Cicerone: Sarah Johnson
Sommelier: Cristophe Tassan

With the importance of craft beer and the profession of a cicerone rising, traditionalists in the wine community may be leaning back on their heels at the hottest new staple in the Food and Beverage scene. While both practitioners of the fermented arts are no doubt dedicated to their service and education exploits, there is something of a friendly rivalry between those who plant their flag on the beer or wine side of the border. While there are so few beer-lovers expert enough out there to call themselves a cicerone, and essentially none that can be called an expert at both, the position of beer as a pairing has been received well by even the neophytes of the scene. And why not? What beer lacks in the pedigree and subtly of wine, it makes up with variety and approachable nature in spades. That said, there is still much debate on the pairings of both, right down to a dish-by-dish basis, with great points and criticisms for both sides. As something of an inauguration for the Mandalay Bay’s new Director of Food and Beverage and our city’s first lady cicerone, Sarah Johnson was charged with making a beer pairing for a five-course meal at Aureole. The twist was that Aureole’s wine director and resident sommelier, Christophe Tassan, made his choices on the same menu, with the diners to decide which pairing is the victor.

Of the five courses, there were stand out winners in both categories, and even a few “too close to call” moments. Wine truly won out on the first course, Charlie’s onion soup with foie gras, truffle and gruyere puff pastry being paired with Pommery “Pop” extra brut champagne, dry enough to cut through the richness, but with a sweet and complex flavor to complement the earthiness. On the beer side, the cheese course of a rock blue and poached pear tart, alongside a fromage blanc with artisanal maple syrup, fit best with the Rochefort “8” Trappist quad. The Oloroso sherry was an interesting match with the sweet portions, but it may have lacked the effervescent and full bodied properties needed to work with both strong aged and creamy cheeses. Dessert was also a big win for beer, mainly carried by the spiced mini-carrot cake with super light cream cheese frosting from the “American dessert sampler” being a nearly perfect pairing with Old Rasputin XV Anniversary Barrel-Aged Russian Imperial Stout. The heavily roasted and chocolaty brew played off the cake so well you’d imagine they were made for each other.

The main course, however, was the most divisive of the evening. The dish itself was a roasted monkfish tail, on a bed of saffron risotto with crispy chorizo and a cockle broth. Perhaps the oddest pairing choice of the night was from Christophe, who chose to pair the dish with a Cotes du Rhone 2007 vintage grenache, making waves by pairing a red wine with a fish-based dish. In a definite power move, Sarah Johnson pulled out the celebrity of the craft beer world, Saison Dupont, once titled the Best Beer in the World. Perhaps the reason this was so decisive was that they both approached the problem of the main course in a different way. A sweet, medium-bodied red with notes of smoke and tannin can do well to match the strength of cockles, meaty monkfish, and similarly smoky chorizo. On the other hand, Saison Dupont has a very palate-cleansing appeal, with the ability to cut through some of the more lingering flavors of the dish as well as add a layer of wild-yeast funk to the complexity. Honestly, even after some thought, nothing particularly wins or loses this round, a very fair tie by most accounts. But it’s realizations like these that show what an art there is to pairing something as unique and interesting as wine or beer with any food. It’s good to see the expertise of a cicerone is being so well received here in Las Vegas, and that there is a place for others among the sommeliers in fine dining. Sarah Johnson will have her hands full with the Las Vegas beer scene, but with colleagues like Christophe Tassan, she will find herself in good company.

American Dessert Assortment