R. Jeanette Martin
Beerbistro owner/chef Brian Morin considers beer an unofficial food group. Mmm... beer.
BEERBISTRO (18 King East, at Yonge, 416-861-9872) Complete dinners for $65 per person (lunches/brunches $50), including all taxes, tip and an imported beer. Open Monday to Wednesday 11:30 am to midnight, Thursday and Friday 11:30 am to 1 am, Saturday 10:30 am to 1 am, Sunday 10:30 am to 10 pm. Bar nightly till close. Licensed. Rating: NNN
I like beer. And I like bistros. So, why does Beerbistro initially leave me as cold as a frosty can of Schlitz?
Maybe it's Beerbistro's fetishization of lowly suds to almost Olympian heights that originally puts me off. Or perhaps it's the meat-market Bay Street suits of both sexes who pack the place round the clock that puts my nose out of joint.
Then again, it could be the ghastly room itself - described on BB's website as a "veritable kaleidoscopic beer wonderland" - that annoys me so, a cavernous space that hasn't changed much since it was the Rubino brothers' Zoom back in the 90s. All squiggly wrought iron, high ceilings and hard surfaces, it has to be one of the noisiest restos in town.
No, it's Beerbistro's glammed-up pub grub that first gets my goat. That, and the sticker shock that comes when a one-hour lunch of a shared appetizer, two not terribly expensive mains and a couple of beers goes for a hundred bucks.
It starts with Kobe beef tacos ($12.75). Wrapped in super-crisp blue cornmeal shells and topped with sweet, sweated Vidalia onion, they're more Sloppy Joe than Tex-Mex, the provenance of the steak lost in a tasty stout-fuelled chili. The menu's suggested pairing of a hoppy Sierra Nevada IPA ($5.98) hits the spot.
In a beef-eating mood, we follow with a somewhat disappointing steak tartare ($14.95 with frites). A smallish mound of minced raw steak plopped with a sunny-side-up quail egg, it also comes plated with a handful of mesclun and sided with jumbo capers, a hillock of freshly grated horseradish and stale slices of untoasted baguette.
The accompanying Belgian frites ($5 à la carte), however, are exemplary. Served in an upright linen-napkin-lined cone, they're served with what the card calls "house-made mayonnaise and smoked tomato ketchup," which taste like regular ol' Hellman's 'n' Heinz to me. The recommended "sociable" and appropriately Belgian ale, Rochefort 6 ($9.99), adds a fruity complement.
And though they don't give us the DTs, two-dozen or so Brussels Mussels ($16) steamed in yeasty Delirium Tremens seem slightly off, their garlicky tomato sauce rich with chilies and fennel undermined by chunks of generic sausage. Instead of frites, they come sided with a miniature loaf of first-rate sourdough made with St. Ambroise oatmeal stout. A bottle of Trappist Chimay White ($10.56) cuts through the considerable heat.
Back a few days later and still not getting the Beerbistro buzz, we begin with Pilsner maki ($10.95) - deep-fried sushi! - and duck confit corn dogs ($9.75). The same bird is put to much better use on cracker-crusted pizza ($15.25) coupled with creamy chèvre, caramelized onion and thick slices of waxy red potato. Take that, Terroni!
Chef and co-owner Brian Morin also puts an innovative spin on Cobb salad ($14.50). He layers Buffalo-wing-style nuggets of crisply battered boneless chicken breast with tossed diced avocado, raw red onion and a whack of blue cheese over a bed of baby spinach before dousing the lot with a tarragon beer vinaigrette nipped with Sriracha hot sauce.
But it's Morin's impressive Bistro Beer Burger ($10.95) that erases our first not-so-positive impressions, especially when optionally topped with beer-cured Berkshire bacon ($1.95) and Guinness-infused cheddar ($2.75). A bottle of molasses-sweet Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale ($7.97) reinforces the burger's deep flavours.
Here are those fabulous house frites again, only this time they're inside a humongous pulled pork sandwich ($14), like the gyros at Messini on the Danforth. Piled high on a buttermilk bun, the delish beer-braised shredded shoulder also gets a tangy counterpoint from tart barbecue sauce, citrusy cole slaw and sharp melted Gouda.
And though I'm more than stuffed, I make sure to save room for a scoop of BB's awesome Dragon stout and crushed Skor chocolate bar ice cream ($6). Now I like Beerbistro even more..