Monday, November 23, 2015

Letting 'Em Down Easy

Today is National Start Your Own Country Day, which I neither did nor celebrated, but it's also the last day of Virginia Cider week, and that one I addressed.

Blue Bee Cider and Camden's Dogtown Market - which could arguably be considered a modest attempt at starting the chef's own little universe, if not country -  were doing a pairing dinner to celebrate the seasonal apple harvest.

Seeing as how I was solo (and keeping my pours short to accommodate an early morning), I took my place at the end of the bar, next to a favorite beer geek and close to the cider queen, Courtney, to sip easy-drinking Winesap on Tap, poured out of growlers from the cidery next door.

Now there's a short distribution route.

That's when the music hit me. Bluegrass had been chosen as cider-appropriate and it was sounding more like a hoedown and less like eating music than anything I could think of short of death metal. I offered my opinion that although I enjoy bluegrass, the music was ill-suited for a five-course meal and was told that nothing suited cider better than banjo-picking.

"Don't we have too many teeth to listen to this kind of music?" the beer geek asked rhetorically. Yes. Yes, we do.

Winesap apple-roasted chicken salad "kotopoulopita" was introduced by the chef as, "kinda Greek-like, but not at all really," but the raves I heard were about how fabulous they were with phyllo dough encasing the savory chicken mixture.

One woman was so taken with the dish that she asked if it might show up on the regular menu sometime. Not a chance, she was told - turns out the chef hates dealing with phyllo. It was tasty while it lasted.

Beer Geek told me about his recent trips to Key West, Burlington, Vermont, Indiana and Appomattox, sharing photographs - yes, kids, actual hard copy pictures, not digital files  - of his progress around the country.

Sharp cheddar and walnut fondue with housemade potato chips was described by the chef as, "Snack food, yea!" while I would call it flat out obscene and a lovely pairing with Charred Ordinary (and a language lesson for those who didn't understand that ordinary was the word for tavern in Colonial times). Tiny jam jars held the rich, nut-studded fondue, which had some people using their finger to get every last drop out of the jar.

A particularly fast, twangy piece came on and Beer Geek observed, "I feel like I'm robbing a bank!" about the silent movie-sounding soundtrack. So I wasn't the only one objecting to the frenetic pace of bluegrass while eating.

In simplistic terms, the next course was hops and hot dogs. I mean, technically, it was Hopsap Shandy (a hops-infused cider) with killer housemade bratwurst, pickled mustard seeds and housemade pretzel sticks. The satisfying explosion of the seeds when bitten provided the same pleasure as popping bubble wrap, but in my mouth, so not nearly as annoying to those around me.

A woman made the comment that Chef Andy had "spoiled her" for other restaurants because he makes so much of his food in house, pointing to this course as a perfect example of that. She'd recently been in Washington and been appalled at what she had to pay for lesser quality.

Another woman pointed out that she only moved to Richmond eight months ago and already feels like she spends all her time eating out because it's the city-wide pastime. And her point was...?

Aragon, which Blue Bee's Courtney described as the ideal bridge between those who've only tasted "six-pack ciders" and the next level of liquid apple drinking, was paired with braised pork shoulder over spaetzel with "Smokey Jus."

I'm sorry, but when I see "Smokey Jus" on the menu, it looks like a name to me and I assume he's a far-flung cousin of Smokey Robinson or a regular at Smoeky Joe's Cafe, while the beer geek thought it sounded like a cowboy's name. Let's rustle up some grub, Smokey Jus.

Semantics aside, the dish was a bowl of winter comfort, long-cooked and deeply flavorful.

Coming around to offer more cider, my server raised an eyebrow when I declined. "You're letting me down, Karen," she announced. "Complaining about the music, not drinking much. Who are you?"

One of the couples at the dinner had the distinction of being there to celebrate both their birthdays today. They live on Floyd Avenue, my home for 13 years, and I went over to chat with them about the old 'hood. You see, today I'd driven down Floyd only to see that a roundabout is being installed at Dooley Avenue.

Floyd, I hardly know ye!

They inform me that another will go at Belmont and the speed limit will drop to 20 mph, all part of the Floyd Avenue bike route. This is all terrific news, but none of it helped me when I moved in back in '93."

Of course we discuss InLight, which was practically in their backyard this year.

"I loved how diverse it was, " the birthday girl said. "And everyone was smiling!" Further proof that my thesis - that InLight is the visual equivalent of the Folk Fest with wide appeal and a solid 8-year history - is a sound one, if I do say so myself.

Cupcakes tricked out with lighted birthday candles were delivered to the happy couple and the room gave them a round of applause, presumably for making it this far in life. Or maybe just to temporarily drown out the music.

Back in my seat, another rapid-fire bluegrass song plucked at my last nerve, with BG noting, "Okay, this song was used in "Bonnie and Clyde." So we were back to music to rob banks by, lord help us. A server hilariously began clogging behind the bar.

Firecracker, a dessert cider, was made with ginger-infused eau de vie and was our final pour. Courtney said she wanted a dominant ginger taste and got it, noting that she's had ginger-infused ciders that barely whispered their gingerness.

"It's an expensive ingredient," she said assertively. "I wanted my cider to taste like it." Mission accomplished. Paired with goat cheese mousse with sweet pickled Black Twig apples and graham cracker crumbles, the Firecracker was everything you expect a feisty ginger to be.

The kind of cider that says in its own liquid way, if you don't like me, move on, buster. Go start your own country, or maybe your own restaurant where you can make all the rules.

And for heaven's sake, turn off that damn bluegrass while people are eating.

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