by Yoko Minoura
For Justin Birtola, head chef at The Row, the closure of Tetherow’s golf course marks the beginning of the best time of year.
It kicks off the start of featured breweries at The Row, where the restaurant devotes three taps to a selected brewery each month, and develops five new menu items roughly every week incorporating that brewery’s suds in the food.
“It’s something we all look forward to,” Birtola said, explaining it allows his crew to reset after the hectic summer season and explore their creative side again. “It allows my cooks to experiment and think and practice. (And we) get motivated for the holiday season.”
Now in its third year, some of the so‑called “Eat Your Beer” menu items have proved popular enough to migrate to The Row’s regular menu.
For instance, the restaurant now features Apple Ale Cakes, pancakes infused with beer, on its breakfast menu; its dessert offerings include a Turtle Sundae with porter fudge; and its appetizers include “Hopanero” dip, a spicy, cheesy dip served with flatbread and tortilla chips. All started out as specials in previous years.
Other items from past years, such as Jubelale BBQ Wings, have reappeared this year after undergoing some refinement.
“Especially being a chef, you’re never fully satisfied with the first plate you make,” Birtola said. “(Each dish) is a living entity in that the more energy you put into it, the better it becomes.”
He added that sometimes they also decide to revisit a recipe but with a completely new beer, putting a different spin on the end result.
“The science behind it is trying to imagine the beer as a bittering agent in whatever food,” Birtola said. A little goes a long way; beer needs to be counteracted with a fairly strong sweetener to prevent it from overwhelming the dish.
“Once that level of bitterness is leveled out, then you get the true flavor of the beer,” he explained, such as the smoky, dark coffee notes in a porter.
He said that breweries have been uniformly enthusiastic to find out when The Row decides to feature their brews in the restaurant, particularly if they don’t have a local restaurant or food offerings of their own. The added exposure is a small way The Row gives back, he explained.
And it’s a good experience for the kitchen as well; they keep a notebook in the back where staff are encouraged to jot down ideas, and the crew sits down weekly to set the specials, considering any seasonal vegetables or quality meat that would make a good dish.
“It makes me feel I’m doing my job as a chef to see my crew learn and develop and express themselves through food,” he said.
The Row kicked off this season with Deschutes Brewery in November; they will spotlight Silver Moon Brewing in December and Ancestry Brewing out of Portland in January. Breweries for the following months have yet to be determined; Birtola encouraged anyone with a particular brewery in mind to email him at email@example.com.