Real talk: I don’t typically consider Baxter’s. I’m not sure why. The few meals I’ve had there, between the Champaign and Bloomington locations, have been enjoyable. But it’s not a place that comes to mind when choosing a lunch or dinner spot in C-U. What I do consider, and imbibe on a semi-regular basis, is Triptych beer. Last week I attented a Triptych beer dinner at Baxter’s, where Triptych would debut a new beer, Attenuation: Part Trois. The five-course meal featured five beers, and was $50 per person. Upon perusal of the menu that Triptych owner Anthony Benjamin and Baxter’s Chef Josh Stahlheber assembled for the evening, I looked forward my drinking and dining experience.
One thing that stood out in looking at the menu and in hearing Stahlheber describe the concept behind each dish, was how much care he took in not only pairing his dishes with the flavors of each beer, but also incorporating the beers in the preparation of many of the dishes. I appreciated that added level of attention to creating a specialized menu.
Our evening began as soon as we found our seats: The pre-dinner beer was poured and the server came around with an amuse-bouche. The guys at Triptych started us out with Little Secret, an American Pale Ale that is one of their classics and a World Beer Cup gold medal winner. I’m going to stop here and admit that pale ales and IPAs are not typically my cup of tea, or glass of beer, that is. So I was a bit apprehensive about the beginning of the beer lineup. While Little Secret isn’t my favorite, it’s not so hoppy that I didn’t enjoy sipping it with my bite of shrimp.
This dinner was the debut of one of their new IPAs, Attentuation: Part Trois, and it was served with the salad course. Attenuation refers to the conversion of sugars in the brewing process, and without delving into to chemistry here, basically when a beer is more “attenuated” it has a drier finish, almost like a dry wine. I can get on board with a dry wine, and this rose brut IPA delivered on that dry finish, and it had just a touch of floral and fruit. It was refreshing and delicious and paired excellently with the salad, dressed with pears, smoked provolone cheese, candied spiced almonds, and strawberry champagne vinaigrette. The salad was light, and the flavors were wonderful. It had everything I like on a salad: a bit of fruit, some nuts, some cheese, and a slightly sweet yet not too heavy dressing.
IPA number two was a hazy IPA: Elvish for Friend. This is one of my husband’s favorites, which made me think I probably wasn’t going to like it, because for him the hoppier the better. I was pleasantly surprised. This beer was brewed as a collaborative endeavor with some brick masons who built the door for The Memery, and who also happen to have just opened a Meadery. It has a touch of Michigan Wildflower Honey, which definitely came through, and like the Attenuation, did not have the typical bitter finish of an IPA. According to Benjamin, this is due to adding the hops later in the process, which pushes the flavor forward rather than the hops. It was paired with cod, which was IPA beer battered and drizzled with wasabi tartar sauce. The batter was crispy and not too thick, and the wasabi did not overpower and burn through my sinuses, but was just enough to make the dish interesting.
Pairing number three was one of the highlights of the dinner: Doppelbock and duck chili. I’d sampled Triptych’s Complicator previously, so I was happy to see it on the menu, as it’s a rich and caramel-y delight. The duck chili was marvelous. Stahlheber had crisped the duck skins as a topping for the chili, and it added flavor and crunch. There were tender pieces of duck mixed in, and the heat was just right. It left a lingering warmth in my mouth without making my eyes water. You could definitely taste the gamey-ness of the duck, though I hate to describe it that way because it makes it sound like a bad thing. It’s not if you like the taste of duck, which I do. This was the pairing where I most noticed how well the flavors of the beer and the food complimented each other. The heat from the chili seemed to bring out the sweetness of the Doppelbock.
The last savory course brought on the comfort food: ribs atop a generous helping of cheesy spaetzle. Such a hearty plate of food called for a beer that was light enough to balance it out, and that beer was Triptych Our Pilsner Project which Benjamin described as the “quintessential Triptych pilsner.” It was crisp and uncomplicated, and worked well with the food pairing. The spaetzle, which is a German dumpling, was creamy, cooked perfectly, and it made me quite happy on a cold evening. The ribs were good, but not the best I’d ever had. They’d been smoked for 10 hours, but I felt like they were lacking in smoky flavor, and the thick chipotle honey BBQ sauce overwhelmed them a bit.
Now, for the dessert course. Benjamin introduced the beer with a bit of fanfare, pronouncing it the best stout they’ve created since Triptych began. A bold statement, since their stout game is across the board fairly solid. Force Beyond Our Control, an imperial coconut-vanilla stout, was brewed with 225 pounds of toasted coconut, and wow, was it good. The thickness and weight of it reminded me of a Goose Island Bourbon County Stout, and at 12.5% it’s one you’re going to have to pace yourself with, but it was a great way to finish off the evening. We snagged some cans of it at the taproom the next day we liked it so much. It was paired with a german chocolate tiramsu and crusted vanilla ice cream. The dessert was…okay. I love german chocolate cake, and I love tiramsu, but I’m not sure it completely worked to try to combine the two. I think I would’ve rather had one or the other. There was not enough moisture there, and I didn’t think the flavors really stood out.
Overall, the dinner was an experience that confirmed something we already knew: that Triptych makes a variety of tasty beers, and they aren’t afraid shake things up in terms of flavor. But it also reminded us that Baxter’s is a solid place to grab dinner, whether for a date or a gathering with friends and family.
Photos by Julie McClure