Fork and Barrel's chef, Peter Felton, heads up an ambitious kitchen that not only pairs beer with food, but also uses it as an ingredient.
You'll find German dunkel lager in braised short ribs or a Flemish red ale in the mussels.
We began with the house-made Bavarian Pretzel ($4) with mustard. Yeah, I know Philly is the soft-pretzel king, but with its tougher skin that yields to a softer interior, the Bavarian can rule as well. Fork and Barrel ups the game by serving it with a honey mustard and a blue-cheese mustard.
The Artisan Cheese "fondue" ($12) wears the quotation marks on the menu because this is neither the classic hot pot at the table nor the combination of traditional Swiss cheeses.
Instead, a mixture of melted mascarpone, gruyere and fontina cheeses are blended with a witbier and served in a porcelain ramekin. The beer adds some sweetness, and the mascarpone keeps the cheeses blended.
The accompanying candied walnuts were a nice touch, but the bread would have been better served in chunks as it is in a true fondue, rather than thin slices. The slices were difficult to dip, and we eventually just submerged the entire piece in the melt and retrieved it with a fork.
In many ways, beer makes a better pairing with cheese than wine. We opted for the cheese-plate offerings that include a choice of one for $7, three for $18 or four for $24. Our sampling included a French Fromager d'Affinois, a Tete de Moine, also from France, and an English Marieke aged Gouda. All were good, but a little more diversity in the cheese offerings would be better as our choices were limited to cow and sheep.
The Oysters on the half shell (6 for $14) were disappointing. To begin with, the menu offered East and West Coast varieties, but only the East Coast was available, and they were small and tasteless.
On the other hand, the mignonette tweaked with the addition of a St. Louis Framboise could have been stellar with a good oyster.
An example of Fork and Barrel's quest for authenticity is the Belgian Waterzooi ($8). This chowder is traditionally made with fresh- or saltwater fish, potatoes, leeks and carrots. In a classic dish, a liaison of cream and egg yolks makes a thick broth. Here, there's no egg binder, but a Gueuze Lambic brightens the dish with its sour complexity.
Sadly, the Whole Rainbow Trout ($18) was as flat as a long-opened can of beer. Both the taste and the texture could only be described as flabby.
The hazelnut "dusting" did nothing to save what seemed like less than fresh fish. The witbier buerre sauce and the side of green beans would have made a great dish if the fish had been better.
On the other hand, the Wild Boar Bratwurst ($16) held promise as it paired extremely well with the recommended Timmermans Strawberry Lambic ($7). Unfortunately, the cabbage and other vegetables were undercooked.
Other beers we enjoyed were the Bourgogne DesFlandres ($7), a Flemish brown, sour ale with fermented lambic. I particularly liked that it wasn't a typical beer taste. A surprise was the Birrificio Italiano Vudu ($9), a German dark wheat-style beer from Italy.
Another great pairing was the Chocolate Chip Bread Pudding ($8) for dessert with the Nogne O Imperial Porter ($14). The beer made the chocolate more chocolaty - never a bad thing.
I was impressed with our server's knowledge of the beer list and his ability to pull together food pairings. All of his suggestions were dead-on and broadened my beer palate. It's clear there has to be serious, ongoing training for the waitstaff to be able to talk in depth to the beer geek as well as find something drinkable for the usual wine quaffer.
In this market it would be easy to phone-in a gastropub concept, so it's to Fork and Barrel's credit that there is this reach to bring an experience that is a notch above in both food and beverage.
The kitchen has some shortcomings on the large plates, but that's to be expected when a high bar is set. There are plenty of smaller plate offerings that hit the mark, and no doubt the kitchen will grow into the ambition.
Fork and Barrel is also expanding upstairs into an American Cask Saloon offering 29 stateside craft beers, upscale hot dogs and a live-jazz program. And, no, there's no European Union tariff on ordering an American beer upstairs and bringing it downstairs.
Much has been made of the atmospheric candle lighting. Sure, it makes me feel as if I'm in a Belgium monastery, but it also makes me feel 90 years old because I can't even read the menu or actually see much of what is on the plate. I'd definitely be in favor of few more watts.