Anyone who lurks around the local foodie blogs and websites know that Chef Neal Brown's L'Explorateur is a well regarded contemporary restaurant that has quickly become a favorite of many. So I was excited to attend the Beer and Food Symposium, not only for the beer dinner, but to experience Chef Neal's culinary creations for the first time.
Not wanting to look like a bunch of rubes, we opted not to bring in the big cameras. But thankfully, my training from being a former CIA operative came in handy as I had my little camera phone with me and took many recon photos of the evening. Including this very grainy photo of who I believe to be Ted Miller of Brugge, who collaborated with Chef Neal on the beer pairings.
I could probably sell this photo to the National Enquirer as a photo of Bigfoot. Damned low lighting!
Frank Boon Geuze from Belgium's Brouwerij Boon. Gueuze is a beer style that mixes old and new lambics, a common practice that is paralleled in the scotch world. The old lambics provide a well aged flavor while the new provides the bubbles and little extra sour flavors. I'm not big into sour flavors, but this Boon Geuze (which how the brewery spells it) has been my favorite lambic to date. A light champagne aroma with fruit notes, it is still sour to taste.
Rabbit Sausage Meatballs (shown missing a meatball) on a slice of pear with "stinky Italian cheese" and Chimay beer fondue. The meatball had more fattiness than I was expecting, which is a good thing; the flavor is in the fat. The fondue wasn't THAT stinky and had a very deep flavor.
The pairing was inspired by a traditional cooking of rabbit in gueze. The beer cuts through the fat of the meat and cheese; the fat of the food cuts through the sourness of the beer; and the pear works with the fruit notes of the beer to pull it all together.
Black from Brugge's Terre Haute brewery. It has a very clean smell with notes of chocolate, fig, raisins and plums. There was a bit of sweetness to the fruit.
It was paired with a trio of oysters, which I don't have a photo of. Because I ate the photo after I ate the oysters. I love oysters. I was excited about this course. I wanted more. So I ate the photo as well. And it was delicious.
But imagine: a small raw oyster on a half shell with a bit of shallots on top sitting on top of a bed of sea salt. To the right of it is a deep fried oyster in a tempura batter with a dab of black caviar on top. And to the right of that a cup of black oyster stew with carrots, celery, and onions in a velvety soup with a dash of Black.
Oysters, mussels, and dark beers are a traditional combinations. Ted explained that they were brought together by the use of oyster shells in the process of buffer the pH of the water in preparation for brewing. Ted is a regular Bill Nye of the brewing arts. The saltiness of the oysters cut through the roastiness of the Black, giving way to the beer's dried fruitiness, which paired well with the oysters.
Krusovice Imperial Czech Lager from the Kralovsky Pivovar Krusovice (or the Royal Brewery of Krusovice...which is why "Imperial" is in the name). Classified as a Czech Pilsner at Beer Advocate, this is what Budweiser and other domestic mass produced American beers should taste like. A very light beer, it has some light fruity notes, making is like a watery lambic without the sour notes. This could be a regular summer beer for me.
Chef Neal prepared a loup de mere, which was pan fried with the skin side down. For presentation purposes, the fish was sliced, serving the crispy skin on top of, but separate from, the moist meat, which caused Chris to ask if he was actually eating two different fishes. But serving them apart like this emphasized the different ways of preparing the fish. They sat on top of asparagus and a beautiful buttery sauce. The fish was topped with a crab salad that could stand to be served on it's own on a crusty roll. It was topped with a piece of popcorn.
This was an interesting pairing, in that half of the geeks said the malt of the beer came out more with the fish dish and the other half felt the fruit flavors came popping out of the beer. I sided with the latter, making them right. We discussed what other beers would go well with this dish. Many were suggested: lambics, IPA's, German wheats. I suggested a dark beer, like the Brugge Black, which pairs well with the saltiness of the fish and crab. Ted and Broad Ripple Brewpub's Kevin agreed with me; smart move on their part.
I'm such a cocky bastard...
Ankle Biter Barleywine from Broad Ripple Brewpub. Tasting this, I though of Rice Krispies, not because of the cereal, but because of the ton of the sugar I would throw on it before eating it. The barleywine has a sweet, fruitty, and floral aroma. It tasted of caramel and butterscotch and was so, so smooth. My favorite stand alone beer of the night.
It was paired with leg of lamb, covered in curried, cooked rare, served of a bed of lentils and a tomato sauce. This dish brought out the carnivore in me. I love curry. I love meat. And I loved the tomato sauce served with this. After discussing the protocol of manners in a fine dining establishment, everyone agreed that since this is a beer dinner, and beer is the drink of the common man, it was more than appropriate to pick up the lamb bone and gnaw the remaining tidbits of meaty goodness of it.
This was a bold and challenging pairing, which Ted gave all the credit to Neal on this one. Most think IPA or other strong spiced beers to go with curry. But instead of complimenting, they fight for your attention. In this pairing, the beer brings out the complexity of the food's spices and the food deepens the caramel flavor of the beer. Neal added to the marriage of beer and food by using currants in his dish to further compliment the beer. By far, this pairing was the most successful of the night in spite of the degree of difficulty.
Tripel de Ripple from Brugge. At this point, we are all having a great time and are a bit silly. All we could say about this beer "This shit is Bananas! B! A! N! A! N! A! S!". Apologies if the song is now stuck in your head.
Banana Pot Creme. Banana Creme covered with chocolate, topped with whip cream and a graham cracker. I'm thinking Boston Cream Pie deconstructed.
This is a pretty easy pairing, though oddly enough, the dessert cut the banana flavor of the beer and brought out the other fruit and spices of this wonderfully intoxicating Tripel.
At first, the $65 may seem like much. But I'm telling you, it was a BARGAIN! This is, by far, the finest complete meal that I have ever had, with each course bettering the one that came before it. Chef Neal and Ted are brilliant yet approachable guys who are happy to talk about their thoughts and answer questions.
Over the course of the evening, I felt as if I were a judge on Bravo's Top Chef. Every course was beautifully presented. Descriptions were given by our hosts. And we carefully dissected and discussed what we were consuming. If all of Neal's dishes are like these, then it is no wonder that L'Explorateur is frequently discussed by the local foodies.
Immediately, I asked if we really had to wait a whole year for this experience to happen again. For all of you who didn't attend, you missed out on a great experience. And while I'm certain that next year they will try to be better than this year, they have a tough task ahead of them, as this was spectacular.