The preview menu for this Rock Bottom Brewer's Dinner made me stop and do a double take. Melon Caviar? Belgian Ale Foam? Sous Vide Lamb Leg? After attending many years of Brewer's Dinners, I've come to expect a certain style of food. Always good, but somewhat predictable. This, however, was entirely new. At the Fire Chief Ale tapping, Jerry informed us that Ricky Cassidy was their new sous chef that had graduated from the Chef's Academy and the new menu was his baby. Based on the menu, they're not making him pull any punches for the Brewer's Dinners. Unfortunately I forgot my camera at home, so you'll have to deal with cell phone pictures that don't quite do the food justice.
Amuse: Crispy Parma Ham, Melon Caviar and Balsamic Pudding paired with El Jefe Hefeweizen
Why It Worked: El Jefe is a German-style Hefeweizen, which means that it's heavy in banana, orange and clove flavors. The amuse-bouche served its purpose and let us know that the new sous chef was serious about impressing us. A dish of fried parma ham was topped with cantaloupe that had been prepared in tiny balls the size of salmon roe and was dressed with tiny congealed balsamic drops and olive oil. The melon matched the citrus and banana flavors fantastically, while the salty fried ham helped cut through the heavy body of the beer. The clove flavors complimented the ham and the beer ensured that the intense ham did not overpower the palate.
First Course: "Fish and Chips" - Salted Cod Brandade, Fennel and Apple Slaw, Mustard Vinaigrette and Belgian Ale Foam paired with IPA
Why It Worked: The Rock Bottom IPA is one of the grapefruit variety. Inspiration from the pairing came from the basic coupling of English IPA and Fish and Chips, but much like the American IPA has grown far beyond its roots, the "fish and chips" of this dish had evolved from their English roots. The salted cod was made in house and was prepared with potatoes and other ingredients to make something that resembled a crab cake. The chips were transformed into a fennel and apple slaw, dressed with a mustard vinaigrette and Belgian ale foam. The citrus flavors of the IPA were a friendly and familiar pairing with the cod, while the spicy mustard vinaigrette developed added complexity from the bitterness of the beer. The big acidic hop presence helped prevent the salted cod from being too salty.
Second Course: Seared Wahoo, Parsnip Puree, Oven Dried Roma Tomatoes ans Asparagus paired with Goat Toppler Maibock
Why It Worked: When the Goat Toppler Maibock was first tapped, it was a significantly hoppy interpretation of a Maibock. Now that the beer has had almost a year to mellow, it much closer resembles its German heritage - sweet and malty. The seared wahoo was prepared two different ways, one with miniature popcorn husks and one with fried leeks, both perched atop a dried tomato and parsnip puree. The sweetness of the maibock was a nice addition to the sweet wahoo. By drying out the tomatoes, the acid of the tomato was reduced and the sweetness was strengthened, mirroring the way that a year of time made the beer sweeter and less bitter. The tiny popcorn husks started out bitter and developed a surprising sweetness the longer they were chewed, which at first helped bring out the hops of the beer, but then paired with the predominant malt sweetness.
Third Course: Sous Vide Lamb Leg, Mascarpone Polenta, Ratatouille, Shoulder Ragout and Jus paired with Fire Chief Ale
Why It Worked: This one was a little more simple. If you haven't had Fire Chief before, it is a yearly Irish Red seasonal that has a nice balance of caramel malt and hops. Lamb goes great with red ales, ESB, browns and other malty beers. This was no exception. The addition of mascarpone to the polenta and the slow cooked ratatouille added even more complimentary sweetness.
Why It Worked: The Hoosier Ma Stout is almost always chocolately, and this was no exception. The current iteration of Hoosier Ma Stout has more hops than the typical varieties, which actually helped keep this dish from becoming overwhelmingly sweet. This course featured many items that are added to stouts, but instead of being incorporated into the beer, each one could be tried individually with the beer. The frozen milk chocolate puffs emphasized the dry cocoa flavors in the stout. The chiles in the dark chocolate ganache created a smokey, spiciness. In the center of the plate, a pile of chunky house-made "nutella" complimented the beer with a burst of sweet hazelnuts. Rotating through and trying different combinations of food and beer match ups was very enjoyable.
Pairing Lessons: When attempting to pair beer with more complex recipes, it is quite typical to only be able to pair with select flavors or components of the dish. Unless of course the dish is designed to contain complimentary flavors within itself, in which case the correct beer can create layers of new flavors. The melon in the amuse is an excellent addition to the already dominant fruit flavors of hefeweizen. Depending on the sweetness of the fish, you may want to pair it with a citrusy IPA or a perhaps a malty brown. Keep in mind how preparations will affect the base properties of the ingredients. Tomatoes are often too acidic for brown ales, but through oven roasting they lose acidic and build on their sweetness. Chocolate is a traditional pairing for stout, but by mixing in other ingredients, such as nuts and chiles, the flavor of the stout can seemingly transform into an entirely different beer. Think about other varieties of stouts as target combinations when choose food pairings.
I'll say it again, I was entirely surprised and impressed by how much more adventurous the menu was this time around and how well executed it was. I can't wait to see what they come up with for the next one.