What:A series presented by Earth Fare with Culinary Specialist Chris Aquilino, featuring beer dinners that showcase regional brews and wine dinners that highlight local distributors
Ambiance: Dressed up enough that you forget you’re in a grocery store
Of Note: The next event, Sept. 28 at 6 p.m., will feature the French Broad Brewing Company
Beer is quickly gaining a foothold as a connoisseur’s beverage. Though it hasn’t been afforded the lofty status of wine yet, the humble malt beverage is shaking off its image as simply a working-class drink. Beer is increasingly in the spotlight as the star of multicourse dinners, and such dinners appear to be gaining on the classic wine dinner in popularity. With such a fine selection of local brews in Asheville, it’s a wonder that beer dinners aren’t organized more frequently.
It seems like Earth Fare South, of all places, is up to the task. An upscale supermarket frequented by the Biltmore set (and the occasional celebrity) may seem like an unlikely place to knock back a few. However, with the black tablecloths and stemware on the tables and the lively crowd that turned out for the first of many such events, one could easily pretend to be in the dining room of any restaurant. (Leaving the safe confines of the café and navigating the grocery’s aisles toward the bathrooms with a buzz on is another story.)
The buzz was unavoidable. With such great beer being poured so freely, who wouldn’t partake? Eventually the room was so (ahem) abuzz with conversation that the organizers of the event took to banging on their glasses with cutlery in an (often vain) attempt to quiet down the 60-odd people who were crowded in the café.
As it turned out, it was well worth listening. Two of the brewers from Highland Brewing Company, Andy Gibbon and Paul Rollow, were there to dispense all sorts of details about their product. As waitresses poured Highland’s award-winning Kashmir IPA, Rollow recounted the history of IPA – short for India Pale Ale. The ale, he explained, was created out of necessity to help the beer survive a long, hot trip from England to India during the British colonization of the region. “Hops have sort of an antiseptic quality,” explained Rollow, “so they started doubling the amount of hops that they put into their pale ale. It preserved the beer for the long trip, so they weren’t having problems with spoilage any more.” Fortunately for the British (and for the rest of us), the innovation created a distinctly flavored, refreshing brew. Highland’s version is not overly aggressive, and makes a fine accompaniment to shellfish, a fact that was not lost on Earth Fare’s resident culinary specialist, Christopher Aquilino.
Aquilino, a recent transplant from New York, selected moules frites to pair with the Kashmir. In Belgium, moules frites, or mussels with fries, is traditionally a working-class dish, and hence a natural choice for a beer dinner. For Aquilino, it is an example of what inspires him. In speaking of his interest in working closely with cuisine that has humble origins, specifically a dinner celebrating the intricacies of a beverage that more quickly brings to mind football than food, Aquilino – who also has a degree in art – cited John Lennon’s portrait of the working-class man as hero: “That’s who [I] want to speak to. These are the people that are usually what the art is about, the songs are about. My ideas on cuisine are very close to my ideas on works of art.”
Much of the dinner emphasized the casual, such as Aquilino’s pairing of a grilled vegetable quesadilla with cilantro-lime salsa and Gaelic Ale – a choice, he noted, that went in the direction of pub fare. “Everything goes with Gaelic Ale, as you may or may not know,” he said, “but this, I think, works very well.”
The service, too, was rather casual, provided as it was by people who haven’t chosen waiting tables as their career path. One of the smiling girls pouring the beer and toting the food had been pulled straight off of a long shift of checkout-line duty. She lamented her decision to twist her long blonde hair into two braids, which she feared made her look like a “beer wench.”
The course selections did venture into the realm of high cuisine, but never drifted too far into left field. A trio of artisan cheeses was presented perched on wafers and drizzled with raspberry and balsamic reductions. A black mocha stout ganache cake was paired with – you guessed it – a Black Mocha Stout. Pairing Jamaican Jerk chicken and rosemary-scented mashed potatoes with the Tasgall Ale – a Scotch-style high-gravity brew with caramel and bitter-chocolate notes – seemed to be an odd choice, but somehow worked, a good example of how Aquilino likes to play with his food. One of his goals with the dinners is to keep making the unexpected work. “I like to push the envelope a little bit and let the spices talk to each other, versus just meld together,” he explained.
Moreover, Aquilino informed us that, in addition to monthly events focusing on “regional beers” (a term he explained could grow to encompass all of the Southeast), the store will hold wine dinners on a once-monthly basis. The reaction of the rather sizable crowd bodes well for the success of this series; some two-thirds of those in attendance signed up for the next event. Certainly the price is right at only $20 for five courses and five beers. With such a large amount of interest, though, Earth Fare will need to solve whatever problem occurred that made hot food arrive at the table cold. What the store won’t need to address is the flavor issue: Aquilino has that one covered.
Speaking of the crowd’s enthusiasm and the event’s success (in an unlikely setting, no less), Aquilino smiled broadly and said, “That’s what it’s all about. Having fun. [The environment] made it much more of a community event. … Sure there was alcohol involved, but that’s what it takes,” he said, laughing.
“It’s a community-building substance,” someone joked from the other end of the table.
In my warm and fuzzy-headed state, something about that sounded just right.