Den Dyer - in Bruges, Belgium - was recommended to us by a Belgian friend. (Thanks Kevin!) While it's far from cheap, it's certainly not excessively expensive by Bruges (or Belgian) standards, and is a lovely oasis of fresh and flavourful cooking in a sea of overpriced touristy restaurants.
You can order a la carte, but the set menu with beer pairings is the way to go, as this is an award-winning "beer and food" restaurant. Wine pairings are also available, but... well come on, you'd better have celiac disease if you're ordering wine here. Most people were getting the beer pairings - including the Western region sales rep for New Belgium Brewing (a Colorado company), and a couple of decidedly Pacific Northwest-looking guys with scruffy beards and rough sweaters (just like most of the lovable beer nerds back in Vancouver) with their significant others. Mrs. Hoplog ordered vegetarian & nut free, which the kitchen was able to accommodate.
The kitchen served amuse-bouche to begin - a pickled zucchini/mackerel combination, a shot of fresh pumpkin soup, and a salmon carpaccio with homemade potato chip. We skipped the aperitif beers as we had already visited t'Bruges Beertje for a warm-up beer or two (a Hommel Bier amber, a Viven Porter and a Smisje Dubbel made with dates).
First course: "Sucking[sic] pig. Pork cheek. Tierenteyn mustard. Wheat, dried garlic, ginger and curry. 'Burned' cauliflower. Chutney of carrot, fennel and star aniseed. Beer: Gruut - Stadsbrouwerij - Gent."
This was my favourite course. The pork was nicely caramelized & was complemented perfectly by the chutney, cauliflower and incredible savoury toasted wheat. The beer was a fairly typical (though appropriate) fruity and slightly earthy amber Belgian ale; the "Gruut" might suggest this is a "gruit" style that uses no hops, and they certainly cultivate that image by listing "herbs" rather than "hops" as a beer ingredient. But in fact "Gruut" is a brand name of this line of beers, and they do contain hops as well as herbs.
Mrs. Hoplog also had her favourite course to start - a vegetarian lasagna with spinach and toasted tofu, served with Saison Dupont.
|Cheers to the first course!|
Second course: "Baked Pollack and crust of leaven and shrimps. Minced razor clam and asparagus. Artichoke mash. Clam mousse. Beer: Enfant Terriple - Brouwerij De Leite - Ruddervoorde."
The fish was moist and slightly salty, emphasized by the briny foam applied to the dish. The potatoes and ubiquitous springtime white asparagus (spargel) provided an earthy counterpoint. The tripel was a very refreshing, slightly peppery and hazy beer with a gentle snap of hop bitterness; it worked well with the earth and sea flavours.
Mrs. Hoplog had a mushroom risotto with grilled vegetables, paired with a Golden Carolous Ambrio, and I heard no complaints!
|Mrs. Hoplog approves of this beer|
For dessert: "Waffle. Strawberries. Pistachios. Mint. Beer: Faro - Brouwerij Lindemans - Vlezenbeek."
|Apparently I tend to get a few bites in before realizing I should take a photo...|
The waffle and lemony ice cream were good, but the Faro beer was the standout - barnyardy lambic aromas, with sweet and sour caramel flavours. (Faro = a lambic/gueuze with Belgian candi sugar added.) Great dessert beer.
With the bill we were presented with miniature strawberry meringues, a nice touch.
Service was excellent, and in particular the main beer sommelier was very knowledgeable. He provided a brief back-story for each beer poured, which added to the experience.
As much as I loved the food, and thought the beer was excellent and appropriately matched to the dishes, I can't help but think Den Dyver has it easy when pairing foods with beer. They have an excellent kitchen and a selection of the most food-friendly beers in the world (Belgian), and most dishes will pair adequately (though probably not spectacularly) with a dubbel, a tripel or a fruit beer. While the food and beer were excellent, the pairings were merely good and safe. I would love to see what Den Dyver could do with more challenging pairings - perhaps featuring beers or dishes with particularly strong or unexpected flavours, or pairings whose result is greater than the sum of the (admittedly excellent) parts. But perhaps I'm just splitting hairs - if you're anywhere near Bruges, I still think it's a must-visit.