Thursday, September 17, 2009

On the Road with The Brew Lounge, Part 4a

Just a Bit more Background, I promise Sean Paxton, 36, hails from Sonoma, California and takes a lot of inspiration and motivation from his local French Laundry's legendary Thomas Keller. He cites Keller's technique with and understanding of flavor components and (importantly) keeping the whole kitchen experience fun by injecting humor and lightheartedness as qualities that he attempts to emulate. Sean is self-taught in the culinary world. The learning goes all the way back to when he was helping to cook in the kitchen at the tender age of 5. His first batch of homebrew was with dad at age 16 and it's been on to bigger and better things ever since. He and Chris Lively first talked via Skype after only having chatted online (in text, that is). Their passions for great food and beer and the integration of the two quickly became obvious and led to the dinner extravaganza in 2008 to kick off Lively's annual Belgian Beer Festival at Ebenezer's. It was such a hit and created such a buzz in the beer (and food) world that they planned to do it again. It didn't hurt the buzz that Paxton has also delivered staggering dinners at the likes of Toronado and for the National Homebrewers Conference. As extraordinary as those dinners were, they may have paled in comparison to the dinner event that took place during a Stanford football game for an alumni group of close to 5000 people that Paxton once served. Paxton began planning the 2009 dinner almost as soon as he arrived home from 2008's. The conceptualization of the menu began with an R&D trip to Belgium (where he found the halibut he wanted to incorporate into the dinner). After a half dozen rewrites, countless hours of recipe research and fine tuning, and even 40 hours of menu design alone, the dinner was ready to go. Sean arrived in Maine almost a week early to begin with the sous vide approach to preparation. I've never worked on Sean's side of the restaurant operations, so I won't even begin to attempt to explain this approach other than to say that it involves taking the food preparation to a certain point, and then vacuum sealing for a number of days until ready to finish the preparation. I can certainly see how it makes a dinner of this magnitude much easier to tackle in the kitchen. That's a bit of background on Sean. Let's get into the first couple of courses here and then I'll come back to more about Sean, Ebenezer's, and the evening as it unfolded. If you want to see the entire menu, instead of printing again here, I'll refer you to a picture of it that I posted prior to the dinner. After getting a sneak preview copy of the menu a couple of weeks ahead of time, there were certain things that drew my eyes and appetite right in to. Of course, dessert (the dessert, or shall I say, the two courses of dessert) was very, very high on my list. But, patience grasshopper, that's still at least 5 hours away! Course Number One, the beginning Duck Rillettes (think: pâté), Duck Liver Mousse, and an Oud Bruin mustard served with assorted crackers and breads sat along side what it sounded like was Sean's pride of the platter, the Halibut. Sean discovered the halibut during a trip to Brugge last year during one of those "R&D trips" that I described earlier. The research paid off. This was a great way to start the dinner, teasing the palate with the rich and smooth fattiness of the duck and the succulent halibut while being offset and cut through by the tartness of the Hanssens Oude Kriek from, oh, 1978. The staff also slid an '08 version of the Kriek next to the '78 for us to compare. While the '08 had a nice snappy tartness to it, the '78 had a greater complexity with more layers of sour, tart, funk. Not bad what a "little" age can do for a lambic. Belgian Beer Dinner 2009, we have arrived! Sean Paxton, the hombrewing multi-tasking chef Let's see now. Sean was the mastermind behind the dinner, co-conspirator in the beer pairings, along with a dozen other things that he has on his proverbial plate. So, it should figure that I wasn't surprised to see him come out to introduce the dinner at the beginning of the evening. And, then the second course, the third....yes, every course throughout the evening. Paxton even had time to squeeze in a couple bites of food here and there. And take pictures of it. And pictures of people. He expedited dishes tableside (of course, he had plenty of help from the kitchen and waitstaff, lest I get in hot water for neglecting to say as much), and moved from table to table as if he was at his own wedding reception making sure that each guest was greeted and made to feel comfortable, asking for feedback at every table. This is not necessarily uncommon at hosted, fixed-price, timed dinners. But, Sean took it to another level, taking great care to introduce the food, introduce the paired beer's brewer (if there in attendance), and talk to the guests at a point somewhere between his level and ours. There are certainly some beer dinners whose hosts I know could/should take a page from this book. Sean's approach to the dinners he prepares will vary a bit from event to event. He certainly does not look at it as an "ego thing". He takes it more as a challenge to understand the diners and to try to satisfy a large group of people from all walks of life. Therefore, size doesn't really matter; it could be a group of 10 at his house or 115 at Ebenezer's. He asks himself: Have they been challenged? Not in an aggressive way, but in a good and not overwhelming way? More importantly, are they walking away satisfied? As a result, the pacing, flavors, and approach will vary from one dinner to the next. To him, this is all just part of his natural approach to dinner planning. Dinner from the Sea The next three courses focused on the sea. First, Day Boat Scallops paired with 1990 Duvel. Then, Russian River's Damnation Batch 23 paired with Roasted Eel. The fourth course featured a favorite of mine, Waterzooi, paired with the Val Dieu Triple. Again, what doesn't Sean do during a dinner? As I mentioned in finishing dishes tableside, Sean dusted each diner's plate of scallops with a bit of fennel pollen for just a touch of sweetness, and just a touch of spiciness. I say just a bit, because the fennel had a robust aroma that was detectable from the next table over. A nice touch, indeed, to provide the tableside service. The scallop dish and Duvel was quite a wide range of flavors. The beer was sweet, actually quite sweet and moreso than I might have guessed. But, after almost twenty years in the bottle, it's understandable that the sweetness is what remains. In the dish of scallops and endive, were there parsnips in there or was it the endive that added a rather earthy flavor to the dish? In any case, the fennel came along and provided a nice contrast in flavors to both the earthniess and the beer's sweetness. An interesting dish and pairing, though not nearly my favorite of the evening. The eel and Damnation, to this point of the dinner, stole the show for pairings. Of course, it was only the third course, so perhaps this wasn't the greatest test. The roasted flavor of the eel, the bitter/earthy flavor from the De Ranke XX bitter puree, and the wood and alcohol from the 10.5% abv Damnation (remember, this is the special 'Batch 23' version) made for a near flawlessly executed pairing. Speaking of tableside service, the waterzooi was finished tableside as well with the creamy and spicy broth being poured to drown the tender morsels of lobster, crayfish, and mussels. Near perfection when paired with the Triple. Though while the food was enhanced by the beer, I didn't think it was the best pairing, since the beer got lost a bit in the creaminess of the waterzooi dish. To tell the truth, I enjoyed the pairing even better when I substituted in a St. Feuillien Triple that I picked up from the bar inside; it seem to cut more cleanly through the stew's creamy broth. Plus, the St. Feuillien lasted another four or five courses for me. (See, I told you I always need a little something of beer on the table to be sipping on throughout the dinner; so, I made it happen.) What's in a Pairing? I frankly don't know how it's done. But, then again, I've only taken up food as a hobby in my own kitchen, never really pushing myself to understand food chemistry anywhere near to the point that Sean has done. I mentioned early on that he has no formal schooling in food preparation; he is self-taught...which boggles me even more so. When asked whether he believes keen senses or an understanding of food chemistry is more important to his success, he sure doesn't discredit senses but believes that a firm level of understanding food chemistry is more important. To support that belief, first, he understands that everyone's palate is different. No two people will taste the same thing in exactly the same way. The trick for Sean begins with an exercise in understanding base flavors. Then, it turns into a challenge of how to take flavor components and make them both complement and build upon each other. For example, Rodenbach Grand Cru will work so well in pickling cherries (as they did in the Foie Gras course) but, if attempted to use in a Crème Brûlée, will curdle the cream. In marathon dinner events like this one, it becomes even more challenging in upholding another of his beliefs---the need to minimize the replication of flavors and concepts throughout the dinner. Paxton is aware of diner fatigue and especially considers this when planning longer format meals such as this one. Therefore it becomes even more of a science to overlay flavors and textures from one course to the next. Understanding the connection between the various ingredients so that he knows the complimentary and interchangeable parts is a key to this science. Tender is the Word No matter the position you take on the Foie Gras delicacy, it's extremely difficult to argue the bubbly delicacy that DeuS is (2006 in this case) could go much better with anything else. The melt in your mouth, fattened livers (sorry, I know that won't sit well with some of you), the tart cherries, the crispy brioche, and the palate popping Deus made for a memorable course. More tender meat? Yes, please. The tender, succulent meat falling off the duck leg bones and the dried cherry chased by the powerful Consecration from Russian River might have made it one of the top dishes of the first half of the evening. Yes, my friends, we're only half way there. And, the theater of pouring 1 of only 3 nine-liter bottles of Consecration in existence (that Sean and Chris had to do untold things to get from the Cilurzo's....ha, just kidding of course) was magical all in and of itself. Of course, as soon as I say 'of only 3', will be the moment that someone reports more elsewhere. Oh, and if you looked closely at the menu, you might have noticed that one of my all-time favorite beers from Cambridge Brewing, the Cerise Cassee, was used in the preparation of this dish. This beer was one of my earliest and most memorable experiences (isn't that the way it normally goes?) with American-made sour beers oh around 4-5 years ago or so. So, you can probably imagine my, let's call it, glee when Will Meyers (Cambridge Brewing) announced that he brought along a small keg of it from the brewery. Duck Legs, Consecration, and Cerise Cassee...again, yes please! Wow, as if I thought the Consecration and Duck Legs couldn't get any better. Yes, in my opinion, the Cerise Cassee upstaged the Consecration by a nose. Rounding out the tender-is-the-middle-of-the-menu theme were the veal cheeks. Those strong veal cheeks that spend all day chewing. Cooked slowly down, this was yet another tender piece of meat on the menu cooked with the very special, very never-to-be-seen-again-in-this-form Vagabond beer. Jason Perkins from Allagash stood and shared his experiences with helping to craft this beer. Let's see if I can capture the story in a sentence or two. Basically, the name Vagabond comes from the idea that this 3 barrel oak-aged batch of beer began its life in the old brewery 4 years ago and subsequently was moved into the "new" brewery. It's been whiling away in various barrels and has been blended into what is being released this fall (only at the brewery) in 375ml bottles. We, at the dinner, had the honor of having one of the first bottles, a 6-liter bottle at that. I think it's time to bring in the halftime show. Or, at least give you all some sort of a break. There's just as much material to share with you from the remainder of the dinner and after party. So, I'm going to let you catch your breath and share the rest with you tomorrow morning. Consider this, Parts 4a and 4b. And, if you're thinking that this might never end, ask yourself: Why does it need to?!
Continue on to Part 4b

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