Friday, June 17, 2011
I’ve been a craft beer geek for a long time, but like most people, I started out drinking cheap, macro-brewed nonsense because I didn’t know any better. I never thought beer could be delicious until someone sat me down and said, “beer can be good, and here’s why.” That’s exactly what happened at the most recent dinner at the San Diego Zoo’s Albert's Restaurant, except the beverage in question wasn’t beer but that often vilified agave-based drink—tequila. Thanks to the skilled craftsmen at Casa Noble and the talented kitchen staff at Albert’s, I’ll never see tequila the same again.
Like most of the special dinner at Albert's, the night began with an intimate reception in the Treetops Banquet Room above the restaurant, complete with all-you-can-eat hors d’oeuvres and all-you-can-drink libations. A tree pangolin (which one guest likened to an “armadillo monkey bird”), tamadua or lesser anteater, and a South African hedgehog dropped by to entertain us while we enjoyed delicious street tacos, nachos with all the fixings, and “Albert’s Organic Margatinis” with Casa Noble Crystal tequila. After the reception, we were led downstairs to kick off the dinner.
The first step toward changing peoples’ perception is education, and that’s how the dinner began. Before the first course came out, the presiding tequila connoisseur, Enrico Caruso, took the floor and gave us a brief history lesson on the drink, how it’s made, and the complexity inherent in a well-crafted tequila. Heads exploded left and right as pre-conceived notions of tequila were shattered. We now had the knowledge to combat our ignorance, but we had yet to apply it. Then came the first tequila.
Before each course we were served our tequila in a shot glass accompanied by a virgin cocktail. We were encouraged to taste the tequila straight up before diluting our taste buds with the rich food, then dump the rest in the cocktail and enjoy it that way if we preferred. Our first taste was of Casa Noble’s Reposado, and with Enrico’s help we began discovering its nuances. The first sip was very sweet and peppery, with larger sips revealing creamy butterscotch notes. I was a believer. Next came the food.
Bursting with four plump blackened Mexican white shrimp drizzled with virgin olive oil on top of baby spinach, pureed black rice, marinated tomatoes, and fresh avocado, the first course was a BIG one. I don’t eat a lot of shrimp, so I couldn’t be the best judge, but a pescatarian at our table said she eats it like it’s going out of style, and THIS was good shrimp. I took her word for it. The simple, rich flavors matched the tequila’s bold, raw notes of pepper and butterscotch. Fantastic.
The second course, Guajillo-spiced pulled pork with cilantro-lime polenta and corn relish, topped with salsa verde, was paired perfectly with Casa Noble Anejo. The Anejo was aged in oak barrels for a year and boasted a much sweeter profile than the Reposado. It had obvious silky notes with hints of chocolate and burnt honey, which cut nicely into the richness of the pulled pork. The smoky notes from the tequila also paired beautifully with the sweet, spicy pork, and the green sauce with habanero matched the alcohol spice of the tequila.
Next came the Empanada de Habichuela, consisting of slow-cooked black beans infused with onions, peppers, tomatoes, chorizo, and panela cheese folded into a flakey pastry crust and finished on smoked enchilada sauce. This course continued the trend of big, bold flavors, harmonizing with the Casa Noble Reposado and matching it on the high notes. At this point it was obvious that this dinner was not about subtlety. It was about punching you in the face with flavor and leaving you wanting more.
The dessert, a Semifreddo de Chocolate y Cacahuate with chili brittle, agave nectar, and assorted edible flowers, was another welcome flavor bomb. When matched with the Single Barrel Anejo sifter, it was heaven.
Of all the dinners I’ve attended at Albert’s, this was by far the most interesting. The subject matter was fresher, the atmosphere was wilder (fitting for a zoo!), and the flavors were more intense. Congrats to the experienced craftsmen at Casa Noble and the equally competent staff at Albert’s for bringing the delicious yet again. They’re all magicians as far as I’m concerned.