Sunday, October 7, 2007

Beer Tasting Menu at Nicole's Bistro

Woo hoo! One of us turned thirty years of age last Thursday, a day which coincided with a special night at Nicole's Bistro in downtown Albany. As soon as we found out about the special event, which promised to demonstrate successful pairings of beer with French-style dishes, we made our reservation and smiled in happy anticipation. You see, we love good beer and especially good French food.

Nicole herself was waiting to receive all of the guests and suggest a cocktail to the early arrivals (which included us). The unseasonably warm weather allowed us to relax a little while on the patio. The birthday celebrant enjoyed a lovely Kir Royale: champagne with a bit of blackcurrant liqueur. Passed hors d'ouevres were complimentary but rather ordinary, except for a tasty toasted baguette slice with salmon mousse and capers. Nicole told us that she planned to wait for about 45 minutes after the dinner's advertised start to actually serve food, so that everyone would have time to be seated. At long last, we were seated in the upstairs half of the restaurant. The feeling of the restaurant was cozy and unfussy, with exposed wooden ceiling beams and simple artwork along the lines of the French Bistro theme.

We were seated at a table for 8 with 6 people whom we had never met, making it feel a little like a wedding reception, but our neighbors were amiable and tolerant of our blog-photo taking, so no complaints there. On with the food!

Starter pairing with Spaten Oktoberfest:
Spicy Shrimp and Corn Bisque OR Alsatian Tarte with Caramelized Onions and Gruyere Cheese

The bisque was delicious and creamy while not heavy, with large pieces of shrimp, but unfortunately lacked the promised spiciness. The onions of the tart also lacked any caramelization, so that was a disappointment. We had been expecting a true Alsatian Flammekuche, but this was definitely not it.

Spaten Oktoberfest is quite light in weight with malty-sweet flavors that dominate the medium hops, and it's rounded out with roasted nutty flavor on the finish. Both the bisque and tart were sweeter than the beer, which brought out the beer's roasted nuttiness. The hops were somewhat diminished in taste once we started eating our creamy starters.

Main Course, paired with Kronenbourg 1664:
Classic Choucroute Garnie -- Sauerkraut with Assorted Sausages, Smoked Pork, and Steamed New Potatoes or
Carbonnade of Filet Mignon Tips and Portabella Mushrooms served with Rosti Potatoes

Both the choucroute and carbonnade dishes were spot on and scrumptious, with the exception of the rosti potatoes, which had turned bitter and gray before cooking. The rich carbonnade sauce made up for this error, though. With the choucroute, the bratwurst and weisswurst were unsurprising but good, and the smoked salted pork could have been more smoky, but there was a lovely slice of sausage resembling a large-diameter kielbasa that made up for any lack of flavor in the rest.
The beer distributor's sales rep was on hand to clarify that, in this case, the light, mild beer was meant to cleanse the palate between bites of the heavy main courses, rather than complement any particular flavors. In this case, the carbonnade and the beer didn't complement each other so well-the Spaten Oktoberfest might have been more apt. However, we found that the salty and acid flavors in the sausage and choucroute were very well matched to refreshment with the beer.

Dessert, paired with Lindeman's Framboise Belgian lambic.
Gateau Pithivier - Almond Raspberry Puff Pastry Tart or Plum and Apricot Galette

Ah, dessert. Lindeman's Framboise is beer, but it doesn't taste like it. Lambics are different from lagers and ales because they are fermented by wild yeasts rather than added yeast, therefore developing more sour flavors and also because fruits, raspberries in this case, are often added for flavoring and sweetness. The beer alone could have stood in as a dessert, but in this case we were asked to evaluate a dessert with either a matching flavor of raspberry filling or a dessert with complementary apricot and plum flavors. Both desserts were good, except for the fact that the apricots in the galette were dried rather than fresh, and both types of pastry crusts were delicate and tasty. For us, the winning match was the Gateau Pithivier because it seemed like more of a unified dessert course when matched with the similar beer. The role of complementary flavor and texture was played by the cream sauce to balance sweetness and tartness in the raspberry gateau. The sauce with the galette was a deep brown caramel and cream sauce whose caramelization contrasted too much with the beer.

We had a great time tasting the food and beer, as well as meeting some interesting people who sat near us, but we felt a little bit let down by the atmosphere of the restaurant. It was noisy and cramped, and we would have been hopeless in the case of a fire emergency. However, we were glad not to be any closer to a musician downstairs with a keyboard that was playing and singing awful muzak that ranged from the Monster Mash to It's Raining Men. The fact that Nicole's is willing to try to convince diners that beers can be paired with fine foods shows that the chef and owner are willing to take risks on new trends in dining. So, we think that, with some tasteful updates, Nicole's could become a great contemporary restaurant experience. That said, having experienced such crowded and noisy conditions, we're not really tempted to go back to an event dinner such as this one, even though the price was reasonable, $45 pp, beer included, plus tax and tip.

We were indeed quite inspired to try our own beer and food pairings at home. Watch for them on this blog!