Earlier this year, the Neighborhood Restaurant Group announced the opening of The Sovereign, a Belgian-focused bar and bistro located at 1206 Wisconsin Avenue NW in Georgetown. The two-story space contains an 84-seat first floor dining room and a 47-seat bar on the second floor.
In anticipation of the restaurant’s early February opening, we’re speaking with Neighborhood Restaurant Group Beer Director Greg Engert about the new beer program and, per usual with Greg, a number of other beer industry-related topics. See the first interview here and the second here. In this third and final interview, we tour the space with Greg and discuss the food menu, among other topics. Because of the nature of chatting while walking around a restaurant, segments are arranged topically below.
What follows has been edited for length and clarity.
We started off in the bottle and keg storage rooms, which was a veritable playground for Belgian beer lovers…
Can’t pour lambics without lambic baskets.
A truly staggering amount of Drie Fonteinen Oude Gueuze. Some Girardin and Cantillon Gueuze also pictured.
Spotted: Drie Fonteinen Oude Kriek, Kriek de Ranke, Jester King, Jolly Pumpkin Bambiere, some cases from the now-defunct Pretty Things, Girardin Black Label Gueuze and Kriek.
Wait a minute…Jester King!? That’s right, rarely seen in DC.
A close-up of the above for you to use as your desktop wallpaper.
Allagash Tiarna, which will be on draft for the first time in DC when The Sovereign opens
Praire Ales 1.5L
And some 2010 Westvleteren. Because why not?
Greg surveying his bounty in a temporary keg storage area.
Stacks on stacks on stacks of accumulated de la Senne.
One of about 10 Cantillon kegs.
Kegs. Kegs of Belgian beer as far as the eye can see. Notice the sweet Chicago mural in the back.
After checking out the inventory, we started to tour the actual space, which is reached by going down an alley off of Wisconsin Avenue.
Greg Engert: The original bones of the building–I think it was built in 1983. It was Champions for a long time. It was always a weird configuration; it was always two bars, one downstairs, one upstairs. We wanted to capitalize on the two different spaces and have two different kinds of offerings. A lot of this is unfinished; you’ll see what we have so far.
DCBeer: So you built all of this out?
GE: Everything. So about 15 seats at the bar. There are going to be about 24 seats in the bar area, and that’s first-come, not reservations. Then there’s about 50 seats in the dining room, and that’s reservation only. You can reserve a table here seven nights a week, or you can just come in [to the bar area]. It’s a bistro, so you should be able to come in.
Photo courtesy of Marissa Bialecki. (Thanks, Marissa.)
On the wood in the bar…”This is all our mill worker. He came in and built the bar, all the awning, the casing here. We’ve put some beer coolers [behind the bar] so you’ll be able to see some cool beers right behind.”
…and wine…”The wine list will be curated by Brent Kroll. There will be a dozen by the glass, 50+ by the bottle…concentrating on continental wines with a special focus on natural wines, which are really huge in Brussels. It’s another way we’re trying to be a little more authentic about the Belgian experience….We’re trying to reflect as much what’s hip and happening in Brussels’ bars and restaurants beyond beer and food as we are about having a great Belgian beer list and mussels. It’s a cool thing to have Brent, who is obviously amazing at what he does, jumping in and having a great wine list that makes a lot of sense: French, Spanish, some Italian, but then also some natural and biodynamic wines that [Belgians] happen to be into. [These] also have a touch of that earthy funk that lends itself to lambic. It makes a lot of sense. As with all of our places, it may be beer-focused or beer-centric, but it’s not to exclude people who like wine. You can not like beer at all, and you’re still going to love this place, which is what we’ve done at Birch & Barley, and we’ll do it here, too.”
…and spirits…”Jeff Faile is putting together an amazing list, covering all of the spirits and flavor profiles that you’d want on your list but with a special focus on genevers. We’re bringing in some really cool ones from overseas that we haven’t seen as often. He’s incorporating these into our cocktails, plus really cool elixirs and liqueurs, herb liqueurs, aperitif wines.”
…and draft systems…”The draft system down here you’ll see is split like ChurchKey, which is intentional, but with a difference. We have basically ten lines here at 42 [degrees], and then 30 [lines] at 48 [degrees] just like ChurchKey, and 10 at 54. Belgian-style lagers, low-alcohol but hoppy blond ales, witbiers and such coming out at 42 degree temps; the big Belgian barleywines, grand crus, abts, quads, stronger tripels, imperial stouts coming on at 54, and then everyone else in between coming in at 48.”
DCBeer: Tell me a little bit more about the ambience down here. There is no natural light…
Again courtesy of Marissa Bialecki.
GE: We embraced the hell out of that. It’s so cool to have this low, kind of cave-like, cozy basement bar. They’re classic in Belgium. Who doesn’t want that?
DCBeer: It kind of reminds of the basement at The Brewer’s Art down here.
GE: Exactly. Totally. No natural light, but at the same time, it’s still a bistro…but it’s kind of a cavernous bistro. A lot of the wood is an homage to the brown bar feeling in Belgium and Brussels that you see in that area. This is actually not even done; there’s a lot more that’s going to be happening here. We exposed the foundation walls to give it more of a cellar look. Rick Singleton is our artist who works on all of our light fixtures at all of the places.
And a third from Marissa Bialecki.
From here, we went to look at the keg room.
DCBeer: Couldn’t get the gravity draw for this one?
GE: That would’ve been nice. Or to live in Europe where your cellars are actually cellar temps so you don’t have to refrigerate everything.
DCBeer: Wouldn’t it be awesome to be locked in here sitcom style? Your worst nightmare?
GE: [no response]
These are all surgical stainless steel components. Everything possible is surgical stainless. All the tubing is wine grade….This will be kept at 42 degrees, which is a great temperature for holding everything. Then we use these heat exchangers to alter the temps, and then the glycol out there will maintain the temps on the lines to both floors. There are 50 lines, and every single one of them goes like that [splits in two] with shut-offs, so the same 50 beers are on both levels, which is pretty cool.
This is definitely something we spared no expense on. It’s an in-line system for cleaning, so we can effectively and efficiently clean all of the lines we need to.
The other thing I didn’t mention before, but you did: The flow control faucets…we’re using them because they’re fantastic. Especially for beers at higher CO2. Belgian beer is highly carbonated, more intensely carbonated than most other beers. The parts per million can make them a challenge for some people to pour. Factor in KeyKegs and some smaller breweries who don’t do as much kegging as we’d like them to….anyway, longer spout, and the flow control really lets us dial in the pressures at the point of service, which is really important. They have that Flux Capacitor that they’ve used at Torst and Mikkeller Bar, controlling the pressures downstairs. We looked at doing that, but I really think that with proper attention to the pressure that we’re bringing to the kegs and these flow controls, we can kind of control the actual foaming nature of the kegs.
DCBeer: How much of a learning curve do you think that is for the staff?
It’s a learning curve. I think the biggest learning curve for people is to slow down.
…and not be pouring two or three at once?
Yeah, I always say the benchmark for me is to think about how long it takes to get a cocktail. Even if it takes two or three times longer than you think it should take to pour, it’s still way faster than it takes to pour a cocktail. And great beer should take some time to serve properly. Plus, the amount of head on these beers is very important. We can’t serve beer that has too much head; we definitely don’t want to serve beer that doesn’t have enough head. So taking the time to make sure that we’re serving all of this beer to look great, taste great, and to show properly in the glass is worth the time. I think guests will appreciate that, too.
People come from all over, tending bar and pouring beers, and if it’s foamy, they throw their hands up like that’s the end of it, or they’re rushing too much. We’ve talked a lot in these interviews about how you should have some differing expectations when you go to certain bars versus others. I think people definitely have that for wine or cocktail bars. I’m not saying our service is slow by any means, but it’s not “a shot and a beer” down here. I think taking a little bit more time to make sure it’s perfect will be appreciated by the guest.
DCBeer: One thing I didn’t realize until I was here two weekends ago is how far off the main street this is. I think it changes the crowd you’re going to get a little bit. In a good way. I’m actually more excited to come here now because I think you won’t get the typical Georgetown crowd. I think there’s a novelty to having to come down the alley. Less tourists, which is nice. I don’t personally want people who are like, “Eh, what’s the closest thing to Bud Light?”
Well, I think Georgetown is changing. People have a lot of preconceived notions about Georgetown, including yourself, that don’t live here.
There hasn’t been a compelling reason for me to come to Georgetown for a long time.
But I think it’s changing. A lot of these old places that have offered nothing of note are going away. Their 15 years are up, and a lot of new places are opening. Now, a lot of new places that are opening are putting a new veneer on the old club that’s always kind of been there, which is going to continue to not make people come to Georgetown. But I think places like Chez Billy Sud, us, more in the future, are coming in and saying…”We see so many great places on 14th Street or Shaw, why are they not over here?” And I think a lot of people have been worried that it’s not a home run. There have been some new openings in this neighborhood that are just literally modernized versions of things that people would not go to if they were on 14th Street necessarily. So I think that it takes a little bit of a risk to say, “Let’s do a place that we want to do in a neighborhood that doesn’t have a lot of that yet.” Hopefully it’ll get people like you who would not come to Georgetown otherwise to come over here. That comes circling back to what you said: not only are we in Georgetown, but we’re at the end of a narrow alley. You have to know where this place is to get to it. We like that. We were excited about that.
Are you going to put any signage at the end of the alley?
Not at the end of the alley. We can’t. We don’t own those buildings. We’ll have signage on our storefront here, and you’ll be able to see that, I think, from the road. We’re definitely, as with all of our places, still crafting the decor. Some decisions haven’t been made. I think what you’ll be able to see is, there’s going to be life down here. There’s going to be lighting on the awning. We’re having to work with the BID, the neighborhood, with our neighbors; it’d be really cool to string lights up and down the whole alley, but it takes a lot of agreements….I think it’ll be recognizable as something, as a bar and restaurant, but is it going to be calling to you the same way as something right on M Street would? No. It makes it unique.
Climbing the stairs to the upper level, we stop in front of what would be a quite large walk-in closet in a residential space.
GE: This is something I’m really psyched about….There was this weird space over here; what would we do with this space when the rest of it is happening over here? [gesturing toward the bar area]. It dawned on me, kind of when we were talking about quickness of service: if you have 300-500 bottles, you don’t really need them all at arm’s length, especially when you have so much on draft. So this is our built-in walk-in beer storage room. It is temperature-controlled, light-controlled, and humidity-controlled, and so we’re going to have bottles in here all the way to the ceiling….I think we can get over 3,000 individual bottles in here.
From here, we moved into the upstairs bar area.
GE: So this is more spacious, but at the same time there’s still not a ton of natural light. Same 50 drafts, lined up on the back, nothing on the front bar. Same wine lists and spirits up here. Food will be the same. This has more of a hunting lodge, kind of old world, German, Luxembourg–
It’s got kind of a Jagermeister kind of feel.
GE: The deer heads on the lights are kind of cool. All of that was custom. We put in the reclaimed wood ceiling here. [Behind the bar] are all antique mantles, and again that’s not close to finished. There’s a lot more glass coming in. I think it also hides the TVs well when we’re not using them. Again, you can come in here, sit at this bar, drink Taras Boulba while watching football, which I think is my dream.
After touring the space, we sat down to discuss the food menu, its inspirations, and introducing guests to lambics.
DCBeer: The big food thing when you guys announced were the mussels.
To me, it’s symbolic of how different this place is.
If you had to estimate, how much more is bringing in the mussels that you are costing you than to use more standard mussels?
The mussels that we are using are grown by fifth-generation Dutch mussel farmers who moved to the states and now grow mussels in Maine. They are expensive to grow because they’re not grown on ropes. Most farmed mussels are grown on ropes because there’s much more room in the ocean vertically than horizontally, and [farmed mussels are] grown for a shorter period of time so they don’t grow as full or as big. So they tend to be a little less plump and creamy and rich than the mussels you find in Belgium, which are grown naturally, horizontally, on the [ocean] floor, and for a longer period of time. I think the mussels that we’re using are two years old, a year and a half or two years old. It’s a small farm…that we’re getting them from, so they’re more expensive. A pound of mussels for us costs about two and a half times what they are for other restaurants. At the same time…there’s a standard for [what a restaurant can charge for mussels], and we have to follow it, same thing we do with beer.
Do you want to expand on that standard?
We talked about in one of the other interviews [that] you could make a case for a beer specialist bar charging more for the same beer as your dive bar. We don’t. We’re looking to provide value. It’s funny, when you walk into a place that has $12 beers on draft, you think it’s not [trying to provide value], but we run a far higher beer cost on anything that’s expensive. If you see something that’s $12, it should be $16 or $18. It’s appearances….When you see five or six $12 beers, it doesn’t seem like high value, but those should be $16 each.
I am so excited that I am able to offer the price points we’ve been talking about. Because we don’t have the $6 DC IPA on draft here that can make up for the expensive stuff. We have to find a way to make these beers not only affordable but sessionable, which is what they are in Belgium. And I think we can. I think we can offer a dozen or so beers that are typically $9-10 elsewhere for $6-7 here.
There’s also the issue of having the opportunity to buy those beers.
Opportunity plus training and line cleaning and all of that other stuff. We don’t add on to that. Same thing for mussels. They’re more expensive. Are we going to charge more for them than you’d expect to pay for mussels in the entire city? No. Will we make less of it because of that? Yes. Why are you doing that? Because they’re amazing, and we do this because want to present great experiences to people, and we want to showcase something different and new. We didn’t want to start this place to ask, “Hey, what kind of mussels does everyone else use, let’s use those.” We overthink everything. We want it to be a Belgian beer bar and bistro that is reminiscent of the best stuff that you find in Belgium.
What we found when we were [in Belgium] a year ago–we’ll be opening this place the week we got back from Belgium last year–the first thing, I’ll never forget it, we got off the plane from a red eye. By the time we got there, we went right to the Anderlecht district in Brussels. We were starving. Before we went to Cantillon, Jean Van Roy had suggested that we go to this awesome place called Friture Rene, which is an amazing restaurant making classic Belgian fare. (If you go to Cantillon, it’s where you should be eating. Either before or after. Or both.) A friture over there is like a fry shop, and this is more than that. It’s just classic. We got the mussels, and we opened them, and…we were like, “This is different.” They’re fuller. They’re creamy. Incredible. It costs an arm and a leg to get these to America over from the North Sea from the Dutch growers. But Peter [Smith, head chef at The Sovereign] did his research and found this small farm. I don’t know, maybe they’ll become the mussels that everybody buys, but I have a feeling based on price that probably not. But that is literally a point of differentiation that we’ve been looking for, and it hits on all cylinders.
Are you worried about the consistency of being able to source them?
No. We got to these guys and told them what we wanted to do. It’s kind of like the beers. We have a relationship with this small farm now….They’ll make sure we’re taken care of before opening up new accounts I think. I’m excited. Even there, even something that is so banal to most people, that is so expected when it comes to Belgian cuisine, to be able to…offer a product of higher quality, it so perfectly reflects what we’re doing with the beer.
Food-wise, we’ll be offering the mussels in two sizes all the time. Which is great because sometimes you want to crush mussels as your dinner, sometimes you want a little snack.
What about the rest of the food menu?
Other fun things, another big part of the program…there’s a great Alsatian dish called tarte flambée, and the German for it is flammkuchen. To call them flatbreads or pizzas is not quite to do them justice. They’re thin-crust, kind of crackery, but have a slightly doughy interior. I think in the old days they used to take some dough and test the heat of the oven with these so you knew if the heat of the oven was high enough for whatever you actually wanted to cook. And then they put some toppings on it and turned it into a snack, and it turned into this awesome thing. What’s even better is that it’s not like that’s the base and you put whatever toppings you want on it. What I think makes them so special is the classic, amazing combination that in some form will be in each of our tarte flambée offerings, which is: crème fraîche, lardons, and smoked onion. Those three flavors together are beautiful. That’s the basis of all of our tarte flambée. We’ll have one that is with that base maybe with some tweaks plus gruyère cheese, plus another with champignon mushrooms. But it’s all around that same base. What makes it is that crackery bread with a little more richness plus that topping base.
There will be four or five mussel sets and four or five tart flambe sets.
A couple of burgers, one is standard as you’d expect. The other is based off of Belgium’s Big Mac, theBicky Burger. It’s not chuck like you’d expect, it’s a blend of meats. We’re going to do ours with pork and beef, and it’s almost like a meatball consistency. It’s herbed with some nutmeg in there. It’s covered in a blend of three sauces: a sweet ketchup, a spicy hot sauce, and something slightly akin to Thousand Island. It’s like a mayo-based sauce with pickles, cauliflower, and veggies. So it’s this cool blend of sweet, sour, and spicy sauce, and then a roll inspired by pistolet that tastes kind of like an English muffin. They deep-fry the Bicky, but we’re going to skillet fry it. It gives it a crispness. It’s delicious; we’ve tasted and tested it a ton.
It’s a fun food menu that’s drawing on actually going there. Because when you’re wasted and done at Delirium Cafe, you eat these things in the middle of the street, and so to have that is really fun.
We’ve been testing and tasting shrimp croquettes, bitterballen, meatballs, a great Salade Liegeoise, their take on potato salad with high acid and lardons.
Will you incorporate beer into dishes at all?
You know, with Birch & Barley, we’ve made it a point to stay away from cooking with beer and focusing on pairing with beer. Part of that is that cooking with beer is not always a good idea. I thought for the longest time that the only way beer made its way to the table was being cooked with. “If you’re going to have a beer restaurant, everything should be cooked with beer! Cuisine a la biere!” But then I was like no…not every dish is cooked with wine; where it is, it’s because it’s better with that. There are some classic dishes that have wine in them for a reason rather than just subbing everything out.
One of the things I found out was that beer can be tough to cook with because it’s often too bitter and doesn’t have enough acid, which is really the reason why we cook with wine. One great answer to that that the Belgians have known all along is to use big, rich beers. Not that these don’t have bitterness, but they have this kind of port-like richness and intensity. You cook with port and sherry. So huge Belgian dark ales can be perfect to cook carbonnade a la flamande or something. Or acid-based beers that have nice acidity like gueuze and kriek. We are playing with some of that here, which I think is really fun. When you go over and have this stuff it is so good, but it’s not like gueuze is the only thing you’re cooking with. It’s one ingredient among many others.
Peter is classically trained French, and PS7’s had a lot of French. It was based on French technique, but it was made playful and modern and fun. Belgian food is not that distinct from French food. There will be a lot of French touches here and frankly even some francophile dishes. So we decided…we’re going to havecoq au vin on the menu. You’ll have your classic red wine-braised, stewed chicken, but we’re also going to offer two alternatives to that from the beer realm. So you can have coq au vin or you can have coq au gueuze, where gueuze is the primary cooking liquid rather than red wine. It is amazing. Little bit of tannins, the brightness of the acid, little bit of funk. Gueuze takes really well to butter and richness. Then we’ll have rabbit in kriek [lapín a la kriek], which is another play on chicken and red wine. Dark cherry as well in that dish, plus I think he’s going to do it with some wilted spinach and bacon. So that’s a fun thing, too. You don’t see chicken and gueuze in your Belgian bistro menus here.
And that will also help to introduce guests to gueuze and kriek’s flavor profiles.
I’ve done a lot of homework and research with my friends and brewers to look at their stocks and take a look at what we can get throughout the year. So we’re going to plan out when we’re going to tap Cantillon kegs, when we’re going to have certain Cantillons….Same with my stocks of lambic bottles. What we are going to do…we’re going to have gueuze and kriek by the glass. It’ll just be du jour, whatever we’re pouring that day. Some days it’ll be Drie Fonteinen; it probably won’t be Cantillon.
But you’ll tell them what it is? It won’t just be “gueuze of the day” or “kriek of the day”?
Sure, but it’ll be whatever we’re pouring that day. Whatever we wind up making it…This is one of the things about this place. It’s for reinforcing the love that geeks have for lambic, but I firmly believe that…there is nothing out there like lambic. It’s almost not even beer. It’s almost its own thing. It’s funny how over time wine drinkers and gourmands have gotten into spirits and cordials and cocktails and then dabble in craft beer, but to me it’s astonishing that…lambic isn’t part of their kind of thing…
Which is great for us.
[chuckles] Yeah, which is great for us now, but that’s part of what I want to do here. I want people to come in here and–every food critic should know what traditional kriek is and who makes them and what they taste like–these are the things that you would imagine that food critics and [gourmands] would appreciate. Even though craft beer bars have the same beers from the same regional breweries, what we’re doing is different and is more of a fitting into a mainstream food culture….I want people to drink gueuze and kriek….We’ll have certain [gueuze and kriek] on offer, so when you come in you know you can get as glass of kriek and not have to buy a 750mL or even a 12.7oz…
That’s the other thing for me. Having spent a fair amount of time at ChurchKey, people just don’t go to the bottle list as often as you would expect them to…If there are 50 drafts, there’s not as much of a need for the bottle list. But these beers are meant to be consumed. In Belgium, they aren’t hoarded; they’re meant to be consumed.
And frankly, they’re different in bottle. We’re going to have all of this de Blaugies and de la Senne on draft; we’re going to have all of them in bottle, too. Because frankly if you’re having dinner with your partner or your best friend, it’s kind of fun to share a 750 of something you have on draft. Especially if they’re comparably priced, which they will be.
You see, the Belgians, one of the big things about Belgian beer is…There’s lots of American-made tripels that taste fine but don’t have the body, the mouthfeel, or the effervescence that real Belgian beers do. And that’s because they don’t do proper step-mashing, they have different water profiles than they probably should have, and they don’t know the tricks that they have over there. They don’t know how to bottle condition without blowing their corks, which is an art. Even with that, when they put these beers on draft, it’s way higher CO2, which is why we have these lovely flow control faucets, especially when you’re trying to serve those at different temps.
Introducing bottle pours is something we’re getting into more and more…and I think this is the right place for it. Frankly I’d prefer to dump a little beer at the end of the night or let the staff taste it.
It’s not going to go to waste.
Sure, and we do shift drinks. We already do so much training that that shouldn’t be the thing we’re worried about. We can also now offer a different price point too.
You’re going to have people who come in, for a while, who have no fucking clue what gueuze is. Will have no idea how to even pronounce it. Your staff is going to explain it, and I don’t know what your 12.7s are going to cost, but–
Are people really going to want to take a gamble? We sell it by the glass…but it’s going to be gueuze and kriek. Those are the classic benchmarks; we’re not going to have others [by the glass]. Because I also think they’re awesome to bring to food pairing. But to your point, yeah it’s so much more accessible, love it or hate it, who knows? Then they might buy a bottle.
This is a good time to mention too, and to me this seems completely rational and logical…that we are going to have some limits on bottles. Certain things are going to not be open season because we want everybody to be able to experience this stuff. It’s in short supply, and you’re not going to be able to come in here and drink 12 bottles of Cantillon….We’re going to have more Cantillon here [than at ChurchKey], but we want it to be everyone to get some…always. I think people who love beer are the people who share beer and will never have any problem with that.
Definitely come because we have some of these crazy rare beers, but definitely stick around to taste some things that you didn’t expect to find. Because that’s what this is about. If you don’t love de la Senne beers, you’re going to, and you’re going to find that Zinnebir is a very, very delicious alternative to an IPA. And if you don’t love the beers of de Blaugies, you’re going to. I can’t stress this enough: it’s about those guys as much as it is about anybody else.