This was my first year at the Brewer’s Plate dinner. I have to say that my experience of events like this is coloured somewhat by the fact that I watch a lot of Top Chef. Regular, Masters, All-Stars, I’ll probably even watch the Canadian one when it starts up on April 16th. I know some chefs, but it’s not like I’m talking shop with a lot of them. Mostly, I read. Bittman, Bourdain, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. I own Nigella Lawson cookbooks, and I’m not ashamed of it. While the camera on her show may be in soft focus, her prose is sharp and entertaining. I once checked Fergus Henderson’s book out of the TPL. He writes like a particularly sinister Neil Gaiman character.
I like this stuff. I just don’t have the budget for it, what with being a quasi-legitimate journalist.
This year the Brewer’s Plate was at the Wychwood Artscape Barns, which aside from doing a pretty good Pink Floyd album cover imitation, is also a farmer’s market during the summer. I knew it was going to be a good night. If you’re being consoled about breaking a glass by a man on stilts who is dressed in a tuxedo before you even have a drink in your hand, you’re probably in good shape.
First off, there’s no way to talk about an event like this one comprehensively. For instance, most of the breweries had more than one beer on offer, so there’s no point in trying to do a recap. My colleagues mock me gently periodically about the length of my blog posts, and if I tried to talk about the beers on offer, this would be somewhere in the vicinity of a Coelho novel (Veronika decides to drink?).
For this reason, this post is hereafter: TOP CHEF ST.JOHN’S WORT!
For a lot of people, the highlight of the evening was Chef Tawfik Shehata’s battered fish taco. It was served with a smoked tomato salsa and what was apparently a candycane beet slaw. Personally, I felt that the batter, which involved Steamwhistle, could have been a little crunchier as a textural element. I understand why people liked it. It stood out as one of the only light dishes in the building. It worked well with the beer pairing, mostly due to the fact that there was a little acidity to the tomato which contrasted the slight sweetness and crisp finish of a Pilsner.
Another reason that this dish worked particularly well was that it was served on a corn husk. I’m not sure whether you’ve ever attempted to navigate a room of 400 slightly inebriated jostling people with a full sized plate and cutlery, but it’s an unenviable and awkward task.
The majority of the dishes were late winter fare. One of the problems in using local seasonal ingredients in early April is that you end up seeing a lot of radish and watercress as garnish. It is what it is.
Perhaps the hardest dish to actually consume was Chef Brad Long’s stew. I believe I heard that the protein was Muskox. While it was served on a full size dinner plate, and I had to get my blogger friend Matt Caldwell to hold my beer, it was thoroughly enjoyable. Mildly gamey, and the root vegetables held their texture very well. It was also fairly heavily seasoned, which helped it stand up to the Beau’s cask Beaver River IPeh. As you can see, I neglected to take a picture until after starting in on it.
I did not try Brook Cavanagh’s buffalo ricotta stuffed morel, although, I think it was probably the most intricately plated dish at the event. It seemed to have a large number of elements in play. Shaved radish, shallot confit and preserved Brussel sprouts all seem like they may have been extraneous to the core of the dish. It was paired with Wellington’s Russian Imperial Stout. Points to La Palette for attempted complexity.
I think the dish that worked best with the beer pairing was Lora Kirk’s Black Oak Nut Brown Ale braised pork belly. The confession I have to make here is that I had never actually tried pork belly before despite cheering on Kevin “Pork Jesus” Gillespie for much of Top Chef season six. I think the sweetness of the brown ale worked nicely with the unctuous fattiness of the pork belly, and it complimented nicely the crispin apple slaw which she had somehow imparted with a smokiness that I didn’t expect. I went back for seconds on this one and that’s probably the reason that I’m going to slip into a coma as soon as I upload this post. Also, the cheddar biscuit was a nice touch. You can rarely go wrong with a cheddar biscuit.
The only dish that I didn’t think worked was Michael Steh’s cheddar and broccoli soup. It was a composed dish with a sort of barbecued or pulled pork on the bottom and pork crackling used as a garnish. I think that the intention was for the fattiness of the pork to work with the slight saltiness of the cream soup. I didn’t care for it, but I’m not a soup guy. Also, I’m not a food writer, so y’know, caveat emptor.
The more I think about it, the best dish of the evening was Jamie Kennedy’s. I don’t know from Jamie Kennedy. If you asked me opinion of Jamie Kennedy, I would say he was quite tall. But on this occasion, I think he probably created the best standalone dish. It was a Tortiere Strudel. I know. More pork. In this case, it was served on a base of thinly shaved pickled celeriac, carrot and ginger with a sort of mustard relish. Taken by itself, the tortiere was fine; it had all the spicing you’d expect from a standard French Canadian tortiere. As a composed mouthful, as a single bite, the other elements brought some brightness and acidity that elevated the dish.
Also, there was chocolate. And tiny cupcakes. And maple sugar. Did I mention the inevitable food coma? I think I did.
I cut out of Brewer’s Plate early in order to go get an espresso. As soon as I saw someone in a papier mache replica of the Fox mask from the cover of Genesis’ seminal album Foxtrot, I knew it was time to call it a night. Surrealistic whimsy is a great thing, but not when you’re blissed out on pork belly.
Here’s the verdict.
Jamie Kennedy: Best Standalone Dish.
Lora Kirk: Best Pairing.
You: Buying a ticket next year.