Sweet Potatoes Beer Dinner
By Bobby Bush
"Count us in," he said. With only a cursory explanation of how a beer dinner works, Chuck Spaller, founder of Sweet Potatoes Barn & Grill had already boarded the beer train. Chuck's well-appointed, four-month-old restaurant, located near the southeast entrance to the Valley Hills Mall parking lot, would prove to be a fine setting for the fifth edition of our Suds Brewer Presents…. Sweet Potatoes Beer Dinner.
But first there was preparation. "Five courses - five beers" has become our dinner motto, but what to serve and which beers to pair with each course is always the fun part. Already famous for his Sweet Potatoes Hushpuppies, I asked the eager owner if it would be possible to add beer to the batter. Since the orange spuds are so moist, the 'puppy recipe does not call for liquid of any type. "But how about soup," he suggested, even though it would be something new for his kitchen staff. With that, our five pairings, using beer from the well-stocked Barn bar, were set.
Our crowd of 47 anxious drinkers began arriving early. We sipped glasses of my homemade Piesporter, a sweetish pale yellow wine in the Riesling family. (No, I don't drink wine- it was for the missus). As soon as each table filled, a fresh basket of those delectable sugary Sweet Potatoes Hushpuppies was served by the affable wait staff as a Preamble to the evening's other delectables. Selected from the appetizer menu, crunchy Fried Green Tomatoes topped with roasted garlic goat cheese sauce was the beer dinner's first course. Locally made Olde Hickory Ruby Lager, malty and smooth, provided soothing accompaniment.
From the NC Outer Banks, Weeping Radish OBX, a light lager made with ale yeast (similar to a German Alt), provided unobtrusive background music to the aforementioned Beer Cheese Soup. Not too cheesy with tiny bits of ham, Chuck was slightly embarrassed when he told me later that the soup beer was Michelob Light. I was not the only diner who suggested that this new creation become part of his regular menu.
Up next for the third chapter was a small plate of Shrimp & Grits - large, tender tails-off shrimp sautéed with onions, mushrooms and tasso atop creamy cheese grits. Baked sweet potato was served as the side dish. Pungent, citrusy and hoppy, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale met the Shrimp & Grits spicy challenge head-on. Stepping back to the mild side, veal and beef Meatloaf and Portabella mushroom, grilled, tender and topped with rich pan gravy, was next, along with a spoonful of tasty green beans. With caramel malt sensation and smooth mouthfeel, Samuel Smith Nut Brown Ale played a complementary flavor role. By this point it was obvious, from the boisterous conversation in the large room and by the satisfied looks on many faces, that the dinner was going well. As always, too much good food resulted in many requests for take-home boxes.
As the finale, the dessert course of Sweet Potatoes Peach Cobbler escorted by dark but friendly Guinness Draught Stout, was being devoured, Chuck and Sweet Potatoes manager Robin Mathews were introduced to a rousing round of applause.
What a dinner it had been. Unexpectedly, a jovial pianist had played the baby grand throughout our meal. The crack staff, from cooks to wait staff to bartender, had performed professionally and precisely. The only complaint heard from the bloated bellies around us? "Too much food."
Our Sweet Potatoes Beer Dinner was very sweet indeed.
Since this sort-of-quarterly beer dinner program began in January 2002, we've dined Thai with Tia's, Italian with Da Vinci's, fondue with The Melting Pot, deep south with Olde Hickory Tap Room and "southern cooking with a twist" with Sweet Potatoes. We'll be back somewhere with beer dinner #6 in early September. Believe it or not, restaurants are calling me. Your suggestions are appreciated.
This article first appeared in Focus, a weekly paper published in Hickory, North Carolina.
© Bobby Bush