No, it’s not as bad as the title makes it seem.
As long-time craft brew fans, not only were John and I looking forward to a meal that pairs fine-dining with fine beers, but this would be our first experience (other than the simple breakfast we had there a few days before) of dining at Aleathea’s.
As we were doing some research on offerings at the bar (a.k.a., checking out the beer list to see if they were putting their money where their beer dinner-hosting was), we met up once again with Gary Monterosso, who was to host and educate all of us at this event. “Hey, order a beer, ” he suggested, “I’m buying.” I wasn’t going to say no to that offer.
I decided to grab the most interesting-looking one on the list: Pranqster Belgian Style Golden Ale, and John decided to make it two. Unfortunately, it was served cold, so it took a while for it to warm up in order to get a real taste. We’d suggest that if Aleathea’s was going to get serious about their brews, please: keep them in the cellar, not the fridge! It was worth the wait, however- a nice, easy ale with citrusy notes. Gary then casually mentioned that it was a “high-powered” ale (alcohol by volume 7.6%). Being that we arrived hungry for the dinner, I began to pray I wouldn’t fall face-down into the third course…
After we were seated, Dr. Emlen Physick, local colorist extraordinaire, got up to talk a bit about his life as Cape May’s most prominent Victorian citizen. Well, actually, since the actual gentleman in question has been dead for a number of years, it was actually a costumed tongue-in-cheek portrayal. Nonetheless, his presence fit right in with the dining room’s setting, and it was fun to listen to some facts about the past. But then he introduced Gary, and it was on with the beer!
What we love about listening to him is how he makes beer so easily accessible to the beginner, and yet even veteran craft brew fans learn something new. He explained how the method for pairing beers with food was the same as pairing it with wine: you can either complement (“echo”) certain flavors, or you can contrast them. Interestingly enough, the most difficult food to pair beer with? Pizza! “Think of all the toppings, the different flavors,” he said, “Usually what works best is a Pilsner-style lager or a Belgian farmhouse ale.”
It was time for the parade of beers and courses to begin! The first “official” beer of the evening was Railbender Ale, a dark Scottish ale out of Pennsylvania that won Gold in its class back at the 2009 Great American Beer Festival. Oh, yeah- this is a beer pairing dinner, right? I should mention the food, as it’s usually what we do. Railbender was paired with a New England Clam Chowder- a rich, creamy chowder that had a pleasantly “clammy”broth, with tender-perfect clams. In other words, it was perfectly executed and delicious. A great start, as the smoky-sweet ale contrasted with the rich “umami” of the shellfish.
Next up was a simple salad with goat cheese and caramelized onions, served with Sam Adams Black Lager. Sure, it’s hard to screw up a salad; but to get the onions caramelized just right, with that onion-y sweetness, yet not overdone? Someone was wide awake at that station in the kitchen that night, with the patience to get them just right. Now, the Black Lager is one of the few seasonal Sam Adams brews I still enjoy- and the richness of the dark malt and the slight bite of the bitter hops both complemented and contrasted the tangy-sweet salad very well.
Time for the “mains”, the real proving ground of a restaurant meal. Suddenly, before us appeared a pan-seared pork chop with mashed sweet potatoes and bacon-tossed green beans, served with a glass of …Dogfish Punkin Ale? A-yup! I couldn’t be more pleased- Dogfish is one of my favorite breweries, and to get my hands on this ale (which is usually gone by the time I can locate the store in my area that sells it) was a treat in itself. In the true tradition of this very American style (it originated in the New World from necessity-there were more pumpkins on hand at harvest time than wheat and barley), Dogfish uses pumpkin meat (not pumpkin extract, like many pumpkin brews), brown sugar, allspice, cinnamon, and nutmeg. It was absolutely fabulous, like drinking the hint of a pumpkin pie, but still very much tasting like a balanced beer. The pork chop was perfectly browned on the outside, juicy and flavorful on the inside; the sweet potato mash spicy-sweet only from the potatoes themselves; and the crisp-sweet green beans were tossed lightly with the browned bacon. All in all, a delicious sample of Fall. For my taste, though, I felt like I had to choose: Punkin Ale or sweet potato mash? The flavors were too, too close for me, and I’d rather have just one as my side dish- and I would probably have chosen the ale :).
For dessert, what’s better than chocolate cake? Triple Chocolate Cake, with raspberry sauce, that’s what. Served with Lindeman’s Framboise, a Belgian raspberry lambic style. Now, if you’ve had this before, you’d probably say- What the hell is this? This is no beer! Au contraire, my friend- it may be on the sweeter side, but it is brewed with aged hops- which eliminates much of its traditional bittering qualities. Lambic is also the style that uses open fermentation-as in, the fermentation container is left open to let wild yeast work its magic-which is why this style is so distinct. It can only be brewed in the Southwest section of Brussels, where that particular strain of yeast lives. The flavor adds a pleasant sourness, which balances out the sweetness of the raspberry. Interestingly enough, Gary spoke of being at dinners where both wine and beer were paired and compared; and when dessert was chocolate paired a choice of with raspberry wine or Framboise, the lambic won hands-down every time. It is less sweet than the wine, and is a more refreshing complement to the richness of chocolate. Either way, I was personally crazy about the combination. And the cake was chocolatey, rich, and moist-perfect.
It was wonderful to finally be able to enjoy a fine meal paired with craft brews instead of wine for a change, and to test out a long-talked-about Cape May institution as well. Aleathea’s will not bring you too many cutting-edge, culinary surprises; what it will offer you is a perfectly executed meal, with an ocean view, in a truly Victorian setting, with a casual, comfortable feel.
And, Gary, we most certainly owe you a beer.