Karen Heller: Semaine de la Bière, ooh-la-la!
It's three courses and five brews when Le Bec-Fin hosts a Beer Week event.
Among the 1,000 events of Beer Week, concluding Sunday after, in true beer fashion, nine days, one grabbed my attention, to say nothing of my gullet:
"Semaine de la Bière
comes to Le Bec-Fin."
The notion of investigative drinking in the gilt-and-chandelier dining room of Philadelphia's most venerable French restaurant struck me as inspired. The announcement was poetry, not quite Verlaine or Baudelaire, but close.
The meal promised five beers and three courses, a tough job but someone had to do it. Our hosts were Philly Beer Week executive director Don Russell, also known as suds scribe Joe Sixpack, or Joe Sixpaquet for this occasion, and French import specialist B.R. Rolya.
Sixpaquet appeared in surprisingly good shape considering this was his 30th event of the week, and he had sampled 47 homebrews before 2 p.m. the previous day.
People who are willing to shell out $75 (before tax and gratuity) for a French beer dinner are an unusual sort. The French are known for a great many things, as they are the first to tell you, but beer is not one of them. I believe Kronenbourg is French for "not Miller, but close," and the nation's greatest advantage when it comes to beer is its proximity to Belgium and Germany.
At our table, under a Rococo ceiling fresco of Fragonard's The Swing, I was surrounded by 17 beer geeks - beeks? - hops obsessives who are fluent in all things beer as opposed to the thirsty multitudes who simply think "Bière, bien."
There were home brewers, beer tourists, beer bloggers, people employed in the beer trade, owners of monstrous cellars stocked with as many as 150 different cases of beers. All of the patrons were fluent in the heady language of beers.
Many of the beer geeks were bi-bibulous - OK, I made that word up - that is, they like beer and wine.
An astonishing number were schoolteachers.
They posed philosophical quandaries such as "I still haven't found the right beer to go with ribs, just as I haven't found a wine that goes with salad," but, ever hopeful, continue on a lifelong, possibly quixotic search to find them.
Beer geeks like all brews but bad beer, specifically the flavor-deprived lager too many Americans swill. Might as well drink water, they said.
Beer at the 40-year-old Le Bec-Fin marked the crossroads of two trends in modern gastronomy: the continuing ascendance of small, intentionally crafted beer attracting a perennially parched cult of obsessives, and an increased casualness at even the most traditional Gallic gastronomic palaces.
Two years ago, as a sign of the times and economy, Le Bec-Fin dropped the required twice-nightly seating and prix-fixe degustation menus and went a la carte, though it's still possible to order from one of the degustation menus for as much as $165 a person. Jackets? Not necessary. Jeans? Allowed. On the lunch menu: two different burgers, one stuffed with foie gras butter.
Still, beer continues to be an afterthought at this restaurant with 2,000 wines in its collection. Our beer was served in wine glasses, which was jarring for the aficionados who own a dizzying variety; European breweries supply their own tailored glasses. While executive chef Nicholas Elmi loves Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA and Samuel Adams Imperial White, he admits Amstel Light is the restaurant's most common request.
Le Bec-Fin's service remains incomparable. A sizable staff, befitting a 19th-century chatelaine, attended. When one patron rose to use the facilities - we were, after all, consuming five different beers - a waiter swooped in with a serving dome to warm the truffle boudin blanc.
The evening included a surprise entertainment: Georges Perrier, as famous for his pique as his gastronomy, drinking beer and watching the Flyers in the downstairs Bar Lyonnais. "Is hockey my sport? I have no sport! I watch because it is on!" the chef remonstrated. He enjoyed the Reserve Hildegarde Page 24, a blonde French farmhouse ale, a bière de garde, the unanimous hit of the evening. As for the food, the boudin blanc was so winning that Chef Elmi sent out a large platter as an encore. Let them eat sausage!
The evening's sole faux pas was the dessert of Brie mousse, pear brunoise, and caramel gelée to accompany La Choulette's artisanal Framboise, raspberry malt beer. Wine is Brie's true friend, and the beer overpowered. Everyone knows that dark chocolate goes better with dark beer. And scotch. And Cognac. And I cast my eyes upon Le Bec-Fin's famed dessert cart, heaving as it was with chocolate confections, with near-licentious ardor.
More beer talk ensued, as all around us at other tables, French reds were imbibed. For many patrons, they may love French food, but, when it comes to beer, their hearts and palates belong to its northeast neighbor, Belgium.
"I think beer goes with everything. It goes with a great meal or a pub crawl. You can drink beer for dessert," said Joe Sixpaquet, hoisting a glass.
Then again, like everyone else at the dinner, he's biased.