Row 34’s dinner menu is in constant motion, and that inspires beer director Megan Parker-Gray. When she arrives at the restaurant in the morning, she’ll often find chef de cuisine Francisco Millan on the phone with Red’s Best, a seafood purveyor based on Boston’s Fish Pier. What came in on small boats that morning ends up on Row 34’s menu that night.
"Having that living, breathing piece of the restaurant is huge," Parker-Gray said. She applies that same kind of focus to the restaurant’s ever-rotating, two dozen draft beer offerings.
"If I can get one keg of one thing in, we’ll put that on, talk about it, then move on to something else," she said.
Much has been written about Row 34 in its year-plus existence in Fort Point. Notably, it’s the hip kid sibling of Island Creek Oyster Bar, with Island Creek Oysters owner Skip Bennett a founding partner, along with ICOB chef Jeremy Sewall and restaurateurs Garrett Harker and Shore Gregory. It also offers no cocktails, only beer and wine.
Parker-Gray joined Row 34 "when it was still dirt floors with an elevator shaft through the roof" after having worked as assistant general manager at Sewall’s Coolidge Corner restaurant Lineage. "When I found out what they were trying to do with the beer program, I kind of raised my hand and they said yes, which is such an amazing opportunity."
Now, she presides over 24 tap lines, one cask engine, plus more than 50 bottle and can selections of beer and hard cider. But Parker-Gray’s kingdom, a square, cardstock beer menu, doesn’t include some old standbys — no Sam Adams, no Harpoon, no Guinness.
"I definitely have a place on my menu for [sour beers]. It’s been exciting to see people really get behind sours," Parker-Gray said. A recent Row 34 list included sours ranging in style from Exilis, a light-bodied, low-alcohol Berliner Weisse from Oxford, Connecticut-based OEC Brewing, to a roasty, Belgian-inspired sour stout, Madrugada Obscura, from Jolly Pumpkin. The tart beers are her favorite types of beers to introduce to guests, especially when pairing with food.
"When you cleanse your palate with something really bright, tart, or something with a lemony, pithy, zestiness to it, it’s almost like the mignonette to your oyster."
"Oysters are meaty and plump and briny, depending on [the origin of the shellfish] you’re eating. When you cleanse your palate with something really bright, tart, or something with a lemony, pithy, zestiness to it, it’s almost like the mignonette to your oyster," Parker-Gray said, referring to the shallot-and-vinegar condiment that traditionally accompanies raw oysters.
Ciders offer something similar to the raw bar, especially dry ciders, like the flagship from Somerville’s Bantam Cider Company.* "Wunderkind is such a slam-dunk with oysters," Parker-Gray said. She also loves the funky-yet-crisp Basque offering, Sagardo Naturala from cidery Isastegi, which Row 34 offers in 750 mL bottles.
A current favorite of Parker-Gray’s to pair with food is a Belgian saison from gypsy brewer Stillwater Artisanal Ales, Of Love and Regret. Described by the brewer as a "Belgian version of my liquid interpretation of the Spring season," it’s brewed with chamomile, lavender, heather, and dandelion. "It’s really soft and herbal in a way that’s super complimentary for a lot of food," Parker-Gray said. With Row 34’s tuna crudo — three bright red rolls of raw fish resting on a slick of sweet and salty black garlic puree — the floral sweetness of the beer plays with the dish’s umami flavors to settle the palate.
The smoky, fatty, oniony trout pate is the perfect partner to Calyptra, a hoppy lager from Framingham’s Jack’s Abby Brewing. This match came to Parker-Gray by surprise: The set rose to the top among staff opinions during a recent pre-shift pairing exercise. "The trout pate is a dominant group of flavors together. [Calyptra] has this clean, bitter finish that really cleansed the palate after eating smoked trout. Honestly, it wasn’t what I first considered." Parker-Gray’s favorite pairing with Row 34’s smoked and cured menu is the helles from Bavarian brewery Schlenkerla, which develops a subtle smokiness during the brewing process due to proximity to the brewery’s smoked beers. "You don’t necessarily think it’s going to be refreshing, but [Aecht Schlenkerla helles] imparts this super subtle smoke characteristic that really brings out the smoke for me [in the smoked and cured dishes.]"
Despite the fluidity of both Row 34’s food and beer menus, Parker-Gray has tasted through it all. That’s the way to develop a palate for pairing, she said. Plus, with Millan and Sewall, she works with two chefs who love beer. "Without tasting, I wouldn't know how to put things together. We all work really well together." And that harmony sounds good to all lovers of both seafood and beer.
*Disclosure: The author of this piece is affiliated with Bantam Cider Company, but Parker-Gray's mention of the cider was unsolicited.