You know, I've tried going the wine-tasting route, but it's hard. Despite my better judgment, I always feel a little intimidated with the whole vocabulary of wine, and the fact that my knowledge of geography of the grape-growing regions of France, Chile, Australia (take your pick) is inadequate.
I don't feel comfortable swishing the wine around my mouth and spitting it into a little bucket with a room full of strangers, even when they're doing the same. Especially when they're doing the same. Where I grew up, you just didn't spit something out of your mouth in a restaurant. I was afraid to eat unpitted olives for the longest time, because I couldn't figure out how to discretely discard the pits, and I certainly didn't want to swallow the little beggars.
So when I heard about Palmer Lake Brewing Company's Brewery Dinners, at the Warehouse, I got pretty excited. Chef James Africano prepares six courses specially matched to the flavors of six different beers brewed on the premises. Beer is not intimidating. Beer is friendly. Beer is cheerful and unassuming. Beer is practically the Boy Scout of beverages, and nobody expects you to spit out a mouthful to get the every nuance of the flavor. And trust me, nobody with a single intact tastebud would ever spit out so much as a morsel of James Africano's food. In fact, if he served me sauted olive pits, I would eat them and love them.
Our dinner began with General Palmer's Amber Lager paired with a prosciutto and mushroom duxelle en croute with chive aioli. I'm a particular fan of amber lagers, and this one was eminently drinkable, full-flavored but light. The prosciutto and mushrooms were combined in such a smooth manner that you couldn't tell where one began and the other left off. The filling was smooth and earthy, slightly salty, wrapped in a pastry so flaky it fairly shattered at the touch of a fork. The bright, tangy dots of green aioli were a perfect foil for the denser duxelle, and I would happily eat a plate of these any time.
The next course was Peak Pale Ale served with green-lip mussels and Andouille sausage steamed in the ale and served over roasted-red-pepper orzo. James cooked these tableside, and the aromas were maddeningly enticing, laced with the fragrance of garlic. This very hoppy ale is assertive enough to stand up to spicy foods, and this peppery hot sausage was plenty hot. While we dug into the sweet, plump, juicy mussels, James explained how the food and beers were matched. (He also explained how to properly cook orzo, which I found most enlightening.)
The third course was the flavor lightweight. The Natural Blonde is the lightest beer Palmer Lake Brewing makes, and while it's better than, say, Bud Light, it didn't have enough flavor for my taste. But it did pair nicely with a salad of bitter greens and pecans tossed with a tarragon and sherry vinaigrette and topped with shavings of a sharp, aged white cheddar. Before this meal, I would have sworn I didn't like tarragon, but the dressing was a masterful balance of flavors, with none overpowering the others.
After the first three courses, we got a much-needed chance to stretch our legs and take a tour of the brewery. When we returned to the table, the waitress was pouring the Warehouse Ale, and James was encrusting salmon fillets with sesame seeds. When the salmon, topped with a ginger, lime and cilantro butter and served over sticky jasmine rice, arrived at the table, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. The salmon melted in your mouth. And I had forgotten how wonderfully a simple ingredient like butter marries, carries and enhances other flavors. It moved a simple piece of fish to new heights of culinary ecstasy.
My husband and I agreed that the Trolley Car Ale accompanying the next course was exceptional, full-bodied with no rough edges. It served to balance the tender, juicy pan-seared medallions of lamb loin awash in roasted garlic jus, served with sweet-potato mash and winter-squash ragout. The ragout was made with four kinds of squash (including butternut and acorn), roasted first to bring out their natural sweetness, then cubed and combined with olive oil, basil, tarragon, rosemary, parsley and a wee bit of sun-dried tomato. It was one of those earthy, simple dishes that make you wonder why you never thought of it before, and makes you want to run right home to try and re-create it. (No success to report yet on that front.)
The final course was, in my mind, the best, but that could be because of my unwavering love for anything chocolate. Locomotive Stout was paired with winter cherry and dark chocolate tartlettes, garnished with walnut brittle and cinnamon crme anglaise. Oh. My. God. I have to confess that I'm really not a stout kind of gal, and I'm not in a hurry for another glass of that, but I would crawl a mile over broken glass for another one of those tartlettes. Just a perfect little shortbread crust, filled with a perfect chocolate ganache and topped with flawless sweet cherries. And the walnut brittle made that pale peanut brittle you get at the grocery store look weak.
Every time James Africano and Brewmaster Alan Stiles plan one of these dinners, they plan a completely new menu. The next one is slated for mid- to late January, so either call the Warehouse, or keep your eyes on the Indy for announcements when the time draws near. But make your reservations early, because at $50 per person, this meal is a steal, and I plan on going back with lots of friends.