- Matthew Thorsen
Even before the first morsels of food arrived at the copper-topped tables, guests at the Daily Planet’s May 2 beer-and-cheese dinner knew they were in for something out of the ordinary. At least they did if they’d perused the menus printed in bold black ink on cream-colored paper that were deposited at each place setting. After all, how many restaurants serve ice cream studded with goat cheese and sweetened by a strawberry swirl?
At a so-called “pairing” dinner, the usual idea is to match a variety of foods or drinks — wine and beer are classic choices — with complementary items, such as cheeses, chocolates or even a series of dishes from a particular region. The hope is to use each half of the pair to balance or enhance the other. For example, one might serve a juicy, acidic sauvignon blanc with a twirl of creamy seafood pasta to round out the flavor, or play up the same pasta’s unctuous fattiness with a glass of buttery oaked chardonnay.
On this evening, the Planet’s staffers took the matchmaking to a more complex level by focusing on two local purveyors: They worked products from Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery into four hearty courses and matched each one with a beer from Lyndonville’s Trout River Brewing Company.
As we arrived, servers offered tall glasses of fruity Rainbow Red Ale, probably Trout River’s best-known product. People sipped as they mingled, and by the time the first course made its way to the table, many found themselves in need of a refill.
The appetizer was Tarte Flambée. The Alsatian pizza is typically topped with crème fraîche, onions and bacon, but Planet chef Michael Clauss gave his version a twist. It was scattered with chorizo, housemade pickled ramps and VB&C Cremont — a gooey, double-cream cheese made from cow and goat milk, which hit the market a mere two weeks ago. “He’s probably the first chef to use it!” confided a neighboring diner, who happened to be the cheesemaker himself.
The prettiest offering of the night was a bowl of lightly poached rock shrimp with bits of avocado and red onion, a smear of pure white quark (a fresh German cheese) and a few blue corn chips. The Hoppin’ Mad Trout that came alongside was golden and smelled of flowers.
If “Hoppin’ Mad” in the name had not offered a clue that the beer would be a bit bitter, the telltale hoppy aroma gave it away. Luckily for those of us who don’t think bitter’s better, the sweet, tangy and fatty elements of the dish evened out the brew’s bite.
I preferred the next quaff — a sweet, ultra-malty Scottish ale — to its predecessor, but the best thing about the third course was the unbelievable lamb burger, made of meat from East Ryegate’s Blackberry Rock Farm. Topped with creamy goat cheese tzatziki and goat feta with mint, the juicy, medium-rare patty on a homemade bun was perfection, although the fries alongside were just OK. And then, when everybody was stuffed, came the wacky frozen dessert made by Island Homemade Ice Cream to Clauss’ specifications. The hefty frozen hunks of award-winning Crottin threatened dental fillings but tasted goaty and great. Drizzles of warm chocolate sauce could be viewed as boon or liability: Although they helped the dessert pair with a glass of Chocolate Oatmeal Stout, they made it harder to taste the incredible combo of cheese, berries and black pepper.
Learning to match foods based on their flavor profiles takes an acute palate, and the foresight to realize some pairings can be downright jarring. But I’d be willing to bet a bottle of Scottish Ale that, somewhere, someone who was at the Planet on May 2, is planning their first batch of cheese-flavored ice cream.