As Ontario Craft Beer Week continues on its merry, slightly lumbering way, I find that the events that I’m most interested in are the ones that deal with pairing food and beer. I suspect that this has to do with the fact that we don’t get enough of this in Toronto at the moment. There are, of course, any number of restaurants that serve good beer and good food, but there’s not always that much in terms of designed pairings.
Even beerbistro, whose menu exists for that purpose, theoretically, has beers sequestered into various groups based on their properties: robust, sociable, assertive, extroverted, yielding and, of course, manic. It’s a little like a Meyers-Briggs chart. That works relatively well as a baseline for pairing, but what I really want to see is a specific dish paired with a specific beer. I want to see someone play with a specific set of flavours.
I admit that it’s not the kind of thing that can often be done outside a beer dinner.
On Monday night, Harbord House had their third OCB Week beer dinner with Great Lakes. Since I’ve been covering this event for the last couple of years during OCB Week, I figure that at this point, it’s just become tradition. Harbord House always surprises me a little bit, mostly because I hear about it less often that I feel like I ought to. I get there maybe twice a year, but I’m never disappointed.
As per usual, the Great Lakes beer dinner at Harbord House was hosted by David Bieman and featured a wide assortment of their beers. At $50 a seat, I feel like it was the most affordable of the beer dinners on offer this week and it proves to be good value for money year after year.
Some of the pairings worked better than others, as is always the case during a four course dinner. The starter beer was the OCB Farmhouse Ale, which is a collaboration between Amsterdam and Great Lakes. It’s a very tasty beer. The difficulty is that it was served before the first course, which was a Poached Pear Salad with spiced pistachios, chevre, baby arugula and a maple balsamic vinaigrette. The pear salad was served with Great Lakes Green Tea Ale, but I feel as though the better pairing would have been the starter beer, if only because the lingering bitterness of the arugula would have worked with the sting of the Farmhouse yeast.
While some pairings are obviously going to work (strawberry chocolate cheesecake and Harry Porter and the Bourbon Soaked Vanilla Beans), others surprised with their quality. Cooking mussels in beer is not a new concept, but the Moules Frites served as a second course were surprising because I usually see mussels cooked with wheat beer. Cooking them with a Saison, No Chance With Miranda in this case, is sort of revelatory because the flavour is more complex. If you serve them with the same beer, you get two versions of the same flavour, experienced slightly differently.
The other venue I visited for beer and food pairing was Fanny Chadwick’s. I’ve only been to Fanny Chadwick’s once before, but the impression I got was that it somehow eludes being on the radar as a destination in Toronto. I don’t know how that’s possible, because I’m convinced that they serve the best burger I’ve ever eaten. It might be the house made pickles that make it, or possibly the general high quality of the ingredients. I’ve been to BQM and Holy Chuck. I think Fanny Chadwick’s blows them out of the water.
The event that they’re hosting for Ontario Craft Beer Week is simple: Flights and bites.
Fanny Chadwick’s usually have 12 Ontario Craft Beers on tap, which is a huge number for a restaurant that might seat 40. For the purposes of the Flights and Bites event, they have come up with unique food pairings in appetizer sizes that work with, and are made with, a specific beer on the menu. Most often, this kind of attention to detail comes with a set menu during a beer dinner. This is a la carte beer and food pairing at a very high level for an extraordinarily good value.
Flying Monkeys Stereo Vision is paired with Deep Fried Asparagus. Stereo Vision is apparently meant to be a hoppy Kristalweiss, although that combination is esoteric enough that I would not have been able to guess the style. The Stereovision is used in the batter for the Asparagus and then again subsequently in a reduction drizzled over the Asparagus consisting of shallot, honey, and citrus zest. The acidity of the reduction picks up the grassiness of the Asparagus and prepares the palate for the hoppy kick of the Stereo Vision.
Great Lakes Orange Peel Ale is paired with Pulled Pork on a Buttermilk Biscuit. I am, generally speaking, just about done with Pulled Pork, as it gets served everywhere. This is an interesting twist on it, however, because it’s not a heavily vinegared Carolina Pulled Pork or a saucy Texas pulled pork. It’s practically a French treatment of the dish, which incorporates the Orange Peel Ale in the braising liquid along with thyme and what I think may have been sage. Sort of a Porc Tiré, if you get my meaning. For all that it isn’t heavily sauced, it retains its moisture and plays off the citrus character of the Orange Peel Ale.
The most successful of the bites is the Wellington Arkell Bitter Chick Pea Patty served with Caper, Olive and Habanero Tapenade. The reason it works as well as it does is that it is extremely subtle. Arkell Bitter has a caramel backbone that persists on the palate as you make your way through a sip. In the case of the Chick Pea Patty, every component plays off this backbone: The slight nuttiness of the chickpeas, the salt from the caper and olive, the heat from the Habanero, even the acidity from the carefully considered slice of tomato. It’s one of those rare pairings that leaves you contented without knowing exactly why. Extremely balanced.
There are other bites, of course. There’s the Muskoka Mad Tom IPA Chili Cheese Fries. There’s the Mill Street Organic Beef Liver Pate and Avocado Dip. There are Rainbow Trout Fish Cakes topped with Beau’s Lug-Tread Lagered Ale Air.
Did I mention that a flight of samples is $6.75 and that most of the bites that go with those samples are under $5.00?
Look, I really like beer and food pairing, but my observation is that not everyone has the desire to sit through a beer dinner. Sometimes you want the care and attention that goes into a beer dinner in a much smaller format, and that’s what they’re doing at Fanny Chadwick’s during OCB week. You want a dish that someone has put a lot of thought into that will teach you something about food and beer and won’t cost an arm and a leg? This is the best place to go in the city this week.
In fact, even if you’re reading this after OCB week, you should know one thing. This is the only restaurant I have ever been to where a waiter set down a vegan dish at the table next to mine and I looked at it covetously. It’s that good.