When Fine Dining Calls For Fine Beer
A fervent beer lover I know was sitting in a multi-starred restaurant. He’d made his food selection, and was studying the drinks menu. After glancing at the beer list, he scanned the wine pages before calling the sommelier.
“I was looking for something in a jug red,” he said.
“I beg your pardon?” asked the startled sommelier.
“You know, maybe a wine that comes in a box,” explained the diner.
“I’m sorry sir,” said the sommelier, offended, “We only stock fine wines that complement our cuisine.”
The diner swooped in for the kill. “Then why do you have such terrible beer choices?”
No restaurant worth its Zagat rating would maintain a wine selection that consisted of a half dozen brands of white zinfandel. Yet many beer lists are exactly that: several different breweries’ interpretations of a single style, the ubiquitous light lager. What an opportunity lost.
Modern high-end restaurants and specialty beer breweries have much in common. Both take pride in using only the best ingredients. Flavor takes precedence over convenience. Both charge accordingly high prices, and cater to sophisticated audiences willing and able to pay those prices.
In recent years, top breweries and restaurants both have combined tradition with audacious experimentation. And both are at ease expressing local identity: these days, the best brewers, like the best chefs, create something that is far more than a faithful European knock-off.
Specialty or craft brewing shares so many characteristics with fine food that Italy’s Slow Food movement immediately recognized the affinity and often showcases such beers at Slow Food events.
So it’s puzzling that great food and great beer are so rarely found in the same place here at home.
For the most part, good beer exists alongside mundane food: burgers, pizza, wings and smothered nachos are staples of American brewpubs and multitaps.
There are, of course, exceptions where the food aspires to the quality of the beer: Hopleaf in Chicago; RFD (Regional Food and Drink) in Washington, DC; beerbistro in Toronto, or Monk’s Cafe in Philadelphia. These are “beer-centric” restaurants, whose owners appreciate that wonderful beers deserve great food.
But what about the opposite: how often do restaurant owners realize that great food deserves wonderful beer?
Beer and the Restaurant Experience
Many fine restaurants play up their wine selections, but hide their light under a beer barrel when it comes to other beverages. Patrons may not realize that good beer is even available, or that it would make an excellent choice with the fare. Food lovers are so accustomed to wine with a meal that diners and restaurant reviewers alike may not expect or notice that an excellent restaurant has—in addition to fine food and an extensive wine list—a strong beer selection. Restaurants don’t help when they make no mention of beer as an alternative.
Boston’s No. 9 Park, owned by Barbara Lynch, touts its wine program, yet it has attracted attention from beer lovers in the know for the quality of its beer selection. Ryan McGrale runs the beer program, which he admits is a fraction of the restaurant’s business.
But the dozen beers he stocks are all sought-after examples of the dozen different styles they represent. Diners asking for a Budweiser will be steered to a Jever pilsner, with its bitter finish, or a Brooklyn Lager. McGrale stocks the hefeweizen from German brewer Aventinus (“a richer, yeasty wheat beer”), Harpoon’s well-structured IPA, Maudite from Unibroue (“wonderful with hearty meats or sirloin”), Duvel (“what a wonderful food beer”), and Saison Dupont.
Large bottles of Cisco Whale’s Tale Pale Ale or Chimay Grand Reserve make an elegant statement that is completely at home in No. 9 Park’s Beacon Hill setting. And diners looking for unusual flavors to finish the evening can choose between a stout from De Dolle Brouwers, Lindemans Framboise, or Melbourn Brothers Apricot Ale.
“Lots of bars in this city have amazing beer lists. People come here to a famous place because they’re into the restaurant experience. The kitchen is preparing amazing food, our wine list is excellent: our beer selection should be, too.”
It Starts with the Chef
Traditional culinary training equips budding chefs with a basic-to-good understanding of wine, but beer is rarely part of the curriculum. Never the less, a number of celebrity chefs have reputations as “good beer guys,” according to Wendy Littlefield, co-founder of Belgian beer distributor Vanberg and deWulf. She cites Rick Moonen, Emeril Lagasse, and Charlie Trotter as examples of chefs who appreciate—although they may not sell—beer.
And she notes a natural appeal beer has for professionals: “Most chefs don’t drink wine at the end of the night: it’s too heavy. They drink beer.”
When a chef takes the lead in bringing great beer to the customers, the public notices.
Greg Higgins makes every beer expert’s list of beer-savvy chefs. Higgins Restaurant in Portland, OR, is nationally known for promoting fine local beers and Belgian ales along with its fresh, Northwest cuisine.
Beer dean and Portland resident Fred Eckhardt traces the origin of a well-known beer concoction: “Greg Higgins invented the stout float I have gotten so much mileage from.” At the restaurant, Eckhardt says, “He simply promotes Belgian and other wonderful beer imports, plus local and nationally known craft beers, and has an excellent draft beer list.”
Higgins’ sommelier Warren Steenson is equally enthuaiastic: “Greg Higgins is one of the most knowledgeable chefs I know. His love of edibles and drinkables is unlimited, and that includes beer. People don’t want a Bud and a steak; they are looking for true pairings of beer and food.
With over 125 beers on offer, it’s difficult to single out favorites. “It’s the little guys I really appreciate,” says Steenson. “Their beers might offend people who aren’t ready to get their feet wet, but these are wonderful beers, worth taking a chance on.”
Part of the Landscape
It’s hardly surprising that Higgins has made his mark in Oregon. In that part of the country, it’s almost impossible not to have beer on the menu. The Pacific Northwest is where the modern American beer revolution began, and beer lovers there are among the country’s most knowledgeable.
Further north, in Seattle, Charles Finkel, who was responsible for introducing American audiences to many previously unknown European selections, balked at naming individual restaurants that excel at presenting food and beer.
“A restaurant? Can I name the whole city? You can’t go to a restaurant in Seattle without a few micros and some nice imported beers, and staff that have a basic understanding of beer and how to make it part of a pleasurable experience. Beer is a profit center and a part of fine dining here.”
Several restaurant groups in the region are committed to bringing beer to the table. Of the four restaurants that make up the Tom Douglas Restaurant Group, the Palace Kitchen is probably the most beer friendly, while still committed to good food.
While more bar-oriented than the white-table cloth Dahlia Lounge, the Palace Kitchen maintains the founder’s commitment to using fresh local ingredients in unusual combinations. Chef Sean Hartley Hartley cites the house-made venison sausage with cornichon as an ideal companion to a dunkel weizen ale.
“We serve hearty-flavored food,” says Hartley. “We have six taps, most featuring Washington and local Northwest beers. Tom recognizes the charm of local products. He believes you should promote the people around you.”
“Beer’s just part of the landscape here. You just expect to have some nice choices.”
A Fresh Look at Beer
Green Zebra confounds expectations: in meat-loving Chicago, this largely vegetarian restaurant has won accolades and an enthusiastic following. With its spare, modern interior and fresh, sophisticated menu, it may seem like the least likely place to order a beer, but Green Zebra understands that beer offers many more flavor possibilities beyond light lager.
Principal partner Sue Kim-Drohomyrecky explained, “The main thing is to find beers that are as appropriate to our food as possible, as well as beers that are different and new. I wanted to give our guests a different spectrum of beer choice.”
What will a diner drink with dishes such as like avocado panna cotta and chilled organic beets with a creamy mascarpone foam?
“The flavors [at Green Zebra] are fairly pure, the preparations are well thought-out, but they are simple ones that enhance the qualities of the food itself. In the beer, I looked for delicacy, complexity, and high acid: something bright and sprightly.”
Kim-Drohomyrecky described Green Zebra’s “two-tier” beer program: we have a few well-recognized beers: Goose Island Pilsner, and Stella Artois, a crisp classic.
Then, there is a short but creative list of more exotic brews. Kim-Drohomyrecky selected Hitachino Red Rice Ale, which she described as “sake-like, very tart, with nice acidity and a hint of strawberry.” Vuuve, a Belgian wit beer has “beautiful fruit, with citrus and spices.” She picked Mestreechs Aajt, a Flemish red ale for its “good amount of tartness, a hint of sour cherries, lightly tart, even a little chocolate.”
We didn’t go for porter or stout: they’re too heavy for our menu,” she continues.
The beer choices have worked so well Kim-Drohomyrecky has started a similar program at Spring, the longer-established restaurant that is also co-owned with chef Shawn McClain. There, the larger beer list includes La Chouffe and the hard-to-find Italian craft beer Nora from Le Baladin. “It tastes a little like balsamic vinegar,” adds Kim-Drohomyrecky, referring to the beer’s deep, aged complexity.
Top Taps in New York
Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery, is one of the most visible advocates for beer’s place at the table. He praises Gramercy Tavern in New York for understanding the versatility of beer, and beer’s ability to complement the tavern’s eclectic New American cuisine. “Gramercy Tavern was voted a top restaurant in New York in Zagats. They have a serious wine list, and an excellent beer list: 12 taps, and a great bottle list selling at premium prices that people are glad to pay.”
At Gramercy Tavern, the beer and food partnership is fully matured. General manager Kevin Mahon waxes as enthusiastic about beer as wine.
He tackles the problem restaurant managers grapple with: what to offer the high-end diner who asks for a mundane beer.
“We like to promote local breweries that are doing such a terrific job. Carol Stoudt in Pennsylvania has a damn good pilsner, no other way to say it. We’ll steer people to that beer who come in asking for a Bud or an Amstel Light or a Heineken—or we’ll steer them to a Staropramen if they’re in the bar. The idea is that if they ask for a Bud, or Heineken or Amstel Light, Michelob, Corona, we have something in that ilk, but from a smaller, boutique producer, something with a little more character that they’ll enjoy more.”
Gramercy Tavern features Anchor Liberty Ale, Victory Hop Devil, Unibroue Maudite, the Abbey Ale and Monster Barley Wine (served in appropriately smaller glasses) from Brooklyln Brewing Co., and Rogue Chocolate Stout on draft, as well as an impressive bottle selection.
“For the already-converted who know they like beer, the staff does a great job. For example, someone knows Chimay, and knows they enjoy Belgian beers. If the Chimay may be a little heavy for a dish, we have a wide spectrum and can suggest an alternative.”
Mahon reserves his greatest enthusiasm for beer and food combinations. “We’ve discovered that some beers go especially well with certain dishes, We paired scallops with sauterne jelly with Éphémère from Unibroue—it was almost too much! With roasted meats, I love more robust ales—Corsondonk Brown or Schneider Aventinus, with all that dark fruit.
But the home we’ve really found is beer with cheese. J.W. Lees Harvest Ale has a vinous character; it’s sweet, rich, and high in alcohol. With put that with a double or triple cream cheese or by itself, it’s fantastic. Or we’d suggest one of the lambics. They have the fruit quality of a red wine, with the acidity and effervescence to be the ideal palate cleanser with cheese.”
Diners know that Asian fare is usually a tough match with wine. If they offer anything beyond American mainstream beers, Asian restaurants naturally stock the beers of their home country: Tsing Dao with Chinese food, Sapporo with Japanese, Singha with Thai.
However, these national beers are all basically the same German-derived pilsner style, which arrived in the respective countries centuries after the cuisine was well established. Some are tasty, but nothing is sacrosanct: there is plenty of room to experiment.
The fact that Japanese beer lovers are major consumers of the idiosyncratic beers of Belgium hints that there is potential in this cross-cultural pairing, a potential that has been spotted by a tiny San Francisco restaurant.
The House is a small Pan-Asian gem among the Italian restaurants that dominate San Francisco’s North Beach. The décor is spare and thoughtful; the cuisine borrows from both China and Japan, as well as California.
Jeff Anderson buys wine and beer for The House. Although he stocks a couple of regional beers and a European pilsner, most of his beers are Belgian or Belgian–styled.
“I find Belgian beers go really well with the food we have. Doing fusion cuisine, the flavors are bolder, but clean; they match up with the complexity and richness of the beers. People are looking for interesting styles of beer.”
“The richer styles like Ommegang go well with fish dishes. The malty sweetness can balance the spicy ginger and soy. In wines, I carry a lot of Rieslings and lighter reds, but beer and sake are often a much better match.”
The beer list also includes Unibroue’s Blanch de Chambly; and a wide selection from New Belgium in Colorado, including the acidic black beer 1554; the earthy, citrusy Bière de Mars; and the fresh raspberry-filled Frambozen.
Beer and White Tablecloths
In the world of beer and good food, missed opportunities abound. Otherwise wonderful restaurants ignore beer completely, or fail to give decent beer selections any visibility.
The obscurity of beer may reflect financial concerns: wine is generally a more profitable beverage for restaurants than beer. However, the conventional wisdom that applies to single bottles of mainstream beer breaks down when restaurants include rare imported or microbrewed beers on their menus. Granted, the finest beers never approach the stratospheric prices of the finest wines, but if a table of four decides to match gourmet beer with each course, the cost won’t be too different from the cost of mid-range wines.
In search of a larger role, beer is up against a circular logic that says that diners at fine restaurants don’t want beer, therefore it is not a priority for the restaurant, therefore good beer is not available for discovery by diners or restaurant staff.
The restaurants that break out of that cycle appreciate that the beer list should match the expectations set by the food menu and the wine list. The successful restaurants can build on a tradition of beer with food, or explore new synergies, but the emphasis is on exciting flavor combinations. Conventional beer drinkers are offered a chance to “trade up” from a mainstream beer to a more flavorful alternative; while knowledgeable beer lovers have a selection of that needn’t be long, but is of impressive quality.
Gramercy Park’s Mahon reflects, “We’re not necessarily championing beer, because nobody’s following. You can’t beat people over the head with this. Before you can experiment with beer and food, you need to experiment with beer. Until you’ve tasted cooked dark fruit flavor in a beer, or green apple acidity in a beer, or vintage beers that age in the bottle like wine, you’re not aware of the amazing range. So much passion goes into making these beers, they really are the alternative and complement to the wine list.”
Julie Johnson Bradford
Julie Johnson Bradford is the editor of All About Beer Magazine.