California Cafe’ Brewmasters’ Dinners Remain in Good Hands

Dessert of Glazed Plums, Pine Nut-Prune Chutney, Honey-Cinnamon Sabayon
paired with Firehouse’s  Hardly Thomas Barley Wine

When I heard Chef Todd Yamanaka was replacing departing Chef Mark Pettyjohn at Palo Alto’s California Cafe’, that proverbial sound of a needle scratching across a vinyl record echod in my mind.  After all, Mark Pettyjohn was clearly a driving force behind the California Cafe’s Brewmaster series, with his enthusiasm for both the breweries and pairing their beers with creative plates.  In fact, Yamanaka only assumed his post as Executive Chef at California Cafe’s Palo Alto location barely one week.  If that wasn’t enough, things fell through with the previously scheduled brewery for April, and so Steve Donohue of Firehouse Brewing came in to pinch hit with just a couple weeks notice before the next dinner held this past April 26th.   Considering the amount of time and effort that goes into these things, sounds like a disaster waiting to happen.

Except it didn’t.  Sure, for some of the courses, I’d have to admit some of the beer and food pairings were not as cohesively integrated as in dinners past.   But there was this comfortable spontaneity  and “let’s just try this” to the whole affair, both in the food and in Donohue’s brews, especially his experimental Barley Wine and Sour Ale, that couldn’t be duplicated with the weeks of preparation Pettyjohn usually took.  I should add the penultimate course of Coffee Crusted Angus Ribeye and Wild Mushroom Risotto paired with the uber coffee roastiness of Firehouse’s Brendan’s Irish Stout hit it out of the park with its warm, earthy comforting character.  Otherwise, I’m not going to go into a culinary breakdown of the evening, since I’m not good at that stuff, especially since my esteemed beer blogging colleague Peter Estaniel was there that evening, and he is good at that stuff, and I expect he’ll post something soon.

Yamanaka may not be a hard core beer geek, but in talking with him he clearly appreciates beer, and the man can clearly cook.  With all the announcements of $100 plate beer dinners in out of the way places in San Francisco, Sonoma and Napa Counties, and it’s reassuring for rest of us that one at half the cost can be found in Palo Alto and it’s future looks at lot stronger than it did a week ago.

Next up, Devil’s Canyon Brewing from my home town of Belmont May 31st.   By then, Chef Yamanaka will have time to breathe, get his sea legs, and whatever other cliches you want to add by then.  It ought to be interesting. 

Firehouse Brewing featured at California Cafe Beer Dinner Thursday

The South Bay’s Firehouse Brewing is featured this Thursday in another one of California Cafe in Palo Alto Brewmasters Dinners.  The festivities start at 6:30 am this April 26th.  I’ve said it before, California Cafe does an awesome job in this series, and my reservations were made almost as soon as I heard about it.

What’s on the menu?  It hasn’t been released yet but frankly, I don’t give a damn about it.  The California Cafe always puts on a great dinner and if you don’t believe me when I tell you Firehouse brews great beer, maybe all their Great American Beer Festival awards will convince you.  Wanting to know the menu in this collaboration is like hearing Martin Scorsese is doing a mob flick with Robert DeNiro and wanting to know the plot.  If you know great things will happen, does knowing what form they will take really matter?

If you insist on checking out the menu, you probably find it eventually on California Cafe’s events page, and recent tweet from California Cafe’ suggests will see it tomorrow.  Whatever.  I’ll see you there!

What’s the point in writing about the Stone Brewing Brewmaster’s Dinner at California Cafe?

That’s the question.   Why should I even bother writing about this?  I mean, Stone brews great beer, and the California Cafe in Palo Alto puts on great beer dinners featuring a California brewery about once a month.  Is there any point of even writing about it, other than to say, “Well, it was great”? 

Besides, I’m not a exactly a culinary expert such that I can really deconstruct the subtleties and nuances of the combined brewing vision of Stone’s Greg Koch combined with California Cafe’s Mark Pettyjohn’s magic in the kitchen.   But I can sort of fake it.  And aren’t blogs all about writing about stuff you have no business writing about for the sole purpose of looking more important than you really are?  So in this proud tradition, I will provide my take on the Stone Brewing Brewmaster’s dinner in an attempt at entertainment, or your possible amusement at my expense. 

First Course
Food: Grilled Portobello Mushroom, chic pea fries, foie gras croutons, goat cheese
Beer: Arrogant Bastard

The first course was a significant food milestone for me since I’ve never had foie gras before starting off the beer dinner with this.  It’s hard not be be curious about foie gras, as the food seems so highly polarizing.   On one side, you have those who claim eating it is the most heavenly orgasmic surreal experience in the world. On the other side, you have PETA-inspired backlash claiming it embodies everything wrong with civilization.  Having now tried it, I have to say I’m a little bewildered this fatty stuff with a light livery taste to it has generated so much commotion. 

I mean, it tasted all right, but if I had to face down a bunch of angry animal rights activists just to eat it again, I’d go for something else.  Sitting to my left for the evening was Peter Estaniel of BetterBeerBlog of fame, who really enjoyed his and he’s a big foie gras fan, so Chef Pettyjohn must have executed it well. 

Peter also probably forgot more about beer and food pairing last week than I’ll never know.  After the first course, I turned to him and said “You know, the Arrogant Bastard seemed to over powered the Grilled Mushroom a little,” and he immediately responds with a complex explanation about the roasted malts and the hop varieties contrasting with the grilled mushroom and other elements on the plate.  I struggled to follow what he was saying.   I think he agreed with me.

My favorite thing about the first course was not the grilled mushroom or the foie gras croutons, but the well seasoned chick pea fries.  PETA 1 Foie Gras 0.

The Second Course in all its porkosity

Second Course
Food: House cured pork belly, crispy pancetta, smoked bacon butter
Beer: Ruination IPA

The smoked bacon butter and house cured pork belly melded together to form a bunch of creamy pork stuff, contrasting with the crispy pancetta, a bunch of crunchy pork stuff.  Ruination IPA, with plenty of strong pineapple and grapefruit hop flavors and no malt backbone to speak of, cut right through all that pork goodness. 

I turn to Peter again after the second course to pick his brain on the second course.  Instead of a detailed, insightful deconstruction of the interplay between the different pork elements and the hops, he simply says “Mmmmmmm, that was good.”  I can work with that.

Surprise Course
Food:  Duck medallions with cherry compote on top
Beer:  Cherry Chocolate Stout

Surpise!  After the second course, they bring out the Stone Cherry Chocolate Stout, a limited release that is otherwise sold out and unavailable. It’s got plenty of bitter chocolate flavors and cherry, think of a decadent liquid chocolate covered cherry.  And the duck medallions with the cherry compote basically echoed that, even though Chef Pettyjohn conceded they were under salted to my wife and I at the end of the dinner.  Chef, if you hadn’t told us that, we wouldn’t have noticed.

Third Course
Food: Braised beef short ribs, parsnip puree, crispy onion strings
Beer: Imperial Russian Stout, Vintage ’08

What to say here, once again, the food and beer basically echoed each other.  And once again, my favorite element on the plate was a lovely, creamy parsnip puree under the braised beef ribs, rather than the savory ribs themselves.  Strike another blow for PETA!

Fourth Course

It’s a big party of all things carrot

Food: Carrot cake, tipsy raisins, carrot gel
Beer: Old Guardian barley wine, Vintage ’09

My favorite dish of the night.  Way too often, beer dinners end with a desert of Imperial Stout with something like a chocolate tort, or some other Stout and chocolate combination.  Sure, the combination works, often quite well, but it’s an obvious pairing and not particularly imaginative to the point of becoming a cliche’.  Instead, for the desert course we get a whimsical plate of all things carrot with this odd, carrot egg roll that comes out of left field.  Some people, like me, loved it, others were a bit underwhelmed by it, but everyone was talking about it, and by that measure, it was a hit.  And the aged Old Guardian with its smooth, sweetness, and slight astringency jumped right into the big party.

There’s a nasty rumor that this might be the last of the Brewmaster’s Dinners for the year with the holidays fast approaching.  I sure hope that isn’t true, as the best part of the series is a certain suspense in seeing what Chef Pettyjohn and the California Cafe crew do next.

Advice to California Brewers: Get Your Beer into a California Cafe Beer Dinner

Anyone who’s tasted my homebrews lately knows I have little advice to give to California Brewers, so I just have one thing to say them: Give California Cafe in Palo Alto a call. They’ll further elevate your beer by creating a great dinner out of it. Last nights beer dinner featuring Drake’s Brewing was yet another hit in their recent series of dinners.

I’ve been to other beer dinners held at California Cafe, but just haven’t written much about them. I rarely write about beer from a culinary angle since I generally don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. Of course, ignorance rarely stops most people from talking authoritatively about things and that’s not going to stop me here either. So here’s a brief recap of last night’s event.

As in the usual format, California Cafe’s Executive Chef Mark Pettyjohn created a four course menu with a dessert, each course pairing with one of Drake’s Beers for about 35 of us that evening. Dow Tunis, Drake’s Sales Manager and twenty-five year veteran of the Bay Area craft brewing scene, talked about each beer, drifting around to each table over the course of the evening to chat, answer questions and hear what we all had to say about his beers. Turns out Dale used to hang out at one of my favorite watering holes on the Peninsula, Marvin Gardens, an unassuming little shack next to the train tracks in the industrial part of Belmont that always has a nifty little tap list.

Anyway, back to the dinner. Since I saw Peter Estaniel of the BetterBeerBlog across the room furiously scribbling down notes and taking a bunch of pictures with his phone, it’s a good bet a full deconstruction and in-depth analysis of the evening on his blog is imminent, so if you want to get the culinary low-down from someone who actually knows what he’s talking about, check out his blog.

I’ll just rave a little about the lively course of Pan Seared Alaskan Cod, pancetta and fingerling potato ragout, and a sweet corn-port sauce served with the unlikely pairing of Drake’s super intense Denogginizer Double IPA.
I expected the Double IPA to totally blow away a light fish like cod. Somehow, that didn’t happen. Instead, the sweetness from creamy corn-port sauce, the saltiness from the pancetta, and the hoppy bitterness from the Denogginizer all were highlighted by the mildness of the cod, creating an energetic mix where each bite tasted differently and all the different flavors found a way to get along.

The following course took a completely opposite approach. A House Cured and Smoked Pork Loin with coffee risotto and spiced cherry sauce was full of smokey, earthy flavors, and blended seamlessly with the roasty coffee flavors of Drake’s Drakonic Imperial Stout. What a great warm and cozy course this turned out to be.
True to the name of California Cafe, only breweries from California are celebrated in this dinner series. Next up is 21st Amendment on August 25th. I’ll see you there.