HopCat: Jolly Pumpkin Beer Dinner

(Grand Rapids, MI) With no firm plans upon which culinary adventure we would next embark, the beer-crazy folks over at HopCat sent their irregularly scheduled email newsletter at precisely the right moment. In it, they enticed with an upcoming beer dinner featuring Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales out of Dexter, Michigan. We've had good luck with these beer dinners before; would this one live up to past experiences? We set out on a Sunday night to find out...

He Fed:
HopCat has the widest variety of beers around, hands down. They do a great job of procuring unusual local brews, and even produce some of their own. The food, however, has always been a hit-or-miss for me. Sometimes it'll be solid (like the addictive Crack Fries) and other times just so-so. Although the establishment is ostensibly a bar, it would be nice when there is a beer dinner that requires reservations with a credit card, that someone greet us and show us to our table. Instead, we have to sheepishly approach one of the busy servers and announce our presence. It's a little awkward.

Once we pick a table, our server is quick to offer a pre-dinner drink. As with previous beer dinners, some of the other attendees straggle in late so the food doesn't begin right away. No matter; we sip our brews and talk. Though no one from Jolly Pumpkin is in attendance to walk us through the beers, a knowledgeable HopCat employee acts as tour guide.

We start with Fattouch Salad paired with Oro de Calabaza. The salad is sort of a Greek salad, heavy on the red onions. I am surprised at how well the sour farmhouse-style beer matches the boldness of the onion. It is lip-smacking and dry on the palate. Together, the salad and brew make for a nice "starter" to whet my appetite for the heavier courses.

Next is Duck Egg Benedict and Prosuitto on Sweet Potato Cakes paired with Weizen Bam. The huge egg is served over-easy, oozing yolk onto the cured ham and crunchy potato base. My first forkful makes my taste buds explode in delight. After that, I only half-remember the utter bliss of that rich eggy mixture and the sour wheat of the beer, swirling in my mouth. Crazy crazy crazy good. Best benedict I've ever had, and what a surprise to see that coming out of the HopCat kitchen. Hats off to the chef for preparing an exquisite dish that matches perfectly with the beer!

I'm quite excited by the third course: Sauerbraten and Root Vegetables paired with Fuego del Autono. The beer is golden red, deep and tart with just a little kick. Unfortunately, the sauerbraten is luke-warm. Something must have happened in the kitchen that delayed the dish coming out on time. Flavor is good and you can imagine the intent, but at cooling temperatures, I use the beer to wash it down rather than to enhance the taste.

After this, my anticipation of dessert wanes. A large wedge of Espresso Cheesecake topped with blueberries, blackberry, and Madrugada reduction changes my attitude. Paired with this, of course, is the Madrugada Obscura, a dark but not sweet concoction with porter-like qualities. By itself, the beer can be overwhelming, like staring into the abyss of deep self-reflection. With the creamy, buttery richness of the cheesecake and the tart, juicy explosions of fruit, the brew becomes something else entirely...a lively, effervescent cascade along the back of the tongue. I devour the dish, forgiving the sauerbraten's misstep instantly.

For some reason, I don't get down to HopCat as much as I'd like. It's seldom on my radar unless I happen to be in the area. After this meal, though, I'm much more likely to pop in, just to see what other surprises they may have in store for future.
She Fed:
As we slide into a table by the window to enjoy a little Sunday night people watching, a waiter brings us a menu and asks if we'd like to order a beer while we wait. About 20 minutes later, a HopCat staffer makes the rounds to each table to pass out the night's beer dinner menu and talk up Jolly Pumpkin, the evening's featured brewery.

A half pint of Oro de Calabaza is delivered and I enjoy a few sips while we wait for the fattouch salad, which arrives just a few minutes later. The grassy and melon overtones of the beer complement the chopped salad of cucumbers, tomatoes, red onions, feta, pita pieces and yogurt dressing. The red onion is extremely strong (could have used a soak in cold water) but the beer tames some of the sulfurous burn.

Next up is duck egg benedict with prosciutto on a sweet potato cake paired with a half pint of the Weizen Bam. The duck egg is poached perfectly and the bright yolk oozes beautifully over it all as I tuck into it. The sweet potato cake is crispy and savory (I cannot abide by "sweet" sweet potatoes), but the prosciutto has not been crisped up and it's difficult to cut. The Weizen Bam slices through the extreme richness of the egg and the hollandaise; I find myself wishing for seconds of both the benedict and the beer.

Our third dish is the one I've been anticipating since Jeremy suggested the beer dinner a week earlier. It's the sauerbraten and root vegetables. My grandfather loved German food and I have such fond memories of going to dinner with him and my grandmother at the Schneitzelbank in downtown Grand Rapids. When they closed, I actually teared up and I've never found a better sauerbraten anywhere. Maybe tonight's the night?

A half pint of Fuego del Autono is paired with the dish, which is unfortunately nearly as cold as the beer. It's not icy, but the sauerbraten itself is cold and the veggies are lukewarm at best. I know if I send it back, it will be nuked and ruined. I try a few bites and realize it's pretty good, even cold. There's only ten diners participating in the beer dinner and I'm curious as to how the chef could let a dish leave his kitchen cold? The root veggies—redskin potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots and perhaps a turnip or two—taste quite good. I actually happen to be a fan of room temperature roasted veggies. The beer is smoky and earthy and goes nicely with the sour beef and roasted veg. But it would have been so much better if the meat had been warm.

The final course is an espresso cheesecake with blueberries and blackberries and is paired with the Madrugada Obscura, a hefty sweetie-pie of a beer I discovered at an earlier HopCat beer dinner. A reduction of the Madrugada is drizzled over the cheesecake as well. The reduction is bitter and for me, it's just one component too many. The cheesecake is luscious and plays well with the beer, but I steer clear of the reduction.

This was not the best beer dinner I've had at HopCat (Short's Brewery dinner last fall was fabulous!) but the first two courses are begging to be made at home and being inspired by two of four courses is not all bad in my book. Of course, my hunt for a lovely sauerbraten continues.

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