"Oh, are you media?"
D. and I glanced at each other briefly and I can sum up what was going through our heads:
Well, I guess I am, if by "media" you mean I'm going to enjoy this meal, take lots of pictures, and geek out about beer and food/beer pairings on my humble food blog.
I'm just here with my wife, who insists on photographing every. single. damn. meal. we. eat. If that pays off for me in having amazing food and beer, then yes, she's media.
D. smiled politely and I explained that I was invited via my food blog. I couldn't help but wonder if I sounded insane. After all, it's the first dinner I've attended by invitation and the first one where I didn't feel self-conscious about photographing my food, so I wasn't entirely sure what to expect.
It started with an email. I occasionally receive PR emails and this one jumped off the screen at me. Urban Solace. Samuel Adams. World's strongest beer. I was sold. Urban Solace is one of our favorite North Park restaurants and Sam Adams is our go-to "big name" beer. Being in San Diego and living a few blocks from 30th Street, local microbrews are always plentiful, but we know that we can rely on Sam Adams for a good beer no matter where we are.
Bert Boyce, who brews for Samuel Adams, was hosting the dinner with talks about each beer and beer/food pairings. Matt Gordon, executive chef of Urban Solace, crafted a menu that paired well with the beers. What I love about beer pairings is that stronger flavors can be showcased without the food overpowering the drink or vice versa. Star anise and fennel were two ingredients that gave the dishes a pop that was noticeable, yet not jarringly so. Since both taste like licorice, it was a nice contrast to the various caramel and malt flavors coming from the beers.
We've been eating at Urban Solace since it opened and, while I've definitely heard of him, I'd never had a chance to meet Matt before. It was great to hear him talk about his process in creating the menu and it was even better to taste it. Talk about hitting it out of the park.
Small bites were passed around on trays, starting with a lovely sassafras-marinated grilled shrimp. It was very good and I'm pretty sure garlic was part of the nice punch of flavor. It was followed by little cubes of meatloaf that I could have made a meal out of. It was a nice little cube of meat, with a little fat for moisture and topped with a five-spice-based glaze. I overheard Matt mention that they make their own five-spice mixture at Urban Solace, which is pretty cool. D., who has a special place in his heart for meatloaf, loved it.
While these delicious bites were being passed around, we were given tasting glasses of Cranberry Lambic. There are good dinner wines and I think Cranberry Lambic (pictured below, on left) is a good dinner beer. Slightly sweet, mellow with a clean finish, it's a beer that's easy to drink and pairs very neutrally with all types of food flavors. This was the only beer that wasn't discussed at the dinner, but they use a wild yeast strain to ferment the beer, although a lambic is spontaneously fermented. This isn't a beer to compare to traditional lambics... ignore the name and enjoy the sweet, slightly tart flavor with a dish that's strongly flavored.
We began our first course with the Coastal Wheat, which is brewed with lemon peel. It's their hefeweizen, but brewing with the lemon peel smooths out the sharp flavor that hefeweizens typically have.
Our first course was a lovely cornmeal ravioli stuffed with smoked chicken and leeks. It was drizzled with brown butter and topped with pine nuts and wilted frisee and fennel. The pasta was toothsome and the chicken/leek filling was good and not too smoky. What brought the dish together, flavor-wise, was the wilted fennel. It threaded many subtle flavors together and brought out the smokiness in the chicken and browned butter.
The second course was pork belly braised in Old Fezziwig Ale. As a braise, the ale gave the pork belly's richness a slightly sweet tinge. As a drink, I can't say I was a huge fan. A dark ale brewed with cinnamon, ginger, and orange peel, it was not very flavorful. With those ingredients, I was expecting a punch, but it was merely heavy with malt and mildly sweet. The broth served with the pork belly smelled of licorice notes of five-spice and fennel, with the star anise in the five-spice making the broth smell like pho. While the drink fell flat, the dish was sublime, with near-molten fat and the light dumpling standing out.
The main course featured an Estancia grass-fed flatiron drizzled with a herb pistou. It was served with braised baby carrots and roasted sweet potatoes in a Boston Lager reduction. For one thing, I know Matt does great things with sweet potatoes, because I've never met a sweet potato at Urban Solace that I didn't like. This dish was no exception. The beef was good, although a smidge too rare, which led to the flatiron being a little tough. The carrots were perfect and the herb pistou was nicely balanced, with just enough sharpness from parsley without tasting like mowed grass.
Apparently, the glass was designed by engineers at MIT who received lots of free beer in return for the perfect beer glass.
Damn, I really should switch careers.
The bottom of the glass has a laser-etched ring, which is a nucleation site and results in lots of carbonation. The wider top allows the carbonation to continue expanding, allowing the concentration of the beer's aroma to concentrate above the liquid and also builds a good foamy head. The flared lip is another agitation site, maximizing carbonation so it creates a light mouthfeel.
D., who was already indulging in the generous refills of our tasting pours, refused to let a pint go to waste. He downed it easily, but raised his eyebrows when he noticed our last three tastings were 10%, 14%, and 27% alcohol by volume, respectively.
Dessert, needless to say, was amazing. Served with Samuel Adams' double bock, which has half a pound of caramel malt per bottle, it was a perfect match. The fudgy, dense, dark chocolate porter bombe was more like a super-thick mousse with a mouthfeel that was as decadent as the flavor. Freshly whipped cream contrasted nicely with the sharpness of dark chocolate. Accompanying the cake was a homemade marshmallow coated in malted milk powder. I love homemade marshmallows, which have a fantastic texture vs. the store-bought stuff.
The double bock was buttery and the warmth of the caramel came through easily. The triple bock was very different. At first sniff, I swore up and down that I smelled balsamic vinegar. Bert was talking about how the triple bock was casked for 15 years and how, after all of that time, the ethanol was being metabolized into aldehydes. And some of that is metabolized to acetic acid, hence the balsamic essence I was picking up. Inky and slightly thick, the triple bock left a coat on the glass when swirled. Despite the similarity in names, the double and triple bocks were completely different worlds, taste-wise. As Samuel Adams made inroads into extreme brewing, they had to look for different types of yeasts that could produce and tolerate higher ethanol levels. Strains of yeast from processes such as sherry fermentation were used for the extreme brews.
After dessert, Utopias was served. 27% alcohol by volume and meant to be enjoyed like cognac. It was roughly the same inky color as the triple bock, but it had none of the murkiness nor the balsamic essence. Although it is technically a beer, there's no carbonation. It reminded me of Werther's Originals candies. Butterscotch, caramel, and toffee were the primary notes on the nose. If smells could be "warm", then Utopias had a rich, warm bouquet. It goes down the throat with a sharp bang, then mellows into the buttery flavor. Imagine taking a shot of vodka and chasing it with a Werther's.
If you're curious about extreme brewing, I'd say it's worth trying. Utopias runs a pretty penny per bottle ($150) and it might also be a little hard to find. Check out the comments on Beer Advocate, some of which discuss where the commenter drank it. Some managed to find it at a bar and others bought bottles (certain BevMo locations might carry it). The bottle, shaped like a copper brewing kettle, is a rather nifty keepsake.
On that note, dinner was over, and I was a happy camper. Many thanks to Matt and the Urban Solace staff for a great meal and to Bert and the Samuel Adams crew for all of the fun beer facts. Special thanks goes to Tina from DeVries for the invitation.
(Note: My apologies for the extreme lateness of this post, since the dinner took place right before Thanksgiving. I was swamped/out-of-town for the holidays and wasn't able to write in a timely manner.)