I love dinner, and I love beer, but the words “beer dinner” generally leave me cold. Unlike wine, many beers don’t lend themselves to felicitous pairing with specific dishes. And beer often disappears when used as an ingredient, while at other times it can turn bitter (like in braising meat) and have a negative impact on the dish.
Thus it was that I approached last week’s Hop Chef Albany event with both interest and trepidation. It’s part of a four-city rotation with the winners to compete in a cookoff at the Ommegang Brewery in Cooperstown, NY on August 3. At this event, chefs from seven local establishments prepared dishes that had to include at least one Ommegang brew and presented them to judges and a tasting public. The beers themselves were also provided so we could taste the one used in the prep, or another.
The first surprise for me was how well these Belgians went with food—particularly the lighter Witte (wheat ale) and Hennepin (“Farmhouse Saison”) which I’d be unlikely to order on their own. The “barnyard” notes (to quote Green Flash’s Mike Hinkley) add tartness and spice to counterpoint a heavy meat dish, whereas an IPA (as well as some of Ommegang’s stronger brews) would just add to the heaviness.
My favorite individual taste was a corn fritter with beer batter from Yono’s, an Indonesian fine dining place in Albany. Unfortunately, it was topped with slices of pork belly that had the bitterness from beer braising I mentioned earlier. The best total impression was a massive short rib on a bed of sweet potato from Merry Monk. That was my “People’s Choice” vote.
However, a plurality of “People” voted for what I felt was a leaden braised veal rolled in pretzel crumbs and served atop gouda spaetzle—see how many sources of heaviness are in there? My hypothesis is that this contestant was the first booth inside the door to the event so benefited from fresh and hungry taste buds.
The judges’ pick was more predictable: a complex plating from Mark Graham of Max London’s which featured a boudin blanc made with rabbit and sweetbread and an array of counterpoints including pickled mushrooms and a bit of apricot. He used Rare Vos in three components: the sausage, an apricot topping and a composed mustard; he also added a dusting of “Grains of Paradise”, a spice mixture used in the brew.
It was a fun event which opened my eyes to the benefits of Ommegang’s Belgians combined with food, which of course was exactly the point. Lucky for me, I can get Ommegang any time at Merry Monk, which happily is located within 150 yards of my home in Saratoga.