By Andi Prewitt
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
One of the best-kept secrets in the state’s food and beer scene is tucked away in the suburbs. Every few months, 30 or so people gather in a restaurant just off of Northwest Cornell Road in Beaverton for a multicourse brewer’s dinner. The venue is unexpected. It’s not a brewery, for starters. And the joint is best known for filling stomachs with hefty deep-dish pizzas and burgers that nearly topple over due to mounds of condiments — feasts in their own right, but not the kind associated with an event that often serves more upscale fare. That’s why it may come as a surprise that Old Chicago is somewhat quietly, but successfully, executing a dinner that partners off-menu creations with beer from Oregon-based breweries. That’s right — within the walls of a national chain lies the hands of a chef who loves to push the corporate culinary boundaries as well as the heart of a craft beer enthusiast who seeks to create community, even on the edge of a strip mall.
The most recent Old Chicago brewer’s dinner took place mid-February and featured Ecliptic Brewing’s beers. It was the eighth held by the eatery, which has also hosted Breakside Brewery, Pelican Brewing Company and Vertigo Brewing. While the program is relatively new to Old Chicago, the chef and kitchen manager at the Beaverton site has been curating beers for presentation with multiple dishes for years. The next dinner will actually be the 39th of Rich Palfy’s career.
For Palfy’s earlier efforts, he had to rely on bottled beer when developing pairings. But it became easier to experiment when he started working for Rock Bottom Brewery in Colorado since the establishment actually made beer. Palfy “started to really interact with the beer and implementing it into the food as either marinating it, cooking with it,” he described. “I got to partner with the brewers and be able to really design menus and use their beers in my food.”
Even though Old Chicago doesn’t brew, it prides itself as a place for beer enthusiasts to find ample selection. The restaurant also wants to be an outlet to educate newcomers who are hesitant to loosen their grip on a go-to domestic lager. The company’s website even offers a primer on how to taste beer, with descriptions of aroma, flavor and mouthfeel. Although corporate restaurants don’t give individual chefs much opportunity to shape menus, Palfy’s autonomy with the brewer’s dinners seems a natural next step to further the chain’s commitment to beer culture.
After Palfy moved from Rock Bottom to Old Chicago, which are both owned by CraftWorks, he began exploring the idea of putting together a dinner with the Beaverton restaurant’s general manager and bar manager. They were all willing to try something a little different inside a business where change tends to come slowly.
“So it kinda started like that — just kind of a, ‘Let’s see what we can do with it and see if it’s going to work.’ Because,” he explained, “Old Chicago is not known for that kind of thing. That’s how it really kind of got off the ground. And from there, it’s just been building. Yes, we have some regulars that come in for the dinners that love it. But then we’re starting to capture new people.”
There is indeed good potential that Old Chicago’s foray into brewer’s dinners will expose a wider portion of the population to this type of culinary experience for several reasons. The price, to begin with, is one heck of a good deal. The first few dinners Old Chicago hosted only set diners back $32-35. While the price of admission was bumped up most recently to $40, that’s still a bargain when compared to most beer dinners in the area, which can run anywhere from $60-125. That’s prohibitively expensive to many beer lovers. Additionally, the Old Chicago location and atmosphere may be more approachable to a customer who’s intimidated by a high-scale venue or the exclusive feeling that’s often permeating these events due to the fact that many guests know the brewer, restaurant owner or promoter. Outsiders may feel left out. It’s also just plain fun to see a chef pushing himself creatively in a kitchen that he admits has its limitations since it’s set up to aid in the creation of Old Chicago’s menu items.
At the Ecliptic dinner, four courses offered a mix of light, spring flavors along with heartier fare for those chilly days that hang around in Oregon until late June. That would make this time of year the perfect opportunity to recreate some of Palfy’s food at home. The first course, bite-size Caprese wraps, could be enjoyed as an appetizer or a light lunch. The miniature rolls bobbed from sweet to tart to savory, encompassing all of the elements expected in the traditional salad presented in a way where you didn’t need a fork. To ensure the balsamic-drizzled sweet tomatoes, milky mozzarella and fragrant basil weren’t overpowered by the beer pairing, Palfy selected Ecliptic’s Spica Pilsner. The Caprese brought out bready flavors in the crisp, earthy beer.
In course two, Palfy hit the guests with one of his specialties: a soup. While he almost made a New England clam chowder for the meal, the bold turn to a Manhattan was a better decision. The chef used some of Ecliptic’s beer to sweat out the carrots, celery, garlic and onions. After tucking into the brick red broth, the heat of the peppers instantly gave you a soft punch in the palate. That sensation then gave way to a rich, stewed tomato flavor with a hint of briny clam to finish. Reinforced with each bite was the warm and slightly bitter taste of oregano, giving chowder an Italian twist. The bright mix of citrus and floral notes in Orbiter IPA tempered the clams while intensifying the soup’s kick, due to its hop-forward nature. But since the spice tends to linger in the mouth, the beer’s effervescence helped scrub the palate so that the heat could be experienced anew with the next spoonful.
The entree provided the perfect mix of winter meeting spring. Asparagus is at its peak in Oregon April through June, so take advantage of it now. The grilled vegetable’s sweetness provided contrast to an oven-roasted halibut, but both were light enough to eat again on those warmer spring days. Need something heartier? Palfy had the fish and spears resting atop a bed of buttery, roasted fingerling potatoes that were wading in a creamy red pepper sauce made with California serranos. Pollux Imperial IPA, which is more malt-forward than Orbiter, had a resiny mouthfeel and a sweetness comparative to the asparagus. It’s also incredibly smooth without a strong alcohol character, but at times the big beer could overpower the more delicate fish. The potato, however, could stand up to an imperial and when coated in sauce, the food amplified the spiciness hops can bring to a brew.
The last course of the night had diners anticipating warmer days as the molten chocolate lava cake drizzled in raspberry sauce was like sinking your teeth into a summer afternoon. Pairing that with Electra Framboos Raspberry Ale meant doubling down on the fruit component, but it paid off. The biting Belgian pale with raspberries and cocoa nibs was a refreshing balance to the rich, dense cake. There were three different levels of sweetness in this dessert: the chocolate, the sweet/tart notes in the sauce and the clean, simple vanilla in the scoop of ice cream nestled next to the cake. The combination of hot and cold elements also provided a fun mouthfeel reminiscent of those hot fudge sundaes you probably ate a lot more often as a kid.
Perhaps Palfy’s menu will get you to the next brewer’s dinner, slated for April. Or maybe you’re just curious to see what it’s like to sit down for a multicourse meal with beer pairings inside an Old Chicago. Whatever your motivation might be to attend, here’s what the chef hopes you’ll take away:
“I want them to enjoy it, have a good time, meet new people while they’re here,” Palfy said. “Maybe introduce themselves to somebody in the business they’re not in and collaborate that way. And just have a good time in an environment where they can come in and feel like it’s home.”
Paired with Ecliptic Spica Pilsner
By Chef/Kitchen Manager Rich Palfy
2 sun-dried tomato wraps (or spinach or flour tortillas)
2 Roma tomatoes, sliced thinly
1 pound fresh mozzarella, sliced thinly
1 pound fresh basil leaves, no stems
— Put the wrap/tortilla on a cutting board, then add 1 slice of tomato, 1 slice of mozzarella and 1 basil leaf.
— Repeat this step until the wrap is full, leaving about 1 inch at both ends.
— Roll wrap and cut into 1-inch pieces.
— Plate and garnish with olive oil and balsamic reduction.
Manhattan Clam Chowder
Paired with Orbiter IPA
By Chef/Kitchen Manager Rich Palfy
4 6.5-ounce cans minced, diced clams
2 28-ounce cans crushed tomatoes
2 28-ounce cans diced tomatoes
7 carrots, diced
2 green peppers, diced
2 red peppers, diced
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried basil
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
3 drops of your favorite hot sauce
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
salt and black pepper, to taste
Prep time: 20 minutes, cook time 3 1/2 hours
— Combine all tomatoes, clams, spices and sauces and simmer for 30 minutes
— Add all vegetables and salt and pepper, to taste, and cook on medium heat for 3 hours. If there’s not enough clam taste, add clam juice.
— Serve with breadsticks (optional).
Monthly recipes and pairings from your favorite brewpubs around Oregon.