140 Bottles of Beer on the Wall
By Nancy Powell
Claremont denizens sure are a lucky bunch. Not only do they have one of the most vibrant, Mayberry-esque tree-lined downtowns in Southern California to boast about, but they’ve got great eats, great colleges and arguably one of the snazziest one-room bars in The Back Abbey. Housed in a renovated, early 20th century mission-style icehouse, the restaurant happens to be the brainchild of former chimney sweep John Solano, who put his carpentry skills and well-heeled global food knowledge into developing this replica of a rustic Bavarian alehouse with communal seating, decorated tastefully with black and white photographic images of various spots in Europe (courtesy of Chef Leslie O’Quinn), bottles of custom brews you can see but not touch (a six-pack of Trappist) and posters of some really hard-to-find Belgian brews. Oh, and along the way Solano has managed to snag best burger accolades from the L.A. Times as well as yours truly.
In fact, it’s the Back Alley Burger ($13) that seems to cement Solano’s reputation on this sizzling Saturday afternoon as much as the 140 beers his pub carries—90% Belgian ales and the rest a scattered melting pot of German, English, Spanish, French and Canadian brews—appearing on almost every table. It’s a dry-aged burger seasoned simply with salt and pepper and gussied up with pungent aged gouda, super sweet caramelized onions, crisped bacon and a bed of micro greens. The meat is so juicy that it literally dissolves in my mouth. Despite the intensity of conflicting flavors that peppers each mouth-watering bite, the burger is completely approachable and definitely among the best I’ve ever tasted. It marries magnificently with an ice-cold glass of the rare, but fragrant and strong Klokke Roeland ($8), the house beer of the Waterhuis Bar in Belgium (and according to Solano, The Back Abbey is only one of 10 restaurants to carry this Belgian ale).
Even better than the burger is Chef Leslie’s version of Schnitzel ($12), a fork-tender piece of pork tenderloin ponded out to a thickness of a quarter inch, dredged in a super-secret panko crumb mix and fried decadently in duck fat. Chef Leslie adds another dimension by topping the crispy patty with a salad of sauerkraut, red grapes, endive, arugula and frisee. Capturing all the elements in a single bite yields a pleasing symphony of complex textures and tastes, alternating notes of sweet and tart. There is a lot of magic to Chef Leslie’s artistic presentation, which skirts the divide between being almost too pretty to eat, but too enticing also to leave behind. The Bistro Frisee Salad ($9) offers an elegant introduction to Chef Leslie’s culinary brilliance and a healthier alternative to the decadent duck fat fries. Julienned strips of apple, lardons, toasted walnuts and Fourme D’Ambert (an old French cheese that dates back to Roman times) are tossed together with a bed of frisee lettuce, dressed in sweet, apple cider vinaigrette and topped off by a soft-boiled egg.
Finally, Solano and Chef Leslie’s rotating menu of seasonal specials pays homage to the whole concept of sustainability. I sample Grilled Sea Bass ($16) on a bed of corn, black-eyed peas and roasted pepper succotash. The fish is cooked perfectly, succulent to the bite and brightened considerably by a bright, spicy and acidic Moroccan salsa that Chef Leslie paints onto the bass itself.
Solano’s love of food and wine shows, and while his menu offers an upscale twist to traditional European favorites, it never veers onto pretentious grounds. Solano has worked hard to combine familial comfort with his fine dining experience. Good food, good wine, good times. The Back Abbey is one chimney-sweep’s dream come true and the gastronome’s ultimate reward.
The Black Abbey, 128 N. Oberlin Ave., Claremont, (909) 625-2642; www.thebackabbey.com. AE, MC, V.