Beer Finds its Rightful Place – At the Dining Table, Pt. 1

I’ll Have Fish with My Beer

Recent forays into several dimly-lit Windy City restaurants once again confirmed the wonderful synergies that beer makes with everything rich or salty, fruity or spicy. One of the best flavor partnerships is that formed between beer and fish. For being so far from sea, Chicago chefs are all over the fish – fresh, fried, smoked, grilled, you name it. Quite often there are hearty dinner beers on offer.

A five-course dinner at Blackbird brought together Chef Paul Kahan’s team with Allagash Brewing Company’s founder Rob Tod. Midway through the meal we were served a sumptuous piece of wood-grilled California sturgeon with charred ramps, miniscule pumpernickel croutons, and a touch of grapefruit with a basil chiffonade.

An Allagash Interlude with wood-grilled sturgeon.

Ramps are a spring wild onion, something like a fibrous green onion with a lightly purple stem. The dish was paired with Interlude, a Belgian-styled ale that comes across as something like an mature saison. The beer is influenced by Brettanomyces yeast and oak barrel conditioning.

The combination was at first harmonious, with the earthiness of the fish matching the Belgian yeast character and the sulfur of the ramps finding a sulfury companion in the beer. The dark bread met the malted grains evenly. The most surprising chemistry, though, was that the beer erupted with a huge fresh hop character that was somehow liberated from beneath the beer’s age characteristics.

In a promotional video, Blackbird chef Paul Kahan describes his food as “seasonal American,” “not gloppy, clean sauces, clean vinaigrettes… light on the palate.” His kitchen delivered. Allagash is serious about food, too. The brewery has supported the Institute of Culinary Education with a cuisine à la bière scholarship for the last eight years.

The following night was the gala anniversary party at Goose Island Beer Company. Just a few hundred crazed foodies inside the stillage room where beers like Sophie and Matilda are conditioned in hundreds of used bourbon barrels.

Nicole Pederson has arrived as executive chef of C-House Restaurant.

Nine up and coming chefs from the area were invited to present small plates – and wow what presentation! One of my favorites was smoked black cod on rye toast, prepared by Nicole Pederson and her staff from C-House. Accompaniments included a dab each of beer mustard, pickled rhubarb and a morel duxelle. The morsel was topped by spinach-like miner’s lettuce, a green in the purslane family. This plate collaborated well with several of Goose Island’s barrel-aged beers.

Succulent smoked black cod with young miner's lettuce leaves.

After Goose Island, my friend Peter and I dined at The Publican, sister restaurant to Blackbird. Although Chef Kahan says “it’s all about bacon,” fish dishes make up a quarter of the menu. The softly smoked arctic char, served on whole grain toast with a poached egg and fresh black pepper was a perfect opener.

Smoked arctic char with IPA at The Publican

Then on Friday (yes, three nights this week!) it was time to try Brasserie Jo, a French bistro located downtown, just north of the river. Like the proverbial kid in a candy store, at first it was difficult to choose, but I settled on a three-course do-it-myself menu starting with a fish course: fried smelts over soy-infused pearl barley with diced celery root and an herbed aioli.

Fried smelts, pearled barley and bière d'hibiscus - who knew?

The staff were a little harried so I didn’t follow up on whether the aioli included chervil or tarragon. The lemon wedge on top proved essential in pairing with my beer – Rosée d’hibiscus from the Dieu du Ciel microbrewery in St. Jérôme, Québec.

Voila! Fish every night with fine beer. I’m reminded of Mark Twain’s line:

Agassiz does recommend authors to eat fish, because the phosphorus in it makes brains. But I cannot help you to a decision about the amount you need to eat. Perhaps a couple of whales would be enough.

À votre santé – TPJ

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