Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Firestone Walker & The Homebrew Chef Collaboration Beer Dinner at Brouwer's Cafe

Last night, Monday, May 23rd was, for me, the highlight of Seattle Beer Week.  My wife and I attended the Firestone Walker & The Homebrew Chef Collaboration Beer Dinner at Brouwer's Cafe.  This was a 10-Course dinner, paired with 12 different Firestone Walker Beers and beer creations.  Brouwer's Cafe closed at 3:00PM to prepare for this special event, and the doors opened for ticket holders shortly after 6:00PM. 

As we were brought in and seated, servers came around to present us with our 'Reception Beer': Firestone Walker's Union Jack IPA on Cask.  Other than Brouwer's few booths, most of the seating for the dinner was at long tables.  So we enjoyed our Union Jack as we introduced ourselves to the other attendees at our table and marveled at the menu for the evening, which was laid out in front of us on large, beautiful menu sheets.

As we were finishing up our Union Jack, Matt Bonney (Owner of Brouwer's Cafe), Sean Paxton and David Walker (Owner of Firestone Walker Brewing Company) came out to welcome us all and to tell us a bit about the evening we were about to experience. 

Course 1:

The first course for our dinner consisted of Cajun Prawns.  These were prawns, brined in Firestone Walker's Pale 31, dusted with Creole spices, coated in a Pale 31 beer batter, coated in shaved coconut, fried crispy sweet and served with apricot DBA mustard sauce.  This was paired with a Firestone Walker Solace - a Summer Wheat beer. 

I'm sure many of you have had coconut prawns as an apetizer at one time or another.  These... were nothing like that.  The succulence of the prawns was easily apparent due to the Pale 31 brining, and the subtle yet slightly spicy Creole spices came through beautifully in contrast with the apricot DBA mustard sauce. 

Intended as a light opening course, it paired perfectly with Firestone Walker's Solace, whose citrusy/fruity notes and clean finish complimented the prawns without obscuring the flavors. 

Course 2:

Next came Blackened Grits with Smoked, Scallop Stuffed Squid.  This was classic grits, infused with a squid ink stock, Solace ale and fresh corn with Union Barrel smoked local scallops stuffed in a squid 'casing' with Creole mustard Nectar IPA sauce.  This was paired with two beers: a Hefeweizen and Nectar IPA.

Dishes like this really show off the skill and creativity of a chef like Sean Paxton.  I mean, c'mon, scallop sausage with squid as the sausage 'casing'?  Who thinks of that!?  The squid provided a firm casing for the scallops, whose smoked flavor (whose aroma was camouflaged by the squid casing until you took a bite) came through and blended well with the unique, squid ink stock grits.  A truly unique dish. 

I wondered at first why Sean had decided to pair this dish with two beers instead of just one, until I tried a couple of bites with a sip of each beer afterwards.  The Hefe's clean finish and light flavor allowed the subtle smoked flavor of the scallops to linger pleasantly, while the Nectar IPA provided a wonderfully contrasting yet complimentary flavor.  Besides, I'm a sucker for IPA with smoked foods.  It's a pairing I often employ at home. 

Course 3:

Up next was Catfish Pale 31 Hushpuppies.  These were classic Cajun hushpuppies with catfish chunks in the batter (as opposed to traditional hushpuppies & catfish, where the catfish is served with the hushpuppies rather than as a part of them); served with a centennial hop infused remoulade sauce.  This was paired with Firestone Walker's Pale 31. 

I love catfish.  BBQ it, pan fry it, saute it, put it in a gumbo, I don't care.  I've always been a fan of  those little whiskered beauties.  I've only really had hushpuppies a few times, but their appeal is easily understandable.  Who wouldn't like little Golden fried balls of cornmeal batter?  And Sean put the catfish IN the hushpuppies?  Who could resist that?  They were delicious. 

The Pale 31 was a good accompaniment for this dish.  A  British style pale updated with Northwest hops, its medium bodied flavor and lightly floral hop aroma went well with the catfish flavor of the hushpuppies. 

Course 4:

Each course seemed to be even better than the last, and the trend continued with Crawfish, Lobster and Pork Belly Sausage.  This was served over a spicy, dirty rice infused with Red Nectar, the Trinity (onion, celery & peppers) and topped with a roasted pecan Walker's Reserve Porter with coffee gravy.  This was paired with Firestone Walker's 100% Oak Aged Double Barrel Ale. 

A complex dish with many levels of flavor, this is where things really started to kick into high gear.  I tried a small bite of the rice first.  It was tender yet firm and had a nice spice to it.  The crawfish, lobster and pork belly sausage had a wonderfully unique flavor and spice that was well accented with the roasted pecan Porter and coffee gravy. 

A uniquely flavored dish deserved a uniquely flavored beer.  Firestone Walker's 100% Oak Aged Double Barrel Ale is Oak aged in brand new oak barrels, which are given a medium toast on the inside before allowing the beer to age in them.  The result is a clean and lightly toasty oak flavor to the ale, which held its own against the unique yet assertive flavors of this dish. 

Course 5:

Up next was Sous Vide Alligator.  This incredible dish was Louisiana alligator encrusted with Creole spices and slow cooked in bacon and duck fat, served over a Southern style DBA cornbread and Lobster 'Etouffee' sauce.  This was paired with Nectar Hemp Ale. 

If you've ever had alligator you know how it can be.  For those who haven't, it's all in the preparation.  Alligator can be tough and rubbery, or it can be tender and juicy.  The Sous Vide cooking method (which involves cooking food in vacuum sealed bags in a water bath for long periods of time), can provide extremely juicy and succulent meats.  This dish was no exception.  The juicy filet of Creole spiced alligator sat atop a good sized cube of Southern style DBA cornbread, which was firm yet moist to the last bite, and the aromatic Lobster Etouffee sauce over the top had a wonderfully rich flavor only achievable by starting with the perfect roux. 

Nectar Hemp Ale, a rich, brown ale, provided a solid backdrop for the flavors of this dish.  A well balanced brown, it didn't try to compete with the succulence of the alligator or the richness of the etouffee sauce, and went well with the cornbread. 

Course 6:

Red beans and rice are a Cajun classic, but this was no simple dish.  Red Beans & Union Jack Rice consisted of Walker's Reserve Porter smoked ham hock, house cured spicy tasso Berkshire ham infused red beans served over Union Jack rice, with Union Barrel smoked quail and andouille Union Jack sauce.  This was served with Firestone Walker's Union Jack - which was then turned inton a Union Jack Hurricane as our servers came by and infused the beer with a hurricane mix. 

The flavor of the smoked ham infused red beans was simply amazing and the smoked quail on top was tender and well paired with the andouille Union Jack sauce. 

Serving this dish with Firestone Walker's Union Jack only made sense.  It paired perfectly with the Union Jack sauce over the quail and complimented the complex, smoky flavor of the red beans and rice wonderfully.  Adding the hurricane mix changed this up a bit after a few sips, offering a truly unique flavor.  I was skeptical of what it might be like, but it really worked.  The Union Jack and Hurricane mix, however they did it, paired and let the flavors of the beer and the mix both come through. 

My Union Jack Hurricane

If it wasn't apparent already, it should have been by this course.  Sean Paxton is truly a master of his craft.  Not only was each dish amazing and unique, but the beer pairings selected for each course were well thought out; accentuating rather than competing with the flavors of each dish. 

Course 6.5:

This was a 'secret course' that was not detailed on our menu.  Sean Paxton came out after the 6th course and surprised us with this little gem.  Pork belly, braised in Double Barrel Ale with thyme, bay leaf and Cajun spices topped with a roasted and pureed foie gras and served with a foie gras ganashe sauce. This was paired with Firestone Walker's Double Jack Double IPA. 

In a word: sublime.  This was a virtual orgasm for my mouth.  The juicy and tender pork belly melded with the foie gras topping and sauce and just melted in my mouth.  This was one of many high points of the evening. 

The pairing with Double Jack worked well, with the well balanced hoppy and subdued malty character of the beer accentuating the delicate flavor of the pork and foie gras.  Simply incredible. 

Course 7:

After such a meal, the desserts had to be equally amazing.  So now came the first of three desert courses: Pecan Pie; which was really course 8 since we had a 'secret course' after course 6.  The pie had a bourbon crust, Firestone Walker Black Xanthus caramel pecan filling and whipped cream made from crystal malt.  This was paired with Firestone Walker's Abacus Barleywine (soon to be renamed, due to a name conflict with a winery that has a wine named Abacus). 

I've always been a fan of pecan pie, so this was an easy sale for me.  Bourbon in the crust?  Great.  Firestone Walker Black Xanthus in the pecan filling?  Even better.  And how the heck do you make whipped cream out of caramel malt (malted barley)?  Sean has his little secrets, I see. 

This pie was a bit on the rich side, so it needed an accompaniment that could hold its own.  Abacus Barleywine was up to the task.  Its rich, oaky flavor with slight cognac like notes added to the rich and slightly bourbony flavors of the pie.  Another winning combination. 

Course 8:

Our next dessert course was another Southern classic: Beignets.  These are New Orleans style 'doughnuts' made with Firestone Walker's Parabola, dusted with malt powder (dried malt extract) and powdered sugar with a Theo Chocolate Velvet Merlin sauce.  This was paired with an amazing Firestone Walker blending of Parabola, Sticky Monkey and a mint peppercorn syrup made by Sean Paxton to create a 'Mint Ber'lip'. 

I've had a few different style of beignets over the years.  These were little 'pillows' of sweetness and I really liked how the flavor of the malt powder dusting came across (hey, I'm a brewer, what can I say?).  And the sauce by Theo Chocolates (which happens to be across the street from Brouwer's Cafe), was great. 

The star of this course, however, was the accompaniment.  Sean put on his mad mixologist hat for this one, mixing Firestone Walker's Parabola Stout, Sticky Monkey (an extremely hoppy beer that Firestone Walker brews only for blending purposes), and a mint/peppercorn syrup that Sean concocted himself to create the beer equivalent of a mint Julep.  It was an amazing creation and I took my time savoring it before the final course arrived. 

Course 9:

For the finale to this incredible culinary feast, we were presented with Pralines & Cream.  This was Double Barrel Ale ice cream topped with bacon brittle, pecan pralines and a Sticky Monkey caramel sauce.  This was paired with Firestone Walker's newest offering, their 14th Anniversary Ale (A blending of 8 different Firestone Walker beers). 

Wait.  Did I just say bacon brittle?  Yes.  Yes I did.  But let's not get ahead of ourselves.  Using Firestone Walker's Double Barrel Ale, Sean made us an ice cream with a great, not-too-sweet flavor, to accompany classic pecan pralines.  Not content to stop there, however, he added a few pieces of what he called 'broken glass', also known as bacon brittle.  It's a good thing the ice cream in this dish was a bit on the light side because the pecan pralines and especially the bacon brittle made it rich, rich, rich.  In fact, I saved a piece of my bacon brittle to take with me.  It was  bit too much to finish at the end of such a meal (and I thought it might be nice to have as a little treat later - in fact, I'm eating a small piece now). 

Not wanting to be outdone by the beers accompanying the earlier courses, Sean pulled out Firestone Walker's new 14th Anniversary Ale to accompany this dish.  As I noted above, this beer is a blend of 8 different Firestone Walker beers.  It has an extremely complex malt character and is aged in bourbon oak barrels for even more depth and character.  Paired with the pralines and cream, this course was an explosion of over the top dessert flavors.  Thank goodness this was the last course.  I'm not sure how much more gastronomic bliss my palate would be able to take in just one sitting. 

I topped off this amazing evening by sticking around after the dinner for a bit to chat with both Sean Paxton and David Walker, Owner of Firestone Walker Brewing.  I also made sure I had each of them sign a menu from the evening for a keepsake. 

By the time I made my way out, it was nearly midnight, but I still wanted to enjoy a cigar to top things off.  So I had a Nub Maduro.  These are short little cigars that satisfy but don't take forever to smoke.  There were still a few other stragglers outside, enjoying a smoke themselves, as Sean came out a few times to carry some of his cooking gear to his car.  As I finished my cigar and got ready to head home, I started to replay the event in my head.  A truly enjoyable evening of food and drink delights.  I will definitely be back for next year's Homebrew Chef dinner at Brouwer's Cafe.

Drink responsibly and stay safe out there.

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