Pint Counterpoint Rustico's food-beer pairings make for good table talk

Charles Steck

Beer has come a long way since the Bandit smuggled that Rocky Mountain piss called Coors across state lines to grateful guzzlers. Yet no matter how much respectability microbrewers have earned in recent decades, they still can’t break the stranglehold that wine has on serious dining.

Frank Morales and Greg Engert, the chef and beer director, respectively, at Rustico in Alexandria, may be doing more than anyone in the area to elevate suds to the same plane as vino. Earlier this year, they introduced their “Mosaics,” thematically related plates in which three different bites are paired with three different beers. The question is, though: Do the pairings actually work? Last month, I invited Todd Thrasher, Restaurant Eve’s sommelier and “liquid savant,” to join me for dinner at Rustico so that we could put the Mosaics to the test.

Our discussions revealed something interesting about beer: Suds seem to have to fight harder for legitimacy at the restaurant table, as if beer is the culinary equivalent of women in politics.

Buffalo chicken croquette with Bayley Hazen blue cheese (paired with Stone Pale Ale)

(Photograph by Charles Steck)

These deep-fried fingers of chicken meat are quintessentially Morales. He’s taken the most ham-fisted of foods—greasy, fiery, sweat-inducing, sorority-sister-repelling chicken wings—and transformed them into bar food for the Beamer set. They look like plump mozzarella sticks, which only contributes to the tease. I’m in a restaurant with nearly 300 beers, I have a stack of fried sticks in front of me, and some primal, post-collegiate part of me just wants to start shoveling it all down my gullet. The last thing I want to do is analyze anything.

Rustico, clearly, is fighting against such beer-chugging infantilism, so it’s good that Thrasher’s here. He jumps right into analysis. He notices that, like any good buffalo chicken dish, even one that doesn’t remotely resemble the wings at Hooters, these are spicy.

“I have spiciness on the end of that beer,” Thrasher says. “It’s funny when I pair food and wine together, I have a tendency to do exactly the same. Like, say, [the food’s] spicy. I would do something that’s really spicy to go with it.”

“It is spicy,” I agree about the beer. “I guess I was thinking [Morales and Engert] would go more toward the contrast…I would have gone a little sweeter, not a lambic. That’s too sweet, but something a little caramel-y.”

Thrasher isn’t buying it. “I like the heat,” he says.

Oyster croquette with Northern Neck corn (paired with a Saison Dupont)

(Photograph by Charles Steck)

The menu doesn’t say what kind of oyster Morales uses in the croquette. I fear the worst but don’t say anything to Thrasher: I’m picturing some lowly kitchen drone slipping away every morning to buy bushels of those flaccid Louisiana oysters for sale along the Maine Avenue seafood market. But later, when I ask Engert about the dish, he informs me the kitchen uses Chesapeake oysters, which may, in part, explain the sweetness of the croquette. Well, that and the Northern Neck corn.

Thrasher already has the pairing figured out, and he hasn’t even tasted the dish. “The beer is creamy,” he says. “It definitely has some sweetness. I already know why they’re doing this beer together. It’s because of the sweetness of the corn.”

I suggest that the corn isn’t the only source of sweetness and light in the dish. “It’s so sweet that, for a minute, I thought that they stuck some caramelized onions in this, but I don’t see any.”

“I think there’s probably onions in there, like cipollinis,” Thrasher retorts, having now actually tasted the dish.

“It pairs beautifully,” I finally say.

“Yeah, that’s amazing,” Thrasher agrees. “I think with the sweetness and the creaminess, that is really, really tasty together.”

Foie gras spring roll with strawberry balsamic (paired with St. Louis Framboise)

(Photograph by Charles Steck)

I feel about fruit lambics—those naturally fermented Belgian beers spiked with fruit—the way most folks feel about terrorists: They should be blown back into the Stone Ages. Short of a dish that could perform such a hostile act against the ultra-sweet St. Louis Framboise, I knew this pairing would be doomed. Little did I know that Thrasher felt the same.

“I completely understand why they did [this pairing], and I think it goes well together because of the sweetness [of the beer] and the sweetness of the balsamic,” he says. “But from personal taste, I’m not a fan of that style of beer. It’s too sweet for me.”

“There’s something about it that almost seems.…” I say, trailing off. “Remember when you were a kid and you’d get those frozen like, foot-long…”

“Fla-Vor-Ices?” Thrasher helps out.

“Fla-Vor-Ices, and they’d melt and then you’d drink them?” I continue. “I’m getting a little bit of that here.”

“Maybe I’ll like it then, now that you said that,” Thrasher jokes.

“Ham I Am” with favas and elderflower (paired with Victory Hop Wallop)

(Photograph by Charles Steck)

“Ham I Am” is Morales’ Seussian proclamation for his cured slices of duck breast, which are supposed to be paired with fava beans and elderflower. But on the night we dined, the kitchen substituted peas for the favas. Whether a mistake or not, the combination of ingredients do to the Victory Hop Wallop what I wish the spring roll would have done to the lambic: change its very characteristics.

Thrasher keeps insisting that the beer’s finish tastes sweet, and I keep denying it. Then Thrasher clues me into his secret: “Right after you swallow, try that [beer],” he says. “I think it changes that beer completely. It doesn’t taste as bitter to me.”

“You know, you are correct,” I say, floored by the realization. “I think I was waiting too long between the bite and the drink, so all I was getting was a

very hoppy [taste].…It’s an unusual pairing.”

“I think it works really well, though,” Thrasher says.

“I only think it works because of what you’re talking about,” I respond, “because it changes the nature of [the beer] after you eat.” In other words, I want my pairing to be more than a chemistry experiment. I want them to taste good together.

Rustico, 827 Slaters Lane, Alexandria. (703) 224-2251


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