Moments before heading out the door to meet a few colleagues for dinner at Cheese Meat(s) Beer, I discovered my aged cat had been stuck in the kitchen’s Lazy Susan for god knows how many hours. He was weak from shock, but my boyfriend assured me he’d look after him while I was gone.
I thought I’d spend dinnertime worrying about my feline friend, but soon after we settled in to a sunny table at the Whatcom Museum’s Lightcatcher Building courtyard, I have to admit the cat crisis became a dim memory.
Whether it was the setting—which included picture-perfect blue sky, colorful umbrellas and the architecturally artistic nature of the building itself—or the amazing edibles prepared by co-owners Travis Surmi and Annalou Vincent, it wasn’t long before I was caught up in the excitement that trying something new can engender.
Although it’s 100 percent likely the menu we dined from that night will be entirely different than any other day’s menu, there’s a good chance a few of the items will stay the same. Since Surmi and Vincent source as much as possible locally—and since their kitchen inside the museum is approximately the size of a postage stamp—they work with what they have, and when it’s gone for the day, it’s gone.
For example, two of the day’s “bigger plates”—a burger featuring Long Valley Ranch beef on a pretzel bun ($9), and braised short ribs with mashed local potatoes and French onion sauce ($13)—were no longer available. Instead, we ordered a banh mi sandwich ($8) to share and all opted for the café’s version of poutine ($8).
While we were waiting for our main dishes to arrive, we noshed on a plate of pickled vegetables ($4), which on this occasion included sunchokes, radishes, zucchini and jalapenos, and a cheese, meat and beer platter ($12), with farmstead cheese, Bread Farm baguette slices, fancy meat (I didn’t write it down), and a four-ounce pour of beer. The pickled foods all managed to bring their own unique flavors to the party, and the signature platter disappeared way before the sun started to set.
We also shared a tarte forestiere ($7), a pizza-like creation with crust as airy as well, air, caramelized onions, roasted garlic crème fraiche, and shitake mushrooms. When the others weren’t looking, I stole an extra bite for myself and wasn’t at all sorry (yes, it was that good).
When the banh mi came, it was carefully sliced into sections and distributed among us. The braised caramel pork belly, pickled carrots and jalapenos, aioli with Sriracha, cilantro and mint combined in an exciting marriage of flavors, and the table fell oddly silent until one diner proudly noted his body was “designed to operate on pork belly.”
Throughout all this, we’d been sipping on various beers—I stuck with the Matilda pale ale from Goose Island ($5)—and it was observed that the menu items seemed to pair incredibly well with the brew. This isn’t an accident, as Vincent brings many years of beer and cheese expertise to the table. (In addition to experience working at both a cheese shop and a brewery, she’s also the former art director of Beer Northwest Magazine.)
“Annalou is the beer and cheese queen, and I’m the meat,” Surmi, a longtime chef and cooking instructor from Portland, told us during a break from cooking. He also informed us that when they were brainstorming names, he threw the one that stuck out there and, after she punched him in the arm from excitement, Vincent agreed it was the one that was the best fit.
Vincent, a Bellingham native who’s recently returned to her hometown, also spent some time at our table and told us Surmi won her love with his ability to cook a perfect egg. And, when our poutine came, we were able to see exactly what she was talking about.
Atop a pile of roasted potatoes, Beecher’s cheese curds and “crazy bacon gravy”—yep, it’s crazy good, just like it sounds—our meals were crowned by glossy, perfectly shaped eggs that spread their yolks like sunshine. It was breakfast for dinner, but we didn’t care.
“Everything’s so good and salty and rich and spicy,” one diner noted as she speared the last potato on her plate and sopped it up with the remnants of the bacon gravy. We all nodded our assent, and cleaned our own plates. I took an extra order home for the cat sitter, and all was right with the world.
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