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Tapping into beer

Jordan Mackay | February 13, 2012 | Food & Drink Story Wine and Spirits Eat and Drink

Beer tends to get matched up with vaguely northern European fare, heavy on the sausage, or typical pub standards such as wings, burgers, and thick-cut fries. So it’s a surprise when food and beer come together both in the kitchen and at the table in as thrilling a way as they do right now at Bar Tartine.
Consider the beer brewed by Oakland’s Linden Street Brewery. Called Daily (B)red, it’s made with yeast taken from the decades-old bread starter used by Bar Tartine co-owner and celebrated baker Chad Robertson, and it’s the starting point for a Slovak stew known as kapusnica. It goes into the blood sausage that’s the centerpiece of the dish, as well as into its pork-based broth. The stew includes vegetables that have been pickled in the beer’s spent grain mash, plus a cabbage roll, house-fermented sauerkraut, mushrooms, apples, and sour cream. And when the stew goes to the table, it’s served with the same beer that was used to make it.
That chain of interlocking processes wasn’t planned but rather came about as a continuing series of aha moments. It illustrates the kind of open-mindedness that has become the guiding spirit of Bar Tartine since Nick Balla came on board as chef about a year ago.
Perhaps the most exciting hallmark of Balla’s cuisine is his obsession with fermenting, curing, and preserving ingredients to enhance the flavors of his food.
The kitchen at Bar Tartine is a veritable wonderland of yeasts and cultures: There’s Hungarian-style prosciutto coated in paprika-seasoned fat. Dairy products, including kefir, buttermilk, sour cream, and chèvre, are all cultured in-house. Balla ferments his own sauerkraut and makes his own vinegar, and pickles are everywhere. And his briny, umami-rich cooking screams out for a good drink.
After Balla arrived at Bar Tartine, beverage director Alex Fox (who left the restaurant in November) started to take a special interest in beers and began adding more of them to his list. The staff quickly picked up on Fox’s enthusiasm. Vinny Eng, one of the restaurant’s general managers, told me, “We’d drink these new beers with the food and say, ‘Wait a second, there’s a reason why these two things are so beautiful together.’”
Indeed, with due respect to Fox’s wine list, beer, with all of its savory notes, is the most compelling match for the sour, fermented flavors Balla favors. And Bar Tartine carries a fascinatingly diverse selection of beers. The light, tart Berliner Weisse is a delightful match for the langos—a fried potato bread with garlic, dill, and sour cream. A hibiscus-flavored ale from Montreal’s Brasserie Dieu du Ciel is marvelous with Balla’s tangy and fiery fried brussels sprouts with carrot, mint, and serrano chilies. Haandbryggeriet Hesjeol, a crisp, slightly smoky beer from Norway, is the perfect foil for a creamy white-curried sweet potato and wild mushrooms.
But the kapusnica with its own Linden Street ale is the combination that best makes the point: Beer is so wonderful to drink at Bar Tartine because Balla’s food insists on it. The most compelling pairings of food and drink tend to evolve over time or are simply happened upon. And what’s evolving and being discovered at Bar Tartine these days is heady stuff indeed. Bar Tartine: 561 Valencia St., S.F., 415-487-1600

Read about three great European beers at Bar Tartine here.


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