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It's a Unibroue World, Part 1

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Jan 21, 2008 4:00PM

2008_01_sheffields_main_course.jpgCommon sense dictated that we should have stayed in Saturday night in the slightly drafty but hospitable environs of our apartment. However, when the fine folks at Unibroue plan a beer dinner, it's usually a great event. What made Saturday night's event stand out was the location of the dinner.

Sheffield's in Lakeview would not normally be on our list of places to grab a bite to eat. But owner Rick Hess (who also owns Silver Cloud in Wicker Park) opened a kitchen there back in May - complete with a Southern Pride smoker - with an emphasis on serving barbecue which, until recently on the North side, was a rare commodity. Most Unibroue dinners in town are conducted by Jim Javenkoski, their local "culinary attaché" (and holder of a PhD. in food science) who works non-stop tying in the brewery's brands with the city's best fine dining establishments.

Saturday's event was hosted by Hess and Karl Braun, Unibroue's regional sales manager. Braun takes care of placing the brewery's beer everywhere else, so it was fitting that he was at a public house like Sheffield's on a bitter cold night to give attendees a detailed overview of the Chambly, Quebec brewery that we think is the best in North America.

For the uninitiated, Unibroue makes the best spot-on approximations of Belgian-style ales outside of Belgium. The balance between malty sweetness, hoppy bitters, and strong alcohol contents (only two Unibroue selections come in at under 6 percent ABV) have even won fans of the beers in Belgium. That balance in the beers also lends itself wonderfully to good, hearty food.

2008_01_sheffields_dessert.jpgThe wild card in this dinner was the food; we knew what we were getting from Unibroue. After an auspicious start with a variety of crostinis as passed hors d'oeuvres paired with Blanche de Chambly white ale, things began to pick up with a cream of tomato soup with goat cheese and pesto paired with Chambly Noire, Unibroue's amazingly light black ale. By the time we worked our way to our entrée of roast pork tenderloin in a cherry demi-glace, smoked chicken with Sheffield's Memphis-style BBQ reduction, whipped sweet potatoes with maple syrup, and vegetable medley (paired with Unibroue's 16th anniversary ale), we were enjoying the food immensely. Of particular note the chicken, which Hess and his kitchen staff brines, then smokes using a equal blend of white oak, apple, and hickory, had an amazing flavor that matched the strong hops of the beer.

The dinner ended on a perfect high. A warmed bread pudding and strawberry compote was paired with Unibroue's 2002 Quelque Chose, a brown ale brewed with added cherry juice, which was itself warmed similar to a wassail. This was a wonderful thing to do on a night when icicles were forming on our beard and mustache.

These dinners aren't typically a reflection of an establishments regular menu, but they are a reflection of the kitchen. In that regard, Hess has got something going on with his new kitchen at Sheffield's. Hess' emphasis on barbecue allows him to tie Sheffield's into two of the more popular trends in town these days: the so-called "gastropub" revolution and the rise of good barbecue joints in the city. Sheffield's has always had a great beer selection. Now it has some no-nonsense, good tasting food to match.

Our Unibroue weekend is not over. We're also attending this evening's highly anticipated charcuterie seminar hosted by Javenkoski at Custom House. We'll give you a review of that tomorrow.