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I’ve heard it explained that beer does not adequately complement cuisine because, although famous worldwide as a beverage, beer is really a kind of food. The logic here won’t be lost on anyone who has lived through that defiant “beer for breakfast” stage in college or ended up feeding steak to his dog because he filled up on a pre-meal six pack. But the argument is fueled by bias. People who argue that the sophisticated palate has no truck with the occasional brew are concerned mostly with one distinction: Food or beverage or whatever, beer is most certainly not wine.
The brewing industry has not evaded the boutiquing of America, and beer has earned some cachet because of it. Borrowing pretensions from the wine industry, microbreweries present their wares like fine vintages, boasting of regional allegiances, commitments to time-honored brewing processes, and quality ingredients. Brew pubs like the Virginia Beverage Company are now common in most urban areas, serving a variety of beers brewed on the premises. The aim is to paint beer-drinking as at least a middlebrow activity, the focus being not on age but on freshness. Though written before Sam Adams was anything more than just another faceless 18th-century patriot, even esteemed gastronome M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf argues that “a beer carried three miles is better than one shot across three thousand on a fast freight.”
The beef with the Virginia Beverage Company—or, for that matter, brew pubs in general—is that it does little to confirm beer as a suitable companion to a fine meal. The focus is on the varieties, which are excellent examples of those familiar to most people at this point—a pilsner (think Bud), a wheat beer (the one to order with a lemon), something amber (a beer that more or less resembles every micro’s mainstay), a seasonal brew (think Oktoberfest), a porter (think loaf of bread served as a liquid intoxicant). The Virginia Beverage Company is handsome to look at, all brick and copper-colored metal (think L.L. Bean version of a watering hole); adventurous cooking would not seem out of place in this setting. But even the few attractive dishes on the menu turn out to be dull, as if they were prepared as an afterthought.
It’s hardly a surprise that the waiter characterizes the beer-cheese appetizer as a house specialty, though the description ends up lowering our expectations for the food to follow. The dish is a dip version of the soup but without its bitter charm. The dip comes with either bread or ballpark-style pretzels and is served gooey in a dinky dish. The chilled crab dip comes in a similarly small portion; it is by far outlasted by the croutons that come with it. The cheese-and-bacon-topped potato skins are self-explanatory, familiar to anyone who’s ever gotten drunk enough to eat at a sports bar.
VBC’s crab soup has a thin broth and is quite good, mildly spiced and chunky with fish. We also like the Cobb salad—lettuce topped with egg, blue cheese, and bacon—particularly the tart barley vinaigrette that comes on the side. The Caesar salad (available with chicken) is nothing special, and I only eat a few bites; the plate it comes on holds much evidence of whatever was served on it before—by the looks of it, something with cheese.
A hint of fireplace smoke fills the air in VBC’s dining room. The source of the scent is the kitchen, which is apparently not satisfied to indulge in only one fad, and therefore, where meats are grilled over a wood fire. The technique serves pizza well but can overwhelm an otherwise decent piece of meat. VBC’s New York strip is lean but thin and cooked way longer than we request. Both the chicken breast and center-cut pork chop also come crunchy and are basically indistinguishable by taste, which can be described in one word—“wood.”
Of VBC’s other entrees, the only ones that leave any mark are the portobello mushroom, served juicy, as the N.Y. strip should have been, and the stuffed breast of chicken, which oozes with goat cheese and is served with a sinfully rich red wine–butter sauce. The “fish” in the seafood pasta is a laugh, the seafood etouffee is basically a plate of sauce that tastes like fish, and the fettuccine primavera is cooked so long the noodles congeal into a single mass. The sandwiches are so ordinary—burger, club, steak sandwich, etc.—you might as well be swilling Bud at your neighborhood Bennigan’s. There’s hardly anything here to dispel the myth that beer lovers require food that merely provides the energy necessary to quaff from those four extra taps. And the beer deserves better.
Virginia Brewing Company, 607 King St., Alexandria. (703) 684-5397.
There’s a bargain every day at India Gate: At lunch, the featured meal goes for five bucks; at dinner it’s a dollar more. While at $30 it’s not in the same bargain-priced league, the restaurant’s vegetarian platter for two (which could actually feed three) is comprehensive, including, among other things, two kinds of mild curry, an excellent raita, and a choice of poori or naan bread. The star of the meal is a piquant daal soup, teeming with lemon, that refreshes like a fruit juice. And yes, the whole shebang goes great with beer.
India Gate Restaurant, 2408 18th St. NW. (202) 332-0141.—Brett Anderson
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