The West End Gastro Club held their first dinner at the West End Youth Center last Friday night. The event featured Hijinx Brewery, a soon-to-open nanobrewery in South Whitehall, and the Lehigh Valley Homebrewers, who paired beers with dishes concocted by Chef Tim Howells.
The dinner was themed as “inspirations”. The team behind the gastro club wanted to create a dinner based off of what the locals considered Allentown classics. As they surveyed the scene they found many picking things like Yocco’s Hot Dogs. Wanting to do something more culinarily challenging, they decided to take a different route. The courses at the dinner were based off of the inspirations of Luis Loayza and Tim Howells, with one exception at the end.
The first plate was an amuse bouche consisting of a sweet potato blini, topped with duck confit and onion jam.
The next course was shrimp and grits, a play on a dish that Starfish Brasserie served under a former owner. This is where Mr. Loayza and Mr. Howells met, culminating with the inspiration for this dish. The plate you see pictured here is substituted with duck. The grits had a great, rich flavor and just the right consistency. Much better than anything you’d find at the local Waffle House. This course was paired with a session saison from the homebrewers, a lower-alcohol take on a traditional French farmer’s quaff.
The second course was tostones, a dish that throws back to Mr. Loayza’s Spanish heritage and Howell’s youth when he dined at a friend’s house where he was served this Latin cuisine. The cumin pork was good, but may have benefited from a bit more seasoning. Thoroughly enjoyable were the tostones themselves: fried and crushed plantains with tomato-onion relish and avocado cream on the side. Paired with this course was a homebrewed English-style brown ale that paired well with the pork and plantain flavors.
Next up was personally our least favorite of the evening: pan seared duck with cilantro-pea risotto and a red pepper puree. The reason this course was the least favorable was due to the duck being cooked far past rare. It’s understandable why this was done: it’s the least offensive way to cook it for a majority (?) of patrons however it stripped the duck of its rich flavor and texture. The cilantro-pea risotto was great on its own and the roasted red pepper puree? Well, that was good enough to have alone as a soup. The club’s inspiration for this dish was Mr. Loayza’s childhood memories of arroz con pato, a meal usually reserved for celebratory purposes. This dish was paired with Hijinx’s fantastic Sorachi Ace Dry-Hopped Hop Havoc. This beer had such a great aroma and mellow but flavorful hop punch that it’s a wonder we didn’t try to steal a pitcher.
For the final entrée course of the night the team went out with a bang, serving up a sizeable slab of wild boar belly. With the fat rendered beautifully throughout the meat and the top lightly crispy, this easily took the cake for the evening. Coming full circle, the inspiration for this course was to demonstrate the tastes and experiences they wish to present in their dinners. We can only gather that most in the crowd never had wild boar before (it makes a good jerky, for the record) so this served as a look at what the West End Gastro Club hopes to accomplish. Under the boar was a roasted applesauce and, to the side, root veggie layers. Paired with this was a Beglian dubbel, expertly smooth and timeless in taste. Homebrewer Dave Barber was responsible for this one and he did a damn fine job. (Also, we suck and didn’t manage to snap a shot of this beer.)
The last course’s inspiration was indeed one from Allentown, and certainly a classic. The Hess’ Strawberry Pie is still fawned over in the Morning Call every few months and if you ask any older folks from the area they’ll drool at the mere mention of it. The gastro club’s strawberry tart was quite the tasty end to the dinner. A flaky pastry base was topped with (in the style off Hess’) extremely sweet strawberries, rich whipped cream, and sprinkled with pistachios. The beer pairing was Hijinx’s Earth, Wit, and Fire, dousing your palate with a ridiculous amount of wheat flavor.
And the after-dinner drink? Hijinx’s Coffee Porter, this time with Nicaraguan coffee beans. We had this at the Allentown Craft Beer Festival with Colombian and Honduran Coffee. It’s (like most everything they’ve done so far) a beautiful concoction that we can’t wait to see at the local bars.
All-in-all the dinner went well, especially for the first one. Although there were some seating issues in the beginning, all was eventually sorted out (causing a later-than-anticipated start). The place was packed with 80+ people in attendance. It was quite the turnout for their first event. When we first heard “youth center” it was a bit concerning, however it turns out the center has a great banquet hall downstairs where the dinner was held. Candles, table cloths, subdued lights, and quiet but lively music all helped set a great scene. I’m sure with the next dinner some of the aforementioned issues will be fully sorted out.
Disclosure: The El Vee was comp’d this dinner as a press member