In my humble opinion, the South Bay Brewmasters Dinner at California Café was one of the “marquee” events here in the South Bay. This event was the combination of a lot of good things: the great tasting cuisine from California Café, the equally delicious beers from several local brewers, and a genuine love and passion for craft beer.
The idea for this event started last year with yours truly. Inspired by another dinner I attended in the past, I wanted to experience something similar here. But as great as last year’s dinner was, this one surpassed it in a number of ways. The menu of this year’s dinner explored more alternative proteins. While we had some returning breweries, there a few new ones as well. I’m not sure what happened between this year and last but attendance for the event doubled with the event selling out!
Setting the Stage
Because the event was so large, the main dining space of California Café was reserved for the dinner. In a typical Brewmasters Dinner, the table settings would include some sort of schwag from the brewery being featured, usually in the form of a coaster. Because of the multiple breweries participating this year, and because this was really a celebration of craft beer, the centerpieces of each table featured a small plate showcasing the cardinal ingredients for brewing: malted barley and other grains, whole cone hops, water, and yeast. I thought it was a very nice touch to share with people.
I Just Want to Make Good Beer
Last year brewers were asked to step up between courses and talk about their beers. This year, the participating brewers were asked to talk a little bit about themselves before the dinner. Almost universally, each brewers spoke about how they all “just want to make good beer”; a sentiment started by Firehouse Brewery & Grill brewmaster Steve Donohue. It was kind of funny really to see each brewer go up and basically echo Donohue’s statements, but in actuality, that really is the driving force behind a brewery. While no one will ever mistake any of these brewers as public speaking gods, no one can question their authenticity or sincerity.
Here are my tasting notes for the dinner. If you were there, feel free to add what you thought of the experience in the comments section below. It’s always good to get a second opinion, or even a dissenting opinion, about things.
Notes: The first course seemed to me to be an exercise in contrasts. On one end of the plate, you have a simple, yet elegant lobster dumpling. It’s overall color palate was a light grey that really popped out against the greenery it was plated on. The dumpling had a delicate flavor with a light bready notes, and soft, steamed texture. On the other end of the plate, there was the seared Alaskan cod, an explosion of color with its mixed garden greens and curried lobster broth sauce. The cod itself was cooked well, flakey and light, while the curried broth brought a little bit of spice to the party. It was an interesting and delicious dish.
Likewise, the beers couldn’t be anymore different despite their similar look. The Blonde from Strike Brewing Company had a very nice pils malt flavor supported by wheat malt notes, and a moderate bitterness for balance. The beer also had a fruity character to it. By comparision, the Pilsner from Los Gatos Brewing Company also sported a pils malt flavor but it featured a more assertive hop bitterness that was crisp and very little to no fruit character. With a dry finish, it was very refreshing. Two similar beers, two distinct flavor profiles.
It should be no surprise then that each beer paired with one side of the dish better than the other. I felt that the cod, with its light spice, paired very well with the hoppier pilsner while the fruitiness of the Blonde went well with the dumpling.
Notes: While the first course was an exercise in contrasts, I think this course was really about having fun. The rack of rabbit was cooked well, delicate sear yet moist. The herbed loin, also cooked well, was moist and brought out a slightly different flavor to the table not unlike an herbed pork loin. Lastly the stuffed saddle was full of flavor and had a slightly smokey character that reminded me of bacon. I thought the truffled gnocchi, chewy and slightly doughy, was a nice textural contrast to the rabbit. I thought the inclusion of a baby carrot brought a touch of humor and irony that tied the entire dish together. That’s what’s up, doc!
The paired beers featured more of the malty side of craft beer. I thought the Brown was a very flavorful mix of caramel, toast, and nutty aromas and flavors. It’s dry finish and moderately low hop bitterness helped to accentuate those characters. The Gatoberfest featured a surprising fruity aroma that yielded a slight caramel malt flavor with some fruit notes. This beer also had a dry finish and enough hop bitterness for balance.
Like with the first course, I felt one beer paired better with one aspect of the course while one with the other. I thought the malty Brown went well with herbed loin while the fruitier Gatoberfest paired nicely with the stuffed saddle.
Notes: If there’s one thing I keep giving California Café Executive Chef Mark Pettyjohn grief about, it’s that he fails to include pork belly in each of his dinners. Chef Pettyjohn assured me during the dinner that this veal would be a fantastic substitute for pork belly. With a little bit of skepticism, I took my first bite. Wow! For a brief moment, I almost forgot about pork belly. The cut of I had veal was soo tender, it seemed to fall apart at the mere hint of my fork approaching it. The meat was a fantastic balance of savory and salty meat, and mouth-coating, artery-clogging fat. The wild mushrooms, were equally savory and provided a complimentary blast of earthy and woodsy flavors while the pureed parsnip tied it all together.
Hop X from Tied House has a pungent and garlicy aroma with citrus notes. The hop flavor of the beer is slightly piney, garlicy and resiny balanced by a lightly toasted malt flavor. It’s medium-low/medium bodied with high carbonation and a dry finish. Atlas DIPA from Palo Alto Brewing Company also has a piney hop aroma with fruity notes. The flavor is similar with the addition of a slight garlicy hop flavor. Its malt flavor is also slightly toasty and the beer features a medium-full body, medium carbonation, and a dry finish. As the beer warmed up, I started to pick up a slight butterscotch note.
Hoppy beers are not the first thing you’d associate to pair with a savory and woodsy dish. In fact, you might be tempted to pair this course with the maltier beers from before but because of the high fat content of the veal, you needed the additional hop bitterness to cut through all that fat. Carbonation, often overlooked, also helps to scrub the tongue clean. That said, I felt Hop X was a better pair for this dish. I’m not about to say that the braised veal is a viable substitute for pork belly but this is a coin toss where there are no losers. So far, my favorite course of the night.
Notes: I’m sorry, I lied. This was my favorite course. The bison was ridiculously tender, even more so than the braised veal. Unlike the veal, the bison was more protein than fat, but that didn’t make it any less tender, moist, and savory. The braised fennel was a little tart while the celery root puree made for a good base for the dish.
Ale of the 2 Tun has an aroma that is equal parts fruit, smoke, roast and chocolate. The beer’s flavor is a combination of coffee, chocolate and slight smoke flavors, with enough a medium-high hop bitterness for balance. Body is medium, carbonation is high, and the finish has a roasty astringency. OTIS has roasty, coffee, chocolate, and toffee aromas. The flavor is of deep roast, dark chocolate, and black coffee with medium-high hop bitterness. This is a full bodied beer, with medium-high carbonation, and primarily balanced finish with a touch of roasty astringency. Essentially Ale of the 2 Tun is lighter bodied than OTIS while OTIS has a richer malt flavor.
As much as I like OTIS, I felt that Ale of the 2 Tun was a better pair with the bison. I thought the smokey character of Ale of the 2 Tun made for a better pairing.
Food: Apricot Semifreddo, apricot and ginger
Beer: Palo Alto Brewing Company Nice Lacing and Firehouse Brewery & Grill Hops on Rye
Notes: The semifreddo, Italian for “half-frozen”, was shaped in conical molds. It’s flavor and texure reminded me of those orange push pops I used to buy from the ice cream man as a kid. This was garnished with ginger and a fortune cookie-like cracker with pistachios. Dried apricots, stuffed with a pistachio cream of sorts, were set on a smear of guava sauce. I really liked the mild sweetness of this dish that accentuated more natural flavors over sugary sweetness.
Hops on Rye has an earthy, slightly piney, and resiny hop aroma. Hop flavors were resiny and citrus in nature with toasty, caramel malt flavors and a slight spicy character from the rye malts. Hop bitterness is medium-high. The beer’s body i s medium-high, carbonation is high, while the finish was dry. The Nice Lacing Rye IPA from Palo Alto Brewing Company featured apricot-like aromas. The flavor featured a fruity hop flavor with toasty malt notes. Hop bitterness is medium/medium-high. The beer is medium/medium-full in body, with medium-high carbonation, and a slightly dry finish.
Both beers paired well with the dessert course. Nice Lacing, with its fruity charcter, paired well with the apricot/guava aspect of the dish while Hops on Rye paired better with the citrusy semifreddo and spicy ginger flavors.
You Know What They Say About Assumptions
An interesting backstory to this course. This dish was served with chopsticks, an interesting decision considering this was an Italian inspired dish. One might be able to argue that the ginger and guava, plus forture cookie-like cracker, added Asian influences to the dish that warranted the use of chopsticks. Thankfully, the semifreddo was a thick enough consistency that you actually could use chopsticks to eat it.
The use of chopsticks were a mistake. The waitstaff had been checking in all night with Chef Pettyjohn and Sous Chef Montoto about what settings were appropriate for each course. “Steak knife? Steak knife?” was asked with just about every course with only the bison really called for it (not really because it was soo tender). The waitstaff even asked if a steak knife was needed for the dessert. In a mix of snark and sarcasm, Sous Chef Montoto answered “Chopsticks!”. To her chagrin, Sous Chef Montoto emerged from the kitchen minutes later to see a roomful of guest eating her carefully crafted dessert course with chopsticks.
Overall this was a fantastic event. The vibe was lively and the room full of great energy. The appropriately sized courses left no one wanting for more at the end of the evening, and even though there were 2 beers per course, I hadn’t noticed anyone who was dangerously impaired. Great food, great beers, what more could you ask for?
While I had no personal criticims over the food, some folks I spoke with said some of their dishes came out on the cool side. At times there seemed to be some lag between courses but I don’t think anyone minded or even noticed. I actually used that downtime to jot down all my notes and digest the course before. In the great scheme of things, pretty small stuff but I left it up to the individuals to voice any concerns. If they didn’t say anything, then it wasn’t a big deal.
As I mentioned before, I consider this dinner a “marquee” event in the South Bay for South Bay activities. This dinner is a confluence of great local beer, equally great cuisine, and a genuine passion for craft beer from the brewers and culinary staff of California Café alike. My thanks goes out to Chef Pettyjohn, Sous Chef Montoto, Line Cook Philippe (Sorry I don’t know his last name), General Manager Andre’ Hall, and the staff of California Café for putting on a great event. My thanks also to Firehouse Brewery & Cafe, Tied House Cafe & Brewery/Hermitage Brewing Company, Los Gatos Brewing Company, Palo Alto Brewing Company, and Strike Brewing Company for making such delicious beers.
This dinner is further evidence showing that you don’t have to travel very far (relatively speaking) to find good craft beer and quality craft beer related events. I am already looking forward to next year’s event!