Of course I had to order one: The 750-milliliter bottle of Fantome de Noel, with its vaguely creepy Saint-Nick-meets-Casper-the-Friendly-Ghost label, is designed for drinking around Christmas, as if it were Santa’s little helper to forget about the credit card bills due in January. From what a bartender told me, the seasonal beer may also make you forget why you love Belgian beers in the first place. “The last time I had that,” the barman said about a previous batch in a bar far away, “it was completely black.” And by “black,” I think he meant dark, nasty and undrinkable.
Apparently Prignon isn’t so crazy about recipes, which means his beers can vary more by season than the Washington Wizards. There’s nothing to fear, though, about the 2015 Fantome de Noel: This batch won’t curl your Christmas stockings. It’s a quaff that can be knocked back any time of year, a bottle-conditioned beauty that balances caramel sweetness with roasty black-pepper spice. I wassailed the thing down to its yeasty dregs.
Should you be surprised that the Sovereign knows when to stock a Fantome beer and when to flee from one? Only if you’ve never met Greg Engert, the beer director for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group and the driving force behind this Georgetown bistro, which since its February opening has dedicated itself to Belgian food and fermented malt beverages. Engert’s the gatekeeper of the beer list, and none shall pass unless it first meets the approval of the District’s elder statesman of suds, who’s all of 36.
The Sovereign is a product of the American craft-beer movement — and a rejection of it. This is not the place for those seeking the latest tongue-dissolving IPAs (has anyone marketed a Hop Till You Drop yet?) or even the place to tipple the same Trappist ales and pink elephant-branded bottles available at every bar that adopts a Belgian persona. No, the Sovereign is the obsessive comic-book guy you avoid at parties: Its draft and bottle lists bring together the obscure and the cutting-edge of Belgian brewing, 400 brands to attract only the most passionate nerds.
If this sounds intimidating, well, it is. But the best place to park your beer belly is either at the dark, densely packed downstairs bar or in the heavily wooden tavern upstairs, which looks like an Elks Lodge for the Uber generation. Behind these counters hover the Sovereign staff I dub the Disciples of Greg, the geeks who have flocked here to learn from Engert. Their passion is infectious, and as the Fantome anecdote shows, they know their way around Belgian beers, down to a brewer’s reputation. Some floor servers, by comparison, can feel like weekend beer-pong warriors.
While seated at one of the bars, I’ve sampled a Boon Geuze Mariage Parfait (with its pickle-brine tickle on the nose), a Jolly Pumpkin Madrugada Obscura (like a cross between a stout and cherry vinegar), Brasserie Caracole Nostradamus (a strong dark ale that smacks of toasted raisin bread), Timmermans Oude Kriek (a limited-edition lambic so acidic it bores through any food you pair with it), Brasserie Ellezelloise Hercule Stout (like espresso infused with figs and chocolate) and De Ranke Hop Harvest (a candied orange blond ale with a hop wallop that would impress an IPA lover).
Located down an alley punctuated with rat traps and candle lanterns, the Sovereign makes sampling its 50 drafts easy with the option of four-ounce pours. I haven’t felt this challenged — and often rewarded — at a beer emporium since Neighborhood Restaurant Group and Engert opened Birch & Barley/ChurchKey in Logan Circle in 2009.
Peter Smith, the restless chef behind the late PS7’s in Chinatown, is tasked with executing a menu to keep pace with the ambitious beer program. To distinguish the Sovereign, Smith buys Dutch-style mussels from Acadia Aqua Farms in Maine. The bivalves are decidedly meatier than their Prince Edward Island cousins, which can sometimes mean more surface area to ferry a lackluster broth, like a pesto-and-white-wine preparation that goes down like bitter basil water. The Belgian pot fares far better, though the light, crispy frites often outshine the shellfish.
I stumbled upon a recurring pattern: dishes that don’t measure up to menu billing. The choucroute garnie conceals its sausage and juniper-scented sauerkraut in a rolled pork belly, which then rests on a sizable pool of Belgian stoemp potatoes, a cheffy preparation that undermines all my expectations. The mushroom vol-au-vent promises a ragout of cultivated fungus in puff pastry but delivers a creamy mix of vegetables, including some mushrooms, cut with a brown beer onion jam. The flaky pastry fades deep into the background like a ghost.
Smith uses beer to good effect. The coq au gueuze is an inspired coq au vin riff: The kitchen marinates chicken in gueuze, a lambic blend, and then braises it in more gueuze and a little Dutch spirit genever, instead of red wine. Paired with bacon and herbed spaetzle, the bird supplies its own acid for balance. Rabbit braised in kriek (another lambic) comes sprinkled with dried cherries, a brilliant co-conspirator with the lambic-and-stock sauce.
Some of the best eating can be found on opposite ends of the menu. The irresistible flammekueches start with a traditional German flatbread layered with creme fraiche, lardons and onions, and move through several variations, each basically a topped cracker on steroids. The cheese croquettes, their crisp exteriors revealing gooey centers of gruyere, benefit from a quick dip in spicy bicky sauce, that strange tangy condiment slathered on Belgium’s ubiquitous fried burger. A small bowl of onion soup gratinee casts aside the standard beef or chicken broths for a liquid built from roasted duck carcasses and cabernet sauvignon. Your spoon won’t rest till the soup’s gone.
Naomi Gallego, NRG’s executive pastry chef, handles the dessert menu, which naturally features a line of sweet Liege waffles, including one topped with Nutella and bananas. Its obviousness will not stop you from devouring it. But I preferred Gallego’s chocolate torte, in which she incorporates Belgium’s famous confection into layers of varying density and intensity, from flourless chocolate cake to a milk chocolate cremeux. My only issue was trying to find the perfect beer to pair with it.
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