Black Star Co-op is the antithesis of what we expect from collectivism carried to the extreme. When strong-willed individualists unite for a common goal, when everybody's an equal and nobody's voice is left unheard, what you're likely to get is a bureaucratic stalemate, or at least a restaurant-wars episode of "Top Chef."
This is a brewpub at the intersection of egalitarianism and excellence (and near the Crestview station of the Metro Rail). It's practically a set-piece from "Atlas Shrugged." Like Ayn Rand's idealists who retreated from mediocrity to an overachievers' country club, the people who've bought a membership stake in Black Star Co-op have carved out their own individualist utopia, except that for the price of a pint, everybody's welcome.
This is a euphoric time to be a beer drinker in Austin. The yeasty froth of Real Ale, Live Oak, (512) and Independence has spawned Jester King, Thirsty Planet and Circle Brewing, and you can drink house-brewed beers at Uncle Billy's, North by Northwest, the Draught House and Lovejoy's.
Black Star joined the party in September, almost five years after Steven Yarak decided it'd be cool to have a bar where the regulars owned the place. The movement snowballed to include organizers Karinne Thornblom and Dana Curtis, kitchen leaders Michael Holland and Johnny Livesay and brewer Jeff Young. Yes, and several hundred others, possibly including you.
Co-op membership starts at $40, but you don't have to join to eat or drink. You will, however, have to adjust to the no-tipping policy. Says so right on the menu: "We are proud to pay all of our workers a fair and livable wage. Consequently, (we) have decided to not adopt the practice of paying a gratuity."
Black Star could easily hug itself to death without you. The food has no reason to be this good. The staff has no reason to be this relaxed. The pub has no reason to feel this public. Except that it is, they are and it most certainly does.
Let's start with four of Black Star's beers:
High Esteem:Blond and austere, crisp and dry. Like Mika Brzezinski from "Morning Joe," but with a sense of humor.
Double Dee:Sweet and flowery, bordering on soapy. The first one to be kicked off "The Bachelor," if the bachelor were a blue-collar bar.
Vulcan:Cordovan-colored rye ale that's hoppy, balanced and ... logical. Let's face it, Mr. Nimoy, you saw that one coming.
Recalcitrant Dockhand:Beer people are a sesquipedalian bunch, so this pint of sudden malty midnight gets an English-major's name that rolls up its sleeves and dares you to call it "just a porter."
The tap portfolio changes, but it might include Thirsty Planet's Silverback Pale Ale to help save the gorillas, who were in the house one night to promote a costumed Gorilla Run. Or Live Oak's Old Treehugger barleywine. Or Jester King's Commercial Suicide, a beer that looks and tastes like coffee and toast.
What do you say when even the beer nuts ($3) are worth a double-take? Clearly, they started as a sheetpan of molten toffee, studded with mixed nuts, then dusted with powdered chili pepper. Break it up, throw it in a dish and you have ... a snack? dessert? the latest sensation from Williams-Sonoma? Who expects performance from beer nuts? Beer nuts, that's who.
Even the snack plate is an exercise in free will. Pick as many as five things from among three categories: cheese, pickles and meats. It's $8 for one person and plenty to share. Here's one example: a spoonful of creamy Texas goat cheese with orange-anise marmalade, slices of smoked gouda, a small dish of escabeche (spicy pickled cauliflower, onion, carrot and jalapeño), mottled slices of dry chorizo from the Austin company Salt & Time and a Black Star head cheese with beer mustard and cornichons.
Yes, I said "head cheese," a thick slice of cold amber gelatin studded with meat in all sizes and forms with the texture of Spam but the taste of top-shelf deli. Just spread it on bread with mustard and a bite of sweet pickle. Try it. There was a time in your life when you wouldn't eat pâté or Brussels sprouts, either. This is how our taste horizons expand.
Black Star's already hit the thousand-order mark with its burger and fish and chips. They're brewpub absolutes, and the burger ($9) plays its role with meaty sensitivity but only half the star power of the alabaster fish ($9), steaming hot in a perfect beer-batter shell that shatters on impact without sliding away. Each comes with a side of chips, the potatoes cut like snowpeas and surfboards, their broad, tanned faces sprinkled with salt and garlic.
The shrimp were almost raw on an appetizer of shrimp and grits ($8) and the aroma was off, but the taste and texture came together with a garnish of shallot and serrano on three square grit cakes with the right mix of cream and crunch. I wasn't moved by chicken pot pie ($10), because its comforting core of monochromatic herbed gravy and tender bird was smothered by an immovable manhole cover of a biscuit, so resistant to knife and fork and Milwaukee Sawzall that we had to lift it from the bowl and break it apart by hand.
But two dishes reinforced Black Star's understated brilliance. One was a humble bowl of chili ($7), the kind our cattle-driving forebears would claim without shame. Just rangy cuts of beef and pork, coated red as Beelzebub's blush with chili powder. It's as arid and expansive as a desert sunset. Have them put Fritos in the bottom of the bowl. Just don't tell our forebears.
Finally, what's a dish of braised pork on sweet-potato mashers with creamed collard greens ($13) doing on this menu? I'd say it's reinforcing the fact that beer is worth the same fetishizing and food pairings as wine. With the scent of anise lacing through the meat, the stealthy heat of chipotle in the potatoes and the greens' bitter edge, we could have a fine debate over who sits at our right hand: Mr. Spock, the gorilla, Mika or that tense fellow in the denim workshirt.
This last thought is just for the Black Star brewers, cooks and staff: You don't have to work this hard to get people to drink beer. The fact that you do anyway? No tip jar's big enough.
Black Star Co-op
7020 Easy Wind Drive, Suite 100, at the Midtown Commons near Airport and North Lamar boulevards. 452-2337, www.blackstar.coop .
Rating: 9.0 out of 10
Hours: 4 p.m. to midnight daily
Prices: Snacks $3-$8. Salads $5-$8. Sandwiches and burgers $7-$9. Main courses $8-$15. Desserts $5-$6.
Payment: All major cards
Alcohol: Four to six Black Star housebrewed beers, starting at $4 a pint. Twenty more beers on tap, including at least one from six local breweries, at $4.50-$6.50 a pint. Samplers of four five-ounce glasses are $6.50-$7.50. More than 25 additional beers by the bottle or can.
Wheelchair access: Yes
What the rating means: The 10-point scale for casual dining is an average of weighted scores for food, service, atmosphere and value, with 10 being the best.