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Feb 13, 2012

Cooking with Truffles: Valentine’s Vegetarian Menu

Washington-20120203-00746For any foodie on a mission to maximize his or her eating pleasure, Valentine’s Day presents a special challenge. The perennial question is, How do you hit a new high and top last year’s memory?

Truffles are often overlooked as the star attraction of a home-cooked meal because of their price tag. Back in the day, Brillat-Saverin described them as "the luxury of grands seigneurs and kept women" (also, perhaps, hinting at their aphrodisiac qualities). In all honesty, those qualities have yet to be scientifically confirmed, but I don't think anybody would deny the sensuousness of any truffle-specked dish…

The truth is, like many of you, I had never cooked with fresh truffles before. Truffle salt, yes. Truffle oil, yes. But not with fresh truffles. I decided to explore the possibilities and find a reasonably cost-effective way for me and my husband to indulge. I did a bit of research, and found out that this time of the year, we are primarily talking about winter black truffles of European origin (French or Italian). In the DC area, you can find them at Arrowine in Arlington (perhaps somewhere else as well), and online.

The cheapest source I found is Urbani truffles which also offers a wide variety of other truffle products (truffle paste, truffle oil, truffle butter, etc.) The smallest amount one can purchase is 1oz ($75), which happens to be enough to pull off a truffle dinner. I supplemented fresh truffles with white truffle oil, black truffle salt, and black truffle butter (which I made myself with the leftover truffle shavings). A nice local source of truffle salt is the Spice & Tea Exchange in Georgetown.

Given the fact that most Valentine's Day restaurant prix-fixe options run $60-90 per person, I felt like putting together the coveted truffle dinner was really no more extravagant than eating out (besides, my husband is vegetarian, which makes the choices rather limited). Another myth I wanted to debunk is that that cooking with truffles has to be complicated and time-consuming (stuffed pigeon breast with chanterelles and truffles, homemade puff pastry with braised sweetbreads and truffles all sound fantastic, but there are other delicious, easy and fast options). You don’t really want to spend the entire Valentine’s night in front of the stove, do you?

Washington-20120203-00760The theme I chose is "casual minimalist with a twist." No 10 or 20-step recipes, very few ingredients per dish, and simple preparation to showcase the truffles and keep the flavors subtle.

My truffles arrived via Fedex about 24 hours after I placed the order online. They arrived in a cooler, in kind of a matryoshka doll setup: the truffles are in a napkin inside a plastic sleeve inside a paper sack inside a styrofoam cooler inside a cardboard box. As for my truffle tools, I did buy a mandoline, but after reading rather graphic reviews I was too terrified to use it without a No-Slice rubber body suit. Luckily, I found a small sharp paring knife (I have small hands!) to be the perfect tool for dealing with the truffles (both for cutting and shaving).

Finally, onto the Menu:

Truffle salad with frisee, haricots verts, tarragon, endives, fennel (seasoned with truffle sea salt, Meyer lemon juice, and white truffle oil). Blanch haricots verts for no more than 2 minutes.

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Truffle sandwiches on sourdough (I love using the 69 cent sourdough rolls from WholeFoods) with a nice layer of European-style butter and truffle sea salt. You can stick the bread slices in the toaster oven for 30 seconds, if you like the sensation of eating warm bread.

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Fresh WholeFoods-brand asparagus & fontina ravioli served with truffles, truffle butter, and truffle sea salt.

Washington-20120203-00774Seared scallops with truffles and truffle butter on a bed of celeriac & potato puree (made with truffle butter, a touch of cream, and truffle sea salt) -– perfect for a pesceterian or meat eater! I prefer a 50/50 celeriac to potato ratio, in order to keep the mashed vegetable flavors subtle. Make a slit in the middle of the scallop, and insert a truffle slice prior to cooking (1-2 min on each side on high, depending on the size of the scallops).

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Cheese course: Sottocenere (truffled cow’s milk cheese with an ash rind), or/and Cacio al Tartufo (sheep's milk cheese with truffle sprinkles)

And for dessert - you guessed it – truffles, in my case, purchased from Cocova (formerly known as Biagio Fine Chocolates). There is a very wide variety of exquisite individual truffles for $2 each. Have them box it up for you, get on one knee, and present Her with a little cute box…

P.S. In case you did not use up all of your truffles, in the morning you can share a soft-poached egg with truffles, and a fresh ricotta and truffle honey toast with your coffee.

Categories: Black Truffles, DC, Do It Yourself, Food and Drink, Foodie Gifts, Valentine's Day
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Jan 20, 2012

Hello! My Name Is Pinot Noir

If your New Year’s Resolution is to be a little bit less afraid of wine, this post is for you. You should also keep reading if you are stuck in a rut, afraid of leaving your cozy oenophilic comfort zone. Do you always find yourself asking for a glass of California Cab (or Zinfandel, or Pinot Grigio - insert your default choice here)? There is an amazing world out there waiting to be explored!

A big part of the fun is getting to know the grape personalities. Spicy, brooding, animalistic Syrah; juicy, fun Grenache; flowery, sensual Viognier… I am personally very fond of Pinot Noir, - the fickle, elegant grape with fantastic food affinity and beguiling aromatics, which comes to the pinnacle of its expression in Burgundy, France.

Old vinesJust like with learning a new language, there are some basics that you need to get out of the way first, such as the framework for explaining what you like or do not like about a certain wine. Even more importantly for foodies, you will need it to understand and describe the relationship between food and wine. Let’s take a look at a couple of those concepts.

Acidity

Washington-20120116-00676I think of acidity as a flavor sparkplug. Ever thought about why you put lime and lemon juice on your food and even in your beer? It is the so-called “strategic” use of acidity: it makes food taste better, more focused. That is precisely why restauranteurs love crisp, clean, acidic wines. Acidity in wine helps to stimulate your appetite by setting your digestion into motion and it also helps to break down the fattiness in the food you eat (the same way we use the acidity in vinegar or citrus to marinate different foods). It creates a magic chain reaction of wanting a little more food, then a little more wine, then a little more food… you get the idea. It is useful to remember that higher acidity is typically found in wines that come from a cooler climate, as grapes do not get physiologically mature as quickly and do not get as ripe as in the warmer parts of the world.

New World vs. Old World

The term "New World" wine is used, quite literally, to describe wines from New World wine producing countries, such as the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, South Africa, etc. If we look at the statistics of what people are drinking in this country, we will see that sales of reds are dominated by bigger, fruit-forward wines that taste of sweet oak and ripe fruit. Whites include plush Chardonnays and other wines that tend to have a touch of sweetness to them. In general, the New World is dominated by international varietals (Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, etc.).

Old-World wine-making has a different philosophy: it is about subtle, earthy, mineral flavors that make one focus more on the place where the wine was made, and less on the grape. Terroir is a word that gets thrown around a lot (and also happens to be the name of my favorite wine bar in NYC :-)); it is used to describe the unmistakable sense of “placeness”, unique soil composition, climate, etc. of the wine’s birthplace.

There are definitely proponents of both styles out there as demonstrated by global wine sales. Neither one is necessarily more valid than the other; it is a matter of individual taste. I personally have a preference for European wines for several reasons. First, because I like my wines “lean and mean” (as opposed to the “friendly”, easy-to-quaff wines of the New World). Second, because I find a great deal more values in the $12-20 price range among European wines (which is what I typically spend on a bottle of wine, and I always look for more flavor bang for my buck). And last but not least, because oaky, alcoholic, and fruity New World wines are on average less food-friendly and versatile; it is hard for them to stand up to the more zingy, complex flavors I enjoy so much. On the other hand, I find that earthy, highly acidic Old-World wines set me up for a high pleasure payoff with a wider variety of foods.

Resources

Depending on your personality, feel free to dive in and enjoy the wild ride, or build a solid wine foundation step by step:

  • You should consider taking a class at the Capital Wine School.Too few people know that they have the expertise of Master of Wine Jay Youmans right here in DC (Master Sommelier and Master of Wine are the two highest and most recognized certifications in the world. The "Wine Basics" and the "Essential Wine Tasting Skills" classes are perfect if you are looking for "the big picture" perspective. Jay's classes are fun, informal, and unpretentious.
  • Most quality restaurants understand that the dining experience is incomplete without wine, and work hard to create food & wine pairing “magic moments”. Part of that process is putting together an exciting but reasonably priced wine list and training the staff to be able to pass the excitement on to the consumer. Cork, Grapeseed, and Dino are just a few of my local favorites that boast nice by-the-glass programs (and offer other formats such as flights, 3oz pours, wine madness) that make it easy for anyone to try something new without taking out a second mortgage.
  • For “do-it-yourselfers”, I recommend two of my favorite wine books written by women who are incredibly passionate about wine and equally passionate about sharing their wine knowledge. “Wine Bible” by Karen McNeal is a collection of compelling stories about grapes, winemakers, and terroirs. “Great Tastes Made Simple” by Andrea Immer contains practical advice on how to get started with food & wine tastings at home. Both were extremely inspirational for me, as I was getting started in the wine world, and I had the privilege of meeting both of them in person at Saveur Magazine events. (Actually, one of the biggest inspirations was Andrea Immer’s son Lucas who asked his Mom for smoked duck for his 8th birthday :-)).

My last piece of advice to you: whatever mode of exploration you end up choosing, remember not to take wine too seriously. Cheers!

WineP.S. Be sure to check out Magic Moments 101 for some food & wine tasting ideas!

Categories: DC, Do It Yourself, Food and Drink, Foodie Gifts, Recipes, Shopping, Wine, Wine Bar
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Sep 20, 2011

PS 7's Is Cooking With The Spirit Of Gin

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Certain things have their place. Pots and pans in the kitchen, gin behind the bar.

That said, it's hardly uncommon for ingredients to meander from the bar to the kitchen and back again. But gin has stayed put. Cooks have incorporated beer, wine and liquor into their cooking for a millennia, or whenever the French started cooking, but for all their efforts, gin has been left out of the mix, presumably for good reason.

When you consider the sheer popularity of the spirit, it's surprising that it's been stuck behind the bar, while fellow heavy weight spirits, such as bourbon, tequila and rum, are regularly worked into dishes.

Not that I'm complaining. Gin is the base ingredient for the greatest cocktail man has ever made: the dry martini (lemon twist, no olives, thanks). The ubiquitous gin and tonic, and underappreciated Tom Collins aren't bad either.

DSC_0122 So I've been happy with gin's role in the world. Peter Smith hasn't.

The chef owner of PS 7's has brought gin into the kitchen and brought out everything for gin poached halibut to gin cured charcuterie, which age in a backroom of his Penn Quarter restaurant. Smith has figured out the key to cooking with gin is to not cook with gin at all -- he cooks with the botanicals.

Philosophical differences aside, what separates gin from vodka is potpourri. Essentially, gin begins its life as vodka, a highly distilled clear spirit. At the end of the distillation process, however, vodka is stuck into a Kettle One bottle, while gin makers add a mixture of botanicals -- principally juniper, orris root and orange peal -- to give gin its signature flavor and aroma.

Although Smith has put together dishes that play off the flavors in gin, it's only recently that he started working with the botanicals. The main problem with working with gin, Smith said, is the alcohol. It's tough to mask the alcohol and if you cook it off, you're not left with much gin flavor. His solution was to eschew the alcohol and work directly with the ingredients that make gin gin.

DSC_0085Smith came up with the idea during a visit to Philadelphia's Blue Coat Distillery. He noticed that the distillery typically tosses the botanicals once it's done steeping in the gin. Unlike the left over grain from beer making, which is often given to farmers to use as feed, animals can't eat the spent botanicals. So it gets dumped. Although the Blue Coat staff was a little confused by his request (and wary -- gin makers are notoriously secretive about their botanical mixtures), they agreed to send Smith 30 pounds of the spent botanicals, which the chef turned into salts, oils, powders and foams.

Smith said the idea developed from the food and spirit pairings he's done at PS 7's, including a dinner that revolved around the exceptional gin, Plymouth. The key to a proper pairing, he said, is not to have the spirit working into every dish you serve, but rather to have flavors in the dish complement flavors in the spirit or cocktail. Smith thought using the botanicals would help him weave in the gin flavors more effectively without overwhelming his food.

"You never really get the flavors you want out of the liquor," Smith said, "but you do with the botanicals."

DSC_0129 Since that bucket of botanicals showed up six months ago, the gin & tonic halibut (left) and gin-cured carpaccio (below) have become permanent fixtures on PS 7's menu, and the gin-flavored meats, including "ginola" (breseola) and "gin belly" (pancetta), make their way to the charcuterie plate as often as they're ready. He's even built tasting menus around the botanicals.

Though he still works with Blue Coat, Smith found another botanical provider closer to the District. A few months ago, a Catoctin Creek rep came into PS7's to sell them their rye. Smith tried the Loudon County distillery's gin instead and has used their botanicals since.

DSC_0112 As Smith continues to experiment with the botanicals, expect to see more dishes seasoned or infused with gin flavors. New tasting menus are likely on the way, as are powders and oils based on a mixture of the Blue Coat and Catoctin Creek botanicals. He's also considering building dishes around ingredients local to the Philadelphia and Purcellville, Va., distilleries, and imbuing them with the respective gins.

Smith admits that he's that he's still figuring out how to work with the gin botanicals, but he's already hunting for new discoveries. Maybe an absinth-flavored bacon or venison rubbed with salt made from fernet. At this point, who knows? The only thing that's certain is if it's behind the bar, it could end up in Smith's kitchen. 

Categories: Chinatown/MCI Center/Verizon Center, DC, Loudon County, Penn Quarter, Virginia, Washington, DC
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Aug 23, 2011

Church! The Best Places To Watch Football

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At approximately 6 p.m. on Thursday, September 1, Casey Brockman will walk to the line. The Murray State quarterback will look across the field to find Louisville’s stud linebacker Dexter Heyman, hoping to God the Cardinals’ won’t blitz on first. The 6’2’’ junior will lean over center Brock Rydeck, ignore the jeers of the Cardinals’ crowd, and demand the ball.

In all likelihood, it will be a bad day for Casey, Brock and the Murray State Racers, but an excellent day for the rest of us. Because on that day, when Rydeck snaps that ball and Heyman drives Brockman into the field of Cardinal’s Stadium, football will once again be with us (this NFL preseason crap doesn't count).

It’s been said that this game of grace and violence is our national religion. If that’s the case, then the sports bar is our house of worship. Being a fan of far-away teams (South Florida, Buccaneers), it took me a while to find a few decent bars and restaurants in the D.C. area to watch football. The region may be inundated with sports bars, but few offer the trifecta of great beer, good food and the promise of your team on the screen (unless you’re a Skins fan, in which case any Chili’s will do).

Well, friends, I’m here to help. Below are my top five bars and restaurants in the DMV to watch the faux-pros on Saturday and Pro Bowlers on Sunday. 

1. The Black Squirrel: The Black Squirrel has three floors, 49 taps and 11 TVs (and if you call ahead, the third floor can be your private sports bar). Owner Amy Bowman keeps this Best Beer Bar stocked with a top tier line-up of craft beers, while the talented Gene Sohn runs the kitchen (order the burger). Is it a coincidence that on game days all the TVs are tuned in? Nope, The Black Squirrel was co-founded by former sports columnist Tom Knott. (Disclosure: I’m friends with Amy and Tom. Still, The Black Squirrel is a great place to watch football.) 

2. Iron Horse Taproom: If the Iron Horse Taproom opened at noon on weekends it would be the best place in D.C. to watch football. The multi-level bar is big, filled with TVs, has a great selection of craft beers, and features the best menu in town -- by not featuring a menu at all. The Penn Quarter tavern (pictured above) doesn’t have a kitchen, so it allows patrons to bring in food or have it delivered. Want to dig into some Texas barbecue while watching the Lone Star Showdown? No problemo. Grab a pound of brisket from Hill Country or better yet, a burrito from Capital Q and head to the Iron Horse. How about some lamb vindaloo while you watch the John Beck/Rex Grossman quarterback controversy unfold this season? Mehak is just down the street. Just make sure your game doesn’t start before 5 p.m. If it does, you’ll need to head elsewhere. 

3. Frisco Tap House: What’s more American than football? Excess. The Frisco Tap House has 50 taps, a beer engine, a table where you can pour your own draft beer, an extensive bottle and can list, great burritos and eight giant flat screen TVs (with more coming this fall). Sure, the Columbia, Md., bar is a hike if you live in Logan Circle. But if you live in Maryland, you have one hell of a place to watch football.

4. Capitol Lounge: This is where it started for me. When I moved from Tampa to D.C. in the late 90s, Cap Lounge was the only place in town I could reliably catch Bucs games. It helped that one of the bartenders was a Bucs fan and wanted to watch the games, too. The Capitol Hill bar continues to be a great spot to catch a game, with a mess of TVs tucked and hung throughout the two-floor restaurant, and a stellar selection of craft beers on draft and in bottles and cans.  

41380020 5. Rustico: These days, it’s tough to write a story about beer without mentioning ChurchKey and its downstairs sister, Birch & Barley. But before there was CKBB there was Rustico, owner Michael Babin’s first crack at a craft beer establishment. While ChurchKey is unabashedly a beer bar, a fine one at that, Babin makes sure his two Rustico restaurants remain casual neighborhood spots, which makes them ideal for watching the game. Greg Engert oversaw the beer program at the original Rustico in Alexandria before heading over to ChurchKey, and continues to curate the draft and bottle lists for his original restaurant and the newer Ballston location. Although neither will be mistaken for a sports bar, the Rusticos have just enough TVs to catch most of the marquee games. And if the beer list and full menu aren’t enough to attract you, they’re offering beer specials as well. Beginning September 10, both Rustico locations will offer $3.50 cans of craft beer, including G’Knight, Dale’s Pale Ale, Old Chub and Ten Fidy (they clearly have a thing for Oskar Blues’ beers), and $2.50 cans of college beer (because you or your buddy don’t know better) during games. 

Categories: Adams Morgan, Alexandria, Arlington, Bar/Club, Beer, Capitol Hill, Chinatown/MCI Center/Verizon Center, DC, Food and Drink, Gallery Place, Games, Maryland, MCI Center, Penn Quarter, Sports, Television, Top 5, Virginia, Washington, DC
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Aug 03, 2011

DC Beer Week's Top Five Events (hint: they all involve beer)

DCBeerWeek Ladies and gentlemen, get your livers ready, DC Beer Week will be kicking off on Aug. 14.

As we reported, this week-long celebration of beer (especially local beer!) will include events at the District's best beer bars. The complete list of events can be found on the DC Beer Week site (in partnership with the folks over at the DC Beer.com) and it's quite a list. To help you pick some of the best events for the week (though all look promising) here are my top five:

1. Founders Beer Dinner with Co-Founder Dave Engbers at Birch & Barley - Monday at 7 pm
Birch & Barley- 1337 14th Street NW, www.birchandbarley.com

Founders Brewing Company co-founder Dave Engbers will host a food and beer experience, casting light on his fantastic ales. Beer Director Greg Engert will speak to the pairings of these great brews with a menu crafted by Birch & Barley Executive Chef Kyle Bailey and Pastry Chef Tiffany MacIsaac. This is a 5 course tasting menu that will be paired with 9 different Founders hand-crafted ales. Details of the menu are on the way and will be posted here when available. The dinner will be $75 exclusive of tax and gratuity. Call Birch & Barley for reservations. 202-567-2576. 

2. Casks and firkins: All of them! (multiple events, multiple locations)

There are few things in life better than fresh, cask-conditioned beer. During DC Beer Week, there will be a lot of it. Rather than try and pick one event, I'm recommending all of them. Beginning Monday, Aug. 15, the Pour House will be tapping firkins through Saturday from Rhode Island’s Trinity Brewhouse, as well as great local beers from, Oliver Breweries, Evolution Craft Brewing, Heavy Seas, Old Dominion and Fordham. On Tuesday, ChurchKey will turn over all five of its beer engines to Heavy Seas. Because five cask ales is not enough, a sixth real ale will be served directly from a wood barrel previously used to mature bourbon. I tried a variety of Heavy Seas cask ales a few months ago at the brewery's Beer and Barbecue event. They were some of the best beers I've tasted from the Baltimore brewery. And on Thursday, District ChopHouse will be hosting local brewers and their cask ales. The lineup includes the ChopHouse, Capitol City Brewing Company, Rock Bottom Bethesda, Gordon Biersch DC, DuClaw, Franklin’s, Olivers/Pratt St Ale House and Sweetwater. Tickets are $35 and only 80 will be sold.

3. Rye Beer and Spirits with Jack Rose and 3 Stars Brewing – Tuesday at 6pm
Jack Rose Dining Saloon – 2007 18th Street NW, www.jackrosediningsaloon.com

Few things go better with beer than whiskey. This event pairs a flight of rye whiskeys hand-picked by the Jack Rose staff with the B.W. Rye ale, a collaboration beer from D.C. brewers 3 Stars Brewing Company and Steve Jones of Baltimore's Oliver Breweries. Meet the brewers and enjoy a guided tasting highlighting flavor profiles and key characteristics of the spicy and flavorful rye grain, which is in so many great beers and whiskeys. The price for this will be around $20-25.

4. Trinity Brewhouse Beer Dinner at Granville Moore’s – Wednesday at 6:30pm
Granville Moore’s – 1238 H Street NE, www.granvillemoore’s.com

Granville Moore's Chef Maria Evans teamed up with Trinity Brewmaster Sean Larkin and Granville Moore's chef and co-owner Teddy Folkman to put together a five-course dinner featuring one of the beers she and Folkman brewed at the Trinity in July. Look for Evans' classic New England dishes, including sepia with milled malt and sorachi hop oil, a whole pig, and a bunch of other surprises, all with a Granville’s twist. Tickets are $70 per person. Reservations and more info at 202-399-2546 or www.granvillemoores.com.

5. DC Homebrewers Association Homebrew Competition at Red Palace – Saturday at 4pm
The Red Palace – 1212 H Street NE, www.redpalacedc.com

Full disclosure: I'm a homebrewer and member of the DC Homebrewers club. I've tried a lot of these guys' and gals' handiwork, and let me tell you, they make good beer. If you don't believe me, come give them a try. The $10 ticket gets you entry into this homebrew competition at the Red Palace. There will be a DJ and the opportunity to taste beers from homebrewers all across the city.

Categories: Beer, DC, Events, Top 5, Washington, DC
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Jul 15, 2011

DC Restaurant Week Summer/August 2011

RAMW annouced yesterday that Summer DC Restaurant Week will be from August 15th through 21st. The complete list of restaurants is here.

Of course, some restaurants will have a special deal for the whole month. Stay tuned for us to post more details and menus here. In the mean time, for those of you that make reservations in advance, let the race begin!

You may want to check what restaurants have historically offered to patrons in our past DC Restaurant Week Menus to give you an idea of where you should try this year.

Categories: DC, DC Restaurant Week, Events, Restaurant Week
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Jul 12, 2011

IPAs And Indian Food: Like Peas And Carrots (In Mumbai)

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Fact: Indian food is incredibly flavorful and can be quite spicy.
Fact: India pale ales are incredibly flavorful and can be quite bitter.
Fact: It's difficult to pair beer with Indian food.
Fact: It's difficult to pair food with IPAs.
Fact: Indian food and IPAs were made for each other, literally.

That last fact should be self-evident, but if it was Indian restaurants (at least the ones around here) would stick a few Loose Cannons, maybe an Avery IPA on the menu. But that's not the case. Instead, your beer options are limited to a redundant list of light lagers whose labels might invoke thoughts of India - Kingfisher, Taj - but are otherwise indistinguishable from the light lagers made in St. Louis and Golden, Colo.

To be fair, lagers have been the beer of choice in India for more than a century. In fact, lagers are the beer of choice in most parts of the world. There was a time, though, when bitter, hop-forward ales from England were all the rage on the subcontinent (and then the Indians booted out their British overlords and switched to the German stuff).

Travel to England today and you'll be hard pressed to find a pub that doesn't have curry on the menu. For a people known for fried fish and sausages, they have fully embraced an Indian staple as their own (thanks to their old Asian holdings). But travel to India, and the culinary cultural exchange doesn't stand up, at least where beer is concerned. 

That's a shame because there may be no better beverage to pair with a spicy curry than a hoppy India pale ale.

As craft beer has become more popular over the past decade, so too has the idea that beer can be paired with more than burgers and pizza. Thomas Keller commissioned Russian River Brewing and Brooklyn Brewery to make special beers for his restaurants The French Laundry and Per Se. Here in D.C., Chef Eric Ziebold's tasting menu at CityZen has included a beer course, and Michel Richard imports the Belgian pilsner Blusser for his restaurant Central. And then there's Birch & Barley, which offers a beer pairing with each course of Chef Kyle Bailey's tasting menu.

Once the domain of wine, beer is being recognized as an ideal accompaniment to food. Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewing and author of The Brewmaster's Table, has gone even further to say that beer offers a wider range of flavors and styles, making it the ideal accompaniment to food. (The Brewmaster's Table, as it happens, is a book about pairing food with beer.)

That may be true, but when it came to Indian cuisine, I never gave it much thought. As oafish at it may sound, I viewed curries and kormas as ethnic food made by people from foreign lands. So if the people running the restaurant wanted to offer a few light lagers with their dishes, so be it. Their food, their beer. After all, you go to Indique for the food not the drink. Well, a cold Fisherking may be common in Mumbai's curry houses, but it's not the ideal beer for the food. The ideal one might just be a California pale ale. (I know it's not an IPA. I'll get to that.)

Book I got thinking about this particular food and beer pairing after reading Pete Brown's latest book, Hops and Glory. In it, the British beer writer explores the development of the IPA and England's colonization of India, and chronicles his journey from Burton-Upon-Trent (the birthplace of IPAs) to Calcutta with a keg of IPA in tow. It's a good book, and in it Brown makes the point that IPAs not only go well with Indian cuisine, they taste like they were made for it.

"[The IPA he brought from England] really was dangerously drinkable, and when the tandoori canapés came round it went beautifully, cutting through the heat and harmonizing with the spices so perfectly it was as if the beer had been designed specially to go with the cuisine, and perhaps it had."

That sparked my interest. While Oliver and other beer writers have made the point that IPAs can go well with very flavorful dishes and spicy foods, Brown's 450 page treatise on the matter convinced me to try the pairing myself.

Because Indian restaurants don't offer India pale ales, I conducted my tasting at the next logical location: the Iron Horse bar in Penn Quarter.

I like the Iron Horse, a lot. Not only does it offer a great selection of craft beers and is home to bartender extraordinaire Scott Stone, but it has a tavern license. What that tavern license means is that they don't serve food, so you can bring in food from anywhere. As long as you're drinking, that's no problemo. You can even have food delivered and never leave your barstool. That's turned the Iron Horse into my go-to bar for watching college football (Pattison Avenue and pints, people) and in this case, my go-to spot for lamb vindaloo and IPAs.

DSC_0030 The vindaloo, which I picked up from nearby Mehak, was great. Chunks of lamb and potato swam in a pool of fiery red curry. It was delicious, and completely overwhelmed my pallet. The onion kulcha, a doughy flat bread filled with onions, was good, but no match for the vindaloo.

For the pairing, I ordered Flying Dog's Double Dog imperial IPA, which clocks in at 11.5% A.B.V.; Flying Dog's Snake Dog IPA, which comes in at a more modest 7.1% A.B.V.; Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (on the theory that English IPAs aren't nearly as high in alcohol as our IPAs), which runs 5.6% A.B.V.; and Sierra Nevada's new Juniper Black Ale, a hoppy 8% A.B.V. black IPA.

Of the four beers, the two with the lowest alcohol levels paired the best with the spicy Indian dish. The Double Dog (a personal favorite) was much too sweet for the dish and the heat of the vindaloo overwhelmed whatever hop characteristics the Juniper Black Ale had, making it taste like an ordinary stout. On the other hand, the IPA and pale ale were spot on.

Although the IPAs didn't compliment the curry in the same way the dark stouts compliment chocolate and coffee flavors, the Snake Dog IPA and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale stood their ground with the vindaloo. A dish with the much flavor and heat would turn a Taj to water, but the IPAs remained bright, hoppy and citrusy deep into the bowl.

Between the two beers, I favored the pale ale. Both went well, but the bitter bite from the Snake Dog and the spicy of the vindaloo were a bit much for me. The Sierra Nevada, though, was refreshing, and the subtler hop bitterness helped restore my taste buds between bites.

These results shouldn't have been surprising, even if they were. This food and this style of beer should be easier to find together, even if it's not. But the fact is, IPAs pair well with Indian food, even if you have to bring the food to the beer.

And if Indian isn't your thing or you want a few more pairing options, you could try Thai (which Scott suggested) or fried chicken (which my wife suggested). I think they're both right. If it's spicy enough or fried enough, it can be matched up with an IPA. Brooklyn's Oliver has suggested pairing IPAs with fried fish, Mexican and calamari. Point being, IPAs go well with spicy and greasy food. When it comes to pairing Indian food with beer, though, I don't think there's a better option than an IPA (or pale ale).

Iron Horse Taproom
507 7th St. N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20004
(202) 347-7665

Mehak
817 7th St. N.W.
Washington D.C., DC 20001
(202) 408-9292

Categories: Bar/Club, Beer, Book Reviews, British, Chinatown/MCI Center/Verizon Center, DC, Food and Drink, Indian, Lamb, Penn Quarter, Washington, DC
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Jun 15, 2011

Restless Derek Brown

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Derek Brown is busy.

Ostensibly, he's a bartender, though when pressed, even he can't settle on that.

No, Derek Brown is busier than that. In no particular order, Brown is a business owner, historian, writer, judge, consultant, instructor, and bartender, who in addition to manning the bar of his well-regarded cocktail club, the Columbia Room, is occasionally called upon to shake and stir libations for heads of state, European royalty and the nice couple who live at 1600 Penn. Ave.

Derek Brown is busy.

Brown's work behind the bar has resulted in heavy recognition from his peers within D.C. and across the country, including the James Beard Foundation, as well as magazines and newspapers that are as likely to quote him as employ him. In a city with quite a few great bartenders, Brown may be the best and is certainly the most well known.

Three years ago, I didn't have a clue who he was.

I was an assistant at the cooking school CulinAerie and signed up for a series of cocktail classes taught by one of the bartenders from The Gibson, the speakeasy off U Street whose pretentious concept was reason enough for me to avoid it. However, Brown was an affable instructor, and over the course of the three classes, I came away with a better understanding of the science of cocktails, as well as a drink of my very own. All thanks to the guy from The Gibson.

It's from that frame of reference that I began following Brown's career. Typically, we get to know the big name chefs and bartenders around town through articles and interviews. Before we eat their food and drink their drinks, we know their back stories, their approach to their craft. I've never met Michel Richard or dined at Citronelle, but given the number of articles I've read about the chef and his restaurant, I have a fairly good idea of what to expect from both. With Brown, I had nothing.

Instead, he was the bartender who taught my cocktail class. Afterward, I began going to The Gibson, even though I still believe the not-so-secret secret concept is tiresome. It was worth it for the show. Brown is as much an entertainer as a bartender. Every other drink was a minor pyrotechnics display, as Brown and the other bartenders squeezed citrus and fire across the tops of cocktails in the dimly lit lounge. Even the act of shaking a cocktail - an act as dynamic as it was loud - was a feat of strength and technique that captured the bar's attention. The craft cocktails scene was peaking in D.C. and Brown was starring at The Gibson.

The fact that he became such a renowned bartender even surprises him. Eleven years ago, Brown was just another aimless restaurant employee at Rocky's in Adams Morgan. Tired of waiting tables, Brown lied his way behind the bar claiming bartending experience he didn't have, slopped together a passable rum punch and began a new career. A decade after that miserable drink, Brown owns his own bar, married fellow bartender Chantal Tseng and GQ magazine declared his martini the best in America.

"My brother likes to say that if it wasn't for alcohol, I wouldn't have a job, a hobby or friends," Brown said.

Since his days at Rocky's, Brown went on to work as a bartender and sommelier around town, consulting with bars and restaurants on their beverage programs. He also began to study the art of cocktail making. Although D.C. isn't without a cocktail history, it's not New Orleans and it's not New York. With the exception of Sam Lek, of the former Town & Country, and Jim Hewes at the Round Robin, the city didn't have many great bartenders for the up-and-comers like Brown, Todd Thrasher of PX and Gina Chersevani of PS7's to turn to for guidance and advice. So they had to figure it out for themselves.

"We were students without teachers," Brown said. "So we learned things and figured things out along the way. Eventually, we got better and developed better techniques."

DSC_0039 After his stint at The Gibson, Brown opened the bar-in-a-bar concept, The Passenger and Columbia Room with his brother Tom. The spaces couldn't be more different. Up front is The Passenger, black and grimy, with Iggy Pop blaring through the air and Tom and PBRs behind the bar. It's a laid-back bar that specializes in Tiki drinks on Tuesdays and an eclectic punk soundtrack all week. But make your way through The Passenger - with a reservation - and you'll find The Columbia Room, a quieter, apothecary shop of a bar that puts Derek and his cocktails on display.

Back at The Gibson, Brown's fellow bartenders would bust his balls about the folks who would insist on the seats that clustered around his end of the bar. But Brown knew he made good drinks and put on a performance, so he ignored the comments. At the Columbia Room, there's no need to grab a special spot at the bar, all 10 seats face Brown.

He calls it the fishbowl effect, and while it can be unnerving, he's used to being stared at as he goes about his work. Every 30 minutes, a few new people come in as a few people head out. A drink to start, a drink for the season, and a drink of your choosing. Three cocktails, paced slowly. Throughout the evening, Brown makes light conversation with the revolving cast of guests who've paid $64 each for the pleasure. And though he's the sole bartender of the Columbia Room, when it comes to that final beverage, his time is yours, whether that means making a martini or spending 15 minutes hand carving a block of ice into a diamond for a Scotch on the rock.

Five days a week, that's where you'll find Derek Brown. The rest of the time he's busy.

Following Brown on Facebook offers an interesting glimpse into schedule. There are posts about cocktails he's working on for the Columbia Room. There are posts about his latest article in The Atlantic, or his Op-Ed piece in the Washington Post. There are posts from spirit tasting events in San Francisco. There are posts about the Museum of the American Cocktail, for which he is a board member. And there are posts from the parties and other functions he's been hired to bartend.

Then there are the things that he doesn't post on Facebook: the books he's working on (or trying to), the new bar projects he's considering, the consulting he's doing with Chef R.J. Cooper and Rogue 24.

Most people would be satisfied to own their own business and have a job they enjoy, but Brown is restless. All the extracurriculars, the writing, the consulting are stepping stones toward, well, something. While his goal isn't completely clear, all of it begins at the bar.

Brown wants to make a better cocktail. That's why he spends so much time tinkering with cocktails and thumbing through old recipe books. His martini, the one GQ liked so much, doesn't have a garnish. Why? He determined the sliver-thin lemon twist he once served with the drink made the beverage bitter. During our interview, the conversation took a tangent into bitters, which led Brown to tell me about The Meadow, his new favorite shop in New York that specializes in cocktail bitters, salts and chocolate, and to break out a few bottles to show me how good they were (they were). He did the same thing a few years ago when he discovered Fee Brothers bitters.

It's about refinement. It's about making the drink better.

For now, he's pursuing that drink at the Columbia Room. But he knows that in time, the broader fascination in craft cocktails will fade and only the cocktail geeks will be interested in his showmanship and his club. When the Columbia Room runs its course and the reservations stop coming in, Brown will move on to the next project.

He describes his long-term goal as positioning himself to be "patient zero for the good life." To create bars, beverages and a culture that celebrates the best parts of our drinking culture.

It's a vague goal, to be sure, but Brown's got a lot on his plate at the moment. He has to prepare for tonight's reservations at the Columbia Room, go over his next column for the Atlantic, touch base with a couple clients and wrap up out a few final details about an upcoming event. As he churns through his hectic schedule, that long-term goal might take shape, become a bit clearer.

For now, though, Derek Brown is busy.

Categories: Chinatown/MCI Center/Verizon Center, Cocktails, DC, Interviews, Liquor, Washington, DC
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Jun 08, 2011

In D.C., The Only Thing More Elusive Than Statehood Is A Good Cubano

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A Cuban sandwich is: ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard pressed until crispy between two slices of Cuban bread, ideally.

It’s a simple sandwich. It’s a great sandwich.

DSCN5828 You want a good Cubano, you go to La Teresita in Tampa. It’s on Columbus by the stadium. Over the years, the Cuban diner has cranked out thousands of Cuban sandwiches, each for about $4. Just look at it. The bread –- the Cuban bread –- is toasted just enough to be crispy, crunchy on the outside, while the interior stays soft and just slightly chewy. The Swiss is warm and beginning to melt. And there’s just enough roasted pork, ham and pickles to fill out the sandwich without going overboard. Simple.

Yet, in the dozen years that I’ve lived in the District of Columbia, I’ve encountered many, many bad Cuban sandwiches. Just awful ones. I became convinced that no one in D.C. could make a proper Cubano.

Before working on this article, I never actively sought out the sandwich around town. I make it back to Tampa enough to satisfy my occasional need to have one. But every time I did encounter a D.C. Cubano, I tried it. If the sandwich was a flop, I would assume the rest of the menu was as well. Why not? If a kitchen can’t make a ham sandwich, why should I assume it can make something more complicated? 

Fortunately, there are six restaurants (using the term loosely) in the DMV that make a good Cubano –- and one of them makes the best Cuban sandwich I’ve ever had … anywhere.

Ceiba, the upscale Latin American restaurant, across the street from the White House and a thousand miles from Tampa, makes the best Cuban sandwich I’ve ever eaten (pictured above). That said, it’s not a traditional Cuban. If you’re a purist, the best traditional Cubano is made in Arlington by a guy from New Orleans. But the ways that Ceiba’s sandwich is different are the ways that it’s better than the rest.

For the most part, I’m still right about how hard it is to find a good Cubano in D.C. This is the town of Jose Andres and Minibar, of Michel Richard and Citronell, of Frank Ruta and Palena, of Vikram Sunderam and Rasika. This town, this foodie town (mostly) can’t make a reasonably good Cuban sandwich.

DSCN5926 G Street Food shoves dry, roasted pork and prosciutto into a roll and calls it a Cuban. It’s not (allegedly, there are other ingredients, but they’re lost in the loaf). Mi Vecindad on the Hill looks like the kind of mom and pop place that should specialize in a great Cubano. The sloppy steamed sandwich (pictured left) I had was the worst of the bunch.

The Disney inspired Cuba Libre offers an Ybor-style Cuban sandwich. Ybor City is the historic district in Tampa. Hey, I grew up in Tampa! I know Ybor! I’ve been there many more times then I remember. This should be great, right?! Right? Nope. The sandwich is too small, too expensive ($16!) and the flavors are too muddled. It’s a so-so sandwich at a Holy Shit! price.

And then there’s the Cubano flatbread at ChurchKey. I know it’s not a sandwich, but Kyle Bailey is a talented chef and I’m a fan of ChurchKey. Unfortunately, the Cubano flatbread is terrible. It may have pork, pickles and Swiss, but it doesn’t taste anything like a Cuban sandwich. Frankly, it doesn’t even taste like a good flatbread.

I could go on (Banana Café, Lima), but you get my point.

DSC_0006 In a strange twist for D.C., though, Jeff Tunks, chef and owner of Ceiba, uses all the right ingredients in his Cuban sandwich (well except Cuban bread, but he gets a pass because no one uses real Cuban bread). However, instead of yellow mustard, he uses a mayonnaise and mustard remoulade sauce. Rather than cured Danish ham, or sweet Virginia ham, Tunks uses a pungent smoked ham. And the Swiss cheese is replaced by its brawnier, more flavorful cousin, gruyere.

Tunks says the real difference is the pork shoulder that he marinates in citrus, garlic, cumin before slow roasting it. When he put the sandwich on the menu 8 years ago, he used pork loin, but switched to the fattier, more tender shoulder after a few months. Since then, the sandwich has remained unchanged. These days, if the pork sits too long in the kitchen before getting sliced, his staff will pick off pieces until the shoulder looks like it was worked over by piranha.

He’s right, the pork is good. The slow-cooked shoulder is juicy and the spices he uses are delicious and authentically Cuban. To me, though, the roasted pork isn’t the difference maker: it’s the smoked ham and remoulade.

DSC_0024 As I write this sentence, I can still smell the smoke on my since washed hands, and I can still taste the remoulade despite the other ingredients. When you bite into the sandwich, the smoke hits you. It’s confusing at first, because it otherwise looks like a traditional Cubano. But the smoked ham is a new element that gives the sandwich a flavor it’s never had before. And it works beautifully.

Then you notice that the bite from the mustard has been replaced by something smoother, richer. Until I talked to Tunks, I couldn’t figure it out. Somehow, the sandwich was more savory. The remoulade, which used a grainy mustard, was the unctuous secret.

Those ingredients added to an otherwise very well made Cubano resulted in one of the very best sandwiches D.C., or Tampa, has to offer. Sure, $13 is a lot to pay for a ham sandwich, but I’d pay twice as much. And if you order it off the late night bar menu, you can get it for half price.  

David Guas doesn’t like the remoulade. A Cuban sandwich needs yellow mustard. And he prefers more pork and less ham, though the smoked ham works for him. Guas’ opinion on Ceiba’s sandwich matters because he helped put it on the menu eight years ago.

DSC_0016 Today, Guas is the owner of Bayou Bakery in Arlington, and specializes in red beans and rice, boudin and has Abita on draft. But a couple days a week (Wednesdays and Thursdays usually) the kitchen will offer hot pressed Cuban sandwiches (pictured above) along with the muff-a-lottas. Guas may be a native of New Orleans, but his father was a native of Havana, Cuba.

Guas’ grandfather left Cuba to attend Loyola University, but returned with a wife and law degree. His grandmother’s ties to Louisiana led her to send Guas’ father and uncle to boarding school in Bay St. Louis, Miss., an hour north of New Orleans.

The city might be famous for po’ boys, but Cubanos were easy to find, Guas said, thanks to New Orleans’ Cuban community. And thanks to his extended family, Guas spent a considerable amount of his youth in Miami where the sandwich is a staple.

So the man from southeastern Louisiana knows from Cubanos.

Guas’ sandwich is fat with pork (that’s a good thing), but not so much so that the other ingredients get drowned out. Although Guas also uses a smoked ham, the flavor is much subtler than the ham Ceiba uses.

Both Guas and his former boss Tunks are big on the French bread they use for their Cubanos (Tunks’ comes from Cardinal, Guas’ comes from the French Bread Factory), but Guas’ roll carries the day thanks to the prodigious amount of butter he spreads on it before toasting it in panini press. The sandwich is crisp and almost flakey on the outside. Unless someone starts using Cuban bread, you’re not going to do better than Guas’ French roll. And at $7, you’re not going to find a better Cuban at a better price.

6 Tunks and Guas may make great sandwiches, but they are not alone in the Cubano trade. Within D.C., there’s also the El Floridano food truck. Parked along a curb in a neighborhood near you (maybe), the El Floridano offers up The Fidel (pictured right).

The Fidel is about as close to a traditional Cuban sandwich as you’ll find in the District. The El Floridano doesn’t do anything fancy (which is also good) and makes the sandwiches fresh. At the order and pick-up window, you can see the small flat-top lined with Cubanos held down by sandwich presses. For $7, you can get as good a sandwich as you’ll find in Tampa or Miami.

Fast Gourmet reminds me of some of my favorite Cuban sandwich spots in Tampa: gas stations. However, gas stations in Tampa don’t look this nice. The Cubano produced in the small kitchen near the corner of 14th and U streets is just as attractive. The crispy, panini pressed bread is stuffed with succulent, slow-roasted pork, ham, Swiss and pickles. Although the menu says the sandwich also comes with mustard and mayo, which isn’t uncommon, skip the mayo. It’s applied too liberally and drowns out whatever mustard is on the sandwich. For $8.50, you also get a side of shoestring fries. Don’t let that deter you from ordering the plantains (maduros). They’re soft, sweet and hot, and come with crème fresh.

Outside D.C., Cuba de Ayer is Havana via Burtonsville. The little Cuban restaurant hidden in a shopping center off Old Columbia Pike offers a great Cuban sandwich. What makes the drive to Burtonsville worth while, though, is the mojo you can order on the side. Dipping the warm and crusty Cubano into the garlic and olive oil mixture makes a good sandwich phenomenal.

Closer in is Cubano’s. What the Silver Spring restaurant lacks in polish and focused service it makes up for in a good Cuban sandwich (skip the fries and get the sweet maduros on the side). I wouldn’t go too far out of my way for Cubano’s, but if I was in the area, I’d be in the dining room.

There may be a lot of great restaurants, and food trucks, in the D.C. area, but there are only six that can make a proper Cuban sandwich. They are:

Ceiba: 701 14th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20005; (202) 393-3983; Cubano: $13
Bayou Bakery: 1515 North Courthouse Rd., Arlington, VA 22201; (703) 243-2410; Cubano, a once a week special (Wednesdays and Thursdays usually), $7
Cuba de Ayer: 15446 Old Columbia Pike, Burtonsville, Md. 20866; (301) 476-8013; Cubano $7.50 (mojo $0.75)
El Floridano: moves daily; Cubano $7
Fast Gourmet: 1400 W St N.W., Washington, D.C. 20009; Cubano $8.50 (plantains $2.50)
Cubano’s: 1201 Fidler Ln., Silver Spring, Md. 20910; Cubano $14.95 (maduros $4.95)

Categories: Arlington, Capitol Hill, Caribbean, Cuban Sandwich, DC, Downtown, Eastern Market, Local Food, Maryland, Pork, Regional Food, Sandwiches, Silver Spring, Virginia, Washington, DC
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May 09, 2011

Savor: The Beer And Food Gala Is Still Trying To Get The Food Right

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Savor, the Brewers Association’s dolled-up craft beer gala, is a fantastic event. 

Entering its fourth year, Savor is every bit the premiere craft beer showcase the BA intended it to be. For a city making a name for itself in the craft beer world, it’s also exactly what D.C. needs. Once a year, the craft beer community turns its attention to the District as some of the best brewers in the country bring us a few beers to enjoy. And enjoy, we do.

Thing is, though, Savor is a beer and food event, and so far, the food hasn’t lived up to the equal billing.

Ok, that’s not completely true. The Artisan Cheese Table and the Oyster Bar have been bright spots, exceptions to the rule. As for the rest of the food, it hasn’t always been worth the price of admission ($110 this year). Importantly, this is the food that’s paired with the beer. This is the food that the brewers are expected to talk up along with their beers.

At best, the food has been mediocre. At worst, it’s been quite bad. The food for the past three Savors has looked bad, tasted bad, hasn’t kept well, and hasn’t always paired well. I'm not alone in my opinion of the food, either. I've talked to past attendees and brewers and heard the same: the food has been a disappointment.

16 The sweet and chewy shrimp corn dogs, the gray meat sliders, the bland and cold quesadillas, and the grainy espresso sambuca parfaits are just a few examples of a food program that has been the biggest flaw of an otherwise excellent event. This wouldn’t bother me quite so much if Savor was merely a beer event. But it’s a beer and food “experience,” therefore the food must be as good as the beer. It’s not, at least not yet.

You have to hand it to folks at the BA, though, they are willing to tinker with their event. Every year for the past four years, they’ve changed something about Savor, and more often than not it’s been for the better. The first year Savor was held at the Mellon Auditorium. It’s a pretty venue, but it was too small, so they moved to the equally nice, but considerably larger Building Museum.

During that first year, the speaker salons were free. That was nice, but the sessions filled up quickly and led people to crowd around the salon room doors for a chance to grab one of the few seats. To bring some order to the salons, the BA started selling tickets. Sure, $30 is a steep price to listen to brewers talk about beer, but you don’t have to buy a salon ticket to get into the main event.

Recognizing the popularity of the event, the BA made this year’s Savor a two-night event, as it was the first year. A lot of people didn’t get tickets this year (thanks, in part, to the BA’s Website crashing when the tickets went on sale), but more people will be able to attend than last year.

And in this same spirit, the BA continues to work on the food.

Last year, the BA hired chef Bruce Paton to “enhance” the food experience, which for the first two Savors was pretty poor. Patton has experience with large beer events, having worked with the BA on the Great American Beer Festival, the biggest craft beer event in the country. Unfortunately, the food was as it as always was. 

This year, the BA brought in two chefs, Adam Dulye from The Monk’s Kettle in San Francisco, and our own Teddy Folkman, executive chef and co-owner of Dr. Granville Moore’s. However, Dulye and Folkman were hired to be consultants, not chefs. For all their culinary acumen, Dulye and Folkman did not contribute a single recipe or cook a single dish. They were contracted to conceptualize the food pairings, but the recipes and cooking was left to Federal City Caterers, which has catered all the Savor events.

09270011 Folkman said he has faith in the catering company and its staff, but was wary - and surprised - about not having a greater role in the dishes’ development or execution. For this article, Folkman put together a few of the dishes he was working on for Savor; however, the Cuban slider, stout meatballs and deviled egg that you see in the photos are not necessarily the same dishes you’ll see at Savor. You’ll see and taste Federal City Caterers’ dishes.

During a recent tasting led by Nancy Johnson, event director for the BA, Folkman got a chance to taste many of the dishes Federal City Caterers developed based on his and Dulye’s recommendations. While some dishes were just as Folkman envisioned, others needed minor revising, and some were altogether different - not always for the better, he said.

Deborah Allen, co-owner of Federal City Caterers, said she and her staff have to take many things into consideration when developing hors d’oeuvres for Savor. When necessary, she’ll change an ingredient or eliminate ingredient to make sure the dish works with the beer pairing and can be executed a thousand times over for the event.

In addition to making sure the dishes pair with all 144 beers, the food has to be easy to handle for attendees holding tasting glasses, capable of being transported to the event site and then served as is or with minimum heating (the Building Museum doesn’t have a kitchen). The food must be able to remain fresh for some time in case it’s not eaten immediately, and it has to meet the approval of the BA, the brewers, the consulting chefs and a couple thousand attendees.


09270021 Listening to Allen describe the preparation and execution of Savor’s food program you begin to understand the scope of Federal City’s task. The catering company will prepare more than 80,000 items for Savor. She began work on this year’s event two weeks after last year’s event ended. She’ll have 160 people serving attendees, refreshing ice trays and water pitchers, refreshing the food, dumping food that needs to be dumped, working the nonalcoholic stand, and cooking special dishes for the 12 sponsor tables.It is quite an undertaking. But at the end of the day, I can’t help but return to the fact that the quality of the food has never lived up to the quality of the beer.

And then when I see that this year’s menu includes grilled steak and sausages, crispy tuna rolls, braised sliders, pork belly and shrimp wrapped in a grit cake - all dishes that could be great when fresh and hot, but miserable if left to cool and congeal - I think I’ll be glad that I once again ate beforehand.

Johnson, who led the committee that came up with Savor, is understandably positive about her food program. Although the BA has continues to revise the food program - from how the food was paired with the beer to how much say brewers get in their pairings – Johnson said the BA started in a good place and is simply looking to improve.

For last year’s Savor, the participating breweries were sent a menu of “popular pub items” to choose from. Although there were more than 45 dishes on the menu, Folkman said many breweries ended up picking the same items, which led to a lot of redundancy (Savor: a beer and quesadilla experience).

This year, the BA abandoned the democratic approach and turned the pairings over to Folkman and Dulye. Folkman said he and Dulye took the list of beers the breweries plan to bring and divided it into style categories: IPAs, stouts, ambers, lagers. The chefs then came up with dishes to compliment the styles rather than specific beers. So there will be a dish for the pale ales and a dish for saisons, etc. 


09270020 Despite this broad approach, Folkman said he wants the beer and food pairings to make sense, to tell a story. So saisons and Belgian-style ales will be paired with the classic French croque monsieur, while the bolder-flavored India pale ales are matched with spicy crawfish fritters. And just in case the pairing isn’t completely obvious, every station will include a card explaining the match.

Like last year, though, the brewers won’t have a chance to taste the pairings until the day of the event.

For the 12 sponsors, Folkman has something completely different in mind: a cook for every sponsor. Folkman said Federal City Caterers will station a cook at each sponsor’s table. The sponsors’ offerings will be hot, cooked fresh and either prepared with the sponsor’s beer or for a beer the sponsor brings. The highlight of the sponsors’ dishes may be the lobster roll paired with Sam Adams Boston Lager. (Anticipating that the lobster roll will be a popular item, Allen said her staff will make extra to accommodate the interest.)

The BA is also adding a sushi stand and considering a panini station to accompany the cheese and oyster tables.Folkman, who led one of the educational salons last year, said he didn’t try any of the pairings last year, but agreed that the food could be better.“It’s progressively gotten better every year,” he said.

“Hopefully (this year), it will meet the expectations of the guests.”

Everyone I interviewed for this article was very positive about this year’s food program. Sure, Johnson and Allen said some things haven’t worked in the past, but that’s all part of the evolution of Savor. While Folkman was surprised that he wasn’t more directly involved with the food, he had nothing but good things to say about Federal City Caterers and expects this year’s food program to be better.

36 So then who’s to blame for the miserable dishes of Savors past? And who will be responsible if the quality of the food falls short again? Is it Federal City Caterers, who’s charged with feeding thousands of half-cocked beer enthusiasts while keeping the brewers, the hired-gun chefs and the BA happy? Is it the latest pair of chefs who have big ideas, but no involvement in the actual cooking and catering? Or is it the Brewers Association, which approves all the dishes, hires the famous chefs, hires the caterer, sponsors the event and insists that Savor is a beer and food experience? 

As the saying goes, the buck stops with the BA. With ticket prices for this beer and food experience climbing above the $100 mark, attendees deserve an event that gets it right on both counts. If it doesn’t, the BA should seriously consider either dropping the food (and the ticket prices) or turn the food program over to someone else to run.

Savor is an excellent beer experience. It’s time for it to be an excellent food experience, too.

Categories: Beer, DC, Events, Food and Drink, Foodie Experiences, Washington, DC
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