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Full Circle: The Publican/New Holland Dinner

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Aug 24, 2009 6:20PM

Last night's beer dinner at the Publican was the culmination of six months of planning and discussions between Paul Kahan and New Holland Brewing Company. After all the brewing, the emails and phone calls, getting to know each other and travel between Chicago and Holland, it came down to the beer and the food, as it should have been. The proof, as the adage goes, would be in the pudding.

At the May menu planning session in Holland both Kahan and Publican Beer Director Michael McAvena were hoping for 120 to 140 covers for the dinner. A Saturday text message from Ellen Malloy, Kahan's longtime publicist, indicated the dinner was booked solid. I biked to the Publican about an hour before the doors were slated to open for the first covers of the evening. When I entered I saw New Holland partner/marketing director Fred Bueltmann, partner/brewmaster John Haggerty and pub brewer Jeff Sheahan talking with the video crew that filmed the brewing trip regarding setting up for the evening. McAvena was on the phone trying to arrange seating for last-minute VIPs who didn't want to miss the dinner. In the kitchen was Kahan, blanching spigarello for the evening. "We have close to 200 reservations for this evening," Kahan said. "I say, 'Keep 'em coming!'"

Between calls McAvena brought me a glass of Vanguard. "I'm very happy with how this beer turned out," he said. Upon first sip I was instantly captivated by the intensity of the yeast esters on the nose and palate. The caramel notes from the Munich malt slid into the picture underneath that. To me, Vanguard tasted not so much like a French country ale as a Belgian dubbel.

McAvena wasn't done. From a refrigerator he hauled out a giant magnum bottle whose weight looked like he might collapse under. "You know that pear beer with raspberries and chardonnay yeast we tasted at the brewery that I kept begging John to keg for this?" he asked. "They put some in this magnum and surprised me with it." A blind man could have recognized the look of unabashed glee on McAvena's face. I took some more photos and headed home to change clothes for my 7 p.m. reservation.

When I returned the energy in the room was off the charts and what I normally expect of the Publican on a Friday or Saturday. The New Holland contingent that traveled to Chicago for the dinner must have been about 20 strong; they took up residence at the Publican's hi-tops in the middle of the room. Brewpub chef Matt Millar and wife Amy Cook were holding court at the highboy closest to the kitchen, with Millar taking the opportunity between shifts in conversation to glance toward the kitchen and watch Kahan, who was seasoning sand dabs on the line and letting Publican sous chef Erling Wu-Bower handle the expediting. Bueltmann worked the room, describing the evening's beers and giving the Cliff's Notes history of New Holland for guests.

The dinner was served family-style, which immediately set this apart from other beer dinners I've attended, where the dinner's flow was wrecked by a loquacious brewmaster or chef and the beer was treated like fine wine. On their own, both the food and beer were outstanding. Not all the pairings worked, however. New Holland's Charkoota, the smoked rye doppelbock also making its debut at the dinner, overwhelmed the richness of the La Quercia prosciutto and delicate sweetness of the peaches with which it was paired. Grilled ricotta fell flat with New Holland's Golden Cap saison, although the acidity of the beer and the heirloom tomatoes made for a harmonious marriage. The two overwhelming favorite pairings of my party of 12 were the final two dishes. Roast suckling pig from Slagel Family Farm, paired with apples, minestra nera (a replacement for dark Tuscan kale) and pecan vinaigrette seemed cherry-picked by the Food Goods for New Holland's Blue Sunday sour ale. Bueltmann's recommendation of Pilgrim's Dole as a dessert pairing with Kahan's ricotta ice cream, figs and fresh berries was spot-on.

The house cleared out to a few late diners, hangers-on and the New Holland contingent. That's when McAvena broke out the magnum. Haggerty described the beer to the remaining guests. Bueltmann christened it "Envious." After a sip, it seemed like a fitting name, knowing that there was a few barrels worth remaining at the brewery.

I made my way to the kitchen, where Kahan asked for my thoughts on the meal. I told him that not all the pairings worked and allowed that the possibility existed I might have had heightened expectations for the dinner, given all the column space I dedicated to covering the process. "i can see that, but perfect dinners can sometimes be boring," Kahan said. He then nodded to the remaining folk, bonding over good food and beer. "This is what everything we did over the past six months was all about." As I called it a night I turned and saw the antique framed "Perfect Publican" poem Millar gifted to Kahan upon our arrival in Holland, high above the hostess station, and recognized Kahan was speaking from experience.