Few things demonstrate to me how of much of a red-headed stepchild beer is in the gastronomic world than the miserable level of knowledge about, and appreciation for, it within the hospitality trade.
Before we can truthfully start to use the description ‘revolution’ to describe the better beer movement, the time must come when restaurateurs appreciate that a beer list that contains 20 versions of the same beer style – lager – is not extensive, let alone thoughtful and balanced.
I am a beer drinker and, apart from the odd whisky, that’s pretty much all I drink. Even though I spend much of my time compiling and presenting beer and food tastings, I have had to learn to pretty much forget about beer whenever I venture out to dine casually in just about any fine restaurant and many ‘gastropubs’. To pay heed to the flaccid and apathetic beer lists of most restaurants when dining out is to bore my dining companions senseless and suck the pleasure from an, often, otherwise thoroughly enjoyable meal.
So lowly does beer rank in gastronomic circles that once when I was interviewing a ‘celebrity’ chef for a travel article, I sat listening to him wax eloquently and passionately about his sourdough bread for more than five minutes. Once his enthusiasm for his doughy creations had eventually run its course, I mentioned his beer list and asked whether he did anything with beer and food.
“I hardly ever drink it,” was his dismissive reply, so laden with condescension that I was surprised that he even featured beer in his restaurant at all.
Had the article been about beer and not about travel I would have followed by asking him how he could be so rapturous about yeast, flour and water and yet so dismissive about yeast, malt, hops and water – especially when the latter can be prepared in an infinitely greater number of ways. Instead, I bit my tongue as I have learned to do. I’m sure my point would have been lost anyway. While sourdough bread is one of the worldwide fads du jour, for him beer languishes in the realms of par-baked bread rolls.
Perhaps it was this background that set a beer dinner that I had in New Zealand last week in such stark relief and marked it as one of the most enjoyable that I have experienced. And the best thing about it was that it wasn’t a beer dinner at all, just a casual meal in a good restaurant. Admittedly, it saw a party of five that included Beer Diva Kirrily Waldhorn and myself, but the dinner involved taking in the set course early bird menu at Logan Brown – three courses, in by 5.30pm out by 7.30 for $39.50 per person. I was looking forward to good company at a nice restaurant not a beer revelation.
By all accounts Logan Brown is a bit of a New Zealand institution and was named NZ Restaurant of the Year by Cuisine Magazine and, last week, was recommended as Wellington’s best fine dining restaurant by the Dominion Post during their Wellington on a Plate festival. Owners Al Brown and Steve Logan have a couple of glossy, hard-cover books out. Head chef Shaun Clouston’s name seems widely known amongst New Zealanders I met with during Beervana. Still, even with all this, Logan Brown fitted within my expectations of most Australian fine dining restaurants with nothing to lift it into the realm of ‘places that get beer and do it well’. Especially when looking at their website where they boast a wine list with more than 230 wines and describe it as “an innovative list to match each carefully created dish”. Beer features right at the end of the list, right before cider, soft drinks and non-alcoholic cocktails.
So far it was really fitting in with my expectations of most Australian fine dining restaurants. 230 wines, just 22 beers and two of those are Heineken and Amstel, no genuine matching potential there – but I gave them bonus points for listing the origins of these as ‘Auckland, NZ’.
Despite having only twenty beers, and nowhere trumpeting their beer credentials, their list was superbly balanced and they treated beer with the same respect that they treated every element of their food, beverage and service on the night. It wasn’t exaggerated, just respected. Their staff were knowledgeable and able to make informed suggestions, helpful given Kirrily and I were playing an away game and were unfamiliar with some.
Each of the six menu options ended up having a near perfect beer match – something that can be a struggle when you’re planning a beer matching dinner from a wide list of choices, let alone casually dining at a restaurant. The five of us were sharing the beers and so we asked for wine glasses. Nothing affected in that, just a practical request as a wine glass just looks natural half filled, while a beer glass just looks half empty. This request was met without pause or surprise.
I couldn’t help but compare Logan Brown’s approach to beer to a lunch that I attended earlier this year at one of Australia’s leading restaurants, Aria in Sydney, hosted by a brewery launching a new product. When lunch was served, I requested a beer of the wine waiter. It was unceremoniously plonked on the table by the waiter who was obvious in his disdain. He quickly moved on until I called him back and asked whether it would be possible to have a glass because, having been identified as a beer drinker, the flotilla of glasses selected to cater to my every wine wish had been removed from me as quickly as a belt and shoelaces from a drunk entering a watch house. When the one-size-fits-all beer glass appeared, it was set down beside the bottle for me to pour myself while a team of waiters expertly poured the choice of three wines.
“And a brewery is paying for this event,” is all I could think to myself.
Checking out Logan Brown’s website after the dinner, it features a number of reviews that they have garnered over the years. It is telling which ones they have selected:
“The cooking is done with a brain, a heart, tremendous class and no pretensions.”
“Excellence not snobbery gives Logan Brown its Class”
These perfectly reflected my experience: excellent and knowledgeable service, wonderfully understated food and all class and no pretension. I have no trouble imagining how hard Logan Brown must work to select and train their staff, but the impression on diners is that the service was effortless.
Logan Brown shows that beer does not have to be the focus of a restaurant for it to do beer well. It does not need to have a list with one hundred choices to have an intelligent and balanced list; if anything, I would be suspicious of a restaurant with that many beers as few venues would turn over that many in reasonable time. But Logan Brown shows that when a beer list is curated by a management sensitive to its potential and served by staff that at least respect what they do, it can genuinely enhance the meal and the experience as much as wine.
(For the many restaurateurs who steer people away from beer towards wine because they perceive they sell more wine, drinking sensibly – less than a full bottle per person per course – our food bill was $39.50 per person while our beer bill was $50 per person – a price and a margin that a diner could not cavil with given the quality of the service. Restaurateurs certainly don’t have a financial reason to ignore beer.)
Logan Brown Baked Bread
~ ENTREE ~
Potato & Sage Gnocchi with Chorizo, Rocket & Parmesan
(beer match: 3 Monts Biere de Flandre (750mls) – Nord-Pas-de-Calais, Fr. $29.00)
Martinborough Sauvignon Vine-Smoked Salmon with Horseradish Panna Cotta & Caper Salsa
~ MAIN COURSE ~
Pan Roasted Tarakihi with Celeriac Remoulade, Green Beans & Vermouth Raisins
Yeastie Boys Porter Braised Pirinoa Station Lamb Shoulder with Pumpkin Polenta, Tomato Ragu & Gremolata
(beer match: Wigram’s Vienna Lager (500ml) – Christchurch, NZ. $13.00. Waiter’s choice: 2011 Liberty High Carb Ale (750mls) – Taranaki, NZ. $35.00 – Both worked very nicely.)
~ DESSERT ~
Waikanae Limoncello Custard with Almond Sable
Chocolate Cherry Velvet Tan with Licorice Cream
(Sommelier’s suggestion: Epic Portamarillo (500mls) – Auckland, NZ $20.00. Result – Perfect)
Full Beer List
Emerson’s Pilsner (500ml) – Dunedin, NZ $12.00
Tuatara Pilsner – Wellington, NZ $9.00
Croucher’s Czech Pilsner – Rotorua, NZ $10.00
Three Boys Wheat (500ml) – Christchurch, NZ $14.00
Amstel Light Lager – Auckland, NZ $6.00
Heineken Lager – Auckland, NZ $7.50
Yebisu Lager – Miyagi, Japan $11.00
Wigram’s Vienna Lager (500ml) – Christchurch, NZ $13.00
Tuatara ‘Ardennes’ Golden Ale – Wellington, NZ $9.00
Wigram’s Phoenix Golden Ale – Reefton, West Coast, NZ $10.00
Invercargill Saison – Invercargill, NZ $12.50
Mussel Inn Captain Cooker – Golden Bay, NZ $9.50
Tui East India Pale Ale (745mls) – Mangatainoka, NZ $15.00
3 Monts Biere de Flandre (750mls) – Nord-Pas-de-Calais, Fr $29.00
Epic Pale Ale – Auckland, NZ $10.00
Emerson’s Taieri George Spicy Ale (500mls) – Dunedin, NZ $15.00
8 Wired Hopwired India Pale Ale (500mls) – Blenheim, NZ $19.00
2011 Liberty High Carb Ale (750mls) – Taranaki, NZ $35.00
2010 Yeastie Boys ‘His Majesty’ (750mls) – Wellington, NZ $35.00
Epic Portamarillo (500mls) – Auckland, NZ $20.00
Croucher ‘Patriot’ American Black Ale (500mls) – Rotorua, NZ $14.50
Yeastie Boys Pot Kettle Black – Wellington, NZ $10.50