Follow the Brew, Stay for the Food

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Photo by Daquella manera/FlickrCC


I hate beer. This is a relatively uninformed view, since I have not downed any since college and it has vastly improved over the decades—or so I am told. But this is the reason I initially avoided Birch and Barley, a new restaurant in Washington, D.C. With 555 beers—500 in bottles, 50 on tap, and 5 in casks—and the beer director, Greg Engert, getting all the attention, I dismissed the idea that the food would be worth it. And the crowds were so large it did not seem worth the hassle.

I finally succumbed on a Tuesday night. Boy had I screwed up. Maybe the beer is getting all the attention, but the food is terrific. The chef and pastry chef—Kyle Bailey and Tiffany MacIsaac—are a husband-and-wife team who came to D.C. from Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Allen & Delancey in New York and have really made a mark. I was so impressed I went back just four nights later for another taste—and still did not have a sip of the barley brew.

The eclectic combination of crunchy, sweet, and peppery worked magic.

Every one of the pastas we ate was worth it. The risotto with beets was a deep crimson and the risotto was done perfectly—a bit crunchy and nutty. More interesting was that every part of the beet made it into the dish. The beet itself was there, but so were the stems—cut into bite-sized pieces, and the leaves were wilted and mixed in. The tagliatelle with braised rabbit and ricotta salata is also worth trying. The noodles were perfectly al dente with a rich but not overpowering sauce. And who knew rabbit meat could be white?

The rectangular flatbreads are interesting combinations of foods. There is a port-glazed fig with a very mild gorgonzola with prosciutto (which I did not have) and my friends had a veal sausage flatbread with mushrooms. The crust was crunchy, not soggy, and the toppings combined sweet and punchy with rich meat and vegetables. (And if you sit at the chef's bar you can look into the kitchen and watch a master making and cutting the flatbreads with a knife.)

The entrees were equally good. One night I had venison off the tasting menu; the second night it was the duck. The venison was soft, with no gamey taste, although maybe it was a bit bland. Better was the duck, prepared with crunchy wild rice (yes, a lot of the stuff here is crunchy, but not in the granola sense) matched with sweet dates and long pieces of tart radishes. The eclectic combination of crunchy, sweet, and peppery worked magic. Each mouthful was a surprise. I could not get enough of the radishes, which were sharp but not offensive.

The winter chili squash was a dud. (What is winter chili squash anyway?) Neither the texture nor taste worked—it was too mushy and bland, and went uneaten. But the maple-glazed roasted Brussels sprouts were wonderful—crunchy (there I go again) and sweet, but not syrupy.

I am a finicky dessert guy. Since I bake a lot, I only like to try things I have never made myself. Birch and Barley offered a Honeycrisp apple beignet, which was soft and nicely fried—not overdone—and covered in sugar. The apple inside was hot and partially melted, and the beignets were topped with a cider sorbet which was not too strong. The next time I had sorbets. Though the cranberry was a bit flat, the tangerine was tangy but not sour, while to my amazement the buttermilk sorbet was divine—rich but not overly sweet.

The restaurant serves a very nice tasting menu. (I admit I have not had it, but I have had most of the dishes.) Amazingly, it is six courses that include a cheese and dessert course for a bargain $55. More impressively, there is a beer pairing for an additional $16. These beers have been lauded widely, and a friend who did the pairing noted to me that the dessert beer (which sounds like an oxymoron to me) was combined with Sauvignon Blanc grape juice and aged in oak casks. The result was a beer with an alcohol content of 12 percent that tasted not like beer but like chocolate.

If you love beer, don't wait to go to Birch and Barley. If you are like me and hate beer, go there anyway. The food would be worth writing about even if there were no hops or barley.

Presented by

Ezekiel J. Emanuel

Ezekiel Emanuel is director of the Clinical Bioethics Department at the U.S. National Institutes of Health and heads the Department of Medical Ethics & Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania.

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