1 of 9
Canh ga (spicy chicken wings with fish sauce) and Extra Billy’s Kong Krush Double IPA at Mekong Restauran
2 of 9
Bacon-wrapped seared sea scallops served over squash purée with Strangeways Brewing Albino Monkey White Ale at The Savory Grain. Photo by Beth Furgurson
3 of 9
Boeuf bourguignon with Hardywood Park Craft Brewery Barrel Series Bourbon Cru at Can Can Brasserie. Photo by James Dickinson
4 of 9
Smoked Gouda sandwich with Legend Brown Ale at Ipanema Café Photo by Steve Hedberg
5 of 9
Crispy-skin duck breast with Center of the Universe Pocahoptas IPA at Iron Horse Restaurant Photo by Adam Ewing
6 of 9
Chicken and waffles with Strangeways Brewing Woodbooger Belgian-Style Brown Ale at Tarrant’s Cafe and Tarrant’s Food TruckPhoto by Adam Ewing
7 of 9
Salmon encrusted with sweet potato “noodles” with bacon Brussels sprout chips, and pimento cheese and grits Photo by Ash Daniel
8 of 9
Philip Bui holds a plate of canh ga and Extra Billy’s Kong Krush Double IPA at Mekong Restaurant. Photo by Ash Daniel
9 of 9
Virginia's Top 12 Best Brews
It's raining beer all over Virginia these days. The national craft beer movement hasn't just hit Richmond; it's grabbed us by the ankles and pulled us into the rapids. Seven breweries are operating at full speed in and around the city, with more planned for next year. Beer dinners are gaining a foothold in the dining scene and suddenly, asking your server which beer goes with what particular dish is no longer an odd question, even at restaurants with the finest of dining.
And unless you're a beer nerd, asking an expert might be the only way to wade through the many varieties of craft beer out there. Do you prefer a light pilsner or a hearty porter? Heavy hops or light hops? Are you in the mood for a saison ale or is a hefeweizen more to your taste?
To help us figure it all out, we asked eight chefs for their pairing recommendations — each chose a dish from their menu and explained why it works well with one of the RVA beers that they have on tap or in a bottle behind the bar. And given the wide variety of beer available at almost every restaurant in town these days, it's not hard to extrapolate from our chefs' advice and apply it to other things that you like to eat when you go out — or stay in. Brewed with wheat, spicy hops, coriander, orange peel and white pepper, Strangeways Brewing Albino Monkey White Ale is a traditional Belgian witbier (wheat beer) with complexity. "The sweetness and style of this beer goes well with seafood," says The Savory Grain co-owner Jason Bohdan. "You don't want your food to overpower your drink, or your drink to overpower your food." The beer's orange citrus notes bring out the sweetness of the scallops, while its light and clean taste doesn't compete for attention with the meaty richness of the shellfish. An aroma of cloves and coriander wafting from this brew complements the fall flavors of the acorn and butternut squash purée, and the medley of carrots, parsnips and squash.
Bob Talcott, Can Can's sommelier, has honed one of Richmond's most seasoned palates. His protégé is beverage director Chip Bailey, a specialist in beer and liquor. The common pairing with boeuf bourguignon is a glass of red burgundy. How could Bailey possibly pair a brew with this classic meat-braised-in-wine dish? "The Bourbon Cru's sweeter notes of vanilla, raisin and plum … accentuate the dish's richness," says Bailey, "and the short rib's fattiness cuts the alcohol." The weight of the beer holds its own against the cut — but don't expect the French to follow suit.
Ipanema Cafe may be a vegetarian spot, but chef Will Wienckowski's constantly evolving menu contains plenty of dishes hearty enough to stand up to robust beers like Legend Brown Ale. The smoked Gouda sandwich, with its perfect combination of melted cheese, tomatoes, caramelized onions and crusty bread, matches the rich, toasted malt in Legend's most popular brew, says Wienckowski. Likewise, the ale's nutty flavor helps slash the sweetness of the accompanying sweet potato fries. Just as Legend Brown has stood the test of time, the smoked Gouda has held a fixed spot on Ipanema's chalkboard menu for as long as anyone can remember.
Iron Horse Restaurant's executive chef/GM Rusty Stone nails it ... with a curve ball that features two notable elements and a surprising twist. First, Pocahoptus' bubbles sublimely counterbalance the salty brine of the duck. Second, walnuts in the hash enhance a certain pecan-like nuttiness in this sensibly-hopped, West Coast–style IPA. As for the twist, the refreshing floral notes, moderate alcohol and light body of the beer pleasantly lightened what would've been a heavy dish if served traditionally, with a big red wine. This was real proof of beer's proper place at the (right) table. "I like to pair IPAs with richer cuts of meat," says Ironhorse owner Joseph "Jay" Comfort. "Duck has great richness, and Pocahoptas' bright acidity complements it nicely. Both are full of bold flavors!"
"Belgian-style" refers to the fruity, banana-like esters shimmering through the caramel and chocolate fabric of this malt-driven beer. When pairing beer with a sugary sauce, it's important for the beer to also have a little sweetness. Rather than making the combination saccharine, the sugars in the food will lessen the sweetness of the beer, making it taste slightly drier. Ted Santarella, owner of Tarrant's Cafe, recommends one of his best-selling dishes, a dinner-plate-size Belgian waffle topped with fried chicken and drizzled with sweet maple-tahini syrup, with Strangeways Woodbooger Brown Ale. "The beer cuts through the richness of the dish while complementing its maple-tahini sauce," says Santarella.
Fresh off his second straight win from CraftBeer.com as the No. 1 Great American Beer Bar, owner and suds aficionado An Bui of Mekong Restaurant pours a fruity, grassy brew with Extra Billy's unmistakable Citra hops and orange-peel aromas. Says Bui, who collaborated on the beer with brewmaster Brandon Tolbert, "We wanted something fresh, local and tropical to go with spicy Asian food." Basil-and-pink-grapefruit notes dovetail with the chicken wings' sweet chili sauce and onions for a killer snack with the spice upfront and a medium-full hop blast in the back. "Beer is more flexible with food than wine," Bui says. Given the dish in question, this beer is definitely the answer.
Pale ales are perfumed with hops, making the beer fragrant with floral, grassy and citrusy notes. Ray Ray's Pale Ale leaves a soft but distinctive bite. "A lot of the COTU (Center of the Universe) beers have hopping on the end, and they tend to finish a little bitter," says Patrick Ehemann, TJ's executive chef. "In this pairing, I chose to complement the sweet aromatics of the beer by wrapping the fish with butter-braised sweet potato noodles seasoned with cayenne and cinnamon. The sauce on the fish is an herbal butter sauce with koji. Koji is a Japanese tenderizing agent with almost the same flavors as miso. It complements the hop aromas in the beer, giving the fish tenderness with salty, soy-like flavors."
Capital Alehouse's corporate chef, Bill Erlenbach, suggests the crisp, German-style Midnight Brewery New Beginning Kolsch with this juicy, thick cut that is leaner than beef rib-eye. The lighter-bodied beer contrasts with the rib-sticking sweet potatoes, refreshing the palate between bites. "I use Ras el Hanout, [a Moroccan spice blend] that's like curry, with nutmeg, thyme and allspice to add clean, fall flavors to the pork … without tasting like pumpkin pie," says Erlenbach. "I like the kolsch because it doesn't have heavy hops or flavors, and you can pull in cinnamon and orange notes from the dish. Cooking with beer can be more challenging. When you reduce beer, you [often] end up with just bitter [flavors]." —GS