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IOWA CITY — Once each year, Richard the Whale resurfaces for landlubbers and sea lovers alike. With his appearance each year, only a handful of lucky attendees experience a culinary opportunity as elusive as the beer itself.
Started three years ago to promote Big Grove Brewery’s Richard the Whale stout, the $300 omakase-style dinner puts your fate in the control of the chef. But what started as a promotional tool for the beer has come to live a life of its own.
Each year, Chef Benjamin Smart and the team try to outdo themselves.
“The point of this dinner is to be a spectacle,” he said.
And spectacle, it was. This year, The Gazette reviewed what only 40 other attendees were privileged to taste this year in a four-hour journey.
On elevated platforms constructed around plating and cooking tables, the Richard Dinner provided a bird’s-eye view of plating and preparation. On the planks, 41 of us waited to see the mythological essence of Richard appear through 15 luxurious courses.
Allow me to narrate you through each one. If you want to see my favorites, be sure to read from Course 5 through 12, plus Course 13.
To learn more about Big Grove’s exclusive Richard the Whale stouts that sell out upon release each year, scroll to the bottom.
1. Oyster and caviar
Served on a bed of rock salt with a garnish of seaweed, the journey to find Richard begins with a salty taste of the sea. The oyster is topped with a garnish made from vinegar, shallots, and a passion fruit habanero hot sauce.
I didn’t taste anything hot and the passion fruit was subtle, but I certainly tasted every salty note with the Osetra caviar — one of the most expensive types.
As the oyster went down the hatch, my mind went to childhood memories at the beach, where I would inevitably get saltwater in my mouth. Like the saltwater, the taste of this oyster felt like an initiation to the fun ahead.
2. Wagyu tartare
A bright purple garnish tops a highly-prized beef, known for its fat content and marbling. Topping the raw minced beef and wagyu heart is chanterelles, a wild mushroom.
All of it sits atop a chicharron fried pork skin, and a dollop of creme fraiche. The creme fraiche provides a creamy complement to a bright, lemony flavor lingering somewhere in the mix.
3. Duck spring roll with plum sauce
Shiso, an Asian plant in the mint family, provides another lovely purple hue that most of us aren’t accustomed to seeing on our daily dinner plates. Green on one side and purple on the other, the subtle mint wrap around the spring roll provides a subtle yin to the spiced duck’s yang, with an aesthetic that almost feels like a delicacy.
Rich, savory, tender duck graces the roll without a gamy flavor. It’s spiced with several bold choices — cinnamon, fennel seed, star anise, clove and ginger — but those spices don’t overpower the duck. A plum sauce on the side provides a nice complement that I could only articulate, in the moment, as an elevated barbecue sauce.
4. Hamachi crudo
Hamachi, a pacific yellowtail, is prepared the Italian way for raw fish — crudo — with Fresno chile, shaved fennel and olive oil.
As my eyes adjusted to the bright green vinaigrette placed before me, Big Grove Brewery co-founder Doug Goettsch, sitting next to me, noted that almost all of their Richard Dinners have featured this — and perhaps for good reason.
The fish caresses your tongue with a comforting texture — pliable and smooth, not rubbery or flaky — with a bit of salt on the finish. While this isn’t the classic definition of comfort food to most Americans, it was comforting to me for a moment.
The chile quickly wakes you up from the brief trance the fish lulled you into.
If you’re thinking of the rubbery texture that awaits you when you order fried calamari, think again.
Underneath this braised octopus, whose tentacle curls beautifully around the side of the grilled bread, is a lovely, sweet Romesco Spanish sauce with peppers, tomatoes, nuts, bread, olive oil and vinegar. A tender meat meets a tender flavor topped by leeks.
6. Gazpacho Andaluz
Floating on a traditional gazpacho — a cold soup — is a seared scallop, rutabaga, chorizo, grapefruit and smoked salmon roe.
Curious about the addition of grapefruit, I asked executive chef Benjamin Smart. It’s based on a flavor profile he made years ago at Chicago’s three-Michelin-star Alinea.
“This is one of my favorite dishes,” Goettsch said.
The chorizo added perhaps the most complexity to the otherwise charming dish. Who knew grapefruit and scallops could go together so well?
7. Salmon and beet escabeche
Each layer of this plate was part of a puzzle that perplexed some diners. How do you eat a blue corn tostada crowning salmon, beets and red onions?
Some tried to eat it like a taco. I chose to eat it at the end as a finishing crunch.
Each bite of oiled salmon, onion and beet is nuanced with a pleasant texture juxtaposed between the flaky salmon and the al dente beet. With the salmon’s slightly salty taste, this combination feels like a luxury worth treasuring more than the sought-after caviar in the first course.
With thinly-sliced radishes and lemon aioli, the tostada’s beautiful composition reminds me Claude Monet’s “Water Lilies.”
8. Poached lobster
Buttery, silky lobster prepared in a way that opened my eyes to see what’s possible for the crustacean beyond just butter.
Ginger-spiced carrots taste like candy, and we aren’t even close to dessert yet. Perhaps a strange analogy, but if you like caramel popcorn mixed in with buttered popcorn, you would like this preparation of lobster.
9. Thai seafood jok
This true umami moment awakens every taste bud on your tongue.
The first bite, a combination of microgreens and mussel, reminds me of a really good Vietnamese spring roll. The second bite with spiced pork, tofu and pickled chile crunch, brings a polite heat to keep you company for a moment.
When you run out of mussels, you’re more than happy to chase the sweet, savory and spicy ride with the leftover tofu. Then I got the spoon out to finish up the porridge with what appears to be a chili-flavored oil.
After a few more bites at the bottom of the bowl, the spice starts to overstay its welcome. But it created pleasant memories, nonetheless.
10. Lamb samosa
Indian restaurants may want to ask for this recipe.
With a salty crunch into the shell, you’re introduced to a savory lamb and curried potato filling. As you take yourself back to the lamb, you’re interrupted by the tamarind chutney that soaked into the other side of the fried shell.
The filling was wonderfully balanced. Too often, the samosas I’ve tried are overpowered with spices.
In the bowl, a cream sitting just beyond the sweet tamarind sauce welcomes you into its arms with a lukewarm embrace.
11. Seared duck breast
With North African spices, this hearty duck tastes like a steak that got a promotion. Juicy and succulent, a small cut of fat on the side balanced each bite.
The squash was a nice addition. Everything else garnishing the plate — yogurt, olives, mint — simply wasn’t necessary.
I started cutting this one on my plate with skepticism, envisioning the frozen, shredded venison as a child that the family would receive from friends who went hunting. But this was a world away from that deer.
Mustard jus and candied cherries really brought it to life.
13. Coconut rum baba
The first of three dessert courses graces you with the glow of coconut on the rum baba, a yeasted cake soaked in sweet rum syrup after baking.
The cake was not as overwhelmingly sweet as I expected it to be, which was nice after 12 rich courses.
After a couple bites, my fork sank into the rum-soaked center, providing an amazing punctuation to one of my favorite dishes of the night.
But wait, there’s more. A puddle of creamy, thickened curd sauce topped with diced banana, pineapple and lime curd is the icing under the cake.
14. Foie gras doughnut
Cue another round of healthy skepticism. Although I’ve enjoyed foie gras — the controversial fattened duck liver — at upscale French restaurants before, it was difficult to envision it as a dessert.
The giant doughnut hole, flavored with sweet cherry inside, had a savory, buttery surprise inside the steamy, doughy treat. Diners around me raved as they bit into the center.
The end of this marathon quenches your taste buds with several layers.
A crisp, gold-sprayed chocolate plate on top yields to your fork as it sinks into velvety layers of cake.
Although a nice end to a long journey, the cake is probably the last thing I’ll remember about this dinner — speaking to the volume of the journey I experienced on the search for the elusive spirit of Richard the Whale.
Several exciting stouts were released Dec. 4 as Big Grove Brewery celebrated Richard the Whale’s resurfacing that comes but once a year.
The Well Baked version was by far my favorite. Taking a deep whiff, the sharp aroma at the top of my sample was similar to what you smell when you put your nose to a bottle of pure vanilla extract. It transported me to memories of baking in the kitchen with my mother.
Head Brewer Andy Joynt explained the cherry tart that inspired the very present almond and cherry flavor, which was pushed with a relatively unusual five days of aging after the addition of dried cherries and almonds.
Richard’s coffee stout, another bold variation this year, was made with whole coffee beans instead of grounds for a gentler, smoother character, Joynt said.
The original, like its two variations, takes time to develop its character through aging in burned whiskey barrels. This year’s barrels were provided by Elijah Craig, Buffalo Trace and Heaven Hill distilleries.
Joynt said this year’s batch was a stronger, bigger flavor than last year’s. Richard the Whale, sold for $25 to $30 per bottle, has an ABV of 12.5 percent and roughly 40 IBUs.
The beer’s name started as a joke among staff to find the elusive white whale of a good beer. Year after year, Big Grove continues to chase that white whale.
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