Thirsty Bear takes on the challenge of the lamb

Taking on an entire four-legged herbivore, nose to tail, breaking it down and creating a seven-dish menu is a daunting proposition for any chef. More so if that animal is a lamb, with a distinctive flavor profile that could easily seem repetitive after a while. Then, just for the hell of it, pair the all-lamb menu with all of the beers on the tap list. Thirsty Bear Organic Brewery Chef Rob McCarthy was up to the task, and along the way he discovered some dishes that we hope will find a permanent place on the brewpub’s small plates menu.

Thirsty Bear was one of four American restaurants chosen to participate in this week’s “Brews, Ewe’s, and BBQ’s,” sponsored by the American Lamb Board to highlight a meat that is popular around the world but somewhat underappreciated in the United States.

McCarthy included beer in several of his recipes and paired Thirsty Bear’s beers not so much with the meat as with the overall flavors of the dishes. Although the menu listed beer pairing suggestions, we ordered a tasting flight of all of Thirsty Bear’s regular beers, as well as a couple of new IPAs, to experiment with our own combinations.

Right off the bat, McCarthy knocked it out of the park with an ambitious Merguez Sausage dish that included grilled octopus, potato and lemon, pimenton aioli and pea sprouts. McCarthy made the sausage himself (although casings were not provided with the lamb) and slow cooked, then grilled the octopus so that it was tender with an endearing smoky flavor. It all came together with the aioli and lemon. Although the menu suggested pairing the dish with Polar Beer Pilsner, we liked it even better with the Valencia Wheat, which seemed to pick up on the citrus flavors while complementing the Merguez sausage and balancing the grilled flavor of the octopus. McCarthy said he wants to keep this one on the menu, and we heartily agree.
Lamb Belly Pastrami was another standout. Nicely poached asparagus and eggy sauce gribiche accentuated the many flavors of the deftly cured lamb belly. Grilled Lamb T-bone consisted of a small, thick, flavorful chop that we preferred medium rare rather than the suggested medium. The T-bone was accompanied by a lemon-mint gremolata and marinated fava beans. It paired nicely with the Citra Double Down IPA, brewed for last week’s IPA Day. 
In another dish, a pair of Piquillo Peppers were stuffed with ground lamb and rice and bathed in a sherry tomato cream sauce. Thirsty Bear was right to suggest pairing those hearty, delicate flavors with their Meyer ESB.
McCarthy was clearly stoked by the lamb challenge, and he didn’t forget the offal, either. Lambs Head Cheese was served almost like a pate, with Challenger Hop Mustard, atop grilled bread. We thought that toast or something crispier would have stood up better to the headcheese. Lamb Sweetbreads came fried and puffy with heirloom tomatoes and tiny flavorful padron peppers. You’ll either love them or hate them.
Thirsty Bear will be serving the seven-dish beer-pairing menu all week, and if we’re lucky we’ll see at least a few of the dishes on the restaurant’s regular small plate menu.

Thirsty Bear Organic Brewing
661 Howard St
San Francisco, CA 94105 

(415) 974-0905

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