at home in 1992, fell in love with it and dreamed of one day opening a brewpub. But, when Wrecking Bar first opened on Father’s Day 2011, Sandage tapped Chris Terenzi to head the brewing program. However, after Terenzi left a few months later, Sandage officially took over as brewmaster, and since then, he has been crafting some of the city’s best brews.

Sandage and assistant brewmaster Neal Engleman run a regularly changing and consistently impressive beer program. Perhaps some of the most exciting beers these two are making comes in their weekly cask specials, like the Tawny Port Oak Aged Jemmy Stout ($3.25 shorty/$6 pint), their already fantastic, chocolaty American Stout aged in Hungarian oak and tawny port.

But while Sandage and his brewing get most of the fanfare, manager and co-owner Stevenson Rosslow quietly assembled an almost equally as strong cocktail program, particularly for the whiskey drinkers among you. The high percentage of whiskey-based cocktails scored high marks with my companions one night, and many rounds of the very drinkable In Fashion ($9) — a twist on an Old Fashioned with agave nectar — disappeared at our table.

Since first opening in June 2011, Wrecking Bar has seen many executive chefs cycle in and out of its doors. So, Rosslow, a 12-year veteran of the Buckhead Life Restaurant Group, spent nearly most of last summer searching for the right chef while sous chef Rod Lassiter held things together in the kitchen. When news broke that Rosslow had signed Farmburger chef Terry Koval to helm the kitchen in September 2012, I paid little attention. But it seems that Wrecking Bar has finally found its chef.

Koval’s evolution of Wrecking Bar’s original menu of standard pub grub was not overtly obvious at first glance, as many of the dishes from chef Steve Mayer’s original menu remain. But the difference in quality, in both the ingredients Koval sources as well as execution, stood in stark contrast to the Wrecking Bar I’d first come to know.

Not surprisingly, the Wrecking Bar Burger ($9.50) was as good of a pub-style burger as one can ask for, though given Koval’s burger-making pedigree, this one should almost be a gimme. The local bratwurst ($4) was the dish that haunted my memories the most from my earlier visits, but Koval’s, now sourced from Pine Street Market instead of Riverview Farms, arrived perfectly salty, juicy and flavorful instead of the bland overcooked iteration I remembered. And while most cheese plates ($11) are forgettable, the use of the sweet beer gelee and Rosslow’s hazelnut-cranberry crisps made this a worthwhile starter.

Few dishes on the menu begged you to enjoy a pint of something strong and dark like the fork-tender beef cheeks ($17), a classic combination of the savory braised beef with smashed potatoes and carrots, but with sauteed kale and drenched in a rich fennel-beer jus. Another new addition, the bone-in pork chop ($16), packed a lot of comforting flavors, especially paired with collards and a sweet potato souffle.

But it was my first look at my Three Pigs Skillet ($11) that told me things have taken a turn for the better at Wrecking Bar. I devoured the braised pork cheek and belly glazed with Sandage’s Russian Imperial Stout, happily popped strips of crispy pig ear in my mouth one at a time, and dredged my bread through the immensely flavorful stew of turnips and pork jus. Those same salty pig ear strips would go wonderfully on top of a side of the mac and cheese ($5+$2).

Simply put, Wrecking Bar has finally stepped up its game in the kitchen. Few restaurants get everything right on opening day, but Wrecking Bar had me worried there for a few years. I’m glad to see that this brewpub has finally found its way.