June 25, 2009

Stella Artois Dinner Kicks It Good

June 22, Stella Artois Dinner, Luciano's Trattoria, St. Louis
Hosted By Belgian Beer Sommolier Marc Stroobandt

Sponsored by Anheuser-Busch and Sauce Magazine

Marc Stroobandt gives me a private pour before the dinner, including hot sauce.

St. Louis, my home town. Beer headquarters of the U.S.A. I ask you, Town, am I a traitor for jumping on my chance to cover the Stella Artois Dinner at Luciano's Trattoria for Foodbuzz? Am I a bad citizen for embracing their Belgian beers, so soon after the still-mourned hostile takeover of Anheuser-Busch by Stella's Belgian beer conglomerate parent, InBev? Maybe I am. But if I'm mad at anyone it's our flimsy legal mechanism that allows what should be taken care of by anti-trust laws to go through so easily. I'm not a fan of hostile takeovers generally. They just seem mean to me. And I don't like it when people lose jobs so fat cats can make more money they don't need. But I have to tell you, I have never been fond of A-B beers. Sorry. Bud gives me a headache. Same for Busch. As for flavor, I just don't see the charm. Sorry, A-B loyalists.

However, I was a Stella lover already when the Belgians came to town, though. And after a decent hiatus period I started ordering it again. So, truthfully, I didn't hesitate at the opportunity to cover the dinner. As a matter of fact I leaped it like a starved hound dog. And am ever glad I did!

The three course dinner of coriander spiced scallop salad, chamomile encrusted veal loin with chanterelle mushrooms, and a hop infused panna cotte to finish included tastings of the Stella, and two other small Belgian brands (yes, owned now by ABInBev), Hoegaarden and Leffe Blonde.

Beer sommolier Marc Stroobandt was visibly pumped about chef Mark Del Pietro's menu when I chatted with him before dinner. "I could tell immediately when I talked to Mark that he'd really tasted the beers," Stroobandt said in his fancy Belgian accent. "Sometimes we send out beer and the chefs don't really taste them. From conversations with Mark, I could tell he was very tuned into the flavors."

Pre-dinner cheese plate.

Stroobandt sat me down before the meal with a plate of cheeses, some chocolate, a little spicy tomato broth (to which he added Tabasco) and three different bottles of beer. We tasted: beer; food; beer. Tune in, he instructed. How does the beer change the taste of the food? And does the food change the taste of the beer? It was magical. Every bit as fun as playing with wine.

"Drink more beer, save the planet," he said.

"OK," I smiled back.

I began to favor beer over wine two winters ago when, at a friend's house, my tummy was rumbly and I just couldn't manage my glass of wine. I asked for a beer and, voila! Tummy all better. No wonder. According to Stroobandt, beer is the food of the earth. It begins with barley. Barley can be grown quite environmentally soundly, he says. Then it's off to the brewery, through the process it goes, and then back again to cows in the form of feed. Interesting.

As I nibble on a beautifully crystallized piece of Parmesan and sip the lovely coriander and citrus infused Hoegaaden, I think I'd like to be a beer sommolier. Stroobandt has just finished dining and educating the privileged masses at the Aspen Food and Wine Festival, and now has landed here to try getting through to me and my sister St. Louisans with yummy beers and food. Tough work.

Table setting includes a variety of glassware shapes. Each beer has its needs.

The pre-dinner tasting over, it's time to sit down for dinner. The table is set with at least six shapes of glassware. Stroobandt starts by having us nose some Hoegaaden in a tumbler, and also a wine glass. The scent of the beer is very different in each glass -- the wine glass releases a lot more aroma. Lesson: Put your beer in its proper glass. If you don't know what that glass is, find out. Go to a good room like 33 Wine Bar in Lafayette Square, or The Stable, which has the venerable Jerad Gardner (sometimes called "The Hop Prophet") buying beer, and he and people like him can tell you exactly how to get the most out of a pour. And pour, you should. Release those essences. Let them play. This is only part of what I learned.

Chef Mark Del Pietro talks about the courses before they're served.

Foam is another part. One should sample the foam before drinking the beer, Stroobandt says. I don't remember why, exactly. But I'm certain it had something to do with enjoying the beer, so why argue?

After the foam, Del Pietro sent out his wonderful, perfectly done coriander spiced scallops. Sitting on a bed of baby arugula, sprinkled with toasted almonds and pecorino cheese and lightly swept through a drizzle of orange vinaigrette, it really did pair perfectly with the coriander and orange scented Hoegaaden. The scallops were as tender as any I've had, and the coriander crust had just the right crisp toothiness.

Del Pietro came out again before the main course and spoke a bit about how well the chamomile worked as a crust on the veal loin, with its sweetness and texture. I was disappointed that the crust was missing on my cut, and on all the others I could see. Kitchen snafu? I would have liked to have known the story. Nonetheless, it was delicious, and I was happy chanterelle mushrooms on the plate, as I had bought some at market Saturday. Perfectly in season, they were so earthy and sweet with the rich vegetable broth reduction. I thought the Stella was a nice choice with this course. It lightened the earthiness, lifted it. A less imaginative chef might have done a fish, or something more obviously suited to the dry, light Stella flavor.

My Stella foam, upon a black spoon. I was instructed by Stroobandt to always carry this spoon with me, and to never fail to taste my foam before sipping.

I also learned that one of my tablemates thinks Del Pietro is a genius hottie (her husband told me this), and that the true way to pour a Belgian beer is through The Pouring Ritual, a nine-step process that I was sad Stroobandt didn't demonstrate. Here did go through other basics of good pouring technique, however, including how to get the perfect two fingers of head.

Stroobandt introducing the dessert course.

Part one of the dessert course.

Chef Mark Del Pietro's hop infused panna cotte, paired with Leffe Blonde

And then dessert. Another thing I learned: I'm not the only one who thinks beer and dessert go together like evening grass and fire flies. This was fun. A nice swirl and sip of Leffe Blonde -- a full bodied, filtered beer with some malt, some sweetness, and a nice hoppiness. Imagine, sweetness and hoppiness together. If you were a chef asked to pair this with a dessert, what would you do? Stroobandt talked a lot about chocolate and beer, something he sees as pretty unexpected. And perhaps it is. (Unless you me, who decided one day in her 20s that beer and warm chocolate chip cookies might be the perfect combo.) Anyway, Del Pietro said he tried several chocolate approaches and didn't like any of them. Then he tried panna cotte. I adore panna cotte. 1111 Mississippi does a nice one, especially if you get to it the same day it's made. This one was better. Infused with hops, it was bitter, and sweet, and creamy, just like the Leffe Blonde. After me taste of beer, the dessert changed flavor on my tongue about thirty times in the first 10 seconds. Then another sip of Leffe. Ya. Now the beer is running through flavor dimensions like Einstein through sub-atoms. This was working. The rhubarb and strawberry bed was a nice, tart contrast, and woke my mouth up from its super-dimensional dreaminess, but it was the Leffe infused whipped cream on top that bowled me over. How could something be so delicate and so abrasive at the same time? Nice. But do I really have to wake up now?

Want to see the Nine Step Pouring Ritual? Take a look here.


KELLY said...

Ok, I'm sad I didn't go to this now!

Ms Unseen/MsF/Redlotusblossom said...

You should be sad! It was fantastic, including the VIP treatment and private interview/tasting.

TheFineDiningIndianKitchen said...

very well presented meal experience

Free Missouri: Don't buy people. Don't sell people. said...

Thank you, TheFineDiningIndianKitchen!