Sunday, February 24, 2008

An Embarassment of Glasses: A Beer Paired Meal at Bar Cento

I hate to drive. More accurately, I love to be driven. As such, my husband is always the designated driver, which is severely unfair because I don’t really drink much either. (This really makes me seem like a terrible date, huh?) So, when I read about Chef Sawyer’s Beer Dinner, I knew it would be a great topsy-turvy night. It was a 7 course food and beer pairing event.
It was held in the back room that connects Bier Markt to Bar Cento. Its wood paneling, track lighting, and deep red flowery rugs give the feel of a den, which served the masculine menu well. The appertivo was a beautiful sour champagne (Cantillon Kriek)—beautiful for both its taste and color. I love sour, citrus, lemon, sweet tarts, pickles, vinegar…so the appertivo was up my alley. But, for my husband, he couldn’t taste any flavor but sour.
Then the pairings began with pretzels and popcorn. My only complaints were that I wished there were more of each and I wished that the pretzels were on the table when we arrived. Cheeky chef Sawyer left tubes of Thomy mustard on the table for the customer to apply at will. I really could have eaten the whole tube. (In fact, my husband entertained stealing it, but as I had introduced myself to the chef, it would be embarassing for him to know that this was the blogger who also dabbles in petty theivery.) Nonetheless, to start a $50 tasting menu with beautifully crafted low-brow fare really sets a tone; this will be a fun and surprising meal.

The tongue in cheek menu meant to work on memory and substitution—that which you remember only different. There was double entedre/ in joke nature to the meal; that is to say, reading the menu, one expected something, and then when you received the dish, and then reread the menu, you got the joke. And, in fact, this humor really added to the experience for me. Beer is not stuffy; why should its tasting menu be?

Honestly, there seems no way that this restaurant could be stuffy. The staff is so normal, in the best sense of the word. In fact, the evening struck me as proof of the chef’s business sense. He came out after every course and spoke to the diners. His demeanor was slightly self-effacing yet confident and interested in his customers. His staff was responsive, respectful and interested. Clearly someone at the establishment, assumably the manager and chef/owner, focus on service—because every staff member I have met there was excellent. And, during the evening of the tasting, there were plenty of them milling around, if only to deal with the embarrassment of glasses that continued to multiply on our table.

This is not to say that the staff didn’t clear the glasses in a timely manner, but instead that we couldn’t complete or release our beer glasses before the next course. The meal was served at a leisurely pace. My husband finished the first beer quickly, actually, before the popcorn from the pretzels and popcorn course came out. After this, he became slower, deliberate in his beer drinking (and fuller), but we couldn’t really let the server take away half-finished glasses. (I only tasted the beers and turned my glasses over to him.) But, our approach really allowed us to appreciate the gradual changes in beer from lighter to heavier, from crisper to bolder.
The best pairing to me was in the second course-the Coney Island Crudo. The beer was a Jolly Pumpkin BAM, Saison Sour Ale from Michigan. The beer lacked the color of the sour appertivo and, after one or two sips, my husband and I were left unsatisfied. Then the food pairing came out. The crudo was oyster, clam and scallop with radishes, Tabasco, horseradish mayo, and mignonette (pink peppercorns and champagne) on the side. This course changed my feelings for the beer completely. It is not that the beer lost its sour, but instead that the undertones of the beer served as a counterpoint for the seafood (sort of as citrus elevates seafood.) I did not prepare a little salad of radish and mignonette upon my seafood though, because there was no need, and instead ate the radish and accompaniments after consuming the seafood. The mignonette was very tasty on its own. The course that we are still talking about was the third. Beer-battered quail (beer paired with beer) and a wonderful remoulade, which even drew in someone who doesn’t enjoy mayo. It was a sort of an Ohio nod to a pub fish and chips. This course was paired with a flavorful Orval Trappist Ale. (My husband and I did praise God for the Trappists by the end of the evening, by the way.) The batter was so scrumptious I would have eaten a cardboard box covered in it. While this was in part because of the texture of the batter, but it was also because the course was served PIPING hot and perfectly salted.
The next course also featured the great state of Ohio, but in this case its bovines. The hand-ground steak tar tar was a little difficult for some of the diners because on texture. Sawyer said he had meant to keep it coarse in order to maximize the beefy flavor. For me, the course was a little difficult in terms of presentation. It was paired with cornichons. I have always loved them with beef and use them in gravy for pot roast. There were also diced pepper and potato gaufrettes (crinkle cut potato chips). But, the focus of the plate was the sort of brown mass of tar tar. My husband had some amusing characterizations about its appearance, but suffices it to say, this course really could have used a ramekin in which to confine the meat. But the flavor and texture were really enjoyable. I spread the meat on the chips and added some cornichon. Yum. I would have finished the course, but ran out of chips. This course also had the beer that I would most likely order on its own. A man who I came to assume was Dr. Brian Kelly, the beer guy, told us that loving the beer, Brother Thelonious, was philanthropic because the California company gives a portion of its proceeds to a jazz foundation.
The next course, braised meat pies, had a bistro feel with its use of beef cheeks and boudin noir. The crust was buttery yumminess. My husband loved this course and felt that the criss-cross of dough was just the right amount to set off the flavorful meat. This was paired with a La Chouffe that was good but frankly a little alcoholic for me.
The next course was a Trappist love-fest—“Three Monks Beer & Cheese Fondue.” It was this course for which the in-joke on the menu was the least successful. I am a cheese lover and a fondue enthusiast. As such, I anticipated a small bubbling pot of cheese. In fact, I half expected the communal table concept in which a small fondue pot, 70s style, would be shared amongst the patrons. Instead, we received a cold cheese fondue with a buttery rusk , a beer-marinated shallot, and chunks of poached pork shoulder. The tasty shallot could not redeem the course. The meal was then completed with gingered blood oranges & dates, which my husband ate in a quiet moment of contemplation.
In total, I felt the evening was so enjoyable. The service, food and libations made for rich but casual conviviality. I know that next month there is a tasting with wine—but I am looking forward to another beer tasting.

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