By Elana Schor - 01/27/10 11:46 PM EST
Even the most devoted wine lovers — particularly those who lack the income to become a true connoisseur — will eventually find themselves torn, scanning a high-end list of unfamiliar yet pricey varietals and thinking: What I really want is a beer.
At ChurchKey and Birch and Barley, wine drinkers will find that perfect pint. The two-floor New American gastropub in Logan Circle is reeling in a younger crowd ready to trade up from Bud Lights to something more refined and offering a seasonally inspired menu that boasts flavors designed to match the malts and ales.
But Neighborhood Restaurant Group (NRG), which scored hits in Northern Virginia with Tallula and Vermilion before venturing into Northwest D.C., had the good sense to leave some common threads between the two dining rooms, not least of which is the 500-strong brew list developed by “beer director” Greg Engert.
Engert groups his 50 draught beers as sommeliers would present fine wines, under headings of “crisp,” “smoke,” “tart and funky” and other flavor buzzwords. Sorting through such an embarrassment of riches requires a skilled guide, and the servers, thankfully, have been trained to break down even the most obscure terminology (How is a Munich lager different from a German pilsner?) while suggesting food selections that match the alcohol.
Speaking of food, NRG’s second great decision was recruiting Kyle Bailey, barely 30 but already a veteran of the New York culinary institution Blue Hill, where President Barack Obama took the first lady for a recent date night. Any chef knows how to mingle spices and sauces with the notes of a great wine, but Bailey has taken the same approach to artisanal, often offbeat beers — to impressive effect.
A stellar fennel salad, for example, teases out the sweet notes in a hoppy pint of Amish pale ale by tossing on a vinaigrette of violet mustard and a generous heap of bitter arugula. Buried slices of blood orange complete the duel of flavors.
Biting into a flatbread of crispy prosciutto and port-glazed figs, shining like garnets on a blue-veined bed of warm Gorgonzola, is so intense that the pairing of smooth Belgian Kasteel Tripel beer seems almost too subtle … until a glance at the menu reveals that the citrusy Kasteel is a whopping 11 percent alcohol.
That’s the magic of Bailey’s menus. Unlike typical American pub food, his dishes aren’t designed to stay in the background during a few good pints.
Nor is the décor. Upstairs at ChurchKey, light fixtures both medieval and rococo cast a nearly romantic glow onto padded banquettes in mustard and beer-inspired hues. The back room is festooned with metal kegs, which don’t quite serve as end tables but lend a nicely furtive backroom ambience.
Downstairs at Birch and Barley is the restaurant’s beer organ, a sight that must be seen to be believed. An imposing row of 25 fat copper pipes carry temperature-controlled beer from the ceiling down to the waiting taps. The organ is more than a conversation piece; looking directly at it produces an almost meditative effect.
But few customers will come to Bailey’s kitchens for the fine sights — unless you count his enormous burger, dubbed the “brat.” The patty is a blend of ground veal, pork and beef cooked briefly on the grill before a finishing visit to the oven, leaving its interior sensuously tender with just the right amount of char.
Its beer-braised sauerkraut topping is less assertive than expected, but a dash of grainy mustard adds the necessary kick and melted emmenthaler cheese provides the crowning touch of creaminess. Served with enough fries to sate two people, the brat is an instant contender for the city’s best burger.
The prawn club sandwich delivers an even more pleasant surprise, though it would more rightly be called a panino — no boring double-decker, pre-sliced bread here, just one chewy ciabatta smothered with rich avocado that envelops smoky bacon and thick, lime-infused shrimp.
With all these delights on tap, the biggest downside to ChurchKey and Birch and Barley may turn out to be their instant popularity.
Even capable servers apologized for missed orders or plates served cold during my visits, an understandable situation given the constant influx of patrons but one that’s especially difficult to cure in ChurchKey, with its narrow hallway creating traffic jams from 5 p.m. on. Birch and Barley has it a bit better, but sitting in back near the open kitchen feels less charming and more like a visit to the most stress-packed episode of “Top Chef.”
Another weak spot during my visits, despite high expectations from the local foodie press, was the dessert menu. Bailey joined his new dual kitchen alongside wife and pastry chef Tiffany MacIsaac, whose high-end take on a classic Krispy Kreme doughnut ended up sadly indistinguishable from its 79-cent counterpart.
Or try a sweet stout on draught instead, such as Ommegang’s Chocolate Indulgence, a heady brew that resembles Hershey’s syrup but teems with complex coffee and malt notes. After all, using a meal to appreciate new beers is what these new kitchens are all about.
ChurchKey and Birch and Barley. 1337 14th St. NW. (202) 567-2576. www.churchkeydc.com and www.birchandbarley.com. Reservations strongly recommended downstairs and long waits to be expected upstairs. Average meal price, without drinks, $30 per person at ChurchKey and $50 at Birch and Barley. ChurchKey open nightly, starting at 4 p.m. Birch and Barley open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday, beginning at 5:30 p.m.