Everything’s brewing at Monk's Kettle

When I called The Monk’s Kettle, a 5-month-old phenom started by a couple of young Zuni alums with a thing for Belgian beers, ideally made by Trappist monks, I was told to come early if I didn’t want to wait. I got there by 6:30 p.m. and waited — but not too long.

A stool opened at the towering carved wood bar where I could take in the Giants game on a big flat screen. But I couldn’t really watch. I had to choose a beer.

I must disclaim right now that I am not a beer drinker. It’s too filling for a food-first person like me. But at the Monk’s Kettle, beer is practically food and listed on a multi-page beer menu with 24 draught beers and 100 bottles. How to begin?

Actually, a barkeep in black pencil jeans and a sleeveless turquoise top walked me through the list, even though the place was packed. She poured me tastes in miniature tasting mugs.

The Belgian beers, it turns out, are strong flavored and high in alcohol. The darkest, St. Barnardus ($7.75 for 8 ounces), at 8 percent alcohol, is caramelly and chewy with a bitter finish; the lightest Belgian is golden and almost perfumed.

Her recommendation for me was a Belgian-style wheat beer from Portland, Maine — Allagash White ($4.25 for 10 ounces) — that was floral, finished clean, yet still had depth of flavor. I liked the balance.

Anyone can handle ordering food here. Have a house-ground Niman burger on a soft bun ($11) with crisp, skinny fries. It arrived cooked a perfect medium-rare.

Or consider the surprisingly voluptuous grilled-chicken breast sandwich ($11.50), exceptionally moist with roasted peppers, aioli, creamy melted brie and distinctive, sweet-cured bacon, brined and smoked in-house. Everything melds.

Brining is indeed a kitchen strength as further proven by a tender brined pork chop served with Brussels sprouts tossed with bacon bits and a marvelously crisp potato cake ($20).

I also liked an iceberg wedge ($8.50), sprinkled with bacon and a generous swatch of tart Point Reyes blue cheese dressing.

I wasn’t wild about aninarticulate charcuterie plate ($16), with French paté, too much Italian stuff and a few slices of garlicky German-style sausage. I didn’t think it worked with beer all that well.

You don’t really crave dessert after all that beer, but I rather liked crepes filled with warm rhubarb-strawberry compote and whipped cream ($6.50).

The bar runs along one side of the narrow room, while a handful of booth-like wooden tables with benches are on the other side. The clever decor has been mounted with salvaged materials: marble booth partitions from an old Bank of America stairway, milk-glass lamp “sandwiches” as sconces. The dramatic back bar was a mantel in a grand old house. Dreamy black-and-white photos of San Francisco hang on the walls.

Eclectic tracks play on the sound system. Blackboards with chalk separate the kitchen from the rest of the room, and patrons write poems or beer suggestions or draw pictures on them.

The Monk’s Kettle is that kind of place — rigorous in its mission and casual and affordable in its demeanor. The operation might just convert a few wine drinkers, if they can elbow their way in. The beer connoisseurs have staked out this exuberant tavern for themselves.

Patricia Unterman is author of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide” and a newsletter, “Unterman on Food.” Contact her at pattiu@concentric.net.

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