Friday, February 26, 2010

Victory Meets DiBruno's at Avalon Restaurant

It was dark and raw, the skies dumping torrents of rain on the streets of Philadelphia, slowly washing away the piles of snow, the promise of more white stuff to come looming large on the horizon. It was a Tuesday night in the middle of February, and I had to ask myself why I was getting into the car and heading out for an hour's drive at the peak of the evening commute. The answer, dear readers, was simple. Sustenance. The promise of good cooking, beer and cheese, to be more precise.

I'd been invited by restaurateur John Brandt-Lee, chef/owner of Avalon Restaurant in West Chester, Pennsylvania, to attend his first ever guided beer and cheese pairing dinner. (Full disclosure: dinner was John's treat.) For the last few months, John has been offering a complimentary beer and cheese pairing to diners on Friday nights; this event was a chance to take things to the next step, more fully exploring the interaction between beer, cheese and a multi-course meal built around the rustic yet modern Italian cuisine that forms the basis of the menu at Avalon.

The evening's presenters were Emilio Mignucci, owner of the Philadelphia-based cheese and specialty gourmet shop, DiBruno Brothers, and Bill Covaleski, brewmaster and co-founder of Victory Brewing Company, located in nearby Downingtown, PA. Brandt-Lee had reached out to Mignucci, from whom John sources the cheeses served at his restaurant. Emilio, in turn, suggested teaming up with Covaleski, with whom the folks at DiBruno's often conduct beer and cheese oriented events. And thus the triumvirate was formed.

Three men and a beer... but no wine? From left to right: Emilio Mignucci, owner of DiBruno Brothers; John Brandt-Lee, chef/owner of Avalon; and Bill Covaleski, brewmaster and founding partner at Victory Brewing Company. I had a great time talking shop with Emilio and Bill during their breaks from presenting and suggested that we reconvene at some point in the future for a wine-versus-beer cheese pairing event. They seemed more than game, so stay tuned for a time, date and venue to be determined.

To make it all work, John conceptualized a menu for the night and then worked with Mignucci to select the appropriate cheese(s) for use in each dish. Once their work was done, Covaleski, drawing from his own knowledge, instinct and experiences with food (much as do I when selecting wines to match a menu), chose one of Victory's brews to pair with each course. Here's what they all came up with:

"Cravero" 24-month Parmigiano-Reggiano Gelato with Truffle Honey
paired with Victory Lager
Apparently a staple at Avalon, our first course is often served as a complimentary amuse-bouche. To make the "gelato," Brandt-Lee blends cream and finely grated parmigiano in a double-boiler; the liquid mixture sets to a custard-like texture when cooled. The musky intensity of the truffle honey was a touch distracting but the dish was otherwise delicious, the creaminess of the cheese offset by the crunch of candied nuts, and contrasted by the subtle spice and sweetness of poached pears.

John Brandt-Lee, at left, putting the finishing touches on the amuse course alongside Avalon sous-chef Barry Salop.

Mignucci made a point of letting the crowd know that he prefers his Parmigiano young to middle-aged, when it's not as piquant and sharp as an ultra-aged example and still shows the complexity of its seasonal milk sources. For this dish, he chose a 24 month-old example selected and matured by Giorgio and Giacomo Cravero in their curing facilities in the town of Bra, located in the Roero district of Piemonte. While Covaleski could easily have chosen his benchmark Prima Pils for our first pour, the rounder, slightly richer yet still brisk and refreshing feel of the lager proved a harmonious match.

Baked "Montchevré" Goat Cheese with Oven Roasted Tomatoes and Black Olive Crisps
paired with Victory Helios Ale
Along with the later meat course, this course seemed most clearly to epitomize Brandt-Lee's approach to cooking simple, rustic dishes that combine a lack of fussiness with a focus on rich flavors and quality ingredients. Francophile that I am, at least when it comes to wine and cheese, I was a bit surprised that Mignucci selected an American goat cheese, from Wisconsin producer Montchevré. No matter, though, it worked just fine.

Here, Covaleski eschewed the typical pairing of wheat beer with goat's milk cheese in favor of the wilder, grassier flavors of his Saison-style Helios Ale. Helios undergoes both its primary and in-bottle fermentations using a select strain of Brettanomyces yeast, one that brings on subtle earthiness rather than imparting intense funk or sourness. A great match, particularly given the zestiness the black olive tapenade brought to the dish.

Escargot with Caramelized Onion and "Sur Choix" Cheese Agnolotti
paired with Victory St. Victorious Doppelbock
Is it just me or are snails one of those things you just don't think of cooking at home? Assuming you're not going out to forage for them, they're actually simple enough to prepare, yet I only seem to eat them in restaurants. Of course, the same habit tends to apply to hand-rolled and hand-stuffed pasta.... So there you have it, the dish I'd most like to eat on a regular basis but am least likely to prepare for myself.

For the cheesy component of this course, Emilio and John chose another US-produced take on a European classic. "Sur Choix" is a Wisconsin-made Gruyere-type cow's milk cheese that provided a nutty, fondue-like, belly warming touch that worked quite nicely with the snails. Escargots don't exactly scream out for cheese, so Mignucci treaded carefully, being sure to choose a cheese that was cave-aged for its inherently musty, earthy flavor profile.

St. Victorious Doppelbock is a limited production, seasonal dark lager, brewed in the tradition of German monastic brewers who made similarly hearty styles of beer to drink during their periods of fasting. It's produced using a labor-intensive technique called decoction mashing, in which the malt is boiled to the point that the barley kernels explode, giving a robust breadiness to the finished beer.

Brandt-Lee is very excited about the new addition of a chef's table immediately in front of the partially open kitchen at Avalon. The table, which seats up to six, was custom built for the space by the craftspeople at Philadelphia Block and Board, who also produce the cheese boards used at the restaurant.

"Baltic Thunder" Braised Beef Short Ribs, Blu di Pecora Polenta
paired with Victory Baltic Thunder
Given the event's theme, it could be argued that this was the most complete course of the night, both beer and cheese playing integral roles to the overall execution of the dish. It was also just right for a cold, rainy night -- very soul-satisfying.

I'm not a huge fan of the all too ubiquitous pairing of beef and blue cheese, as particularly pungent blue can easily steal the thunder from the meat, which really should provide a dish with its main focus, whether grilled or braised. I get the sense that John and Emilio may feel the same way. They intentionally selected a particularly mild example of Blu di Pecora, a sheep's milk blue from a Gorgonzola producer in Lombardy, for subtle blending with the creamy polenta that served as backdrop to Brandt-Lee's succulent beer-braised ribs.

Baltic Thunder is a rich, British-inspired porter, very sweet and malty with a loamy richness to its palate attack. Its dry, slightly bitter finish, provided by malt tannins rather than hops according to Covaleski, helped to balance the beer's richness and, in turn, provided the backbone necessary to stand up to the richness of braised short ribs.

Intermezzo: Rooibos Tea "Sphere"
The chef's quick nod to molecular gastronomy in the form of a palate cleanser: refreshingly herbal rooibos tea, bound into spherical gel form using agar-agar and brightened up with a few shavings of lemon zest. If this is destined for regular appearances at Avalon, flat-bottomed Japanese-style soup spoons would make for a worthwhile investment.

Cheese Board: Délice de Bourgogne and Pecorino Toscano
paired with Victory Golden Monkey
If simplicity was the overriding theme on the evening, Emilio captured it with his cheese course. Two cheeses with minimal adornments, each with plenty of personality. Most of the Delice de Bourgogne I've found on the local market has been young, milky, decadently creamy but extremely mild. This example had obviously been aged a bit longer, yielding a salty, intense flavor at the rind and a runny, unctuous pate; not advanced to the point of ammonia development but really full-flavored. The Pecorino, on the other hand, was deep, nutty and eminently satisfying, the kind of cheese you could sit back and eat way too much of. Chef John's housemade mostarda provided a welcome kick without packing overpowering mustard heat.

The starring libations, in order of appearance.

The final beer? Victory Golden Monkey, a Belgian-style strong golden ale. Golden Monkey's balance between an herbaceous, floral front-palate (coriander is used in the brew) and lingering, subtle sweetness made for a very cheese-friendly libation. It worked in much the same way as a demi-sec Vouvray, one of my preferred wine choices for the end-of-meal cheese course, with the role of Vouvray's natural high acidity replaced by the beer's gentle edge of bitterness.

The final verdict? A very enjoyable evening. I'll need to check out Avalon on a "normal" night sooner rather than later. And I'm already looking forward to round two of the Victory/DiBruno's mash-up, hopefully with wine adding a third element on the next occasion.

312 S. High Street
West Chester, PA 19382
(610) 436-4100
Avalon on Urbanspoon


Bill said...

Great summary and great writing, David! You brought the night back vividly with this text. Chef John did a great job of beating back the bitterness he said developed when he cooked down the Baltic Thunder prior to the braising. It seems like a touch of honey was a great call. The overall experience demonstrated John's vast abilities on many levels. Cheers,

David McDuff said...

Thanks for the kind words, Bill. John did indeed do a fine job with the beer braise. A little more tooth/texture to the polenta and that course might have climbed into my favorite position for the night. Lookin' forward to next time.

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