Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Terra Waconia Halloween Dinner

After radio silence for a bit here, I'm back in action looking into all the beer events I can get to.  I am very disappointed that I was unable to take part in Darkness Day at Surly, but some of my friends were able to go and I'll get to take part vicariously with the official Limited Release episode when it is done.

On the day before Halloween our local fine dining restaurant, Terra Waconia, had their second beer dinner.  They tried to organize this event for last Halloween, but things fell through, so here we are one year later and it really happened!  Having been lucky enough to get to know Tracy and Craig, the wonderful folks who run the restaurant, I was invited to help out a bit with selecting the beers.  I am very appreciative that they involved me in this.  For a while they had planned on a Magic Hat dinner, but that was difficult to organize, so they rethought the event a bit.  Through unusual circumstance, Adam O'Brien, the local Samuel Adams Representative, has been staying in town recently and had dinner at Terra about two weeks ago.  He jumped at the chance to help out with this dinner and I give him a huge amount of credit for doing so on such short notice.  Last week Adam, Tracy, myself and Craig (when he took quick breaks from chefery,) got together in the evening and tasted through a bunch of Sam Adams beers.  We were looking for overall quality, as well as potential for pairing with food.  This is the best way to plan a beer dinner: start with the beers and then mould the menu around that, looking for contrasting or complementary flavors.

We tasted through about 10 different beers and came up with a plan.  Sam Adams has a huge portfolio of different beers to choose from, and many for this dinner came from the Fall Sampler.  They have some newer and more unusual beers but most of them were not feasible to get on short notice or to serve to large group.  Say what you will about the Boston Beer Company, they have been making and marketing true craft beers since before there was even a name for that.  They have moved with the times and make funkier beers to please the beer geeks (Infinium, Utopias, etc.) but continue to make a lot of great drinkable beers.  Tasting through the beers that night, I realized that I have pretty much counted them out of my regular drinking line-up over the last few years.  I may have to re-think that and give them a bit more of my time. 

We arrived at the restaurant right at 6 PM and were greeted by a "Welcome" smeared in sticky blood on the glass door.  Entering the small vestibule, the walls and floor were coated in plastic sheeting and spattered with very realistic looking gore.  Hmm, were we walking into a restaurant or a murder-house?  As the door closed behind us, it gave an agonized groan, prompting us to spin around and look back. (Apparently the door always does that, but for this night it was perfect!) Into the restaurant proper, we came upon a tableau of skulls, bone-saws and lit candles upon the console table/hostess stand.  Two skeletal life-sized dummies were near the entry way, one of which rotated it's head toward us, flashed red eyes, and warned us to enter at our own risk.  The lighting was very dim, and each table had black table cloths and two candles in wax-coated wine bottles.  Disturbing music played in the background.  I was shocked at how much effort had gone into setting up this change in the restaurant interior.

We were seated at our table and Nikki, our server, handed us a Samuel Adams pint glass full of Boston Lager.  At the bar they had a small grave-yard model with house-made suckers dressed in white ghost outfits poked around the periphery.  We each got one to pair with our intro beer.  Apparently they were made with pancetta and had a cranberry center...a very interesting mix of sweet and savory.  Tracy gave a quick introduction and smoke billowed out from near the entry, further creepifying the atmosphere in the room.  Adam, initially startled by the smoke, took it in stride and gave a quick talk about Sam Adams and the first two beers prior to our first course of food.  We invited him to sit with us since they had him sitting at a small table by himself.  It was great getting to talk beer with him during the dinner and his very sweet wife showed up later to join us as well.  Later we realized that the kitchen staff was actually using headlamps and cooking by flashlight to keep the dim vibe of the dining area.

The first course was a crazy-good lamb sausage served with a cabbage salad.  Sitting plopped upon the salad was a molecular gastronomy masterpiece of an eyeball!  This was a circular globe made of parsnip puree with a black olive pupil and either chili thread or saffron red veins making it look bloodshot.  Once you punctured the eye, the thick and viscous filling oozed out.  Craig outdid himself on this one!  The pairing was with the Oktoberfest, because what goes better with sausage than a German style malty lager?

The second course was a wonderful (and not creepy) fish and chips.  The fish had a perfect crispy beer batter and was served with tasty fries and house-made tartar sauce and vinegar foam.  This fancy take on a classic was paired with the English style IPA, Latitude 48.  I am a huge fan of this beer, the earthy English hops and a strong malt backbone really cleanse the palate with fried foods.  Last year they released a sampler pack called Latitude 48 Deconstructed which featured 6 single hopped versions of this base amazing thing for a commercial brewery to do.

The third course was a small serving of cider sorbet paired with the Angry Orchard Ginger Cider.  Sj loves this cider and we always have some at home.  I learned from Adam that Sam Adams used to make Hardcore Cider (which we never really loved) but had discontinued that and moved to a more impressive cider line-up for Angry Orchard.  They use tart apples from France and Italy for these, which explains the improvement in complexity and flavor with the new brand.  The ginger really accentuates the tart and sweet of this particular libation.

The fourth course was wonderful, named Tongue & Cheek.  The base was more or less a cassoulet with large white beans, lamb tongue and wild boar cheeks.  Atop this daunting hearty plate sat a disturbing reproduction of a severed finger.  The finger had "bones" made of firm white turnip, "skin" of garlic flavored fruit-roll-up, and a dried cranberry "fingernail."  Wow was this a crazy dish.  The flavors were fantastic and the presentation was up there with some of the best restaurants I've been to (I'm looking at you Moto!)  A very filling dish that had me groaning, but I had to finish it!  This was a pairing made in heaven--Sam Adams Double Bock.  The strong alcohol and malt truly played off the savory components in the meal.

The final course came with the sad knowledge that the meal was nearly over.  Even the best things must end.  We were served a plate that looked like a grave: a mound of chocolate ice cream topped with hazelnut "dirt" and a R.I.P. decorated shortbread cookie on a base of chocolate truffle.  Amazing.  This was paired with the new Sam Adams Hazelnut Brown Ale.  I think this was the only pairing that didn't quite work, as the desert was much more rich and flavorful than the milder beer.  Still both were great on their own.

Near the end of the meal Tracy came around with ballots and the people who didn't come in costume (lame!) voted on who was the best dressed couple.  Sj and I were dressed in steam-punk outfits, (though Sj could be mistaken for sexy French maid in the low lighting.)  One couple was dressed as a mobster and moll.  And the last couple to dress up were a cowboy (complete with lasso) and an Indian with elaborate buckskins and headdress.  Until that last couple came in I thought we had it, but Sj and I looked at each other and knew we didn't have a shot.  They won a $50 gift card to Terra and a Sam Adams Fall sampler pack.  At least we tried!

I have to give thanks to all the staff of Terra Waconia and to Adam for making this event happen on short notice.  A lot of effort went into this and it was a great way to spend the night before Halloween.  This brought back why Halloween always used to be my favorite holiday...dressing up, scary stuff, sweets.  Terra plans to have this yearly now, and I highly recommend placing this on your calendars now.   I will certainly be there again!  And probably a bunch of other times in the year as well.

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