Chef Dan Burns and beer sommelier Joey Pepper are sitting together in their new Brooklyn restaurant Luksus, trying some nanobrews with dessert. The dish in front of them – a roasted carrot parfait and yogurt granita with blood-orange gastrique, cumin and pine gel – tastes wild. (David Chang of Momofuku just anointed it "the dish of the year" on Twitter.) It's even better, apparently, with St. Bretta's witbier, or a Leipziger Gose that's been lautered through pine needles.
"It may be surprising for some people to hear that beer goes well with a vegetal dessert," Burns allows, "but once they taste them together, it makes sense."
It makes even more sense if Burns is the one making that vegetal dessert. The Halifax-born chef is among the most talented and inventive Canadian chefs of this age – and even though he only opened his first restaurant in June, he's spent the past decade working in the world's top kitchens. He ran the pastry section at Noma in Copenhagen from 2006 to 2009. Prior to that, he cooked at both the Fat Duck and St. John in London. After Noma, he oversaw research and development at Momofuku Culinary Lab.
Now he's putting everything he knows on the line. And Luksus, a tiny 26-seat restaurant located behind the brewpub Torst in rapidly gentrifying Greenpoint, is the ideal showcase for Burns's prodigious abilities. The concept is simple: Let the chef do what he's best at. The only way to eat here is to put yourself in his hands. There's no menu: Dinner is $95 for seven courses. "Zero choice," Burns declares. "Sometimes that's nice in life."
Just as there are no food decisions allowed, there's no wine pairing offered – let alone any wine. This is the only fine-dining establishment in New York currently offering a beer-only pairing menu. (It costs $45, and all the beer here is served in wine glasses.) Although the strictly-suds focus might seem limiting, in reality it's refreshingly different, particularly since Burns, Pepper and their colleagues are such deep beer connoisseurs.
Their defiantly omakase-and-IPA stance is in defence of flavours that are far from familiar. Just as Burns's food is vastly more complex than anything you'll ever make at home, the beers they showcase are better, and weirder, than any you've ever tried before (unless you've had a gueuze lambic by Cantillon).
Since opening, Luksus has become a central node in the burgeoning beer-pairing revolution. Over the last few years, the occasional beer pairing has started popping up in serious large-format tasting menus. "You do see some beers sneaking in there," Burns points out, "which is an acknowledgment from wine people that beer makes sense. Eleven Madison Park is doing that. You're seeing it in Europe and Scandinavia as well."
Canada is also joining the movement with its own beer-sommelier certificate program. Pepper is currently studying to become a Certified Cicerone, an American course for professional beer cognoscenti (they prefer the term cicerone to beer sommelier).
Dining at Luksus could be considered an advanced introductory seminar – but there's nothing stilted about it. The esoteric brews available here complement Burns's idiosyncratic dishes perfectly, whether it's radishes with razor clams or roasted little gem lettuce in grilled pea broth with maitake mushroom dressing. "Daniel's food is super-delicate, so we don't want to cover up the flavours with beers that taste crazy or are too high in alcohol," explains Pepper. "Subtle flavours go with subtle beers."
Each one of Burns's dishes show off a different facet of his repertoire, whether it be fiddly architectonic Noma-esque haute cuisine, down-home plates of ribeye with rutabaga, off-cuts such as cod head with chicken skin, or ethno-fusion umami-bursts like scallop with sea urchin and bacon dashi. The food manages to combine aesthetically refined, Miro-esque presentations of postmolecular tweezer concoctions with heartily satisfying deliciousness. The cooking is as precise, austere and Nordic Lutheran as it is fun. (Think Ingmar Bergman in Smiles of a Summer Night.) Their paper-thin sunchoke chips dusted with vinegar powder are the sort of snack you might get in Valhalla, especially if partnered with a creamy Belgian Cazeau Tournay Triple.
The craft brews offered to diners here go far beyond the typical, featuring adjuncts like blueberries, coffee, spelt or cacao. The flavour profiles they specialize in are as atypical as orange wines or smoked pickles. Luksus champions North American microbrews and old-school European abbeys. They work with such small quantities that they often run out of a certain batch. That's especially true in the case of their saisons – limited runs of farmhouse ales made with fresh, seasonal ingredients.
Part of the joy of the beer-pairing option at Luksus is simply discovering obscure types of beers like oud bruins and altbiers. "I'm really loving Berliner weisses these days," Pepper says. "It's one of those beers that's a little passed over, but so good. It's low in alcohol, sour and has an amazing cereal quality. It's great with raw seafood because it has a lot of lactic acid, so it increases the overall acidity of the eating experience."
When asked to name a brewery he loves, Burns speaks highly of Crooked Stave. "Their beers aren't going in one direction; even though they're tart, they still have a lot of body," explains the lanky Nova Scotian, whose blond mop of hair and pale red, white-speckled beard give him a Scandinavian demeanour (an effect heightened by his slate-coloured, leather-strapped apron). "They're just so balanced and so dialled in. They're like fine wines."
Pepper believes that all these out-there brews go with Burns's food as well as – or better than – any wine. "A Flanders red ale is perfect with our meat dishes and main courses, especially for wine drinkers," he says. "It has a lot of vinous qualities, the microbial complexity is high, and there are lots of tannins from the barrel aging. Overall it has this real nice pucker to it."
Taken together, their pairings open entirely new dimensions. If tasting is believing, critics are seeing the light. New York magazine just named Burns one of the city's top 10 chefs, while The New York Observer gave Luksus five stars and deemed Burns a visionary: "He is the new seer." Eating here is a bit like visiting another planet, where a benevolent, more gustatorily advanced civilization grants you flavour combinations that send your taste buds into orbit.
The otherworldly effect is heightened by the futuristic 1960s Scandinavian design of both Luksus and Torst. A key attraction is their 21-line draft system, a wall-length bank of taps controlled by something Pepper calls a "flux capacitor." "It's straight out of Back to the Future," he says, smiling. In that film, the flux capacitor takes the DeLorean back in time; here, it's a central hub that allows bartenders to control the temperature, pressure and stops for each different draft on the line. "We have five different settings of nitrous and CO2 that we can use to tune into every beer, depending on what it needs," he adds. "That's basically unheard of."
The team at Luksus conducts regular tastings to establish which recipes work best with which beers. Pepper picks out pairing ideas that seem suitable. Burns makes the dish, and then they all gather to taste and discuss. "I give them the run down on why I think a beer might work, or why it'd be special, and we try it and see," Pepper says.
"For the most part, it's pretty unanimous when one is superior," Burns adds.
Last week, Burns was preparing to introduce a new goat shoulder dish. No one knew what would go well, but at the tasting, they decided on Westmalle's Dubbel, as its full body and dark-fruit character played off the charred goat splendidly.
Both Pepper and Burns insist that beer pairing isn't too different from wine pairing. One method is matching the flavour intensity of the dish with the drink. Indian food is great with IPAs because the hops balance out the spice. Another option is to pick an ingredient in the meal that's in the beer as well. Roasted duck and salted plum purée goes particularly well with LoverBeer's Italian plum sour aged in oak, Pepper suggests.
A too-obvious choice can be a cliché. "People love chocolate and stout, and I'm never going to do that because it's so aseasonal," Burns grumbles. "You don't need the sweetest stout ever in your mouth with dessert. But if we ever do oysters for dessert, maybe we'll have a stout pairing."
"When that day comes," Pepper says, smiling broadly, "I'm totally in."
Food and beer pairings to try at home
Roast pork shoulder with Fruit Helmet from Bellwoods Brewery in Toronto. The team at Luksus considers Bellwoods to be the best brewery in Canada.
Squash soup with Orval Trappist Ale from Belgium: "It's super-dry, so it goes well with the earthy tones in squash," according to Pepper.
Cured fish with Westbrook Brewing's Gose, a German-style sour beer. "It has coriander and salt in it, so it's great with any lighter seafood that incorporates coriander pods, like cured fluke with a cucumber vinaigrette," says Burns.
Vanilla ice cream with Aphrodite from Dieu du Ciel in Montreal. "Their dark beers are fantastic," Pepper notes. "Péché Mortel is also amazing, as is the Rosée d'Hibiscus."