Beer Food

The Bitter End Pairs Well

by Robb Walsh

Bitter End Bistro & Brewery
311 Colorado, 478-2337

Dinner daily 5-10pm, 11pm on weekends; limited menu served after dinner hours 'til 12am(Fri) and 1am(Sat)

Although I ranked the Copper Tank's beers higher in the blind tasting that the Chronicle conducted last summer, the Bitter End is my favorite brewpub. Several of the beers are excellent, some still need work. But the Bitter End's real strength lies in the art of matching good beers with fine foods, and in this area Chef Emmett Fox is on the cutting edge. He is taking a huge risk by assuming that Austinites are ready to be culinary trend-setters. Luckily, the gamble is paying off. The Charcuterie Taster ($6.50) is by far my favorite appetizer. I order it for lunch, I order it in the middle of the night, I would order it for breakfast if the Bitter End was open that early. The plate consists of sliced sausage, a little pile of pork in barbecue sauce, and a crock of duck liver pâté, served with a big soft homemade pretzel and stone ground mustard. As I submerge the warm pretzel in the duck liver pâté and then dip it into the mustard, my hand shakes in anticipation of the pretzel-duck liver-mustard rush I have become so addicted to. And then I wash it all down with a long pull of Bitter End Bitter. Ahhh. That's beer food. The Smoked Fish Sampler ($7), with smoked trout and capers and smoked salmon with tomatoes and shaved onions, is another stand-out appetizer. The Bistro Caesar Salad with lots of anchovies and garlic ($6/$3.25) is the best of the salads.

The lamb shanks cooked in stout was my favorite winter entrée at the Bitter End last year, but it's not on the menu at the moment. Lately, I've been ordering the Moroccan Grilled Lamb Loin with Mint Harissa ($16.50). Harissa is an exotic hot sauce from Tunisia made with chile peppers, cumin, coriander, caraway, and in this case, mint. It is traditionally used to accompany couscous and conveniently enough, the lamb at the Bitter End is served with an excellent raisin- and apricot-flavored couscous so you can get the authentic harissa experience. I also like the Duck Breast au Poivre ($14.50), served with roasted peppers, and the Grilled Filet ($18.50), served with porcini mushrooms, Dijon mustard sauce, and crispy onions. You will notice that my tastes run to peppers, mustard, onions, liver, and anchovies -- bold flavors which in my opinion are what beer food is all about. I couldn't tell you how the vegetable pasta or redfish with crab rice dishes work because I just can't bring myself to order these kind of faint flavors when I'm drinking beer.

There are a few Bitter End dishes I have tried and don't like, including the pizzas. The crust just doesn't cut it. The roasted salmon with saffron broth is okay, but it doesn't go great with beer. And I'm always surprised to see dishes on the menu that are cooked in wine, like the Steamed Mussels Salsa Verde, $6.50. Mussels steamed in wheat beer is an old Belgian classic, so why not steam the mussels in beer? But before you take these little criticisms too seriously, it has to be pointed out that Chef Emmett Fox is performing a highwire act without a net. There are very few brewpubs or beer restaurants in the country that serve great food. Most fall back on hamburgers and fries or German beer hall fare. And some of the best chefs in the country have already fallen on their faces trying to define a new gourmet style of "beer food."

Take the case of Wolfgang Puck: Puck is one of the originators of the California cuisine. A few years ago, he founded a restaurant in West L.A. called Eureka. It was a beautiful place with gleaming brass bars and an open kitchen. Puck, who grew up in Austria, had big ideas for beer food. He served California microbrewery beers with duck chili and black beans, Cajun shrimp sausage, and Thai Beef. He marinated meats in porters and stouts before he grilled them. He served the composed salads and gourmet pizzas he had made famous at his other restaurants and then... he went out of business. Californians, it seems, only drink beer when they're at the beach. Put them in a fancy restaurant among the beautiful people and they feel naked without their Chardonnay.

With our German brewing traditions, our love of spicy foods, and our brutally hot climate, we Texans ought to be a much better audience for new ideas in beer cuisine. But the difficulty of changing people's eating habits can't be underestimated. The Bitter End is very good, and if Austin diners remain interested in the project of redefining beer food, the Bitter End could get a lot better. I keep hoping to see a few little touches that could really put the restaurant over the top. For instance, I'd love to see the chefs and brewers come up with a list of pairings so the waitstaff could recommend a beer to go with each dish. I'd like to see the menu get even tighter and I'd like to see some beer-friendly fish dishes like fish cooked with bacon or fish choucroute on the menu. But these are quibbles, because in truth, the Bitter End is already one of the best beer restaurants in the state. n

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