A Grand Pairing, Part Two.
By guest columnist Shane Campbell
Part One appeared yesterday.
Shane is an Indiana native (from Pekin) who returned to the area a few years back after a career in the Air Force. We came to each other’s attention via the Louisville Restaurants Forum, and I’m happy to provide a venue for Shane's account of the Louis Le Français beer dinner on Thursday, March 1.
We now had bread and water and it was time for the first course.
“Real men don't eat quiche,” they say. Right; more for me, then. I can't be sure I've actually eaten quiche before. I can be sure that this was the best quiche I've ever eaten. It was warm and not surprisingly tasted like a rich fluffy omelet, but with a pleasing casserole-like texture. The beer paired with it was golden, bubbly, and mildly sweet. It reminded me of a Shandy, which is a lager with lemonade (soda). It was 7% abv but tasted much tamer. It complemented the Quiche Lorraine like orange juice does ham and eggs at breakfast. I would happily drink this beer all afternoon while sitting in the sunroom gazing lazily out at the garden.
Oy, I forgot. Sometime between my Hestian vision and the quiche, the party arrived to fill in the empty places at the table behind. I resent those people who always come in late. They do this at movies, plays, sporting events, and obviously scheduled dinners. These people missed all of Roger's and Tim's talk, but I doubt they minded. To such people, the world isn't really happening unless they are there to witness it. Therefore, they missed nothing. I shifted my seat to allow a couple of them to pass. I forgot them as soon as Tim came by to tell us about the Erwann Blonde (the beer, not the girl – she was noir). Tim moved off and Steve remarked that he recognized the nearest couple. He called out to the man who was sitting at my back, addressing him by name. The man looked surprised and seemed only to pretend to recognize Steve, but his wife did remember even asking about Steve's daughter. I leaned to the side as they caught up across the table. They quickly left off when the seafood course arrived.
An overlarge bowl of smooth white porcelain was set before me and I began to visually survey the contents of the mixed seafood stew in beer sauce (Tafel reduction). The seafood consisted of maybe a dozen denuded shellfish scattered about the bowl, including pinkish veined shrimp, glistening pearl scallops, and plumpish red mussels peaking out from a thin layer of yellowish viscous sauce. The table behind us suddenly launched into a loud discussion about -- pap smears. I don't know about you, but I never engage in gynecological anecdotes while eating shellfish! Poor form, I say.
“Do they have to speak about health issues while we're eating?” I complained a bit too loudly. The guy at the end of the table looked up sharply. “Well, most of them are doctors,” Steve shrugged and tucked in with gusto.
The seafood course was served with NABC's Tafel Bier. I've had Tafel a few times and found it to be a session strength beer with a malt forward character. I do prefer weak beers, I just prefer them to be bitter. When taken with this seafood, however the taste of this beer seemed enhanced. It now had more taste than I remembered and that taste went with the stew like sweet tea goes with cornmeal battered catfish. This pairing thing really works! Now I'm not saying for a minute that I wouldn't like this stew with a nice pint of bitter ale; I know I would. But it seemed I liked the Tafel with the right kind of food a lot more than I otherwise would!
This was borne out again with the main course. The previous Sunday I had watched the basketball game while sitting at the Bank Street bar. My favorite bitter was unavailable so I had a couple of pints of Runkel Dunkel dark lager. It was fine but it was not my preferred beer and I would only choose it when my preferred beer was not available. The Dunkel too seemed amped up and was the perfect accompaniment to the charcuterie course. This was the largest of the five courses and with it we were given an additional Biere de Garde by Tim. I found the Page 24 Biere de Printemps to be one of the most balanced beers in recent memory. It was sweet and bitter at the same time. It was my favorite beer of the evening. I don't really trust that opinion though as I had so little of it and that taken with food. This beer warrants further investigation.
The main course consisted of four pieces of pork arrayed on a plate of braised sauerkraut. Poking up from the middle of the kraut at a jaunty angle was half of a thumb-thick sausage link in a bright red casing. Scattered around the edges of the kraut was a slice of pale smoked ham, a large pork shank, and a thick slab of bacon.
The sausage filling was of a fine consistency (think knockwurst) and had a mild flavor. Its natural casing provided a satisfying snap when bitten. The ham was as good as any smoked ham I've had and was thankfully not as salty as most. It went wonderfully with the bright yellow mustard from the saucer on our table. While tender, the pork shank was not fall-off-the-bone and, well, tasted much like the ham to me. The bacon was something I had not previously experienced.
Steve and I had carried on a constant conversation of an entirely appropriate nature throughout the meal. Mostly, hmmmm … this is good … have you tried that yet? ... put some of that mustard on it … oh yes! … etc.
Then Steve said something quite discordant with the previous commentary. He said, “Is this rancid?”
What? I was sure I misunderstood. “I think it's rancid,” he said again and I saw he was pointing at the thick slab of bacon. I knew it was the bacon not because it looked like bacon; on the contrary, it did not look like bacon. Everything else however, looked like something on the menu. Therefore, this two inch thick slab, pale gray in color and looking like it had been left out in the rain to be chewed on by the dog for a couple of days must be the bacon.
“Smell it,” Steve said. Yeah, that smelled bad alright. It tasted off as well. I liken the smell to that of pork scraps in the garbage bin after a few days in the hot garage. Whew! Fortunately the smell was weak and only noticeable as you tasted it. The taste was not as offensive but had I not been in a fancy French restaurant with an economics professor for a dining companion I would have spat it back out. As it was, I chewed up a couple of tiny pieces and chased it down with expensive French beer. “I'm not eating that,” I said. “I'm not eating it either,” said Steve.
Just then Roger came up to our table.
He leaned back against the wall and smiled down at us. “So what did you think of the pork belly?” he asked.
“You mean the bacon,” I responded, pointing with my fork.
“Yes,” he said. “Louis purchased the pork belly and dry aged it himself. I really enjoyed it.”
We both looked up at him to see if he was kidding us. He appeared to be serious. I shook my head and said, “Yes, well I'm not eating it.” I believe Steve used the rancid word again.
Roger chortled with pleasure enjoying our discomfiture. After a minute, he went off to visit some other tables. I was sure he'd begin each conversation with “So, what did you think of the pork belly?”
We had two more courses. A green salad paired with a Jolly Pumpkin Witbier, which we surmised was to act as a palate cleanser. We were no sooner cleansed when dessert came.
It was a glazed apple tart. I didn't get much tart from this pastry but instead lots of custard in a delicate flaky crust . As I very much like custard, this was quite alright. The L'Hermitiere sparkling cider provided some tartness, and I was quite satisfied with this finale.
Our parting beer was a very nice espresso stout. Quite a strong one as stouts go at 7.5% abv, and very tasty. It turned out that this was not our last chance to imbibe the great miracle that is beer. Tim came around and refilled our glasses with what was left over from the service. I had as much of the Page 24 as he would give me. Then Creedence began to sing “Who'll stop the rain,” indicating that my phone was ringing and Donna had arrived to collect me.
Steve and I professed our enjoyment of one another's company and promised to see each other again (they always say they'll call, don't they?) Then I made for the door. Even with all of the courses and extra beer that Tim had given me, I felt no effects from the alcohol. It was nearly ten but the evening seemed young and while I was not overfull, I was sated for sure. Standing in the doorway waiting to bid me adieu was the fair skinned, dark-haired beauty -- La belle femme, half of our striking service combo for the evening. She asked me if I enjoyed my meal and I can't remember how I answered her. I felt a strong urge to hug her. As this would be most inappropriate, I think I must have been a little drunk after all. Sensing my hesitation, she held out her delicate hand. I shook it gently and then I was opening the car door with no recollection of exiting the restaurant or traversing the sidewalk to the car. “What was it like?” Donna asked.
To say that the Frenchman's Beer Dinner was simply like any one thing would be to describe Hamlet, Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No 2, and March Madness as an interesting story, a catchy tune, and a good game. Certainly true, but wholly inadequate.
Was this the best food I'd ever eaten? No. Was this the best beer I'd ever quaffed? Please!
What was it like then? A simple question it seems, but I've too much respect for the questioner and the experience to diminish either with such a simple answer. Some simple pairings however, might do.
To start with, it was like salted nuts and warm caramel, sizzling bacon and fresh brewed coffee, melting butter on sweet corn bread. Mix in a little beauty and beast, and add some savage-meets-savant. Wrap it up with husband and wife of 30 years giggling at each other all the way home in the car that night.
Yeah, it was like that.