Hophead: Anchors Away At The Oceanaire

Oceanaire's signature crab cakes
Oceanaire's signature crab cakes

I've long been a fan of San Francisco's Anchor Brewing, but had yet to try many of the offerings we would be served at Oceanaire's recent beer dinner, a multi-course, $55 a head feast paired to different Anchor products. So we--the Lady Hophead and myself--were practically giddy with anticipation as we sat. But our excitement turned to concern when the first servings of food and beer arrived.

The amuse was a single mussel, which had been steamed in Anchor's summer beer. It was a nice little morsel to begin the meal, and the citrus notes of the summer beer complemented the mollusk wonderfully. I think it did, at least. I only managed a couple of sips before reaching the bottom the shot glass in which it was served.

My wife and I exchanged panicked glances. If that was all the beer they were giving us for each course, we were going to leave this thing mighty thirsty.


Next up was the Oceanaire's signature jumbo lump crab cake, paired with the brewing company's signature Anchor Steam. Thankfully, this time the beer was served in a more generous glass, with perhaps a 4-oz. pour...and Steam was a good pairing, with its nice bitter aftertaste--almost as refreshing as our relief at the beer-size upgrade.

Guess I'm just not used to tasting quantities.

The second course was a strange one, a wreath of watercress around a tiny dollop of raw salmon mixed with crunchy herbal pink peppercorn and served with a tiny raw pheasant egg. I was the only one of the ten or so at our table who actually finished it. The floral, hoppy Liberty did a good job of washing away the fattiness. The main course was wonderful, broiled steak slices served medium-rare in a sweet chocolate malt sauce with sweet roasted cipollini onions and whipped fingerlings. Anchor's porter is probably my favorite of the brewer's offerings, though I rarely drink it with food. But this meal was easily rich enough to stand up to it.

I was certain I'd hate the fourth course, as it contained two ingredients I intensely dislike: blue cheese and walnuts. Yet the walnuts had been smoked until they tasted of my favorite meat--bacon--and the blue cheese tart was nice too, at least when paired with the dark, dry holiday beer (my love for which I mentioned here). It was served with a sweet pumpernickel puree, which led us and a few new acquaintances at our table to ask a restaurant employee: What, exactly, is pumpernickel?

We weren't sure if it was simply a type of bread or a seasoning that gives it its distinct flavor. Apparently, he wasn't either, judging by the way he danced around the question.

Finally, the bread pudding and the beer I had most anticipated: the mighty barleywine. The beer arrived first and good gosh, was it sweet--much more so than other barleywines I've tried. But all it took to tone down the saccharine quality was a single bite of the dessert.

This is the essence of pairing with beer: to achieve a kind of bond between food and drink, one assisting the other or clinging to something in the other, with the ultimate effect of making both that much better. Proof that, even in fine dining, beer can serve in the same role as the haughtier wine is a good thing. Best of all, in this case, the pour was the most generous of the evening, a good 6 oz.

But before we could leave, the employee came back with an answer from the kitchen about our pumpernickel question.

"I asked the cooks, and was told 'pumper' is a German colloquialism for breaking wind," he explained. Apparently, the bread was thought to be so difficult on the digestive system that it caused devilish gas.

"Somebody in the kitchen just fed him a load of bullshit," claimed Lady Hophead, all too familiar with kitchen shenanigans from her waitressing gig. Turns out, though, he was right.


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