The so-often-mentioned-by-me “golden triangle of beer” in Central PA has become a trapezoid. That is my official position after spending Saturday night at Elk Creek Cafe + Aleworks in Millheim, PA. Tim Bowser, an owner, joked with me that perhaps it is now more like the Bermuda Triangle, which may be true as people taking the time to visit Selin’s Grove, Bullfrog and Otto’s will be drawn into the center to take in Elk Creek.
The PLCB came through late last Friday, and Elk Creek had a quiet opening. Sam Komlenic reported the details of his visit and tour to Lew Bryson, but because of a heavy work and vacation schedule last week and my focus on Christmas shopping and Firkin Friday at Selin’s Grove, I wasn’t keeping up on my reading. I learned about it via text message this weekend, and just happen to be staying less than 30 miles away so I jumped on the opportunity and my parents came right along.
Knowing the area well, I was surprised by the metropolitan flair of this place (the last great restaurant in the area – The Hummingbird Room – closed in 2005.) It’s a few doors down from the quaint Millheim Hotel where, at least when I was growing up, the salad bar is in a claw-foot bathtub (another interesting fact – this circa 1794 hotel is haunted by the mistress of President Millard Fillmore.) It, too is a fun spot to dine, but it’s charming in a small-town kind of way.
From the large windows of the Elk Creek Cafe, I watched at least three Amish horse and buggies pass by the other two restaurants on the main street – Brownies Valley Tavern and The Pizza Shop. Their polished black boxes connected by strong wood and leather strappings to a single horse offered a glimpse of women and children wrapped in blankets and men in suspenders and black dress hats. I challenge you to name another brewpub where you can see that!
Elk Creek Cafe + Aleworks is located in the former Equinox Cafe location – it can’t be missed in such a small town, but just in case you decide to visit, the intersection is routes PA-45 and PA-445 (the only stoplight in town) and the address is 100 W. Main Street. The street view is full floor-to-ceiling windows and the brightness of the interior lights up the downtown. It has a beautiful yellow glow, which reflects off the honey wood floors, and colorful displays artwork throughout the restaurant add an interesting aspect to the otherwise simple decor. There is a real feeling of openness to the restaurant – we weren’t crowded, although the tables were nearly full.
We did not sit at the bar, but it looked very nice with the handmade cherry and iron barstools. The beer menu was on the table, and a chalkboard presentation of the beers and specials was on the wall. The food menu was printed just for the weekend, and I assume this will be a trend, as they feature fresh, local products (seen in italics where I’ve copied the menu at the end of this post.) In addition to “fresh and local”, this place features some of my other favorite buzzwords: organic, smoke-free and vegan. Chef Mark Johnson describes the his preparation style as Nouveau Dutchie Cuisine.
Brewer Tim Yarrington, who was dining two tables away with his family (but I was too shy/polite to interrupt them), has outdone the Penns Valley beer scene with his nice selection of ales. I didn’t ask if there are plans to put on a cask, but heard there are plans to expand the number and variety of offerings. I also am left wondering about the ABVs and IBUs… Five beers were on tap yesterday, served in 5 oz glasses for $1 or pints for $3.95. The selections were:
Winkleblink Ale– a light, perhaps kolsch-style, ale named for a nearby mountain. On the map, you will see it as Winklebleck Mountain in the Bald Eagle State Forest (the Mid-State Trail crosses this mountain when hiking from Hairy John’s picnic area to Raymond B. Winter State Park), but because of a lighted tower, the locals know it as “Winkleblink Mountain.” The name is a bit esoteric, and should they ever look to rename it, let me offer up “Winklebleck Light.”
Great Blue Heron Pale Ale – an American Pale Ale that didn’t quite meet my expectations for flavor. It was lighter in color and lacking in the hop flavor and aroma that I expect in a Pale. This is not to say I didn’t enjoy it – I did – I just didn’t like it enough to indulge in a pint.
Elk Creek Copper Ale – this is the kind of flavor I’m looking for in a session beer. It had a stronger hop profile than the Pale, and the darker color was visually more appealing. Toffee sweetness complimented the floral aroma. Elk Creek, by the way, is an important area waterway which once hosted mills and now provides recreation through kayaking and fly fishing.
Brookie Brown Ale– the big surprise of the night! Pop usually avoids browns (too sweet!), but based on the description, decided to try it. His first pint was a mis-pour of the Copper and he had to send it back, so when the Brown arrived looking much like the Porter, we suspected another mistake. Not so! This did not have the hop aroma or full-bodied roastiness of the porter, but the chocolate and caramel malts kept the flavor strong and the color dark. It was an excellent and atypical brown ale.
Poe Paddy Porter– nostalgia abounded in the name alone, and then we tasted this beer based on Tim Yarrington’s GABF award winning porter recipe. It is a perfect porter – dark, smooth and roasty with an extra hint of hops in the aroma and the finish. It could only be better if only it were on cask… I had my pint of porter with desert, and it really complimented the bread pudding (a small slice of bread pudding (which didn’t have the taste or texture of old bread!) topped with raisin sauce, citrus zest and vanilla ice cream.) Poe Paddy is a favorite local State Park on Penns Creek and near the Paddy Mountain Railroad Tunnel, which is a favorite Mid-State Trail day hike or bike ride for our family.
Our meals were just as good as the atmosphere and the beer. We started with the chicken liver toast – a lovely pate preparation best shared by the three of us. It was a wonderful treat that melted in my mouth. Pop had the Steak Frites (a pasture-raised grilled strip steak served with steak butter and a generous portion of fries with aioli.) Nana had the pasture-raised burger, also served with the hand-cut fries. I had the potato-crusted wild Alaskan salmon, which was balanced over roast beet cubes and topped with horseradish sour cream and chives. It was perfect in flavor, but the presentation was lacking (dramatic, yet it looked lonely on such a big plate – a few greens or something scattered on the side would make all the difference!)
Our only real complaint was the waitress assigned to our table. The other wait staff seemed to be very friendly and efficient, but ours was inattentive, extremely soft-spoken, and generally not prepared to work with the public.
Two things I neglected to do is find out a phone number for this place, and whether or not they fill growlers. All of my searches for phone numbers come up with numbers for the Equinox (it rings busy at all times), and two personal phone numbers which I found on things like the State Inspection report. I’ll want to know those things eventually.
If I lived near Millheim, I would visit at every opportunity. As a beer traveler, I hope to get back as often as possible.
- Cream of Broccoli + Parsley w/ Cheddar Soup
- Elk Creek Flatbread + Hummus w/ Kalama Olives (vg)
- Belgian Style Hand-Cut Fries + Elk CreekAioli or Tofu Mayo (vg)
- Olive Salad Bruschetta (vg)
- Mac + Frank + Fontina
- House-Cured Gravlox + Poppy Crackers w/ Dijon Drizzle
- Local Apple, Bacon, Cheddar + Baby Lettuce Salad
- Roast Beet Salad w/ Toasted Caraway Vinaigrette (vg)
- Mixed Baby Greens, choice of Vinaigrettes (vg)
ELK CREEK ENTREES
- Pasture-Raised Burger + Hand-Cut Fries w/ Elk Creek Aioli
- Roasted Pepper + Marinated Portabella Sandwich w/ Hummus Mayo
- Valley Ham + Swiss on Gemelli Ciabatta
- Fillet of Beef Salad w/ Grilled Gemelli Ciabatta, Mixed Lettuces + Roasted Peppers
- Bucatini w/ Elk Creek Puttanesca (vg)
- Pasture-Raised Grilled Strip Steak + Fries w/ Elk Creek Aioli + Steak Butter
- Butter-Basted Over the Moon Farm Chicken w/ Broccoli + House-cured Hog Jowl + Potato Gnochi
- Tender Callahan Pork Shoulder + Pork Belly w/ Butter Beans + Roasted Root Vegetable
- Skillet Trout w/ Crispy Potatoes in a Brown Butter, Capers, + Lemon Pan Sauce
- Potato-Crusted Wild Alaskan Salmon, Horseradish Sour Cream + Chives w/ Roast Beets