I was lucky enough to attend the Belgium Beer Dinner last week at downtown’s Grill 83, and by the weekend, I was still describing Chef Felix Alen’s dessert to anyone who would listen. My effusive praise went something like this:
“Think of a root beer float made with peach beer. I know; it sounds weird, but it was unbelievable. First, peaches and cherries in a sweet syrup were put in the bottom of a glass. Next, peach beer was poured in and it had a luscious foam. Finally, in went a scoop of peach sorbet. The combination of flavors was amazing.”
The beer used in the dessert was Lindemans Peche Beer, one of four different Belgium beers used as pairings for the multi-course dinner and as ingredients in the dishes. Chef Alen’s visit to Memphis was coordinated to honor Belgium, this year’s Memphis in May country, and it’s hard to imagine a more charming and accomplished ambassador. A former chef to the Belgium royal family, Alen also is founder of the Center for Gastronomic and Table Culture near Brussels. Little wonder, then, that the dishes served Wednesday night showcased remarkable culinary finesse.
We started with a amuse-bouche made with pureed duck liver, shallots, chicken stock, and a little beer, of course. Our first course was a mixed green salad and panko-crusted mussels tossed with a vinaigrette of Duvel Belgium Ale. The ale also was served alongside.
The meal’s second course was a fillet of eel topped with mashed watercress and served floating in a lazy eight of grated cauliflower mousseline. I loved the eel’s flavorful and chewy texture, but my husband preferred the next course: suckling pig stuffed with herbs and caramelized vegetables. The tenderloin was served on top of crispy slices of potatoes and dressed with a sweet and sour sauce.
The eel was served with Affligem Blond Beer (a lovely companion for the food that tasted more like champagne). The pork was paired with Corsendonk Brown Ale, and its gorgeous bouquet and chocolate taste reminded me a little of Nestle’s Raisinets.
Before each course, Steve Barzizza of Southwestern Distributing explained the history of the beer pairings along with their attributes. He also entertained diners with fun beer facts, such as Americans like their beer very hoppy.
After dinner, I chatted for a few minutes with Chef Alen who said he’d started his visit to Memphis at Graceland (“I like Elvis, blues, and B.B. King,”) and that his most successful cookbooks (he’s written 25) were on barbecue. “We also like outdoor cooking in Belgium,” he said.
I asked if the food he served at dinner represented traditional Belgium eating. “The ingredients, yes,” he answered. “The eel, the pork are very traditional, but the presentation is modern.”
I was impressed with Chef’s Alen’s descriptions of his dishes, but he attributed his English and relaxed demeanor to the glass of hearty Belgium ale he toasted his guests with after dinner. “Drink more Belgium beer,” he said, smiling. “After drinking two, I can give a speech like Obama."