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The Prologue

August 27, 2010
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A proper beginning to The Project begins with the aforementioned anniversary dinner. The focal point of the evening was dinner at Birch & Barley, which, amazingly enough, is on 14th street. We had meant to eat there ever since it opened last fall. Like many things we mean to do, we simply hadn’t. Oh, Annie had Brunch there a few months ago. And we had been to Churchkey, the upstairs sister bar (they share a beer list and that’s about it). But actual dinner at the restaurant had eluded us. As Annie grasped, anniversaries are fantastic times to rectify such oversights. From there, it’s a short journey over dinner and drinks to the creation of our Dinner Project.

But that’s not what this post is about. This post is about our dinner at Birch & Barley. While not properly part of The Project, it is. In an homage to our first date, Annie had us grab gelato at a shop around the corner (having, to the best of my knowledge, fallen in love with gelato the previous weekend in Philly) before dinner. As you probably know, sequenced events rarely play out exactly as schemed. We finished our gelati too quickly (thanks, in part, to a rambunctious British family) and arrived early for our reservations at a typically packed restaurant. No problem – we could wait at the small downstairs bar.

Have I mentioned that Birch & Barley / Churchkey’s beer list is amazing? No? Well it is. Not amazing in its breadth as the Brickskeller once claimed / tried to be. Rather, amazing in its high quality, beer is fancy like we think wine is, sensibility. Whatever, they can probably explain themselves better than I can. Or ask the beer master (or whatever his fancy title is), Greg Engert.

The Setting: So we settled in to have a beer at the bar (Gassy Jack from Victory for me; I forget Annie’s precise choice but it was probably pumpkiny and better than mine). The downstairs bar is a little off-putting. You sit on clear plastic stools (very modern looking) while sitting at a solid, dark wooden bar. Votive candles suspended amidst a lincoln logs aesthetic provide a sense of lighting. Happily, we were seated at our table pretty quickly.

Annie, drawing on her prior experience at Birch & Barley, had asked for a table in the back room – behind the bar but in front of the kitchen are about six tables. It’s a bit quieter and has a more private feel. A nice touch.

The Meal: We ordered like champs that evening. Period. I don’t think we could have ordered poorly, but our masterstroke was to order interesting. We split our way through three appetizers / small plates and an entrée. A cheese plate, the sesame tuna tartare appetizer, a half portion of ricotta cavatelli with braised veal (suggested pairing: the Gassy Jack which I’d already finished) and finally the pork tenderloin. Now, I don’t have the food memory that Annie does. Generally, I remember that I liked or didn’t like a meal. Annie notices and remembers the difference in foods – like how the nutmeg really brings out other flavors (ok, probably not nutmeg on this evening). All I distinctly remember is that we really liked each plate, especially the tuna.

More importantly, some combination of our interesting ordering, our general joie de vivre, niceness on the part of the waiter or dumb luck turned the beer situation in our favor. I ordered a barleywine which was accidentally delivered as a tasting portion (read: little). I shrugged this off, assuming I’d accidentally ordered one of the beers that came in a small glass. The waiter soon stopped by and explained: error on their part, they’d bring me the full size when I’d finished the taster.

Annie took this opportunity to order a truly interesting sounding beer: Menno and Jens (w/ Yarrow, Gale and Mugwort). Her Menno and Jens arrived. Not two minutes later, before she’d had a chance to try it, the beer master, Greg Engert stopped by our table with another glass of Menno and Jens and proceeded to give us a brief talk about the construction and qualities of this beer. We were too confused by the arrival of an unexpected second beer (which was not the barleywine I was then expecting) to pay proper attention. Something about it being from Norway and a collaboration by two parties I’ve never heard of. But they should do more of it, because that stuff is excellent. Greg was clearly a little pleased with this beer and we agree. And then the barleywine came and we were surrounded by fancy glasses of fancy beer and nice plates of quality food and enjoying every moment of it. Whether the waiter flagged as VIPs in their system (something that was alluded to) or we struck the community chest, I do not know and do not care to know (strike that: if there’s a way to line up this sort of VIP treatment all the time, short of, you know, being an actual VIP I would like to know about that). The service definitely improved upon an already excellent evening.

It was sometime after this happy sequence of events that we crafted the rules to The Dinner Project.

The evening concluded with a delightful cheesecake – a second dessert! – and fresh pressed coffee – strong, fresh and flavorful. Filled and sated, we made our way home, the only thing left was to choose the next (first?) restaurant. Posto it is.

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