116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — Every December, Richard the Whale resurfaces to bring a proverbial manna and quail to just 40 chosen diners at Big Grove Brewery.
This year, the whale brought courses virtually nonexistent in Iowa restaurants: sea urchin roe, hog head cheese and foie gras pumpkin pie among them.
But before you put your fork down, you’ll want to see how he prepared them.
The elaborate, 15-course omakase-style meal puts your fate in the hands of Big Grove Brewery Chef Benjamin Smart and his team of chefs. Each year features an array of exotic choices prepared with verve and finesse, and each year, Chef Ben’s team tries to outdo themselves.
“It truly is a lot of labor. You’ve got to be inspired to do it,” said Smart, known as Chef Ben. “Tonight is a little bit about comfort and exploration with different techniques and flavors.”
This year’s most creative expressions were dispersed with elements of comfort and nostalgia to entice even the pickiest eater want to take a bite.
At $230 per ticket, the Dec. 2 meal sold out in just 5 minutes. Live vicariously through The Gazette’s exclusive review.
To learn more about Big Grove’s exclusive Richard the Whale stouts that sell out upon release each year, scroll to the bottom.
1. Smoked trout cheesecake
Is this an oxymoron of sweet and savory? A blasphemy of cheesecake? No — it’s neither.
A whiff of dill comes in ahead of the roe to reassure you that the chefs know what they’re doing. After you bite past the creamy layer of herbs into a crust of fried saltines seasoned with a housemade Old Bay seasoning, you realize this is a familiar friend.
Don’t think of it as a weird cheesecake. Think of it as a really good dip with crackers and meat — the kind of plate you snack on before and after Thanksgiving dinner.
2. Razor clam over aji amarillo
“I hope you like spicy,” the chef said as he sat this onto my table.
After one bite, I realized he wasn’t joking — what a way to wake up your taste buds before a marathon.
If I were fluent in German, I’d probably know how to best describe this in a single word: a taste that burns so spicy but tastes so good.
After a hibiscus-dusted onion and green, you get reassuring chunks of sweet potato in between the aji amarillo coating the plate. The sauce makes me reach for my water and use measured breaths to cool my mouth, but the sharp tang of it kept me going back for more — scraping my spoon across every inch of the bowl to get it all.
As the flavor intensifies, the devil on your shoulder keeps egging you on. But then, in a new development, you realize the devil on one shoulder and angel on the other are one and the same, working in tandem to compel you to finish your spicy plate.
The last bite reminds you that there’s razor clam in the dish, too.
3. Black truffle cigar
No lighters are needed for this cigar, but your tray will arrive with ashes from leeks on it.
A bed of melted leeks and butter is topped by an edible tube stuffed with a creamy blend of mushrooms and black truffles. A satisfying crunch yields to the demure mushroom, accompanied by just enough truffle that introduces a new vibrancy to the course.
I savored every one of the luxury’s three bites.
4. Foie gras pumpkin pie
This is one of Chef Ben’s favorite preparations, with cured, lightly poached foie gras.
The controversial French delicacy — a fattened duck or goose liver — takes on a new autumn flavor with pickled apples, a lovely crumble and a sweet slice of soft brioche bread toasted on each side.
The room got quiet after spreading the foie gras and toppings on the bread as the chefs instructed each table.
With everything on the plate, the pumpkin only managed to be a bit player in the dish named after it.
5. Smoked hamachi
Hamachi is soaked in a quick brine before being smoked and served with flake salt, arugula, arbequina oil and capers.
The soft texture of the fish starts with a soft flavor that grows stronger with each bite. A pool of smoky sauce provides a new accent each time my fork returns to the plate.
Well prepared, even if uncooked fish isn’t your favorite protein.
6. King crab
A palate-cleansing dish arrives before decidedly bolder dishes make an appearance. But this isn’t a moment strictly for utilitarian purposes.
The instant the crab hits my tongue, I’m in bliss. Then I dip the crab into the seaweed butter, unlocking culinary fantasies I didn’t know I had.
A similarly subtle sweetness from the cabbage roll complements the meat as the earthy undertone of the seaweed butter anchors me back to earth with an authenticity I rarely taste in crab dishes.
Chef Ben said this Japanese flavor profile prepared in a French style was difficult. But the big risk returned with a big reward.
7. Hog head arancini
A pleasing geometry greets me with a circle, ball, square and squiggly greenery hovering over it all.
The fry of the shell hits my nostrils as I get to work, biting into the Carolina Gold rice inside with a coating of collard green aioli coating the underside. A surprisingly mild flavor is brought to life by the greenery atop.
Despite being fried, this feels wholesome.
Hog head cheese finishes the course with a fancier flavor of what I liken to Spam.
8. Scallops over creme fraiche
First of all, what a beautiful dish — so aesthetically pleasing, with tiny green shavings the size of your pinkie nail and perfectly diced celery root.
Soft, pillowy scallops sit on a bed of tangy diced creme fraiche, where the lemon really shines through. This transported me to eating fresh lobster rolls on the shores of Maine.
The celery root provides a good crunch, contrasting the accommodating scallops, which have a little give to them.
Elegant and gracefully plated on a bed of carnaroli rice with lemon and chive, this is Japan’s version of the Rocky Mountain oyster.
Uni, the edible portion of a sea urchin that makes up its reproductive glans, is considered a delicacy there. Their rarity — each sea urchin only has five unis each — makes them all the more treasured.
The Carnaroli was made with an uni-infused butter compound. In my notes on the taste of special Italian rice, I wrote “butter on butter on butter.”
The meat’s flavor starts mild, playing well with the rest of the dish. Each inhale between bites gives a whiff of fresh sea air. Each subsequent bite of uni delivers alternating notes of slightly sweet and ever so slightly metallic.
10. Black cod stew
Chef Ben describes this as a deconstructed Spanish or Catalan seafood stew, served with a crab-heavy broth and saffron rouille poured in front of you.
The elegant fish flakes into several layers with the slightest push of my fork, luring me in before the broth starts to reel the line ever so slightly faster, bringing me to shore without startling me off the hook.
Potatoes paired well — a rarity in fish dishes, in my experience — and the cod caressed my tongue gently as waves of broth washed over my palate, bringing new treasures with each spoonful.
Bites of cherry tomatoes, taken from the chef’s personal garden, yell “land ho!” toward the end.
11. Duck confit
A beautiful bounty of colors graces my eyes with red and yellow in one of the largest courses of the evening.
Each bite of the fatty duck grazes over a spicy sauce made with Jimmy Nardello peppers that really makes it quack — in the best possible way. The duck’s skin is crispy and full of flavor, making me think less of the fried chicken skin I love.
A peppery baba ganoush with a little oil in the center is yet another delight forcing me to ravish my wood-fired pita bread as if I had been starved up to this point. A crunchy, sweet pickled squash finishes the plate.
Every element was a pleasure on this plate, which was my favorite of the evening.
Finally, the meat and potatoes, as my mother would say.
Supple cherries stuck to the mashed potatoes infuse holiday cheer starting a hearty winter dish.
At most dinners at my home, the lamb would be the star of any meal. The fact that the lamb was one of the less notable items here is a testament to the chef’s ability.
Inside an onion, the team managed to create something entirely new to me. Most of my experience with barley is limited to the beef and barley soup I ate every winter growing up.
With braised and shredded short rib meat, this onion was stuffed with pearled barley, mushroom and all the flavor you could ask for. After a journey that included eating unknown Japanese delicacies, it brought me back home.
13. Pistachio sundae
This dessert, my favorite of the three dessert courses, produced another quiet moment in the room.
The bed of sweet crumbs coats a dainty scoop of pistachio ice cream, making me feel like I’ve found the golden ticket — and not the Golden Ticket beer they released that evening.
A puree of sour raspberry awaits your taste buds as the bottom of the dish, and hints of salt in the crumbs turned bliss into pure ecstasy with each cold bite.
Violating my sense of decorum, I used my finger to get out the last lick of raspberry in the dimple of the glass my spoon couldn’t reach. That’s how good it was.
14. Winter citrus and Chamomile marshmallow
A bright surge of vitamin C reminds you that winter is nigh, and with it all the illnesses that vitamin C helps prevent.
But being healthy doesn’t have to be a chore, it said.
A true reprieve as winter approaches, this angel cake soaked in warm tangerine juice was a getaway for the senses. Cream and a knot of Chamomile marshmallow were truly the “icing” on the cake.
15. Laiskonis Egg
From famous pastry chef Michael Laiskonis, this hollowed out egg is filled with milk chocolate creme brulee, caramel foam and hints of maple syrup topped with a sprinkle of salt.
Delicately presented in a shot glass full of sugar, it had a simple goodness that defied its intricate presentation, delivering flavors everyone is familiar with.
This year’s batch proves that wine isn’t the only thing that gets better with age. With batches from several years to work with, new infusions and new techniques gave way to some interesting new selections with this year’s Richard The Whale beers.
This year, varieties included the original, coffee and orange dessert beer, as well as the iconic Golden Ticket.
The original flavor’s 2022 release is influenced by maple syrup and Willet bourbon barrels. But the biggest differences were produced by a dramatic change in the boil time.
“This is absolutely the best Richard we’re ever come out with,” said head brewer Andy Joynt.
Usually, Richard the Whale is boiled for an hour. This year, they let it boil 12 to 14 hours, producing a thicker, sweeter and more luscious base. Joynt said they’re leaning on variations from vintage Richards to make this year’s stand out.
With Ethiopian karamo coffee from JBC Coffee Roasters in Madison, Wis., the coffee Richard’s smell is nearly indistinguishable from fresh black coffee.
This year’s orange beer used fruit pulp, rind and roasted cocoa nibs to achieve a unique flavor profile led by chocolate with undertones of citrus. The texture alone — closer to the consistency of an Orange Julius than a beer — makes this selection truly unique.
The Golden Ticket uses three different types of vanilla this year, producing a decadence in smell that makes it almost too good to drink. The frothy texture of last year has transformed into a velvety mouthfeel with this year’s release.
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