Sunday, January 3, 2010

Birch and Barley: A Night of Firsts

Last night was a first for us: a tasting menu paired with not wine but beer. We had reservations at the uber-popular Birch and Barley, a newcomer to the Logan Circle neighborhood. Our timing was fortuitous, as last night was the first time the restaurant was offering a beer tasting menu.

While I had been looking forward to sampling some of the 50 beers on tap and tasting the breads and dessert selections profiled in the Post write-up, I did not anticipate this experience. And B thought he was in for a night at a glorified brewpub. I am happy to report he was wrong.

Before I delve into our dinner, a bit about the interior. The gutted and redesigned space feels like a trendy Manhattan restaurant that has somehow managed to strike the right balance of chic and modern without being cliche. The room is a rich brown; a long dining room leads back to an open kitchen, all of which is lit by tiny orbs on the ceiling and glowing candles on the wall. The infamous beer organ divides the kitchen and chef's table area from the main dining space.

I am glad I had made reservation because the place was packed, and that is to say nothing of Churchkey, the bar upstairs, which was bursting at the seams with beautiful people. And no, I am not being vain, as we ate downstairs : ).

B and I were seated right at our reservation time and promptly greeted by a very friendly and knowledgeable beer-guy of a waiter. His knowledge of both the separate food and beer menus was impressive. The former changes nightly, and the latter offers 50 beers plus 5 cask ales in either a 4 ounce tasting pour or a full serving. Alcohol content, size, and the proper glass are all indicated on the menu.

We were overwhelmed with the size of the list, but I loved that all beers could be sampled. We decided to take decision out of night though and go with the tasting menu. If you click on the image below, you will see a detailed description of the offerings.

Without a doubt the best part of the whole experience was that the beer director Greg Engert walked us through each pairing. Greg's understanding of the history of each beer varietal was fascinating and we really enjoyed the descriptions of their origins; it seemed that we got a crash-course last night in the history of beer making throughout the world. And I will admit, I was also thinking, wow, what an awesome job to have.

Back to the food. The bread plate has been much lauded. The kitchen is run by a husband and wife team: he focuses on the savory, she on the sweet. The bread was in fact mostly great, all served warm. The Kalamata olive rolls were our favorite, followed by the pretzels. Both were crispy on the outside with a warm, doughy center and just the right amount of salt. The mustard that accompanied the tray was a miss with a bitter taste and a sour finish.

The first course was the best: Island Creek oysters in a green apple mignonette paired with a Japanese beer aged in sake casks. The oysters were exquisite and smooth and the slightly acerbic yet darkish beer paired well.

Next, it was onto a seared sea scallop with Israeli couscous and lemon confit. This flavorful, light starter #2 was paired with a Belgian brew from a tiny producer that literally converted an old garage into the brewery. While I was afraid the wheat beer would overwhelm the scallop, it had a smooth clean finish which worked very well.

The next course, roasted poisson (baby chicken) with spaetzel stuffing was rich and savory. But the drink that went with it, an Italian brew modeled after African beers, was like nothing we had ever tasted. It was musky, with hints of a seasonally appropriate myrrh, complex, and complimented the chicken. We also learned that Birch and Barley was serving this beer on tap for the first time ever in the United States.

Next came an earthy, tender venison loin served with a cranberry, chestnut wild rice stuffing and paired with another, but much darker Belgium. The venison was executed well and the heartiness of the meat was a welcome dish on such a frigid night.

The dessert was an apple beignet with cider sorbet, paired with a domestic beer from Vermont that is made (at least this is what I remember Greg saying) with an amber base, wine grapes are added, and finally champagne yeast rounds out the flavor. It sounds strange, but Greg's enthusiastic description was right on. As for the beignet, I would have preferred less apple and more doughnut, but I am unabashed lover of carb-laden desserts.

As noted earlier, the service throughout this leisurely two hour meal was impressive. And the stories and background on the dishes that Greg provided were such a treat. I also enjoyed having the opportunity to taste such one-of-a-kind beers alongside some thoughtfully prepared dishes. I can't wait to go back and bring friends--and request the tasting bar that abuts the open kitchen--to enjoy this experience again.

I do have one criticism that has nothing to do with the food, drink, or service. That would be the frigid temperature of the bathrooms. A little heat would go a long way.

The five course tasting dinner for two with beer parings, tax, and tip was $185.

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