Monday, July 09, 2007

Battle of the Barrels

Chef Gillian Clark sparked some controversy a couple of years back in the Washington Post and on-line when she opined that the customer is NOT always right. (By the way, she serves some of the best French toast I've ever tasted.) Her Colorado Kitchen is an intimate, fun, and innovative restaurant in northwest DC.

Here's an interesting concept dinner she recently created: The Battle of the Barrels.

She prepared a menu of six courses, each paired with one specially chosen beer and one specially selected wine. Kristin Orr of distributor Legends, Ltd. selected the beers; Ali of Henry Wine Group selected the wines.

I was on hand, bringing a pin of Clipper City's Loose Cannon Hop3 Ale, which was served with the Lemon Pound Cake dessert. A pin is a small cask - in fact, at 5.4 gallons (42 US pints), it's exactly half the size of the more common size of cask - a firkin (10.8 US gallons).

So the gist was: you ate, you drank, and then you decided which paired better with the meal - the wine or the beer.

Ever since reading about a similar event in Garrett Oliver's excellent book - The Brewmaster's Table - I have been intrigued by his format of a beer/wine 'slam' dinner. But I have been utterly unsuccessful in urging it upon ANY restaurateurs in the Baltimore / Washington area. That is, until recently, when Ms. Orr suggested it to Chef Clark who obviously took to the idea.

Here's her menu.

Vidalia Onion Mini Burgers, Fried Zucchini, Creamed Shrimp Hash in Puff Pastry.
beer: J.K. Scrumpy's Organic Hard Cider
wine: Fitz Sparkling Extra Trocken
poll: the beer with the food was preferred by the majority
my notes: The website for the cider states that this Scrumpy actually isn't a scrumpy. So why name it scrumpy (which is strong 6% abv+ English cider, usually served from a cask)? Most US hard ciders taste to me like fizzy alcoholic apple juice. This one, organic, was better than most - but still not scrumpy. Read a review of mine of some English scrumpy and perry that had been imported into the US for a short while a few years back.

I gave my personal nod, however, to the Sparkling Extra Trocken Riesling ... its bright acidity cut through the just-enough tempura-like batter of the zucchini.

By the way, this really was a choice between two wines. Beer is fermented from grain; wine from fruit. Cider, fermented from apples - fruit - should properly be considered a wine.

First Course
Crab Mousse
beer: La Chouffe
wine: Annabella 2005 Chardonnay
poll: the wine with the food was favored by the majority
my notes: Being a vegetarian, I didn't taste the meals, but did ask around for opinions. The mousse was a thing of beauty, sort of a flan of crab. The crabmeat itself was Louisianan: sweet in flavor. Thus the Chardonnay, an oaked Napa - malolactic butteriness and oaky sweetness - was probably a better mate for the crab. I'm not a fan of that flavor in wine, so I preferred the La Chouffe, which I think is a marvelous beer.

It has a crisp grainy character, a lemony zest aroma, and a whiff of sweet cooking spice. The brewery was purchased by Moortgat (brewers of Duvel) in late 2006; its US distribution/importation networks may soon be changing.

Second Course
BBQ Chicken and Potato Salad
beer: Skullsplitter
wine: Bex 2005 Riesling
poll: the beer with the food was favored by the majority
my notes: The wine was definitely a funky Riesling: to me aromas of gasoline, sweat, Rose's lime juice ... but those are good things!

The Skullsplitter - even though I thought it was tasting a bit old - matched so much more appropriately with the barbeque: chocolatey, smoky, malty.

Third course
Trout Florentine--pan seared trout with creamed spinach and bacon
beer: Aecht Schlenkerla Helles
wine: Hofer Gruner Veltiner
poll: the wine with the food was favored by the majority
my notes: I've never had this beer before, just its smoked-malt brethren (Aecht Schlnerkerla) - beers that figuratively taste of bacon. So, from the same brewery, this helles was a delightful surprise: soft, with a softly sweet breadiness, and only a hint of smoke adding counterpoint in the background. Pouring with only a few toads-eye bubbles, the sample had been, I believe, accidentally undercarbonated. From all the "oohs" and "ahhs" for Chef Clark's entrée, I could only imagine how sublime a pairing the beer and flounder made.

... more at the table preferred the wine: an acidic, biodynamic, Austrian Gruner Veltliner, with what rep Ali described as a food-friendly "green-bean" aroma. It came in an unusual full-liter green bottle, crown-capped like a beer. I've never seen wine in a bottle like that before.

Fourth Course
Seared Breast of Duck w/ Peaches and Brandy
beer: Duchesse de Bourgogne
wine: Chateau Rocher Cap de Merle (Bordeaux, vintage?)
poll: a tie between beer and wine
my notes: What a wonderful beer - almost cherry fruit, wet stone minerality, lactic acidity. This style of beer - Flanders Sour Red Ale - is often paired with game and fowl in Belgian gastronomy.

It may have been a flavor shock to many participants - who chose the Bordeaux over it. To me, the Merlot-predominant Bordeaux was a bit tight.

Lemon Pound Cake w/Cherries
beer: Loose Cannon Hop3 Ale
wine: rosé
Poll: the wine with the food was favored by the majority
My notes: The Loose Cannon Hop3 Ale was in fine fettle pulled from the cask - if somewhat turbid. But, it did NOT pair well with the pound cake; the beer's citrusy character and structure clashed with the cake. The sweet, low-alcohol (5%) rosé was a better match. I'm a summer season partisan for dry French-style rosés, of which this was not an example.

Taking applause:(L-R) Chef Gillian Clark, wine rep Ali, beer rep Kristin Orr

  • More photos.
  • Since the dinner, Clark has closed Colorado Kitchen and opened The General Store in Silver Spring, Maryland.
  • Her name Gillian is pronounced with a hard 'G'.
  • She has published her memoir Out of the Frying Pan: A Chef's Memoir of Hot Kitchens, Single Motherhood, and the Family Meal.

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