James Beard House Hosts Beer-Pairing Dinner With Dogfish Head Brewery

Wine’s fine, but beer’s nearer and dearer to my heart, so it took a beer event to get me to the storied James Beard House in Manhattan for the first time on Saturday. The Brewmaster’s Banquet was a pairing dinner organized by Beard House director of programming Izabela Wojcik that matched beers from Delaware’s Dogfish Head brewery with food from chef Adam Dulye of San Francisco’s beer-loving Abbot’s Cellar and Monk’s Kettle gastropubs. For those who pay attention to such things, the event represents a milestone in the beer world: no less a culinary authority as the James Beard Foundation was recognizing something many of us have known for years: Far from being an inferior, uninspiring drink for the lunch pail set to pair with potato chips, football, and a duct-taped La-Z-Boy, today’s craft brews are brilliant complements to some of the most inventive cuisine in the country, with a range of styles broad enough to balance everything from smoked oysters to grilled bison.

The James Beard Foundation knew what it was doing when it selected Dogfish Head as the beer maker for the evening. I’ve long considered it one of the most inventive breweries in America, as does my fancy-beer-loving wife, Jenn, so we were particularly pleased to chat with owner Sam Calagione (pictured) as he filled glasses with Midas Touch, Raison D’Etre, and Shelter Pale Ale during cocktail hour. In a country now filled with great craft breweries, Dogfish Head still manages to stand out by focusing entirely on weird beers.

Think about it: almost every other small brewery makes at least one "normal" beer (a Budweiser-style lager) in addition to their more outlandish offerings. Not Dogfish Head. As Calagione explained, the closest thing would be their 60 Minute IPA, which is indeed a laid-back sipper, but still complex enough to make you realize that there’s a symphony going on in the glass. It’s a thinker. As he has probably explained a thousand times before, Calagione said he’s not interested in making a standard lager, because there are plenty of good ones in the market already. Covering new territory in beer is more interesting to him, although sometimes that means going way back in history.

Take Dogfish Head Ta Henket, for example, which I wrote about a few months ago. Not only did Calagione and crew study ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics to come up with a recipe for the type of beer the pyramid builders would have guzzled 4,500 years ago, they even set out baited petri dishes in a Cairo date farm to capture the native yeast strain that would have been used at the time. That’s not just twee intellectualism for the purposes of marketing, that’s true beer enthusiasm. (For the record, the brew was light and refreshing and made me want to be a pharaoh.)

And so Sam Caligione brought his weird beers from Delaware to Greenwich Village to pair with five courses of equally inventive foods. We were seated at table 11, which was located in what was once James Beard’s elevated bedroom nook (complete with mirrored ceiling), and it gave us a great view of the action on the main floor. As soon as the first course arrived–Liberty Farms duck terrine, rye crusted duck confit croquette, poached apple, and tarragon, paired with Beard de Garde farmhouse ale–the room came alive, with people taking photos of their plates, clinking glasses, and chatting loudly. It’s hard to imagine the same scene at a wine pairing, not that quiet contemplation isn’t an essential element of a thoughtful life.

The food was delicious (big props to Chef Dulye) and the beers elevated it to poetry, or perhaps really gutsy rock ‘n’ roll. The duck was just the beginning. Course #2 was seared scallop, arugula and ricotta agnolotti, piquillo pepper, and kumquat paired with Namaste, a Belgian-style wheat beer made with dried orange slices, lemongrass, and coriander. I love scallops, and the bite of the beer danced with the sweetness of the shellfish. The third course was spinach-wrapped monkfish, dungeness crab, and bone marrow risotto, which was definitely a fancy plate of grub, and it was paired with an equally fancy glass of beer, the Noble Rot, which is made with botrytis-infected Viognier grapes (that’s a good thing). I could use flowery language, but at its essence they just tasted darn good together. The beer/wine blend worked well with the varied flavors of the dish, at once mellowing the monkfish while sharpening the risotto. Give me more.

Next came the meat, which is as good a test as any for beer as an accompaniment to food. After all, steak and red wine is a match made in heaven, with the tannins of the wine breaking down the fats of the meat. Could beer fare as well? It certainly did with the dry-aged bison strip loin, which came with salsify, gigante beans, and artichoke barigoule (I don’t know what those things are but they tasted good.) It came with Bitches Brew, a blend of stout and mead, which was strong and fizzy enough to stand up to the meat while having plenty of flavors of its own.

All too soon, dessert was on the table, a hazelnut cocoa nib mille feuille with ricotta mousse and salted caramel ice cream. It came with perhaps the most unusual and certainly the strongest beer of the night, the World Wide Stout, a dark, rich beer with an alcohol content of nearly 20% (your standard pub pint clocks in at around 5%). The experience was like drinking a port or a cognac, and it gave us just the right glow to stay warm on the trip back to Brooklyn.

And so the evening of fine beers paired with fine foods ended having proven its point beyond any doubt: chosen wisely, you can find a craft brew to go with just about any cuisine. But there was a secondary point that’s no less important. Just as James Beard helped define and raise the profile of American cuisine around the world, Calagione and craft brewers like him have taken American beer from a punchline (sex in a canoe, etc.) to what I’m confident in saying is now the best beer on the planet. Sure, Germany has its pilsners, Belgium has its Trappists, and England has its ales, but America has every one of them, in dozens of different varieties, made by brewers who care deeply about what they do and aren’t hidebound by centuries of tradition. If you don’t like one, try another. And another. That’s what we do, and it’s nice to see that chefs from South Beach to Seattle are trying them too. What a country.

Absinthe Brasserie Shakes Things Up in New York

Before the great cocktail boom that started half a decade ago, to get a solid drink in San Francisco proved a challenge. At that time one place stood out: Absinthe Brasserie. For almost fifteen years, this bar has pushed the cocktail renaissance into what it is today. Now, as bar manager Jeff Hollingersteps down (though still has a hand), the famous brassiere welcomes Matt Conway, formally of nopa.

“What I hope to see from Absinthe, and what I’m trying to help ensure, is that we maintain our relevance in the growing list of these watering holes,” said Conway. “In my mind, doing that is not about having a ‘celebrity’ bartender or having the most obscure ingredient, it’s about providing your guests with a great experience.” 

Of course, if you aren’t able to get to California any time soon, getting the three-star Absinthe experience is difficult, except this week. Conway, as well as Hollinger, chef Adam Keough, pastry chef Bill Corbett, will be taking the city by storm. First up, Conway and Hollingerwill be guest bartending on Tuesday, July 17 at Death & Co, and then on Wednesday, July 18, they will be at PDT. They will not only being showcasing their skills to these chic bars, but a taste of what Conway plans to do with the Absinthe menu.

“What I am bringing to the bar is some different experiences and maybe some different ways of looking at things,” said Conway. “I tend to let my own personal preferences influence the drink and spirit list, so we’ve [Absinthe] recently brought in more vermouths, fortified wines, and amaros, which I try to incorporate into drinks rather than just have them in the fridge or back bar.”

On Thursday, the rest of the Absinthe team will be whipping up their minimalist, French-flared cuisine during a multi-course meal at the James Beard House. Though these events don’t beat an actual trip to the West Coast to experience the whole of Absinthe, which the San Francisco Chronicle rated as one of the top 100 restaurants in the city in 2011 and 2012—it’s the next best thing. 

Guest Chefs: Getting Chefs Out of the Restaurants

When Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen finalist Paula DaSilva showed her Miami heat to the James Beard House yesterday, the 1500 Degrees executive chef brought with her not only the whole kitchen staff, but a little bit of sunshine to the five-course menu. As the beaming DaSilva thanked everyone for coming, I felt the praise went to her for letting me try her Brazilian-inspired, farm-to-table food without ever having to step on a plane.

As the concept of celebrity chef becomes increasingly popular, a lot of other restaurants are sending their cooks to the city to showcase their food in a series of one-up dinners. Sine 1986 the not-for-profit James Beard House has been one of the biggest providers of this type of dining. Some upcoming meals to look forward to include the pork-centric feast by Daniel Doyle of Poogan’s Porch in Charleston on June 14. Then they host more Hell’s Kitchen alumni as Connecticut based chefs Kevin Cottle and Van Hurd do a soft shell crab extravaganza on July 11, and, on July 19, chef Adam Keough from the San Francisco will bring a taste of Absinthe Brasserie and Bar to the table.

City Grit is another way to experience chefs from around the country. Run by Food & Wine’s Home Cook Superstar Sarah Simmons, the pop-up establishment is meant to showcase chefs that don’t always get to be the stars of their own restaurants or ones visiting the city. Today and tomorrow, they feature award winning chef John Currence from City Grocery in Mississippi as part of their new series “Secrets Behind the Chef.” Past chefs have included Top Chef contestant Ty-Lor Boring previewing his upcoming restaurant and “the angry chef” from Atlanta, Ron Eyester. The schedule goes up monthly, so check it out for upcoming events.

For those wanting to try star chef’s food in a more intimate setting, and give something to charity, on July 24 Just Food and the Sylvia Centerhave put together A City Farmer, A Chef, and A Host a series of 14 dinners that take place at private homes around the city. Though this event is geared toward local chefs, it’s a good way to try some food from some of the hottest restaurants around and features chefs like Dan Kluger from ABC Kitchen, Robert Gurvich of Alison Eighteen, and Andrew Carmellini of The Dutch. It’s expensive, sure, but lets you experience these chefs in a whole new light.

No matter which way you go, the time of having to go to one restaurant (or many, if it’s Danny Meyer) to sample a chef’s cuisine is slowly changing, which is great for many diners.