<P>One very cold night in January, I found myself rushing from the hotel at MIT to the Hotel@MIT, two places that I now recognize as not being one and the same, the former being at the heart of MIT, the latter being a bit off the beaten technology path despite the at-sign we’ve all by now learned to love and loathe. Having screwed up by enlisting myself, and my companion and photographer (who are also one and the same) as well, on a brief-but-frustrating-enough wild goose chase through a sterile riot-proof college campus, being short on time, and the Boston area always being short of parking, I chose to do the unspeakable when we approached our destination: I said “Let’s just put the car in the lot.” A small defeat, yes, but it was a sacrifice worth making for what was to follow.
<P>My reason for being at the Hotel@MIT that night was to attend an event the likes of which are rarely heard of in Boston, and I suspect quite a few cities in North America as well: A beer and cheese dinner at a conventional (though its food is far from it) restaurant. That is to say not a beerpub, not a bar. The location: Sidney’s Grille (<a hrefhttp://www.sidneysgrille.com>sidneysgrille.com), just a few steps off the lobby.
<P>I wasn’t sure what to expect, and a quick look at the taps on the bar while I walked to the back of the restaurant, towards the reception, didn’t help much either. Slightly cluttered around the bartender, though not to the extent that microphones are around political candidates at speeches, were tap handles that I have seen at nearly every other bar in the area. Nothing struck me as outstanding. If I’d looked at the wine menu without knowing anything about the event in the back I would have probably accused the manager of oenocentrism with a murmur.
<P>Once at the reception things didn’t look up for the first five minutes. I somehow misunderstood one of our hostesses when she told me to enjoy the beer provided by Harpoon, by assuming that this particular Boston brewery would be holding us by the hand through the night. Think what you will about Harpoon, even if you appreciate their products ten times more than I do, I doubt you believe they have a strong enough lineup to carry your palate through a four-course dinner. When I finally bothered to look at the brochure, I realized I was mistaken. They sponsored the reception only.
<P>It took a single camera flash for the revelers to identify me as a member of the press. Shortly after the first shot of the night I was quickly approached by an older Cambridge couple, whose first priority was to find out to what media outlet I belonged. They seemed a bit disappointed to learn that it was a website, and one that they had not heard of at that, but not enough to excuse themselves. They were not beer aficionados, not particularly, they told me, but had heard of the event through Slow Food (which is, according to Slow Food’s own website—<a hrefhttp://www.slowfood.com>slowfood.com—a movement for the right to taste) and were curious enough to pay $66 a person to know more. I tried to tell them as much as I know about beer in the little bit of time that we had, and managed to sneak in a few questions about Slow Food, about which prior to that night I knew next to nothing. They told me about the rare Narragansett turkey they had for thanksgiving, which came from a farm that is largely maintained with Slow Food grants, and immediately I thought that someone out there should send them a proposal on behalf of Oude Beersel. Hopefully one won’t be necessary for another traditional lambic brewery in the near, or far, future.
<P>The conversation ended when we were interrupted by the event’s organizers, who, shortly before dinner, made a formal introduction of those involved in putting the pieces, in this case the beer and the cheese, together: Paula Lambert, author of The Cheeselover’s Cookbook & Guide, from which the recipes for the night were taken, and sometimes slightly paraphrased, Kerry Byrne, beer writer for the Boston Herald, and The Great Cheeses of New England (<a hrefhttp://newenglandcheese.com>newenglandcheese.com). Also involved, but working hard in the background, was the talented resident chef at Sidney’s Grille, Kim Lambrechts, who, we learned later, despite having grown up in Belgium was having his first professional adventure in putting beer and food together.
<P>Dinner began with a cheese plate featuring two blues: Westfield Farm’s Hubbardston Blue Cow, and South Mountain Product’s Berkshire Blue. The beer pairing was Lindeman’s (though the original plan was to make it Belle Vue) Kriek. I thought this an interesting introduction to what beer can be for the couple I met at the reception, though not exactly a good one into what beer ought to be. Additionally, this kriek just lacked the complexity to match the sharp kick of the Berkshire Blue, which exhibited a fairly significant amount of veining. The subtler Blue Cow faired much better. Creamier than the Berkshire Blue, and with no veins to show, it didn’t fight for attention away from the beer. Additionally, its moldiness added some depth in the palate to an otherwise simple lambic. With some imagination, the effect reminded me of a light version of the Hannsen’s take on kriek.
<P>What would I have done differently? I certainly wouldn’t have gone with Belle Vue (which was not served due to distribution problems in Massachusetts); that would have only aggravated the Berkshire Blue mess. I would have probably skipped the lambic experience altogether. I got a feeling that the event was not a sermon for beergeeks, and an honest lambic would have been too much too handle for most of the diners. A Flemish sour, perhaps Duchesse de Bourgogne, would have probably done the trick, since I find the style, especially that particular example, to be (at least slightly) more accessible for novice palates. And, since so many people think that it has a balsamic character it would have matched the salad (winter greens and roasted pears topped with Great Hill Blue cheese and shallot vinaigrette) that came shortly after perfectly. On the other hand, onion flavors don’t play so well with some of the cough syrup notes found in Lindeman’s Kriek.
<P>After this disappointment, the second cheese plate, and the soup that accompanied it, had a humongous task ahead of them if they were to lift my spirits. And, to my great surprise, they did. Quite frankly, this course is unforgettable. The cheeses were Crowley Cheese’s Sharp Crowley Cheese and Taylor Farm’s Gouda. The soup was an onion soup with baked Cabot Creamery Two-Year Aged Cheddar crust. The beer was Rapscallion Blessing, from Concord Brewers. The soup and Blessing were a match made in heaven. I would go as far as saying that it built Blessing into a beer that deserves to be in the top 50 of this site. The sweetness of the onions touched by the sharpness (though dulled a bit by the cooking process) of the cheddar crust gave Blessing a base on which its brutal hop structure could easily sway back and forth, and even show off. The gouda didn’t do as well, being perhaps too gentle to stand behind an assertive beer, but the sharp Crowley, firm, nutty, and sharp like a blade, was born to serve it.
<P>This was a hard act to follow, but the third course did not disappoint. The cheese plate was composed of Vermont Shepherd’s Putney Tomme and Cabot Creamery’s Five Peppercorn Cheddar. The entrée was farm-raised-chicken breast, filled with Calabro Cheese’s Smoked Mozzarella, and sundried-tomato vegetable risotto with tarragon sauce. The beer choice was Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Marzen. The Putney Tomme struck me as the better match for this wonderful rauchbier, due to its ripe moldy flavors and a tanginess that had no quibbles with the beer’s smokiness. The cheddar may have been a bit too mild for the same brewery’s Urbock, but, given that this particular lager is all elegance and subtlety, its flavors weren’t easily lost after each sip. Its spiciness helped to put some fire, at least a little bit of it, behind that smoke as well. As for the smokiness of the mozzarella in the chicken, it was far too gentle and I’m afraid it got lost somewhere in the cooking process. Fortunately, it was not necessary. The tarragon sauce was decadent enough to blend with the sweet malts, and the sundried tomatoes primed the palate for the woodiness and bitterness of the beer.
<P>There was no cheese plate and no overkill for the fourth course, which was dessert: a parfait made of Vermont Butter & Cheese’s Fromage Blanc, topped with sour cherries. The beer pairing, which took me aback on paper, and even more so in practice, was Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale. Fromage blanc strikes me as being far too fluffy to survive a head-on collision with hop juice. Without water in the middle, my palate was witness to one of the most violent culinary beatings of all time. The parfait was actually very tasty, and if there’s anything to be said for this match is that without Celebration Ale I probably wouldn’t have finished my cup, since it was also very sweet. It worked great as a palate cleanser to prevent cloying, I’ll give it that much. Perhaps that night a new use was discovered for overhopped West Coast ales, but, quite frankly, I think that Celebration Ale deserves a better showcase.
<P>What would I have done better? Quelque Chose, anyone? Maybe, to stay within the seasonal theme, Anchor Our Special Ale 2002 would have worked too, with all that nutmeg and all that cinnamon, spicy in all the right ways to complement and not clash with a sweet dessert. Since Harpoon provided the reception’s beer, their Winter Warmer could have done just as well.
<P>At the end of the night I had a chance to talk to Dann Paquette, head brewer at Concord Brewers, who seemed more than happy that someone out there found the perfect food to match his beer. We had a brief conversation about the current state of beer and dining in the area, which we both agree could be much better. There are some excellent places like Red Bones (<a href=www.redbones.com>www.redbones.com), but man (and woman) lives on more than smoked BBQ. He proposed that places like Sidney’s give breweries more than just a random chance to showcase their nectars. "All I ask for is one day of every week. We’ll take Monday. Just give us Monday."
<P>I can only hope that someone with some power and good taste was listening.