This article was originally written in February 2007 for the food & drink website Taste T.O., and republished here in September 2011 (but back-dated to match the original publication date) after Taste T.O. was shut down and taken offline.
Esplanade Bier Markt
58 The Esplanade
dinner for two with beer, tax & tip: $125
I like good food. I like good beer. I really like good food and good beer together. So applying accepted scientific principles, it would seem that I should just love Esplanade Bier Markt. Before beerbistro and other so-called gastropubs came along, the Markt was the first place in Toronto that attempted to show that beer can be paired with good quality food just as well as wine. They had a beer list that was at the time rivalled only by the selection at Smokeless Joe, and they served a solid line-up of bistro-inspired dishes. All in all, it was a seemingly perfect place for me.
For a number of reasons, though, I’ve never really enjoyed myself there. The ambience suffers from a severe case of split personality, and while beer is obviously the Bier Markt’s main raison d’être, it sometimes feels as if it’s not given the attention it deserves. But before getting too negative, I should focus on some of the good things about the Bier Markt. As noted above, the food has always been great, and remains so under executive chef Michael Cipollo.
As you’d expect from a Belgian bistro influenced kitchen, mussels are well-represented with eight different preparations, including upscale À La Snob (leeks, tomato, pernod, lobster cream), zesty Duvel (Duvel beer, red chilies, fresh tomato), and a twist on the traditional Belgian fish stew Waterzooi (Stella Artois, cremini mushrooms, leeks, shallots, herbs, cream).
On my most recent visit, I went with the simple Provençale treatment (tomato, white wine, garlic, herbes de Provence) and even though I chose the smaller 1/2 kilo order ($12, full kilo for $20), I was more than satisfied by the heaping bowl of fresh, plump mussels in a delectable broth. Less satisfying was the side order of frites ($5). They were over-salted, limp and greasy, and had they been better, I would have probably been disappointed by the size of the serving. They were salvaged somewhat by the dijon and curry mayos that came along for dipping, but halfway through the bowl, they were left abandoned.
One of my dining companions was also disappointed with the frites that accompanied her Filet Burger ($22), but she declared the burger itself to be fantastic – a juicy beef patty topped with caramelized onion, bacon, tomato and gruyère, along with a green peppercorn sauce that was described simply as “perfection”. Her partner, who is also of the carnivorous persuasion, happily chowed down on a double-sized Wurst Sampler ($16) which featured simply presented cuts of smoked Bavarian sausage, bratwurst and rohwurst, along with a assortment of mustards and a wedge of smoked Gouda. He was happy to report that it helped him “get in touch with (his) inner Bavarian”.
Praise was also forthcoming for the Seared Lamb Loin ($31) which was served perfectly rare as requested, and had a rich flavour that meshed well with the sides of rosemary infused veggies and mashed potato laced with goat cheese. And while it was a little light to serve as a main, the Trois Fromage Flatbread ($12) would be a great choice for a shareable appetizer.
Accompanying all of this food was a selection of fine beers, including several Belgian ales, many pints of Denison’s Weissbier, and large bottle of the always welcome Rogue Chocolate Stout that served as dessert for most of us. Our server was quite knowledgeable about the beer list, even knowing obscure beer geek trivia like the fact that the Pater 6, Prior 8 and Abt 12 beers from Belgium’s St. Bernardus brewery are created from very similar recipes as the rare beers brewed by the Trappist monks of Westvleteren.
Frankly, I was pleasantly surprised by this, because I’ve found the beer knowledge of the staff to be quite lacking at times, especially since Stephen Beaumont left his role as staff training consultant several years ago to become a partner in beerbistro. For every server who knows as much as the one from our most recent visit, there’s another who will answer all but the simplest questions with “I don’t know, I’ll go check with the bar.” During one visit, I asked our waitress if she could recommend something along the lines of a Flemish Red or Oud Bruin, two traditional ale styles that are quite sour in character. She went to the bar for advice, and returned with an already opened bottle of Bruegel, a fairly sweet and malty Belgian ale. It’s a decent enough beer, so I drank it, but it wasn’t even close to what I’d asked for.
And sometimes, even if the staff is knowledgeable, they have the disadvantage of working with a beer list that is often out of date. While the draught list is generally pretty stable due to the fact that it consists mainly of local micros and imports that have reliable distribution, the bottle list is much more volatile. When choosing a bottled beer, make a point of choosing a couple of alternates, as you’ll often find your first choice out of stock. And on a related note, I find it curious that while the lunch, dinner, dessert and wine menus are posted on the restaurant’s website, their beer menu is nowhere to be found.
All of these glitches would be forgivable, however, if it weren’t for the Bier Markt’s frustratingly schizophrenic personality. On one hand, the front and side sections of the restaurant have an unpretentious and slightly rustic nature that is welcoming and comfortable, and which is a perfect atmosphere for enjoying the similarly unpretentious and slightly rustic food that they serve.
On the other hand, the central bar area is a large and loud space with a beer-hall vibe that attracts an assortment of college students and cougars on the prowl, giving the place the sadly well-deserved nickname of “Esplanade Meat Markt”. Adding to the bedlam on Thursday through Saturday nights are second-rate cover bands who play at a volume so deafening that conversation is difficult even in the semi-enclosed side room. This isn’t meant to suggest that I have serious problems with loud music or singles bars, but the juxtaposition of refined and relaxed dining with a raucous roadhouse-style bar just doesn’t work for me.
All of that being said, I’m still glad that the Bier Markt exists. They may have been knocked down a few pegs on the local beer geek scale by places like beerbistro and Volo, but they’re also more popular than those places amongst the less beer-savvy, and they undoubtedly continue to open the eyes of their customers to the wonderful world of beer beyond Blue and Bud. Even with the problems that I have with the place, that’s something that I can’t complain about.