Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Brewer's Dinner at the Calistoga Inn and Brewery

I've been looking forward to today for a little over a week now. Why? Because a week or two ago, as I was casually waiting on Lincoln for the VINE bus to arrive, I noticed some banners hanging outside of the Calistoga Inn and Brewery across the street.

This place is right in the heart of town and right by the bus stop, so I see it pretty much every day. It's visually appealing and the combination of brewery/bar, restaurant, and "European style" lodging (ie. a few rooms, not many, and they share a bathroom. But they are affordable.) has always intrigued me. I've walked past and looked at the menu before, which always sounded good, even if a little pricey, but hey, we're in Spa Town...

Occasionally they hang signs outside for upcoming special events. They caught my eye this time because there was not one sign but three: Super Bowl Party, Valentine's Day Dinner, and Brewer's Dinner. As much as I like watching football, I wasn't super excited about the Super Bowl this year, and I generally don't like watching it in the pubs -- they always get too cramped, overcrowded, people get grumpy. So I usually just watch it at home (but I gave up TV years ago) or at a friend's house (but I also gave up friends years ago). Valentine's Day is a similar story -- I've done the whole "going out on a Valentine's dinner date" thing, and it's simply overrated. The romance level actually goes down because suddenly everything is stressful -- there is the stress of competing for a reservation, the stress of higher-than-normal prices, the stress of expectations for the evening. No, thank you -- I think I'll just stay in and cook a nice meal and spend some time with my significant other.

However, a "Brewer's Dinner" is not something you see every day. In fact, in 4 years living here I have never seen a sign for one. I checked it out on their website and liked what I saw: a 6-course meal in which each course was paired with a different one of their microbrews, for $50/person. I've done wine-pairing dinners, but never a beer-pairing one, so this was enticing and I made a reservation for two.

We arrived about 15 minutes early. but the restaurant doors were shut and locked. There were plenty of people hanging out in the bar area, but there were no signs or indications of where we were supposed to go for the dinner. About 5 minutes prior to scheduled dinner time, we went in through the bar entrance and scoped out the dining area to see what was going on. Nobody was there. Eventually we saw a waiter and asked him about the dinner. He looked confused and said "Oh, uh... I don't know. Let me see what is going on." He came back and said "Yeah, they aren't ready yet. You can wait in the bar area." So we went and sat down. We waited for about 10 minutes and didn't see anything happen, but that bar area sure got packed. We decided to walk around and see what was going on (and almost walked out, since it was stressful and nobody was telling us anything) -- then the waiter saw us and said "Oh, it actually starts in here."

He informed Brad Smisloff (brewmaster) who was standing right there having one of his brews, and we headed to the back where they had out tables with big bowls of homemade potato chips with gorgonzola (this was the first course). Unfortunately, it was already packed with people by now (good thing we showed up early, eh? It did no good when nobody could tell us what was going on) but we managed to squeeze to the corner table where they were pouring the first beer: their "Blintzen IPA" which was a strong India Pale Ale serving as their seasonal winter beer. To my surprise, they were pouring full glasses! I had come to this expecting small samplers/tastings of each beer, but that wasn't the case so far. The chips and beer were good, but the stress of figuring things out and people crammed together like sardines were not so enjoyable. We tucked ourselves into a corner away from everybody (but near the chips) and waited eagerly for seating to begin.

The way it worked is that they had this first-course appetizer mingler in the bar, then they had assigned seating for everybody in the restaurant area. Thankfully our table was one of the first and most easily accessible in the room. Unfortunately, it was communal. I can't say I'm entirely surprised; I had assumed they might do something like this. Personally, I was happier to be sharing a table with two other people than to be sitting at the long communal one of about 20 people where most people were seated.

The rest of the evening went pretty much as I'd expected, with Brad Smisloff coming out and giving a little speech about each course and the choice of beer to go with it, some info about the beer and why it was chosen. The one thing that did surprise me was just how much food and beer came out. It was a complete feast! They poured probably 8 ounces with each serving -- totaling probably about 48 ounces of beer over the course of the evening. I also didn't realize that is that this was their first Brewer's Dinner they'd ever held (I suppose this might explain the confusion and lack of guidance)! However, he did say they've wanted to do this for a while and they plan to make it a regular thing... so if anybody out there is reading this and likes beer, keep on the lookout for that! He said they plan to do it quarterly (I guess one each season). Heck, I might go to several of them if the menu and beers are changing.

The courses and beers (along with my notes) were as follows:
  1. Homemade gorgonzola potato chips, Blintzen IPA. Good pairing, chips were good, maybe could have used more evenly-dispersed cheese.
  2. Cheese soup made with pilsner, paired with pilsner. Interesting soup... sort of thin, more like a bisque. I can understand why the pilsner was put in the soup, but I feel like a stronger-flavored beer (maybe red ale) would have been a better pairing.
  3. A cured salmon salad, containing spring greens, cured salmon, and grapefruit pieces. Paired with wheat ale/hefeweizen. Great pairing... very light and tangy, the hefeweizen was a nice choice to go with the zest of the salad, and the salmon was fresh, delicious, and plentiful.
  4. Porter-braised short ribs and bacon-sauteed brussels sprouts, paired with porter. A nice pairing, the strong flavor of the porter held up to the strong flavor of meat and brussels sprouts. But boy was this rich and hearty and filling!
  5. A cheese sampler of Humboldt Fog soft goat cheese, Sonoma Dry Jack, and a pungent, sweet blue cheese (whose name I don't remember) -- paired with 3 small servings of beer: a red ale, a "Purple Haze" blackberry-infused ale, and an oak-barreled peach kolsch, which was the most interesting of the three, though they were all good.
  6. A rich, moist, dark chocolate cake drizzled with brewer's wort for dessert. The malty, caramelized flavor of the wort (like a sweet, delicious version of vegemite) was a delicious combo with the rich chocolate flavor, and the slightly-bitter, hoppy but still syrupy and sweet barley wine made a good pairing as well.
Needless to say, after all of this (and polishing off Sarah's barleywine), it would have been ideal if we had a local place to crash! Driving after this event is not advised. However, I had finished half of Sarah's beers, leaving her capable of driving home (and leaving myself feeling completely full and slightly giddy.)

Brad said they've had this idea for quite a while and it just took this long to finally make it happen, but they now plan to do one every few months (quarterly -- basically, once per season.) I think it's a great idea, and I'll definitely be back -- especially if the prices and quality stay the same, and even more enticing if they mix up the menu each time.

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