While my love of cheese is well known, beer and I have never been particularly good friends. Its taste, smell, and especially the effects it has on my brain after a few bottles has just never my thing. So when I got an invitation from the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board to attend a cheese and beer pairing at Pura Vida restaurant, I was a bit apprehensive. Was I really the best person to critique the beer offerings being presented by Cleveland’s own Great Lakes Brewing Company? For a chance to rub shoulders with the likes of special guest and Master Cheesemaker Sid Cook, I decided to chance it. Needless to say, I’m glad that I did.
Pura Vida (“Pure Life”) is Chef Brandt Evans’ newest restaurant in Cleveland. Specializing in breakfast and lunch, Chef Evans is putting an emphasis on creativity with foods cultivated locally. The restaurant itself is a true homage its location, thanks to liberal use of repurposed wood from old area homes and materials salvaged from the former LTV Steel plant. The decor is clean and minimalist, without feeling pretentious or intimidating.
The evening began with a tour of the restaurant, including a quick pass through the kitchen to see the prep work taking place for our meal. I couldn’t help but get excited upon spying some pig ears being sliced into thin ribbons – this was going to be a wild culinary ride. Next, some shmoozing over a selection of Carr Valley and Widmer cheeses. Sadly, owner Joe Widmer was not on hand, but I did manage to chat with Sid Cook for a bit. Warm and gracious, Cook gave me the scoop on a couple of new cheeses he will be adding to his line (more on these in a future post).
Now, on to the food and drinks. I have already mentioned that I am not a beer person, but Chef Evans and the Great Lakes Brewing Co. team assured us that the pairings we were about to experience would be sure to please even the most picky or inexperienced palate. They weren’t wrong.
Course One consisted of three mini grilled cheese sandwiches using various aged Widmer cheddars. A one-year with apple slices, a six-year with prosciutto, and finally, a 10-year with good ol’ bacon paired with GLB’s award-winning Dortmunder Gold, this trio was a tasty start to the meal. If I had to pick a favorite of the three sandwiches– and I am loathe to do so – I would have to say the extra sharpness of the 10-year with the added salt and crispness of the bacon was the winner, but they were all delicious. The beer was light and smooth, a great way for neophyte to be initiated into the tasting portion of the evening.
Course Two brought with it savory BBQ duck confit nachos with house-made cheddar queso created with Widmer four–year cheddar and paired with limited-edition Rapid Red pale ale. Every component and every bite of these nachos were tasty, and while I was there for the cheese and beer, the duck easily stole the show with this dish. The tangy-sweet duck mixed with the creamy, slightly spicy queso made for a uniquely flavorful combination. I wanted to like the Rapid Red, and while it did seem to be the right match for the dish, unfortunately I found it a bit too bitter on the tongue for my tastes.
Next up, a house-made bratwurst with mushrooms in a veal-stock demi-glace and a dash of black garlic was served over polenta blended with Carr Valley Airco, a smokey blend of goat, sheep, and cow’s milk cheese. GLB’s Oktoberfest amber lager complemented the dish nicely, and it was probably my favorite of all the beers we sampled. Airco’s smokey quality really came through in a dish layered in intricate flavors.
Course Four started off as a bit of a mystery. Chef Evans, who up until this time had been describing each dish as it was laid in front of us, simply said “Please begin,” and we did. Imagine my Jewish heart’s delight upon tasting braised beef tongue over parsnip and Carr Valley Aged Brick cheese puree in a little shortbread pastry cup. I absolutely loved this dish’s complexity and use of unusual ingredients. The beef tongue was nothing like the deli meat of my childhood with its fork-tender brisket-like quality and savory flavor. Paired with Burning River pale ale, a Cleveland staple, this dish left many speechless.
Course Five brought with it the promised buffalo-style pig ear cracklins, sprinkled over 24-hour braised short ribs. A side of Carr Valley’s BaBa Blue accompanied it, as did a pairing of Edmund Fitzgerald porter, a beer also used in the ribs’ braising liquid. After the heavenly and uniformly high note of the previous course, this entree felt bit disjointed. The short ribs, while tasty, were perhaps a bit rich and heavy when partnered with the intense blue cheese. The cracklins and blue cheese together were a nice combination, but each bite left me feeling a bit overwhelmed. I liked the Edmund Fitzgerald Porter for its chocolaty overtones, but I preferred water when eating this dish. In all fairness, I may have been pretty stuffed by this point and am willing to revisit this dish again.
What meal would be complete without something sweet? Chef Evans didn’t disappoint, coming through with gelato made from Edmund Fitzgerald, maple syrup, and Carr Valley’s Bessie’s Blend, a cheese made from goat and cow milk. Add a salted caramel truffle and sliver of strawberry and it was a perfect ending to an outrageous meal. The nutty flavors of the cheese calmed the syrup’s sweetness, while the salted truffle was just decadent.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my charming table partner, Ari Weinzweig, co-founder of Zingerman’s Community of Businesses, and an accomplished cheesemaker, restauranteur and author in his own right. Weinzweig may call Ann Arbor home, but Cleveland can claim him as a native son, as he was born in the Heights.
I am so glad that I attended this event and overcame my aversion to beer. The cheeses we experienced reinforce the idea that Wisconsin makes some of the best fromage in the world. All of the selections from both Widmer and Carr Valley were at once distinct and tasty, and the way the cheese and beer selections were reflected in – and enhanced by – Pura Vida’s dishes makes me want to get back into the kitchen.
I owe a special thank-you to Chef Brandt Evans (on right) for a spectacular meal. I will most definitely be back to experience the everyday menu at Pura Vida. For this Mouse, perhaps the best part of the evening wasn’t the food, but the company. Meeting Sid Cook was almost surreal, yet he was so warm and gracious that I instantly forgot that we were in the presence of cheese greatness.