There are situations that come up where you have to simply step up to the plate and make something happen. This time around, Triptych Brewing and Dublin O’Neil’s were partnering up to provide a beer pairing dinner on a Tuesday night. This is where you kind of have to take advantage of what is on the table. I would be lying if I said I was the first person here at Smile Politely HQ to be presented with the opportunity to sit in and have a go at this particular event. First off, our Publisher came down with a pretty nasty case of food poisoning, so mark him off the list. Next, our Food & Drink Editor was unavailable because she was celebrating an anniversary, on top of this evening being completely last minute, so she was marked off the list as well.
Then there was me. I was the third-stringer who gets the nod. I’ll be honest—although this is my first approach to a food & drink recap, I was pretty thrilled to take a stab at it, especially after seeing this floating around for the past couple of weeks. I felt that this was an appropriate time to do so.
To preface the entire evening, Triptych and Dublin O’Neil’s planned this evening out in a particular sort of way. Triptych mastermind Anthony Benjamin explained that the route the duo went down was starting with the beer pairing, and figuring out the best food partner to share the course with. Honestly, it caught me by surprise initially, but it made a lot more sense once he explained everything. Plus, the limited amount of beers Triptych is brewing at this point in the year would put the limit on the beer-food pairing anyway (which is a good thing in my estimation), which makes the food side of things a bit more flexible. Not only that, bring together a local brewery and a restaurant in Downtown Champaign that prides itself on providing dishes that are geared towards bringing local goods to your table each night is a no-brainer pairing for an event like this. It was on.
Although the meal was initially supposed to be five beers and five dishes, the beer portion was expanded because they couldn’t narrow things down. I guess that’s not the worst problem in the world to have, but that was what we were dealing with. In addition, the seating was assigned randomly (in a way), as my date and I were accompanied by complete strangers. Unexpected, but I should have realized the limited seating would lead to this. Not to worry—once a couple of beers had passed us by, everything would iron itself out. They were good companions to have, but we could have gotten lucky. Who knows.
Now: Onto the good stuff. The first beer and food portion was a solid starter, because the Bourbon Barrel Brown Ale that Triptych served up was pretty light and smooth, yet it was hefty in bourbon flavor. The beer was adapted from the Dirty Hippie, but then changed to the Drunken Hippie because this particular beer was aged in a bourbon barrel. Pretty awesome and tasty, no doubt. The caramel and toffee flavors stood out the most here, and combined with the gorgeous first plate, it was a match made in heaven.
Quail was the first dish, and it was stuffed with wild boar and arugala, and combined with a wort reduction glaze that was basically the best compliment the dish could have had. As I cut the stuffed quail open, the wild boar and arugala fell out of it, which got a bit messy, but the portion was very good and delicious. Moist and tender, as it should have been. I didn’t try to eat this one as politely as I could have, because honestly, how can you eat a small bird the size of your palm with grace? No way. Regardless, the bird was tender and deliciously paired with the beer. This was off to a great start.
On to the next pairing, which began with the Cream Ale, which was all on its own as far as this type of brew went for the evening. Grainy flavor that was much sweeter than the rest, and more bitter than the previous offering. Golden in color, it was a beauty. The pairing was on point once again, as the Cream Ale was paired with the California sturgeon, which was sitting in a coconut base with the flying fish roe and radish on top.
The sturgeon was quite good, but lacked flavor overall, as I felt that it should pop a it more. The coconut base it was soaking in helped with the overall creaminess of it all, and the fish roe brought out some of kick that should have been resonating within the sturgeon itself. Regardless of the flavor, which was still fairly good and had a hint of lemon (which was refreshing), the sturgeon was so moist, and it fell apart as I cut into it. Super tender fish and a good pairing with the Cream Ale. A comment overheard at this point at our table was “I want to lick the bowl clean” as the remnants of the base were still there after the fish was gobbled up.
Portion three approached, and the Oatmeal Stout laid it down on us. A very dry and smoky flavored beer, it was almost coffee flavored, with a sent of a light burn to it, in a positive way. The beer wasn’t as dense as it appeared to the eye, which was reassuring. The all-pork pairing was prepared well for my plate, but on my girlfriend’s dish, the pork belly was straight fat. I’m not one to send a dish back to the kitchen by any means when I’m out on the town, but had this been a single dish, I might have rethought that decision making process.
However, because this was a single dish out of many, I was honestly surprised this was the lone disappointment thus far, as the amount of dishes being churned out in the Dublin O’Neil kitchen was a solid 75+ at one time. It was easy to move past this, as the portion I got was quite good, but just a bit on the fatty side as well (including the pork shoulder portion of the dish). It was something I could forget, because the beer was really great, and we’re a solid halfway through the courses. Not only that, but the pea tendrils that came with the dish were one of the more redeeming parts of the entire serving. It was a deceptive part, because the tendrils are very thin, but were packed with fresh flavor. Probably the best green throughout the entire dinner. Delicious.
The English IPA was the next beer on the slate, and once I got past the initial bitterness of the beer, it turns out it was one of the best beers I had all night. The flavor really sits well once you get past that tipping point, and really resonates very well. The lamb chop and lamb liver portion of the meal was paired up with this, and overall, the duo Benjamin and Dublin’s Josh Huddleston both described it as an “earthy” dish, which really hit the nail on the head.
The lamb chop was really good, but there were parts that were constricted by the sheer size of the portion. Meaning, it couldn’t have been easy to get a good amount of meat off of a chop as small as this one. However, when paired with the lamb liver (something I’ve never tasted before in my entire life), the chop meat combined with the liver (as in, same fork, same bite) were complimentary. The liver was a bit dry, but set off the other portion nicely as far as flavor goes. The meat in the dish overpowered the mushrooms that were there as well, and honestly, it could have used more mushrooms and a bit less meat.
Just when I thought I was down for the count, after all of those dishes, the dessert portion was book-ended with some really stellar beers. The Wee Heavy started, and for a heavy beer, outside of the name (of course), was pretty tame and smooth. The beer is built upon a foundation of Scottish barley, and is a complex combination of sugar, caramel, and dark fruit. It went down without any devastation, but at the same time it carried a bit of weight. As a beginner to the dessert, this was a good and simple start. Not too overpowering.
The dessert was, in a word, phenomenal. As this part of the meal approaches, it can be pretty intimidating (three small desserts), especially after four other courses. Small, precise and perfectly arranged desserts, designed by Huddleston’s wife, were great. The standout out of all three was, in my mind, the apple galette. Holy shit. As if Thanksgiving ever happened—this was what a Thanksgiving apple dessert should be. The others were good, but paled in comparison, which is understandable. Before they even discussed the desserts, the whole room broke out in a round of applause for this portion.
Gingersnap cookie, Apple galette, and brown sugar date cake. Good God.
The Bourbon Imperial Stout that closed things out was too much for me to handle at that point. I was toast. A stout to close it out pretty much put a nail in my coffin.
Regardless, there are a lot of things to take away from an event like this. First, lasting nearly four hours from the time I showed up (a little before 6:30 p.m.) and left Dublin’s (around 10:30 p.m.), these things have to be expedited a bit. Completely understandable as the first go-round for an event of this nature, being five dishes and six beer pairings, but it’s something to note. The wait time wasn’t long between dishes/beers, but it starts to add up. In addition, the dinner was very meat-heavy, which I could understand coming into the evening. I mean, this is a beer pairing—meat is the game. Veggie lovers would be disappointed, but throwing in a badass salad early in the night (or even balancing out one of the dishes a bit more with greens), perhaps between the quail and sturgeon and doing away with either the pork or lamb, could have done wonders. Just pounding it out round after round with meats galore can be great, but it can have its downfalls. Not to mention—this was a $60 per-seat meal, which can be a bit steep for most. You really got your money’s worth, though, if you’re up for the challenge.
Couple of pals Josh Huddleston (left) and Anthony Benjamin (right).
Overall—I have to tip my cap to all involved, because an event like this cannot be orchestrated easily. Throughout the night, I had completely forgotten that these dishes were being made en masse, and were all very well prepared and arranged. Plus, the service was great, replacing all silverware for every round of dishes. Not only that, but Huddleston and Benjamin took the time between each serving to explain why the beers were paired with the particular dishes, and so on and so forth. Pretty awesome. The aesthetics were great, and the food and beer were well-prepared. I’m looking forward to these in the future, as I would imagine they will continue to flourish within the farm-to-table and local brew-pub sort of mindset many of the restaurants and restaurant-goers in C-U have come to cherish.
All photos by me, with the help of the incredible camera provided by Justine Bursoni.