Last night, a group of businesspeople, journalists, PR folk, and adventurous diners gathered for a Crispin Cider-themed dinner at the Happy Gnome; two Heavy Table staffers attended as guests of Crispin. The night was a chance to get a feel for how Crispin performs in a culinary setting, and also to taste its new Honey Crisp varietal, which makes a public debut in August.
Before the food, a few quick notes about the new cider. Beer writer Aaron Masterson (of The Captain’s Chair) likened the impact of the cloudy, earthy Honey Crisp — named for the organic honey used in its production, not for Honeycrisp apples — to a Hefeweizen. The cider is a unique beast, offering more depth than the typical cider and an almost citric attack that complements its sweetness.
The gastromic challenge facing Happy Gnome executive chef Matthew Hinman was this: put together a six-course meal using Crispin Cider as pairing with the food and as an ingredient in the recipes themselves. Hinman — who has experience at both The Craftsman and Lenny Russo via W.A. Frost — rose to the challenge, putting together an apple-inflected juggernaut.
The meal opened with a small, sushi maki-style crepe bomb stuffed with cured salmon, Braeburn apple, and big, salty pearls of salmon roe. A creme cheese bechamel with chives helped mellow and temper the salt of the dish, which was considerable.
A frisee and fennel salad first course followed, successfully balancing the sweetness and freshness of fine peach slices against the tang of St. Pete’s blue cheese from the cheese caves of Faribault and a cider vinaigrette. Pancetta bits brought a comic note of abandon to an already entertaining party.
The second course showed off what cider pairings can accomplish, setting the cooling and sweet Crispin Original in opposition to a spicy achiote rub on a piece of Alaskan halibut. A green curry and apple cous cous played very nicely with the fish, supporting the dish and adding a terrific texture complement.
A seared Amish chicken breast was a farm dinner in miniature, served with undercooked baby carrots, broccolini, sweet roasted cipollini onions, and an ultimately irrelevant but well-intended thyme-apple foam.
One chef in attendance docked the overall meal several points for being underseasoned, and it might have been this chicken dish that was in his crosshairs; however, while mild, the restrained seasoning let the rich, earthy taste of natural chicken with seared skin come through loud and clear. When working with ingredients this good, a chef must ask himself or herself: Should I do more? Or stop right here and let the ingredient speak for itself? In this case, Hinman made a solid choice.
A fourth course was both a pleasure and a mystery; on a single plate sat a large piece of cider-glazed buffalo (cooked perfectly rare and tender), smoked pork belly, fig brulee, porcini mushrooms, a dollop of horseradish aspic, watercress coulis, and fingerling potatoes. That’s a hell of a lot of possible combinations, and you probably have to involve both Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking” and factorial notation before you really work out how many different valid permutations of food this array offers.
We don’t have a photo of this course because the photographer got excited and ate it before she could shoot it.
Dessert was both simple and delicious: A cider poached apple with Izzy’s ice cream, and walnut tuile.