Milieu Pairs Beer With Brulée An Elegant Eccentricity
314 Congress Avenue, 472-1021 Lunch Monday-Friday, 11am-2pm Dinner Monday-Saturday, 6-10pm Beer and chocolate pudding sounds like one of those 3am-standing-in-front-of-the-refrigerator-after-a-long-night-at-Antone's combinations. But my waiter insisted I try the chef's chocolate crème brulée accompanied by a Belgian beer called Liefmans Frambozen, a brown ale made with fresh raspberries and raspberry juice.
The crème brulée arrived topped with crunchy caramel, whipped cream, and a fresh raspberry. The Belgian ale arrived wrapped in fancy paper like a Christmas present. Dark and slightly sweet, the beer had an enormous raspberry bouquet. The combination of dense French chocolate and dark, fizzy berry beer was absolutely outrageous.
On the basis of this innovative pairing of beer and food alone, I would be willing to argue that Milieu on Congress Avenue is one of the most sophisticated new restaurants in the city. But given the consistent quality of every entrée I've tried there, I don't have to go out on such a limb. Milieu would be one of the most sophisticated new restaurants in the city even if they didn't serve beer with crème brulée.
The short list of beer and wine selections in this little 13-table restaurant are inspired and eccentric. They are obviously somebody's personal favorites and each is described in detail with recommended pairings from the menu.
The other night, my crème brulée was preceded by a huge oven-roasted veal chop served on grilled tomatoes with apple-smoked bacon and a morel mushroom sauce, listed at $22.75. The perfectly cooked thick chop must have weighed at least 12 ounces; the liquid the dried morels had soaked in supplied the sauce for the dish. My biggest problem with this outstanding combination was trying to figure out how to get enough veal chop, tomato, bacon, and mushroom all on the same fork.
Having noticed the interesting beer list first off, I had asked the waiter which he would recommend with my entrée. Nearly every other waiter I have ever queried on the subject of pairing upscale food and fine beer has suggested that I drink wine instead. This tendency can be traced to a combination of ignorance and economics that is rarely the waiter's fault.
Famous food and wine pairings like Sancerre with fish, Sauternes with foie gras and Champagne with caviar are well known the world over; a good wine salesman uses these pairings when he calls on the wine buyer at a restaurant. But ask a beer salesman what pairing he prefers with his favorite ale and he's most likely to respond "pretzels." The American beer revolution has taught us about dozens of new styles of brews, but unfortunately it has given us very little idea of what to do with them besides wash down pizza.
Meanwhile, the conventional wisdom of the restaurant industry dictates that a waiter try to sell us some good wine to increase the ticket and hence his tip. With little information about beer and food pairings available and economics breathing down his neck, it's easy to understand why the average waiter would rather change the subject than talk beer.
The waiter at Milieu fielded my question with ease. He recommended a Boont Amber from Anderson Valley Brewing Company as the perfect beer for my veal chop. It was hoppy enough to stand up to the bacon and mushrooms, but not so dark as to overwhelm the delicate flavor of the veal. I was delighted with the beer, although for a moment beforehand, I ungraciously suspected that perhaps the waiter was one of those beer geeks who takes the other extreme, recommending beer with everything. I was proved wrong when he assisted my dining companion in finding the right beverage for the polenta with goat cheese, shaved truffles, and perfectly grilled summer squash and green beans. He recommended a crisp and lemony Chardonnay.
The wine and creamy pan-seared polenta were delicious together, although the truffles were nothing special. Truffle season ends in March; the puny truffles harvested in the summer have little aroma. Still, summer truffles are often served in light French dishes and they were appropriate enough here. They should probably be indentified as "summer truffles" on the menu, however, so that nobody is misled into expecting the rich and earthy flavor of the real thing.
Another entrée on Milieu's menu I would heartily recommend is the sautéed marinated breast of chicken with champagne vinegar reduction, wild mushrooms and cream, $11.50. I was thinking of Brillat-Savarin's famous quote, "Poultry is to the chef what canvas is to the painter," when I ordered this dish. What I got was a blend of flavors as classically composed yet innovatively rendered as a still life by Cézanne. Chicken, cream, and mushrooms were the tried and true motif. And the tartness and vibrancy of the champagne vinegar reduction was what transformed the familiar into something unexpected. If you are bored with chicken dishes, go and let this one change your mind.
Of the nine entrées on the menu at Milieu, one is a fish dish which changes daily and one is a New York strip served with mashed potatoes. I have had at least a bite of the other four when I could persuade my fellow diners to part with a sample and I have yet to be disappointed.
There were two appetizers available the last time I stopped in for dinner. I
tried the roasted red pepper stuffed with goat cheese and walnuts, topped with
pineapple chutney and fresh mint which sold for
$5.50. The roasted pepper was mild and tender and the filling pleasant. The pineapple chutney was a nice counterpoint in flavor and color, although the old and bruised condition of the "fresh" mint ruined the presentation.
While the food and beverages may provide enough incentive to return to Milieu again and again, it is the atmosphere that really sets the place apart from the many new restaurants that have sprung up in Austin this summer. Milieu's cozy urban bistro ambiance is the polar opposite of the loud and frenzied atmosphere of glitzy eateries where people go to see and be seen. There is a flower arrangement in the center of the back bar that covers the name of a former tenant, Gambrinus, which is still painted on the mirror. In fact, nothing much has been done to the space since it was a Belgian beer bar. But the old-fashioned shotgun architecture, the waiter with the balls to recommend beer and chocolate pudding, and yes, even the flower-arrangement camouflage behind the well-worn bar give Milieu an air of elegant eccentricity that Austinites will find irresistible. n