Saturday, September 13, 2014
Heavy Seas Alehouse (Rosslyn, Arlington, VA)
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I have come to really enjoy brewpubs that have gone the gastro-pub route; this includes Bluejacket, a new D.C. brewery which I reviewed in May. Sometimes in these situations, the food ends up becoming more of a focus than the beer, or vice versa, and this can lead to problems, or at least a situation where you go for one more than the other; obviously, the goal is a nice equilibrium, where people want to go to your restaurant for both. Heavy Seas Alehouse, in the Rosslyn neighborhood of Arlington, VA, has done a pretty good job of balancing things out, ending up with a nice restaurant that also serves very high quality beer.
Heavy Seas Beer, based in Baltimore, is the overarching organization that is responsible for the restaurant, which also has a location at the brewery itself. Claiming to be the largest producer of cask conditioned beers in the United States, Heavy Seas has a great focus on high quality ingredients, including sourcing at least some of their hops locally in Maryland. This kind of caring translates into quality, and the two beers I had were both delicious. Unfortunately, I do not know the names of either for sure, but I am almost certain the saison I had was the Red Sky at Night (on cask) and the barley-wine I had was the Below Decks, based on what I can find on their website and on BeerAdvocate.
The saison was light but boozy, definitely not a session beer, which I typically pick saisons for, but with the normal light, citrus and wheat forward spiciness I expect out of a good one. The beer is both bright and cloudy, a strange mix that actually looks very cool as the clouds swirl through the glass; this could be related to being cask conditioned, but it did not taste like there was any sediment, and I suspect that Heavy Seas is more careful than to allow something like that to occur. Either way, it looked good, and tasted better. Assuming this was the Red Sky at Night, it is a 7.5%, and it definitely drank that way, but it was not overly sweet as some higher ABV saisons I have had were, and it definitely is still refreshing.
The barley-wine was absolutely not refreshing, but that is no knock on it. Sweet, tart, malty, and with a hefty fruitiness, this was at the recommendation of the waiter (I'll get to him later) to accompany my rather heavy meal; as he promised, it held up well to, and even cut, some of the richness of the cream based sauce in my dish. Nearly black and served in a goblet, this was a beautiful beer to behold, and my dinner companion, who had never had a barley-wine before, was quite impressed with the quality of it. There was little hoppy flavor in the beer, but there was certainly plenty of booze; the Below Decks is a 10% beer, and while it drinks a little shy of that, I was a little buzzed by the end of dinner after the two beers.
As for food, Heavy Seas holds its own. We split the Smoked Short Rib Taco, an order of which comes with three well filled soft corn shells and a ramekin of a sauce that appeared to be sour cream based. The short ribs were rich and flavorful, shredded and accompanied by cotija cheese (a classic, and delicious, Mexican cow's milk varietal that melts well and holds up to strong flavors like good beef) and a "pickled chayote slaw" that really just served to provide an alternative texture, but little else. This was a very good appetizer, not making me full, but definitely not leaving me starving. Of course, even if it had, the entrees arrived as I was taking my final bites; I would take this over either arriving too early or after a long wait, but I do tend to like a couple minutes between courses, though I think I may be alone in this.
My entree, the Duck Cannelloni, was again a recommendation by the waiter, and it was a good one. The sauce, listed on the menu as a "smoked cheddar cream" was heavy but not overwhelming, while the pasta, which resembled more of a very long, thin ravioli (and was actually almost identical to the ravioli my date had) was cooked fairly well, though it was maybe a tiny bit undercooked; just enough to be noticeable to me, but certainly not enough to be a problem. Even though duck is listed as the primary meat, I did not see or taste that much of it, though what was there was tasty. The whole dish was topped with fried onion strings, which were just shy of crispy; definitely a misstep on the part of the kitchen, as those need to have a legitimate crunch to be successful. Instead, they were a bit blah, and by the time I was finished eating, they were soggy and a little chewy. Despite this one issue, I ate everything with gusto, and really wanted a spoon to finish the sauce off with, though I held back.
Dessert was shared, with an order each of the Pecan Bourbon Bread Pudding and the Pyrat Rum Creme Brûlée, both recommended highly by the waiter. The Creme Brûlée was solid, with a definite flavor of white chocolate, as promised by the menu, and with a glass-like crust of caramelized sugar; that was perfect, since so often I get creme brûlée that has a weak, barely there at all crust, and this was clearly done with care and precision. That said, the Bread Pudding was the real star, not just of dessert, but of the whole meal. Local ice cream (rum raisin?), raisin bread, and a crème anglais to die for, this was among the best I have ever had, right up there with the to-die-for bread pudding at Fat Cat in Quincy, MA. It was sweet, but not even close to cloying. The portion was large enough (and we were full enough) that even though we loved it, we left about half of one of the five pieces of bread on the plate when we left, plus about a quarter of the creme brûlée.
So, finally to the waiter. Myron was up there with Timmy from David Burke Prime at Foxwoods, super knowledgeable, incredibly friendly, timed things well, provided great suggestions and checked in just the right amount. We at a couple points exchanged recommendations on food (I told him about Fat Cat, since he said he is a bread pudding aficionado) and beer (he agreed with me on Troegs Hop Knife), and he was just spot on with all his food and drink suggestions during the meal itself. I know some restaurants will do their best to honor requests for specific wait staff; if you go, I suggest asking to be put in his section.
All told, this was a really good experience, with pleasant staff, good food and beer, and a pretty nice atmosphere. My one complaint might be how insanely loud it is in the front area by the bar, including in the seating area, but it was a bit quieter in the back (good job by the hostess, too, clearly recognizing the nature of the dinner and putting us at probably the quietest table in the place, despite several open tables elsewhere), though still a bit noisy. This did not result in any problems for us, but it is something to be considered. Either way, I absolutely recommend going, and do yourself a favor and order the bread pudding.