By Julia Burke, Beer Editor
Having trouble coming up with a wine that would not only stand up to such a meal, but actually elevate it to new heights of deliciousness?
That’s because it’s a beer meal -- one that was featured recently at a blockbuster Mikkeller beer pairing dinner at The Old Toad Pub in Rochester. The astounding six-course dinner did Mikkeller’s world-famous brews plenty of justice, but more importantly for New York State, it also revealed an amazing wealth of talent at this friendly English-style pub.
Meet Jules Suplicki and Charlotte Cox, the brains behind Old Toad’s endlessly creative menu -- two vivacious, beer-loving lasses who are tireless champions for the pleasures of cooking with craft beer.
Both Suplicki and Cox credit their experience at The Old Toad with opening their eyes to the beer world. “When I first arrived I couldn’t stand beer,” says Suplicki, now the bar’s General Manager. “But just through working here with beer and having access to such diverse products it’s hard not to get into it, especially when you’re put in charge of a thriving beer bar and that responsibility’s put on your shoulders -- you’re forced to learn quickly.”
Cox, whose background is in the kitchen, also had her beer enlightenment at the Old Toad. “When I came over here I went to University (at Rochester) to study the management side -- I was always kind of interested in pubs,” she says. “I came here because it was America and a bunch of people from the U.K were going and it sounded like fun. I was not a beer drinker until I came here but then I started cooking with it, trying beer in the food.” Cox briefly returned to the U.K after finishing school -- but was immediately invited back in March of this year to take the helm as Old Toad’s chef.
Beer as a menu staple ingredient isn’t new to the Old Toad, Suplicki points out. “We’ve always cooked with beer here. A lot of our dishes have been on the menu for years and years. Beer has always been in the recipes, but we’re centered a lot more around it now.”
The recent craft beer craze and ensuing gastropub trend has expanded interest in beer cuisine, so Suplicki began including beer ingredients on the menu and planning beer and food pairing dinners to market the pub’s unique style. “I thought, we use all this beer in the food and who knows about it?” she says.
Suplicki’s and Cox’s excitement for beer and food combinations is obvious as they chat about their favorite things to pair. Cox points out that although there are classic food and beer pairings, like fish and a smooth English bitter or wheat, “A lot of beers you can change around it around and do a different thing. You can have a heavy fish dish and a stout. It’s so versatile.” Asked for her all-time favorite pairing, Suplicki recalls Cox’s “deconstructed English breakfast” and Beer Geek Breakfast Stout from the Mikkeller dinner mentioned above.
The dinner, Cox and Suplicki’s first large-scale collaboration, was clearly a breakout event in terms of attendance and the challenging nature of the beers offered.
The two beer lovers discovered their combined passion and expertise was a winning pairing in itself. “It was so enjoyable,” says Suplicki. “We knew we wanted to do something together -- we have the same kind of outlook on food and beer. We wanted to do something really high-end and super creative and showcase the brewers, and for Charlotte to stretch her wings in the kitchen and show people what she’s capable of. Everything we did we talked about extensively together and we meshed on 99% of it, even down to plate layout presentation.”
“We’re so geeky about it!” Cox giggles. “That’s why it came out so well!”
Next the team is planning what Suplicki calls a “Trifecta” dinner: “beer, single malt scotch and bourbons, and food, and all three components will have to work well with each other.” They’re also preparing to do something “a little outlandish” for New Year’s Eve this year, since the pub was recently acclaimed by a local publication as a top place to eat New Year’s Eve dinner in Rochester.
Of course, beer features in Old Toad’s menu every day, not just for events. Beer is an ingredient in many of the pub’s standard recipes, as a marinade, stew ingredient, gravy. or dessert base. The pub’s house ale series, nicknamed OT and brewed nearby at Custom Brewcrafters, is a staple. “We use a lot of our OT Nut Brown in the recipes as a basis beer to make shepherds pie, etc.” says Suplicki, who recommends stew as one of the easiest recipes for beginning beer chefs. “You just substitute beer for some of the broth, and it’s delicious.”
The seasonal OT offerings have included a pink peppercorn IPA, a pumpkin ale, and “Timmy’s Tipple,” a chocolate stout made with 40 lbs of valhrona -- so there’s never a shortage of local options for pairings. Suplicki and Cox are always more than happy to offer pairing suggestions to customers, as they did for my delicious burger and Middle Ages Blackheart Stout combo last week.
A card-carrying hop head, Suplicki loves the classic pairing of “IPA and spicy food -- it’s a no-brainer.” The worst kind of beer to work with, says Cox, is actually “any artificial fruit beer with anything. It never goes because it’s really sweet and doesn’t have any of the natural flavors of hops or barley.”
“Extreme” beers, the catchall term for brews that are high in both flavor and alcohol, seem daunting partners for food, but for Suplicki, the crazier the better. “You’ve got a really concentrated flavor and you’ve got to really think about it. You’re working with a product that’s fantastic and you don’t want the food to pale in comparison. It’s a great challenge.” This week, for example, they’re offering Figgy Apple Crumble Pie with Crème Brulee Custard paired with one of New York’s most extreme beers, Southern Tier Crème Brulee Stout. The dish features fresh apples and mission figs sautéed in Frangelico and Amaretto, baked into a pastry crust and topped with shortbread crumble -- a phenomenal match for the smoothed-out 2008 vintage Southern Tier bottling.
It’s clear that options for beer and food pairings are endless for creative types, and there’s enough passion and creativity at The Old Toad to do justice to the amazing craft beers of New York and beyond.
If you love beer and haven’t started exploring it with food, there’s an amazing culinary scene at your feet. The Old Toad, with one of the most dynamic and talented beer duos in the state, is a great place to start.