Wednesday, October 10, 2012

From Ales to Fromage Series at Piccino Cafe

You've rarely seen me write about beer in a post.  In fact, the only time I can remember posting about it was from my amazing dinner at Chez TJ, where one dish was paired with a beer.  Why?  The answer is simple: I'm just not a beer girl.  I haven't had that much exposure to it, but I've never liked it.  Most I really can't stand, while some I can tolerate, but  I can't think of a single situation in which I'd pick beer when given the choice of just about anything else.  Even in cases where people classically want a beer, I'd still prefer a cider.

Anyway, I was invited to a special Google+Local and Zagat event, the kickoff for the "From Ales to Fromage" series exploring beer and cheese pairings.  While not something I'd normally be interested in, I was intrigued by the idea of the food pairings.  While I may not appreciate beer, I certainly appreciate food, and if there was ever going to be something to make me like beer, food would be it.  I was interested to see if the food would bring out aspects of the beer that I'd never noticed before.  It also seemed like a good way to learn more about beer, and in particular, to get to drink some higher quality ones than those I generally encounter.

The theme for this first event was the farmhouse.  The beers were all saisons, which I learned were originally brewed on farmhouses to serve to farmhands during the harvest season.  We'd be pairing them with farmhouse cheeses.  And, the event was taking place at Piccino Cafe, a farm-inspired Italian restaurant in the Dogpatch.

I have been to Piccino once before, over a year ago.  I remember being fairly unimpressed at the time, but only because the cuisine was exactly like what I get at work every single day.  It was just more kale salads, roasted butternut squash, and other seasonal Californian cuisine.  And the warm apple tart was served cold, a travesty in my book!

Anyway.  The space is lovely, with large windows letting in tons of light.  The bathrooms are unique, with two separate bathrooms with only the toilets in them, and a big modern sink out the in common area.  There is seating at beautiful wooden tables and bar seating overlooking the bustling open kitchen.  Since we were a special event, we had one side of the restaurant set up with some big communal tables.

The event featured 3 courses of cheese, each paired with two different beers.  Before each pairing, there was a tableside presentation led by Master Cicerone Rich Higgins and beer expert Heather Castro, with each of them explaining the history, brewing process, and characteristics of one of the beers.  Their collaborator from Piccino, James Butler, would then explain the food pairing.

The speakers were all very informative, and I learned a lot about the beers.  Even though I still didn't love any of them, I enjoyed hearing the details and being educated.  The speakers were all clearly passionate about beer, and it really made me wish I could appreciate it more!

Another interesting aspect for me was trying a beer and food pairing.  I tried the beers on their own first, and then with the food.  There were certainly cases where I liked a beer more with the food than on its own, or vice versa.  This seemed true for almost everyone.  It makes sense, since I feel that way with wines, or even coffee, I'd just never thought of applying it to beer as well.

It was also fun to compare the beers.  They were all saisons, but were incredibly different, in their flavor profiles, their foaminess, their alcohol levels.  I clearly preferred some more than others.

I'd still never order one of these beers, and during the last two courses I desperately wanted some red wine to pair with my cheese, but I'm glad I had this experience.  And ZOMG, the cheese courses were amazing.

If any of this sounds interesting, you can attend other events in the series, tickets are available here:  Or, if you just want the beers and cheeses featured at Piccino, they'll be offering them for the next couple weeks.  You might want to call first to ensure availability.  If you like soft cheeses and interesting pairings, I highly recommend the final two courses.  They were the best cheese courses I've ever had.
Cevrìn herb-crusted goat cheese, pluot and plum chutney, pomegranate vinegar, toasted hazelnuts.
The first cheese was a goat cheese.  I do not like goat cheese, but this was fairly mild in its goatyness, so it wasn't too offensive.  It was coated in some lovely flower leaves, and served with a pluot and plum chutney.  Even though it was labelled a chutney, I expected it to be more jam-like, but it was indeed nicely spiced like a chutney.  It was sweet, but also balanced by some tartness, presumably from the addition pomegranate vinegar.  The hazelnuts added a good crunchy component.

This was my least favorite of the cheeses, but I liked it more than I expected to, given that it was a soft goat cheese.  The cheese, the chutney, and the nuts really were a nice, balanced pairing.

It came paired with the Goose Island “Sofie” and Hen House Brewing “Saison”.

The Sofie was my favorite of all of the beers I tried.  It was light and clean, with a slight sweetness to it.  It also had some subtle citrus tones, which came from the fact that it was aged in white wine barrels along with dried orange peel.  I'm still unlikely to ever order it, but it was the best of the evening for me, both on its own, and as a pairing.

The Hen House I did not care for.  It was bitter, sour, and very foamy.  My 5th pick of the night.  It seemed even more sour when I had it with the food, I think the tartness of the chutney just didn't mix well with the beer for me.
House made sea salt crackers.
On the side we had crackers, a more simple version of Piccino's regular seeded crackers.  They were crispy, with big salt crystals on them, and good for spreading the goat cheese in particular.
Robiola Due Latti, Marshall Farms orange blossom honey,coriander caramel, salted puffed rice.
The next cheese was a robiola.  I love robiolas, and soft creamy cheeses in general, so it is no surprise that I loved this.

Dish of the night for me, and perhaps the best cheese course I've ever had in my life.  Even the dessert girl I am can imagine ordering this for dessert rather than a traditional dessert!

The cheese was perfectly ripe, oozing with creaminess. It was mild, as was the rind, which added a little additional earthiness.  It was plated along with some honey and caramel.  I didn't taste the coriander in the caramel, although one of my tablemates did.  The honey and caramel were both sweet and thick, and an absolute delight to drag a chunk of cheese through.  The puffed rice added an awesome crunchy contrast.  A bite containing all of these elements was really incredible, with the creaminess from the cheese, the stickiness from the sauces, and then the contrasting texture of the rice.

A serious home run, and I wish all cheese courses could be this much fun!

It came paired with Almanac Beer Co. “Honey Saison” and North Coast Brewing “Le Merle”.

The Le Merle was my second favorite of the night, but the Honey Saison was my least favorite.  It was very biter, and even though it was brewed with the same orange blossom honey that we had on the plate, I didn't get any sweetness from it at all.  Only ... beeryness.  Whatever it is that I don't like about beer was very present in this one.
Le Délice Mon Sire, cocoa nib and macadamia nut brittle, orange-infused chocolate glacé.
And finally ... dessert!  (As if the last one wasn't dessert like enough ...)

Le Délice Mon Sire is a cow's milk triple cream, amped up even more by being infused with crème fraîche.  I adore triple creams, and this was no exception.  It wasn't as soft and runny as the robiola, but I loved the mouthfeel of it, so smooth and creamy.  The flavor was much stronger than the previous course, more earthy and nutty, particularly in the rind.  Those aspects were further brought out by the macadamia nuts in the brittle.  The brittle bridged the gap between the cheese and the chocolate.  I don't think I've ever had cheese and chocolate exactly at the same time before.  Sure, I've been to plenty of wine events with cheese and chocolate, but you don't normally dunk your cheese in the chocolate.  But ... it worked!  The chocolate was not very sweet, it was a bitter dark chocolate, with some orange undertones.  The brittle was the sweetest component, but it also had bitter cocoa nibs inside of it, connecting the chocolate glacé to the rest of the dish and the macadamia connected the nutty cheese.  I was shocked by how well this came together.  Cheese course and dessert course in one!

It was my second favorite dish of the night, but a very close second, and again, I can't help but think that if more cheese courses were anything like this, you'd see more ordering them!  Quite a fun and delicious dish.

It came with Logsdon Farmhouse Ales “Seizoen” and Upright Brewing “Seven”.

These were both middle of the road for me.  Not as bitter as the two that I hadn't liked in the previous rounds, but not as light and clean as the two I liked more.  The Seven was better, my third pick of the night.  I liked the Logsdon at first, but then it had a bitter finish that I didn't care for, making it my forth pick overall.
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