One of the most anticipated dinners of Houston Beer Week was definitely the Clandestine dinner. Technically, it was two dinners; a battle, if you will, of beer dinners, between two of Houston’s craft beer pioneers, Ben Fullelove of Petrol Station and Kevin Floyd of Anvil and Hay Merchant. The dishes were cooked by two of Houston’s most respected and talented chefs, Jonathon Jones of Beaver’s and Xuco Xicana and Chris Shepherd, formerly of Catalan (which is now Coppa Ristorante) and now of upcoming Underbelly. Together the teams of Ben and Chef Jones, and Kevin and Chef Shepherd paired 5 beers with 5 courses, and the attendees voted on who won the pairing (not the best dish or beer) for each round.
Getting tickets for the dinner was a feat in itself, waiting on an email or tweet detailing where Kevin or Ben would be with a select amount of tickets on any given day or night, hoping they wouldn’t be sold out before you got there. The location of the dinner wasn’t even announced until 10 AM the morning of, though it did add a level of excitement. The location ended up being the Ashland House in Spring Branch. An interesting little place with trees growing inside of it, somewhere John suggested people take their grandmothers, though it seemed to fit the 50+ people, staff and band quite nicely. Everyone knew that Kevin and Ben were not going to hold back, both in their beer selections and in shit-talking at the actual dinner. Chefs Jones and Shepherd also went all out, each of them trying their teams beers blindly and having to pair dishes with them without even knowing what they were. They both managed to make excellent dishes that all paired well, making voting quite difficult for us.
We started with some passed appetizers and a beer cocktail. The first appetizer was from Chef Shepherd- a piece of pork belly on a skewer done in a Japanese style, then from Chef Jones we had a pork belly bahn mi and some Habanero chicken wings topped with queso fresco. I was not surprised in the least to see the two pork belly dishes, you really can’t go wrong with pork belly. After some postulating about what the beer and food could be and great live lounge music from the band they brought in, we finally sat down for the beginning of the epic battle.
Just a note- all of the pictures are arranged how our beers and food were on the table, Chef Jones and Ben on the left and Chef Shepherd and Kevin on the right; that’s also how I’ll be writing about them, even though they were served simultaneously.
L: When the first course’s beers starting making their way around I was not in the least bit surprised to see an IPA, Drake’s Aroma Coma, coming from Ben. I was surprised that I actually liked it. It didn’t have the big, bitter finish that a lot of IPAs tend to have that just destroy my taste buds. The aroma would have you believe it was such a beer, but it had a great, clean finish, nice caramel notes, and a fruity characteristic. The Aroma Coma was paired with a Peruvian Ceviche prepared by Chef Jones. The ceviche had poached calamari, Cobia fish, a leche de tigre sauce (citrus, chilies, and habanero), white yam purée, cancha corn nuts and liquid nitrogen frozen pearls of Ahi Amarillo chilies from Peru. The pearls were like chile dippin dots! It was spicy and fresh, with great texture contrasts from the seafood, chile pearls and watermelon radish. The IPA helped to cut the heat from all the chilies used, a perfect pairing really.
R: Of course we were all excited to see the Jolly pumpkin labels floating around, they are a 100% barrel aging and bottle-conditioning brewery, meaning everything coming out of there has some level of funk and/or sour. The Oro De Calabaza is aged in oak barrels and has a funky champagne flavor profile. Light and dry, with a touch of tartness. This bière de garde was paired with a whole, fried butterfish, a bycatch from shrimping. It was served over a Thai papaya salad with fish sauce. The fish sauce was very powerful as the fish was very mild. The beer did go well with the pungency of the fish sauce in the salad, but I would have liked the fish to have more flavor.
Winner: Ben & Chef Jones
L: I hope you all can imagine my excitement in seeing Cascade bottle going around the room, even more so when I saw it was the Sang Royal, one of their sours I haven’t had. AND coming from Ben! I knew he’d come around eventually. The Sang Royal has dark fruit and funky notes in the aroma and is a delicious, dry sour with a very nice, tight finish. Super sour, but not overpowering pucker. Chef Jones paired a “pork parts” croquette, served over white mirapoix purée. Troy Witherspoon, the best bartender at Petrol (and fabulous cook) made sour grapes to go along with it and the purple mustard greens were soaked in the pickling juice. I wouldn’t have thought the sour grapes and greens would go so well with the sour beer, but it did, so well. The croquette was perfectly done, warm and gooey inside. I couldn’t stop thinking about many happy times in Amsterdam wondering around the city and eating veal Krokets from the FEBO vending machine. A croquette and a sour beer? Kevin and Chris hardly stood a chance.
R: John and I had the pleasure of going to Stone’s Oakquinox (all barrel-aged beer festival) earlier this year and got to sample the He’Brew Vertical Jewbilation. It is aged in rye whiskey barrels and has a huge, boozy flavor with some raisin/fig dark fruit flavors. This beer tastes just like it smells, raisins and booze. The beer was paired with marinated pork heart, that had been vacuum sealed and then grilled. It was laid over a coconut English pea purée and on the side was a quail egg shooter topped with “pork fluff” that resembled cotton candy, and was delicious! How could you not love pork cotton candy? The egg was raw and there was some other ingredients accompanying them but I didn’t catch what they were, but it was spicy. There was also some chile lime salt sprinkled on the plate to scoop up with the pea purée and pork heart slices. The beer paired well as the big booze flavor helped to cut the spiciness of the dish and enhanced the richness of the pork heart. It was an excellent pairing, but I just couldn’t get over the Cascade and pork croquette.
Winner: Ben & Chef Jones
L: Texas receives much of Victory Brewing’s beer line-up, but not the V-Twelve. I hadn’t even heard of this beer, a 12% ABV Belgian Quadrupel with that familiar Belgian yeast aroma and a sweet and funky taste. The balance between the hops and malts was great, though it leaned more in the hoppy side, no surprise. Chef Jones paired this beer with a pulled, smoked duck leg and mushrooms on top of a masa cake with a mole sauce. the sauce seemed more tomato based to me, not so much chocolate, but it was smoky and had a bit of heat to it. The Belgian definitely helped complement the smoke and richness from the dish, though the cake was a bit dry.
R: Kevin explained this beer with a joke, “Why not have a bourbon barrel aged Russian imperial stout half way through dinner?” (definitely not his exact quote, but something along those lines). This beer is BIG. In everything. It is sweet, boozy, roasty, chocolate-y, and has some vanilla, coffee, and dark fruit notes as well. Almost everyone saved some of this to sip on through the rest of the meal. I’ve had it before and was delighted to see it again. Chef Shepherd paired this beer with Venison loin that was just simply seared to a nice medium-rare and served over a black pepper chocolate sauce. It was a good move to keep the protein paired with this tremendous beer so simple. The meat was flavorful and tasted great with the chocolate and had just a hint of heat from the pepper. It paired perfectly with the beer.
Winner: Kevin & Chef Shepherd
L: When John and I were in San Diego earlier this year we stopped by the Ballast Point brewery and attached home brew shop for a few beers before our sushi dinner, and I was very impressed with the offerings, but the Indra Kunindra was not one of them, unfortunately. This beer was made especially for Holiday Wine Cellar’s 46th Anniversary. It was originally the winner of their homebrew competition in 2010, then brewed by Ballast Point. From the brewery, It is “An India-style Export Stout brewed with Madras Curry and lime leaf […] coconut, Cayenne, and Cumin”. This beer was so unique, possibly my favorite of the entire evening. It was light but rich at the same time, effervescent, spicy and a hint of citrus to balance it out. Phenomenal. Chef Jones probably slapped Ben when he tasted this, but the pairing was excellent. Jones prepared a Thai red goat curry served with fried rice puffs and peanuts. There was some latent heat to this curry and it was so rich and tasty. I was surprised that a beer like this paired so well with a similar profile in the dish, I would have thought a stout without those spiced would have helped to cut the spice of the curry, but the Indra helped enhance the flavors in the curry.
R: Cigar city makes some great beers, and in my opinion the Humidor IPA (cedar aged Jai Alai) is not one of them. It sort of tastes like drinking hoppy cedar bark that has been juiced. Or, perhaps, like licking a cigar box, if that’s your thing. People go nuts over this beer, so I am definitely in the minority with that opinion. It was paired with layers of Akaushi flank steak from Yoakum, Texas, that had been compressed together with meat glue (there is some fancy name for it, but I don’t remember) and then vacuum sealed. It was accompanied by a Korean red chile paste and a sweet soy glazed salad. The steak was tender and cooked a perfect medium-rare, the fat was rich and delicious, and it had an excellent caramelization on top. The Korean chile paste gave it a bit of heat and the salad complemented all of that with some sweetness and a touch of brightness to cut the fat. I couldn’t pick this as a winner because that beer is so offensive to me, though I am sure some did.
Winner: Ben & Chef Jones
L: It was a funny coincidence that both Kevin and Ben picked a Bruery beer for dessert, neither of them knew the other’s beer selections. They are wildly different beers, and knowing the guys, I would have thought the selections were switched. I love the Autumn Maple, it has a sweet V8 aroma (that may turn people off, but not me) and is brewed with yams, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, vanilla, molasses and maple syrup and then fermented with their house Belgian yeast. This is truly a fall seasonal beer, on a completely different level than pumpkin beers. It is spicy and sweet and I hardly noticed the 10% ABV on this beer. It was paired with what Chef Jones called a deconstructed pumpkin pie, with a shot of pumpkin juice to go with it. I hardly touched the pumpkin juice, who needs it with Autumn Maple? The bottom layer was caramelized pumpkin flesh with a brown butter emulsion topped with a maple and dulce de leche cream that had gone through the liquid nitrogen. Stuck into this crazy pumpkin explosion was a chunk of pie crust. It was so decadent, the frozen cream started to melt and mix with the pumpkin and butter emulsion. I’ll never look at another pumpkin pie the same. Since Autumn Maple has no pumpkin in it, it paired very well. The spiciness from the yams and allspice, cinnamon, etc that the beer was brewed with matched very well with the sweetness of the dessert.
R: Kevin picked the Bruery’s Mischief, a hoppy, Belgian golden strong ale. Definitely an interesting choice for dessert. It is quite hoppy but is somewhat balanced by some sweet caramel notes, citrus flavors and has a nice, dry finish. Chef Shepherd paired this beer with a caramel popcorn purée with bourbon soaked compressed honey crisp apples and finished with some caramelized white chocolate. Pairing this spiced, hoppy beer with the salty popcorn purée and sweet apples was very well done, but it just didn’t stand up to the pumpkin pie explosion and Autumn Maple.
Winner: Ben & Chef Jones
Overall, Ben and Chef Jones won for me and for the group, though there was apparently some voter fraud. Really though, as corny as this will sound, we were all winners that night; 10 amazing beers paired with 10 exquisite creations from the best chefs in town, what a treat. Honestly, this is, by far and away, the most amazing beer dinner I have had the pleasure of attending. I’m not sure how anyone will top this, but they can sure try. The beers were all fantastic selections and the chefs worked some miracles pairing foods with the complex nature of all the beers we drank. I can’t imagine the work and logistics that went into planning an event of this magnitude and am super grateful to everyone involved for putting this together. Truly an experience that won’t soon be forgotten.