Wednesday, March 17, 2010

God Loves Us and Wants Us To Be Happy

Benjamin Franklin once said that, "beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy." As someone who is not the biggest beer drinker, I would have been up for a good argument with with this Founding Father. Well, before heading to Birch & Barley with my Dad, anyway. We met there for a final dinner before he headed back to Cleveland.

And though I have never been to a
Neighborhood Restaurant Group establishment - as many of them are in Virginia and my car lives in Ohio - I have certainly heard people praise the overall experience at their restaurants. Lucky for me, NRG just opened up their first restaurant/bar in the District. I'm even luckier because it's located in Logan Circle and around the corner from my dad's hotel.

The evening at
Birch & Barley did not start off so great. Frankly, it had me wondering why people always go on and on about NRG restaurants and their service. Although the hostesses at the front door were nice, it seemed as if they were unprepared for the sheer number of people coming through their doors. When I was told that we were going to have to wait for our table to be ready even though we had a reservation, they weren't entirely sure where to stand without getting being in the way. We wandered up the steep, wooden stairs to see the hubbub that is ChurchKey. It was a Wednesday night at 8:00 p.m. and the place was hopping. The back of the bar showcased the infamous 555 different beers that have been imported to the restaurant from over 30 countries. I would have loved to hang out upstairs a bit longer, but there wasn't a spot to be had at the bar... or anywhere near to the bar, for that matter.

Downstairs at the back of the restaurant is a bar that is considerably more subdued than the one upstairs. The list of beers on tap was incredibly impressive, but what was more awe inspiring was the design behind the bar. There is a series of what appears to be copper pipes the are connected to the 50 kegs upstairs. The lumination from the tealights on the walls reflecting off of the pipes reminded me of the organ at my synagogue in Cincinnati. Maybe Birch & Barley sees beer as somewhat of a religious experience. But on to more important things: the beer! The selection of beer on tap is impressive, even to someone who doesn’t typically enjoy beer. Our bartender acted as a sommelier of sorts and allowed my father and I to try a number of different beers that he thought we would enjoy. I wound up with a beer from the category “sweet and tangy,” and my dad had a beer from Great Lakes Brewery. It was almost like he had never left Cleveland.

When we finally sat down, I was more than ready to feed my grumbling tummy. Thank goodness the food did not disappoint. Prior to visiting the restaurant I had heard about their amazing bread plate. Oh goodness, there are not words that can adequately describe how wonderful that platter full of hot carbs smelled and tasted. The hit of the table was absolutely the fresh pieces of pretzel. This is no Auntie Anne’s in the mall or New York City street vendor, it is an honest to goodness delicacy. I was pleasantly surprised to taste just enough salt without being overpowered (the crime that gives hot pretzels a bad rap).

The next course at our table could have been called the beet course. Beets are a fairly new addition to my list of favorite vegetables and the dishes that we tried confirmed my newfound love. I chose to have the Vialone Nano Risotto, also known as risotto with roasted beets, wilted greens and goat cheese. The beets made the risotto rice a gorgeous burgundy color that tasted as pretty as it looked, and the addition of the goat cheese gave a wonderful creamy texture to the dish. It was bit too rich to eat with another course coming, but it made a wonderful light lunch the next day. Dad had the beet salad, which I fully expected to be some beets over leafy grains with a few pecans on top of it. Not even close. This was a beautiful cup of beets with a citrus vinaigrette. Yum.

I presumed the main course would be somewhat of a letdown. After all, this is a fairly new restaurant, and at most new restaurants there is always something that isn't quite up to par. Not at Birch and Barley; kudos to them! My skate was cooked so that it was flaky and it had absorbed the parmesan broth to give it this wonderfully unexpected flavor. The Brat Burger that my dad ordered looked like monstrosity of meat topped with sauerkraut. I only took a little bite (sans sauerkraut), but that was ok. My dad ate the entire thing.

Saying goodbye to my dad was made slightly easier by the perfect, little key-lime icebox cake that capped off the meal. It was the perfect mixture of sweet and tart. A wonderful end to a wonderful evening.

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