Ale You Can Eat: D.C. Chefs Tap into Craft Beer Craze
There’s a very subtle flavor lurking amid the bright dollops of foamy sunshine that surround some juicy cuts of venison on my plate at Ripple in Cleveland Park.
It’s hard to put my finger on it, even as I dip that digit into the bubbly yellow glop and dab it on my tongue repeatedly. Beneath the creamy sweetness, somewhere under the distinctive hits of ginger, lies a certain malty quality.
“We take whole ginger root and cook it down with lager,” says head chef Logan Cox—a specific kind of lager, mind you, brewed specially by Delaware’s Dogfish Head Brewery for a recent beer dinner at the eatery on Connecticut Avenue NW.
“We’re the only restaurant that had it outside of the brewery,” Cox says. “It was very spicy. I got lots of notes of ginger from it. It was almost like a hefeweizen or witbier. But it was a lager.”
The beer and ginger is cooked down with sugar and bay leaves until it becomes quite syrupy. It’s then combined with soft boiled eggs, pureed and melted into olive oil. The result, Cox says, is this “very beery, spicy, fatty” mixture.
“We put all of that into a whippet canister like Easy Whip, so it lightens it up almost like a foam,” the chef continues. “It’s almost carbonated, so it reminds you of beer and you get the taste of beer. But there’s also the heavy ginger influence in it.”
It’s hard to dismiss the tender, deep ruby-colored slices of meat on the plate, but Cox’s ginger-beer emulsion sort of steals the spotlight.
Lately, the District’s enduring craft beer explosion has given him and his fellow chefs an ample and diverse array of the frothy liquid to play with. And, with a handful of local breweries now producing beer here for the first time in 50 years, D.C. toques have a whole new reason to infuse their cooking with suds—one that even suits their preference for locally sourced ingredients.
“There’s just so much of it,” says Thunder Burger chef Ryan Fichter, pointing to some two dozen shiny beer taps behind the bar at his Georgetown restaurant.
Around town, you find beer in all sorts of dishes, both good and bad. I once made the horrendous mistake of ordering the Corona-battered fish and chips at Grand Central in Adams Morgan; it isn’t particularly appealing, but on second thought, it’s probably better than actually drinking a beer that watered-down. And I have previously penned several scathing lines on the Argonaut’s ill-conceived chocolate stout chicken wings—which, I discovered during a recent visit, are no longer on the menu. Far better: the Argo’s signature honey-drizzled onion rings, battered in the house “Booty” beer.
Some better, recent additions to the District’s expanding beer-infused eats scene include the savory Guinness-basted burger topped with whiskey pan gravy at The Big Board on H Street NE and the delicious bean-less chili con carne at District Commons in Foggy Bottom, which executive chef Jeff Tunks describes as a more of a “cross between a mole and a goulash,” given that the ingredients include both chocolate and Smuttynose Old Brown Dog.
At Thunder Burger this past summer, Fichter, who has become best known for his weekly wild game specials, braised baby alligator ribs for four hours in Stoudt’s Smooth Hoperator doppelbock to soften up the tough meat. His regular menu also features Maine mussels sautéed in Stone Brewing Co.’s Stone Levitation Ale.
Some chefs don’t even need the actual beer to whip up something tasty out of brewery goods. At a beer dinner last week, Birch & Barley pastry chef Tiffany MacIsaac incorporated leftover wort, a malt extract used during the brewing process, into a roasted pear dessert.
In some cases, you might never know the beer is even in the food you’re eating, unless you ask. At Ripple, for instance, the menu makes no mention of the alcoholic ingredient in the ginger emulsion. “I use it more secretly,” Cox says. “I think it gives it a nice subtle note, something that people can’t really put their finger on.”
Cox has been cooking with beer since he was a teenager, boiling blue crabs in cheap brew out in his backyard. (Shhhh! Don’t rat out his underage culinary exploits to the cops!) More recently, at Ripple, he’s been braising fresh Virginia peanuts in beer and sugar and serving the mix as part of a ragu with mussels.
“I think it’s a great substitute for wine,” Cox says. “You get the nice alcohol that you get from wine, but you also get that malty-ness, which is a huge flavor for fall.”
On Saturday afternoons, when area craft beer aficionados come to DC Brau’s facilities to fill up their half-gallon growler jugs with locally made suds, you’ll sometimes see chef Nate Anda’s cart outside selling “Brau Dogs,” all-pork weiners made with the brewery’s own Atlas Fest beer.
And, at Boundary Stone in Bloomingdale, chef Vincent Campaniello makes a pretty mean sandwich with dry-rubbed chicken that’s been slow-roasted with half-full cans of DC Brau Public Ale crammed up its butt.
“When you stuff the beer can into the chicken, standing it up to roast it, it keeps the meat inside very tender and moist and imparts a really nice flavor throughout,” the chef says.
The beer, mixed with natural juices, makes for some rich pan drippings, which Campaniello uses as a sauce for the sandwich. It’s so juicy that the runoff can quickly cause the bottom of the sandwich bun to disintegrate into mush. My suggestion: Eat it fast.
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To taste what is maybe my favorite beer-splashed dish around, you have to cross the Potomac. Every Friday night at Arlington’s Bayou Bakery, chef David Guas runs a special on New Orleans-style barbecue shrimp.
The plump headless prawns are prepared a la minute, sautéed in a rich brown gravy loaded with garlic and Creole seasonings. The sauce is ideal for sopping up with some of the crusty French bread that comes served on the side.
It’s a classic Big Easy recipe, pioneered at Pascal’s Manale restaurant and perfected at countless other Cajun country eateries.
Guas’ personal twist: adding healthy doses of Louisiana’s own Abita Turbodog dark brown ale to the mixture.
“Think about it,” Guas tells me as I hungrily mop up the remaining traces of the savory sauce in my bowl. “You drink a Turbodog, what flavors do you get? You get that malty, sort of rich, rounded Guinness Stout-y kind of flavor, and so you bring that into a really spicy, bold, black-peppery, heavy garlic dish and it just sort of balances everything and mellows it out. Turbodog, believe it or not, has got a sweetness to it. Just like Guinness has got a sweetness to it. When you taste the head on a Guinness, it tastes sweet. I mean, it’s got that black strap, molasses-y sort of snap at the end, that bitter roundness. But, still, there’s a complexity to it. I just think it makes [the dish] bolder and sort of reinforces the flavors you’ve already put into it.”
Key word: roundness. With all this beer-laden eating, I seem to be developing a similar quality.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery
Ripple, 3417 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 244-7995
Thunder Burger, 3056 M St. NW, (202) 333-2888
Grand Central, 2447 18th St. NW, (202) 986-1742
Argonaut, 1433 H St. NE, (202) 250-3660
Birch & Barley, 1337 14th St. NW, (202) 567-2576
The Big Board, 421 H St. NE
Boundary Stone, 116 Rhode Island Ave. NW
Bayou Bakery, 1515 North Courthouse Rd., Arlington, (703) 243-2410
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