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A Fine Flagon

by B.A. Nilsson on January 17, 2013 · 1 comment

The Bier Abbey, 613 Union St., Schenectady, 388-8597, thebierabbey.com. Serving noon-midnight Mon-Thu, noon-2 AM Fri-Sat, 11:30 AM-9 PM Sun. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: homemade pub fare

Entrée price range: $7.50 (burger) to $17.50 (steak frites)

Ambiance: pubnacious

Nothing in my knowledge or appreciation of beer comes even close to the fanaticism-driven expertise that informs Bier Abbey. The ever-changing selection is daunting in its scope, decisive in its presentation. It’s colorfully chalked on a slate above the taps, and don’t look for fancy handles. “We don’t want people to choose something just because they recognize the handle,” says Jeremy Irving, who was working the bar during my recent visit. He also doesn’t want to believe that there are people who dislike beer. He’ll work with you. He knows what he’s pouring. As it happens, I showed up with my beer-apathetic friend Malcolm, and offered him as a test case. Jeremy quizzed him on favorite tipples. Red wine. “Red wine,” said Jeremy. “I can work with that. Taste this.”

It was a dark Belgian brew, Kasteel Cuvée du Chateau from Van Honsebrouck. It took Malcolm by surprise. It impressed me enough that I ordered a 4-ounce pour, which for this selection is $4. For comparison, I ordered a 4-ouncer of a lighter Belgian ale, Pauwel Kwak, which got our pleasant and unusual meal off to a very good start.

The Bier Abbey is a recent addition—it opened last June—to Schenectady’s burgeoning restaurant row, a stretch of Union Street just east of Erie Blvd. that boasts a succession of varied eateries, including the Manhattan Exchange, Marotta’s Bar-Risto and Café NOLA. It certainly fills a niche. Owner George Collentine correctly determined that Schenectady was embarrassingly free of a truly beer-savvy establishment, and salutes your enlightened sense of worship for a good flagon of suds by giving you the option of sitting in a pew.

But there’s a well-designed food component, too, that underscores the publike feel of the place.

It’s a simple menu that combines a familiar what-folks-like set of choices with a cooked-from-scratch approach. You can start with a charcuterie plate ($14) that features smoked kielbasa from nearby Garafalo’s (itself a worthy destination). There’s a $14 cheese plate. Two pounds of PEI mussels ($12) are served with a Thai curry or chorizo-based “red devil” sauce. What’s not there are jalapeno poppers, fried mozzarella sticks and shrimp anything. Which is refreshing.

Chicken wings may seem like old hat, but not when sauced as creatively as we enjoyed them. They’re $9.50 per dozen. I asked our server, Kate, about the heat level of the hottest of the sauces. “It’s pretty hot,” she told me. “And we also have a BierBQ sauce that’s kind of sweet. So what I like to do is mix them.”

Could she do that for us? No problem.

You can’t be all kinds of Belgian without serving frites, so they’re available in two styles of starter: covered in cheese sauce with bacon and chives ($8) or served naked with a couple of dipping sauces ($5). Keen for variety, I ordered the latter with the contrasting accompaniments of ancho mayo and BierBQ—and took advantage of the blue-cheese dressing served with the wings.

Salads include spinach ($8), Caesar ($9) and mesclun-based house ($7), any of which can be tricked out with chicken ($3), shrimp ($4) or chevre ($4).

I continue to seek superior burgers everywhere I go, a tough task given the amount of overcooked, inferior beef that comes out of so many kitchens. Not so here. You can get it plain ($7.50) or choose a cheese (add a dollar), but you might as well go for the Abbey Burger ($9.50), which adds beer-caramelized onions, Grafton Village cheddar and bacon. Add fries, if you didn’t have them already, for $2.50. It’s a good deal. It’s a great burger, juicy and long on flavor.

If you venture beyond the burgers, there are sandwiches with house-roasted pastrami ($9.50), chicken ($7.50) or a good old BLT ($7.50).

Four main dishes comprise fish and chips ($13), Tandoori Cornish Hen ($14), a 12-ounce Hereford strip steak ($17.50) and a half-pound center-cut pork chop ($14), each served with fries. We sampled the pork chop, which was appropriately plump and juicy, but oddly muted in flavor, as if seeking a marinade.

To celebrate the entrée, I went on to a 10-ounce serving of Clipper City Black Cannon IPA ($8.50), the evening’s cask-based selection. Your beer arrives in a piece of glassware probably supplied by its brewery, intended to complement the beverage’s manner of opening its flavor. And it is served at its proper temperature, which isn’t necessarily as cold as you might expect, especially if you’ve had a close relationship with the pisswater lagers that mask their lack of flavor by freezing your palate.

Kate, who had guided us so well through the meal, made no secret of her affection for the warm apple crisp that was the evening’s dessert special, served with ice cream ($8). As with Jeremy back at the bar, her advice again was on the money.

I walked out with fresh insight about how readily a good glass of beer solves many a problem by end of day, and I can see myself henceforth seeking all sorts of advice from Bier Abbey.