Belgian Beer Dinner at the Duck Club
Last Friday’s Belgian Beer Dinner was held at the Duck Club Restaurant in the Lafayette Park Hotel in Lafayette, Calif. The Duck Club Restaurant is part of a chain of several restaurants situated on Woodside Hotels properties and resorts throughout the greater San Francisco Bay Area, which stretch from their Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa up through their Napa Valley Lodge.
This particular Duck Club had just finished undergoing renovations, the result of which was a restaurant whose décor harkened back to the hunting lodges of old. With its earthen color palette and huge, duck-themed paintings, I believe they succeeded. By the time my wife and I walked in to take our seats, Certified Cicerone Nicole Erny – who made time for a lengthy interview on her role as a Cicerone before the event – had taken the microphone and was talking about the appetizer course we just missed. We made our way to a round table near the back of the restaurant; it was the only table that was partially seated at this sold-out event.
Frustrated by a 2-hour commute to Lafayette, a trip normally made in 40 minutes, my wife and I missed the Belgian Beer Dinner reception of Chef’s Selection appetizers paired with the Tripel Karmeliet from Brouwerij Bosteel. Tripel Karmeliet is one of my favorite Belgian Ales and I’m sorry to have missed not only the beer but the appetizers it was paired with.
We were not the only people affected by the weather-delayed commute, as the last two people to our table, also from the South Bay, made it just in time for the first course.
Food: Smoked Salmon and Dungeness Crab Bombe, Dill, Crème Fraische, Capers
Beer: De Glazen Toren Saison D’Erpe Mere
Tasting Notes: The Saison D’Erpe Mere had an aroma initially sweet aroma that gave way to pear-like fruity esters. With a medium-low level of bitterness, the saison’s flavor echoed that of its aroma while being further fleshed out by a pleasant, spicy phenolic character and a low level of tartness in the finish.
The Smoked Salmon and Dungeness Crab Bombe dish was beautifully plated. I am almost always at a loss as to what to do when presented with something so beautiful, especially when it’s on my dinner plate. So I did what came natural; I took a photo of it. In all seriousness, this was an excellent dish. The slight smoky flavors of the salmon blended well with the fresh, lightly briny yet creamy character of the crab. Both flavors were mellowed out by the dill-infused crème fraiche while the capers added a salty, herbal backbone to the entire dish.
The saison paired perfectly with this dish, resulting in an expression of balance. The sweetness of the beer found a counterpart with the seafood; the estery and spice-like character were married with the salty and herbal quality of the capers while the slightly tart finish of the saison echoes similar notes in the crème fraische.
Food: Muscovy Duck Breast, savory waffle, ale-pickled brussel sprout slaw
Beer: La Binchoise Reserve (Special Noël)
Tasting Notes: According to Nicole, the Reserve beer is a seasonal beer from Brasserie La Binchoise that straddles beer styles, exhibiting characteristics from the Belgian Dubbel and Tripel styles. I found the Reserve to have a sweet, slight caramelized malt flavor, with hints of dates, as well as a spicy, peppery character and a noticeable alcohol finish that warmed the back of my throat.
This dish, as told to us by Nicole, was their take on a southern California favorite: Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles. The ale-pickled brussel sprout slaw was surprisingly full-flavored. It had a spicy character that could’ve been from the unnamed ale it was picked in as well as the onions it was made with. The slightly sweet waffle was coated in rich gravy and topped off with two pieces of breaded duck breast. I found the gravy coated waffle to be much better than I thought, sweet yet rich, but I was a little disappointed with the duck breast. I love me some breaded chicken breast, but it was the general consensus around the table that the breading took away from the duck, masking its naturally rich and savory flavors.
As a pairing, this didn’t work as well as the first. In a good way, the slaw enhanced the spicy character of the beer while waffle and gravy matched well with the sweetness of the beer. The noticeable alcohol quality of the beer, meant to counteract the richness of the duck, didn’t really resonate with the breaded duck breast. When the breading was removed from the duck breast, the pairing worked much better.
Food: Bison Tenderloin, truffled white asparagus, black trumpet mushrooms, black truffle vinaigrette and pomme frittes
Beer: St. Bernardus Abt. 12
Tasting Notes: The Abt. 12 has a slight spice note in the aroma that is balanced by a dark fruit malt character similar to dates, possibly prunes. These same characteristics are echoed in the flavor and joined by a rich, savory, caramelized sugar flavor. It is a full-bodied beer with noticeable alcohol warmth in the finish. Despite its richness, the mouthfeel exhibits some dryness.
Nicole goes on to relate how St. Bernardus was at one point contracted out to brew the infamous Westvleteren 12. Notoriously difficult to purchase, Westvleteren 12 was rated “Best Beer in the World” by RateBeer.com in 2005. Nicole continues on to say how Westvleteren has changed up the original recipe for their 12 by using a different yeast and how the St. Bernardus Abt. 12 is closer to the original recipe than the current production of Westvleteren 12.
Even before the bison tenderloin arrives at our table, I can already smell it. A sharp, acidic aroma fills the room as the bison tenderloin is being served. I worry the acidity from the vinaigrette is going to overpower the dish but all my fears are laid to rest after the first bite. The bison is cooked to perfection; it is seared on the outer layer and pink in the middle. Its texture is supple and chewy without the complications of connective tissue. The tenderloin breaks apart with minimal effort and the consistency of the meat reminds me strongly of seared ahi tuna. Unlike beef, the bison is lean and juicy without being greasy or oily. The black trumpet mushrooms, surprisingly, exhibit a meaty characteristic on their own while the white asparagus is delicate in its flavor and I attribute it’s acidity the vinaigrette. The pomme frittes look like shoestring French fries but have a fresh potato flavor to them. Whatever annoyances I may have had from the insufferable drive up are banished with every bite of the bison.
After such a glowing review, you may be surprised to read that I didn’t think this was a good pairing. The main reason I felt this pairing didn’t work was because the Abt. 12 overpowered the beer. Had we been served beef instead of bison, I think this pairing would’ve been successful because the Abt. 12’s higher alcohol content could cut through a fattier cut of beef. The bison was so lean that the alcohol quality of the beer just dominated my palate. This was a sentiment shared my others at my table as well. One of our tablemates felt a red wine would’ve just been the perfect accompaniment to the bison, partly I believe because the acidity of a red wine would match well with the lean bison. Keeping this in mind, I would’ve loved to see this same course paired with a Flanders red ale. At this point, it’s all wishful thinking and food for thought.
Food: Carolous Crème Caramel, fresh raspberries
Beer: Het Anker Gouden Carolus-Cuvee van de Keizer
Tasting Notes: Het Anker Gouden Carolus Cuvee van de Keizer, also known as Gouden Carolus Grand Cru of the Emperor, is my Belgian Dark ale du jour. This beer is a malt-forward Belgian ale that is sweet, without being cloying, and displays a layered richness and fullness in flavor. The dark fruit notes that are often hints or undercurrents in other dark Belgian ales are much more noticeable in this beer. While there is a noticeable alcoholic quality in this beer, it is not as warm as its 11% ABV would lead you to believe.
The Crème Caramel is really an interpretation of a crème brulee topped with fresh Raspberries. There were obvious citrus notes to the caramel’s aroma as well as the more obvious caramel and berry notes. Unfortunately this was the weakest dish of the evening. My crème caramel was slightly spongy and eggy, not at all smooth, silky or creamy. While I did notice a light, caramel crust on the surface, my wife missed it altogether. The raspberries did have a pleasant flavor; a good balance between berry sweetness and tart flavors.
Despite the shortcomings of the Crème Caramel, this pairing worked well with the lemon-citrus flavors and raspberries providing a counterpoint to the Cuvee van de Keizer while the flan/crème brulee matched the beer’s sweetness. If only the texture of the Crème Caramel lived up to its crème brulee introduction, I think this pairing would’ve been very successful.
Overall I felt the Belgian Beer Dinner at the Duck Club was a success. From a pairing standpoint, some dishes paired better than others, but they all worked to one extent or another. Even though the alcohol from the Abt. 12 overshadowed the bison, the general flavor profiles worked. From a value perspective, $75/person may seem like a steep price to pay for a dinner, but when you factor in the retail cost of these beers, I think this is a fair price point. The bison alone was worth the trip. When looked at separately, the chosen beers were fantastic while the food was both artfully prepared and tasted wonderful.
At the end of the day, I hope that my critiques are taken as constructive. I learned a lot that night about what good cuisine is and the difficulty that can arise from pairing such complex dishes with equally complex beers, and I look forward to the Duck Club’s next beer and food pairing dinner.
-- by Peter Estaniel