When it comes to healthy food, beer suffers from an unsavory reputation. For decades in America, beer has been associated with some of the unhealthiest food we could cook up, from spicy hot wings to greasy fries and burgers. Even the occasional veggies that appear on the typical pub grub menu are deep-fried and over-salted—the better to encourage more beer drinking. Craft beer did not start this trend, but it hasn't exactly broken out of this tried-and-true formula, either.
It begs the question, is there a place for good beer among people who prefer eating healthy food?
Millennium Restaurant in San Francisco does not shy away from a challenge. Opened in 1994, Millennium has steadfastly adhered to its vegan roots in its pursuit of high-quality dishes in an upscale ambience. As he says on Millennium's website, chef Eric Tucker is on a mission to demonstrate that, “You don't have to compromise flavor and texture as you cut out harmful, high-fat animal products and oil. At Millennium we definitely dispel the stereotypes and misconceptions held by many about low-fat and vegan cuisine." (You can read more about veganism here.)
Restaurants typically rely on meat, fish and chicken, as well as sauces based on animal fat, cream and butter for much of the flavor of their dishes. A vegan bistro like Millennium, on the other hand, must highlight the more subtle flavors of ingredients that usually play second fiddle to the protein and play to sauces mostly concocted from herbs and spices. Nonetheless, Millennium seems to have developed a loyal following among diners, and not just vegans.
One way to highlight and accent the flavors of a dish is to pair it with a fermented beverage like wine, and Millennium has a well-selected list of wines from all over the world. To spotlight the nuances of the wines with food, the restaurant holds monthly pairing dinners in a special dining room. Once a year, beer takes the place of wine in the pairing menu.
In keeping with its theme of local, sustainable, organic ingredients, Millennium in late April selected Berkeley's organic Bison Brewing to complement Tucker's vegan dishes. Just as the Millennium chef must work from a circumscribed range of ingredients to create dishes using a fraction of the ingredients available to other restaurants, Bison owner and brewer Dan Del Grande also has more limited options than other brewers. Del Grande explained that the colors in his paintbox might be fewer, but they're just as good. Much of the flavor in beer comes from hops, and there are only around 30 certified organic hops. Del Grande favors American Palisades and Bravo, Belgian Cascade and New Zealand Pacific Gem hops in his IPA.
Millennium paired Bison's IPA with an amuse bouche of shredded asparagus, spring onion and lotus root fritter, hoping that the grapefruit flavors of the IPA would complement the grapefruit/IPA dipping sauce. Although the beer was poured before the fritter was served, the pairing, although subtle, seemed to work OK. Bison's IPA is not as hop-forward as many West Coast IPAs and Del Grande's restraint in his use of hops results in a beer that's not overly bitter and thus more food-friendly.
Happily for the second course, food and beer arrived simultaneously. The beer selected was Four, a saison from Upright Brewing in Oregon, which pinch-hit for Bison's Honey Beer. (Honey is not, strictly speaking, vegan insofar as it exploits bees.) The Roasted Abalone Mushroom Grilled Flatbread was an earthy, tangy interpretation of a personal-size pizza, with marinara, saffron-garlic Meyer lemon aioli and toasted nori. Upright's saison may be the answer to the question: What's the perfect beer for marinara-based pizza? The acidity of the Belgian-style farmhouse ale perfectly complemented the tangy tomato sauce and the spicy funkiness of the beer proved a fascinating juxtaposition with the earthiness of the mushrooms.
In the third course, gigante beans, artichoke and grilled radicchio were nestled atop a savory mound of barley risotto. Bitter radicchio can be problematic, and the choice of Bison's Imperial Brown, which is based on the recipe for Pete's Wicked ale, but with twice the hops and malt, fared surprisingly well. In a dish with so many diverse and distinctive flavors—artichoke, radicchio, the reduction of morel mushrooms and dried cherries, barley risotto and crisp smoked leeks—some of the individual combinations worked better with the beer than others. The texture and rich, savory flavor of the risotto itself was satisfying comfort food combined with the beer. Artichokes, which can be a difficult pairing with wine, also matched well with the Imperial Brown.
Unfortunately, the next course, Seared Masa and Pecan Cake with a sweet potato-ancho chile puree, seemed more muddled and the flavors and texture came across as incongruous. The chile puree nicely reflected the raisons that Del Grande used in his Belgian dubbel, but the beer had nowhere to go with the grainy, rather bland and dry masa and pecan cake.
Much more successful was the stout-glazed Tempeh Dengaku perched atop velvety hand-cut noodles dressed in a Korean chile sauce. Tucker matched this Asian-inspired dish with Bison's popular chocolate stout, playing to the beer's subtle organic cocoa powder bitterness and its malt roastiness. “This beer can hang with spices and Asian and all kinds of stuff,” Tucker said. Like the flatbread pizza matched with Upright's saison, matching an Asian-inspired dish with Bison's Chocolate Stout was the sort of unlikely seeming pairing that challenges your preconceptions about beer and food.
Millennium is known for its desserts, and the Hazelnut Layer Cake with a blackberry fig filling, with a scoop of chocolate ice cream and rum pastry cream did not disappoint. Again, the pairing, this time with Bison's Belgian-style Scotch Ale (which is styled after Brasserie de Silly's scotch ale) worked reasonably well. The beer is a little on the sweet side and didn't distract from the rich chocolaty dessert. The figs in particular seemed to play well with the somewhat spicy beer.
Beer pairings are a good idea for the same reason that wine pairings are a good idea. A single beer or wine style will not match equally well with an assortment of dishes, so having smaller portions of beer or wine paired with each dish can accent subtle flavors. It's easier to do when matching with a protein, since the beer has something to easily latch onto. The challenge with vegan food is that without the central protein focus, there are a lot of flavors going on in each dish and the flavor emphasis is often on the style of preparation and the sauce. Including the beer in the preparations, as Tucker did, is a good idea, since it provides a point of reference for the beer in the glass. Despite working through some daunting obstacles, chef Tucker and brewer Del Grande proved that there's more to beer food than deep-fried onion rings and hot wings.
580 Geary St
(between Shannon St & Jones St)
San Francisco, CA 94102
Neighborhood: Civic Center/Tenderloin
2030 5th St
(at Addison St)
Berkeley, CA 94710