With a parade through Brussels and a wave of the scarlet-robed Grand Master's mashstaff, jolly Tom Peters became Sir Thomas of Monk's, knight of the Chevalerie du Fourquet des Brasseurs.
Being admitted to a 400-year-old brewers guild this fall wasn't bad for a guy who, truth be told, happened upon the Flemish heartland 20 years ago only because it was a stopover on the cheapest route to Paris. But a lemony-foam-topped glass of Duvel led to chalices of Trappist Orval and Chimay, and soon Peters' heart (not to mention his liver) was lost to Belgium forever.
I doubt Peters' knighthood carries much sway with your typical barhoppers, who wedge their way through the vortex of sound and smoke that pulses inside Monk's Cafe only to find that, no, there is no Coors Light on tap, or even a pint of local Yuengling.
But for the adventurous and discriminating beer drinker, Peters has become the patriarch of Philadelphia's brew scene: the potentate of pale ale, the scion of saison, and the guru of gueuze. The more than 200 artisanal beers that Monk's has amassed since Peters and his woolly co-owner, Fergus Carey, opened in 1997 have transformed this cafe into not just a bar, but an institution.
It's a place where brewers from around the country and the world come to debut their newest beers, and a destination where star chefs linger after their own kitchens have closed, wolfing down boudin sausage and meltingly tender veal cheeks stewed in Leffe brown ale. Considering all the Belgian suds that flow through the taps at 16th and Spruce, it's no wonder Peters was knighted.
Monk's influence on Philly's beer scene is impressive, too, as both the Belgian and local craft beers he champions now figure prominently at classy venues as well as in pubs.
The cafe's frequent special beer dinners also give guest chefs such as former Le Bec-Fin toque Daniel Stern a chance to expand the preconceived boundaries of beer cuisine.
At his recent dinner at Monk's, Stern (who plans to open his own restaurant, he says) dazzled with course after course of cutting-edge food paired with great beers.
Sweet little oysters en gelee and puff pastry tubes filled with salty feta were served with Monk's sour, almost cidery Flemish ale. Succulent rabbit roulade wrapped in bacon and served in a golden pool of saffron aioli harmonized with creamy, coppery Westmalle Tripel.
Ruby medallions of venison marinated in Grottenbier herbed brown ale - also poured with the course - evoked autumn glory with homemade spaetzle and an indulgent gratin of brussels sprouts and chestnuts. And in a weird but tasty wink to Belgium, Stern blended Belgian endive into a silky sweet custard parfait that disappeared between sips of sweet brown Rochefort 10.
For those pleasant few hours when Monk's three slender dining rooms were smoke-free and mercifully quiet, one could glimpse the intriguing possibilities of a slightly more ambitious beer-food venture.
The Monk's that patrons usually find is a considerably more raucous place, with a beer-hall dynamic that can overwhelm its laid-back inclinations as a casual Belgian bistro. But for those who don't mind the ridiculously long wait for tables, the throbbing din, the occasionally sticky floors, and the permeating scent of smoke, there are plenty of rewards on the menu, as well as a few letdowns.
Monk's is rightly renowned for its burgers, which are juicy and substantial, dressed in sweet Ardennes ham, or in blue cheese and caramelized leeks, or in truffled cheese and shiitake mushrooms.
The obligatory mussels are very good but sometimes fall short of great. I found them clean and tender but slightly puny and on the bland side, especially the classic house-style preparation made with beer instead of wine. But the "red light" mussels, flavored with fragrant Hoegaarden beer and spicy chile de arbol oil, had a memorable tingle.
Whichever mussels you get, frankly the frites are the main attraction. These crispy laces are made from high-sugar Belgian Bintje potatoes grown for the restaurant at Meadow Run Farm in Lancaster County. They are undeniably irresistible, especially dipped in spicy mayo.
But Chef Adam Glickman's menu offers more unusual examples of beer cuisine. For starters, there is marvelous grilled octopus tenderized by hours of braising in Flemish sour ale. Spring rolls filled with duck confit that has been stewed in Hoegaarden and star anise come with a fabulous tangy sauce made of pureed cherries moistened with cherry-flavored lambic ale. The rabbit terrine, tarted up by the same cherry ale, is also excellent.
Gueuze, an intensely funky, sour lambic, is among the world's more challenging acquired tastes. Yet it makes a marvelous braising liquid, with a natural acidity that turned the lapin À lÀ gueuze into one of the most tender rabbit stews I've ever eaten.
Cooking with other famous beers can be tricky, though, since their distinctive traits can disappear when the carbonation is cooked out. They sometimes add depth to a dish the way your typical wine might. But if we were looking to taste the fruity tang of Dupont saison ale, we didn't find it in the trout saison, an overcooked piece of ordinary fish.
Delaware's Dogfish Head Raison d'Etre ale was wasted on a pheasant breast that was cooked to a chewy crisp. And while I'm sure the Rochefort 10 made a nice, rich, porty sauce, there was hardly enough on the filet mignon to counter the overpowering Roquefort cheese stuffing.
The Madeiralike Gale's Prize Old Ale was well showcased in a glaze for the tender rack of lamb. But other dishes were less carefully cooked. The stuffed pork loin was dry and bland. The oysters Monkafeller were rubbery.
Monk's has a surprisingly delicious dessert tray prepared off-premises by Teresa Wall of Tartes in Old City. Her pumpkin cheesecake, miniature key lime tart, and creamy chocolate hazelnut tart were spot-on good.
But really, the best dessert at Monk's is the kind you drink - an apricot lambic or a toffee-dark Westvleteren or a bottle of Christmas-spiced Stille Nacht. Or a vintage English strong ale. Or high-octane World Wide Stout from Dogfish Head.
Whatever your brew, chances are that Monk's will pour it - if it's any good, that is. One isn't invited to join the Knights of the Brewers' mashstaff for serving anything less.