Good pubs, Good Beer, Good People

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Stirling Effort Produces Sterling Dinner

Staging a successful beer dinner, even for seasoned pros, requires many things to work together. The beer, the food pairings, staff efficiency, the venue, the host and even the crowd are all important cogs if the result is to be a beer dinner that runs like a well-oiled machine. To achieve that in your very first beer dinner, while presenting a food/beer event which is decidedly “outside the box,” is a testimony to the teamwork of the Stirling Hotel.

Tom & Dori Baldassarre

Tom and Dori Baldassarre, owners of The Stirling Hotel, gave the reigns over to Beer Manager Dan Schneider and his management team of John Baldassarre, Dan Moeri and Meghan Bury to run what was called a Colorado Craft Beer and Game Dinner. Along with his Exec Chef Ryan Chatfield and Sous Chef Brandon Campney (who proved their culinary wizardry), the team scored a huge win, at least if the reactions of the forty-plus guests were any indication.

Set in the cozy confines of the outdoor heated patio, Schneider and Company delivered winner after winner in terms of beer and food pairings, some of which yours truly had never tasted. Wild Boar, Rabbit, Brook Trout and Elk are not The PubScout’s usual fare, even at some of the high-end places he has evaluated. Add Prickly Pear Granita and Crème Brulee—all with appropriate libations—and the table for success was indeed set. That such an elaborate offering was served with great efficiency is a credit to the staff, who also managed to clean up every setting after every course, silverware included, and replaced it with new settings.
Wild Boar

In an unusual move, Schneider opted to pair the Wild Boar appetizer with Breckenridge Brewery’s 25th Anniversary Imperial Vanilla Porter aged in Barbados Rum Barrels. Beginning a dinner with a nine-percent monster was a gamble, but its smooth taste worked beautifully, and it was an immediate hit. After that course, the friendliness levels around every table skyrocketed predictably.

 The Rabbit dish was paired with Oskar Blues’ excellent Pinner Throwback IPA, and it served as a mini-palate cleanser to prepare for the rare (in NJ, at least) Left Hand’s Sawtooth Nitro, which matched up with the crispy-skinned Brook Trout and Morel Mushrooms. Long a fan of Left Hand’s Milk Stout Nitro, the PubScout was so impressed with the Sawtooth that he requested a second glass.

Left Hand Sawtooth Nitro
 That set the stage properly for the main event—Elk with Sage, Barley Risotto, Cumberland sauce and a flaming sprig of juniper. Tender, sweet and savory, the elk had everyone at my table “mmm-ing” in approval, and though I may not get it, I’m asking for the barley risotto recipe. That it was matched with Great Divide’s hearty Hibernation Ale didn’t hurt either.

I really need to watch “Chopped” more, according to the missus, because, as a meat and potatoes guy, I had no idea what Granita was…maybe a Spanish term of affection for a diminutive maternal grandparent? But I sure know what it is now: a term of affection for an excellent palate-cleansing dessert made with Prickly Pear Juice and Lime Zest. Along with Avery’s unique Liliko’i Kepolo, it would have made for a memorable end to a five-course meal.

Shelly and Rick
Deb and Jeff

Except this wasn’t a five-course meal—it was a six-course meal, maybe seven if you count the Welcoming Glass of Mama’s Little Yella Pils served with Serrano ham, Salame Feline and aged goat cheese with black truffles on a polished slab of pine tree stump. 

Granita--Prickly Pear Juice and Lime Zest
And the last course was an exceptional Crème Brulee made with egg yolks from the chicken coop out back, and honey and lavender. Schneider made another “out of the box” move by pairing it with Redstone Meadery’s Sunshine Nectar Mead. The smart money says that that’s not been done often—if at all—at a beer dinner.  A cost of $65—including tax and tip—for a six-course dinner of this quality is, quite simply, a steal. And every guest walked away with a pint glass favor filled with tchotchkes as a remembrance of the night.

The Baldassarres, Schneider, the Chefs and the staff received a well-deserved round of applause for The Stirling Hotel’s very first venture into the beer dinner scene, and the gracious hosts invited The PubScout to visit when the weather is more conducive to outside events, which will showcase The Ponderosa I wrote about here.

I will take them up on that, and you might want to consider getting to their upcoming beer dinner to be held next month. It’s going to be a New England-themed dinner with appropriate beers and foods. I’ll publish more details when Dan Schneider sends them to me.

Nancy was a Happy Camper

It will likely be another Stirling effort.


The PubScout
On top of it all, a gift

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Throwback Sunday--Blizzards and Beer and a Pioneer

I just got finished shoveling and snowblowing after Winter Storm Jonas, and the accumulations reminded me of a storm back in 1996, before they had any fancy names attached to them. The reason the memory was so clear was because it took me three whole days to dig out of that white monster, as I had no snowblower at the time, and my lads were too small to help. Schools were closed for three days, and virtually nothing moved.

It was exhausting, slow work, digging three or four times in one shovel spot just to get down to pavement. So I needed a break every so often. And, as it happened, the night before the blizzard, I was sent  by a "brews paper" editor on my first-ever beer writing assignment ever to cover a beer bar in Highlands, NJ called Gimpi's, which is no longer there. I had answered an ad for an "Experienced Beer Writer Wanted" in the back of that periodical. That I had no experience whatsoever at beer writing did not deter me. I thought it would be fun

Whenever I took a break from shoveling, I'd scurry up to my attic garrett to sit, rest, have a beer and write a few paragraphs, then get re-dressed to go out and shovel. And all the while I was shoveling, I was thinking about what I wanted to say--and how I wanted to say it-- in my first published article. 

It took me all three days to get it just right. And I thought it would be fun to republish it after twenty years in the business and share it with you. It has been a wonderful journey for me, and I'm not just talking about the NAGBW Awards I have won. I have been invited to remarkable places to drink remarkable beers. But above all, I have met so many remarkable, wonderful folks who are part of the craft beer scene--brewers, owners, movers and shakers in the beer industry-- but above all are the many good, down-to-earth, craft beer lovers with whom I have bent more than a few elbows.
Dave Hoffman

Many major news outlets are now jumping on the beer- bar-visiting bandwagon. Some outlets are just discovering beer bars and pubs I reported on more than decade ago. And while I'm happy that more publications are alerting beer-loving readers to the many wonderful bars, brewpubs, microbreweries and restaurants out there, I take some pride in being a pioneer of the genre. 

So sit back, grab your favorite microbrew and see where this wonderful journey into the beer world began.

Then get back out to shovel.

Gotta get to Gimpi’s      Jan. 6, 1996

            Any beer person who believes that a good beer pub has to have gleaming brass railings and stainless steel tuns visible through a glass windowwall should probably not bother visiting Gimpi's Food and Spirits in Highlands, NJ.

Too bad. They'll miss a nice experience.

Gimpi's, named for a dentist who broke a leg skiing (his original cast still hangs on the wall) is located on Bay Ave in the little Jersey shore town of Highlands, just before Sandy Hook.

Bay Ave is not that long, but you can tell you're getting close to Gimpi's by two signs: one is the plethora of cars parked out in front (and around the back) and the other is an unmistakable yellow lighted picture of the erstwhile, but unfortunate, gimp legged dentist. And there's a profoundly good reason for the crowds.

Gimpi's is fun, friendly and sports a beer list worthy of any beer geek's attention. Over 100  bottled brews are available from an impressive list in constant flux. Owner (and Gimpi Son) Cary Lazar is well versed in the intricacies of brews and micros, although his responsibilities are in the kitchen. A graduate of Tulane University in New Orleans, he began his quest for beer expertise in college. His partner and brother Blair is in charge of the brew side of things. Cary, whose all time favorite beer is Abita Turbo Dog, serves as a consultant on the beer menu.

These guys know what they're doing, too. The list includes some famous and not-so-famous-but-outstanding brews. American brews occupy the lion's share of the menu, but there are choice offerings from Belgium, Canada, England, Germany, Switzerland and even Turkey. Australia, Japan, Jamaica, Ireland, Korea, China, Denmark, Thailand, Mexico Holland and New Zealand round out what appears to be a UN of beers all working in a peaceful harmony among the general assembly.

Many standard bar brews are available from Bud Light to Coors to Sharp's, but owner Lazar says that the microbrew explosion is very evident in the changing tastes of his diverse clientele. That diversity was clear at 7:30 PM.

There were tables with families and young children, senior citizens, couples and groups. The big bar (there's a half bar joined to the raw bar) contained more singles, but also showed some of the aforementioned mix. There was also a distinct, but not unpleasant, difference in the atmosphere between the bar and dining areas, although they are not separated by anything more than a few feet of space and a noticeable difference in temperature. The room is lively with the mixed sounds of conversation, clinking glasses and the unobtrusive noise of many TV's tuned to news and sports and a big screen video display.
Gimpi's has a friendly and efficient service staff. All were easy to talk to and, bartender Gary Braverman was not only knowledgeable about his stock and trade, but you got the feeling you were talking to a carbon copy of superstar Michael J. Fox. Our server, Natalie, was prompt, efficient, knowledgeable and personable. We did not get to sample the talents of server Melissa who bears the title of "The Waitress with Personality," but if she had more than Natalie she must be as hot as Blair's Death Sauce. That's a special hot sauce for wings which is so potent, the pub issues a disclaimer right in the menu which refuses to accept responsibility for what happens to those brave enough to try it. So powerful is it that Cary and Blair will pay for your order of hot wings if you dare to finish them. They're called, appropriately, "Wings of Death."
Indeed, the tastes of the public seem to be leaning toward beers and away from "hard" liquor and toward micros specifically. Owner Lazar confirmed that saying, "People are willing to spend more for a big bottle of Rogue rather than an equivalent or less amount on shots. Noboby 'does shots' anymore."
And if it's Rogues they want, Rogues he's got, from Santa Reserve to Dead Guy to Mogul to Shakespeare Stout. He also offers the neat, small (and expensive) blue bottles of Sam Adams' Triple Bock in both '94 and '95 versions. A couple of Blue Moons, Celis, Rhino Chaser and North Coast's Red Seal are prominent on the list. Of course, Pete's Wicked is available in various styles as is a healthy repertoire of Samuel Smith's brews, including the outstanding Winter Welcome.

Speaking of overseas offerings, the serious Belgian lover can get Corsendonk, Chimay and Chapaue Banana, or Sterken's Kruikenbier or Porter in their own handmade crocks. Switzerland's Samichlause, brewed just once a year on December 6, is a special treat. Fuller's E.S.B. and Young's Old Nick Barleywine are there for the British fancier, too. On this particularly cold night, I would have enjoyed a Young's Winter Warmer, but with all those others present, who's complaining?

Germany, not to be outdone by any nation, contributed titles like EKU Hefe-Weiss, Pschorr's Weiss, Pilsener and Oktoberfest and Pinkus Pilsener.
And while the bottled beers were indeed the winners in the quantity department, the draft beers made an impression on this writer. On the night in question, the beer drinker had a choice of Pete's Wicked Winter (which, unsurprisingly, ran out) Oregon Raspberry Wheat, Franziskaner Weiss, Bass, Guiness Stout, Sam Adams' Winter Lager, Yuengling's Black and Tan, Wild Goose AND Snow Goose, and Pilsener Urquell.  Of course, Bud, Coors, Molson and Killian's Red got their share of attention, too.
Entertainment kicks in at about 10:30 (when the Generation X'ers start to filter in) in the form of various rock bands on Friday and Saturday night. According to Cary Lazar, Wednesday nights and the weekends are the busiest times in the winter, but the warmer weather and the proximity of Sandy Hook make Gimpi's a magnet for quaffers and sunworshippers as well.

In all, Gimpi's Food and Spirit's is well worth the trip, especially if you go with a group. The variety of brews, the portions and value of food more than outweigh the lack of "brewpub" style furnishings and accouterments. Its motto, boldly imprinted on the shirts of its sixteen employees is "Life is too short to drink cheap beer." How true.
I'd be real careful about the Wings of Death, though.
Come to think of it, there are worse places to die than in a friendly, clean pub surrounded by hundreds of excellent brews.
And Michael J. Fox.

(Ed. note--Gimpi’s is Kurt’s first review.)

Gimpi's Food and Spirits
231 Bay Ave.
Highlands, NJ 07732
Fax: 908-291-3605

Friday, January 22, 2016

Leapin' Lizards! Uno's Beer Dinners Are Back!

Mike Sella, longtime, erstwhile and current brewer at Uno's on Rt. 1 in Metuchen, has informed The PubScout that his once-famous and popular beer dinners will be resurrected. And, since 2016 is a leap year, on an unforgettable day...February 29. (By the way, that is NOT Mike above.)

This dinner will see Sella join with Jason of Cypress Brewing, not only in pairing their various beers for the dinner courses, but unveiling a collaborative brewing effort in the form of an American Red Rye. 

More details--complete with interviews-- to follow. But for now, mark the date. Should be a memorable night.

The PubScout

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Ales to the Left of Me, Lagers to the Right...

The Somerset site upon which newly opened Bottle Republic sits used to be a Drug Fair. From 2002 on, I would stop in occasionally for various items, mostly Gatorade for my sons during wrestling season at Rutgers Prep. But in 2009, the company--headquartered in Somerset-- filed for bankruptcy, and the building sat vacant for years.

A couple of months ago, and after seeing construction going on, I noticed a big red bottle on the facade as I drove to and from wrestling practice, and I learned from my older, now-beer drinking sons (and to my great pleasure, I might add) that the place, initially dubbed Bottle Craft, was brimming with quality craft beer. Given my mission for finding meccas of good beer and sharing them with my readers, a stop was clearly necessary. And yesterday was the day.

Upon entering, I was presented with the sight of a very long beer aisle, with refrigerated stuff on the right and and warm stuff on the left. The cold case was organized by region of the country for domestic beer--Northeast, West Coast, etc., everything in between. Countries, for imports, have their own sections too. That's pretty convenient, methought, and pretty smart marketing-wise. Looking for a West Coast IPA, there's the section. Looking for Jersey beers?There they are. (You got a problem with that?) Their variety case section also features some very prominent, though hard-to-find, offerings.

I began to feel like a kid in a candy store. Owner Drew Patel said he and beer manager Mark Cummings select their beers based upon what's moving, and if it isn't, it goes. They got a new shipment in during my visit, and I pulled a mixer of Founders Azacca off the dolley to take home, along with Six Point The Crisp, Firestone Walker Easy Jack IPA, Oskar Blues Pinner and Mama's Little Yella Pils. He has close to two hundred different breweries represented in the store, and well over six hundred different beers. That means if you can't find a beer or a cider you like, you're probably a wine drinker. 

There is a problem for the serious craft beer drinker here, though, and that's putting a leash on your wallet to keep you from spending all the grocery money. Kids in candy stores, at least when I was growing up, were usually limited by the amount of change in their pockets. If you've got plastic, you'll use it here for sure, though the prices are not outlandish. All my sixers were $10 and the Azacca was $11. If you're looking for a place to stock up before the Giant Snowstorm heading our way, this is it, though they do not carry bread, milk or eggs.

Patel said business is getting steadily better as people learn that Bottle Republic is a bona fide craft beer destination. The PubScout is happy to spread that word, and he envisions many stops at this place. 

Especially during wrestling season. 

Bottle Republic
1760 Easton Ave.
Somerset, NJ

The PubScout

Friday, January 15, 2016

Dan Schneider—or Dan Blocker?

Hoss, Ben, Little Joe and Adam Cartwright
I took a ride to the Stirling Hotel (c. 1903) in Long Hill the other day to chat with Dan Schneider, the Beer Manager at this iconic craft beer bar and restaurant. Dan began as a busboy at the place in 1997, working for Tom and Dori Baldassarre, who, in addition to being craft beer visionaries and restaurateurs, were apparently ranchers like the guys in the old TV show “Bonanza.”

The Stirling Hotel
I had visited and enjoyed the Stirling Hotel about fifteen years prior, just as it was dipping its toes into the burgeoning craft beer pool. My visit, however, was on a winter’s night with a buddy, and I didn’t get to really appreciate the nature of the place, having to hurry in out of the cold to secure a seat in the cozy, welcoming bar.

But the other day was a bright, cold, sunny one, and after chatting with Schneider about a “Jersey First” when it comes to beer dinners—all Colorado beers matched with special game dishes—Dan showed me around the place. Its comfortable, if labyrinthine, interior was consistent with its smallish, wooden rustic exterior. But when Schneider led me to the rear of the property, the perspective changed significantly.

A spacious, heated patio tent (where that most unusual beer dinner will take place) was available for large parties and regular dining. In nicer weather, the plastic sides roll up creating an airy, covered area perfect for both quaffing and eating. There was a Tiki bar, complete with six dedicated taps, special seating and a huge stone fireplace that could be rolled around, since it was built on a dolly by the owner, Tom Baldassarre.

Then he showed me what he called the "Back Yard Beer Garden,"  (I can only describe it as The Ponderosa—hence the Dan Blocker reference) complete with various outbuildings, one with another twelve dedicated taps, a well-populated chicken coop (which provides eggs for the restaurant), space for 130 cars (and that does not include the large parking lot we had to traverse to get there) and lots of open land guarded by two wooden Indians from yesteryear. With everything open in Summer, this diminutive-looking place can seat 200-230 thirsty, hungry revelers. With twelve constantly rotating drafts at the bar, another six in the Tiki bar, and yet another twelve out on The Ponderosa, lovers of good beer should make out at least as well as Ben, Hoss, Adam and Little Joe.

The Ponderosa metaphor is particularly apt because of what Schneider and his very experienced (and beer knowledgeable) chefs, Ryan Chatfield and Brandon Campney, are preparing for January 26. It’s dubbed “The Colorado Craft Beer and Game Dinner,” and it will feature dishes made with Wild Boar, Rabbit, Brook Trout and Venison. The six-course dinner will also present Prickly Pear Granita and Egg Crème Brulee. (You already know the eggs will be fresh, too.) On hand will be beers from Breckenridge, Oskar Blues. Left Hand, Great Divide, Avery and even a mead from Redstone.

Chef Brandon Campney and Beer Manager Dan Schneider
 But there’s bad news and good news about the January 26 event. The bad news, beyond the fact this is probably not a calorie-counter’s beer dinner—is that the event sold out in about 24 hours, so you’ll have to rely on my post-dinner descriptions to allow your mouths to water.  My coverage will include words, pictures and videos. Schneider’s Colorado Craft Beer and Game Dinner idea is so unique that I doubt it has been duplicated anywhere in the tri-state area, much less in New Jersey.

But the good news is that Blocker—er, Schneider—has beer events once a month, and on the third Wednesday of each month, the place sponsors prix fixe "Charity Dinners" with the some of the proceeds going to various charities. There’s a New England beer-themed dinner approaching in February.  The food and beer are topnotch, too, as the Stirling Hotel won the coveted title of Readers’ Choice—Best Bar in NJ in a recent online contest.

Moreover, Schneider allows that half of his servers are proficient enough in the subject of beer to have obtained the rank of Certified Beer Server, part of the respected Certified Cicerone Program. All servers also do double duty as bartenders, so not only will you get the right beer to accompany your food, it will be poured properly from new taps with lines cleaned assiduously every two weeks by Schneider himself. He usually allocates lots of Jersey beers in the May to August time frame, though he has frequent “tap takeovers” from various breweries.

April through June, however, are “blowout months” when Schneider usually runs through the most beer, and Kane Brewing and Maine Brewing products seem to claim “Most Popular” honors at the bar. His guide for choosing beers is based on creating a varied, balanced line-up with a wide range of styles, and in Schneider’s words, “People know if it’s on tap here, it’s good quality.”

Just like the fresh “Ponderosa” eggs, no doubt.

Come back for the full Colorado Craft Beer and Game Dinner report after the event!

The PubScout