[Ed.: My pal in Maine, Tom Whitehead has forwarded his report on a beer dinner recently held at Bar Lola, Portland. Tom is one of my go to guys when I am in Maine for doing things like dropping Mentos in Coke to see when happens. Sometimes he screws up his face at the odd Belgian brew that I hand his way - like that date flavoured dubbel - but he is working on his beer appreciation as his first post hereabouts shows...]
Beer and food…. beer and food? I always thought of beer as something to be enjoyed by itself. I confess, I am basically clueless about the making of beer - I simply know what I like and consume it with enthusiasm. I don't often think of food when I am thinking of beer - usually after the second or third beer, I start to wonder if maybe I ought to eat something - by then, it is usually a bag of chips or some peanuts at the bar. The occasions when I would drink beer with food were limited to the following:
- Pizza and beer - just a tradition, I often feel too full.
- BBQ and beer - I love to grill meats and usually drink beer while doing so. The fact that I later consume the meat seems incidental to the process of drinking and grilling.
- Portland's Brian Boru's famous bacon and boursin burger with a creamy stout. This assault on the arteries is so amazingly good and the stout flows easily with it, like ketchup on French fries…mmmm.
So I arrived at Bar Lola's first beer dinner, fully entrenched in my narrow conceptions about beer and food, willing to learn and try, but secretly prepared to feel too full. My wife Camilla and I are big fans of the intimate restaurant, Bar Lola - nestled atop Munjoy Hill in Portland. I've adorned this post with some of Lord Goog's maps but click here for more mapping. They have been successfully presenting wine tasting dinners for the past couple years. These are always very entertaining affairs - not pretentious at all - full of good laughs, stories about the wine and wine makers and excellent food. Usually they run five to six courses. The courses are small, but you are always full at the end of the night. We discover new affordable wines and end up buying a few bottles. Bar Lola owners Stella, hostess, and Guy, head chef, run a great establishment - very stylish, but understated. Like most great restaurants, the feel of the place is often tied directly to the personalities of the owners, chefs and managers. I always feel like I am having a very high quality meal at a friend's house - Stella and Guy are so gracious, charming and welcoming - it is a special treat to dine there.
The evening started with hand rolled pretzels in sea salt. This was the closest I got to the traditional beer food I knew too well. The first beer was Rosée d'Hibiscus. This Canadian wheat beer, from Quebec's Dieu du Ciel brewery, proved to be very drinkable with a clean clear taste and pink tint. The slight tang of the hibiscus was paired nicely with the spicy vinaigrette of the sautèed calamari, the second course. At these events, you are always given the chance to enjoy the glass first, and then see how it reacts with the food. The fresh flavor of the beer was enhanced and you were left with a subtle sweet and spicy effect. Very nice.
The next contestant, XX Bitter from the De Ranke of Belgium,¹ was advertised as, "the hoppiest, weightiest and some say the very best beer of Belgium". For me, it did not meet any of these claims, though it did have a very clear, clean taste. In my rather random beer consumption, I have had much more aggressive and weighty beers and perhaps even better Belgian beers. Fortunately for XX Bitter it was expertly paired with a delicious stuffed pasta. The food enhanced the beer's taste, bringing out the bitterness and as Camilla so musically named them, "the bass tones" of the brew. The taste grew on you but was decidedly under-whelming. Perhaps the advertisers have delicate palates, but it will take more than the wimpy XX Bitter to cut the fur on this pipe smoker's tongue.²
At first taste, Triverius from Brouwerij De Graul of Brakel in East Flanders was just plain delicious. I was reminded of fresh baked bread. Unfortunately, this was one of the few times when the pairing of the food took away from the taste of the beer. The beet salad with bitter greens and walnuts overpowered the beer, the vinegar being the prime culprit. The salad was incredible, but the beer lost its essence with the combination.
All sins of the previous course were repaid in spades by the following entrèe and ale combination. The beer, Route des Épices or "spice route," a second offering from Dieu du Ciel was actually better than advertised. It had a very complex initial taste of finely roasted hops, coffee and caramel and a spicy, peppercorn finish. Again, my challenged palate did not really resonate with the pepper, but I did notice it…a bit. The dish that accompanied this fine brew was truly the culinary highpoint of the evening: hasenpfeffer! It's roasted rabbit with a savory sauce, olives and crispy spatzle that Camilla thought was a type of potato noodle - whatever it was, it really was divine and we all send out huge compliments to the chef! I could have eaten a huge, steaming bowl of this and my evening would have been complete. This dish complimented the spice beer well and enhanced its peppery qualities.
The menu and the beverages now changed direction, away from beer and meats towards a cider and cheese. The English Dry Premier Cru from Aspall Suffolk Cyder lived up to its name. It was very light and dry with a clean, sweet taste. This fairly potent beverage (6.8%) was expertly paired with a delicious Caerphilly cheese of delicate flavor and a cider reduction sauce that had a pear-like taste. The combined effect was very satisfying, bringing out the yeast-like qualities of the cider and providing a good contrast to the rabbit and spice beer.
The chefs at Bar Lola must have been reading my mind regarding what I considered traditional 'beer food'. They finished up the evening with home-made crackerjack matched up with a fantastic stout, brewed with espresso. La Granja Stout from Denmark's Norrebro Bryghus was slightly sweet and smelled strongly of coffee. The actual taste was subtler and the caramel highlights were brought out by the crackerjack. The stout was not as creamy as a traditional draft Guinness or Murphy's, but the overall taste and texture were of very high quality for a bottled stout.
Beer and food? Absolutely!! I was full but not uncomfortably so. I discovered a couple beers and a cider that I would buy again as well as some recipes that I would love to copy. It was another fantastic evening at the ever creative and friendly Bar Lola. I know some folks still prefer a hot dog and a Miller High-life at the ballpark, but I certainly have a new appreciation for the possibilities of expertly brewed beer and finely prepared food over a five-course meal.
¹[Ed.: Tom clearly forgot we had this one last August at Novare Res.]
²[Ed.: If Tom were not a boat builder and did not have the nickname "88 Fingers" this particular detail might be off putting.]