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backabbey

The Back Abbey

Should you find yourself in the heart of the Pomona Valley, you’ll quickly discover that you’re in a genuinely lackluster area for restaurants.  And yet, there are dining gems to be found for those willing to seek them out, and one of the most sparkling of these, somewhat hidden away in the western sector of Claremont, is The Back Abbey.  Even enthusiastic locals would be hard pressed to tell you the name of the street it’s on: 128 N. Oberlin Ave.  The Abbey is not very large; in fact, it’s a survivor from the old days (1920’s, I think) when it served as the Union Ice House for the local area.  Saved from demolition by an enterprising restauranteur, it’s altogether unremarkable architecturally, save for its western façade, which preserves a chapel-like arched entablature, reminiscent of a small Spanish church … a kind of abbey, if you will.

How to characterize its look?  Rough and ready? Rustic? Simple? Unpretentious?  I suppose it all of these and more, with several – not all that many – rough, almost unkempt looking tables inside and out, and a long bar fronting an endless array of beers.  It’s those beers – a surprisingly full array of Belgian brews on tap, plus a really long list of sometimes recherché bottled beers to fill in any gaps still left on the roster – that attract the crowds, but also the food.  Almost anything you order there will be more or less familiar, but there always seems to be a lovely surprise with each dish.  Yes, there are several excellent hamburgers, Niman Ranch beef all the way, and sizeable enough to cook to order.  But one of them will feature exemplary buns, scattered perhaps with some micro-greens or some grilled mushrooms or perhaps grilled poblanos.  The salads are remarkably original and even feature a genuine Salade Lyonnaise, though here they call it simply a Bistro Salad.  In France, it’s met regularly, but out the Abbey way, it’s a singular treasure.  Check out the Salade Lyonnaise blog in Food By The Glass for more details.

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A lovely sandwich!

And how about a prosciutto sandwich accompanied by arugula and a strikingly edgy mustard vinaigrette?  I never thought about the combination of proscuitto and arugula before, but what a match!  If you’re into Belgian beers, why not have one with its logical Belgian companion, steamed and sautéed mussels.  The potatoes have been fried in duck fat, so one is reluctant to dilute the delicate flavor of that heart-stopping extra touch, but it comes with an array of three great sauces: horseradish (unusually delicate and fitting), really intense catsup, and, wholly unexpected once again, an herbal remoulade.

Before I forget it, let me mention that, in addition to their wide beer array, the Abbey has a small but seriously selected list of wines with, again, that surprise factor.  Chenin Blanc, yes, but it’s a French Vouvray.  Cabernet Franc, yes, but it’s a Loire Valley Chinon.  The wines by the glass are by far the largest pours I’ve seen in years.

Note: The Back Abbey is open for lunch and dinner every day but Sunday, and does not take reservations.  Go and be surprised.

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Figueroa Mountain Brewery – Buellton, California

Several years ago, our company produced a reality-build show on the DIY Network called Garage Mahal. The show, as the name clearly implies, was a garage-makeover show. Our lead builder was the owner of garage remodel shop Garage Envy in Los Angeles. But not long after we made the show, Jaime Dietenhofer and his father, all originally from Solvang, California – decided to pursue a lifelong dream and open a brewery. Jaime, a UCSB MBA and a very sharp businessman, nailed it right out of the box. Buellton was the perfect location, his timing for market demand was spot on, and his product is excellent. It’s not just wine country anymore!

Already in just two short years, Figueroa Mountain Brewery has garnered dozens of local, regional and national awards for their brews. At any given time, they have upwards of 20 beers available at the brewery, and their kegs and bottles are spreading far and wide in restaurants and bottle shops throughout the West.

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Barb finishing a pint of Helles Lager overlooking the brew tanks

Their house ale, their house Hoppy Poppy IPA, their Davy Brown dark ale and their Helles Lager and house Pilsner are all daily drinker worthy. Then when you get into their more unique craft blends, watch out!

The next time you’re in wine country tasting Pinot Noir, stop by Fig Mtn when the tasting rooms close and have some great craft beer. If you’re not traveling there soon, ask your local pub for it – chance are they either carry it or are considering it. Congrats Jaime – well done!

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The downstairs tasting bar at Fig Mtn Brewery. Notice the menu screens behind the bar – over 20 beers today!

Welcome to the new capital of craft beer - Northpark, San Diego, CA

Getting “Stoned”

What is the mark of a good beer? Is it hoppiness? A balance between flavors? The ability to fill the racks of a beer pong game guilt-free? These are all relevant, but seemingly frustrating questions. And yet, us serious beer drinkers continue to punish ourselves with the search for answers, because we are ALL in pursuit of the next great experience. I call it an ‘experience,’ because when you get down to brass tacks, that’s all this stuff is. Food. Libations. Snacks. Treats. They all trigger experiences. Sometimes, those experiences suck. Sometimes, they are sublime.

Several years ago, I was visiting my grandparents in Claremont. It was another exceptional visit. We discussed the goings-on of my studies and other simple, but entertaining things. My dad, Greg and brother, Dylan watched sports in the living room, while my sister Kasey texted her friends furiously. Later, the discussion of drink arose.

My grandfather would often playfully chastise my brother for enjoying beers with more “pedestrian” flavors. Or, as he might have said, “No flavors.” This night was no different. Dylan went on about Corona, or Stella, or some such brew. Grandpa Steve laughed, and brought up the superior flavor of Stone IPA. He claimed that Stone is an exemplar of REAL beer. Two questions I had that night: What the hell is Stone? What the hell is IPA? Those questions were answered swiftly after Grandpa returned from the refrigerator with a glass to taste Dylan on.

IPA_label_smallDylan took a sip and immediately puckered-up in disdain. Eventually, the glass circulated to me, a new college student with no understanding of beers. Back then I’m sure I was still trying to argue the merits of Boone’s Farm, or Mike’s Hard Lemonade. It tastes really good, bro. Seriously, it’s not just for girls. Seriously.

The first sip of Stone IPA hit hard. It tasted like a permanent marker-infused draft of tree bark tea. But then, after ruminating on the taste for a moment, the tree bark tea evolved into a strong, but delightful blend of earthy flavors. I mark that night as my metamorphosis from a Bud Light-soaked caterpillar, into a craft beer butterfly soaked in microbrew. There was just no going back after I discovered the amount of taste and power that lies inside a bottle of good India Pale Ale–particularly, a Stone IPA. Everything else became mediocre, dull even. Needless to say, my love for wine coolers was smote to the ground.

Now, even Grandpa Steve is what I would consider an “equal opportunity” beer drinker, enjoying a variety of lights and darks. To this day though, I have not heard him speak about a beer as frequently or hold in such high regard as Stone’s IPA. Therefore, because of his passion’s affect on me, and because of that fateful night, I’ve fallen into a pretentious habit of constantly comparing my beers–my IPAs especially–to Stone’s variation. Sometimes, this habit is reductive, but their bitter is just SO damn delightfully bitter! I can’t help it!

I’m hoping that this post will serve to orient you, to give you some background as to where, when, and why IPAs became so dear to me. So, if you were expecting a different sort of post, never fear! Consider this post an appetizer, a taste of things to come! After all, I live in North Park, San Diego–a town with at least two microbrews within walking distance!

As always, keep calm and drink on.