Photos by John Rockwell.

Food can be functional—it nourishes us and keeps us alive, but at its best, food is art. On February 14, I had the pleasure of attending “Valentine on the Vine,” a multi-course cheese, beer and sparkling wine flavor-pairing for lovers. Hosted by BXCR (Boxcar Wine Bar) and The Culinary Underground OC/LA, the event featured the stratospheric talents of BXCR’s Executive Chef Andrea Machuca-Kirkland, whose love for area craft beer and locally-farmed food is matched by her close attention to the details of flavor combinations and visual aesthetics.

The first course of Kumamoto oysters accented with caviar-looking finger limes.

Followers of OC and L.A. foodie columns or frequent brewery hoppers are probably aware of The Culinary Underground, a beer-centric pop-up dinner concept hosted by local breweries and helmed by Machuca-Kirkland. Her multi-course offerings often include unusual or difficult-to-acquire ingredients served in the warehouse environs of various SoCal production breweries like Phantom Carriage, Barley Forge or Noble. For Valentine’s Day however, the pop-up took place in the “warehouse-chic” digs of Cook’s Chapel hidden on the basement floor of Anaheim’s posh and ever-popular Packing House. The “chapel” is accessible through an inconspicuous door situated to the right of BXCR’s bar, and opens to whitewashed bricks and rafters in a simply appointed open hall space. There is a chandelier-lit bar at one end and an open kitchen at the other. 

Upon entering the space, couples were greeted with flutes of champagne and seated in pairs at large, rose-adorned tables. Before each course, the chef, sommelier and brewer took a moment to introduce the parings.

Course 1: “The World is Your Oyster” + Faire la Fête Brut

The chefs prepared a beautifully composed dessert plate. Here, chef applies mascarpone to add some extra Valentine’s Day sweetness.

The first course was a simple trio of NorCal-sourced Kumamoto oysters over a bed of sea salt adorned with champagne foam and what appeared to be pink caviar. The chef explained that these were finger limes, an Australian version of the citrusy fruit in which these egg-like spheres contain a delicately acidic juice. The salt, citrus and roundness of the protein dish began the party with a savory and cleansing experience on the palate. The Faire la Fête, which apparently means “to create a party,” was a lively and slightly acidic Chardonnay-based sparkling wine from the Limoux region of France. This wine paired nicely with the simple and straightforward flavors of the dish. As an opener, it served as a gentle introduction to the chef’s approach to flavor and visual presentation.

Course 2: “Love is in the Air” + Lolliker

As a fan of local beer, I was thrilled that two courses of the evening were paired with “Lolliker” and “Jammiest Bits of Jam,” names I recognized as offerings of Rancho Cucamonga’s Sour Cellars, where Brett-centric brewer Bryan Doty concocts some of the most interesting sour beers produced in SoCal. He is half flavor-hound, half lab scientist. Doty is just as likely to be found foraging the Inland Empire for unusual fruits for his sour ales as he is performing yeast inoculations on the wooden rafters that sit above the space where he cools beer wort for “spontaneous” fermentation. I find it difficult to be objective about Doty’s beer because I am a fan of his work and his relentless dedication to his unique process. But if one is going to pair food with dry and acidic sour beers, those foods are going to have to be able to cut through those flavors.

I was pleased to see Taleggio on the plates for the second tasting course. In the world of “stinky” cheeses, it is relatively mild because it is brined in saltwater (as opposed to briefly “washed”) and then ripened for a longer period time in humid caverns. When ripened, it gives way to a silky and creamy paste that only suggests the subdued bacterial activity taking place on the rind. Tallegio does not have the pungent meatiness of Pont-l’Évêque, nor does it have the distracting nose and yeastiness of the ever-famous Époisses. It had just enough flavor to cut through the Lolliker, which was a Flanders brown sour fruited with cranberry and raspberry. The addition of sweet apricot jam and salty pistachios gave the plate a nice balance of flavor, and the surprisingly large wedge of cheese gave diners some room for experimentation. Between sips of Lolliker, I alternated tastings of cheese and sweet with tastings of cheese and turmeric-flavored pistachios.

This was my wife’s favorite course (until dessert, of course), which was unusual because she usually doesn’t select the “stinky” cheeses when I serve them at home. It goes to show that in expert hands, smart pairings can highlight the most palatable qualities of an ingredient.

Course 3 “Brie Mine” + Jammiest Bits of Jam

Chintya and Bryan Doty, co-founders of Sour Cellars in Rancho Cucamonga, were on hand to discuss their Belgian-inspired beers.

A surprise to me, my favorite course of the evening was this one. It was a surprise because I am a fan of great Brie, and I’d like to think I’m also an enemy of generic Brie. I had never tried the variation at the center of the dish—Fromage d’Affinois—partially because it’s a big seller (if everyone likes it, then it surely couldn’t be good), and partially because it looks like a “generic” factory Brie. However, I found it to be delicious, with very mild farm flavors and a mouthfeel reminiscent of Robiola, the Italian-based mixed-milk cheese. Its creaminess presents almost like a butterfat-enhanced Brie, and in doing some research, I found out that perception of fattiness is due to using an “ultrafiltration process” where the milk fat is broken down to be distributed more completely throughout the product. The yellowish color suggests that it is made using grass-fed cow milk, and the light elements of farmyard, mushroom and faint earthiness make its profile decidedly complex.

The other pieces of this dish—the dehydrated raspberries and the boysenberry compote—added an earthiness and sweetness that complemented the cheese and supported the sour beer that was paired with the dish. The boysenberry compote was apparently cooked down in red wine and lavender, and made with the same berries used in Sour Cellars’ Jammiest Bits of Jam. “Jammiest” is a sour golden ale refermented over boysenberries, and is a crowd-pleaser. The presentation of this dish was stunningly beautiful in its simplicity, with dollops of compote on the thick part of the wedge and diagonally situated on the narrow end of the wedge with a liberal sprinkling of earthy dried raspberries.

Course 4: “Enton Mess” + Cruzat Rose

I’m not a dessert fan. Cloying sweetness isn’t an excess I usually enjoy after a meal. But this evening, it was the coup de grâce of the tasting experience. By far the most complex composed dish of the evening, it included several items, all in balance—lavender meringue, local strawberries, sweet mascarpone and Matcha (green tea) cake—all arranged with precision and aesthetic beauty. The “green” strawberries were actually blonde strawberries, a rare treat from the local Tanaka Farms in Irvine. The rose water ingredient and final touch of a flower petal (in her tasting commentary, Machuca-Kirkland admitted to being “obsessed with anything rose flavored”) made the plate a delight to look at and to taste.

The dish was paired with Argentinian Cruzat Rose, a Pinot Noir-based sparkling wine, which had a higher sugar content, but an acidity almost matching the sparkling wine at the opening of the tasting. It was a competent dry Rose. Its raspberry nose and notes of strawberry in the flavor profile made it the perfect complement to the dried raspberry and fresh strawberry counterparts on the plate. Its minerality paired with the green tea flavors in the cake.

The prep and plating for the evening was done by Machuca-Kirkland and her husband Stuart Kirkland. Even that process was beautiful, with plates lined up over the long service counter which was itself decorated with rose petals and candles. It is easy to see why Machuca-Kirkland’s talent is recognized in foodie circles and why she is known as “the craft beer chef.” Her dedication to smart flavor pairings reminds us that the most creative and complex beers deserve a seat at the table with our finest culinary offerings.

Executive Chef Andrea Machuca-Kirkland runs a special weekend food menu at BXCR Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Hours Thursday and Sunday are noon to 9:30. Friday and Saturdays, hours are from noon to 11:30.

BXCR is planning a collaborative brunch with Iron Horse Winery on March 18. Contact BXCR for details.

BXCR Wine Bar
440 S. Anaheim Blvd.
Anaheim, CA 92805
657-220-4872
www.bxcrwinebar.com