Even in the craft brewing epicenter of the New World, I often get a serious jones for real Belgian beer. Microbrewers in Portland and elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest do a fantastic job with Belgian style beers of all stripes, but while they are great suds in and of themselves and Team Mago drinks plenty of them, they just ain’t the same thang. Fortunately for Belgian expats and other aficionados of the Trappist tipple, there is the Abbey Bar.
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Rostra rating: 3
With six rotating taps and a list of 250 bottled beers stored at optimum drinking temperatures (per beer type), the Abbey Bar can satisfy almost any yearning for a taste of Belgium brew—except for Stella Artois or Jupiler. The tap beers can be sampled in three sizes, 4 oz., 8 oz., and pints–although you really should surrender your car keys to a rational entity if you go the pint route with anything but low(er) alcohol beers. Each beer is served in its appropriate glass that is inevitably so clean that your mother would gladly drink from it blind folded.
In a town where the churches have beer taps in their pews, however, Abbey Bar’s real discriminator is the staff. They are unhurried and very friendly. The place feels like a village bar in Flanders rather than toney North West Portland. And while their knowledge of Belgian beer stretches back to King Gambrinus, they are not beer snobs. They will gladly talk to you about their beer until closing time, but they will also help you select a brew to your liking and leave you alone until you want more. If, for example, you are planning a beer pairing dinner, you could do a whole lot worse than taking your bill of fare to the Abbey bar and talking it over with the gang; in addition to the staff, other squiffy Abbey denizens will gladly join the discussion.
The food is by and large a good match for the beer. Since absolutely all Belgian beers pair naturally with frites, the Abbey’s require a bit of a disquisition. Depending on how busy things are, you may have to ask your waiter to give the taters another brief swim in the fryolater, which they are unfailingly happy to do. Or you can just specify upon ordering them that you want them “cooked brown and crispy.” When correctly cooked, Abbey Bar’s medium cut frites are quite good, but what makes them worth the trip is the four types of aioli and mustard, two types of ketchup, beer cheese, and horse radish sauce at 50 cents each. Team Mago’s favorite is the Samurai Sauce composed of aioli and Sriracha, not really Belgique but it chokes real good with beer and fries.
The rest of the short and sturdy bar menu is imminently edible. The fried Brussels sprouts make a nice accompaniment for the frites.
The Abbey Bar’s take on sliders is also quite decent. They come garnished with goat cheese and arugula.
There are several soups and stews, the French onion being the best (one suspects that this soup, like fried potatoes was Belgian in origin, but was appropriated by France at some point during the centuries of French invasion and occupation of the Low Countries, but I digress). Other dishes we have enjoyed include very nice salads and a decent bean dip.
Also, if you like televised sports but hate sports bars (for good and obvious reasons that require no elaboration), then the Abbey Bar is your place. You may have to ask the staff to turn on the TV. They will do so happily, but they will not turn up the volume, sparing you from the inane babble that issues from innumerable flatscreens at cranium melting decibels in a typical sports bar.
Don’t like Belgium beer? Well, MagoGuide would recommend assisted suicide, but the genial Abbey staff will not bat an eye if you want something from the full bar that contains a nice selection of single malts, or very potable wine by the glass or bottle.
Finally, there are plenty of events at the Abbey Bar that are fun for newbies as well as seasoned devotees. Team Mago attended International Belgium Beer Day (April 4) where we joined in a world wide toast timed for midnight in Antwerp (3 PM in Portland). For the occasion, the staff offered many 4 oz. tasting flights of bottled beer that they do not normally open for such purposes. We tried four sours, three Lambics, four Saissons, four fruit beers, and a five-beer tour of Belgium. Do I need to add that we walked home or that we’ll be back?
Update: Abbey Bar is opening a second location in the marches of Slabtown on 1650 NW 23rd Ave. The new venue will, evidently, extend its reach to “pan-european beers”, but it is unclear at the time of writing if the food menu is also up for multi-cuisine extension. All MagoGuide can say is that the Abbey team better bring its A-Game to this expansion, since the new location will immediately confront St. Jack and the NW Lompoc outpost right next door. St. Jack’s chef/owner Aaron Barnett knows a thing or two about cuisine Belgique, and his La Moule Bar across the river consistently executes at a level that Abbey Bar can only dream of at this point. And Lompoc is no slouch when it comes to house-brewed Belgian -style suds. Both places do frites better, with St. Jack providing the best in the city.
Abbey Bar’s bold foray will certainly help already spoiled-for-choice diners in the borderlands of Slabtown and the Alphabet district, and it will make the 1600 block of NW 23rd Ave. a gastro anchor that will hopefully force nearby-establishments (you know who you are, or you would if you read MagoGuide) to up their game or go the way of dining dodos. But will this culinary Darwinism help Abbey Bar’s new venture? Team Mago has noted a slight, steady, and disturbing slide in standards at Abbey Bar. The beer, is still good, the glasses clean, and the staff friendly and helpful in a very unhurried sort of way, but the food is sliding from good to decent/mediocre and the place has started to smell bad, not a funky-Belgiany-beery-yeasty kind of smell but something more reminiscent of odeur de gâteau urinoir. Perhaps these issues reflect management’s focus on opening its second venue? In any event, siting this new location smack in its rivals’ terroir may be just the thing Abbey Bar needs to arrest its gentrified decline. Team Mago intends to attend the April 22 grand opening and we’ll be sure to let you know how it turns out.