Sour Beer: The Belgians Must Be Crazy

I don't like sour beers.

Why should I? In the litany of adjectives used to describe beer -- hoppy, malty, sweet, crisp, floral, roasted, spicy, refreshing, clean, dry, light, pale, dark -- none are so off putting as sour. Sour says there's something wrong. Sour says spoiled.

We've all had or heard about "skunked" beers. It's what happens when beer is exposed to light too long and goes bad. You know what the predominant flavor of "skunked" beer is? Sour. Beer is also susceptible to infection. What does an infected beer taste like? Yup, a soured beer.

So how have sour beers hung around for 1,000 years and what am I doing trying to like them?

My biggest problem is I'm a beer geek. I love everything about beer. I love to drink it, I love to learn about its history and the way it's made, and I love making it at home. As an enthusiast, I like to think I have a pretty sophisticated palate. While there are certain styles I prefer -- India pale ales and English bitters -- I like to think I can find the merit in any style. I can, save one: sour beers.

They're nasty and that's frustrating. Is it me or the beer? Are all these sour beer enthusiasts just screwing with me, or is my palate merely pedestrian?

I encountered my first sour beer, Duchesse de Bourgognes, a few years ago. It was a neat looking bottle with a Medieval broad on the label, so I decided to give it a go. When I got home, I popped the cork, poured a pint and took a nice big sip ... of the NASTIEST FUCKING SHIT (really, what is this?!!) I'd ever poured in my mouth. Rather than the familiar sweet and malty flavors I'm accustomed to in dark ales, I had a mouth full vinegar.

16520015 My wife, who likes vinegary things, said the beer tasted like Worcestershire sauce and refused to drink it. I struggled though a couple more sips until she said "Do you really want a beer bad enough to keep drinking that?" No I didn't. With that, my inadvertent foray into sour beers began and ended.

However, I haven't been able to completely get away from them. Sour beers originated in Belgium, and D.C. is a Belgian beer town. I also consume too much beer-related media, so I've read, watched and heard a lot about sour beers and how wonderful they are. Yet, every time the subject of sour beers is brought up, it comes with the same caveat: they're an acquired taste (which usually means it is tastes pretty shitty, but you'll get used to it).

So I got to wondering, is it possible to learn to love the unlovable? Can I acquire a taste for sour beers? I don't know, but I decided to dedicate a couple posts to the pursuit. If it turns out that I can, then anyone can.

The thing about sour beers is they are among the most interesting of all beers. Sour is an umbrella term that refers to Flemish red and brown ales (Duchesse de Bourgognes is a Flemish red ale), and lambics. Among lambics, you have gueuze, faro, mars, kriek, framboise, peche, casis and muscat beers. You could even include beers made with brettanomyces yeast among the sour beers. Brettanomyces, or brett, is the scourge of wine makers, but a favorite yeast strain for many American craft breweries producing sour beers (The Bruery, Jolly Pumpkin, Russian River, Allagash, Odell, and Victory, to name a few).

Sour beer is like no other style of beer. Obviously, the flavor is unique, but the way the beers are made is also unusual. Traditional lambics are one of the oldest styles of beer in the world. They're made in open vessels to allow wild yeast -- and whatever else is floating around -- to drift in and trigger spontaneous fermentation. Flemish red and brown ales are made by blending freshly brewed beer with beer that's been allowed to sour in infected barrels. Speaking of infections, brettanomyces is difficult to work with and can infect every beer in a brewery if the brewer isn't careful, yet it seems to be the latest trend in craft beer. 

Bill Catron is a Belgian beer knight, which makes him an expert on these sorts of things. Yet, I have trouble believing him when he says things like "sour beers are kind of like the Gatorade of the beer world." Seriously? Yup, the sour flavor, he alleges, is thirst quenching.

Because these beers are different and because there is an audience for sour beers, Bill said breweries are willing to specialize in them and in some cases risk infecting the rest of their product line to produce them.

16520019 To better understand sour beers, and to reacquaint myself with the Duchesse, I sat down with Matt LeBarron, Granville Moore's beverage director, who agreed to do a sour beer tasting with me (yippee).

"Not everyone's palate is the same, but those who love (sour beer) really love it."

And what about those who don't?

"It's an acquired taste."

For the tasting, I told Matt I wanted try the beers a sour beer enthusiast would order. Nothing easy, nothing for the novice. He responded with Petrus Aged Pale, St. Louis Gueuze Fond Tradition, Ommegang Zuur, Rodenbach Grand Cru, Monk's Café Flemish Sour Ale, Hanssen's Oudbeitje and, at my request, Duchesse de Bourgognes. If you order any of these beers at Granville Moore's you will be asked if you know what you're ordering. If you order a Stella, you get a Stella, no questions asked.

Still, it was the most interesting beer tasting I've ever experienced. If I learned anything, it was that not all sour beers taste the same.

16520018 Hannsen's Oudbeitje was revolting. The lambic was horrifically sour, extremely tart and dry as a litter box. I found it physically difficult to drink. Matt said Oudbeitje reminds him of white wine or Sweet Tarts (Matt obviously drinks some messed up white wine and has never tasted a Sweet Tart). On the other hand, Monk's Café was sweet, smooth and faintly sour. By far, it was my favorite of the evening. The menu at Granville Moore's says Monk's Café is the Dr. Pepper of beers thanks to its many subtle (read: enjoyable) flavors. Not surprisingly, Monk's Café was the most popular of the beers we tried.

The other beers fell somewhere in between. Duchesse de Bourgognes still tastes like something you'd put on steak rather than drink with it, while the Petrus was, well, dry. That's it, just dry. Think brut Champaign without the flavor or rainbows without color. Rodenbach Gran Cru had a similar balsamic vinegar flavor as Duchesse de Bourgognes, but more restrained, so other flavors, like caramel and dark cherries, came through. I didn't love the beer, but I could stop drinking it.

The gueuze was the biggest surprise. I've heard gueuze beers described as tasting like old sweat socks, dank locker rooms, Band-Aids, and wet barns, so I expected the worst. Instead, I found it tart and very dry. It wasn't my favorite, but it wasn't that bad. Unlike Oudbeitje, I could understand why someone would like the occasional gueuze beer.

"Most people will not have these as their go-to beers, but those who do have them will have them from time to time," Matt said.

Bill is one of those people. For a guy who's recognized for his broad knowledge of Belgium's many beer styles, his favorite is the nicheiest of them all.

"I think (sour beers are) one of the most interesting beers in Belgium."

Matt is much the same. When I asked him what his favorite beer was, he pointed to the Zuur, a Belgian-style Flemish brown ale that I found sour, dry and tart.

16520024 As for me, I still don't like the Duchesse, but I do like Monk's Café. I also have a better appreciation for sour beers. If nothing else, I now know that not all sour beers are the same. Far from it, in fact.

For the next post, I'll be talking to Franklin's brewer Mike Roy about the sour beers he's making in the Hyattsville brewpub and trying a few beers that might make the transition to sour beers a little less bumpy.

Autumn Menu: Grilled Tenderloin and Fall Hash

Whoever decided that Labor Day marks the end of the "grilling season" has never stood in front of a warm Weber on a crisp fall afternoon. Between the football and the drop in temperatures, fall is a fantastic time of year to cook outdoors.

The change in seasons also changes what I like to grill. The fish, shrimp and seafood that grill in the summer is replaced by lamb, pork and heartier cuts of meat. Roasted tomatoes and young garlic are replaced by sauteed brussel sprouts, and roasted turnips and potatoes. Despite the fact that my house has central heat, I plan meals like I have to stay warm in a yurt.

Much of this is due to the fact that vegetables like tomatoes are no longer in season, while brussel sprouts are just coming on. But I can get either product all year. No, the real reason is the trigger the weather flips. I no more want shepherd's pie in August as I want ceviche in February. 

That being said, pork tenderloin is my meat of all seasons. It's easy to cook, flavorful as hell and a relatively cheap cut of meat. A few years ago, when my wife and I lived in North Carolina, a lot of pork tenderloin moved through our little Chapel Hill apartment. She was going to grad school and I was working a couple jobs to help make that happen, so a four pound tenderloin that could feed us for several days was a household favorite.

DSCN5692 Now that we're into the fall, I like to pair the tenderloin with a seasonal hash of carrots, apples, onions and potatoes. You could even swap out the potatoes for squash or pumpkin, or just add it to the mix. I also add a bit of bacon to punch up the flavor and because I like bacon. A poached egg works real well, too.

To go with the dish, I like brown ales and dark beers. Honestly though, any fall seasonal would work. We've moved from the light, refreshing pilsners and pale lagers of summer to the darker, richer beers better suited for fall and winter.

In fact, I've been sitting on the bottle of Autumn Maple from The Bruery that I picked up in August. I bought it with this post in mind, but it was also just too damn hot at the time. Who wants a sweet, malty high alcohol (10.5%) beer when it's 96 degrees outside? Screw that and pass the hefeweizen.

To make this Belgian-style dark ale, the Placentia, Ca., brewery uses yams - lots of yams - molasses and spices, including cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice. The result is deeply rich, spicy ale that's just a bit sour and more than a bit sweet.

DSCN5717 If you can't find a bottle of Autumn Maple or just want to try something else, grab a six pack of Sierra Nevada's Tumbler brown ale. The craft brewing community has gone wild for big, hoppy India Pale Ales during the past few years, but Tumbler shows that the heavy weights of craft beer do other styles of beer just as well (that said, Sierra Nevada's Tornado Extra India Pale Ale is an outstanding hoppy beer).

So grab a coat and get outside, there's grilling to be done.

Grilled Pork Tenderloin and Fall Hash
(Makes six servings)

DSCN5681 1 4-5 pound pork tenderloin
1 apple, Granny Smith or similarly crisp apple, diced
4 carrots, pealed and diced
6 potatoes, diced
3 cloves of garlic, diced
2 red onions, pealed and diced
3 strips of bacon, fried and diced
1 lemon, halved
1 egg, poached (optional)
Salt and black pepper

Generously season the tenderloin with salt and pepper, and set aside while you prepare the grill. For this recipe, you'll need two zones - one hot, one cool - so you can sear the tenderloin before allowing it to cook slowly for 90 minutes.

When the grill is ready, sear all sides of the meat until brown and then place the tenderloin on the cool side of the grill with the fat cap up and close the lid.

As the pork cooks, prep the rest of the ingredients, making sure the apples, carrots, potatoes and onions are diced the same size so they cook at the same rate. The dice should also be small, so it cooks fairly quickly.

After the pork has been on for an hour, place a pan on the sideburner or on the grill and fry the bacon. Remove the bacon from the pan and add the diced carrots, potatoes, garlic and onions, and season with salt and pepper. Sautee for 20 minutes or until the potato browns and softens (as an alternative, you can sautee the vegetables for 10 minutes and then stick the pan on the grill for 10 minutes). Add the diced bacon and apple, and cook for another 10 minutes. Remove everything from the pan so the apples don't overcook.

DSCN5696 (If you want to add a poached or fried egg - and you do - now is the time to cook the egg.)

After an hour and 20 minutes, the pork should be about ready to come off the grill. Using a meat thermometer, the internal temperature should be 165 degrees. If it's fully cooked, allow the meat to rest for 10 minutes before slicing. Before serving, squeeze a little lemon on the pork.

And if you haven't already, pop open the beer and enjoy.

Dr. Granville Moore's: Best Beer Bar is Belgium on H Street

Every bar is the same: four walls, one roof and booze to drink. What differentiates one from another, importantly, is the atmosphere inside.

A good bar will have a good atmosphere. The beer, the liquor, the food, all that's secondary. The people around you and the people serving you will determine whether you stay or you go.

Then again, sometimes you go because you're an idiot.

Halloween 2008, my buddy Columbo and I walked up to Dr. Granville Moore's from my old apartment on Capitol Hill. The Belgian restaurant looked as it always does: the low ceilings of exposed timber, the knotty wood bar backed by elegant beer cabinets and chalkboards advertising food specials and beer. Amongst it all was a hive of people feasting on mussels and emptying glasses of golden ales and Flemish reds.

66020001 What I remember most, though, was our bartender. Decked out in a little pink cowgirl hat and little jean shorts, she asked if we liked whiskey. We said "Yes ma'am," unhesitatingly. With that, the three of us and a waiter hanging out behind the bar shared a round of American bourbon ... gratis.

I loved it. A generous moment with strangers, free whiskey, and those short shorts. Man, those short shorts. Without a doubt, it was the highlight of the evening. Then we made the biggest mistake of the night, we left. The night was too young, so after a few beers and food, we decided to check out a couple other places. Nothing was as good. We peaked early and the rest of the night was a slow let down.

On a recent Saturday night, my wife and I stopped in for a beer. The hectic energy of the Halloween night was replaced by families and twenty-somethings drinking quads and dining on the signature mussels and fries. We sat at the downstairs bar between a couple guys pouring over pints and a punch bowl of fries, and a 10-year-old girl and her family having dinner.

Both nights were great.

I know I rant about families and food in bars. I still prefer my drinking establishments to be drinking establishments, not family-friendly eateries. But this is what a pub looks like in Europe, at least the ones I've visited. The Belgian gastropub may have been designed with New Orleans in mind, but the creaky floors, tight spaces and dim lighting give the H Street restaurant an appropriately older feel. It may be in Northeast, but it feels like Antwerp.

66020019 Again, that's just the trappings. Disney can get the trappings right. What seals it for Granville Moore's is the people on either side of the bar. Three years in, the place remains one of the most popular destinations along the increasingly crowded Atlas corridor. Certainly, some of the folks filling the booths and bar stools are tourists and Food Network fans hoping for a pot of Chef Teddy Folkman's (left) blue cheese mussels and maybe a glimpse of the man himself. But the rest, the bulk, are a healthy mix of neighborhood regulars and beer enthusiasts.

Assisting them all is a hurried group of servers and bartenders who are happy to take the time to sherpa you through the beer list, steering the wary toward the safe (Stella Artois) or the adventurous toward something new (St. Louis Gueuze), all the while getting jostled in their tight confines.

Before D.C. fell hard for craft beer, it was infatuated with the Belgians. In 2004, Bart Vandaele opened D.C.'s first Belgian restaurant, Belga Café, on Barrack's Row. Three years later, Dr. Granville Moore's and Brasserie Beck followed suit. And then came Marvin, Et Voila, Sur la Place, and now Mussel Bar in Bethesda.

Clearly, there are a lot of places to spend your money on Trappist ales and croque monsieur, but there's no better place to do so than Dr. Granville Moore's. This is a bit if a surprise if you consider that with the exception of Marvin, it's the only Belgian restaurant that isn't owned or affiliated with someone from Belgium. Yet, it's easily the best Belgian beer bar of the lot.

Joe Englert is a prolific bar and restaurant owner, who's responsible for several places along H Street, including The Argonaut, Palace of Wonders, The Rock and Roll Hotel, The Red and the Black, The Pug, Sticky Rice, and the H Street Country Club.

Englert's managing partner in Granville Moore's, Chris Surrusco, built the original beer list and recruited his college buddy, Teddy Folkman, who was running the kitchen at Balducci's and had no experience with Belgian cuisine.

Keeping the theme going, Granville Moore's new beverage director, Matt LeBarron (sitting next to Teddy), grew up in Annapolis working in his parents' butcher shop. Aside from talking his father into stocking a few Belgian beers, LeBarron had no experience with Belgian beer before Granville Moore's. After working as a host and server for six months, LeBarron was given the keys to the beer cabinets and told to update the beverage program.

If you know anything about Belgian beer, you know that developing a beer list can be difficult. First, most people don't know much about Belgian beer. Second, there are hundreds of styles of beers produced by hundreds of breweries in a country about the size of Maryland. Add to that the growing number of American craft breweries that make Belgian-style beers and you have and bewildering variety of beers to build a list from.

66020011 So far, LeBarron's approach is to keep the core list of 40 or so bottles intact, keep the seven taps rotating at a break-neck pace (with the exception of Stella, the beers change multiple times per week) and add more than a dozen 750ml bottles and branch out into French ciders and meads. In the next several months, he hopes to double the bottle selection (a daunting challenge seeing that he already stores cases of beer in the dining room). LeBarron has instituted training classes for the staff and he's hosting beer dinners that bring Folkman out of the tiny kitchen and into the crowded dining room.

Above all else, though, LeBarron's job is to keep the customers happy. Case in point: if you don't like your beer, you can send it back, even the wine-bottle sized 750s. This doesn't mean much if you're dealing with a $3 Coors, but when it's a $16 Rochefort that's a nice touch. LeBarron said he'd rather replace the beer and eat the cost then have someone go away unhappy. And the thing about Belgian beers, it's easy to drop $20 on a beer you'll hate.

For example, just because you like the sweet clove flavors of a Delirium Tremens doesn't mean you'll enjoy the face-puckering qualities of a Monk's Café Flemish Sour. A Poperings Hommel farmhouse ale might look like a Gouden Carolus tripel, but it sure doesn't taste like it.

To minimize the buybacks, LeBarron and the bartenders will warn customers about what to expect, especially if someone is transitioning from a pint of Hoegaarden to a bottle of Duchesse de Bourgogne (they're very different). But if it's a sour you want, it's a sour you'll get.

Despite the complexity of Belgian beers and the proliferation of American craft beer bars in the area, Belgian restaurants are as popular as ever. On weekends, you can still face an hour wait for a table at Granville Moore's. Robert Wiedmaier, who opened the Belgian-themed Brasserie Beck in 2007, is drawing crowds to his newly opened Mussel Bar in Bethesda.

Folkman chalks up the popularity to the fact that the District is a city of transplants, many of whom are open to new experiences. D.C. residents are also a traveling bunch, so it's not unusual for someone to come into Granville Moore's looking for a beer or a meal they enjoyed in Brussels.

Whatever the reason, places like Granville Moore's and Belga Café set the stage for the American craft beer craze now thriving in D.C. Belgian beer gave us a foundation to build on, an identity. As with any trend, craft beer and Belgian beer will eventually surrender the floor to the next big thing. When that time comes, it will be the quality of the service, the loyalty of the regulars, the atmosphere that will keep a place like Granville Moore's alive.

As long as Folkman and LeBarron keep doing what they're doing, Granville Moore's will be just fine.

That's not to say there aren't a few things to nit pick.

66020013 First, LeBarron does need to expand the beer list. What they have is good, but with so many Belgian beers available, the list could be many times larger. I'm not suggesting adding 200 labels, but LeBarron needs to find room for another 40 to 60, even if that means Englert rents them some off-site storage. That would put them in the same range as Brasserie Beck, arguably their chief rival.

That expansion could include a few more Belgian-style beers made here in the states. Had LeBarron kept the beer list Belgian only, I'd be fine with it being Belgian only. But he opened it up to the Americans, so he should take the opportunity to further explore what's available. The handful of American offerings seems unduly small. Organizing them on their own beer list or chalkboard would also help customers differentiate between what's made in Belgium and what's inspired by Belgium.

And how about some signage out front? Obviously, Granville Moore's doesn't have a problem drawing customers, but I've walked by that beige row house numerous times without realizing it. I now use The Pug next door to let me know when I've arrived. I'm all for preserving Dr. Moore's legacy, but I think he'd be fine with dangling a shingle out front.

Score: 15 of 20 (beer: 6 of 8, atmosphere: 4 of 5, bartenders: 4 of 5, other elements 1 of 2)

The Best Beer Bars so far: The Black Squirrel (16 of 20)  Birreria Paradiso (17 of 20), The Galaxy Hut (16 of 20), Franklin's (14 of 20), and Rustico (16 of 20), Lost Dog Café (12 of 20). And don't miss our special feature on D.C.'s best German bars.

(Bonus!: New to Belgian beer and not sure what to order at Granville Moore's? LeBarron says you should consider a Houblon, a hoppy triple that he describes as "Belgian candy," a Saison Dupont, a cloudy gold farmhouse ale with a crisp, dry flavor, or the malty and robust Maredsous 8. If you don't like one of these, you don't like Belgian beer.)

Grilled Quail and Beer by Ferran Adria (hint: one is better than the other)

There are a million recipes, but when it comes to weekend grilling, most of us fall back on the familiar: beef, chicken, pork and fish.

Even with the variety of ways to prepare these protean staples, they can get a little redundant. So every now and then it pays to branch out. In this case, I'm getting quail.

Unless you hunt, the only time most of us encounter quail is in white table cloth restaurants. They're a nice alternative to chicken, though due to the fact that they're all dark meat, quail are closer in flavor to duck (not quite as rich). What I especially like about quail, though, is that I don't have to share.

DSCN5522 There's just something about devouring an entire animal (and its friend) in a sitting. Staring down at the pile of bits and bones, whether they be fish or fowl, it's pleasing in a primitive sort of way. If you must, you can eat quail with a knife and fork, but the birds are small enough to necessitate getting your fingers dirty.

That's when you're really in the spirit of things. Pulling the meat from the bone as warm fat, olive oil and lemon season your fingers, it's a moment more backyard than brasserie. And that's why I decided to pick up a few of the small birds from Market Poultry.

The diminutive size of the birds also means you're not going to be spending all afternoon at the grill. But because of the haute connection, it's a dish that impresses.

I don't want to spend a whole lot of time messing with the quail, so I dress them simply with olive oil and grilled lemon. Like I said, the bird is all dark meat, which is rich and flavorful. Why get in the way of that?

Keeping with the Mediterranean theme, I served the quail with warm pita and tabouli salad, both of which I bought. Seriously, I'm keeping it simple.

DSCN5525 To accompany the meal, I picked up a bottle of Inedit, made by the Spanish brewery S.A. Damm for none other than famed Spanish chef Ferran Adrià. Adrià put molecular gastronomy on the map and his restaurant el Bulli has produced such chefs as Denmark's René Redzepi and our very own José Andrés.

Despite Adrià's culinary success, I was skeptical about the beer. Adrià is known for his skill in the kitchen, his culinary vision and his very exclusive restaurant in Catalonia, Spain. The only thing he exports to the world is talented chefs. The beer seems like something dreamed up by marketers and accountants to take advantage of the popularity of craft beer. It's made by a brewery that's best known for its popular lager, Estrella, and partially owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev, a corporate behemoth better known for hostile takeovers than quality beer.

Frankly, Adrià's beer seems like a gimmick, but I don't know for what. Is it meant to draw attention to a restaurant none of us will visit or a chef that none of us will meet? If you visit Inedit's Website (yes, it has it's own Website), you can find tasting notes, instructions on how to serve it (thus the white wine glass), and a series of incredibly pretentious videos in multiple languages.

On the other hand, the 750 ml bottle of Inedit was $10 at Whole Foods, so the price alone makes it worth trying.

The first thing that jumped out at me was the fact that the beer wasn't a traditional light lager. The Spanish love beer, but they primarily drink pale lagers. Inedit is more of a witbier, equally refreshing in hot climates like Spain, but more popular in Belgium and the U.S. According to the fancy booklet tied to the bottle, the beer is a lager/wheat blend. The 4.8 percent beer pours a cloudy straw color. It's crisp, a little sweet, with a faint orange peel flavor. For a $10 beer, it's good.

DSCN5515 But that's the thing. It's just good. Why would one of the most respected chefs in the world go out of his way to put his name on a beer that's just ok? If it's a first step toward a few tapas joints in Barcelona, then I'm not sure I'd want such a pedestrian beer to be my flagship. In one of the promotional videos, Adrià says Inedit fills a need for a proper beer to accompany food. That's ridiculous, of course. The variety of traditional Eurpean and American craft beers being made today - including Belgian witte beers - more than fills whatever gap Adrià and S.A. Damm allege.

Don't get me wrong, it's a good beer. But when Ferran Adrià produces a beer, you expect something great. On the other hand, it's $10 a bottle, and that's the important thing. Ignore the self-important black and white photo on the dangling brochure, ignore the pedigree, and just enjoy a good beer at a good price. Because once you start thinking more about it, it only gets worse.

Grilled lemon quail
(Makes four servings)

DSCN5505 8 semi-boneless quail, two per person
1 lemon, halved
4 tbs. olive oil
1 tbs. balsamic vinegar
Salt and black pepper to taste
Pita bread
Tabouli salad (optional)

This is a very fast recipe. The birds take 10 minutes to cook, so you'll probably spend more time getting the grill ready.

DSCN5514 As you're heating up your grill, pull the quail out of refrigerator and season both sides of the birds with salt and pepper and two tablespoons of olive oil. Grill the birds directly over the hottest part of grill for five minutes per side with the lid down. Grill the lemon halves for the full 10 minutes slightly off the hot spot.

Remove, dress with the hot lemon juice, remaining olive oil and balsamic, and eat ... with your hands.

Mussel Bar: First Impressions

Mussel_Bar_ChefsIn the months, weeks and finally days leading up to the opening of Mussel Bar, Robert Wiedmaier's new restaurant in Bethesda, you could hear people talking on the street about it. "I can't wait for that place to open!" I heard groups of people say as we passed by. People were definitely looking forward to this place opening.  It's been a long time since a new restaurant like this came in Bethesda. The last one I can remember is Redwood, and we all know how that went.  

Anyway, Mussel Bar finally opened on Thursday, after pushing back the opening day from Wednesday. Another reason I could tell it was long awaited? The already hour-long wait when Amy and I arrived Friday night at barely 6:30. Luckily, the small bar was no more than one level of people deep so we were able to get a beer and wait it out. We heard the wait times increasing, one hour and ten minutes, 1 hour and 20 minutes, until when we were finally seated, 1 hour and 30 minutes. Not bad for it only being your second night open.

When you first enter the restaurant, the aroma of the mussels and all the broths is intoxicating. Someone should bottle this as a perfume/cologne and sell it. There is not much of a waiting area, so you are forced to congregate around the bar, which isn't very large itself. Overall, the entire restaurant seats a maximum of 125 people, which makes me think there will be many long waits in the future for people.

Tap_listAs with most of Robert Wiedmaier's restaurants, beers, not wines, are the focus. A small selection of draft beers is available, with a large (not Brickskeller large) selection of bottled beers. On tap Friday night, were Brabo Pils, Delirium Tremens, Gouden Carolus Hopsinjoor, Gouden Carolus Tripel, Kasteel Rouge, and Kasteel Donker. Prices for the draft beers range from $7 to $13, which was a little pricey in my opinion. At least that's what I thought at first, until I tried the Gouden Carolus Tripel and realized what I'd been missing all these years. While we were waiting at the bar, a guy came up and ordered a Bud Light. "Sorry sir, we don't have Bud Light," the bartender said. 

"Do you have any light beers?" he replied.

"No sir, we don't." 

(I'll leave the any further beer analysis to the likes of Drew and Rob since they know a lot more in this area than I.) 

Once we were finally seated, everything went pretty smoothly, particularly for a new restaurant getting so thoroughly slammed on its second night open. Our waiter explained the menu, which was not too complex. There is a small selection of salads and soups ranging in price from $7.50 to $15. It was way too hot out for soup, so we chose a couple of light salads; one with roasted beets, grapefruit, cumin, herbed yogurt, and a confit of lemons and raisins, and the other an asparagus salad with a poached egg and bacon. Both were very big successes 

Mussels_at_mussel_bar Of course, Mussel Bar has moules frites and are all $16. The mussels are all “Blue Bay” Prince Edward Island mussels, which is what you would expect. There are also some wood-fired tarts, which are basically flatbreads/pizzas, and some sandwiches. If you're looking for something on the larger side, there are three entrees including a short rib bolognese pappardelle available in a full or half portion, a grilled strip steak, and a grilled Atlantic salmon. that range in price from $22 to $24.

We figured getting anything other than mussels on our first visit would be criminal, so Amy and I both ordered our own. Amy beat me to ordering the wild 'shroom preparation with pancetta, Parmesan, and truffle cream, so I went with the "classic" mussels with garlic, shallot and white wine broth. The staff deliver the mussels in piping hot cast iron pans. Upon placing them on the dining table, the staff took the covers off the pans and oh, man, it smelled so good. We took deep breaths and then dug in. I was loving the "classic" mussels I had ordered, but after trying Amy's 'shroom mussels, mine just seemed outright bland. I think the added touch of truffle is really what made them stand out. 

Mussel_Bar_frites The mussels themselves were cooked well, but my only complaint is that there were a good deal of mussels with a tiny amount of meat inside. The frites were very crispy and made for good dipping in the mussel broth as we ate. Although, I would not say the frites are classic frites that follow the fry and bake cooking approach, but thought they were delicious.

We skipped dessert because we were full, and the dessert selection is not especially tempting. You have a choice of vanilla or chocolate ice cream and a vanilla creme brulee. While Amy is a big fan of creme brulee, she was way too full to eat anymore.

Overall, our first visit to Mussel Bar was very successful and we'll definitely be going back. I only hope that things calm down a bit in the coming months and the wait goes down. If the wait scares you, you probably want to get there on the very early side, or try a weeknight (although not Monday night -- they're closed).

Mussel Bar
262 Woodmont Avenue
Bethesda, MD 20814

A Restaurant By Any Other Name Is Not a Gastropub

Gastropub: (British) A public house that serves high-quality food.

This Wiktionary definition is the best I could find for gastropub, but it's illustrative enough. A gastropub is generally understood to be a public house (read: bar) that serves equally high-quality food and beer. In other words, a place you're just as likely to go for a few great beers as a nice meal. The concept hasn't been around all that long, but it has certainly found traction here in D.C.

Well the term has found traction, the establishment of actual gastropubs, not so much. Jamie Leeds (above) is the co-owner and executive chef of one of D.C.'s two gastropubs, Commonwealth. Granville Moore's on H Street, is the other. I would be just as inclined to visit either for a few quality ales as I would their upscale dishes. 

Yet, a Google search of the terms "gastropubs" and "D.C." pulls up a number of restaurants that either refer to themselves as gastropubs, or are referred to as gastropubs. Againn is clearly a restaurant. So is Brasserie Beck. Both have good beer selections (Beck's selection of Belgian beers is excellent, in fact), but the small bar areas, large dining rooms, showcase kitchens and raw bars (is that a new trend, too?) indicate that these places were designed to be restaurants, not drinking establishments. Rustico, which was named D.C.'s best gastropub in 2008 by the City Paper, could be a gastropub, but Beer Director Greg Engert and the management of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which owns Rustico, are very clear about the fact that it is very much a restaurant.

48580022 This also goes for the NRG's beer palace, ChurchKey. One floor below is Birch & Barley, ChurchKey's sister establishment. Executive Chef Kyle Bailey offers several dishes that could be served in any white tablecloth dining room in the District, including pan-roasted skate and braised pork cheeks. But because burgers and flatbreads are the focus up stairs, ChurchKey is not a gastropub (though, the deviled duck eggs with duck pancetta and sweetbread dishes nearly do the trick). And though Birch & Barley diners have access to all of ChurchKey's 555 beers, the six seats at the bar are an excellent indication that this is a place geared toward diners, not drinkers. Fortunately, no one at NRG refers to either establishment as a gastropub, so there's no issue here.

Unfortunately, that hasn't stopped Urbanspoon. The restaurant review Web site lists ChurchKey and Birch & Barley as gastropubs. It also lists, Againn, H Street Country Club (you know, the place with the mini golf) and Scion in Dupont Circle as gastropubs.

Therein lies the problem; the more people misuse the term, the less meaning it will have. As Leeds puts it, the term gastropub is becoming the new bistro. Beer is trendy now, and the gastropub concept is closely aligned with it. And like the term bistro, gastropub is the exotic new concept. It's British, and right now things that are British are nearly as trendy as beer. So why call your restaurant a restaurant, when you could call it a gastropub?

On the other hand, it's fair to ask what difference does it make what a restaurant calls itself. Without a true definition, gastropub is more of an adjective than a noun, so it describes establishments rather than defines them.

The thing is, I like gastropubs. Back in 2004, my friends Emma and Tom turned me on to gastropubs during a trip to London. They lived around the corner from The Junction Tavern, a beautiful old pub in London's Kentish Town neighborhood. The Junction specializes in real ales from local breweries and offers an upscale seasonal menu. It's a model gastropub, and a fantastic one at that. Ever since then, I've been very interested (maybe a little giddy) when a new one opens up in D.C. -- and disappointed when it turns out to be just another restaurant.

To gain some clarity on the subject of gastropubs, I e-mailed David Bulgar, a reviewer for the British pub review Website, Fancyapint. David has visited his fair share of gastropubs.

So David, what's a gastropub?

58290018 "I think most English drinkers would define a gastropub as a pub that focuses on restaurant quality dining, often serving modern British cuisine. Some gastropubs manage to operate as a good place to simply go for a pint as well as food, while others kill the drinking experience by looking and feeling to much like a restaurant, not a pub."

Maybe Brasserie Beck does fit the definition. But as he said, the establishment should be as much a pub as a restaurant.

When Commonwealth opened in 2008, D.C. finally had its own gastropub. The decor is a nod to the concept's British roots (though not necessary for a gastropub), but more importantly, the beer list is solid, with a respectable mix of British and American craft beers on draft and in the bottle, as well as pair of handpumps mounted on the bar. Keep in mind, Commonwealth came along a year and a half before ChurchKey and its five handpumps opened its doors. Like the Junction, the food coming out of the kitchen struck the right balance between traditional pub fare and smart, upscale cuisine. Given all the Irish bars we have around D.C., I know not to expect anything more interesting than the perfunctory shepherd's pie or fish and chips, and an ice-cold Smithwicks. Leeds, however, offers a menu of local, organic, sustainable dishes and pints of real ale.

And it's because of the attention Leeds and her business partner Sandy Lewis pay to the beer program that makes Commonwealth as much a drinking destination as a dining spot.

As David said, this is what separates gastropubs from restaurants.

58290023 A gastropub, he said, is "first and foremost a pub. It will have all the features of a pub, i.e. a bar, an area for simply drinking, without the need to order food. An English drinker will be able to distinguish between a bar, a pub and a restaurant a mile off. Pubs are generally older, serve a range of ales and lagers on tap, and have simple wooden chairs and tables, maybe a pool table and or dart board, and sell crisps and nuts as snacks; bars tend to be newer buildings, the often do not serve draught ale, and commonly only serve bottled lagers, they will have more modern furnishings, and would not have darts, pool, the crisps and nuts etc, in their place will be a cocktail menu and louder music. A gastro pub is distinctive because it will look more like a dining room than a drinking room, with tables set with menus, wine glasses, etc."

Walk into Commonwealth or Granville Moore and the bar is the very first thing you see. At Againn and Beck, the first thing you encounter is the hostess stand, followed by the raw bars.

58290002 Now that the gastropub trend is gaining steam in D.C., in name at least, I went back to Commonwealth to talk to Leeds. Commonwealth was envisioned as a gastropub that would have a robust beer program, casual, but elevated cuisine, and ultimately a place that would be responsive to its neighborhood clientele. Leeds said Lewis developed the beer program, while the menu was her design. Wanting to do something besides seafood (Leeds and Lewis also own Hank's Oyster Bar), Leeds decided a gastropub would give her the chance.

To be honest, even Commonwealth wouldn't fit David's strict definition of a gastropub. In Britain, he said, most gastropubs are old pubs that decided to upgrade their menus. Well, London has a lot more old pubs than we do, so unless Leeds had taken over the kitchen at the old Mr. Eagan's, Commonwealth and Granville Moore are the closest we're going to get to true gastropubs.

Although beer was always a focus of Commonwealth, Leeds said she's surprised that her gastropub has become such a destination for area beer enthusiasts. Leeds said Commonwealth remains focused on catering to its Columbia Heights neighborhood, but its beer sales are "through the roof" thanks to all the regional traffic the bar gets.

Now, compare Commonwealth to Againn. I don't mean to pick on the place, but it's the latest restaurant to call itself a gastropub. Its beer selection is fairly large, but it's heavy on the familiars (Harp, Stella, Dogfish Head, Heineken), and has several multiples from a few breweries. Mind you, it's great that they carry five or six different beers from Founders and Brewdog, but it also shows a laziness or ignorance about beer. Rather than taking the time to select a few beers from a variety of breweries, Againn has padded its beer list by selecting many beers from a few breweries. Also, the staff is either too new or too indifferent to know much about the beer list. If you're going to run a gastropub, the staff should be knowledgeable about the beer. Situated between the raw bar and the dining room, Againn's bar seems like most restaurant bars: a place to have a drink while you're waiting on your table. It just doesn't feel like a place you want to spend an afternoon or evening drinking. 

Does this mean Againn is a bad place? No, it just means that it's a restaurant, not a gastropub. In fact, it has all the makings of being a good restaurant, and it doesn't have to call itself a gastropub to achieve that goal.

So if I want to go out for a nice meal, I may go to Againn. If I want to try a few quality beers, I may head to ChurchKey. But if I want both, I'll go to Commonwealth or Granville Moore's.

Et Voila

I was excited about visiting Et Voila in the Palisades, even more so after we walked in and the narrow, deep space reminded me of many great gastropubs in Philadelphia, where I developed an enthusiasm for brasserie food, particularly savory hanger steaks dripping with shallots.

Neil and I arrived sans reservations on a Friday at 7:30.  They have a handful of seating at the small bar but the hostess offered us a table without hesitation even though the restaurant was mostly full.  The menu is traditional Belgian, which is to say it is not especially remarkable – and that’s fine with me, as long as what they do with the food is remarkable.

The beer menu is solid but not overwhelming, which we considered a respite from the trend of offering more beer options than Congressional seats.  The endive salad had a good ratio of ingredients but was ordinary.  The butternut squash soup was smooth but bland; I would have preferred a sweeter, more caramelized and robust base.  A side of pommes frites were cut bâtonnet-size and cooked perfectly (perhaps twice-fried?) but the only dipping options were ketchup or mayonnaise.   (Disclosure:  Call it a crime, but we did not order mussels. I'm just not a fan yet.)

My hanger steak was also prepared perfectly, sitting atop fingerlings and bathed in a rich Bordelaise sauce but with too-few shallots.  I like onglet aux beaucoup échalotes...which aren't Alba truffles, so please don’t skimp.  Neil ordered waterzooi (chicken in velouté sauce with julienned vegetables).  Again, the meat was excellent – tender, plump and juicy – but the velouté was bland and the vegetables were a disappointing limp garnish.  I found myself reaching for the salt shaker yet again.

For dessert, the vanilla and green tea crème brûlée arrived in two tiny cups.  The vanilla was excellent, but I think we've officially reached the limit on what one can successfully accomplish with green tea.  File this one under “good in theory/bad in practice”; the flavor does not translate well to custard.

They were at capacity the entire time we were there, and the service consequently suffered; our waiter was calm and knowledgeable but could not provide timely or adequate attention.  Those who enjoy being amidst the din of a bustling restaurant would be comfortable at Et Voila; their space is tight, frenetic and quite loud when full.  The decor has a warmly neutral West Elm vibe and the huge clock projected onto one wall is sweet.

Loved:  The bread. Divine. A beautiful crisp, flaky crust encasing a heavenly web of supple dough.  When I die, build my coffin out of Et Voila's bread and I will rest in eternal bliss.

Hated:  First, the succession of consistently unremarkable dishes.  Second, the check -- after realizing I spent over $100 of my educator's salary on a succession of consistently unremarkable dishes.

I found myself comparing Et Voila to Les Halles (rest in peace), even though I hold small, one-offs braving a tight market in much higher regard than celebrity-powered, chain restaurants.  I wanted to love it, I really did.  But -- and most dishes arrived with a "but" -- while Et Voila has certainly mastered technique, unfortunately their food is short on flavor...yet both are required for a meal to be truly worthwhile.

Et Voila
5120 MacArthur Blvd NW
Washington, DC 20016
(202) 237-2300

Granville Moore's

Img_4164_2Over the past two years, the stretch of H Street between 10th and 14th Streets, NE, has seen quite a bit of activity.  The Atlas District, as it is known, is becoming a destination for theater, live music, and one of the more eclectic bar scenes in Washington.  With the opening of Dr. Granville Moore's at 1238 H Street, NE, last year, the Atlas District gained its first honest-to-goodness dining destination.  Since its opening, Granville Moore's has been joined by Napa 1015, an upscale dining establishment that shares GM's commitment to fresh, local ingredients, and a reinvented Argonaut, a neighborhood pub that shares GM's culinary inspirations thanks to a chef who came recommended by GM's executive chef, Teddy Folkman.  But Granville Moore's remains the highlight of the Atlas District, and the crowds are a testament to their continued popularity.

Granville Moore's is, first and foremost, a tribute to some of the best things that Belgium has contributed to international cuisine - mussels (moules), beers of every conceivable body and style, and golden fried potatoes (frites).  Though it is certainly not the first place in the District to mine this particular territory - Belga Cafe on Barracks Row offers a similarly inspired menu of mussels as well as a wide range of Belgian-influenced dishes and Chef Robert Wiedmaier's Brasserie Beck boasts a beer list of equally impressive pedigree - Granville Moore's offers their food and beverages in a laid-back pub atmosphere that demystifies the various dubbels, tripels and lambics that populate the menu.

Img_4167Granville Moore's is named after the neighborhood doctor whose practice was based in the building that the pub now occupies.  He is commemorated by a plaque on the door and his old practice sign that still sits in the second-story window, but these memorials are easily overlooked at night.

Upon entering the narrow townhouse, visitors are likely to be struck by the (intentionally) unfinished look - exposed brick and beams, lots of dark wood and a slightly dusty haze - and by the din of multiple conversations competing with each other along the length of the space.  With almost half of the ground floor occupied by the rustic-looking bar, there are only six booths and tables available for seating at any given time.  Another half a dozen booths and tables can be found upstairs (along with a second bar and the kitchen), and there is an outdoor beer garden with more seating that will see quite a bit of use as the weather continues to warm up.  The staff does their best to accommodate everyone, maintaining a waiting list where guests can provide their cell phones to receive a call when a table is available - allowing them to visit another nearby bar like the Pug or the H Street Martini Lounge until they can be seated.  They also accept reservations for parties of six or more Monday through Thursday nights.

Img_4278 Over several visits, my wife and I were fortunate enough to be seated on several occasions, though we did enjoy a meal at the upstairs bar and found the service no less attentive there.  The bartenders and the servers alike are well-versed in the virtues of the beers they serve, and they seem happy to provide recommendations based on what a guest has previously tried and liked (or disliked).  With a beer menu that runs to the dozens, that's no small feat - and their help can be crucial if you arrive late on a weekend night and find your favorites erased from the chalkboard where the beers are listed (indicating that they are sold out).  Sometimes service can be spread a bit thin on busy nights, resulting in inconsistencies and oversights - a dining companion had to repeat her request for water several times despite the rest of us receiving our beers quickly; sauces for frites are occasionally delivered long before the frites themselves, as they are stored behind the bar and not in the kitchen; overlooked silverware had to be requested.  And although most of what comes from the kitchen is delicious, there are some missteps there, as well, such as a bison burger that came with unevenly warmed cheese, resulting in a cool, chewy mass of cheddar atop the center of the patty.  On the whole, however, there are few causes for complaint. 

Img_4280We tried several of the mussel preparations over our visits, and there are definitely standouts among them.  Despite their higher cost, Granville Moore's features rope-grown mussels from Prince Edward Island.  This sustainable cultivation practice results in bigger, meatier mussels with less grit while allowing for faster maturation.  The classic Moules Mariniere give off a fragrant steam of white wine and herbs.  Though not the best version of this dish I've ever tasted, it was definitely well executed.  More enjoyable is the Moules Au Pesto, which features a rich walnut-arugula pesto that is offset by an acidic note of lemon.  A third mussel dish that features blue cheese, bacon and spinach was a bit too thin for my taste - I would have preferred more of a noticeably smoky, salty flavor.  All of the mussel dishes sell for $14, but the portions are large enough to serve as an entire meal on their own so they don't feel overpriced.  A recent innovation, Moules Mondays, knocks the price down to $10 on Monday evenings as a further incentive to give them a try.

Img_4282 The menu offers a range of appetizers, including a bison chili, several salads, and the requisite charcuterie platter, but none of them really stood out enough to warrant our attention on our previous visits.  Sandwiches and entrees, however, are another story.  The menu features several presentations of bison meat sourced from New Frontiers Bison in Madison, Virginia.  Their brisket sandwich, served with cheddar cheese, sauteed onions and horseradish cream, was tender and tangy, a great combination of heat and meat that required the use of a fork and knife to truly appreciate.  Although a gastropub may not be the first place one would think to try fish specials, several of the options have been tempting enough to make us rethink our commitment to mussels and frites.

And those frites are truly outstanding.  Hand-cut and twice fried, they are light and crisp with just the right amount of peanut oil lingering on them as they make their way from the kitchen to the table.  They are topped with sea salt and fresh herbs, giving them an aroma and a flavor that is enjoyable on their own.  The six house-made dipping sauces you can choose to accompany them seem almost superfluous - until they are tasted.  A Dijon-flavored mayonnaise is rich without being heavy, and the horseradish cream that topped the bison sandwich is equally appropriate as a dip for the frites.  Garlic ranch is not to be missed.  Unfortunately, each small order of fries ($4) only comes with one sauce - further incentive to spring for the large ($7) which comes with two - additional sauces can be had for $1 each.  If you're planning to order a sandwich or an entree, it should be noted that they all come with a side of frites (and one sauce).

All of this is accomplished in a kitchen the size of most people's bathrooms.  Despite the lack of a stove and the cramped quarters, two or three chefs (including Folkman) work the line on any given night.  Over the course of a week, these guys turn out more than 500 pounds of mussels and closer to 1000 pounds of frites.  Add in the numerous burgers, sandwiches and entrees that an average dinner service commands and you get a pretty good idea of just how hard (and how effectively) this kitchen staff is working. 

Chef Folkman has recently been hinting at a forthcoming spring menu that will continue to focus on local produce (from an Amish farming community in Pennsylvania) and that delicious Virginia bison in even more creative presentations - a bison tartare studded with capers and black truffles and dressed with first-pressed Spanish olive oil was delicious and unctuous despite the lack of egg ("I don't always trust raw eggs," said Folkman, "but I know I can trust my bison!").

Beers run the gamut from the well known Stella Artois ($4 on tap) and Chimay ($7.50 for red, $9 each for white and blue) to labels that are likely to surprise even the most knowledgeable beer drinker.  And, as is de rigeur for discerning Belgian beer purveyors, they pride themselves on serving every beer in the appropriate glass - many of them branded with the logo of the beer they are meant to be paired with.  Four beers are offered on tap downstairs, where they tend to come and go pretty quickly.  Make sure you check the board to see what's on hand when you visit, and don't hesitate to ask questions.

It came as no surprise to learn that the Food Network is highlighting Granville Moore's wonderful moules and frites in a segment of their upcoming series "America Eats."  Camera crews filmed the early part of the dinner service on Monday, March 17th.  The YouTube clip of Teddy Folkman I linked to in the first paragraph was actually his audition tape! 

UPDATE:  As suspected, the "America Eats" story was a cover for a "Throwdown with Bobby Flay."  On Tuesday, Teddy and his crew set up at the Argonaut (another local establishment in the 1400 block of H Street) to put on a mussel-cooking demonstration, only to be surprised by Bobby Flay showing up and issuing a "moules and frites" challenge.  Watch for it sometime in late May or early June on the Food Network!

If you've been meaning to check out the emerging bar scene on H Street, NE, you owe it to yourself to make Granville Moore's part of the trip.  It's worth the wait.

Dr. Granville Moore's
1238 H Street, NE
(202) 399-BLGM (399-2546)

Dress Code: Casual
Parking: Street parking is available throughout the nearby neighborhood, but it can be difficult to find on busy weekend nights.
Closest Metro: Union Station, but be advised that it's a 12-block walk from Union Station.  You would be better off grabbing a cab or riding the X1 or X2 bus, both of which follow H Street.
Reservations: Only taken for parties of six or more, and only a few per night.  Staff maintains a waiting list for tables on busy nights and will take your cell phone number to call you when your table is ready.
Baby-Child friendly Rating: 1 diaper (to borrow Jason's system).  The loud and boisterous atmosphere coupled with the two small restrooms make this a less-than-ideal choice for families with small children, but they are certainly not discouraged.
Bathroom Rating: Two small bathrooms on the ground floor.  Clean, but with few amenities to speak of.