The Bruery Brew Dinner at The Crow Bar – Prying Flavors with Pairings
By Cord Montgomery | Photos by Kei Taguchi
The Crow Bar | 2325 East Coast Hwy | Corona Del Mar, CA 92625
I roll up my sleeves on another sweaty July evening in Newport Beach, debating with Kei, my photographer and guest for the evening, about hopping into a Porsche convertible with the top down and taking pictures. I point to the charcoal billboard above The Crow Bar and Kitchen, making note of the moon visible in the sky to its left, as Kei snaps a quick photo. The chalk sign outside the gastro pub prods passersby to “eat here or we both may starve.” Kei and I agree to walk inside solely for the air conditioning, sweat beginning to trickle down both our foreheads. And although the air conditioning certainly is a plus, we check in, thrilled and hungry, for our reservation to The Bruery Brew Dinner—a tantalizing four-course food and beer tasting hosted tonight only at The Crow Bar featuring beers exclusively brewed by Orange County’s The Bruery.
The hostess seats us near a window looking out at the road, across from us brick walls and diamond shaped mirrors peek back. If the décor or the 200,000 dollar sports car pulling into the parking lot is any indicator, the tasting tonight attracts the wealthy while still remaining affordable at a $69 price tag. Our table is topped with white dinner plates engraved with a black crow perched on a crowbar—so aesthetically cool, that we are almost disappointed when they are taken away and replaced by the first beer of the night: Mischief, a Belgian-style pale ale. Like its name suggests, it raises hell with a hazy blonde color and spicy, fruity aroma. As you sip it, there is a tingle on the tongue, hops ruffling your taste buds at first, before the curtain falls on a citrus and melon finish.
Following the beer is the first course: marinated endive, chicken cracklin’s, baby tomatoes, Humboldt fog, and mustard seed vinaigrette. The dish is a cavalcade of textures and flavors, the chicken cracklin’s have a chewy pork-like essence similar to a Japanese dish, the Humboldt fog cheese provides a savory creaminess, and the baby tomatoes possess a dripping, juicy succulence that makes Kei, a self-proclaimed arch nemesis of tomatoes, finish each one in delight. When pairing the dish with Mischief, there is a playful competition between piney hops and the spiciness of mustard seeds that numbs the tongue and clears the palate.
“Like my dad says, it makes your tongue hallucinate,” Kei says before popping the last baby tomato into his mouth.
Our plates are cleared, and the second beer arrives, Or Xata, a horchata ale—something we’ve never had or heard of—and anticipation swells in our tongues; both of us spending many nights running to 24-hour Mexican restaurants to satisfy our cravings for the milky, cinnamon drink after 2am. Upon smelling the beer, it evokes images of a creamsicle on a hot summer day, and as it touches your lips, the cinnamon and creamy body takes over, weaving to a vanilla conclusion. We discuss how you often read about eccentric billionaires who have enough money to fly out their favorite chili cheese burger from a Ma and Pa restaurant in the Midwest. This beer would be our eccentric billionaire fly-out.
After our raving and smiles, a man in a blue baseball cap and black shirt with “The Bruery” stitched across approaches our table; it’s the lead brewer Phil McDaniel, catching me off guard, asking us if we have any questions about the beers.
“Where can we get more of Or Xata,” I ask.
He explains that he isn’t even sure it is available to the public—nor will it be available in mass production—which draws a collective groan from Kei and I. Phil says he’s personally a hophead, so he gravitates more toward beers like Mischief, but tells us to brace ourselves for the unique Tart of Darkness, served with the fourth course, a sour stout that “doesn’t make sense,” he says, explaining it smells of roasted chocolate, but tastes like a sour beer. I thank him for talking to us before our second course is served. The course: seared diver scallops with baby arugula and prosciutto resting on top, blanketed in foam comparative to the froth of an ocean wave and surrounded by a spiced cauliflower puree. I brush the seared scallops into the cauliflower puree which has hint of nutmeg and cinnamon. Combined together, the fluffy texture of the scallops with the cinnamon is reminiscent of biting into flan, a surprising compliment to the Mexican sensibilities the course has possessed so far. The prosciutto on top provides a crunch and smokiness that, when paired with the horchata ale, is a wonderful fusion similar to s’mores roasted on a campfire. Usually, I raise a white flag when it comes to seafood, but this had me yield to each bite in awe.
The third beer arrives, Old Richland, a muddy-looking barley wine—a category of beer known for its high alcohol content and bold flavor. It is extremely malt forward with a hoppy, citrusy finish not often familiar with the style. We both agree that compared to the two previous beers it’s certainly not as complex or surprising on its own—but we reserve judgment until we pair it with the third course: a molasses-glazed pork belly that resembles a mountain, circled by a mound of corn salad with bell pepper and grilled peaches drizzled in balsamic vinaigrette. The maple blanket on the pork melds with the grilled peaches– and the contrast between the tender meat with the crunchiness of the corn is charming. As for how it pairs with the barley wine, the robustness of the pork shakes hands with the caramel malt, bursting with brown sugar notes—easily the best beer pairing of the night. Old Richland lives to be paired with barbecued meats.
Soon after, Executive Chef Johnny Shaw stops by our table in a pinstriped apron and a greyed Yankees cap. I ask him what made him choose The Bruery to pair with tonight’s courses—this being the first beer and food pairing they’ve done. He simply respects their line of beers, and them being local is an added plus because it aligns with The Crow Bar’s personal mission to partner with local farms and businesses to ensure freshness and quality food on their season-changing menu. Not wanting to hold him up too long, I thank him and get a photo, before bracing myself for dessert.
Tart of Darkness makes its pitch-black debut on our table. Being a big fan of sour beers, I’m excited and curious about a “sour stout” since the fusion of the two styles is uncommon. There is a bouquet of grapefruit, cherry and a mild tartness on the nose, and although the smell only hints of tart, this beer is vengefully sour—in a deliciously masochistic way—yet not too overpowering, fading gracefully into a subtle taste of fresh-squeezed lemon. While this beer is technically a stout, the full-body of it is indiscernible among the tartness, feeling light and refreshing. We both smile in agreement as our last course of the night is placed in front of us: a simple chocolate chip muffin—with a gastro pub twist of embedded sour cherries and a trail of charred orange crème spread behind it. Having experienced sour beers paired with chocolaty desserts, I know how fantastically they complement each other. But the inclusion of sour cherries in the muffin feels like overkill upon sipping Tart of Darkness, becoming far too pucker-inducing for me to get on board with. Yet, I do respect the ambitiousness of the pairing.
As our dinner comes to a close, I thank our waitress Rachel for being delightful, recommending she try Tart of Darkness if feeling adventurous and share a smile with a mother in pink polka dots starting to break apart a molasses glazed pork belly with her fork. This makes me wish the courses and beers tonight were offered year-round yet the memories of the evening will certainly suffice.
Thanks to Rachel, Phil McDaniel, Johnny Shaw, and Steve Geary for creating a fantastic evening of exotic cheeses and beers we’ve never tried and may never try again. There is an unusual charm to The Crow Bar’s menu that is a welcomed addition to the gastropub culture sprouting in Newport Beach. I will definitely be back to try the rest of the menu, and hopefully I’ll get to eat off those wicked cool crow plates next time.