March 8th, 2011
Independent Beer Feast: Dining in the Dark with No Label
It seems that the trendy new restaurant fad is dining in the dark. Like all fads, they start on the coast and work their way towards middle America. While Houston doesn’t yet have a restaurant offering an unlit dining room, after a little drive to the edge of the universe, I was able to experience dinner sans light this past weekend, in a movie theater of all places. Okay, so Katy might not actually be the edge of the universe, but it’s a heck of a drive on a Friday night during rush hour. Luckily, with two people in the car, we cruised down the HOV lane and flew by the commuters making their nightly trek home.
No, this wasn’t billed as dining in the dark, but in a dimly lit movie theater you definitely don’t get a good look at what your eating. It was actually the first in a series of Independent Film & Independent Beer Feast Series, hosted by Alamo Drafthouse. Friday’s dinner, a four course meal, offered a chance to sample some inventive fare carefully paired with No Label Brewing Co’s line of beers. Brian Royo of No Label also brewed up a special Black Wit batch to pair with the final course.
For me, the night started with a beer from another new Texas microbrewery, the Wychmaker Rye India Pale Ale by Jester Kings Brewery in the hill country, which offered a nice introduction for my palate to the craft beers an the menu this evening. For my first visit to Alamo Drafthouse, I was surprised to see that the beers on tap would put even the most seasoned Texas beer snob to shame. Sure, they had your obligatory Bud Lite, but they also offered a taste of some of the best beers coming out of the small breweries in Texas, like the Pecan Porter from (512) or Saint Arnold’s Farmer Brown’s Ale. Remind me why I haven’t been watching movies here all along?
What was so appealing about the evening was the ability to craft a good meal expertly matched with top notch beer in the most unlikely of settings, a movie theater. A perfect example of this was the first course, which was a pretzel served with mustard featuring No Label’s Hefeweizen. Judging from the comments after the movie, the pretzel definitely stole the show. Warm and fluffy on the inside, it was nicely salted on the crispy crust. With warm pretzels there’s often a tendency towards density, but this pretzel was perfectly soft and flaky without sacrificing the crispy exterior. As someone who steers clear of mustard, I gingerly dipped one corner of the pretzel and took a small bite expecting the slap in the face tang of the mustard. Surprisingly, the El Hefe mustard was very mellow and complimented the pretzel nicely. The floral notes in the No Label Hefeweizen paired nicely with the pretzel and offered some balance to the entire course. As you can tell, my only problem was the portion size. As I finished mine, I greedily looked over at my girlfriend’s to see if I could steal a piece of hers, but one jab of her knife was enough to ward me off.
The second course was the least inspiring of the night. A trio of cornbread muffins served on a bed of creamed corn, I expected to be able to taste the difference in the different muffins, but was sorely disappointed in my taste buds. They say that your sense of taste is heightened when you can’t see, but I couldn’t discern a difference between the three types of muffins. The pale ale was definitely the star of this course as it offered a respite from the dryness of the cornbread.
By the time that the beer for the third course arrived, I had given up waiting for for the food to arrive before sampling my beer. During the first two courses, I had exercised amazing self-discipline in order to taste the beer and food together. I eagerly syphoned off a sip of the third beer and found a strong rival for any amber on the market. The food wasn’t far behind and you knew immediately when they started bringing the plates for the complementary course, as the aroma wafted into the theater. The wonderful smell of a perfectly braised short rib filtered through the theater and set my stomach a-grumbling.
Served over fluffy mashed potatoes, the braised shortrib was cooked to perfection. The accompanying spinach was flavorful and expertly seasoned. Every component on the dish worked to enhance the others and made you want to take bite after bite, even licking the bottom of the shallow bowl when you were finished, my gluttony hidden in the shadows. I think that I could get used to this eating without lights thing! Paired with the Ridgeback American Amber, the entire course was perfect and left me full, fat, happy… and just a little tipsy. Keep in mind, I was working on beer number four by this time.
The movie finished by the time that dessert was set down before us. A deviation from the pupusas on the menu, two large puff pastries served as the bread on a berry and cream sandwich.This was paired with a the darkest beer of the night, the specially brewed Black Wit. Afterward, we were informed that the original idea of the pupusas were just too bitter for the beer as such a last minute substitution was needed. The beer drank much lighter than I expected and together with the light puff pastry served as a welcome end to the meal, satiating the after dinner need for sweetness without being so heavy I’d have to loosen my belt or unbutton my pants.
Not knowing what to expect before I got there, the entire experience left a great taste in my mouth. The effort in the preparation of the food was much more than I expected at a movie theater and rivaled some of the better restaurants in Houston. Both the staff from Alamo Draft House and No Label were kind enough to talk about their approach to the meal and answer any questions from the audience. The informal introduction at the beginning of the night and the Q&A session at the end really seemed to set the mood for a night that was all about the food and beer pairings. There was a movie thrown in there as well, but it really seemed to serve as a backdrop. The star was definitely the food and beer.