Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Mardi Gras beer dinner at Café NOLA

I love a good beer dinner, but then again who doesn’t? I’ve been to plenty of expensive beer dinners at fancy restaurants, though something I’m noticing lately is that venues you wouldn’t normally consider beer-centric are hosting them now. A cynic might view this as being part of a speculator craze, but I take a more optimistic view and see it as a rising tide lifting all ships. People are developing a taste for better beer and businesses are responding by catering to those preferences. It’s a win-win. Case in point: last night’s Mardi Gras beer dinner at Café NOLA in Schenectady.

When I began planning the menu with owners Kevin and Robin Brown, I thought we should try to stick to New York-based breweries and also choose beers that are pedestrian-friendly, not too expensive, but still of good quality (that was the approach I took last fall with the beer dinner at Uncle Marty’s Adirondack Grill and it was well-received). Sure, we could’ve went with some of the hottest and most expensive trendiest breweries of the moment, but then tickets would’ve been upwards of $75 per person or more. An established craft beer and/or gastropub-type venue can ask that of their clientele, a casual place like this cannot. In fact, it seems to be a rare thing to see a beer dinner for $50 or less these days ($50 is the maximum I’m willing to pay for a beer dinner since that’s $100 per couple and $120 after tip – that ain’t cheap where I come from).

Anyway, on to the dinner itself…

I don’t have a lot of experience with Creole and Cajun food, though I have been to Café NOLA many times and have always enjoyed it. Pairing the beer to the food was challenging to be sure, but almost everyone agreed that each pairing worked well.

NOTE: I forgot to bring my camera with me so I had to use my iPhone for photographs.


Cajun chicken wings; paired with Sixpoint Brewing’s “The Crisp” 

If there’s a better appetizer than chicken wings I’d love to hear about it. You don’t tend to see what is generally considered to be just bar food at event like this. Then again, most pub’s wings aren’t Cajun-style. Café NOLA uses their own seasoning to spice the wings which gives them a zesty, peppery flavor without the intense heat from Capsaicin you get in most hot wings.

Pilsners like Sixpoint’s “The Crisp” are intended to be refreshing (as well as flavorful) and in this instance the beer did its job perfectly. Though it was cold and snowy outside, eating the wings and drinking the beer made it feel like summer for a moment. The lemony/spicy hops and clean finish complemented the wings to a tee. Everyone at the table remarked at how much they enjoyed the opening course.


Baby field greens with blackberries, strawberries, olives and shredded cheese; paired with Ommegang’s “Hop House” Belgian-style pale ale

I’m not usually a fan of salad, but when the greens are soft and actually flavorful (as opposed to crunchy and bland like iceberg lettuce or Romaine) it can be pretty tasty. The dressing was a raspberry vinaigrette which includes Abita’s Purple Haze as an ingredient.

I’m glad we went with Hop House. Though bitter like an American pale ale, it still has a lovely floral bouquet and a clean, citrusy taste. I think this beer took a few of the diners by surprise, though I believe everyone remarked how much they enjoyed the smell and the orange flavor of the beer.

NOTE: Originally, we were going to use Southampton’s “Double White Ale” – a strong witbier – but it was unavailable. This was a fun substitute, though.


Seafood gumbo (crawfish tail meat, shrimp, and Andouille sausage); paired with He’Brew’s “Death of a Contract Brewer” Black IPA

Gumbo is an underrated soup, in my opinion. It’s thick, hearty and spicy, and can be a meal in and of itself. Good thing the serving size was just a cup as this was plenty spicy and savory.
Additionally, Black IPA is an underrated beer style. It’s also quite versatile as it has the bitterness and hop flavor of an IPA, but also the roasty/malty quality of a stout. In fact, I’ve found “Death of a Contract Brewer” to be not only one of the best of the Black IPA style, but also one of the best beers in the He’Brew portfolio.

This was definitely a risky choice since average people tend to be turned off by both dark beer and hoppy beer. However, most found it to be a pleasant surprise. The citrusy aroma was an interesting contrast to the spicy gumbo. I noticed – as did several other patrons – that the hops took a backseat when taking a sip after a spoonful of the soup. The roasted malt was prominent and followed the savory character perfectly with some light citrusy bitterness on the finish. Café NOLA actually has this beer on tap and Robin told me it has been selling surprisingly well despite the fact it’s not the kind of beer they would normally serve.


Beer-braised pork belly (with roasted potatoes, carrots, and demi-glace); paired with Ommegang’s “Abbey Ale” Belgian Dubbel Ale

I’ve noticed that a lot of beer dinners tend to opt for pork or some kind of gamey meat for the entrée course. There’s just something about the combination of seared meat and fat that works so well in these situations. The pork was braised in Abita’s Turbodog brown ale; it was tender and moist with a sight smokey quality. The vegetables were classic, and served in a large plate of greens.

As for the beer, I wanted to do something a little daring while also offering a contrast to the previous three beers. I’ll admit using two Ommegang brews on the same menu was redundant. However, their Abbey Ale is a classic, to-spec, award-winning Belgian-style dubbel that always holds up. I don’t recall ever having a beer like this accompany an entrée, so it was a first-time experience even for me. The rich, fruity flavors of the beer, especially cherry, fig and currant, really contrasted the pork belly.

Many of the diners said the beer was quite wine-like and because of that, they really enjoyed it and said they would consider picking up a bottle for consumption at home.

NOTE: a small serving of lemon sorbet was offered prior to this course as a palate cleanser and it definitely did its job.


Bananas Foster (bananas and vanilla ice cream with whipped cream and sauce made from various confectioneries); paired with Southern Tier’s “Crème Brûlée” imperial stout

I’d never had Bananas Foster prior to this meal, though, from what I understand, it’s a popular dessert in Cajun country. I love desserts and sweets of all kind, so this absolutely fit my wheelhouse. It’s was a delicious combination of cold ice cream, sweet confectionery glaze, and warm bananas (they’re actually flambéed in liqueur).

Southern Tier’s “Crème Brûlée” is exactly what its name suggests. It’s an extremely rich brew – almost ridiculously so. The vanilla flavor from the beer served to amplify the vanilla flavors already in the dessert. I was worried this might have come across as redundant, but everyone said the pairing was fantastic.


By the time the evening ended I was, as usual, completely stuffed. In fact, my only complaint about the entire beer dinner would be that there may have been just a little too much food (the entrée and dessert courses, especially) and the beer pours may have been a bit too tall. I’m writing this blog over 12 hours later and I’m still completely satiated. I’d imagine the other diners are as well. That being said, it was still a great way to spend an otherwise run-of-the-mill Tuesday night and definitely justified the $50 price tag.

Kevin, Robin and I are already planning on having another beer dinner in the coming months. If you missed this one, you should definitely catch the next one.

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