Interview & Photos - Claire M. Bullen
Until last autumn, 323 Kentish Town Road was home to Pane Vino: a family-run Sardinian restaurant that – if its lacklustre cooking and lack of ambiance were any indication – had long since outlasted its welcome. But then Beef & Brew moved in.
It was a positive change for locals. A modern canteen look and a gleaming brass bar replaced Pane Vino’s purple walls and kitschy décor. On the menu, rosy, salt-speckled steaks took over for stodgy gnocchi.
But Beef & Brew is more than just a convivial neighbourhood spot. It’s also one of only a few London restaurants that are giving craft beer a primary place at the table. Local brews are available on draught and in bottles, but most importantly, on the menu: from a brewer’s mess to a beef & ale sausage roll with beer ketchup, beer is both paired with and an ingredient in a number of Beef & Brew’s dishes.
To learn more about Beef & Brew – and how the restaurant envisions craft beer’s evolving, food-centric role – we caught up with head chef Jessica Simmons. At the start of her career, she spent a several-month stint at Hammersmith’s iconic River Café, which she still credits as an influential force on her cooking. She logged hours on MasterChef Junior. And she was lucky enough to count Angela Hartnett as an early mentor (Hartnett is behind a number of successful London restaurants, including the Michelin-starred Murano).
But her experience bringing beer and food together began in earnest at London Fields Brewery, where she headed up the kitchen. After parting ways with the brewery, she paired up with Dan Nathan, now Beef & Brew’s manager, to launch the meat-centric Featherblade pop-up at The Star of Bethnal Green. After its success, the two snatched up the Beef & Brew space, and embarked on a mission to make beer more than just a liquid accompaniment to mealtimes.
How did you first come to beer (and the idea of beer-friendly cuisine)?
I always loved beer, and grew up going to lots of nice pubs and appreciating ales. Then there was the first wave of craft brewing, and I wasn’t really aware of what was going on, but I tasted [Beavertown’s beers] and they were incredible. And then I thought, “oh, wouldn’t it be really amazing to be chef at a brewery? I don’t know if anyone is doing that at the moment.” I thought about it for a while, thought we could do cookery books, and have a beer-influenced cuisine.
Sort of an untapped niche, if you’ll excuse the pun.
Yeah! Early on in my career, I thought “how the hell do you do anything new?” And I really didn’t know. So many people have done so many amazing things with food. Not that you have to be completely innovative – I just wanted to cook food and be happy and give people something they wanted to eat that’s enjoyable and relaxed.
It’s funny how turning towards a beverage opens up new culinary possibilities.
I think the history of beer in this country is interesting, with stories of people not drinking water because it was unsanitary, and having ale with their food, and how that’s all progressed. It was good timing for me – I had friends at London Fields who were looking for a chef so I went there and got the job. When I got there it was an empty railway arch, so I put the kitchen in there myself, which was quite a challenge.
You had to bring in all the kit?
Yeah, buy the kit, decide what we needed and where to put it. Then we set up menus and built a wood-fired oven on the pallets. It was really cool, the beer was really good and they had excess all the time. They’d be like: “this one’s over-carbonated, that one’s under-carbonated, we can’t sell it, so do you want to cook with it?” So I said yeah!
How did you start incorporating beer into the menu at London Fields, and what were some of the unique challenges of working with beer?
I started to braise meat in beer, using pressure cookers – I’m interested in combining both modern and old-fashioned techniques. I also decided to make some intense sauces with beer, and I found when you reduced them down a lot they just got really bitter.
Especially the hop-forward ones.
Exactly, you’d get all of the hops! And I thought “okay, this is not that enjoyable.” I did a lamb shoulder and cooked it with loads of fresh hops, and the brewers were like, “I dunno if it’s gonna work,” but I thought that they smelled amazing and that there’s something herbaceous there that’s really cool. In the end, it tasted like shampoo, which was not what I was going for at all. I tried to make a hop ice cream at one point, and that wasn’t great either. Hops are really difficult to cook with!
Have you found a successful way to cook with hops on their own?
On their own? Not yet. I went in a few different directions after that and decided to break beer down into the different ingredients. So for instance, at Beef and Brew we make a beetroot salad with a rye crisp and fresh horseradish, and we’ve got malt ice cream, and that made a lot more sense to me – it reminds me of having malt cake as a child. But I’m going to come back to hops at some stage!
Tell me about the process of menu development for Beef & Brew. Beer factors in on a few levels: it’s in the food, you have those suggested beer pairings, and the food is generally designed to be beer-friendly. How did that all come about?
We learned some of that when we were doing our Featherblade pop-up, and after that we had six months of menu development at my parents’ flat, which we used as Beef & Brew HQ. I’d get loads of different beers all the time, and we visited a lot of local breweries! From the beginning, we knew that there was a few dishes we wanted to have on the menu – short rib cooked in stout for example, but then we developed that and changed it to beef cheeks.
With the beer and food matching, we just kept tasting things, and read up on other people’s ideas of what works. It’s a little less straightforward compared to wine tasting – there are a lot of different flavors that you get from beer, so it is trickier, and it’s also quite personal. It isn’t something we want to push down people’s throats and say: “if you come here you have to have this food with this beer.” It’s a lot more relaxed than that.
What have been some of your most memorable pairings?
We had a really funny one that’s not actually on the menu because we found it to be too similar. It was our brewer’s mess, which has brownie, a chocolate and porter sauce, whipped cream, and a beer salted caramel. We tried it with a Wild Beer Co. Millionaire, a stout that tastes like millionaire's shortbread. It’s an incredible beer, but we had it with the dessert and it was exactly the same flavour. It didn’t improve either of them, it was just the same.
Your menu has evolved since you first opened. Do you plan to change it regularly?
Yeah, little tweaks, I think. There are certain items that will always stay. The brisket jam nuggets have become one of our things. The onglet steak will almost definitely always be there. I’ll always do my chips the same way. And our truffle béarnaise. Those are our bread and butter, but the rest can be flexible.
"I decided to make some intense sauces with beer, and I found when you reduced them down a lot they just got really bitter."
I love being seasonal and switching things up, and it keeps thing interesting for the staff and the regulars. I want to do mussels cooked in wheat beer, because we’ve got a charcoal oven as well. Mussels on the charcoal oven would just be so good!
Are customers responding well to the menu’s suggested pairings? Is that part of the process for a lot of diners?
I think people in Kentish Town have a lot of interest in it, and a lot of customers want to listen to the suggestions that the front of house guys give. Of course sometimes people come in and just want a carafe of wine, and that’s awesome! We want to make it accessible in that way. The beer menu has changed slightly as well, and it will be quite seasonal.
What’s the future for the beer programme? Do you foresee getting more beers on tap, for instance, or broadening the bottle selection?
We wish we had space for more than two lines, but the cupboard is tiny – there’s no more space, we tried. But the bottles could definitely expand. At first I had this dream that we’d have 12 different breweries, but you end up having to buy so much from each one, and we had no more storage space. What you see is what you get here, so I think switching it up quite often is the way for us to go.
I’d also love to do some collaborations with local breweries – get the brewers in and have a two or three course meal that’s quite affordable. And we’d love to get a house brew made.
Any dream breweries you’d love to work with? Or any great beers you’ve had lately?
So many! We’ve just put the Otley Wheat Beer on the menu – that’s really delicious. I love Siren. I always have a beer from their range and go “wow, that’s even better than the last one I tasted.” Beavertown I can always go back to. I respect them a lot, and I think their branding is really strong. There are so many breweries, and there’s so much stuff coming out of Bristol that’s great too. I really love Wiper and True. Mondo’s cool and Hackney Brewery’s cool too.
Any quick tips for cooking with beer?
Be careful about reducing beer too much, because you’ll just bring out the bitterness. Sometimes it’s better just to splash a bit in at the end of a sauce – you get all that flavour without adding too much bitterness. Say you’re doing a braise of some kind or a pie mixture, that’s quite a safe, classic way – start with something like our beef cheeks [recipe below].
"It’s quite dangerous to put a massive bracket on a style and say: “this will go with that.”"
Once you’ve reduced your sauce, taste it a lot – it sounds obvious, but I don’t see a lot of home cooks doing it that much. Tasting throughout the process is key, because all the ingredients are changing all the time. Adding some kind of sweetener to a reduced sauce with beer also really helps, as you need to round it all off. Even tomato puree works really well, as it’s rich but has a lot of sweetness to it. Malt extract is cool as well, because you’re adding an ingredient that’s already in beer and has a lot of sweetness to it, so it has that balance.
Do you have any food and beer pairings that you love?
Anything dark amber, something high in malt, goes really well with red meat. For a creamy kind of dessert, chocolate stout (or oatmeal or milk stout) is just amazing. I’ve just been to Germany, and I had a hefeweizen with veal sausage, and that was really good. Light meats like chicken or pork or veal go well with wheat beers.
But sometimes I find that you think things will go, but you have to have that particular beer and try it out with that particular food – it’s quite dangerous to put a massive bracket on a style and say: “that will go with that,” because there are so many people doing different things, using different hops, that kind of thing.
Do you see beer also starting to take off in a fine dining context?
I think people are already doing it, to be honest. Like Michel Roux Jr., who’s done a beer with Fourpure. I think fine dining is on it. Of course there are expectations about what people want to spend money on, but with fine dining, even those places are becoming a bit more relaxed. The style is changing.
So you think we’ll start seeing more beer pairing menus at upper-tier restaurants?
Definitely. Think of whiskey barrel-aged beers, which can be amazing with dessert – I think the Michelin-starred restaurants will pick up on that.
What’s next for Beef & Brew?
We’d love to have another site with lots of taps, and maybe an open charcoal oven! But we also don’t want to run before we can walk, and we need to continue to improve what we do here. But it’s definitely a dream. In the short term, I think there are going to be more events with beer, and we’ll be working closely with a few different breweries.
Recipe // Beef Cheeks Cooked in Stout
Spice Rub //
8 teaspoons course sea salt
1 teaspoon celery salt
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
1 teaspoon Coleman’s mustard powder
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
2 teaspoons smoked paprika
1 teaspoon mixed dried herbs
1 teaspoon chili powder
½ teaspoon cloves
3 teaspoons soft light brown sugar
3 beef cheeks
2 celery sticks
3 bay leaves
3 fresh thyme springs
2 star anise
500ml stout (preferably 6% ABV or below)
4 teaspoons tomato puree
3 teaspoons treacle
Special equipment needed: mortar and pestle, pressure cooker
First, make the spice rub: toast the coriander seeds in a dry frying pan for a few minutes or until aromatic, shaking the pan so they don’t burn. Place in a mortar and pestle with the coarse sea salt and grind to a fine dust. Add the other rub ingredients and mix well. Set aside.
Trim any large fatty membrane from the beef cheeks, pat dry and season all over with the rub (you will likely have excess rub – save for another recipe if so). Put your pressure cooker on medium heat, add two tablespoons of vegetable oil, and add your beef cheeks when hot. Colour evenly on all sides, avoid crowding the pan (work in batches if necessary). When your beef cheeks are golden brown and caramelised, remove from the pan and reserve on a plate.
Chop the carrots, celery and onion into large chunks, add another two tablespoons of vegetable oil to the pressure cooker and cook the vegetables until golden brown. Add the spices and herbs and stir to release the flavours. Place the beef cheeks back into the pan and cover with the stout and water. Put the lid on and bring up to pressure (each cooker can differ in its cooking modes. You want to reach high pressure, also known as 2 bar or 30 PSI). Start your timer once the pressure has been reached and cook for one hour.
Let the cooker cool completely before opening the lid; you can run cold water over the lid if you’re short on time! The cheeks should be tender and juicy. If you have particularly large cheeks that need further cooking, place the cooker back on the heat for an extra 30 minutes.
Once cooked, remove the cheeks from the pan, discard the herbs, spices and vegetables. Strain the cooking juices through a fine sieve into a saucepan. Place the sauce on a medium heat and reduce by half. You should be left with roughly 500ml of sauce. Add the tomato puree and treacle, stir well to combine and reduce further if you prefer a thicker glaze-style sauce. Avoid reducing too much as the sauce will be too intense and salty.
Serve with mash, pickled walnuts and some winter veg.