The idea of beer and food pairing, although the subject of a great deal of writing over the last decade, finds relatively few practitioners in the real world. While the role of sommelier is long established in Canada’s upscale restaurants, the idea that there might be a beer list designed to complement a bistro menu is a rarity. Many venues aim for a handful of options that reduce the potential of beer in a dining setting to mere function; as a refreshing beverage to wash a meal down.
As a man who has designed and teaches a beer and food pairing course at George Brown College in Toronto, I have always been appreciative of Toronto’s Eastbound Brewing where husband and wife team Dave and Tara Lee work in concert to allow for multi-course themed events like Feastbound, where menus take on different cuisines. It’s some of the most inspired work at the discipline in the country.
I sat down with Tara Lee to ask about Eastbound’s new Chef’s Kitchen Bar offering. A four course meal served at the Kitchen Bar by the chef during service in an otherwise busy brewpub.
The Growler: The chef’s table concept is really more of a fine dining concept.
How did you decide to do that at Eastbound?
Tara Lee: Well the way the room is set up, everything is so open and we wanted to be transparent.We wanted to offer something a little more elevated to go along with both of our backgrounds. I come from a fine dining background. I came up in restaurants.
And I mean, we’ve always said that beer has a place at every table, whether that’s a casual experience or an elevated experience, and so to kind of bring that tasting menu experience to Eastbound isn’t something we’ve really done on a more intimate level.
The kitchen bar is my favorite spot in the whole place. I would rather sit there than anywhere else. It’s cool to see what’s going on and what’s behind everything. I know people are being more intentional with the way they’re spending their money. If they want to go for a nice night out, we also want to be that place for them. So people can come and do four courses with paired beers. They get the chef at their disposal, which is great. We can have a nice chat and share recipes, which is kind of an extension of what we already do, just elevated a level.
TG: Is this a concept that you’ve seen before in the beer world, or is it relatively new?
TL: I haven’t seen it on a tasting menu level, where only eight people can do this experience at a time. We’ve done beer dinners here, but to be able to be a little more intricate on a smaller scale with maybe more courses, where everybody gets their own plate. We haven’t really done it, I’ve never really seen that done with beer.
There’s a few places in the States. I mean, I haven’t traveled as much, especially in a while.
There are a few Michelin star beer restaurants in the States, which I think is really cool.
The fact that people are open to that experience. So I think that I think there’s people like that here. I think that there is still interest in beer and food pairing. It’s something I haven’t seen yet as much in Toronto. I’m sure there’s places doing maybe one course with the beer, but the fact that we can use all of our beer for every course I think is really special.
TG: I know that at one point, beerbistro had a chef’s table concept, but towards the end it wasn’t really like a bespoke dining experience. It was just sitting there watching the kitchen.
TL: So this, you could come every Thursday at 7 o’clock. If you wanted to come every Thursday and Friday for the full month, you would get eight different menus. There might be a couple little snacks that would make crossover. But the whole point is that if it’s your second time here, you’ll get a different menu every time.
TG: Is that very satisfying as a chef? You’ve been working on the brew pub menu for years at this point. The creativity. Is that a key factor for you?
TL: Especially post-COVID or post just like, you know, doing what we can to stay in the conversation, especially after being open for almost seven years. It’s definitely gratifying for me. I joke that I’ve been very lucky with all the people who we’ve had so far because like, wow, this is so great. We love the experience. I’m getting just as much out of it as you are. I get to talk about the beer that I’m really passionate about. I get to use all my favorites all the time.
And then I get to make food that I would want to sit down and eat or that I think goes really well.
A few people have gotten sort of a bonus course because I’m like, yeah, I thought about this the other day and I think it would also really go well. It’s very different from what you’re eating, but the same beer if you try it with both of those things might be really interesting to you.
It’s interesting to get other people’s backgrounds. Maybe where they’re from, not everybody who has come in has been from Toronto. And so to get their background influences and the take that they have in their memories, it’s really fun to talk about. If I’m not going to travel as much, it’s nice to meet those people who have a good breadth of information. I’m always learning.
TG: Are there particular beers of Dave’s that you find you like and you enjoy working with more than others?
TL: We always have about 12 beers on tap. So we’re only taking five beers for the menu.
I have quite a few to choose from. It’s not like we had like six IPAs and then like a couple other beers. So I feel like we have a lot of different flavor profiles that I can introduce to people. We have found that as much as we love Saisons, they tend not to be the biggest movers, which I’m sure you know, in the beer industry.
TG: I drank as much Stone Skipper as I possibly could.
TL: Absolutely. I can introduce those people with a five-ounce portion of that beer with one of the courses, I think they will be so nervous to order it as a full pint sometimes at the brewery as well.
I really love our Irish Red. I think it goes really well with a lot of different courses because it’s not just grainy and dry, but it does have a little sweetness at the beginning. I think that for some people they think craft beer is IPA. We just brewed a Micro IPA, we have a single-malt single-hop and Let’s Go Exploring DDH. I could do four courses just with those and give them a different flavor profile with every single one.
So I don’t know if there’s a favorite.
TG: At four courses, that’s $85 for a ticket.
TL: Yeah, so you start with sort of a snack platter. It’s usually got like four or five sort of bites per person to it. With two beers that are not really similar. I try to kind of get you on both ends of the spectrum so that you can try to see how they play up on your palate. Sometimes I’ll throw a little bonus course or an extra bite. The main course comes usually with a salad, so some sort of seasonal vegetable or like braised meats. We don’t do dessert with this menu. Everybody gets a cheese course at the end, I think that it’s a nice way to finish up. Most people will hold on to some of their beers to kind of see how they go with the rest of the menu as well.
TG: And you’re guiding them through that the entire time?
TL: Absolutely. I’m greeting them when they get there. We talk a little bit about the background and point out some different things in the restaurant.
I let everybody go at their own pace. I always tell them, please don’t rush. There’s lots of time. This space is yours all the time. If there’s anything you want packed up to take home, like if you’re worried about getting too full during the meal, like I’m happy to do that. Don’t worry if you don’t finish your beers. No one’s going to be upset about it. But to take your time and get the full experience. They also get to interact with the cooks that are working too and they get to ask questions. I kind of serve from both sides, so I come around to bring them their finished plates that they get to see being created.
Thursday and Friday nights there’s generally a good little buzz in here so there’s live music. It’s kind of an all-around experience for a night out.