Monday, February 19, 2018

Rant: Is Japanese Sake Too Cheap?

Is Japanese Sake too cheap?

That is a question recently addressed by an article in the Nikkei Asian Review and number of people in the Japanese Sake industry believe the answer is affirmative. They would like to see the price of Sake rise, priced more on a scale like wine, the price affected by elements such as the use of local, regional rice varieties. However, please note that they are largely concerned with the price of Sake within Japan, and not the prices overseas, such as in the U.S.

It is mentioned that foreign tourists visiting Japan are frequently shocked at the low prices of Sake, including even some of the higher quality Daiginjo Sakes. You can find an excellent Junmai Ginjo Sake for about 1,500 yen (roughly US$14), priced at the same level as ordinary table wine, making for a strange dichotomy. Far more time and effort, as well as higher-end ingredients, go into the production of the Sake. Why shouldn't it be priced higher then than some mass-produced wine made from lesser grapes?

A high quality Junmai Daiginjo can sell for only 5,000-6,000 yen (US$47-$56), which is comparatively a bargain compared to a similarly priced wine. In Japan, quality French wines can easily sell for 40,000-50,000 yen (US$376-$470). The price gap is quite expansive. There are some exceptions, with a newly added "Super Premium" category in Sake competition, including Sakes priced at 10,000 yen or higher.

Once Sake is exported to the U.S., the price rises, but it still remains more affordable than numerous premium wines. In the U.S., it is very uncommon to find Sake priced over $150 at a retail store, though you will find some on high-end restaurant lists. You'll find a myriad of wines priced over $150. In general, Sake is fairly priced based on production costs. Fortunately, and unlike the wine industry, critic ratings rarely boost the price of Sake. Sake possesses excellent value and you usually get your money's worth.

If the Japanese Sake industry chooses to raise their prices, that would likely raise the priced of Sake exports as well. Thus, U.S. consumers would see higher prices at their local wine shops and restaurants. I understand and empathize with the rationale for Japanese breweries to want to see higher prices for their products within Japan. As a consumer though, I'd prefer to keep Sake prices in the U.S. at their present levels. However, I would be willing to pay a moderate increase if it would help the Japanese Sake industry.

When compared to wine, Sake is relatively inexpensive, and a price increase would simply move Sake closer to wine prices. We are discussing primarily premium Sake, the top 25% of production, and not futsu-shu, the often mass produced, lower quality Sake. Sake is a wonderfully diverse and delicious alcoholic beverage, one of complexity and quality. Production can be quite laborious and time-consuming, especially if production is more old-style in nature. The ingredients are high-quality,  from the water to the rice. Consumers should be willing to pay a fair price for a bottle of quality Sake, even if the price must be raised a bit.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I am back again with a new edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I highlight some interesting, upcoming food & drink events.
1) Join Davio’s Foxborough on Monday, March 5, at 6:30pm, for a five-course wine dinner hosted by Michele Pasqua of Italy’s iconic Marco Felluga Estate. Executive Chef Paul King will prepare dishes including the Seared Duck Breast, Porcini Risotto, Shaved Truffle and Crispy Pork Belly, Goat Cheese Polenta, Pear Mostarda to compliment the wine as you learn all about the rich history of Marco Felluga.

Michele Pasqua is the Managing Director of Marco Felluga and Russiz Superiore. Founded in 1956, the Marco Felluga estate has long been regarded as one of the flagship wineries of Friuli, a region known for producing some of Italy’s finest white wines. Since joining the company in 2011, Pasqua holds responsibilities in all aspects of both wineries, especially in overseeing the major export markets.

Seared Scallop, Crispy Prosciutto
Smoked Gouda, Chorizo Arancini
Fig, Goat Cheese Flatbread
2015 Marco Felluga “Just Molamatta”
Crispy Pork Belly, Goat Cheese Polenta, Pear Mostarda
2015 Marco Felluga “Mongris” Pinot Grigio
Seared Duck Breast, Porcini Risotto, Shaved Truffle
2011 Russiz Superiore Refosco
Prime Brandt Beef New York Sirloin, Sweet Potato Tots, Broccoli Rabe, Maple Glaze
2014 Russiz Superiore Cabernet Franc
Apple Crostata, Caramel Cashew Ice Cream, Maple Drizzle
2015 Russiz Superiore Sauvignon Blanc

The menu will be available for dinner on Monday, March 5th only for $95 per guest (excluding tax & gratuity).
To purchase tickets please visit

2) SRV Co-Executive Chefs Michael Lombardi & Kevin O’Donnell introduce monthly Pasta Making Classes. Learn to make pasta with the pros followed by a 3-course lunch, beginning Sunday, February 25, from 11am-2pm. Classes will continue to be held the last Sunday of the month and can be booked 28 days in advance.

Each experience will feature a welcome glass of sparkling wine, interactive chef demo led by Lombardi and O’Donnell, passed cicchetti offerings and a three course lunch in the private dining room including wine pairings. Guests will leave with their homemade pasta to enjoy at home.

For a more specific breakdown of the event flow and menu, please see below:
11:00-11:15: guests arrival; sparkling wine and water offered
11:15-12:30: Chefs demo 3 pastas that each guest will have opportunity to make (pasta making will continue on an on-going basis as guests learn and mingle); 3 passed cicchetti will be served during this time.
12:30: guests are invited to be seated in PDR for lunch, including Salad, 3 Pastas, Dessert, and Wine Pairings.

COST: $150.00 per person inclusive of tax and gratuity. All tickets are nonrefundable and can be purchased 28 days in advance.
To reserve, please email or call the restaurant directly at 617-536-9500. A credit card is required for taking reservations.

3) On Tuesday, February 27, at 6:30pm, Legal Harborside will host a four-plus-course wine dinner featuring selections from Knights Bridge Winery, a distinguished winery that produces world-class Chardonnay and Bordeaux varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc from its 100-acre site in the eastern hills of Knights Valley (just north of the Napa Valley), a premier source of grapes for fine wines and an area known for its mineral-rich soils and the legendary quality of fruits it puts out.

Founded in 2006 by a close circle of friends who celebrate a shared passion for wine and food, a love of farming and respect for nature, Knights Bridge Winery owners Jim Bailey, Tom Costin and Essel Bailey have created this unique place where their families and friends can gather.

Legal Harborside will team up with winery’s Boston-based co-founder Jim Bailey to host the dinner. The menu will be presented as follows:

Crab Arancini, Calabrian Chile Aioli
Shrimp Laksa, Crispy Bean Thread
Bolognese Tortellino, Cured Tomato Fondue
Knights Bridge “Pont de Chevalier” Sauvignon Blanc, Knights Valley, 2014
Pan-seared Mahi Mahi (green curry, bunashimeji mushrooms, japanese eggplant)
Knights Bridge “Pont de Chevalier” Chardonnay, Knights Valley, 2014
Lobster Thermidor (haricots verts, hedgehog mushrooms, gruyère crisp)
Knights Bridge “West Block” Chardonnay, Knights Valley, 2015
Herb-rubbed Lamb* Rack (saffron couscous, black cherry chutney, baby artichokes)
Knights Bridge “Estate” Cabernet Sauvignon, Knights Valley, 2014
Aged Cheddar, Comté, Brillat-Savari
Knights Bridge “To Kalon” Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville, 2013

COST: $135 per person, excludes tax and gratuity
Reservation required by calling 617-477-2900

4) The North End’s il Molo will join the Chinese New Year festivities by offering a selection of Chinese-inspired dishes from February 16 - February 23, from 4pm-11pm. The specials will include a Crispy Black Bass entrée (tossed and seared in a sizzling garlic lime sauce - $31), as well as some appetizer options including Chinese Short Rip Dumplings (short rib, ginger, soy, star anise served with a black bean & orange dipping sauce - $13), Shrimp & Pork Spring Rolls (shredded cabbage, water chestnuts, shrimp, pork, dried shitaki mushroom served with sweet chili dipping sauce - $12) and Pan-fried Scallion Cilantro Pancakes (served with soy miso dipping sauce - $12). Off il Molo’s regular dinner menu, the Lobster & Crab Rangoons are a restaurant favorite and are served daily with a zesty dipping sauce.

From the bar, guests can thrill their taste buds with two specialty craft cocktails created by beverage director Luke Collier for the Year of the Dog celebrations: a traditional Mai Tai and a Lychee Martini.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Momi Nomni Omakase Duet: Chef Chung & Chef Iwakura

Have you seen the term "Omakase" on a menu at a Japanese restaurant? The word derives from a Japanese word meaning "entrust" and, in essence, it means you are leaving the decisions of your dinner to the chef. The chef will present you with their choice of a multi-course meal, using the opportunity to impress you with their skill and creativity. It involves an element of trust, or at least an adventurous spirit.   

When I learned of an Omakase Duet at Momi Nomni with Chef/Owner Chris Chung and Chef Youji Iwakura, it was a no-brainer to attend this special dinner. These are both chefs in which I have complete faith in their culinary skills. I was sure that their Omakase would impress and delight me, and I also knew that my food friend Adam Japko would appreciate it as well.

Momi Nomni, which has been open for only about four months, is owned by Chef Chris Chung and is intended to be a casual izakaya. Located in Inman Square in Cambridge, it is a small restaurant, with about 30 seats, but that lends a sense of intimacy. I hadn't yet dined there so this was my first experience, though it definitely won't be my last. Chef Youji Iwakura, who has been a chef at Snappy Ramen, will be opening his own restaurant, Kamakura, in the near future, which will offer contemporary Kaiseki. I've previously experienced the cuisine of both of these chefs, and they are certainly highly skilled, the type of chefs you can always trust to present you a delicious meal.

I didn't take many notes at this dinner, choosing simply to enjoy the various dishes so this isn't a complete review of the restaurant. It is more a snapshot of the possibilities at the restaurant, as well as  a glimpse of the exceptional culinary skills of the chefs. I definitely recommend you visit Momi Nonmi and I'm sure Chef Chung won't let you down.

Sake is important to Chef Chung so there is a Sake sommelier, Stephen Connolly, at Momi Nonmi. Stephen certainly possesses a great passion for Sake and is a very good ambassador for it at the restaurant. We ordered a bottle of Yuho "Rhythm of the Centuries" Yama-oroshi Junmai Sake to accompany the Omakase, figuring this umami-rich Sake would pair well with the various courses. It worked very well, and was also delicious all on its own. Stephen also provided us tastes of a few other Sakes, including an intriguing Hiya-oroshi. If you know little about Sake, let Stephen lead you through their Sake list, providing you pairings for your meal.

Our nine-course Omakase began with Tofu Creme, home-made tofu with Maine uni, bekko-an (a type of sweet sauce), and pickled seaweed. It may not look like much, but this was an impressive beginning to our dinner. The blend of flavors was absolutely delicious, with elements of sweet and salty, with a fine creamy texture. It was like a sweet custard kissed by the ocean. I could have easily devoured a dozen of these dishes and been a very happy person.

This beautifully presented dish was Avocado, with uni senbei (the cracker), fish roe, and watercress. You could eat this dish in any way you desired, and it was savory, creamy, earthy, and briny, though with different elements than the first dish. The senbei added a nice textural element, as well as making for a nice delivery system for the rest of the dish.

Next up was an Aoyagi Sushi Duo, with Kamakura shoyu, licorice/miso, and scallions. Aoyagi is Surf Clam, and it seemed very fresh with an excellent texture as well as an intriguing taste. One piece was prepared as Nigiri while the other had a slight sear and was atop scallions. Another compelling dish, sure to please any sushi lover.

This course was Tuna, with Aoyagi clam veloute, curry, and fennel, presented in a large clam shell. The tuna was silky, its flavors enhanced by the creamy veloute and curry spice. There were plenty of layers to these flavors and everything was well balanced and delicious.

The Sashimi Millefeuille was prepared with Amadai (tile fish), turnip, kumquat, and asiago. Beautifully presented, it also possessed complex and delectable flavors, with some bitterness and sweetness.

The next course was Winter Vegetables (and I didn't get a photo), with an Amadai broth, black garlic, and truffle. This dish was also complex, with layers of compelling flavors, and bursts of umami and hints of sweetness, complementing the earthy veggies.

The Monkfish Cheeks, with daikon, walnut, and yuzu, were tender and flavorful, enhanced by the citrus of the yuzu. You don't find monkfish cheeks often so this was a special treat. It makes me wonder why more restaurants don't serve them.

Maybe the most decadent dish of the evening was the Monkfish Onigiri, with foie gras, chocolate kabayaki, and persimmon. Pure hedonistic pleasure from this superbly executed dish. Every element was prepared perfectly, and the combination worked so well.

The final course, a dessert, was the Mizu Shingen Mochi, with pomegranate, yuzu, and toasted soybean. On the right side of the picture, what looks like a pool of jelly, is a "water cake." This dessert is popular in Japan though this is the first time I've seen it in the Boston area. To eat this dish, you swipe your spoon from either side of the plater to the other, gathering all three elements together into one tasty treat.

Many kudos to Chefs Chung and Iwakura for creating such a delicious, compelling, creative and well-crafted Omakase Duet. We enjoyed every dish and our trust in the chefs was well warranted. Get yourself to Momi Nonmi and enjoy Chef Chung's cuisine. And keep an eye out for Chef Iwakura's new restaurant, Kamakura, which will open in the near future.


Monday, February 12, 2018

Rant: "Experts" Making Mistakes

Who can you trust?

The issue of trust is front and center lately as the public tries to determine which news sources are accurate. This is not merely an issue that affects politics and science, but also includes the realm of alcoholic beverages. You'll find many people claiming to be an expert of spirits, wine or beer, but can you trust them? Are they providing you accurate information?

Recently, I received a digital review copy of a new guide to the world of spirits, covering a wide range of topics, from Bourbon to Pisco, Gin to Rum, Baijiu to Shochu. It was written by an alleged "spirits' expert," who has written for a number of national spirit & wine magazines. It seemed authoritative, the type of book many readers would trust.

However, as I skimmed through the book, choosing select chapters of interest, I was dismayed to find a number of factual errors which should have been caught. They weren't obscure issues that could be possibly forgiven the error. I didn't even finish the book because the errors made me mistrust the entire book. Why didn't this expert catch these errors? Was it a lack of knowledge? A failure to fact check?

Let me provide just a few examples of the errors I found.

The book states that Bourbon must be "aged in new, charred, white oak barrels." However, according to the Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits, 27 C.F.R. 5.22(b)(1)(i), bourbon must merely be aged in "charred new oak containers." There is no requirement that it be "white oak." It is a simple error yet something that any Bourbon "expert" should know. It is also very easy to check and verify.

As another example, the book states that basically "... all mezcal is tequila with some tweaks, all tequilas are definitely not mezcals, ..." However, Mezcal experts understand that Mezcal long predates Tequila and that actually, all Tequila is Mezcal but not all Mezcals are Tequila. This is the opposite of what is claimed in this new book. Tequila was simply a Mezcal from a specific place of origin. That is another easy fact, supported by numerous sources, and a spirits expert should not have made such an error.

Though the book is about Spirits, there is a chapter on Port Wine and this chapter has a significant error. It states "Port is a blend of five distinct grape varietals--Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesca, Tinga Roriz, Tinta Cao, and Tinta Barroca." This is inaccurate as Port can be produced from over 100 different grapes and not just those five grapes. Those five grapes are certainly the most commonly used to make red Port, but they are not the only grapes used. In addition, White Port is generally made from white grapes, and not any of those five grapes. It would have been easy to edit the book's statement to be more accurate, mentioning that those five grapes are the most common, instead of making it seem definitive that only those five grapes are used.

It is disappointing that numerous readers will likely read this book and accept its information as accurate. Some writers may use this book as a research resource, further spreading its inaccurate information. Just because a book or article is from an alleged expert, you shouldn't automatically accept its veracity. You should verify your sources as best as you can. Fact check! And fact check again! You can't always trust an "expert."

Friday, February 9, 2018

Vilarnau Cava: Spanish Bubbly, Art & Food Pairing

At first, these two bottles of Cava, Spanish sparkling wine, stand out due to the colorful artwork covering the bottles. The art style is known as Trencadís (which means "chopped") in Catalonia, and pique assiette in France, and is a type of mosaic that is composed of small pieces of broken ceramic tiles, roof tiles or crockery. The Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí was well known for using this art style, especially in his Parc Güell in Barcelona. These Cavas are available without the artwork on their bottles, but why wouldn't you want such appealing colors and shapes?

The history of the Vilarnau Winery extends back to the 12th century, when the Vilarnau family settled into the Penedés region. Their original home was within the estate of the Castillo de Subirats, where grape vines were already been grown. The family didn't start producing Cava though until 1949, using grapes from their Can Petit i Les Planes de Vilarnau estate, where vineyards had been present for centuries. In 1982 Vilarnau became part of the González Byass family of wineries, eventually leading to the creation of a new winery in October 2005.

The Can Petit i les Planes de Vilarnau estate occupies about 20 hectares, growing grapes including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Macabeo and Xarel·lo. As their website states: "Our aim at Vilarnau is make the best cava with as little impact on our planet environment as possible. We make our living from the land, so looking after and nurturing it as best we can is in our DNA. The better we treat the land and our environment, the better the fruit the vines produce will be and the better our cava will be." Sustainability and environmental responsibility are important to the winery, from reducing their carbon footprint to organic viticulture certification.

Vilarnau produces a range of different Cavas, from Brut Nature Vintage to Demi Sec Organic, from Barrel Fermented to Gran Reserva Vintage. Three of their Cavas are available in the Trencadís bottles, and I received media samples of two of those Cavas, including the NV Vilarnau Brut Reserva and the NV Vilarnau Brut Reserva Rosé. Both are value wines, priced at $15-$16, and sure to please most palates. I've long preferred Cava to Prosecco, which I commonly find too sweet for my preferences.

The NV Vilarnau Brut Reserva ($14.99) is a blend of 50% Macabeo, 35% Paralleda; 15% Xarel.lo, three indigenous grapes which are traditionally used to make Cava. Each grape was vilified separately, and then later blended together, and the Cava was aged for over 15 months in the bottle. With a nice golden color, small bubbles, and 11.5% ABV, this Cava presents a pleasing aroma of fruit, including apple and citrus. On the palate, it is fresh, crisp and dry, with a tasty blend of green apple, citrus and pear, enhanced with a touch of toast, and a moderately long finish.

Sure, you can pop a bottle of this Cava to celebrate any occasion, but it is also inexpensive enough that you can open a bottle anytime, including with dinner. Many people don't realize that Sparkling Wine can often be food friendly and you can enjoy it throughout the course of a meal, and not just as an aperitif. I enjoyed this Cava with seared scallops and it was an excellent pairing, elevating the experience because of the bubbly. This Cava would pair well with a wide range of seafood though it would work with other dishes as well, from fried chicken to cheese. And you could even enjoy this Bubbly with just a bag of salty potato chips. Try it sometime!

The NV Vilarnau Brut Reserva Rosé ($15.99) is a blend of 85% Trepat and 15% Pinot Noir. Trepat is an indigenous Spanish grape that is often used to make Cava Rosé. This Cava was aged for over 15 months in the bottle. This wine has a lovely, rich pink color, small bubbles, a pleasant aroma of red fruits, and possesses a 12% ABV. On the palate, it is fresh, crisp and dry (like the Brut Reserva), though its flavors include strawberry and raspberry with a hint of a floral element. With a satisfying finish, this is an easy-drinking Cava with a delicious taste that feels like a party in your mouth.

I also drank this with seared scallops and though it has a different flavor profile, it still worked with the scallops. It was intriguing to experience the scallops with the two different Cavas. This Rosé is also food friendly and you could easily enjoy it too with a wide range of foods, from Sushi to Pizza, Burgers to Roast Chicken. Grab a bottle and just try it with whatever you're eating.

At $15-$16, these Cavas are very good values and well worth checking out. Don't just buy them for a celebration but pick some up just because you want something to pair with dinner.