Notes from Xicha’s Brindar: Peru

This is the year of reclamation! Exclamation! The beer dinner is back; I declaim it! It’s been two days, and I’m still abuzz with manic glee from Sunday’s homage to Peruvian cuisine at Xicha Brewing’s new Eugene location. Some four years have elapsed since I last spent a meal with my head fully engaged in the sensual act of beer-food pairing. Though I shouldn’t say “fully,” because I was also on a date celebrating 18 years of partnership, and our table neighbors were good conversationalists. So I multi-tasked.

If there’s a niche that is overlooked by the good-beer-drinkin’ public, it’s food pairing. Like, come on! I was surprised to not see familiar faces at the dinner, but happy that all the seats had butts in them. The event opened with some mingling, a maracuya Pisco sour, and fried balls of tender potato (and yucca?) filled with a farmer’s-type cheese.

The host was head brewer Matt Dakapolos; he introduced the beers and gave us some context for the pairing. Chef-owner Ricardo Antunez scurried out from the kitchen between courses to go over each dish; the two had good chemistry, and it was apparent they’d worked closely on the pairings.

First up was Xicha’s Playa Pils, a clear, deep gold lager with an earthy aspect to it. The beers were all delivered before the food so we could get acquainted before “ruining” our palates with the food, Ricardo joked. First course was an embellished ceviche, Leche de Tigre. Tender slices of raw kampachi (yellowtail/amberjack) rested in a tangy, bright yellow sauce, and was topped with slivers of pickled jalapeno and grapefruit. For crunch, taro and yucca chips. Now, the Pils is good, but on its own, I feel, needs more pop.

The pairing did just that; swiping the fish around in the sauce and taking a good slug of the beer while it tingled my tongue just made me thirstier (I’d do shots of that sauce…), and the grapefruit and jalapeno goosed the hops awake.

Second course: Pale Especial with Causa de Haiba. A causa is a Peruvian food tower with a potato base. In this case, it was the purple variety. A lump of creamy dungeness crab meat, aji amarillo sauce, radish micro greens, and olives topped it off, and was encircled by a dreamy black garlic aioli. I wasn’t aware until Matt explained that the Pale has mango in it (“Where is that rich body coming from?” I thought.)

This was the coolest pairing of the night, and I’ll tell you why (surprise!). When you hear “mango,” you might think “smoothie,” or “salsa” if you’re feeling fancy. The beer was on the maltier side of Pale, spare on hop aroma and not dripping with mango nectar. Matt and Ricardo bantered a bit about this pairing, and brought up the mutual savory notes between beer and causa.

In practice, the mango was given a task: tie the room together. And it did, by providing a crux or a bridge between the food and drink. Everything about the causa was savory, from the earthy spice of the micro greens to the enveloping umami of the black garlic aioli. Having the beer alongside, with its fruity accent, added a subtle harmonic note and pleasing texture to the whole shebang.

Without much further ado, and through the attentive courtesy of the wait staff, the main course, Pachamanca, appeared, a glistening turf-and-turf of melting pork belly lardon and a chicken roulade, stood on end to resemble osso bucco and stuffed with huacatay (black mint) herb sauce. All wading in a bath of smoothly pureed sweet potato. To pair, my favorite beer of the night: Cabrito Bock, which was brewed for this occasion and spent five months lagering.

The bock had a range of deep malty flavors; a bit of baker’s chocolate, just-burnt toast, browned caramel. Very cleanly fermented, and with a muscly heft giving it the clout to enter the coliseum opposite this doozy of a dish. It was all rich rich rich, fat fat fat; a tender sponge of chicken and the pork belly that… umm, maybe I’ll try to keep this post PG-13. Though the beer couldn’t do a whole lot to pierce the lipid glaze, it added a roasty cross-hatching and enough palate cleansing to prepare for the next bite without a nap between.

I love it when the end of a beer dinner is a favor to the guests, an “I got you” affirmation. That, opposed to the drug dealer approach of “we’re gonna chase this dragon into molten chocolate Requiem for an Imperial Stout gastric hell.” You may not know you want Berliner Weisse for dessert (I didn’t, my dopamine count was spiking); that’s why these folks are the professionals, easing you out of your synesthetic dreams like a dental surgeon waking you up after wisdom tooth extraction.

We were advised to take a sip of the beer before it received a blessing of passionfruit syrup (a satisfying bookend to the beverage selection, which began with passionfruit in the Pisco sour). It was, its naked self, a sigh (suspiro) of wheat, barely there. Needed some acid, hence the blessing.

And the final course: Suspiro Brûlée. I’ll explain. Suspiro (sigh) is basically a lemon cream custard infused with port wine. In this case, they wove in some butterscotchy dulce de leche, blasted the top of the custardy mix with a torch, and topped it with a tangy caramel-doused popcorn.

I’ve written before about the importance of acid in beer pairing. Whether coming from the beer, food, or both (most often the case), orchestrating acidic elements is tricky. This was a particularly bright, pingy dish. The popcorn-wheat beer duet honked out the trombone section. Citric passionfruit syrup and lemon blew Bossa flute, and the airy sugar-egg-cream of the custard beat timbale, conga, and cuíca.

Rather than being Oompa-Loompa’d out of the restaurant as a pile of Violet Beauregards, we walked cheerfully. Thanks, Chef and Brewer!

To recap: support beer pairing events! It so happens that Ricardo Antunez will be at the KLCC Brewfest’s VIP Learning Lounge on Sat. 2/11 at 5pm; treat yourself to a better enjoyment of beer and food together. Xicha does more of these dinners, here and in Salem.

Note: I did not receive complimentary tickets to this event; paid for ’em myself. I occasionally get offered free things, but always do my best to write without influence.

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