Tuesday, October 30, 2007

"Creative Costume" beer dinner review: Multiple thumbs up.

On Monday night, NABC hosted the Creative Costume of American Artisan Ales, a beer and food pairing conjured by chefs Josh Lehman and Andrew McCabe. It was the first time that a beer dinner of such complexity has been attempted in Prost, our banquet room, and you had to see it to believe it.

A mobile kitchen was parked outside the rear door, and an improvised prepping and serving area appeared between it and the dining room. From the prep area, you could hear the humming of a portable generator, and with uniformed personnel dashing in and out, the scene was somewhat reminiscent of the mess tent on television’s M*A*S*H.

Rest assured that chipped beef and shingles were nowhere in sight.

Both Josh and Andy (Sous Chef and Pastry Chef, respectively) work at Louisville’s Le Relais Restaurant, a bastion of French cuisine that has long been one of the city’s finer tables. I consider Josh and Andy to be among the city’s Young Turks in the culinary sense. They’re trained, ambitious and talented, and not long from now, they’ll no longer be working for others, but rather looking for their own opportunities to shine.

When their solo flights finally come, I hope their kitchens are near my place of residence.

One might be tempted to characterize Monday evening’s smashingly successful meal as akin to the first wobbly steps of a newborn, yet nothing could be further from the truth, because the dinner was exhaustively planned and professionally staged in every sense. Having observed their idea from conception through maturation, I never really doubted that the food, drink and service would be worthy. At the same time, I was interested in seeing how the duo would respond to the logistics of mounting a fine dining experience at a place that isn’t generally confused with those local eateries that boast white table cloths.

Which is to say that Andy and Josh were forced to improvise every step of the way, and with the assistance of NABC’s special event coordinator Reva Hagedorn and a hand-picked team of helpers, not a step was missed. On the night of the dinner, several technical glitches occurred, and these were handily sidestepped. The chefs kept their cool, and it was impressive.

Just as impressive to me were the spot-on beer and food pairings, and I can say without a trace of exaggeration that I’ve seldom, if ever, tasted better. Like I said, they did their homework. Here, again, is Monday’s menu, with a few comments:

Seared Diver Scallops
Orange Ginger Broth
*Jolly Pumpkin Calabaza Blanca*

JP's Belgian Wit variation is restrained by the brewery's funky standards. It isn't bad to go easy on the coriander. Only lightly acidic, quenching, and appropriate with the mellow spicing of the broth. Scallops? I can eat them all day long.

Heirloom Pumpkin Soup
Applewood Smoked Bacon & Granny Smith Apple
*Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale*

The key element here is the carmelized essence of brown sugar in DH's ale, and the way is perfectly complements the autumnal combination of pumpkin, bacon and apple.

Muscovy Duck Breast
Carrot Mousse, Caramelized Onion Duck Confit Bread Pudding, Duck Stock Reduction
*NABC Thunderfoot*

With more than six months of cellaring, Thunderfoot's cherry is coming back out. There's a hint of vanilla from the oak chips. This pairing was tenuous, but successful. The beer threatened to overwhelm the tasty duck, falling just shy of that, while still leaving the impression that it was a glass of Port and not beer. I liked it. Some taste buds may have been stunned.

*New Glarus Unplugged Enigma*

Thanks to Brandon, we had a true rarity a as a mid-meal palate cleanser. To the customary glory of New Glarus's cherry beer can be added a hint of Brett and oak. Wonderful.

Local Artisan Cheese
-Capriole Juliana
Porcini Mushroom Honey
*Ommegang Ommegeddon*

-Capriole Mont St. Francis
Rosted Yellow Beet, Red Beet Compote
*NABC Hoptimus*

Have you noticed a propensity for funky yeasts and barrels? Ommegeddon's dry and peppery Saison character was enhanced by a touch of the funk, and the result was a flavorful modification of a nutty and herbal cheese, with the added sweet nip of honey. Delicious. However, the true contest was yet to come: Mighty Hoptimus versus an equally monolithic Mont St. Francis cheese, the former young, assertive and laden with hops, the latter aged, rich, textured and wonderfully stinky. I was reminded of a sumo match fought to a sweaty draw. I can still taste it.

Pear Streusel Cake
Vanilla Ice Cream, Caramel
*Allagash Curieux*

Yet another barrel modified beer, this time a Tripel, not the more often seen stout, and thankfully so; it isn't hard to imagine the fruitiness of the beer with a subtle layer of bourbon smoothness pairing with pear ... and caramel. I had the advantage of tasting it, though.

Parting Glass
Cask conditioned *NABC Malcolm's Old Setters Ale*

Not yet officially released, a hugely malty closer with nary a hop in sight.

Congratulations to Josh and Andy for a job well done. We hope to have them back soon. Verily, it was the finest meal ever served between NABC's walls ... now, what does one do for an encore?

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