Tuesday night Stone Brewing held one of its quarterly farm-to-table events, what they call the FRESH! dinner. The FRESH! dinner takes eating fresh, seasonal, and local food to the utmost extreme; with the goal being everything (possible) is harvested the same day as the meal. Stone Brewing Head Chef Alex Carballo explained that the flour was not same day, but all the fish, fruits, and veggies had been harvested that day. He went on to explain that even the olive oil had been pressed that morning. The evening even started out with a fresh Stone brew, straight out the fermentor.
As it happened, this week’s FRESH! dinner marked, to the day, 15 years since Stone sold its first drop of beer; actually lots of drops of beer in a keg of Stone Pale Ale. We now know that landmark moment changed the beer world, but back then it was a couple of guys, a ton of hops, and a lot of dreams. The beer of the night was Stone Escondidian 15th Anniversary Imperial Black IPA, poured straight out the side of a 500 gallon (I think) conical fermentor. The Black IPA is heady brew; roasty, hoppy, and strong. For all it’s strength and bold flavors, it is very smooth on the palate.
After I was dragged away from the conicals (mouth open, struggling for a few more drops), I was shown to the Hop Freezer. Stone keeps over $100,000 worth of hops in a 10×10 room. The room is on lockdown, requiring a security badge for entry and exit. Walking in is like swimming in a pool of IPA; pungent, sweet, and floral.
Next on to dinner. Since all the ingredients are harvested same day, the menu is not set until late afternoon. The evening’s fare was a mystery, even to Stone Brewing founders Steve Wagner and Greg Koch who unexpectedly came and sat down among us. I had been excited to attend such an exquisite dining event, I was even more excited to share it with beer geniuses Wagner and Koch.
The dinner was to be a 7 course meal, lasting 4 hours. First course was served standing up on the patio and titled “Mix & Mingle”. It was a panzanella salad; huge cubes of fresh crusty bread, heirloom tomatoes, onions, fresh pressed olive oil, fresh harvested sea salt, and (a new one on me) winged beans. I had never heard of winged beans. They are native to New Guniea, look a bit like a cactus, and taste a bit like asparagus; most intriguing. The salad was crunchy and spicy, with a slight sweet-tartness from the tomatoes.
The second course was an amuse-bouche (french for mouth amuser). Usually meant to be a single bite, this was actually two: a zucchini fritter and a caramelized onion soup. The fritter was a crunchy salty shell with creamy shredded zucchini innards; served over a cool herbed creme fraîche. It was delicious and the perfect complement to the smokey/spicy soup.
The third course was appetizer, a choice of duck or mushroom crépinette (french sausage). Instead of ‘casings’ they were wrapped in fresh, homegrown shiso leaves. Shiso is a Japanese herb in the mint family, with broad flat spicy leaves. I chose the mushrooms which were Blazei (blaze-ee-I); a variety from Brazil prized for a flavor and aroma resembling almonds.
The fourth course was an heirloom melon and green tomato salad with fresh baked bread. A mixture of sweet cantaloupe, sour lemon cucumbers, and crisp green tomatoes with chili, basil, and pepper. The most compelling ingredient were mysteriously sweet and tender yellow bits. My fiancé was first to identify them as yellow watermelon. Upon tasting the salad I asserted that it had every flavor and texture known to man. Greg Koch challenged me to point out the smokiness and I had to revise, “This salad has at least 67.3% of the flavors and textures known to man.” After all, it is said that 75% of all statistics are made up on the spot.
Next we entered the beginning of my favorites and the home stretch. Course 5 was simply called seafood trio. A single bite of each: steamed mussel in chili creme fraîche, abalone ceviche, and an oyster shooter with apple and Ballast Point Sculpin IPA mignonette. The mussel was smooth, clean, and had a cool spiciness from the chili creme. The abalone ceviche was topped with another new one for me, finger limes. This fruit looks like a chili pepper, but it filled with perfectly spherical and loose lime segments. It hails from Australia and is also known as citrus caviar. The ceviche had a nice crunch, with a salty limey finish. I ended the course with the oyster on its half shell. A good oyster never fails to disappoint me; briny, a little sweet, and a pleasant slight metallic flavor. The apple and IPA gave it another layer of sweetness, along with some hoppy pungency and a nice crunch.
The 6th and final savory course was pan-roasted white sea bass and corn succotash. White sea bass is probably one of my favorite fishes in San Diego. It has a large flake to it, with a welcome but subtle fish flavor that stands on its own or pairs well with a variety of flavors. Succotash is a porridge of corn and lima beans; this one included okra, a generous helping of chili spice, and poached cherry tomatoes. This dish was fantastic. My fish was cooked perfectly to medium. The succotash was sweet, spicy, and full on the tongue.
Overall all the savory courses had a bit of spice to them; something I normally eschew for fear of heartburn. But every dish was seasoned perfectly; enough spice to add depth to the dish and inflame the mouth, without assaulting the esophagus. All the tomatoes were juicy and tart, and the corn was sweet and firm, and all the spices were popping.
Finally moving on to dessert we had deconstructed peach melba; peaches sautéed in butter and cinnamon, topped with a fresh raspberry granita, vanilla whipped cream, and dried chocolate mint. I have tried fresh chocolate mint on many occasions, but it always struck me as pretty much the same as regular mint. The dried chocolate mint had a definite chocolate note and added a nice finish to the dessert. I found myself rudely scrapping up the cream and raspberry mixture left on my plate.
All in all the dinner was a fantastic meal and an unparalleled experience. If you have the chance (or money) to attend, it shouldn’t be missed. If you can also arrange to sit next to the Stone Brewing founders for the evening, you won’t be sorry. Over the four hour meal, I learned that Koch considers himself an “Ethicurean“; a term I had not previously heard. All the food served at Stone Brewing is bought and prepared according to this principle. The quality and pedigree of their food shines through, as everything we ate there was awesome. I applaud Stone for what they are doing and look forward to more great things to come.