1776 Shelter Island Drive, San Diego
If you’d have told me you could squeeze two dozen people into the wooden box at the end of the Shelter Island pier, I’d have called you a liar. I’m still not sure it’s advised, but it’s worth cramped quarters to experience the thoughtful beer dinners that owner Dennis Borlek is putting together at craft beer bar—and bait and tackle shop—Fathom Bistro (1776 Shelter Island Drive, Shelter Island).
The wooden box at the end of the Shelter Island pier.
The second and most recent edition of this suds-on-the-water culinary experience took place last month. A collaboration with Colorado’s Avery Brewing Company, it featured one of the most extensive arrays of the brewery's highly coveted and ultra-rare barrel-aged beers I’ve ever encountered. Even the local Avery sales rep was wowed by the number of sours, wine- and liquor-barrel aged specialties Borlek was able to land along with another big fish, Avery president and brewmaster Adam Avery.
Borlek and Avery shared master of ceremony duties, with the guest of honor sharing details about the brewing, inoculating, and barrel-aging details behind beers like rum-laced coconut porter Momi Hiwa and Volunt Plus Erat, an ale brewed with Cabernet Franc grape must aged 14 months in Zinfandel wine barrels with lactobacillus and pediococcus. Clearly, a bit of explanation was in order with something so complicated.
The food, on the other hand, was pretty straightforward. I didn’t come in expecting fru-fru modernist cuisine. Everyday fare at Fathom consists of artisan sausages, burgers, and sandwiches. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. That grub is perfectly suited for craft beer with an ocean view. But given the complexity of a beer list 10 strong and varying from a double IPA to a raspberry and red wine sour to a Bourbon-fortified imperial stout, I figured the kitchen staff had their work cut out for them. And they did, but they rose to the occasion admirably. I came for the beer, but I left stuffed, satisfied, and even surprised at just how much beer and food they provided.
Bahia Falsa oysters served on the half-shell with three bacon-wrapped shrimp.
Most of the edible fare was simple but extremely flavorful. The best example, and my favorite dish of the night, was a spicy ceviche of local halibut served with blue corn chips. Vibrant citrus tartness and aggressive spiciness (that, to be honest, was a bit over the top for several of the diners) complemented Avery’s bitter, fruity 20th Anniversary XX IPA. That was followed by a pair of Bahia Falsa oysters served on the half-shell with three bacon-wrapped shrimp that, while not quite warm enough, were truly deserving of the descriptor “jumbo.”
Served with a wit brewed with Hawaiian Lillikoi passion fruit, the shrimp made for the best beer-and-food pairing of the night.
Borlek developed the majority of the menu, reaching into his personal bag of cooking tricks in the process. A banana cream shortcake was made using Avery White Rascal and a lump crab cake was made extra rich with his substitution of Bob’s Big Boy blue cheese dressing for the standard mayonnaise. Overall, the menu was varied and tasteful, and the portions were very generous. Throw in all that amazing beer and you have something that warrants a $65 price tag (and utilization of a good cab service).
Fathom’s next beer dinner will take place on October 14 and will feature the beers of Mike Hess Brewing, which just opened its second, much larger facility in North Park, providing the company the opportunity to produce plenty of beer for Borlek and company to work with.