Think wine and cheese is the ultimate pairing? You might have felt differently after Tuesday's Beer & Cheese Dinner at Pura Vida, Brandt Evan's inviting new restaurant on Public Square. Besides fans, foodies, and a myriad of media types, special guests included Sid Cook of Wisconsin's Carr Valley Cheese and members of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. Joe Widmer of Wisconsin's Widmer Cheese Cellars had been expected too, but was sidelined at the last minute by a back injury.
Evans is a chef-ambassador for the milk marketing board, helping raise awareness of the state's fine cheeses and dairy products. Naturally enough, his menu was built around products from Carr Valley and Widmer.
Also on hand, Ari Weinzweig, co-founding partner of Ann Arbor's Zingerman's juggernaut. For you non-foodies, the dude is a big deal. Besides founding a world-renown gourmet foods op, he's included in the 2006 edition of the James Beard Foundation's “Who’s Who in Food & Beverage in America." And in 2007, he and Zingerman's co-founder Paul Saginaw were presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award from Bon Appetit magazine. Long, lanky, and laid back, the t-shirt-clad Weinzweig was just the kind of top exec we would expect from the Ann Arbor-based biz.
As for the brewskis, they were provided by our own Great Lakes Brewing Company.
But the real star was Evans' food: five rich, intensely flavored, cheese-inflected courses that paired beautifully with the brews.
As a serve-yourself intro, a lineup of Carr Valley and Widmer cheeses greeted attendees as they entered, complete with crostini, grissini, and dried fruits.
Once appropriately seated and greeted, diners were feted in earnest. First up, a petite trio of grilled cheese sandwiches made with an assortment of Widmer's aged cheddars: one-year paired with sliced apple, 6-year paired with prosciutto, and our fave, a 10-year white cheddar paired with bacon. To drink, the always approachable Dortmunder Gold.
The second course featured lush, deeply flavored BBQ duck confit nachos tweaked with cheddar "queso" and delightfully complemented by a limited-edition Rapid Red, a mild pale ale that brought out the dish's depth and dark nuances.
That was followed by a real showstopper: housemade bratwurst with wild mushrooms in a veal demiglaze, piled atop creamy polenta, and tweaked with Carr Valley's applewood-smoked Airco cheese, crafted with a blend of sheep, cow, and goat milk. A robust Oktoberfest echoed the rich flavors.
Evans encouraged us to dig into the fourth course — a flaky pastry cup filled with braised meat, parsnip puree and Widmer's caraway brick cheese, paired with a citrusy, pour of Burning River Pale Ale — before revealing the meat's exact origin. Turns out, it was tongue: as meltingly tender and delicious as any braised shortrib.
Braised shortribs, in fact, were up next: glazed with Edmund Fitzgerald Porter, flecked with Carr Valley's BaBa Blue, and topped with bits of crisp, spicy, flash-fried pig's ear. More Porter was poured to go with.
And it all wrapped up with dessert: a petite plating that included a ripe berry, a sea-salt caramel truffle, and a tiny orb of gelato flavored with porter, maple syrup, and nutty Bessie's Blend, a cured combo of sheep and cows' milk from Carr Valley.
Not only did the dinner highlight the versatility and elegance of cheese and beer. It was a fitting showcase for Evans' culinary prowess — and a damn fine meal, to boot.
Pura Vida is at 170 Euclid Ave. Call 216-987-0100 or visit puravidabybrandt.com for more info. — Elaine T. Cicora