Plouf plays the gourmand, with moules frites and Chimay White
As most people know by now, beer loves burgers, pizza and barbecue. But several San Francisco restaurants are emphasizing that beer is also quite enamored of seafood. Northern French and, of course, Belgians, are well-versed in the joy of classic seafood/beer pairings like moules frites (mussels with fries) with Belgian ales.
Wine has traditionally been the fermented beverage of choice to complement fish and seafood in fine dining, but with the recent emergence of a full palate of craft beer, more restaurants are offering lagers and ales as an alternative to champagne, sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, German rieslings, chardonnays and pinot grigio with seafood.
For a taste of the classic Belgian dish moules frites, head over to bustling Belden Place, an alley off Bush Street where a handful of bistros like B44, Café Tiramisu, Belden Taverna, Bastille and Plouf wage a friendly but spirited competition for outdoor diners. The blocked-off Belden Street has a touristy, ersatz European feel, with outdoor tables crowned with Chimay umbrellas. Although I’m a big proponent of al fresco dining, downtown San Francisco is usually too chilly after dark for that sort of indulgence, even with heat lamps.
Plouf’s appeal is in re-creating a French bistro atmosphere, with waiters dressed in horizontally striped shirts speaking French or English with a French accent. The menu features Continental-style seafood, like ahi tuna Provencal. But the specialty is clearly the moules frites, offered in a $25 prix fixe menu along with soup or salad and dessert and prepared in six different sauces: roasted garlic and sherry vinegar (Plouf); shallots, white wine and vinegar (marniere); tomato concassee, basil, garlic and bell peppers (provencale); lime juice, garlic, cilantro, chili and coconut milk (coconut broth); shallots, bacon, white wine, cream and parsley (poulette); and shallots, garlic, cream, pastis, chili flakes and fine herbs (pastis).
On a recent visit, I chose the latter option and my mussels arrived in a large iron bowl redolent of the popular anise-scented French liqueur pastis. One of the characteristics of star anise, with which pastis is flavored, is limone, a cyclic termine with a strong scent of oranges. Another element is limonene, a flavor also present in the rind of lemons. Star anise also gives off the floral qualities of linalool, a naturally occurring terpene alcohol chemical found in many flowers and spice plants. The most noticeable flavor characteristic, however, is anethole, an aromatic compound that contributes flavors of anise, fennel and liquorice. Pastis also exhibits the flavor of liquorice root, and as a liqueur, contains sugar.
Those diverse flavors, along with the mussels, garlic, parsley and other herbs, call for a beverage whose flavor components can harmonize with the fragrant complexity of the pastis sauce. Plouf, unfortunately, has a lot more wine options than beer choices, with only three brews on tap. Luckily, one of them, Chimay White (also known as Cinq Cents), a golden Belgian triple, adequately fit the bill, with a flavor profile that enhanced and amplified the Moules Pastis.
Belgian tripels – a relatively young style in the centuries-old Belgian brewing tradition -- are highly carbonated and high in alcohol, which is generally well-hidden (Chimay White is 8% abv). They also have a fair amount of spicy hops, which are also quite subtle. The Beer Judge Certification Guidelines describe Belgian tripels as a “marriage of spicy, fruity and alcohol flavors supported by a soft malt character. Low to moderate phenols are peppery in character. Esters are reminiscent of citrus fruit such as orange or sometimes lemon. A low to moderate spicy hop character is usually found. Alcohols are soft, spicy, often a bit sweet and low in intensity.”
Enjoyed in concert, the mussels and aromatic broth (with sourdough bread for dipping) combined with the spicy, citrusy Chimay to exceed the sum of their individual components. The ale seemed to accent the fruity qualities of the pastis sauce while subtly subduing the liquorice component, and the carbonation is a palate cleanser.
A steaming pot of strongly flavored mussels could become a bit exhausting for the palate and a little redundant, but the Chimay would have none of that. One of the more engaging qualities of a well-built ale like the Chimay is that it evolves in the glass as it warms and expresses subtly different nuances of orange and maybe clove that continue to push the flavors of the dish. The tastes you end up with as you savor the last of the broth are slightly different from those with which you began.
Plouf serves a good bowl of mussels on a reasonably priced prix fixe, and the shoestring frites were fine, albeit a little salty. Plouf does not, however, rise to the level of San Francisco’s best Belgian-style restaurants like La Trappe. If Plouf is serious about creating more adventurous culinary epiphanies with its signature moules frites and exposing its patrons to a true Belgian experience, it needs to raise its beer game.
Chimay White is a great all-purpose Belgian ale with food, but connoisseurs of Belgian and Parisian cuisine expect a greater array of beer choices. How about offering the Westmalle Trappist, said to be the first of Belgian tripel style, Maredsous 10, or even an American version like Allagash Tripel Reserve? Other Belgian styles would also be welcome – dubbels and guezes, for example -- and would bring out even more subtle flavors in the various mussel dishes. Not having such readily available Belgian pale ales as Duvel or Orval on the list is a conspicuous oversight.
Don’t rest on your mussels, Plouf, rise to the occasion so that the assortment of Belgian beer matches up with your estimable array of moules frites. Serving those frites in a paper cone would also be more attractive than just plopping them down on a little plate. Presentation means a lot when you’re going for culinary and cultural ambiance.
40 Belden Pl
(between Bush St & Pine St)
San Francisco, CA 94104
Neighborhood: Financial District
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