Friday, March 29, 2013


Great food, awesome beer and most excellent company

Before I left to go to the Carton Beer Dinner at Poor Henry’s in Montville, I changed my Facebook status to  reflect where I was going, what I was doing and with whom I was doing it. And I used the phrase, “Good food, great beer and even better company.” I was mostly correct in that pre-assessment. Since I had never eaten at Poor Henry’s, the quality of the food was an unknown factor so I went with “good”, a descriptor that’s pretty vanilla and non-committal. I can now safely commit and restate that phrase as “Great food, awesome beer and most excellent company.” I've been to a few beer dinners and some have been successful to varying degrees and others have fallen short in a detail or two, but this one hit all marks with the precision of the lead triangle player in the original Toad the Wet Sprocket before the elbow removal. Let's see who gets that reference. 

The Control, the Geisha and I arrived to find Meathead waiting for us at the bar. Oh yeah, we get to introduce another cast member to our merry band of miscreants. Why Meathead? If you met him, you’d understand. Let’s just say that he once wore a full-on penguin costume to a company picnic in 100-degree weather and leave it at that. He can drink a pint of Guinness faster than anyone I've ever seen, even leaving me in the dust. It's quite an impressive sight. He recently started to report to me at work (the fact that he agreed to do so is also proof of his Meatheadiness) and asked me if I could help him find any good beer to drink since he was tired of all the awful beer that’s out there. I gave him one opportunity to retract the question for his own good and, after he dismissed that warning, launched him into a world vaster than he ever imagined. He’s learning quickly and having a lot of fun with it. We’re currently working on turning him into a hophead. We're making progress. 

Check out those elbow pads!
The five-course affair was held downstairs and tables were lined up in the middle of the room to create a more congenial gathering, but there were still tables to the side for those who preferred to stick to their own entourage. The traffic cone orange Carton paraphernalia was all laid out and we saw Jesse (the brewer) and Doug (the sales dude), who arrived just before us. Augie Carton (the brewery's owner), replete in a blazer with orange elbow patches (see picture, left) with matching silk liner, came in just as the first course was being served and immediately commandeered a glass of Boat Beer from a place setting being held for someone’s tardy friend. Now if you've never been to the brewery or to a Carton Brewing event you need to know that it’s not just about the beer, the location and the food…there’s also entertainment, if you can keep up. No offense to Jesse or Doug, who are both a ton of fun in their own right, but the party doesn't really start until Augie arrives. From him, you will get story after story, many of which will embarrass at least one member of his staff. “Why would you tell that story!?” seems to be a common protest. The rest of the stories are drawn from his experiences in the movie business and the world of foodies, having been a food blogger at one point. If you pay too close attention you might wind up learning something (like the secret behind the perfect French omelet) and come away with sore sides from laughing too much.

As the first round of beer started to hit the table, we all grabbed our seats. The first course was a lobster salad which was constructed of perfectly cooked pieces of lobster tail, delicately laid on avocado slices with a watercress salad, a grapefruit segment with a light drizzle of citrus vinaigrette. I had never had a salad made up entirely of watercress before and found myself wanting another green to mix it up a little. The bitterness inherent in the water cress and the citrus elements of the salad complimented the hop profile of the Boat Beer in a way that drew out the pinier notes of the beer. I wonder what other flavor surprises we would have had if arugula had been incorporated into the salad. I may have to try that at home.

The second course was pork belly that had been cooked until the edges were crisped but the center was still rich and tender. This was served with fiery red peppers and non-fiery red cabbage. Bibb lettuce leaves were supplied and we were given an underwhelming amount of sriracha on the side which disappeared within seconds. The amount was probably fine for normal people, but there were a few capsaicin junkies at the table.  One quick request and the bowls of srirachi were refilled to their brims and I was quite pleased with what was perhaps my favorite lettuce wrap ever. Marc Arbeit, the chef, did a great job in presenting different textures and flavor elements. The heat of the peppers and sriracha cut into the richness of the pork and the cabbage provided extra crunch. The Carton Canyon added even more for your palate to work with as the pork belly helped accentuate the subtle smokiness of the agave.

A glass of Carton of Milk
When I first read the menu, I was most excited about the next course, since I hadn't had venison in quite a while. It came in the form of a chop, cooked rare, rarer than you usually see game cooked, but it was very well-executed. We learned that the venison came from a local exotic meat purveyor called Fossil Farms, which is literally down the street from Poor Henry’s. I've seen their trucks around and tried some of their offerings at tastings. Based on the quality of that venison I plan to order from them sometime soon. Also on the plate were something I usually hate: Brussels Sprouts. I've always suspected that I’d like them if they were cooked properly and I was right. I actually found myself wishing there were more of them. There was a delicious black currant demi on the venison which was rendered irrelevant once we started to drizzle sriracha all over the meat. I feel the need to apologize to Marc, but it's hard not to use srirachi when it's available. The beer pairing, which was Carton of Milk (which may or may not be a milk stout) is a classic pairing with red meat even if your portion of meat is less than the one given to the girl with the immaculate eyebrows who knows where to find the best pork buns in New York City.

Many meat lovers would have been disappointed in the serving size of the NY strip. It was four slices of very rare steak, but they were prepared flawlessly and the perfect portion for a five-course meal. There were two cherry tomatoes on a pile of what I took to be cheesy, herbed mashed potatoes which I felt were too grainy. Then, after a couple of forkfuls, it dawned on me that it was polenta. Duh! As mashed potatoes they were atrocious, as polenta it was wonderful. The beer served with this was Red Rye Returning, which I kept calling Red Rye Rising at the previous Carton event at Copper Mine. Augie joked that he’d make a Red Rye Rising, to which his brewer, Jesse replied, “We can use baker’s yeast.” They still have to figure out if they’ll use Fleischmann’s or Red Star. I checked to see how well their hoppy, rye ale paired with this course and it complimented the beef very well. At this point Augie looked at his glass, which was about a quarter full, and frowned. Scanning the table he saw that there was one which was nearly full and he did the old switcheroo. The girl with the immaculate eyebrows who knows where the find the best pork buns in New York City never noticed.

Quick side note: if New Jersey law ever allows breweries to prepare and serve food in the tasting rooms, we need to make sure there’s a Crispy Crème opened in Atlantic Highlands. Just saying. If you’re curious as to why, go to the brewery and ask Augie or Jesse.

The Geisha was most excited about the last course, not because it was dessert, but because it featured Carton G.O.R.P. Knowing this beer, I was intrigued by the dish they chose to pair it with. When it’s time for dessert you just know everyone’s thinking celery. No? Not you? Yeah, I guess it’s not that high on my list of dessert items either but in its candied form, it took its rightful place on the plate right on top of the peanut butter mousse, which was exquisite! Served with grape jelly Malasada doughnuts, it became a deconstructed “frogs on a log”. Many diners didn't really know what to make of the candied celery, but once you put it in your mouth with some of the mousse and drank some of the G.O.R.P. you understood why it was there. That was my favorite flavor pairing of the night.

Confession: I'm not going to pretend that I recognized the "Munchkins" on my plate as Malasada doughnuts; I learned that from the chef's posting. Then I had to look them up and, if you're interested, they originated on the Madeira Islands and became very prevalent in Hawaii, due to the large Portuguese settlements there. Think of them as Portuguese beignets, which is apropos since Hawaiians actually refer to Mardi Gras as Malasada Day. Here endeth  the lesson. 

Augie, Jesse and Brian Casse from
Warning: Carton events never go quietly into that goodnight. The event may be done, but the Boat Beer continues to flow and all are welcome, even if you’re put in time out. So next time you see an event with Carton Brewing, rush to get tickets. You won’t regret it and if it’s up in Northern Jersey you’ll probably see us there. Make it a point to stop into Poor Henry’s in Montville, have a pint and say "Hi!" to Jesse Garrity (but don’t give him a peanut). As a matter of fact, they've got another five course dinner coming up with Founders Brewery...and it's on my birthday! Hope to see you there!