Dilettante: Novare Res, Portland's beer mecca

Posted Wednesday, June 22, 2011 in Culture

Dilettante: Novare Res, Portland's beer mecca

Sausage dinner at Novare Res

by Jan Brennan

 
PORTLAND – I've always loved the term "beer garden." It conjures up images of jovial people singing as they sit at long tables, with buxom waitresses laden with steins endlessly supplying them with frothy brews.
 
Portland has a beer garden, the oddly named Novare Res Bier Cafe (Latin for "start a revolution"). On a visit last week I found the long tables, the frothy brews, and the jovial drinkers; there was no German Oktoberfest atmosphere, but a more appropriately Maine-like, sedate sigh of contentment from obviously happy customers. 
 
Novare Res is hidden away behind the storefronts of Exchange Street. You enter through a little alleyway a few doors down the hill from Starbucks, and come upon a secret garden at 4 Canal Plaza. Here you'll find a large, multilevel deck, tucked between brick buildings and leafy trees – a lovely, shady respite amid a sea of commercialism. On this rainy and cool evening, the eight long picnic tables topped with umbrellas were of course empty; we set up camp in the basement bar. This rather nondescript space – with brick walls, pressed tin ceiling, and decorated with beer signs and Christmas tree lights – looks like it could be your parents' basement rec room. A second, smaller room, unused this evening, holds dartboards and a couple of couches. Everything, including the rest rooms, was impeccably clean.
 
Eschewing the long, blond-wood picnic tables and benches, we settled into an old church pew along the wall, and began studying the massive menu. And what a menu! With 25 rotating drafts and more than 300 bottles, the choice is overwhelming. Our friendly and efficient waitress made ordering easier with her knowledgeable descriptions and prompt serving of a free taste of my first tentative choice: Young's Chocolate Stout. It's actually made with chocolate, she explained, and while I love chocolate, it was a bit much for me. I was happier with a pint of McAuslan St. Ambroise Oatmeal Stout, a Canadian brew of dark malts and roasted barley ($6.50 for 16 ounces).
 
In comparison, I found my husband's choice, Wadsworth Henry's IPA, a bit thin, though he liked it. More to my liking was his second glass, Einbecker Pils, a clean and refreshing German pilsner ($4.50 for 9 ounces – each beer comes in an appropriate glass, so sizes and prices vary).  
 
Not a beer drinker? Well, there's wine: six reds and five whites available by the glass ($6-$8) or bottle ($20-$28), plus a couple of proseccos and other sparkling wines. Prefer the hard stuff? Novare Res grudgingly provides scotch, tequila and rum for $12 a shot – "neat or rocks," the menu sternly warns, "no mixes." 
 
OK, we get it: This place is about beer, and only beer. With such single-minded focus, we weren't expecting to find much of a food menu. But here came the nicest surprise: The food is incredibly creative and delicious.
 
I had the Spring Sandwich ($7): rosemary ham, Cotswald cheese, garlic onion jam and green leaf lettuce served on Standard Baking's mixed wheat bread. This is not your typical overstuffed sandwich, but a right-sized, careful construction in which neither the few thin slices of lean, herb-kissed ham nor the single slice of pungent cheese predominates. It was a perfect blend of sweet and savory. It came with kettle chips (I could have chosen a side salad instead), and housemade pickle slices (my only complaint: They were delicious but sliced so thin they were flaccid and difficult to eat out of hand).
 
My husband opted for the sausage plate ($8), two grilled sausages from Pat's Meat Market served with sauerkraut, spicy mustard, a pickled red pepper, and  toasted, buttered Standard bread. A pretty presentation, and substantial flavors that were a perfect complement to his beers. 
 
In fact, it's obvious that everything on the small menu was thoughtfully chosen to be the best accompaniment to beer. There are shrimp tacos, pulled pork, a beef stew made with stout, and a selection of imported meats and cheeses at $3 for a one-ounce serving. All of it is better than it needs to be. Take, for example, the unexpected mousse, made of liver, truffles and sherry. And who doesn't like a cold beer and a hot dog? Here the hot dogs are served with Japanese mayo, wasabi, pickled ginger, onion, nori flakes and sesame seeds. Wow.
 
With such as inventive menu, it's a shame that Novare Res doesn't open till 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday, at 3 on Fridays. I imagine many a nearby office worker would appreciate lunching on a great sandwich and a Maine Root soda or organic lemonade at those shady picnic tables. Well, they'll have to wait for the weekend, when the bar opens at noon. Closing time is 1 a.m., seven days a week.  
 
Only two items are offered for dessert, a trio of chocolates, or a Belgian waffle and ice cream. I chose the latter, and boy, was I glad I did – I don't know what their secret is, but it was the best waffle I've ever had! Standing upright and prettily decorated with live violets, it was accompanied by a scoop of housemade ice cream made with La Fin du Monde beer, and a Trois Pistoles sauce with candied cherries. Perfection! The only fly in the ointment was my choice of accompanying drink: blueberry mead by Maine Mead Works ($7). Not as fruity as I expected and with a strange, thin, red color, it looked and tasted like a sour Kool-Aid. I would have been better off with that chocolate stout.
Waffle
 
Well, that serves as a good lesson for me: When at Novare Res, stick with the beer. As their Facebook page says, they are "totally and utterly devoted to beer and the spreading of its gospel." Novare Res, you've made a convert out of me.
 
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