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Albert’s Winter Brewmaster Dinner w/Sierra Nevada

Smoked pork loin on a spiced cactus masa cake with tomatillo chilies, citrus sauce, and petite ice plant

The latest brewmaster dinner at Albert’s Restaurant featured one of the largest craft breweries in the country, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. Based in Chico, California, Sierra Nevada has been rocking the beer industry since 1980, making a name for itself with its aggressively hopped pale ale. Thirty-two years later, it’s still pumping out delicious brews from a state-of-the-art, eco-friendly brewery, impressing beer geeks and casual drinkers alike. The brewing genius of Sierra Nevada mixed with the expertise of the Albert’s kitchen crew resulted in pure awesome.

Sierra Nevada Kellerweis and Torpedo Extra IPA were served during the reception along with carne and pollo street tacos with all the fixings. Guests also got to make friends with Victor the echidna (the oldest mammal in the Zoo’s collection), Shaman the great-horned owl, Baba the pangolin, and Phu Ket the binturong before heading downstairs for the main event. Brewery Ambassador Steve Grossman and Assistant Brewmaster and Field Educator Terence Sullivan took the floor as soon as we got down to Albert’s, giving us lessons in beer and talking us through the pairings.

First up was spiced shrimp and avocado salad paired with Orvila Abbey Saison. In case you’re not a beer aficionado (nobody’s perfect), a “saison” is a Belgian-style farmhouse ale, and Orvila Abbey Saison is the result of a collaboration with the monks at the Abbey of New Clairvaux in Vina, California. You wouldn’t think a Belgian-style ale would go well with spiced shrimp and avocado, but you’d be wrong. The beer completely transformed the dish, turning it all to butter with its biscuity notes and creamy mouth feel. The dinner was off to a good start.

The next course was smoked pork loin on a spiced cactus masa cake with tomatillo chilies, citrus sauce, and petite ice plant served alongside 30th Anniversary Brewer’s Reserve Grand Cru. This course was perhaps the best I’ve ever had at Albert’s. No joke. The pork was melt-in-your-mouth, the spice was subtle but still very present, and the sweet masa provided the soft, crumbly base, creating the best of both worlds: sweet and savory done right. The slightly tart, smoky grand cru rounded out the experience, harmonizing wonderfully with the complex dish.

Then came another heavy-hitting meat course: braised-beef short ribs with enchilada mole sauce, yellow tomato salsa, caramelized onions, and molasses pinto beans topped with micro cilantro. This bad boy was paired with Life and Limb, a bold, dark ale brewed collaboratively with Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Delaware. The short ribs were appropriately tender, but more subtle than the pork. They were slightly overshadowed by the sweet, vinegary beer. The mango salsa was a nice touch, adding a floral, citrusy layer to balance out the smoky aspects of the ribs and mole. While not trumping the previous, this was a solid course.

With barely any room left in our satisfied bellies, dessert came out in the form of a butterscotch white chocolate mousse with vanilla caramel sauce and cream, paired with 30th Anniversary “Jack and Ken’s Ale” Barleywine Ale. The big, malty punch of the barleywine and the fluffy, creamy goodness of the mousse were the perfect finale.

Thanks to Sierra Nevada for proving why they’re so revered, and thanks to Executive Chef Chris Mirguet, Sous Chef Charles Boukas, and the rest of the Albert’s crew for pulling out all the stops yet again. If you have a foodie side, do yourself a favor and check out one of these dinners. You won’t be disappointed. Have a look at what’s next at Albert’s.

Have you been to a delicious pairing event recently? Do you have a suggestion for future dinners? Let us know in the comments.

Matt Steele is the social media planner for San Diego Zoo Global. Read his previous post, Rhino Poaching Increases at Alarming Rate.

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Late Harvest Winemaker Dinner featuring Stags’ Leap Winery

When I arrived a few minutes before the reception of last Saturday’s 2010 Late Harvest Winemaker Dinner featuring Stags’ Leap Winery at Albert’s Restaurant, I caught Chef Chris Mirguet standing behind the beautiful, plentiful buffet table waiting to sauté some duck. I asked him how everything was coming together, and he smirked confidently—a response I’m getting used to at this point. Chris launched into a brief history lesson on Albert’s special dinners, noting that they have been hosting winemaker dinners for at least a decade. “Of course we’re working hard to make sure everything’s good to go, but there’s never a feeling of uncertainty, like we can’t execute and provide a great meal.” I would fault Chris for his unabashed confidence if his meals didn’t deliver. As one of many satisfied diners, I can tell you that they do.

With a bounteous spread of California cheese, fresh fruit, artisan breads, tortellini pasta, roasted duck, and all the 2009 Napa Valley Viognier and 2007 Napa Valley Merlot you could drink, the reception alone almost made it worth the cost—especially when the animal ambassadors showed up. After eating and drinking to their hearts’ content, guests got up close and personal with a great horned owl, armadillo, American alligator, hedgehog, serval, and a friendly anteater before heading downstairs into Albert’s for the dinner.

As we were waiting for the first course to arrive, Stags’ Leap’s sommelier, Margot, couldn’t stop raving about the animals. It was the first time she had ever seen some of them, let alone up close. The first course arrived in the form of a Wilted Caesar Salad with herb-crusted crostinis, wilted romaine hearts, shaved parmesan cheese, anchovies, and handmade mustard dressing paired with 2008 Napa Valley Chardonnay. The salty anchovies came on the side and provided a nice counterpoint to the greens, and the sweet, fruity Chardonnay washed it all down perfectly with a smooth initial mouth feel followed by a slow onset of bitter and a slight alcohol spice. The meal was off to a good start.

Wilted caesar salad with herb-crusted crostinis, wilted romaine hearts, shaved parmesan cheese, anchovies, and handmade mustard dressing

The second course upped the ante. It was a roasted chestnut soup with black truffle crème fraiche paired with 2006 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Instant praise erupted from the table as diners took their first bites of this delectable concoction. One diner was surprised by how well it captured the spirit of autumn. “It tastes like Thanksgiving—slightly pumpkiny.” Another diner was amazed by how well the Cabernet paired with the soup. “Both the wine and the soup are very rich and smooth—very Christmasy.” Their exultations were warranted. This flavor bomb of a soup overwhelmed my palate with its thick, creamy texture and savory biscuity notes, reminding me of slightly sweet country gravy crossed with a Thanksgiving pudding or custard. The hints of nutmeg and cinnamon sent me over the edge.

Roasted chestnut soup with black truffle creme fraiche

After such a spectacular second course I was worried that the main course would be overshadowed, but my fear was allayed when I took my first bite. The petit filet mignon with wild California mushrooms and potato cake with Stags’ Leap demi-glace and micro chives paired with 2005 Estate Grown Cabernet Sauvignon was no slouch. The filet was melt-in-your-mouth tender, the mushrooms were fresh and earthy, and the whole thing on top of a potato pancake and drenched in Stags’ Leap demi-glace was gustatory perfection.

You might have noticed that both the second and third courses were paired with Cabernets, but both are very different wines. The Cabernet paired with the petit filet is “estate grown,” meaning produced with grapes grown at Stags’ Leap’s own vineyard, and it’s also pure Cabernet, as opposed to the mixed blend Cabernet that was paired with the chestnut soup. According to Margot, the estate-grown cabernet represents the unbridled strength and power of the cabernet grape, with an extra potent finish due to being aged for five years in oak barrels. “This one says ‘I’m a firework.’”

Petite filet mignon with wild California mushrooms, potato cake, Stags' Leap demi glace and micro chives

With our taste buds practically beaten into sweet submission, out came the dessert—slow-roasted strawberries in a chocolate ganache-filled tart with an almond twill cookie. One word: decadent. The dessert was paired with the very sweet 2007 Napa Valley Petite Syrah, which was very well received by our table and notably more floral than most Petite Syrahs.

Slow roasted strawberries in a chocolate ganache filled tart with almond twill cookie

When I congratulated Chris for another deftly executed dinner, he humbly credited it to the expertise and hard work of his staff. “These dinners are a team effort,” he said, “My staff deserves credit, too.” Guys like Charles Boukas (Chef De Cuisine), Brian Mitchell (Senior Cook), Frank McAllister (Cook), Armando Morales (Cook), Jose Luna (Prep Cook), Allen Villeneuve (Prep Cook), Michael Mann (Dishwasher), and Armando Martinez (Dishwasher) all came together to make it happen, and on behalf of my very satisfied stomach, I thank them and all the guests who came out to make this Winemaker Dinner a success. We hope to see you at Albert’s for Thanksgiving Dinner. Cheers!

Check out the rest of the food eye-candy on flickr.

Matt Steele is the social media planner for the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Super Easy Trapeezee.

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Fall Members Appreciation Dinners

Albert's Manager Mark Freisinger and Executive Chef Chris Mirguet

Every Fall we say thanks to San Diego Zoo members by treating them to a gourmet three-course meal at Albert’s Restaurant for a very affordable price. And if you think affordable means lower quality—think again. After indulging in last Saturday night’s dinner, it’s apparent that, unlike profit margin, quality is one thing Executive Chef Chris Mirguet and Manager Mark Freisinger are not willing to compromise.

After being seated a few minutes before our reservation time, my brother Andrew and I were promptly presented with menus and given the option to select from a bevy of items to build our own three-course meal. There was also an optional wine pairing with each course for an additional fee, which we opted-in for to get the full experience.

Lobster Macaroni and Cheese with White Truffle Oil

For the appetizer, I went with the Lobster Macaroni and Cheese with White Truffle Oil paired with 2008 Chateau Ste Michelle Riesling, and my brother went with the classic French Onion Soup paired with 2008 St. Francis Chardonnay. I’m not one to go nuts over lobster, but after the Lobster Macaroni and Cheese, I was preaching the gospel of lobster for days. It was tender but still retained its firmness without the undesirable “popping” sensation associated with low-quality shellfish. The slightly sweet, floral Riesling cut into the buttery, salty mac and cheese nicely with a “citrusy” finish. Andrew finished his soup in about 30 seconds flat before remarking that it was probably the best French Onion Soup he’s ever had. Enough said.

Trout en Papillote

With our taste buds on high alert, it was time for the entrée. Of the four options, I chose the Trout en Papillote, which consisted of fresh river trout with braised spinach, Pernod (a French liqueur) and pine nuts served in a parchment paper pouch, paired with 2007 Toasted Head Viognier. The parchment paper pouch (hence, “en papillote”) allowed the trout to steam in the oven and soak up the butter, spices, Pernod, spinach juice, and its own juice. The server cut open the pouch to reveal one of the most beautiful cuts of fish I’ve ever seen. It was so tender I could have spread it on bread.

Beef Bourguignon

As much as I was raving about the trout, my borderline vegetarian brother couldn’t shut up about the Beef Bourguignon paired with 2007 Raymond Sommelier Selection Cabernet Sauvignon. He was hyping it so much that I had to steal a few bites, and I’m glad I did. It was absolutely the star of the show. The savory, “oniony” notes, root vegetables, and fresh pasta with red wine sauce harmonized beautifully to dilute the poignant bite of the braised beef. The result was pure gustatory bliss.

White Chocolate Pumpkin Tart with Candy Corn Syrup

For dessert I ordered the Apple Cranberry Tart with Caramel Sauce paired with 2007 Bonterra Muscat, and Andrew ordered the White Chocolate Pumpkin Tart with Candy Corn Syrup paired with 2008 White Oak Dessert Wine, both solid endings to our already decadent meals. And for the record, candy corn syrup is one of the coolest ideas ever.

Apple Cranberry Tart with Caramel Sauce

The meal was straight-up traditional French cuisine with no frills—but it was executed well. In a contemporary culinary scene rife with deconstructionism and hybridization, Chef Chris and team prove that simple is sometimes better. “Not a lot of people in San Diego can pull off French, but it’s just what we do.” With a satisfied belly full of simple, yet brilliantly executed traditional French cuisine, I had to agree with Chris. It’s just what they do.

Check out the rest of the food eye candy on flickr.

Matt Steele is the social media planner for the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Albert’s Brewmaster Dinner with Ballast Point Brewing Co.

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Albert’s Brewmaster Dinner with Ballast Point Brewing Co.

When I commented on the relative tranquility of his kitchen throughout the course of service during Saturday night’s Brewmaster Dinner, Chef Chris Mirguet smirked at me. “We’ve been doing this for seven years now, we’re like a well-oiled machine,” he said.

If you were at our Brewmaster Dinner with Ballast Point Brewing Company at Albert’s Restaurant last Saturday, then you know what Chef Chris was talking about. From start to finish, the dinner was as smooth as the delicious libations that the brewing wizards over at Ballast Point seem to craft so effortlessly.

The evening started out with a one-hour reception upstairs in our Treetops banquet room, complete with a full spread of delicious hors d’oeuvres, including baked brie en croute with brown butter and walnuts, ahi poke, and fresh garbanzo bean hummus. Guests were also treated to an open bar where they could grab tasters of Ballast Point’s Sour Wench Blackberry Ale (a refreshingly tart and citrusy Belgian-inspired ale), as well as their GABF gold medal winning Sculpin IPA (a boldly-hopped, kick-you-in-the-pants IPA with a surprisingly smooth finish). Some of our animal ambassadors also dropped in on the reception to compete with the beer and food for attention. Priscilla the North American porcupine, Laveau the American alligator, Shaman the great horned owl, and Amina the African hedgehog nearly stole the show.

Keeper Nicole Gossler introducing one of our hedgehog animal ambassadors to guests

After the reception, diners were led downstairs to Albert’s, and the deliciousness commenced. The first course was a cured Cypress Island salmon, fried caper remoulade, and yellow heirloom jam paired with Ballast Point’s Calico Amber Ale (which is one of my absolute FAVORITE Ballast Point brews). The salty punch of the cured salmon was balanced nicely by the sweet, nutty notes of the Calico Amber Ale, and the fried caper remoulade and yellow heirloom tomato jam were the cherry on top. One diner put it nicely when he said “The salmon and Calico are singing together!”

The second course was an absolutely delectable kabocha and butternut squash soup with California smoked cheddar cheese (garnished with some kettle corn from one of our concession stands) paired with Bourbon Barrel Aged Piper Down Scottish Ale. The smoky, creamy soup harmonized beautifully with the woody, earthy notes of Bourbon Barrel Aged Piper Down. When I took a bite of soup and followed it immediately with a sip of Piper Down, a finely-tuned symphony of flavors erupted in my mouth. All of the courses were fantastic, but if I had to choose a favorite, this course would be it.

“The Piper Down Ale was by far my favorite of the beers that night,” said Chef Chris, “and I wanted to make a statement with a beer other than their gold medal beer (Sculpin IPA). The soup is something I have made before, and I thought the complexity and smokiness of the cheddar would pair well without masking the beer. The kettle corn was just a whimsical finish.”

Kabocha and butternut squash soup with California smoked cheddar cheese, garnished with kettle corn.

The kabocha and butternut squash soup was followed up admirably by slow-roasted Niman Ranch pork with Carolina-style barbecue sauce on a potato chive pancake paired with Abandon Ship Smoked Lager. This was quite literally the meat and potatoes of the meal. The pork melted in your mouth, and the sweet Carolina-style barbecue sauce provided just the right counterpoint to the rauchbier-style Abandon Ship Smoked Lager. Rauchbiers are noted for their likeness to bacon, a natural choice for pairing with barbecued pork. As you can imagine, guests were in heaven.

For the grand finale the guys over at Ballast Point brewed up a special one-off batch of their Black Marlin Porter and added cinnamon to it just for this occasion. The tasty libation was paired with a Julian apple tart with vanilla bean ice cream and caramel sauce. In another ingenious twist, the guys in the kitchen infused the caramel sauce with Ballast Point’s Three Sheets Rum (yep, they distill too!). It was the perfect end to a delightfully delicious evening.

Julian apple tart with vanilla bean ice cream and caramel sauce

Thanks to Colby Chandler, James Murray, and Ryan Glenn from Ballast Point for providing the tasty brews, and as always, thanks to Charles Boukas and the rest of the Albert’s kitchen staff for yet ANOTHER job well-done. The next special events at Albert’s are the Fall Members Appreciation Dinners (Saturdays, October 9, 16 and 23), Late Harvest Winemaker Dinner (Saturday, November 13), and Thanksgiving Day Buffet (Thursday, November 25). Go to the Albert’s special events web page to make reservations. Check out the rest of the mouth-watering pictures on flickr. Cheers!

Matt Steele is the social media planner for the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, First Birthday Bash