I've been a wine drinker since grade school. I grew up with glasses of chilled Gallo Hearty Burgundy straight out of the fridge (we were each allowed a small glass with Sunday dinner), and by the time I had hit legal drinking age, I'd moved on to specialty California pinots and Zinfandels.
And here's what I knew about beer: squat.
Or rather, I knew what Rolling Rock tasted like. That miniature green bottle was my dad's drink of choice during summer afternoons while he sat outside fiddling with the antenna on the transistor trying to tune in to Phillies' games. I hated beer, and I thought baseball was a lot of boring static.
I carried these notions with me decades into adulthood, through many a brew-soaked frat party and outdoor kegger. Once in a while, I'd sip a Corona, but my withering opinion of lagers, ales, and porters held fast. Even when I lived in England and so badly wanted to fit in, I could never quite choke down the lukewarm glasses of Guinness my pals drank at the King's Head pub. I sailed along disdaining beer until the day I finally ran aground at Tryst.
There are 58 beers on Tryst's drinks menu; as I read through it a couple of weeks ago, I recognized maybe six. The names I didn't know sounded magical. Bigfoot Barleywine, Chimay Cinq Cents, Midas Touch. Rogue Dead Guy. La Chouffe. Delirium Tremens. Anybody who'd name a beer "Scarlet Lady" or "The Maharaja," I figured, must have a rich imagination. Weren't the chances pretty good that these brewers would put at least as much soul and whimsy into making their drink as naming it?
When in Rome, I sighed, my heart divided. Then I ordered the Bell's Two Hearted Ale (Michigan, 7 percent alcohol, $5).
Tryst's beer list is divided into five categories: lagers, Hefeweizen, ales, Belgium style, and porters and stouts — plus a sixth category for what's on draft. Here's a grossly oversimplified translation of what that means (with thanks to my colleague John Linn for walking me through this). Each type of brew is defined by the way the beer is made and the ingredients the brewers put into it. You're on a continuum ranging from lighter to heavier here in terms of both weight and flavor.
Lagers are the light, pale, low-alcohol beers we're all familiar with: Amstel, Corona, Sam Adams, and Heineken, plus pilsners and Asian lagers.
Hefeweizen are the unfiltered wheat beers, usually but not always German. These are light in color, spicy, tangy, and cloudy, occasionally smoky, and they sometimes have flavorings added, like pumpkin or raspberry.
There are many different types of ales, "top fermented" beers that taste malty, bready, or yeasty. There are pale ales, heavy on the bitter hops; imperial IPAs, double-hopped and malted, which usually feature floral and honey flavors and are extremely bitter; and toasty, caramel-flavored amber ales. Sometimes the fruity esters in the yeasts can make them taste vaguely of pear, banana, apple, or pineapple (without the addition of flavorings).
Belgium-style beers are hard to define because so many different types are produced in the home country, where it's a beer free-for-all in terms of creativity and license; but the bottom line is, the producers are using Belgian yeast strains. Examples include Dubbels, Tripels, and Quadrupels, fermented multiple times — sweet, spicy beers that can be super-high octane, with as much as 10 or 11 percent alcohol (a Miller Lite, by contrast, is 4.2). Of the four beers I've tried at Tryst, my favorites were in this category: Hog Heaven barley wine (9.2 percent alcohol, $17 for a 22-ounce bottle), made at Avery Brewing in Colorado, and Delirium Tremens (from Belgium, 9 percent alcohol, $11).
Porters and stouts are dark beers brewed with roasted malts and barleys. Sometimes they taste like coffee or chocolate (Guinness is the best-known stout).
Got it? It may take brewaphobes some time to get all this sorted out, but that's no reason to hesitate. At Tryst, you can dive right in, and they've made everything conducive to your education. The place is beautifully decked out in dark wood, glass, and white tile; a patio built around a giant fig tree beckons on warm evenings. The staff knows the list and offers expert (if fast-paced) advice. One waiter told me that "barley wine" like the Hog Heaven I'd ordered was aged in French oak barrels, like wine, and that some makers even add unfermented pinot grape juice to the brew. He brought the bottle to the table, presented it, and poured the icy beer into a balloon wine glass. This wine snob was completely won over.
Executive Chef Julian Greaves, formerly of Sol Kitchen, has put together a menu of small plates, bar food, comfort food, and bistro classics that pairs exquisitely with these personality-forward craft beers. With input from a quartet of restaurant-savvy owners (Rodney Mayo and Scott Freilich, who own Dada, the Dubliner, and Howley's Diner; Butch Johnson from 32 East next door; and Dave Robinson of Delux nightclub), he's created dishes as aromatic, intense, and highly seasoned as these beautiful beers, matching them stride for stride.
I was so thoroughly enchanted with almost every dish, I felt like I'd been dosed with magic dust. A pair of fish tacos ($12), lightly battered mahi mahi topped with a slaw of Napa cabbage and grape tomatoes, avocado crema, and lime juice, was wrapped up in a pliant, gently warmed flour tortilla. The bright citrusy flavors and the mild fruitiness of the crema in this delicious sandwich were a happy coupling with the Hog Heaven's bittersweet, grapefruity notes. A small-plate portion of Indian spiced baby lamb chops ($15) was a playful and refined take on subcontinental fare — the tender little chops rubbed with warm spices and cooked medium rare, served on raisin- and almond-studded rice with a refreshing cucumber raita. I wouldn't order the chopped salad ($9) with pine nuts and red wine vinaigrette again — nothing technically wrong with it, but it was so outclassed by niftier dishes that I'd apply the cash instead to seared foie gras with pistachio-apricot bread pudding ($17) or spicy chicken pad Thai with shiitake mushrooms, peanuts, snow peas, and rice noodles ($13), two of the "chef's favorites" we didn't get to try.
A crispy rock shrimp small plate ($11) was another dream pairing with a bottle of Delirium Tremens, yummy fried morsels designed to soak up the alcohol, set over a hot-sweet pool of chili glaze and topped with daikon radish slaw. We worked our way through a board of cured meats: sopressata, bresaola, and prosciutto, with a sugary, pungent fig mostarda and super-salty oversized caper berries, plus a little loaf of yeasty French bread (the cured meats, a cheese plate, peel-and-eat shrimp, and fish dip are served until the bar closes at 2 a.m.).
Specials chalked on the board change nightly. Seared black cod fillet with puréed cauliflower and a mushroom ragout ($21), and an extra-moist, perfectly seasoned pork tenderloin served on pickled beet salad with Asian pear slaw ($23) were both faultlessly executed, classic bistro dishes to fascinate the mind as well as the mouth.
Just one warning: Tryst gets crowded on weekends. Really crowded. Schools of college kids swarm the place, along with chic 30-something singles standing around the bar. It can be hard to find a table after 7 p.m. and even harder to delight in what you're eating and drinking with somebody's (nicely shaped, but still...) butt in your face. Go for happy hour (starting at 4:30) or an early midweek dinner and give your new hobby the space it'll need to flourish.
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