With a little taste of Lancaster transported up north, the Brewery District has found its new anchor.
There are a few things about a trip to Rockmill Brewery—located on an 18th century horse farm in Lancaster—that cannot be replicated in a Brewery District restaurant. The brewery's bucolic setting—complete with a quaint chapel, pond and woods—is one. That feeling that you're totally welcome to drink Belgian-style saisons for hours on end without worrying about your parking meter is another. And—let's be honest—the commute to the tavern, while shorter, is not as picturesque as winding your way through Fairfield County.
But other aspects of the magical Rockmill farmhouse experience translate seamlessly into the brewery's restaurant, which opened last fall. Namely, the unpretentious sense of hospitality, a décor with rustic elegance and a simple menu that pays homage to Rockmill's original food offering: epic cheese trays assembled by co-owner Matthew Barbee himself.
The restaurant version of Rockmill lives within the shell of a former World of Beer location in the historic Worly Building, and it's a good fit. (A world's worth of beers seems unnecessary when one of the region's best beers is served on tap.) Bar-side dining is available upstairs and downstairs, and the restaurant provides nooks and crannies with a variety of seating styles, from counter to community tables to booths. Each space is a little different, which means repeat visits are rewarded with a novel dining experience. The only downsides to the atmosphere are a plethora of flat screen TVs (possibly a holdover from the previous tenants) and the heavy wooden chairs, which are beautiful but uncomfortable for some guests.
The arrival process can be a little stressful, due in part to the host stand being directly at the top of a stairwell, which creates congestion. In one visit, a reserved table wasn't ready, and the host didn't acknowledge—or apologize for—the wait. Once seated, though, service runs smoothly. The servers are professional, attentive, knowledgeable about the food and (maybe most importantly) likeable. They know how to read a table and make sure guests have drinks at hand. While a few snafus happen during busy hours (though less often on recent visits), servers are quick to acknowledge and correct mishaps.
Chef Andrew Smith (whose past gigs include The Rossi Bar + Kitchen and Salt & Pine) has constructed a concise menu that includes main courses and sharables, providing either a multicourse dining regimen or a casual tapas-style dinner. In a show-don't-tell approach, the menu reflects local and in-season ingredients without being preachy about it. That said, the menu isn't above name dropping some tried and true cheeses, including Beemster and Tillamook. Entrées come with beer recommendations, and given that Rockmill's Belgian-style beers pair naturally with food, these are reliable matches.
While Smith's starters may seem simple in nature (at the core, it's all about bread and cheese), they're expertly assembled, beautifully displayed and perfectly balanced. Each ingredient has its place, providing delightful bites of sweet, sour and salty goodness.
Soft and spreadable, the burrata ($11) sits atop a chilled bath of green infused oil and a paste of honey-roasted malt. Served alongside a few (not enough) pieces of lightly charred bread, the combination is tangy and bright, with a variety of textures ranging from creamy to crispy.
The words “veggie” and “toast” do a disservice in describing the complex, savory and water cooler-chat-worthy ensembles presented in the rotating vegetable toast option ($8). A recent iteration could have been a meal in itself. Three slices of toasted bread were topped with a spreadable cheese, slices of tart tomatillo and a sprinkling of carrots with a texture reminiscent of bonito flakes. The tomatillo's tartness paired perfectly with the creamy cheese. A hint of sweetness—perhaps honey—brought it all together in a balanced starter with an unassuming name.
The menu is limited to a handful of well-executed main courses at a variety of price points (all of which seem reasonable for the portion sizes). Side dishes come separately and are often too enticing to ignore. The fresh-cut french fries ($5) are crunchy and well-fried. And the generous side of quinoa ($6)—served cold, with sweet potato, cilantro, lime juice (of which it could have used more) and peanuts—is more than just a token side for a healthy guest; it is a clever, refreshing complement to any sandwich. And the caramelized Brussels sprouts with honey mustard ($7) are evenly crispy and seasoned expertly.
On a recent visit, rabbit ($22) was offered as a special. The boneless rabbit thigh and leg was cooked sous vide with pesto, wrapped in greens, and rolled and cut to resemble sushi. It was served alongside hot, crispy sliced potatoes and pickled vegetables in the center of the plate. While the rabbit could have been served warmer, the dish was both daring and delightful. The rabbit and greens played well together and created a stellar visual.
At the other end of the spectrum is the restaurant's take on grilled cheese ($14). A rich combination of truffle oil, sun-dried tomato soup jam, cream cheese and sharp cheddar creates what tastes like sauce from homemade mac 'n' cheese with a pimento cheese texture, sandwiched between two pieces of challah. Should Rockmill go out on a grilled-cheese-only venture, they'd present a formidable challenge to the folks from Melt Bar & Grilled.
A safe bet for the less adventurous is the Tavern Burger ($14). Cooked to the right temperature every time, this is the restaurant's most popular sandwich (with the spicy chicken sandwich being a close second). Topped with bacon jam, extra sharp cheddar, pickled onion and Dijonnaise, the sandwich is served on ciabatta. A nearly perfect burger (though ciabatta is never the answer to, “What type of bread should I use?”), the best bites are the ones with the bright and tangy red onion.
All in all, Rockmill Tavern exudes a sense of permanence in an area of town that lost its dining anchor when Handke's Cuisine closed in 2009. If this restaurant keeps on course, serving up excellent, ingredient-driven and unaffected food, attentive service and an atmosphere that transports diners far from the city, it will become a new standard—not only for the Brewery District, but for all of the region.