It’s no secret that one of the things I look forward to every year during Ontario Craft Beer Week is the comparatively larger number of people thinking seriously about beer and food. Beer dinners, for instance, abound. The version of beer and food pairing that I think is probably most illustrative is not a beer dinner, however.
A beer dinner comes with certain problems. There has to be a flow through the menu. The fact that you’re trying these plates sequentially with whichever beers are provided by the featured brewery can end up being somewhat limiting from a conceptual perspective. I should mention briefly that I’ve heard some lovely things about the beer dinner at The Auld Spot which featured beers by Michael Hancock and Matt O’Hara from Beau’s. If you look at bits of the menu, there’s a framework at play. It’s going to be pork heavy, given the name and nature of the restaurant (If your sign features a pig, you’d better be serving a very large amount of pig.) and the styles of beer on offer and the fact that the brewers are doing German styles of Ale for the most part.
A great deal of planning goes into a framework like that, and when it comes together it’s something to be proud of. It ties together cultural heritage, a restaurant concept, course progression and the taste of two individual brewers and a chef.
Personally, as an experience, I like smaller, encapsulated attempts at beer and food. I like it when the concepts behind dishes are defined mostly by a sense of play. The reason Fanny Chadwick’s excels at this is because they’re doing comfort food in a culturally indistinct sort of way. The menu incorporates the strengths of whomever happens to be working in the kitchen at the time and more often than not it comes together beautifully.
This year for Ontario Craft Beer Week, they’re again doing their Flights and Bites event, which allows the kitchen to cook with a number of the beers on tap and allows you to choose a certain number of beers to try with the dishes they’ve prepared. Compared to a five course beer dinner, it’s affordable and customizable, allowing you to choose from the 12 beers they have on tap (some of which, and don’t tell anyone up high in the organization at the OCB, are not even members).
Here’s the menu for this year. I’ve done something incredibly dull and decided not to play around with beer pairings too much. If the beer is used in the preparation of the dish, I’ve tasted that beer with the dish. It seemed like the thing to do at the time.
Popcorn glazed with a Lake of Bays Riverwalker Reduction
This is an interesting idea. The Lake of Bays Riverwalker is a lemon and ginger summer ale. While the citrus is present on the aroma, the finish of the beer is dominated fairly heavily by gingery bitterness. It’s not a subtle attempt at a summer ale, but it does what it says it’s going to. The question of what to with that is a slightly difficult one. You have to balance out the bitterness slightly and you want to play with the ginger without reinforcing it since it’s already pretty dominant.
In the case of this pairing, the reduction on the popcorn has been sweetened slightly and the popcorn has been garnished with a small amount of cilantro, scallion and lime. It’s a little like a thai cracker jack that never existed. It manages the bitterness in the Riverwalker pleasantly, and the salt perks up the entire experience. It is slightly difficult to eat. You will want a wet-nap.
Sprout Salad with Muskoka Mad Tom Braised Carrots tossed in IPA Vinaigrette
This is clever. Mad Tom is a pretty big, brash IPA that I seem to recall weighs in at 64 IBUs. There’s a nice balance of malt sweetness and caramel, and the hop character is dominated by citrus and pineapple. The decision to use it in two different ways in this plate didn’t go quite the way I was expecting. Braising carrots in IPA is, I suppose, similar to a Vichy preparation, but since it’s an IPA I guess maybe Raj would be the more appropriate term. When you concentrate an IPA like that, the hop character increases and in this case the hop bitterness comes through in the braised carrots (which is good because they could have been overly sweet). With the vinaigrette the malt sweetness of the IPA comes through, I’m guessing because of the slightly spiky acidity. These two flavours balance out on the creamy mini bocconcini.
Crostini with Cream Cheese and Beau’s Lug-Tread Fig Jam topped with Housemade Lonzino
As a single plate, this is probably the most successful thing on this year’s menu. I like the vaguely Frank Lloyd Wright construction. I like the fact that it’s the kind of thing you might come up with at home as an hors d’oeuvre on a lazy Sunday. The difference is that at home, you’re not curing your own Lonzino with a small amount of lavender; You’re not making a rustically textured fig jam with a Kolsch. I tend not to think of Lug Tread as a bitter beer, but if you’re using it in a jam the bitterness will concentrate and here it provides some significant interest. This is mostly about four different textures coming together in the same bite. Paired with the Lug Tread, it draws more fruit ester out of the beer, enhancing a quality which is usually in the background.
Mussels and Steam Whistle Fritters with Vietnamese Dipping Sauce
I like this mostly because it’s a novelty for me. Usually when mussels are on a beer related menu, they’re simply steamed in the beer with some shallot and garlic. There are entire restaurants predicated on variations of the steamed mussel. What’s happened here is that it has been steamed in Steam Whistle, removed from the shell (probably pretty painstaking prep work there) and incorporated into a sort of cormeal breaded fritter with cilantro. You will remember I was talking the other week about Maillard reaction in malt and in dry heat cooking preparations. The deep fried fritter balances the Pilsner malt Steam Whistle is made with pretty marvellously. That specific sweetness is mirrored in the beer and the crust of the fritter. The fish sauce and tamarind provide salt, sweet, sour and umami. The fritter is actually three textures with the chew from the mussel, light filling and crusty exterior. Deceptively simple. Nice plating.
I know that OCB week is sometimes about the big marquee events, but the Flights and Bites menu at Fanny Chadwick’s is worth your time. They seem to have knack for beer and food pairing. If you don’t make it during OCB week, it’s still a good choice year round. There are even rumors of a patio going in.