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Safari Park Brewmaster Dinner Featuring Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits

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Johari the cheetah stopped by during the reception.

Last Saturday’s Brewmaster Dinner at the Safari Park featuring Ballast Point Brewing Co. held no surprises. Guests came expecting to make some animal friends, enjoy four courses of delectable food paired with equally delectable brew, and have an amazing time—and that’s exactly what happened.

The reception appropriately began with BBQ shrimp and grits crisps, jalapeño shrimp and tasters of Habanero Sculpin IPA. If you’re not familiar with Sculpin IPA, then you’ve clearly been living under a rock. It won gold in the 2010 World Beer Cup and has since been a craft beer staple. Take one of the best IPAs in the world, add a hint of habanero spice and pair it with spicy Creole appetizers, and you have instant melt-in-your-mouth awesomeness. After rubbing elbows with Johari the cheetah (of Cheetah Run fame) and Julio the female Eurasian eagle owl with a male’s name (long story), it was time to get the show on the road.

The first course was a sunburst salad with mesclun mix, port-soaked cranberries, sliced almonds, crumbled stilton, and cinnamon-raspberry Tabasco vinaigrette paired with Wahoo Wheat Beer. Head Brewer Colby Chandler from Ballast Point introduced this pairing as a no-brainer way to kick off the dinner (in more or less words), and he was right. The subtle tang of the beer played nicely with the fresh and fruity salad, allowing the dish to take center stage but not falling completely into the background.

Out came the second course, a Louisiana gumbo with shrimp, Andouille sausage, crab, okra, and all the trimmings, paired with a decidedly hoppy, big-boy beer—Big Eye IPA. The rich, bold gumbo needed a beer that could match it, and Big Eye IPA was up to the challenge. The copious amounts of the American Columbus and Centennial hops in the beer punched through the gumbo’s wall of flavor, enhancing the spice in all the right ways.

Brewmaster Colby and the culinary minds at the Safari Park put on their thinking caps for the next pairing, combining an incredibly unique beer, Smoke Screen Smoked Lager, with bacon-wrapped stuffed Berkshire loin with apple trinity pepper chutney, haricots vert and three potato boulanger. Whereas the previous course punched you in the face with flavor, this course took a more nuanced approach, massaging your palate with depth and complexity. I’m not even sure I have the lexicon to describe everything that was going on with this course, but trust me, I enjoyed every second of it.

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Smoke Screen Smoked Lager paired with bacon-wrapped stuffed Berkshire loin with apple trinity pepper chutney, haricots vert and three potato boulanger

By this time I was about to explode, so I tragically couldn’t fit more than a few bites of the brioche bread pudding with whipped cream, Ballast Point Three Sheets Rum, and caramel butter raisin sauce paired with my favorite beer on the face of the planet, Victory at Sea Coffee Vanilla Imperial porter. This pairing was as decadent as it sounds, rounding out a finely executed dinner.

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Brioche bread pudding with whipped cream, Ballast Point Three Sheets Rum, and caramel butter raisin sauce paired with Victory at Sea Coffee Vanilla Imperial porter

Cheers to Colby Chandler and Ballast Point Brewing for proving just how beautiful and complex beer can be, and cheers to the Safari Park staff for pulling off yet another flawless event. I’m already excited for the next one.

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Ballast Point Brewmaster Colby Chandler (front), schmoozing with guests.

Matt Steele is the social media planner for San Diego Zoo Global.

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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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Albert’s First Tequila Dinner Featuring Casa Noble

Casa Noble Single Barrel Anejo sifter

I’ve been a craft beer geek for a long time, but like most people, I started out drinking cheap, macro-brewed nonsense because I didn’t know any better. I never thought beer could be delicious until someone sat me down and said, “beer can be good, and here’s why.” That’s exactly what happened at the most recent dinner at the San Diego Zoo’s Albert’s Restaurant, except the beverage in question wasn’t beer but that often vilified agave-based drink—tequila. Thanks to the skilled craftsmen at Casa Noble and the talented kitchen staff at Albert’s, I’ll never see tequila the same again.

Like most of the special dinners at Albert’s, the night began with an intimate reception in the Treetops Banquet Room above the restaurant, complete with all-you-can-eat hors d’oeuvres and all-you-can-drink libations. A tree pangolin (which one guest likened to an “armadillo monkey bird”), tamandua or lesser anteater, and a South African hedgehog dropped by to entertain us while we enjoyed delicious street tacos, nachos with all the fixings, and “Albert’s Organic Margatinis” with Casa Noble Crystal tequila. After the reception, we were led downstairs to kick off the dinner.

The first step toward changing peoples’ perception is education, and that’s how the dinner began. Before the first course came out, the presiding tequila connoisseur, Enrico Caruso, took the floor and gave us a brief history lesson on the drink, how it’s made, and the complexity inherent in a well-crafted tequila. Heads exploded left and right as pre-conceived notions of tequila were shattered. We now had the knowledge to combat our ignorance, but we had yet to apply it. Then came the first tequila.

Before each course we were served our tequila in a shot glass accompanied by a virgin cocktail. We were encouraged to taste the tequila straight up before diluting our taste buds with the rich food, then dump the rest in the cocktail and enjoy it that way if we preferred. Our first taste was of Casa Noble’s Reposado, and with Enrico’s help we began discovering its nuances. The first sip was very sweet and peppery, with larger sips revealing creamy butterscotch notes. I was a believer. Next came the food.

Bursting with four plump blackened Mexican white shrimp drizzled with virgin olive oil on top of baby spinach, pureed black rice, marinated tomatoes, and fresh avocado, the first course was a BIG one. I don’t eat a lot of shrimp, so I couldn’t be the best judge, but a pescatarian at our table said she eats it like it’s going out of style, and THIS was good shrimp. I took her word for it. The simple, rich flavors matched the tequila’s bold, raw notes of pepper and butterscotch. Fantastic.

The second course, Guajillo-spiced pulled pork with cilantro-lime polenta and corn relish, topped with salsa verde, was paired perfectly with Casa Noble Anejo. The Anejo was aged in oak barrels for a year and boasted a much sweeter profile than the Reposado. It had obvious silky notes with hints of chocolate and burnt honey, which cut nicely into the richness of the pulled pork. The smoky notes from the tequila also paired beautifully with the sweet, spicy pork, and the green sauce with habanero matched the alcohol spice of the tequila.

Next came the Empanada de Habichuela, consisting of slow-cooked black beans infused with onions, peppers, tomatoes, chorizo, and panela cheese folded into a flakey pastry crust and finished on smoked enchilada sauce. This course continued the trend of big, bold flavors, harmonizing with the Casa Noble Reposado and matching it on the high notes. At this point it was obvious that this dinner was not about subtlety. It was about punching you in the face with flavor and leaving you wanting more.

The dessert, a Semifreddo de Chocolate y Cacahuate with chili brittle, agave nectar, and assorted edible flowers, was another welcome flavor bomb. When matched with the Single Barrel Anejo sifter, it was heaven.

Semifreddo de Chocolate y Cacahuate with chili brittle, agave nectar and assorted edible flowers

Of all the dinners I’ve attended at Albert’s, this was by far the most interesting. The subject matter was fresher, the atmosphere was wilder (fitting for a zoo!), and the flavors were more intense. Congrats to the experienced craftsmen at Casa Noble and the equally competent staff at Albert’s for bringing the delicious yet again. They’re all magicians as far as I’m concerned.

See the rest of the pics on flickr.

Matt Steele is the social media planner for San Diego Zoo Global. Read his previous post, Panda Photo Contest.

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Butterfly Jungle Preview Dinner

It’s no secret that the Safari Park’s annual Butterfly Jungle event is a big draw, and the Hidden Jungle exhibit can get a little, um, “cozy,” during peak hours. Most people agree that the bright, fluttery payoff is definitely worth dealing with the crowds, but if you’d rather avoid them entirely for a special VIP preview of Butterfly Jungle the evening before it opens, and be treated to a delicious four-course meal immediately following your exclusive peek, then you can’t miss our Butterfly Jungle Preview Dinner. I had the honor of attending this year’s Dinner, and I have to say it’s probably the best way to experience Butterfly Jungle.

Our night began when we were ushered straight into the front door of the Hidden Jungle exhibit after a quick Sharpshooter photo (which you have the option of purchasing after the Dinner). This was my first year ever attending Butterfly Jungle, and as soon as we entered the exhibit, it was immediately apparent why people go so nuts over it. It was like walking into a dream—an alternate reality where bright, airy spirits fill the air in the shape of butterflies. Okay, that description was pretty melodramatic, but trust me, it’s an incredible experience. I think I’m even going to use the word enchanting, if that’s okay with you.

Because the Jungle was only open to Dinner guests, there was plenty of room to move around and position myself for prime picture-taking or tree-impersonation in hopes of coaxing a few butterflies to land on me. We also had the option to take a break from the Jungle to enjoy nearby hors d’oeuvres and libations, but as you can imagine, it was hard to tear ourselves away from the exhibit. After an hour of alone time with the butterflies, we were led to the Hunte Nairobi Pavilion for a brief yet enlightening presentation by the Park’s insect keeper, Sarah Jenkins, on butterflies and their fascinating biological nuances. Then it was time to feed our hungry stomachs!

The dinner began with a subtle, buttery farfalle soup with butterfly pasta, a broth of wild mushroom and petite spring vegetables with an herbed Parmesan crisp. It was appropriately mushroom-forward with a nice foundation of earthy, herbal notes to balance it out and ease our taste buds into the courses to follow.

Fresh-cut chicken breast marinated in lavender-infused honey, pan roasted and served over jasmine rice and grilled asparagus with garlic lavender jus

The second course came in the form of a bright, floral berry salad with baby spinach leaves, fresh blackberries, strawberries, and blueberries in a champagne vinaigrette. It was finished off with candied pecans, to harmonize with the sweet notes, and a fried goat cheese medallion to provide a nice, savory contrast to the fresh, crisp greens and berries.

Next came the entree, which was decidedly the star of the show—fresh-cut chicken breast marinated in lavender-infused honey, pan roasted and served over jasmine rice and grilled asparagus with garlic lavender jus. My mouth is watering just thinking about it. There was nothing unexpected or exotic about this dish, but everything about it was well executed. The chicken and asparagus were cooked to perfection, and the rice was the welcome neutral third party to balance the highs and lows. The dessert, a vanilla sponge cake with a layer of raspberries topped with mascarpone  cream and crushed pistachios, was the perfect fluffy exclamation point to the experience.

Vanilla sponge cake with a layer of raspberries topped with mascarpone cream and crushed pistachios

Many thanks to the excellent Safari Park keepers and culinary staff for an unforgettable night of ethereal insects and delightful food and company. If you like incredible dream-like encounters and decadent meals, keep your eyes peeled for next year’s Butterfly Jungle Preview Dinner. If you don’t, check your pulse. You might be dead ;-)

Check out the rest of Matt’s pics from the night.

Matt Steele is the social media planner for San Diego Zoo Global. Read his previous post, Roar & Snore Safari at the Safari Park.

Note: Butterfly Jungle runs through May 8, 2011, at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

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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