Beer cafe brings on the buzz

Beer is beer, right? If the idea of all beers being indistinguishable, watery ways toward intoxication is your thing, it’s time to open your mind and your palate.

Now is a great time to be in Los Angeles. Alongside a re-emerged and stronger-than-ever cocktail scene, craft and high-end beer joints are sprouting up across the city. These places often contain styles you’ve never heard of and bartenders who will talk about a brew’s nuances as if it were a fine wine.

The latest of these beer-focused venues is Little Bear. Located across the street from Church & State French bistro in the Arts District, it’s another anomaly to the location; a modern, sleek building and concept nestled in an area full of empty warehouses and shady alleys. Set up by people from the Verdugo Bar and Surly Goat, it’s a Belgian pub, although it’s one filtered through the design style of Los Angeles.

Little Bear is in one of those loft-style buildings with high ceilings, bare floors and only a few touches of its Belgian focus — trappist brewery signs, mounted wall ornaments and wooden panels. Beyond that it’s minimal, and that’s one of its main flaws.

Tables are limited, making the wait longer than would be expected, even before the pub gets packed with the drinking crowd. It’s possible to find a place at the bar, but unless you’re content holding a drink and milling around, it isn’t the most enjoyable setup. The wait, however, is worth it.

As with most new restaurants with even the tiniest focus on alcohol, the bar goes beyond the basic mix-with-soda spirits. Whiskeys and more Western European drinks line the counter — keeping with the Belgian aesthetics of the place. But this is a beer pub, and that’s where Little Bear truly shines.

To call the beer menu anything less than extensive would be a disservice. All the beers are either imported from Belgium or  brewed in Belgian styles. The bottle list contains some of the more familiar names — Chimay, Westmalle and Huyghe if possible — but goes deeper with more varieties. And the draft list is even better. It’s a rotating menu of multiple breweries, offering 16 beers, with everything from Unibroue’s heavy, slightly bitter Trois Pistoles to Cuvée Des Jacobins Rouge’s more tannic, wine-like Flemish red ale. Amounts and glass styles vary, but everything is designed to bring out the beers’ best attributes.

Different styles abound, but owing to its focus, there are not many light or mellow brews. So anyone who’s used to only American lagers or pilsners might find it difficult to acquire the taste. Thankfully, the bartenders are more than helpful, ready to chat about different beers, offer small samples to help you find what you want or help you pair drinks with food.

The beers are the bar’s focus, and the variety alone is astonishing.  But Little Bear’s food menu is also worth exploring. The bar’s design is Belgium by way of Los Angeles, taking some traditional dishes and using the seasonal, fresh ingredients of California. Grilled cheese sandwiches play a heavy part in the menu, but they’re stuffed with everything from brisket to smoked salmon. And the flavors work well together, especially in the apple and port wine marmalade sandwich, which balances a sweet fruity flavor with the savory Stilton cheese and salty bread. Pair with a Flemish red and it is a very satisfying meal.

Other dishes are just as plentiful in taste. The moules frites, technically an appetizer, can feed two people or provide a very filling meal for one hungry person. Salads are packed full of ingredients beyond leafy greens while the entrées are more along traditional pub fare lines — hearty meat and potato-style dishes given the gourmet makeover. Little Bear definitely provides your money’s worth in terms of portions.

Little Bear isn’t exactly the most genuine Belgian pub, but it makes up for this lack of authenticity with excellent food and a wonderful beer list. Though it is out of the way and quickly fills up, if beer is your thing or you’re trying to expand your culinary horizons, this beer cafe is a great place to start.