originally published May 24, 2013
As my fingers sloppily dance over my keyboard this morning, I reach the conclusion that I am suffering from an outlandish hangover. To be fair, my mind is luminously clear and my body is enduring only the normal aches and pains of an average 38-year-old in my shape (which falls somewhere between ‘portly’ and ‘Chris Farley’). But my tongue – oh, my poor savage tongue. A microscope might reveal the tiny little ice-packs upon my tiny little taste buds, for last night they imbibed more than their weekly share of stimulation.
I attended the launch dinner for Big Rock’s newest entry into the noble gallery of liquid art – the Rosmarinus Aromatic Ale. It wasn’t so much a meal as a sensory odyssey through a forest of flavors. Parkallen restaurant on the south side of Edmonton (the fun side) and Chef Joseph Rustom get credit for the exquisite eats, while a quartet of Big Rock’s noblest soldiers leapt arm-in-arm down my throat, past those weary little buds who were still trying to cope with the wretched frozen pizza I’d shoveled at them the night before.
Last night, those babies were a hell of a lot more grateful.
The opening tumpet-trill of yum is a robust pint of the star herself, the Rosmarinus Ale. There was no burying the lead, no holding back the show whilst some opening act hogged the stage; the first splash of bliss was meant to be the one we’d be talking about the next day.
And it must have worked, because here I am.
Rosmarinus Ale tucks hops into the back seat, inviting the fresh flavor of rosemary to slide behind the wheel and punch its own route into the GPS. I immediately flung the above photo onto my Facebook page, partly in a fever of excitement, and partly because I’ve been boring my friends lately with numerous status updates expressing my giddiness at a new season of Arrested Development. Some friends balked at the concept – how could that sprig that pulls the flavor out of a roasted chicken try to pass itself off as a headliner for a beer?
But therein lies the beauty of Rosmarinus. A callous brewer would have shoved the herb like a novelty stage act into the cold spotlight. But brewmaster Paul Gautreau allows all his ingredients to play as a harmonious chorus, the rosemary plucking out a melody so soulfully adhesive it could make Duke Ellington blush, while the rhythm section beats with the heart of a pale ale.
Then comes the food. Chef Joseph, most certainly one of the most affable and compellingly charming hosts in this city, boasts about the explosion of fresh flavor that is his Fatouche salad. Even in the wake of his enthusiastic intro, his verbiage falls short of the magnificence on my plate. This salad is the gustatory equivalent of tumultuous applause. The waiter – Dale, equally charming and enigmatic – brings enough for six people, yet my wife and I devour the entire thing. Along with the salad comes a strike formation of miniature pizzas, topped with subtle (and thoroughly greaseless) donair meat and a slice of fresh tomato. Given the lifeless slab of frozen hellishness I’d devoured the night before, I couldn’t tell if I was salivating or if my tongue was weeping with joy.
Along with this first course came a taste of Big Rock’s SAAZ Republic Pilz, a classic European-style pilsner. Drinking SAAZ is like scooting onto a waterslide. The initial rush – in this case the bitter slap of assertive hops – lifts you off your seat. Throughout the sweeps, swirls and swoons of the ride my mouth finds itself immersed in bubbly refreshment. This is a beverage worthy of the warm summer sun; indeed, the two cans of SAAZ in my refrigerator are my crucial stockpile for the next blistering weekend afternoon.
Onto the appetizer course, and a trio of perfect tiger prawns who had been yanked from the smoldering brine of the sea, then pampered and bathed in a remarkable roasted coriander sauce. They would have been the stars of the course, but they had to share space with this unfathomably savory and spicy Lebanese sausage named Sijouck. For Sijouck, it tastes as though Chef Joseph handpicked the most flavorful nuances from sixteen different varieties of sausage, then combined them into a tube so tasty it could cripple a government.
Amid the chef’s fevered introductions to his masterful masticatables, Paul Gautreau (Big Rock’s beer-Jedi) also introduces the next beer on the menu. To hear Paul talk about beer is like listening to a professional athlete pore over every detail of a perfect play. I’m not joking – the night before, I had been watching Dwight Clark gleefully detail every moment of The Catch, the play that effectively handed off the Dallas Cowboys 70’s football dynasty over to the 80’s dynasty of the San Francisco 49ers, and that same unbridled whoopee drips off every one of Paul’s words. His passion evokes thirst. And the perfect citrusy India Pale Ale that accompanied our appetizers was every bit the triumph as a perfect Joe Montana throw.
My hunger was shriveling by the time the main course appeared: organic chicken marinated in what I can only assume to be the liquefied extract of the perfect Mediterranean voyage, beef tenderloin that was so succulent I almost emitted an inappropriate laugh, and a trio of majestic grape vine leaves, packed with beef and rice. All this sat atop a cinnamon-almond rice concoction that I enjoyed so much, I was certain I must have been breaking three or four laws in the process.
Along with the entrée came another hearty helping of Rosmarinus. It was at this moment that I truly recognized the brilliance in pairing beer with food – the Rosmarinus pulled the sweetness of the rice off my tongue and incorporated its flavor, creating a new entity, sentient and wholly independent. It was the most transformative gulp of beer I’d experienced since my first foray into experimental flavors – I believe it was the Rogue Ale Chocolate Stout.
Paul explains to the restaurant full of patrons inebriated both from alcohol and taste overload that the notion of herbs and spices filling the shoes of hops in an ale is anything but new. Back in medieval days, when consuming alcohol was the one and only form of entertainment and escape, ales stayed notoriously free of hops. Rosmarinus is brilliant for harkening to the past, and pulling those ancient ideas forward into something modern palettes can deem refreshing and inscrutably delicious.
Dessert had no problem keeping up to the rigorous pace of its fore-foods. It was a slice of baklava, which Chef Joseph explained was a staple of all Mediterranean cuisines, thanks to the centuries-long Turkish muscle-flex known as the Ottoman Empire. The Parkallen baklava addressed the one sense that had yet to be tickled by this feast – the sense of hearing. Each super-thin layer of crispy pastry succumbed to my gnashing incisors with a tiny splash-cymbal of perfect consistency. For those of us who find a bizarre innate thrill in watching a choreographed building demolition on TV, this dessert provided the same rush. Rather than douse the delicacy in honey like some cut-rate mall-food-court Greek joint, Chef Joseph opts for a tasty syrup enhanced with a rose water blossom. It was like sinking my teeth into a morsel of the divine afterlife. You know, the afterlife of someone who has been much better behaved than I.
Not wanting to be outshone in the final stanza, Big Rock’s contribution to dessert was a glass of their complex Scottish Style Heavy Ale. This brew had somehow evaded my radar for most of my days; I first tried it whilst touring the Big Rock brewery a couple weeks ago. There are so many sensations tucked between the margins of this brew, each sip deserves its own paragraph.
But I digress. And I digest. And while my tongue recovers from its manic party last night, I’d encourage it to find the strength to thank my hosts, and to thank the Beer Gods themselves for the wealth of options and adventures they provide. If only I had brought home more leftovers…