Drink of the week:
A pint of Two Brothers Cane & Ebel at Hopleaf
, 5148 N. Clark.
The damage: $5.
Thousands of bars in Chicago, why this one? As someone who writes about drinking in Chicago, I've always struggled with how to handle Hopleaf, arguably the city's best beer bar. It deserves every ounce of recognition it receives for stocking a varied mix of Belgian ales and American microbrews, but by the look of its nightly, never-less-than-an-hour wait, anyone with even the slightest propensity to tipple knows about the place—so what's the point of elaborating on its hype? Because I can't help myself. And, I'd like to call attention to what seems like the ignored step-child compared to the superstar beer list: the rave-worthy food.
How it went down: A group of seven of us arrived at 5:45 on a Saturday, hoping to nab a table before the dinner rush. We were told the wait would be at least 45 minutes, giving us plenty of time to slug a couple pre-meal brews. Ordering from over 40 beers on tap and probably four times as many bottles can seem daunting, and since the bartenders are tackling such a high demand, they're of little help with narrowing down the picks. It's best to keep an open mind, try something new and go with friends who don't mind letting you sample their suds.
I started with a goblet of Rodenbach Grand Cru, which tasted too sour for my liking but was quickly finished off by the rest of my pals. Two Brothers Brewery Company's Cane & Ebel seasonal red ale caught my eye with its promise of "a creamy touch of Thai palm sugar," and the fact that it was brewed just 30 miles outside of Chicago in Warrenville, Illinois. The dark amber brew made a much better impression on me than my first round. It had rich notes of passion fruit and black pepper, with a slight bitterness to its finish. I normally stay away from super-hoppy beers, but the heavy hand of hops in this baby seemed to perfectly balance out the fruitiness. For having so much flavor, it remained highly drinkable through the final sip; this one, I wouldn't share.
Would I want to become a regular? Two beers and an hour-plus later and the hostess led us to the second-floor seating area. The front bar has a whimsical atmosphere with its green tin ceiling and colorful booze posters, while the dining room has a modern, lofty feel, with tall ceilings and exposed brick. Having worked up not so much the appetite but the need for sustenance stat (most of Hopleaf's beers clock in at higher-than-average ABVs), we asked for a serving of mussels for two for the table to share. The packed-to-the-brim bucket came doused in a coconut-curry sauce with crisp rounds of jalapeno and a pungent ginger accent.
At this point, we couldn't even think about our next beer. We were too busy debating between the duck reuben, with a cranberry-cream cheese spread, and the ham on pumpernickel, topped with apple-tarragon coleslaw and served with perfectly crisped pomme frites. I went with the latter and couldn't have been happier. Maybe the stellar eats are the real reason behind the crowds after all. Either way, for the city's beer connoisseurs and foodies, Hopleaf can do no wrong. And so be it.
Dana Kavan scours the city for drink deals so good you'll offer to buy a round and creative libations that outshine your average on-the-rocks concoctions. Want to give Dana tips on where to rack up a bar tab? Share your finds before her next night out.