The time has finally come. Beer has officially been invited to sit at the adults' table, and the coordination of beer/food pairings is emphasized more now than ever. Those of us who tire of our wine-drinking friends constantly tossing around "oaky" this and "tannins" that can at long last stand up and say, "this beer would go great with a nice steak au poivre."
On Thursday evening, I sat in on a small dinner event at Bar Bistro 608, hosted by master beer sommelier Marc Stroobandt of Belgium (by way of London). I'm not sure who certifies master beer sommeliers, who are also known as cicerones, but there is a certifying body for that. Regardless, Stroobandt wears his "Belgian bling" sommelier medallion with pride, and gave a little history on Belgian beer, with the myriad shapes of glasses designed specifically to enhance each beer.
The guests were all tied into the beer distribution world, most with Wisconsin Distributors, but were all younger and more stylish than I would have expected. I may be feeling old, but it seemed like a lot of them still get carded buying beer, much less selling it to bars and liquor stores. The crowd was lively, however, and the conversation at my table only occasionally veered into shop talk.
Our beers for the evening hailed from the brewing conglomerate AB InBev: Stella Artois, Leffe, and Hoegaarden. You might know them from such "American" beers as Budweiser, Michelob, or Rolling Rock. I've always thought of Stella as the Budweiser of European beers, anyway; it's a clear-filtered lager, with an even palate, not exactly mind-blowing. Hoegaarden, an unfiltered Belgian wheat beer, is a little more complex. Leffe Blonde, on the third hand, is a sweet whammy of a beer.
We were served the beers in that rather logical order, accompanying dishes crafted by Bar Bistro 608's chef, Karen Flanigan. I'd hate for this to be my last chance at experiencing the restaurant's atmosphere, because while the food was perhaps only slightly above average, the ambiance and style promised better. If the rumors are true, however, Bar Bistro 608 may soon be ending its run at the box office.
The first course, which greeted us as we took our seats, was a simple cheese plate. A wonderful Roth Käse buttermilk blue was the highlight, dominating over the Otter Creek pesto cheddar, Roth Käse Gran Queso, and Raspberry BellaVitano. A peppery summer sausage, dried apricots, and some Potter's crackers accompanied the cheeses. With this, we drank Stella Artois--a fine beer for cutting lightly through flavors without intrusion, but nothing spectacular. This course was great, however, for idly munching while getting to know my tablemates.
Up next was a beet and lentil salad, with a little spiced chevre to carry us through from the cheese plate. I'm not a big fan of beets -- seems like a foodie sin lately -- but these were tender and lightly sweet. The savory lentils were cooked perfectly. The assorted greens upon which the lentils were served weren't a home run, but they carried out their assignment in providing a sub-strata for each bite. The Hoegaarden's spicy, fruity profile synchronized very well with the beets and goat cheese; of the three beers, this is the one I've ordered in the past and would be most likely to order again in the future.
For our main course, we returned to Stella Artois, but this time with a dish of chicken curry and dhal over white rice. The transition from course to course was not unnoticed, and I liked the thought that went into it. The dish itself, however, had the same oversimplified shortcoming. More heat, more cumin, more something, would have improved the curry. But as a stage for Stella Artois to do its thing, the main course did just fine.
Dessert could have stopped at the bottle of Leffe Blonde we each received. The head is thick, almost like sponge cake atop the beer, while the beer itself parallels sticky toffee or perhaps crème brûlée in sweetness. Appropriately, we were served a slice of creme brulee-style cheesecake with our Leffe. I add the suffix because I'm not sure the sugary topping ever met with flame; I'd call it more of a flan cheesecake, as the interior was quite soft and creamy. A number of my fellow diners noted that they liked this course the most, and I can't say I disagree.
Marc Stroobandt's course in Belgian beer-ology was but a brief survey, and I suspect that it was old news for most of the diners, who are all already deeply entrenched in the world of beer. But I did learn the right way to pour Hoegaarten, anyway, and got a nice Stella bottle opener, gratis. Whenever you can arrange a place-setting with a bottle opener next to the knife and fork, you know it's going to be a good meal.