Thursday April 7, 2011

PITTSFIELD

It's the history of regional conflict that has touched Jim Benson's very family.

"The South is really intensely divided," says the proprietor of Mission Bar and Tapas on North Street, leaning forward and speaking in a gravely voice over the din of an unseasonably large crowd. The people are here for Blue Mondays, Mission's newly launched theme night featuring a variety of barbecued meats, special beers, and freewheeling, blues-inflected live jazz.

"You can have a very thin, light, tomato and vinegar-based sauce in South Carolina, but one county over it can be a nearly invisible mustard vinegar sauce. Then in Alabama it might be a white barbecue sauce," he explains.

A particularly divisive debate rages in Benson's home territory of Kansas City, where partisans speak up for either the spicy red sauce of Arthur Bryant's BBQ or the sweet offshoot served at Gates Bar-B-Q.

"That's the red sauce debate. I'm going back there soon and the debate with my family has already started again. I have family members who prefer Gates -- even though everything about it is just plain wrong -- and that's tough to reconcile with my otherwise tender feelings toward them."

Sure, he's (mostly) joking, but the fact remains that Benson is passionate about food. And though Mission is known for Spanish-style tapas and wine, the reality of a traditionally slow night in the wintry Berkshires' off-season became an opportunity for Benson -- who has also lived in Georgia and Virginia, picking up recipe secrets along the way -- to indulge in the sauce-drenched barbecue fever dreams of his younger days.

The Monday-only barbecue menu -- typically, pulled pork with a mildly sweet mustard glaze, mash-it-with-a-fork-tender beef brisket, spicy Kansas City-inspired beef ribs served chopped over a 12-inch bone, and fried chicken (just for good measure) -- is complemented by off-menu beers.

Caitlin Harrison, better known for the wine pairings and tastings she's hosted at the restaurant, pitched the idea of bringing in some hard-to-find cask ales and large-format Belgian farmhouse beers.

Both the barbecue and the special beer are in limited quantity; by 6 p.m. on one recent Monday, the ribs and fried chicken were already sold out. By its very nature, the cask beer does not keep beyond a day or so, so all 40 pints have to go or be gone.

Cask ale is composed of three-quarters fermented beer and one-quarter unfermented beer. After the two portions have had a chance to interact in the cask, the extremely light ale is served from the cask rather than a CO2-infused keg. (Each Sunday night, Mission staff drive a wooden spike into the top of that week's cask to release the internal pressure, then plug the hole and refrigerate the cask overnight.)

A similar dynamic is at play with the Belgians, poured from a bottle sized at one pint and 9.4 fluid ounces into wine glasses.

Harrison explains to a patron that the very crisp and refreshing blonde ale boasts a "fine bubble," and contains live yeast so should be stirred after the first glass or two. (It fills about three.)

Complete with white towel over her arm, she looks almost as if she's serving wine rather than beer. But it's no affectation.

"After you agitate it you get this very nice head on the drink," Harrison explains afterwards with relish. "In a wine glass you get a lot of the aromatics of the beer. If you put it in a pint glass you lose a lot of that charm."

The third element of Blue Mondays is the band. The Wrba-Weiss 4tet -- more specifically, saxophonist Noah Weiss, bassist Andy Wrba, and assorted guests -- had already established a jazz-band residency on Mondays, which last winter were a dark night for the restaurant.

They throw in a bit of a blues touch as a nod to the Southern-inspired barbeque menu but it's mainly a stew of lively, club jazz.

One occasional musical guest is 16-year-old guitar whiz Jeff Howard of The McLovins, a rapidly rising band out of Connecticut.

Two weeks ago he sported his own cheering section near the middle of the room as he alternated between sharp jazz chords and furious, whammy-heavy solos. 

The room was packed, and were it not for the occasional heaping combo platter of 12-inch beef ribs and other generously portioned barbecue items being served around the room, it would look indistinguishable from, say, a particularly hopping Friday night at Mission.

Suffice to say, the sophisticated sensibilities of the place have not been turned in for a basket of Wet Naps. Though the usual tapas menu is joined by down-home American delicacies, the overall aesthetic of the place seems intact.

"It's not like we're trying to dress up as a down-and-dirty barbecue joint one night a week," Benson explains. "It's still Mission."

Chef James Burden spends the rest of his time at Mission working on small plates inspired by the cuisine of Madrid and Barcelona, but he freely admits that he worked up a mess of elk ribs for friends last summer.

On a Monday his kitchen will go through 30 pounds of fried chicken, 25 of beef ribs, 10 of pork and 10 of brisket.

Like the beer, when it's done, it's done.

"We don't want a place where we have people covered in barbecue sauce," he says, noting the pre-sliced rib meat. "We want them to be able to enjoy their glass of wine and look nice and do what they normally do on a regular night."

Blue Mondays at Mission Bar and Tapas, 438 North St., Pittsfield:

Hours: 5 p.m. until sold out.

Prices: $8 per plate of one barbecue item with fries and cole slaw; $4 for each additional meat item. Cask beer: $6 per pint. Regular menu also available.

Cover: None,

Information: www.missionbarandtapas.com