All photos by Ted Axelrod/Axelrod Photography
In 2013, beer and food pairing was touted as one of the top trends of the year, which was hardly news in Portland, where beer dinners and other pairing events have been part of the local food scene for a good while. Of course beer has always matched well with food, but with umpteen craft beer flavor profiles out there, we’ve come a long, long way from “I’ll have a burger and a Bud.” It’s still not complicated, for the most part; while most beer drinkers know that a crisp ale pairs nicely with seafood and stout goes beautifully with chocolate desserts, we’re happy to leave the “rules” to the wine world.
Some beers are easier to drink overall, making them good matches for a wide variety of foods. Maine Beer Company‘s softly-hopped range of American-style ales were featured on Portland Taste Tours‘ Wednesday evening excursion to four neighboring and well-regarded restaurants in Longfellow Square: Petite Jacqueline, Pai Men Miyake, Boda and LFK.
We gathered at Petite Jacqueline where chef Frederic Eliot’s classic French cuisine was recently rated “Extraordinary” by Portland Press Herald restaurant critic John Golden. At 7 p.m., the place was packed, but all 15 of us shimmied into a table along one wall, where we were taken excellent care of by owner/manager Liz Konigsberg and her striped-shirt wearing staff. Our first surprise was a full glass of Peeper Ale — not the expected sample size — the second was a simple looking but deeply flavored and luscious pork belly with beer-braised French lentils.
The chef briefly emerged from his busy kitchen to tell us that the belly was Berkshire pork which had been brined, braised, pressed, sliced and seared to achieve the just-crispy exterior giving way to soft, meat lightly marbled with tender fat. It was, to borrow a word often used by my friend John Golden, sublime.
Most Portland Taste Tours are walkable, but this one was especially so — our second stop was just a few feet away at Pai Men Miyake. Chef Masa and his partner Will Garfield were not there, busy getting ready for the launch of their third restaurant, Food Factory Miyake on Spring Street, the next day, but our group was once again warmly welcomed and served another pint of Maine Beer Company beer – MO (named for Kleban’s twins, Madeline and Oliver).
Slightly hoppier than Peeper, MO was paired with more pork belly (no one complained) in the form of two deservedly popular Pai Men Miyake signature dishes: steamed pork bun with gouchuchang mayo and pepper relish and nikuman pork bun with eel sauce.
In addition to Dan Kleban, joining us regular folks for the tour were Maine Beer Company brewers Kevin Glessing, Mark Fulton and Dylan Webber, who provided their own commentary on the beers they make.
Porked out, we ventured out into the bracing night air for a slightly longer walk, across Congress Street to Boda. Once seated and served our third pint of the night — an IPA with the straightforward name of Lunch — we were served Thai dishes with some of the most complex flavors of the tour. Each of us was presented with a small tray on which was a chubby clay pot with a lid, a woven basket and a banana leaf packet. The pot held fragrantly spiced shrimp with a heat that crept up well after each bite was finished; in the basket were tender-chewy strips of what manager Jeremy Sossei called “fresh beef jerky” and in the banana leaf, sticky rice to balance both. The beer was a perfect match for the bold seasonings.
If we had stopped right there, after three pints of beer and soulful, inventive, absolutely delicious tastes of French, Japanese and Thai food, I think we all would have been supremely satisfied. But back across Congress Street we went, faithfully shepherded by Portland Taste Tours founder Mary Soule, to the final stop and a distinctly American-style finish at LFK.
Happily settled into tables and a squishy couch at the back of bustling, iconoclastic LFK, we were served a dessert that was pure genius: a mug holding mocha ice cream drizzled with chocolate sauce and a pretzel tuile cookie, into which was poured Mean Old Tom — an American stout aged with vanilla beans. This was the most spectacular, grown-up ice cream float, and I may have been the only one to slurp up every last drop, the perfect finale to a well-orchestrated evening.