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Fine dining, fine brewing: great beer and food create great synergy

Contemporary fine dining restaurants and specialty beer breweries have several points in common. Both take pride in using only the best ingredients. In concept, flavor takes precedence over convenience, and accordingly, both charge higher prices and cater to sophisticated audiences willing to pay those prices.

In the U.S., upscale operators and specialty brewers also combine a grounding in tradition with some audacious experimentation. And both are finding financial advantages by expressing a local identity, they deliver an experience that relies on a sense of place for some of its pleasures.

In fact, specialty or "craft" brewing shares so many characteristics with fine food that Italy's "Slow Food" movement often showcases American craft beers at their events.

So it's puzzling that great food and great beer aren't more often found in the same place here at home.

WHERE GREAT FOOD, BEER ARE PAIRED

Excellent beer thrives in many small brewpubs and multi-tap bars where the food may be uninspired: great beer is as likely as not to be paired with wings and smothered nachos. There are exceptions: Hopleaf in Chicago; RFD (Regional Food and Drink) in Washington, D.C.; beer-bistro in Toronto, or Monk's Cafe in Philadelphia offer the diner innovative fare alongside a terrific beer selection. These are "beer-centric" restaurants, where the owners appreciate that wonderful beer deserves great food.

But what about the reverse: how often do restaurant owners realize that great food deserves wonderful beer?

No restaurant worth its Zagat rating would maintain a wine selection that consisted of a half dozen brands of white zinfandel, and yet many beer lists are exactly that: several different breweries' interpretation of a single style of beer--lager. However, there are perhaps 70 recognized styles of beer made today, from delicate to robust, to suit all manner of dishes.

The most natural meeting place for fine beer and food is in the regional cuisines of the world where beer already plays a role. Belgium, with the world's most diverse beer culture, has the most highly developed cuisine a la biere. Adjacent regions of France are also more oriented to beer than wine, and French Alsatians welcome beer to the table as an accompaniment to their traditionally hearty food.

THE FRENCH CONNECTION

The Alsace connection is evident at the two Brasserie Jo restaurants in Chicago and in Boston's Colonnade Hotel. Chef Jean Joho draws on his background in French casual food for a menu that includes coq au vin and cassoulet.

Since "brasserie" means brewery, it's fitting that the beer selection includes Hopla, an Alsatian-style pilsner brewed exclusively for the restaurant. "People like the idea of a house beer," says bar manager Randy Farber, "then they taste this and they love it. They keep coming back."

Brasserie Jo stocks beers in another half-dozen styles, from refreshing German wheat beers to authoritative Belgian monastic beers. There's not a single mainstream American beer on the menu.

European country cuisine may seem to be the most natural fit with fine beer, but in Chicago, Green Zebra, primarily vegetarian, has taken a different approach. Its spare, modern interior and fresh, sophisticated menu may seem like the least likely place to order a beer, but Green Zebra owners understand that beer presents many more flavor possibilities beyond the yellow fizzy stuff.

Principal partner Sue Kim Drohomyrecky explains, "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 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," says Drohomyrecky.

The beer list is short but creative: a Belgian "white" beer spiced with coriander and orange peel; a Flemish red ale with a tart character and a hint of sour cherries; and a Japanese red rice ale, beer with a sake twist.

SUGGEST A BEER

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 ordering 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 total business.

But the dozen beers he stocks are all sought-after examples of the various styles they represent. "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."

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. There is 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 may 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 that needn't be long, but of impressive quality.

NYC's Gramercy Tavern's general manager, Kevin Mahon (see sidebar) 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."

RELATED ARTICLE: Gramercy Tavern's Way With Beer

Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery, is one of the most vocal advocates for beer's place at the table. He praises NYC's Gramercy Tavern for understanding the versatility of beer, and beer's ability to complement the establishment's eclectic New American cuisine. "Gramercy Tavern was voted a top restaurant in New York in Zagat's. 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," Oliver says.

At Gramercy Tavern, the beer and food partnership has fully matured. Kevin Mahon, general manager, waxes as enthusiastic about beer as wine.

He tackles the problem many restaurant managers with unique beer lists grapple with: what do you offer the high-end diner who asks for a well-known beer?

Mahon responds, "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. We have something in that ilk, but from a smaller, boutique producer, something with a little more character that they'll enjoy more."

He reserves his enthusiasm for beer and food combinations. "We've discovered that some beers go especially well with certain dishes, but the home we've really found is with cheese. J.W. Lees Harvest Ale has a vinous character; it's sweet, rich, and high in alcohol. We 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."

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