Pubs in the News

The British pub has been in the news a couple of times lately, once for what it’s not, or at least not anymore, and another time for apparently what it is but shouldn’t be.

On the first front, the word “gastropub” has evidently now been exorcised from the vocabulary of the British Good Food Guide. The Independent on Sunday has the details:

But Elizabeth Carter, consultant editor for the guide, believes that the term had become a byword for an establishment’s ambitions and, at a time when pubs have been hit hard by the recession, this inflexible attitude was becoming a thing of the past. “Our feeling with the gastropub was that it was a bit of a bandwagon that a lot of people have jumped on to. A lot of chains have taken that gastropub style.

As usual, Martyn was on this story straight off, and his commentator Curmudgeon has, to my mind, hit the nail right on the head:

Perhaps it is more a case of “we are all gastropubs now” and so the term is no longer needed to distinguish some pubs from the general herd. I certainly don’t see any sign of a swing back towards a more drink-focused offer. If anything the pendulum is still very much swinging the other way.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, however you may feel about resto-wannabe pubs and places – real or imagined! – where drinkers are pushed to the side in favour of diners, the last two decades of the gastropub in the U.K. has resulted in an immeasurable rise in the quality of food offered at the average pub, and for those who might occasionally want a bite with their pint, that is an unqualified positive.

The second reference I’ve come across lately is in the usually reliable pages of Simon Difford’s Class Magazine. The latest issue features a “Hall of Shame” posting on pub cocktails:

While some have clearly upped their game in wines (including Geronimo), we still wouldn’t go near cocktails in most pubs. With the exception of a handful of venues, most pub staff we encounter wouldn’t know one end of a shaker from the other, let alone be able to differentiate a Martinez from a Martini. Apart from the attraction of higher cash margins and GP (our two highballs were £6 each), why they even bother is a mystery to us. The wider problem is they don’t exactly sell the whole cocktail concept to consumers making their first steps into mixology.

The commentary concludes thusly:

Pubs should stick to what they’re good at and leave cocktails to the experts.

Now, when I’m in a pub, I’m generally drinking ale, or occasionally a single malt. But I’m partial to a good cocktail now and again and I don’t for the life of me see why pubs should forego offering the option. You don’t have to be a cocktail “expert” to mix a decent martini or Manhattan or daiquiri, any more than you must be a beer expert to pull a decent pint.

What’s needed is not the abandonment of cocktails, but rather the training of bartenders so that they can mix their wares with precision. And so, in my estimation, rather than dissing the obviously lacking efforts of pubs like the Builder’s Arms, Difford and co. should be busy selling mixology training programs to the companies which own them. Then we can all be happy, cocktailian and beerophile together.

Wine For Pork? Try Beer Instead!

One of the organs for which I regularly toil, Nation’s Restaurant News, yesterday delivered to my in-box a story on wine pairings for pork as chosen by members of the Court of Master Sommeliers were featured.

(You may need to register to see the story, but it’s here.)

Now, I have nothing but respect for Master Sommeliers, and know quite a few of them personally. They’re smart individuals who work very hard to attain what is a most impressive credential. And I thoroughly enjoy wines of many different styles, qualities and price points, from summertime vinho verdes to status Bordeaux and Californians. But really, pork? That’s definitely beer territory.

The dishes cited range from spice-rubbed spare ribs with bourbon barbecue sauce – surely a potential disaster for even the best-case wine scenario – to pork tenderloin wrapped in bacon. And as I read through the list of their suggested pairings, one word resonated in the back of my brain: Bavaria!

It has been said – by me, and often – that the Bavarian brewer whose beers don’t pair well with pork won’t stay in business for long, and it’s something I firmly believe. Pig is close to a gastronomic religion in Germany’s south, so it stands to reason that its beers would find harmonies with pork dishes of all sorts. More so, I’m afraid, than wine. Much more.

For ribs, which is a bit outside of the Bavarian zone if familiarity, I’d pick a beer that is likewise not quite indigenous, such as pilsner, preferably of the Bohemian sort, with a greater malt content than its northern German kin, while grilled or roasted loin is a great fit with märzen or dunkel weizen.

But really, when you’re talking pork, you can pretty much safely reach for any Bavarian beer style, and for considerably less than the per case prices quoted by my MS compatriots.

Tasted!: More New Glarus

Back before the holidays, I mentioned a bunch of New Glarus beers I had received and promised more in the way of reviews a little further down the road. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to further down the road.

In a way, this is little more than a tease for most of you, since New Glarus beers are scarcely available outside of Wisconsin. But the brewery has some kind of chops, so just in case you find yourself within arm’s reach of any of these, here are some thoughts:

R&D Gueuze: This is part of the brewery’s experimental series and, according to label, has been spontaneously fermented for a year outside the brewery. The colour is a rich gold and the nose certainly speaks to funky Brett, with notes of citrus, underripe pear, oak, dried hay and herbs and a little barnyard. The body has the character of a Belgian gueuze in its dry, tart profile, but the flavours are completely different – not surprising when you consider that a whole different batch of yeasts were at work. The start is lemony and almost a bit sweet before the dryness really kicks in with a strong lemon and lime juice character carrying very restrained floral notes – rose water? – and hints of digestive biscuits and melon. The finish sees the emphatic return of lime — peel, pith and juice — with lingering herbaceous notes. A fine effort which seems to speak of Wisconsin farmland.

R&D Golden Ale: Another experimental brew, this one crafted as an homage to Orval. The nose has plenty of horse blanket notes, just like Orval, but is less dry and with tropical fruit notes lurking beneath the funk. The start conveys a lot of that fruitiness, with pineapple and kiwi notes, before drying somewhat into the body and adding both hoppy bitterness and tart spice. The drying continues into the mild to moderately bitter, still funky finish. Like the Gueuze, this is a beer inspired by Belgium but decidedly of New Glarus, in which fashion it represents some of the best of Belgian-influenced brewing in the US.

Dancing Man Wheat: I’ve had this strong (7.2%) weizen before and was only too happy to give it another go. The nose is bubblegummy with a strong sugary edge tempered only slightly by some clove notes, but the start surprisingly shows more spice than sweetness, with strong notes of clove immediately asserting themselves in advance of a fruity, malty, peppery body with complexity that stands in stark contrast to the simplicity of the aroma. I get barbecued banana, lots of clove, some white and black pepper, perhaps a bit of plummy and grapey fruit, all ending in an off-dry, spice accented finish. An impressive if unorthodox effort.

Staghorn Oktoberfest: “Wisconsin’s Real Red” is perhaps a jab at Leinenkugel, but this beer is more a deep coppery gold than an amber or a red. The nose is a rich toasted cereal grain with a hint of smoke and perhaps a whiff of hazelnut, while the body starts just off-dry wwith a suggestion of buckwheat before growing a little sweeter and faintly smoky, with a toasted rye bread character and firm maltiness. The difference between this and Munich Oktoberfest beers is the dryness and the use of toasted malt, which gives it a flavour more approaching a Vienna than a sweeter helles.

Back 40 Bock: About to tuck in to a sandwich of kielbasa and cheese, I reach into the fridge for a beer and discover…a bock, of course. What could be more natural? Deep brown with an off-dry aroma of roasted chestnuts, light chocolate, a hint of licorice and just the faintest whiff of campfire, this beer holds out promise of equal parts satisfaction and quaffability. The flavour, however, delivers on the latter but skimps on the former, with a surprisingly light body and only very modest complexity, featuring some toasted grain (à la Ovaltine), gentle nuttiness and subtle hints of roast, ending in a dry and faintly cocoa-y finish it. The label says “without pretense,” so perhaps this is what they meant to craft, but I find it lacking the excitement I expect in a bock.


My New Favourite Bar/Restaurant: Mocotó

My first meal in São Paulo, I suspect, may well wind up being also my most memorable. We took a taxi to what I was told is an ordinary, working class neighbourhood in this vast and sprawling city, where we found a “Restaurante e Cachaçaria” called Mocotó.

Utterly unassuming from the outside and in, I knew the moment I crossed the threshold of this packed palace of northeastern Brazilian cuisine that I was entering some place special. I was not disappointed.

So popular is Mocotó among the citizens of São Paulo that the sidewalk in front of the restaurant is almost as crowded as in the inside, with people sitting on a rough-hewn bench or even standing around eating and drinking, some evidently having entire meals as you would have a snack at a cocktail party, precariously balancing drink and plate and fork while trying to keep from being jostled into the street. No one complains, though.

Inside the front door, a pair of bartenders work double time muddling caipirinhas from all sorts of fruits, including indigenous Brazilian ingredients I’ve never before seen, as well as in the lime-based original form. More adventurous souls can choose from a selection of roughly 380 different cachaças, ranging from more straight forward “prata” cachaças to golden or even emerald hued spirits aged in all sorts of Brazilian and non-Brazilian woods, from arirbá to French cognac oak to umburana. (And remember that last wood; we’ll come back to it when I discuss Brazilian craft beers later on this week.)

In between my cachaça tasting – very generously orchestrated for me by Mocotó’s cachaça sommelier, Leandro Batista – I dined on a wealth of delicious dishes, from the sun-dried beef dish Carne-de-Sol Assada to small squares of fried tapioca dipped in a spicy sauce that resides somewhere between chutney and pepper sauce, and sipped the Cervejaria Colorado’s Indica IPA. (More on that brewery, too, later on, after I visit on Wednesday.)

Lunch wound up lasting about four hours, every minute of which was relaxing, thoroughly enjoyable and most memorable. There’s a reason that virtually every significant gastro-visitor to this city eventually winds up at Mocotó, and I’m very glad I was able to follow in their footsteps. If fortune brings you to São Paulo, you should, too.

For My American Friends: Thanksgiving Dinner Advice

Tomorrow being Thanksgiving and all, I’m anticipating that many of my American readers are at this exact moment wondering what to drink with the Thanksgiving turkey. Well, wonder no longer, as I am here to help.

Traditional gueuze!

There you have it. And note I am talking about “traditional gueuze,” not the sweetened stuff from the likes of Lindemans and St. Louis. I mean the marvelous elixir that is so dry and tart it can bring a tear to your eye, even two tears. Simply, where turkey is involved, there is nothing better.

Sure, a case can be made for champagne, traditional lambic’s vinous cousin, or riesling, that oh-so-versatile of food wines. Or any number of different sorts of beer, from pale ales to strong Belgian-style goldens. Or even a nice, dry cider. But to my experience, and that of pretty much anyone I’ve served the combination, nothing beats a typical, dry gueuze, such as that of Cantillon, Boon (Oude only), Drie Fonteinen, Hanssens or the difficult to find De Cam. Even non-beer drinkers and the Brettanomyces-challenged have sung its praises.

Happy Thanksgiving, America. Enjoy it with a Belgian at your table!

Biersch & Bottom Join Forces

As recently as this past weekend I was talking about the Gordon Biersch and Rock Bottom brewpub chains, how they have been successful in combining at least decent, sometimes very good beer with above average cuisine in an attractive environment. No, they’re not representative of the best in brewpubs, but they are safe and sure bets for a tasty lunch and a pretty good pint.

And now they are one.

In a deal that had been rumoured for a little while, Centerbridge Capital announced that the company has purchased both brands, including Rock Bottom’s Old Chicago chain, and will combine them into CraftWorks Restaurants & Breweries Inc. The combined company will boast almost 200 owned and franchised restaurants.

(As usual, Jay Brooks beat me to the punch on this story, so you can check out his blog for all the details of the deal.)

This is, to me, a pivotal deal because of the way each of these companies pushed the “brewery restaurant” concept over the usual “brewpub” designation, taking exquisite care in offering inventive, upscale casual fare over the normal brewpub regime of deep-fried and grilled. In this fashion, they elevated the dining with beer experience to something beyond the burger and nachos level. (Not that there’s anything wrong with burgers and nachos – I enjoy both greatly – but bar food is not what I want to eat every day and both Rock Bottom and Gordon Biersch offer attractive alternatives.)

Together, I think we can expect these operations to continue to expand the reach of craft beer, furthering the notion of combining fine beer with equally fine food. At least, that’s what they’ll do if they’re smart about it.

Us and Them

You may recall my laudatory post of a few days back in which I highlighted the impressive beer list at Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant recently named the best in the world. Well, there were more restaurant awards handed out recently, the James Beard Awards, which are rather tiresomely and continually referred to as the “Academy Awards of the Food World.” (I promise never to use that phrase again, for anything!) And the contrast between the beer lists of the winners is, I think, noteworthy.

To review, Noma features 4 pages of its 56 page wine list to a diverse and well-thought-out selection of Scandinavian craft beers, ranging from pilsner to barley wine and spiced ale to porter. Twenty-eight brands are listed in all, plus one local cider.

The winner of the Outstanding Restaurant Award at the Beards, Daniel Boulud’s Daniel in New York City, on the other hand, lists…well, no beers at all. I’m sure they have some, since even the most wine-centric of places will usually stock a bottle or two of beer for those poor, uncultured slobs who happen to by accident gain a reservation, but nowhere on their rather extensive website can I find mention of a single ale or lager, not in the 80 PDF pages of their wine list or the “Bar & Lounge” or “Menus” subdirectories.

Note that I am no beer snob. I enjoy wine and spirits and cocktails and beer with equal relish, so long as they are of quality and character. But to pander so blatantly to one or two categories – the website for Daniel does boast its cocktail list – and ignore entirely a third is, to my mind, simply bad business.

Let’s Talk the S. Pellegrino Top 100 Restaurants List

The new list of the Top 100 Restaurants in the World is out and number 1 is Noma in Copenhagen, fronted by young star René Redzepi. He cooks with local produce, creating what might be thought of as true Nordic flavours in an idiosyncratic style, and according to many of the usual pundits, it’s a worthy dethroning of Adrià and El Bulli.

That’s what everyone is talking about. Here’s what they’re not.

Noma has a beer list that would put almost any top rated restaurant in the world to shame! Check it out over here, pages 45 to 48. Pale ales, pilsners, IPAs, stouts and porters, barley wines: all Danish or Swedish, all craft or close to craft. (Carlsberg’s Jacobsen Brewery figures thrice in the barley wine class.) All impressive.

Great food, evidently the world’s best, with great beer! Now that’s something we all can drink to!!

Todd English’s Past Bites Him in the Ass

I received a press release recently from the people representing famed New England chef Todd English, touting his new Las Vegas Venture, Todd English P.U.B., which apparently stands not for Public House, as it does over ‘ome, but Public Urban Bar.

Says said release: “One of the highlights at Todd English P.U.B. is more than 50 international bottle, keg and cask beers including rare finds such as Van Diest Fruli Strawberry, Rogue Chocolate Stout and Strongbow Cider.”

Uh, Todd, that’s all fine and dandy, but aren’t you the same chef who a while back was touting the virtues of Michelob? The guy suggesting that we pair it with a flaming dish of something or other, never mind whether the beer could stand up to the flavours or not?  And now we’re to trust your attempts at some erstwhile gastropub-like thingy on the Strip?

Ah, but wait a minute, reading further I glean more:

“The fun begins at the top of the bar, equipped with signature Todd English hourglasses that encase only seven seconds of sand. Down a draught in seven seconds, and the pint is on the house. Guests can challenge their neighbors at the bar to the hourglass drinking game.

Todd English P.U.B. would not be complete without bar games including magnetic dartboards, and beer pong tables. The bar area is also adorned with several plasma TV screens, making Todd English P.U.B. ideal for big game viewing while patio dining.”

So P.U.B. is not about beer and food and the joys of combining the two after all. It’s about chugging beer and playing beer pong. Now I get it. As you were.

We Interrupt This Trip for the Following Observations

  • Sink the Bismark.” Oy! Will these boys never stop? Next up, almost for certain: 42%+ from Schorschbräu.
  • I like the new Ranger IPA from New Belgium. Not unconditionally, but in a surprised, “hey! this is from New Belgium?” kind of way. And I like this video, in an admittedly cheesy, lowbrow, white-guys-rapping kind of way. Jeff Alworth does not.
  • And speaking of Mr. Alworth’s observations and opinions, “a little brand-forward for my tastes”? As if craft brewers should be above marketing their beers? C’mon, Jeff, it’s a mature market out there and surviving means selling.
  • Those who are regularly asking me about craft distilling and how to learn it should check out the American Distilling Institute’s 7th Whiskey & Moonshine Distilling Conference at Huber’s Starlight Distillery in Borden, Indiana, from May 2 – 5, 2010.
  • I’m not in the habit of giving gratuitous ink to upcoming events, but this cheese and beer dinner in West Chester, Pennsylvania, looks too good and too good a value to pass up. If you’re in or planning to be in the area, and you’re not lactose intolerant, you owe it to yourself to check it out.

Me and Michelin

In the premiere issue of Beer Connoisseur magazine, which you should still be able to find on some magazine store shelves – or subscribe here! – I wrote a story headlined “Bettering Beer & Food,” in which I sang the praises of several good food pubs in London. (Not necessarily gastropubs, I hasten to add, despite the editor’s addition of “The Rise of the Gastropub” as a sub-head on the story. Rather, I wanted to highlight pubs which simply had excellent food.) Among the places I noted are the Warrington, the Fox & Anchor, which also features terrific accommodations, and the Harwood Arms.

Now, remembering that last name, click here.

Yep, the Harwood Arms is the first pub in the British capital to achieve a Michelin star. And best of all, they did it with simple, unfussy food, well-prepared and presented, period. No pomposity, no pretence, and a sizable area maintained for those who just want to pop by for a pint or two, even at prime seating times.

Congratulations to the Harwood Arms! And Michelin inspectors, if you want any further insights, please feel free to drop me a line.

Iconoclasts United

In the wake of a relaxing Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, I open my email to find some serious icon bashing has been taking place while I’ve been stuffing myself with turkey and two types of stuffing. And I’m inspired to join in…

1)      David Chang I don’t really know, but Anthony Bourdain I’m quite familiar with, so when the two of them headline a beer-fuelled bitch panel at the New York Wine & Food Festival, I’m interested in the results. The profanity-laced report is here, and my vote goes along with Chang on Guy Fieri and people who take pictures of their food at restaurants. But really, how can anyone hate cupcakes…?

2)      The Times Online reports that German food writer Jörg Zipprick has taken on the molecular cuisine of über-star chef Ferran Adria from Spain’s El Bulli. The problem is, he takes issue with a supposed “health danger” inherent in Adria’s ingredients rather than the smoke-and-mirrors of his cuisine. (Disclosure: I have not actually tasted Adria’s food, but have sampled sufficient dishes inspired by him to say I find far more interest and enjoyment in the taste of my food than its gimmickry.)

3)      A press release received this morning notes that “draught masters” from 32 countries will compete in New York this October 29 for Stella Artois’ “World Draught Master” title. Please. The ability to pour and serve a proper beer according to its style, whether from the tap or bottle, is something which deserves encouragement on many levels, for certain, but the so-called  “9-Step Belgian Pouring Ritual” for Stella is nothing more than a promotional crock.

There. I feel better now.