Full disclosure: Although I get invited frequently, I rarely attend special dinners or food tours of any kind -- and, yes, it's because I'm a vegetarian.
It's not, however, because I'm afraid I'll accidentally ingest meat. It's because I think it's an insult to the chef to leave perfectly good food on my plate. And I also think it's presumptuous to ask a chef -- who might have been preparing their menu for weeks -- to remove what most people think is the best part of the meal: the meat.
And I've been a vegetarian for long enough now that accidentally ingesting meat (even something as innocuous as chicken broth) can cause some uncomfortable digestive issues. And that's all I'll say about that.
Maybe I just overthink this stuff. But that's what I told the good people at Hush Denver when they asked if I'd be interested in attending one of their private dinners, which take diners to unusual locations to enjoy a meal prepared by some of the best talent in the city.
"No problem," they assured me after some back-and-forth. Once I confirmed that I do eat eggs and dairy products, they said they might simply remove any proteins from my plates, and I told them that would be fine.
So that's all I was expecting when I showed up at Great Divide Brewing Co. this past Sunday, July 11, for the Gastro Gone Wild Hush dinner -- Great Divide beers paired with food by the team at Argyll. But what I got was much, much more.
First of all, the setup was pretty awesome; we were dinning in the back room of Great Divide, 2201 Arapahoe Street, next to some sizable copper brew tanks and wooden barrels. The high ceilings and concrete floor gave the dining room a warehouse feel; it was difficult sometimes to hear my dining companions (that room has got some echo power), but once the lights were dimmed and the candles lit, all I can say is, wow. It was fabulous.
We were greeted at the door with a taster of Great Divide's Samurai Unfiltered Rice Ale. I'd never tried this brew before -- in fact, the only Great Divide beer I was previously familiar with is the Claymore Scotch Ale -- and I loved it. Crisp, fruity and refreshing, it was a wonderful way to start the evening.
There were baskets of Argyll's famed housemade potato chips on the table, with bowls of truffled creme fraiche for dipping. These were some of the best potato chips I've ever put in my mouth -- and potato chips are dangerous for me; they're one of the foods I have to exert some serious willpower to stop eating. So I didn't overindulge -- I wanted to save room for the other courses, after all -- but boy, that wasn't easy.
At 6 p.m., servers began bringing around passed appetizers: oysters in champagne vinegar (I passed, obviously) and a goat cheese cream in a Parmesan crostini. Those were crispy and creamy, and slightly tart, with a paper-thin slice of radish topping off the presentation. Delicious.
We took a half-hour brew tour before getting down to business -- five courses of it. We started with a salad-style entree: black figs, chicories, thyme honey, pine nuts and two white puddles of caramel ice cream and goat cheese. (I was relaxed and enjoying myself to such an extent that I completely forgot about taking a photo until I was halfway through the course and had messed up the presentation beyond all recognition. Sorry, y'all -- take my word for it: It looked lovely and tasted even better.) This was paired with the Hoss Rye Lager, and the earthy flavor of the lager balanced nicely with the sweet, juicy figs and bitter greens. Everyone else's plate came with pancetta, so the only thing really missing from this dish was a bit of salt flavor, but the pine nuts came through and balanced the dish nicely.
The second course was a hickory-smoked tomato and leek soup with heirloom tartare, black pepper gougere, cauliflower puree and some kind of puffed cheese pastry on the side, paired with the Hades Belgian Style Ale. It's hard to pick a favorite course at a dinner like this, but this one was close. It was the best tomato soup I've ever put in my mouth -- sweet and peppery and smoky, perfectly blending with the crisp, hoppy Hades.
I have to interject here -- I felt a little bit like a princess with servers dancing attendance on me. They were very careful to make sure we got the correct plates, and extremely apologetic when it occasionally took a little bit longer to get the veggie food out. I didn't mind in the slightest; they were so meticulous and sweet about my food. And even though I normally feel awkward asking for special treatment, they were gracious and lovely about my pain-in-the-ass diet. Fantastic service, people, for real.
The third course was the real test. The original menu -- and what everyone else got -- listed rabbit rillettes, potted cherries, sweet balsamic vinegar, duck fat and tarragon dust, paired with Titan IPA. So I was expecting some cherries, vinegar and tarragon, and nothing more, per my conversation with the Hush coordinators. Instead, here's what I got:
What is it? A pickled cucumber cappellini with tomato tartare, lemon herb creme fraiche and balsamic-pickled cherries. It was beautifully presented, and the tart, sour flavors paired well with the hoppy Titan. It was gone in a matter of seconds.
Turns out, one of the Argyll chefs -- Mason Green -- had been commissioned to create special vegetarian plates for us. He came out at the end of the dinner to chat with me and explain what he'd made, and he told me he's a very meat-centric cook and it was a challenge for him to create these dishes. I never would have guessed had he not revealed that, because both the third and fourth courses were simply delicious. Hats off to you, Mr. Green, and I hope you had as much fun putting those plates together as I did scarfing them down!
The servers were really running by the time the fourth course came around; everyone else got a fillet of lamb neck, lavender-veal marrow custard, grilled escarole and parsnips baked with purlane, paired with the Claymore Scotch Ale Wee Heavy. As a result, I didn't get a description of my plate when it was dropped off, but I didn't care what it was -- one taste was enough to convince me that I needed to eat it. All of it. And lick the plate if necessary. Later, Green told me it was a fig and pine-nut gremolata with parsnip puree, grilled escarole and grilled baguette. The grilled escarole added some smoky flavor to the sweetness of the gremolata, and the parsnip puree was divine. I savored it with the smoky, sweet beer and silently thanked Hush for taking such good care of me instead of just plating up some pureed parsnip and slapping it down in front of me.
Then came perhaps the prettiest plate of the evening: dessert.
Pretty cool presentation, right? This was a spiced bay leaf and duck-egg panna cotta with cherry hazelnut pralines, paired with the toffee-and-caramel flavored Yeti Imperial Stout. It tasted like cheesecake stuffed inside an egg, only richer and creamier and more decadent than any cheesecake in the history of ever. If I'd had just a little bit more to drink, I probably would have licked the inside of that eggshell.
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The Hush Denver folks were considerate of my dining needs that I really can't say enough about them. Check out the calendar at www.hushdenver.com; they've presented dinners in Boulder and Aspen as well, and if you give them a few days' notice, they are happy to accommodate people with special dietary needs. (Be considerate and let them know as far in advance as you can.)
And a huge shout-out to Mason Green and the rest of the Argyll crew, who put together this amazing meal with very limited resources. I will most certainly be stopping by their restaurant at 2700 East Third Avenue in Cherry Creek to see what else they have to offer (and to stuff myself on some more potato chips in the meantime).
Got a favorite restaurant you'd like to see in Veggie Girl? E-mail me to tell me about it!