The Beer Dinner Social at River Roast, featuring beers from 5 Rabbit Cerveceria and special dishes from Chef Cedric Harden is outstanding. In one of their handsome semi-private rooms, I recently enjoyed their debut of a beer pairing and blah blah blah I’m not even going to try to maintain a pretense of journalistic integrity here. Be prepared, reader: I am about to gush and bluster and employ ridiculously overworked writing to tell you this dinner was off the rails.
Tastings are usually sparse, hyper-elegant affairs that leave you starving to death, desperate for a hamburger and a decent beer. Sure, you get to try a new wine and that’s the point and yay. The Beer Dinner Social is not exactly a tasting. It’s a drinking. It’s a feasting. And maybe you should wear loose pants because the generosity of the larder the servers will pile upon the broad table before you will test the tenacity of your waistband.
Shrimp Cocktail with Paleta Paloma Gose
Step one for enjoying a great beer dinner is to make sure you sit next to a beer expert. I was just one beautiful attorney away from Samu Rahn from Glunz Beers who is a walking beerapedia and explained all the subtle and complex flavors swirling around the glasses before us, especially this Paleta, a beer style invented by 5 Rabbit, with pink grapefruit and Himalayan pink salt and other stuff and let’s just dwell here for a minute.
If you approach a new and well-crafted beer the way you’d approach a new and well-crafted wine, then you start with the bouquet. It should tell you everything about the beer. It’s like the lead in a story: it gives an impression of what the whole thing is about while leading you deeper into the body of the article. The bouquet of this Paleta is funky and tart. There’s a disturbance there somewhere. You can’t quite put your finger on it but something about the foundation of the beer, something that happened while it was in the vat, something in the mind of the brewer – something – is marvelously off.
This might be the perfect way to describe 5 Rabbit, named after the Aztec legend of the 400 Rabbits who was the child of the goddess of maguey and the god of fermentation and look, just go to the website. The idea is the joint is based on a sense of mystical playfulness. There is a florid and fertile madness behind their work. Like, paletas are spicy Mexican popsicles and the beer they named after them made is similarly spicy, salty, and wildly refreshing. Almost whimsical. But there is plenty of finger flipping punk mentality when required. These are the guys who created this beer in response to Donald Trump’s infamous description of Latino Americans.
That mysterious quality in the bouquet of the Paloma Gose that is marvelously off is not accidental, it’s not a fortuitous byproduct of terroir and hops and the way the planets were aligned the day they bottled it. It’s the redolence of taking a certifiably crazy idea seriously then working tirelessly to make it happen.
Mojo Fried Snapper paired with Golden Ale
That same studious, ecclesiastical madness resonates with the palate and purposes of Chef Harden. If you’ve never been to River Roast, just understand the food is an explosion of flavor. I don’t mean there are a million myriad flavors in a single dish, I mean that each dish is reduced to its essential components and captured on the platter as if it had detonated. The snapper looks like it was captured mid-blast, speared to a wooden slab with a great steel shank through its heart, eyes and toothy grin glaring at you like it can’t believe it got caught and maybe, just maybe, I’ve gone slightly gruesome here and I don’t mean to scare anyone away from this fish. Just the opposite. You want this fish. You need this fish. This fish, as the servers walked it through the restaurant to our table, lifted patrons out of their seats like Wile E. Coyotes drawn hopelessly into its fragrant wake and even as they set it down before us, the look of absolute envy on their faces was painful to observe. I would have offered them a morsel but I don’t know these people and my God the fish, the fish, holy red snapper the fish. Its skin crispy and crackling, its flesh juicy and tender and steaming. The attractive attorney sitting next to me and I devoured the thing like starving feral children. I would have eaten its frizzled eyeballs if no one was looking. Washing it down with 5 Rabbit’s Golden Ale, a slightly elevated straight ale, was genius.
Al Pastor Pork Shank with Super Pils
The pork shank was brought to our table held on high by servers who staggered beneath its Flintstonian portions. The meat was brilliantly seasoned with pineapple and guajillo peppers, with a crunchy skin. It was opulent. It was enormously flavorful. It was too much. Then they laid crispy roasted potatoes and an elote that brought spontaneous applause all kept in check by the Super Pils from 5 Rabbit, whose dry bock qualities cut through the unctuous texture of the pig–
And ok, I know, you’re probably reading this review of a Beer Dinner Social and thinking this guy is still drunk; this guy swallowed a thesaurus; or maybe he should dial it back a little because, seriously – unctuous? But you weren’t there, you poor wretched, ravenous reader, you weren’t there. We really did applaud the elote. It was that good. I would’ve stabbed someone if they came near my snapper. It was that good. You can wave your Formento’s and Tru pairings in my face all you want, 5 Rabbits and River Roast knocked it out of the park with beer. I’m not drunk on booze, I’m reeling from being so wonderfully, delightfully, thoughtfully, and brilliantly fed. And we’re not even done.
Tres Leches Cake with Cacao Porter (and a tequila shot with Chef Harden)
The porter from 5 Rabbit proves they create their beers by performing some kind of secret Aztec blood sacrifice. It is thick and rich and dark and messes with you just a little because it has the bittersweet profile of a great porter possessed by the glowering specter of an Aztec hot chocolate: there are the traditional flavors of a well-hopped malt, but with cinnamon, chocolate, vanilla, and roasted pepito peppers. Imagine biting into a velvety tres leches cake topped with strawberries and washing it down with that insane brew. It’s an oddball pairing. It’s pure madness. And it works.
Look, you’re never getting into Alinea. The line for Au Cheval starts in Wisconsin. Sure, Chicago sports a constellation of Michelin-starred houses and you should definitely try to go to all of them but while you’re waiting to score that table at Goosefoot, try the menu of a restaurant working its backside off to give birth to a star of its own. Dive into the refreshing and possibly magical waters of a Latino brewery invoking the trickster spirit of an Aztec rabbit deity. Have the Beer Social Dinner at River Roast because Oh My Goodness!