Custom House and Unibroue Make Winning Pairs
By Chuck Sudo in Food on May 29, 2007 6:00PM
A good drink can improve the quality level of a meal. It can make a mediocre dinner tolerable, or raise the bar on a perfectly cooked entree. The best chefs, along with their sommeliers, wine stewards, and spirits experts, plan a meal and its pairings with meticulous detail.
Although beer and food have complemented each other for centuries, restaurants in the States are placing an increased emphasis on offering beer pairings for those who don't drink wine. Additionally, North American breweries are staffing experts whose task is to raise awareness of beer as an alternative to wine in fine dining circles. Take, for example, the Canadian Unibroue brewery, makers of Chicagoist's "BotW" recipients La Fin du Monde and Éphémère, and quite possibly the best craft brewery in North America. Their local "culinary attache", Jim Javenkoski, works tirelessly to associate the brewery's product with great food. Javenkoski's enthusiasm has resulted in Unibroue selections finding placement at places like Blackbird, moto, Ambria, Scylla, North Pond, Bistro Campagne, The Gage, Fiddlehead Cafe, Hopleaf, Brasserie Jo, and Naha. That's just a short list.
Shawn McClain's Spring Restaurant Group has Unibroue placements at both his flagship restaurant and Custom House, his chic and modernist take on the steakhouse in Printer's Row. We wrote in last week's "Your Friday Food Buffet" about a five-course dinner where each course was paired with a different Unibroue selection, the result of an inspired brainstorm session between Custom House executive chef Richard Camarota and beverage director Tim Lacey. At a cost of $80 (we wrote that the meal was $70, but an extra $10 was added for the Asher Blue cheese course), the meal worked as a way to eat at Custom House on a budget, dare to be different, educate yourself on beer, and just get out of the house and do something on a Sunday night. Lacey informed us that for this meal, he and Camarota selected the beers first. Once the beers were chosen Camarota planned the menu around those selections. With the exception of one dish, the pairings were spot-on.
Our first course featured West Coast fried oysters served with caper aioli and two-day pickles, paired with Unibroue's Blanche de Chambly. Blanche de Chambly is a bottle-fermented white ale, with flavors of citrus, wheat, and light spice. Those spices heightened the flavor of the oysters' lightly seasoned breading and the bed of arugula on which the oysters laid atop. The two-day pickles also had a spicy quality to them, as well as a snap and pleasant acidity. The caper aioli was creamy, savory, and brought out the sweetness of the oysters.
The oysters were followed by oxtail ravioli served with hazelnuts and fennel pollen, paired with Chambly Noire. Camarota and Lacey upped the ante with this pairing. The oxtail was perfectly cooked. It wasn't stringy, and the jus ladled over the ravioli complemented the hazelnut and fennel. We also picked up a hint of anise on the palate. For this course, the only Unibroue selection able to handle this would have been the Chambly Noire, a hearty black ale with copious amounts of roasted malt, with prominent notes of coffee and caramel on the palate.
The first two courses only whetted our appetite for the centerpiece of the dinner, Berkshire pork chop and smoked belly, served with house smoked poblano, Anson Mills polenta, and asparagus. This dish was paired with Maudite red ale. The dish itself was teeming with subtle spice and smoky flavor. The asparagus, liberally drizzled in butter and cracked black pepper, made for a surprising palate cleanser. The pork belly was cooked medium, and we couldn't get enough of the poblano.
For this dish, Lacey offered us a second pairing in addition to the Maudite. Normally, a spicy red ale like Maudite would be a perfect pairing for smoked red meats, but Lacey also poured us some Trois Pistoles, a strong dark ale whose sweeter flavor made for a better pairing with this dish than Maudite. After a sip of Trois Pistoles, we could cut through the spice of the belly and really taste the poblano and polenta.
Course #4: Asher Blue Cheese, served with olive flat bread, toasted walnuts, and greens tossed with aged balsamic vinaigrette. Paired with Éphémère. McClain's restaurants are noted for their commitment to seasonal availability. This blue cheese made from raw cow's milk is an example of that. With all the sharp flavors abounding in this dish, a cider would have been our first suggestion as a pairing. Luckily, Unibroue does us one better. Lacey and Camarota paired this with Éphémère. the slight acidity from the apple must brightened an already bright balsamic flavor, while the cardamom in the ale brought out the flavor of the olives in the bread and the cheese.
Course #5: Trois Pistoles Chocolate mousse with roasted marshmallow and chocolate wafers, paired with Trois Pistoles. Custom House pastry chef Elissa Narow is one of the best pastry chefs in the city. For this dessert, Narow prepared chocolate mousse with Trois Pistoles, and served them with chocolate wafers. Paired with a healthy pour of Trois Pistoles, we were bombarded by a rush of bittersweet chocolate flavor on the palate, which we assume was heightened by the beer pairing.
Overall this was one of the better fixed price dinners that we've had in a long time. Because of its location, selection and clientèle, Custom House is slightly pricier than either Green Zebra or Spring. But if you keep abreast of fixed price events like this, you won't have to take out a personal loan to enjoy it.