September 4, 2013

Highlands, NC: Ruka's Table Masters the Beer Pairing Dinner

Narrow, winding roads lead into the mountains of Highlands, NC, the kind that make you wonder how the treads on your tires are doing. Suddenly the forest road opens up to offer sweeping views of the surrounding states. Located in a small resort town in the Nantahala National Forest, Ruka's Table sources ingredients from its neighbors in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, and delivers food fit for any of the best restaurants in Atlanta, DC, or New York City. Head Chef Justin Burdett recently presented a beer pairing dinner showcasing many of these local ingredients.

Prior to working at Ruka’s Table, Burdett was Chef de Cuisine at Miller Union, a highly regarded farm-to-table restaurant in Atlanta. In March 2013, he was named among the top chefs in the Southeast by Food & Wine Magazine. He has also competed on the Food Network show "Chopped" -- and won.

Burdett paired this meal with five beers from one of his favorite breweries, Left Hand Brewing out of Longmont, CO. Founded in 1993, Left Hand has risen to be one of the top 50 craft breweries in the United States, riding on the popularity of such beers as Black Jack Porter, Milk Stout Nitro, and 400 Pound Monkey.

Most of the produce for the meal came from farms within about 100 miles, while the proteins were sourced from surrounding southeastern states. Burdett seems to have found the perfect balance between quality ingredients and local origin. The result: one of the best beer dinners I've ever had.

1. Tomato Gelée, Lemon Pudding, Charred Corn, Squash, Microgreens 
Paired with Polstar Pilsner

The beer dinner launched with a very interesting dish. Gelée is French for gel or jelly, so this was something like a cold tomato soup, almost like gazpacho without all the cucumbers, cooled to a semi-solid consistency and topped with fresh produce. Each ingredient contributed a different flavor sensation. The gelée and the drop of lemon pudding combined into a sweet and sour tanginess, complemented by spicy notes from the black pepper and microgreens.

The lemon in the dish brought out the brightness of the beer, enhancing lemon notes in the Polstar Pilsner that wouldn't otherwise be noticed. The spice from the microgreens also worked well with the crispness of the pilsner.

In this dish, Chef Burdett introduced us to his concept of juxtapositions. It was clear that he has a great handle on sour and acidic flavors, which he incorporated with skillful restraint into each of the next three courses.

The tomato, squash, and microgreens all came from Jolley Farms in Canton, NC, about 60 miles from Highlands, and the corn came from Carringer Farms in Franklin, NC, a town about 20 miles from Highlands.

2. Georgia Clams, Beer Broth, Rye and Grapefruit
Paired with Stranger American Pale Ale

I was immediately impressed by Left Hand's Stranger Pale Ale. Very pleasant aromas of sweet, malted grains introduced the deliciously balanced beer with a luscious mouthfeel. Stranger could be a new favorite. But it wasn't until tasting the Abruzzi rye berries in the Stranger beer broth that I realized that the beer had a touch of rye malt, giving it a subtle hint of spice. Again, Burdett used an ingredient on the plate to enhance a flavor in the beer.

The main feature in this course were the fresh Georgia clams from Sapelo Island, each topped with a slice of grapefruit (again, the sour component), and soaked in a sweet, savory, and slightly acidic beer and butter broth.

The rye berries were sourced from Anson Mills, a certified organic producer of artisan grains based in Columbia, SC.

3. Rabbit, Sweet Onion and Raspberry Tart, Rabbit Bacon
Paired with 400 Pound Monkey

The next dish was phenomenal from the very first bite. The sweet onion and raspberry tart was expertly balanced with the savory, tender Mississippi rabbit, and topped with a few salty slices of rabbit bacon. Again, Burdett delivered juxtaposition between each ingredient, everything in perfect balance. "Food nirvana" started to set in at around the second bite of rabbit.

Left Hand's 400 Pound Monkey, an English IPA at 6.7% ABV, demonstrated another role that beer can have in a food pairing. This time, it cleared out the harmony and the conversation between the tart, savory, and salty components with a sweeping bitterness. Compared to the lighter dishes that came before it, the 400 Pound Monkey came off strong at first, but mellowed as it warmed up to complement the dish well.

The raspberries in the tart were sourced from just down the road at Carringer Farms, and the rabbit came from Rabbitman Farms in Sandy Hook, MS.

4. South Carolina Quail, Country Ham, Fresh Fig, Pickled Shallots
Paired with Black Jack Porter

Left Hand's co-founder Eric Wallace has said that if he had to choose one last beer ever, it would be Black Jack Porter. Paired with Burdett's Quail/Country Ham combo, I'd have to agree. Chef Burdett presented savory and tender quail meat from South Carolina, stuffed with sweet figs that were wrapped in salty, 21-month-aged country ham from Kentucky, essentially southern proscuitto. Pickled shallots on top provided, you guessed it, the juxtaposition of the acidic component.

The quail was from Manchester Farms, Columbia, SC, while the country ham came from Newsom Ham, a nearly 100-year-old family business based in Princeton, KY.

5. Milk Stout Ice Cream, Cream Soda Float
Paired with Nitro Milk Stout

It's hard to beat homemade ice cream -- especially when it's made with craft beer! Burdett combined vanilla, milk, cream, egg, and sugar with the Left Hand Milk Stout, which brought a roasty character that gave the impression of coffee ice cream.

No acidic component in this dish! Just sweet, decadent deliciousness.

As I said at the beginning, this was one of the best beer dinners I've ever experienced. Where dishes at other beer pairings often "make sense", Chef Burdett teaches the diner a thing or two about flavor combinations by presenting ingredients on the plate and in the glass that enhance, contrast, or support each other. On top of it all, he highlights and supports regional, artisanal food producers. What more could you ask for from a beer pairing dinner?

Let's get a bus from Asheville for the next one.

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