Nuit Belge was certainly not your average beer festival. Held on Saturday night March 12 at Marathon Music Works, this event was ultra-high class from beginning to end. With nary a pretzel necklace or pocket beer in sight, five hundred patrons assembled to enjoy an evening of eating and drinking as more than a dozen of Nashville’s finest restaurants and their chefs created inventive pairings to complement tastings of exotic Belgian and domestic beers.

Husk Chef Brian Baxter presents his epic lettuce wrap

Husk Chef Brian Baxter presents his epic lettuce wrap

Blackberry Farm out of Walland, TN was one of this year’s sponsors and provided the food and tastings of four expressions of their Brett Saison at a private VIP reception that was limited to only 40 lucky ticket buyers. At less than a $50 upcharge over the regular Nuit Belge ticket, this was undoubtedly the bargain of the night with the opportunity to interact for an extra ninety minutes with the culinary and brewery staff from Blackberry Farm in the intimate environment of The Oak Room at Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery. Considering I’ve accidentally spent that much money at Chili’s, this was a much better use of my funds.

VIP attendees also got a ten minute head start on the throngs entering the main room at Marathon Music Works, and this also gave the Blackberry Farm staff a chance to set up next door as part of the full Nuit Belge offering. My first impression of the room was that it might just have been the best-smelling place I’ve ever experienced as the tastings from the assembled chef talents situated behind tables ringing the room combined to fire off my aroma sensors. After my knees unbuckled, I set about tasting my way around the room to the funky tones of a talented brass band providing the entertainment.

Levon Wallace of Cochon Butcher shared a long table with Brian Baxter of Husk, a murderers’ row of culinary talent that was stunning to behold. In fact, I dare say that the assembled chefs at Nuit Belge represented the most culinary creativity in one place in Nashville since Thomas Keller was alone in his hotel room during his visit a couple years ago. Wallace presented two of my favorite dishes of the evening. The first was a bowl of rich pork belly broth and noodles, known in New Orleans as yakamein, or colloquially as “redneck ramen.” Paired with a tasting of Brouwerij Bosteels Tripel Karmeliet, the creamy dry beer complemented the unctuous salty fat of the soup perfectly. Wallace’s other dish was a simple cold-smoked oyster topped with celery, creme fraiche and sumac that was a lovely and lively pairing with Goose Island’s Lolita, a pale ale aged on raspberries in wine barrels.

Blackberry Farm staff dishing out the vittles and serving up the beer

Blackberry Farm staff dishing out the vittles and serving up the beer

Chef Baxter, who was coincidentally celebrating his birthday, gave the rest of us a present to mark the occasion. In addition to a popular black cocoa pudding, Baxter offered what I think was my favorite bite of the evening. Noting that his assigned beer of Starr Hill Peppercorn Farmhouse Ale had a strong pepper character, Baxter constructed a lettuce wrap stuffed with Bear Creek Farms smoked oxtail cooked down to a jammy consistency with his own elevated version of peppery General Tso’s sauce and topped with pickled onion, cilantro, cucumber and a crackling made from compressed beef tendon that took him days to concoct. Although the dish looked effortless, knowing the amount of preparation that Baxter and the Husk staff put into that single bite made it even more special.

Other standouts around the room included Matt Bolus of The 404 Kitchen’s super salty cured mushrooms that danced on the tongue when accompanied by the intensely tart Hanssens Lambic Experimental Cassis. City House’s Braunschweiger with pretzel crackers was utterly gout-inducing and totally worth it paired with Local 1 from Brooklyn Brewery. A snafu in her fish delivery from Hawaii forced Two Ten Jack chef Jess Benefield to call an audible on her planned Walu dish, but she cleverly substituted another excellent fish dish, and her yakitori duck tsukune played nicely with the malty La Trappe Bock.

Other available tasting experiences included cheeses from Whole Foods, Olive & Sinclair chocolate and a selection of oysters being freshly shucked at the back of the concert hall. Anyone who went home hungry or thirsty just wasn’t trying hard enough, because even though the lines got a bit long at times, the chefs efficiently fed the masses and kept the waits short.

Nuit Belge organizers Johnny Shields (left) and Matt Leff (right)

Nuit Belge organizers Johnny Shields (left) and Matt Leff (right)

In their second year of organizing Nuit Belge, organizers Matt Leff and Johnny Shields of Rhizome Productions have created an event where beer lovers can leave the jeans and t-shirts at home in favor of dressing up to exalt fine food and the special beers that inspire the chefs that cook it. Leff and Shields have also expanded Nuit Belge into a regional tour with Blackberry Farm and other sponsors joining with local chefs in New Orleans, Atlanta and Charleston. As the event continues to grow in reputation, the organizers intend to keep the number of tickets sold low to allow for personal interaction and to let the chefs show off their chops without being overloaded.

My only complaint was that the evening happened to fall on the night when we set the clocks forward and lose an hour. If anything, I would have liked Nuit Belge to last even longer!

Written and Photographed by
Chris Chamberlain
Food, Drink and Travel Writer