Sunday, January 31, 2010

Saké Wins Over Some New Fans

Yesterday, I was so excited when numerous people, who had little experience with chilled Saké, would take a sip and be so pleased with its taste. Their eyes would open in amazement and a big smile would come to their faces. They had not expected to enjoy the Saké, but truly had done so. And so my passion for Saké spreads.

For several hours, I led a kikishu, a Saké tasting, at the Wine Connextion in North Andover. There were eight different Sakés as well as food to sample and pair with it. As I poured each Saké, I explained about this mysterious brew, trying to give them a basic foundation to understand it. Many were eager to learn, asking questions which I did my best to answer for them.

I was glad to see some fellow bloggers there, including Mary of The Savory Kitchen and Kristin of North Shore Dish. Plus, it was nice to meet many new people. The people were very open to learning about Saké, willing to taste the different ones to see if they would enjoy any of them. They nearly all found something they enjoyed.

The Sakés we sampled included:

Kurosawa Kimoto Junmai ($15.99/720ml)
Nishinoseki Tezukuri Junmai ($19.99/720ml)
Hakushika Junmai Ginjo ($6.49/300ml)
Wakatake Onikoroshi Ginjo ($17.99/720ml)
Murai Nebuta Honjozo ($8.99/300ml)
Ichishima Honjozo ($21.99/720ml)
Wakatake Onikoroshi Daiginjo ($34.99/720ml)
Umenoyado Moon Rabbit Sparkling Saké ($8.99/330ml)

The Sparkling Saké was a major hit, even with people who generally did not care for the taste of Saké. Its bright fruit, compelling nose, and sweet taste really appealed to people. They often thought it would be an excellent pairing for dessert. Sam Messina, the owner of Wine Connextion, felt it would be great just poured over some fresh fruit, which sounds like a very good idea to me.

The Kurosawa was another crowd favorite, its creamy, earthy and mushroom flavors being a big surprise. It was also a very smooth Saké, making it very easy to drink and enjoy. The Wakatake Daiginjo was well liked, an amazingly complex drink with plenty of flavor. All of the others had their fans too, showing how people's preferences differ, just as with wine. I should mention as well that the prices for these Sakés are some of the lowest you will find locally.

The food was catered by Larosa's, a new Italian place in Andover. They served items like spicy Arancini, Panko-Crusted Chicken Skewers, BBQ Chicken Pizza, and Antipasto Skewers. Larosa's took over the spot where Mawby's used to be, and I had not previously been there. Their food was quite good, especially the Arancini, and paired well with the Saké, to the surprise of many. They were used to thinking that you only pair it with Japanese food, which is not the case. As like wine, the food sometimes changed the character and taste of the Saké.

I had a very fun time, pouring and talking about Saké, sharing my passion. It really pleased me that so many people seemed to enjoy it as well. I hope to do more such tastings in the near future.

Wine ConneXtion
117 Main Street
North Andover, MA
Phone: 877-469-5025

Habesha Restaurant: Ethiopian Cuisine

"We're talking dream date compared to my horror. It started out fine, she's a very nice person, and we're sitting and we're talking at this Ethiopian restaurant that she wanted to go to. And I was making jokes, you know like, 'Hey I didn't know that they had food in Ethiopia? This will be a quick meal. I'll order two empty plates and we can leave.' Yeah, nothing from her not even a smile."
--Bill Crystal as Harry Burns in the romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally

Prior to about a week ago, my knowledge of Ethiopian cuisine was almost limited to the above joke. So when I learned of a new Ethiopian restaurant in Malden, I knew I had to check it out to expand my culinary horizons, to experience something new.

Habesha Restaurant is located in a small strip of stores on Main Street in Malden. It is a small place but still has a long bar where you can also sit. They carry a variety of wine and beers, including Ethiopian beers and honey wine. Open for lunch and dinner, they have a regular food menu as well as a number of specials each day.

Ethiopian cuisine generally consists of spicy meat and vegetable dishes, which are served atop injera, a type of sourdough flatbread made out of fermented teff flour. Teff is a gluten free grain found only in Africa. There are also different varieties of injera in Ethiopia, including nech (white), kay (red) and tikur (black). Injera has a slight sour taste and a spongy texture. Ethiopians generally do not use utensils. Instead, you eat with your right hands, using pieces of the injera to scoop up the food.

An interesting custom is the gorsha, which is considered an act of friendship. While eating with friends, you might tear off some injera, put some food in it and then put it into a friend's mouth. This is called a gorsha, and the larger the injera you feed your friend, the stronger the friendship.

I stopped by for lunch and tried one of their specials, the Minchet Aresh ($8), which is made from ground beef with garlic and a berbere sauce, berbere being a mix of powdered chile pepper and spices. They brought me a large plate, covered with a big injera, and there was a mound of the ground beef and sauce atop the injera. I also received an extra injera in a basket.

There was no silverware, but extra napkins. That was not a problem for me and I dug right into the dish. Now, the injera was a bit strange at first, being very spongy almost rubbery to the touch. Plus, it was not warm. I used a piece to scoop up some of the meat and sauce and then popped it into my mouth. It was delicious, flavorful and only mildly spicy, and the injera was fine with the meat. There was plenty of meat in the dish and I finished all of it.

Service was very good. My first experience with Ethiopian cuisine went very well and I eagerly look forward to checking out more of the menu.

Habesha Restaurant
535 Main Street
Malden, MA 02148
Phone: (781) 399-0868

Habesha Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Saturday, January 30, 2010

New Travessia Wines

My Favorite Local Winery of 2009 was Travessia Urban Winery, located in downtown New Bedford. The owner Marco is a passionate man, truly interested in producing the best wines that he can. Plus, he only uses locally grown grapes. I have previously raved about his wines, and had an opportunity at the Boston Wine Expo to taste two of his newest wines.

What was most interesting was to see the variation of these two wines due to the vintage. I had tasted the 2007 vintage of both of these wines, and now was getting to taste the 2008 vintage. Each wine had significant differences from the previous vintage.

The 2008 Semi-Sweet Vidal Blanc, which will be released in the spring, was off-dry, with only hints of sweetness. It was drier than the 2007 vintage. It had nice citrus flavors with a touch of floral. Marco feels that this vintage is more varietally correct, the way the Vidal Blanc should show itself. For myself, I enjoyed this wine better than the 2007, as I generally prefer a drier wine. The light sweetness though would still help if this wine were paired with some spicy Asian food.

I should note that the 2007 Unoaked Chardonnay was one of my favorite Travessia wines. So I was hopeful when I tasted the 2008 Unoaked Chardonnay that it would reach the same heights. The 2008 was good, with nice fruit flavors of green apple, melon and lemon, but it was not as vibrant and complex as the 2007. It still is a good wine, an easy drinking wine which would also pair well with food, but it just didn't rise to the excellence of the previous vintage.

Check out the wines of Travessia Urban Winery and support an excellent local winery.

Ty Ku Soju

Unfortunately, there were only two Sakés available to taste at the Boston Wine Expo, both which I have previously tasted. Ty Ku had their Black and White Sakés and I am a big fan of their White. But I was able to try something new to me, the Ty Ku Soju.

Soju, also known as shochu, is a distilled liquor from Asia which can be made from numerous ingredients, including barley, rice, sweet potatoes, brown sugar, chestnuts, buckwheat, shiso leaf, sesame, and even milk. It can be drank on its own or used in a cocktail. It also usually has less alcohol than liquors like vodka and rum.

The Ty Ku Soju comes in a distinctive blue bottle, pictured above, which is intended to represent "mist covered mountain ranges and the pristine blue waters of the Far East." The Soju is made from 100% premium barley and pure spring water. It is all natural and does not contain any sweeteners, preservatives or additives. It has also been multiple-distilled.

I tasted the Soju on its own, and then in a cocktail, a Tokyo Tea. The Soju has a smooth, mild taste and it is something I could drink on its own, chilled on the rocks. It reminds me somewhat of a mild vodka. The Tokyo Tea contained Soju and sweet iced tea, and it too was smooth and any alcohol taste was very muted. The Soju seemed to cut some of the sweetness of the iced tea, which I think is a good thing as I dislike iced tea that is too sweet.

This would make a good entry Soju, to introduce newcomers to this Asian spirit. It could thus be a stepping stone to different types of Soju, made from different ingredients. Expand your horizons and check out Soju.

Friday, January 29, 2010

19th Boston Wine Expo: General Impressions

This was the first year that both days of the Boston Wine Expo pre-sold out, showing the growing popularity of this event. Despite difficult economic times and the fact that tickets are not inexpensive, none of that stopped thousands of people from attending this grand wine tasting event.

I attend the Expo hoping to find some interesting wines and food products, something that will impress me. That often takes some time as I chat with the wine makers, distributors and vendors, trying to obtain more information about their products. This is best done during the trade hours, when it is much quieter in the main hall. I try to make the most of this time, to take advantage of the relative quiet, before the event opens to the general public.

This year, over 350 wineries were present, pouring over 1800 wines. There is no way I can taste even a significant fraction of that many wines so I have to be very picky, as well as spit a lot. My plan of action is to usually to seek out the more unusual wines, those from less known regions. I want to experience these more unique wines, from regions I don't know as well. I can easily find French, Italian, Spanish and California wines at any local tasting. So at such a large event, I want to taste what I can't often find.

I think this is one area where the Expo could improve, where they could showcase more lesser known regions. For example, there was only one table with Saké, and they only had two to taste. I did not see any tables with wines from rare regions like Israel or Lebanon, Hungary or Switzerland. They did have more local wines at the Expo this year which is good, but more diversity would be even better.

This year, I concentrated much of my tasting on wines from South Africa, the Finger Lakes region of New York, and some New England wineries. Plus I found a few food products which peaked my interest. I will be posting about my favorite finds over the next couple weeks. I was also fortunate to meet some new people in person, including some I had previously known only online.

When the Expo opened to the general public, it quickly became very crowded, and there were long waits at all of the wine and food tables. Those working the tables were very busy, pouring samples, and they did not have much time to chat. They were often reduced to brief sound bites about their wines. The Expo does need to address this issue, to find better ways to manage the crowds.

So did you attend the Boston Wine Expo? If so, what were your thoughts?

33 Restaurant & Lounge: Valentine’s Day

Celebrate Valentine’s Day at 33 Restaurant & Lounge all weekend long with a special five-course prix-fixe dinner. Lovebirds will melt into the romantic atmosphere of 33 while indulging in a sweetheart inspired menu. All couples will receive a box of handmade truffles to take home and a red rose for the ladies.

Sealed With a Kiss Promotion: As a bonus, every couple who dines at 33 during Valentine’s Day weekend will receive a sealed envelope with a prize in it. Keep the envelope and return during the month of March with it un-opened to reveal your prize. Prizes include a Weekend Getaway for Two at one of Boston’s premiere boutique hotels with dinner for two at 33, a Chef Tasting Wine Dinner for Four, $100 gift certificate and 5%-20% off your purchase at the time of opening. Every envelope will contain a prize. You must return to 33 Restaurant & Lounge during the month of March to win. Minimum purchase of $33 upon return to qualify. Gratuity is always the responsibility of the winner. Not to be used with any other offer.

Valentine's Day Menu:
of Romance $85/per person, or With Wine Flight $125/per person.

Veuve Clicquot Romance Package $150/per person. You’ll also receive a bottle of Veuve Clicquot. And the first 8 couples who reserve this package will receive an autographed copy of The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It.

Oyster on the Half Shell: Veuve Cliquot granita and caviar

Appetizer (Select one)
Foie Gras Torchon: champagne gelee, rhubarb chutney, brioche
Winter Salad: roasted delicate squash and aged balsamic vinaigrette
Potato Leek Soup: croutons, basil and lady apples
Maine Crab Cake: purple cabbage salad and red pepper aioli

Entrée (Select one)
Seared Duck Breast: pink lentils, baby bok choy and pomegranate glaze
Grilled Filet Mignon: truffled potato puree, bright lights chard and parsnip chips
Herb-Crusted Tuna: seared, with quinoa, cucumbers, red onion and beet vinaigrette
Crispy Taleggio Polenta: wild mushroom ragout and grilled radicchio

Strawberries & Cream
: champagne cream, basil and demi sec “caviar”

Dessert (Select one)
Chocolate-Raspberry Martini: TAZA dark chocolate mousse, raspberry compote and ladyfingers
Baklava Cheesecake: walnuts, cinnamon, crispy filo on top of an American classic
Rosé Poached Pear: hibiscus, mint and crème fraiche

Extras: To make the evening truly special, extras can be purchased ahead of time; including champagne service or a dozen long stem roses delivered to your table. Call for details.

Date/Time: Friday, February 12 - Sunday, February 14, 5PM to 11PM.

Reservations: Make reservations by calling 617-572-3311, or visiting Open Table.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Wine Spectator: Which Wines Did They Review?

It would be interesting to determine the breakdown of wines that I have reviewed over the past few years, to get an idea of which regions I review the most and least. It may be instructive to me as well, and indicate areas where I should review more. It would also be fascinating to see such breakdowns for other reviewers, including the Wine Spectator.

Thus, I was pleased to read their latest issue (1/31-2/28/10), which has an interesting article "The Year in Wine: 2009 In Review" by James Molesworth. It provides just such a breakdown for the nearly 17,000 new release wines they reviewed in 2009. There is a chart in the article which breaks down their reviews by region, as well as listing the average prices for wines that scored 90+, and giving a breakdown of the range of scores.

In 2009, their total number of reviews of new releases was 16,787 and those wines that scored 90+ wines had an average price of $77. That is certainly a very high average, making those inexpensive 90+ wines seem like tremendous bargains.

The wine region that garnered the most reviews is probably not a big surprise, France. There were 4719 reviews, roughly 28% of the overall total. Wines that scored 90+ wines had an average price of $100, so their wines are more expensive than the overall average cost. The most reviews were of Burgundy (1395) and Rhone (1026). That might surprise those who were expecting Bordeaux to be first.

The second largest region for reviews was California, with 3050 reviews, roughly 18% of the total. Wines that scored 90+ wines had an average price of $64, lower than the overall average. Though you might suspect Cabernet Sauvignon had the most reviews, it was actually Pinot Noir (637) with Cabernet (585) a fairly close second. There were only 161 Merlot reviews. The Sideways effect in operation?

Italy is a very close third with 2915 reviews, also roughly 18% of the total. Wines that scored 90+ wines had an average price of $69, lower than the overall average. Tuscany (1062) was the top region with Piemonte (745) in second place.

Fourth place is Spain with only 703 reviews, roughly 4% of the total. Wines that scored 90+ wines had an average price of $84, higher than the overall average. You can see the sharp decline in coverage between position three and four, from 18% to 4%. The top three regions occupy quite a significant portion of the total reviews.

In the U.S., wine reviews from states beside California include Washington (579), New York (422), and Oregon (328). There were also 84 reviews of wines from all of the other U.S. states, with no breakdown of which states are included in that total. It surprises me a bit that New York had more reviews than Oregon, only because Oregon wines are more readily available across the country than New York wines.

As for the other countries that came after Spain, there was Australia (688), Chile (587), Germany (586), Argentina (576), South Africa (466), Austria (294), Portugal (269), New Zealand (231) and Miscellaneous Other Countries (290).

Based on all of these figures, I think Wine Spectator should try to cover a greater amount of wines outside of France, California and Italy. As 64% of their coverage is just on those three regions, that seems a bit unbalanced. But it also leads to a few questions. Are those percentages intentional or accidental. Do these percentages simply reflect consumer buying patterns? Do they reflect production levels of the wine regions?

For wine bloggers and other wine writers, some of these figures also seem to offer opportunities. If you wanted to create a niche blog, concentrating on a specific wine region, you might be able to post a number of reviews competitive with Wine Spectator. You could provide greater coverage to areas where Wine Spectator provides only very limited coverage.

Central Bottle & How2Heroes: Valentine's Tasting

Central Bottle and how2heroes and will present a special tasting of Valentine’s Day Dessert & Wine Pairings on Tuesday, February 9, from 6pm-9pm. This should be a fun and delicious event.

Join how2heroes and Central Bottle as they share their love with dessert and wine pairings in celebration of Valentine's Day. Enjoy desserts created by how2heroes and taste perfectly paired wines courtesy of Central Bottle. Also, try savory Venetian bites created by Central Bottle's Stacey Daley.

The Dessert & Wine Pairings include:

- Mini Chocolate-Raspberry Cupcakes paired with Noval Fine Ruby Port, Portugal
- Chocolate-Dipped Strawberries paired with Niades Brachetto d'acqui, Piedmont, Italy (see the photo at the top!)
- Mini Cheesecakes paired with 2005 Chateau Roumieu-Lacoste Sauternes, France
- Sugar, Spice & Everything Nice Palmiers paired with El Maestro Sierra Pedro Ximenez, Spain

The cost is only $10, and includes all the desserts and wine tastings, and you can pay at the door. The Venetian bites, cicchetti, are all a la carte.

Central Bottle
196 Mass Ave.
Cambridge, MA

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Wine Trials 2010: A Lack of Transparency

Previously, Robin Goldstein scammed the Wine Spectator. Is he now trying to scam the general public with his new book, The Wine Trials 2010?

The other day, on Joe Robert's blog 1 Wine Dude, I read an interview with Robin Goldstein. Robin is the co-author of the newly released, The Wine Trials 2010, a book which lists 150 wines under $15 that allegedly beat $50-$150 bottles in "rigorous brown-bag blind tastings." I was initially skeptical of this book, having numerous questions about the methodology of the blind tastings and wine choices.

I first checked the Wine Trials website but it did not provide a description of their methodology. So I decided to buy a copy of the book to learn more. Unfortunately, my many questions have remained unanswered as the book did not contain what I sought.

The book is not fully transparent about their methodology and there is no explantion for why it was omitted. Without such transparency, I have strong doubts about the validity of the results. It is even more curious when the book provides a list of the members of their "Scientific Advisory board" who allegedly helped interpret the results and review their methods and conclusions. The authors provide "expert" credentials for the book, yet fail to allow the reader to review the methodology on their own. Readers are apparently expected to just trust the experts.

Only a few sparse comments are made in the book about their methodology. First, they used a list of 450 wines under $15, which eventually would be whittled down to 150 for inclusion in the book. Why did they start with a list of 450? Why not 500, or 1000? There is no explanation. Last year, the book only contained 100 wines and they were automatically included as part of this year's 450 wines. Why do that? It would seem to stack the deck a bit for those wines, giving them an added chance of being included in the new book.

To be nominated, and potentially placed on that list of 450 wines, a wine had to have a production minimum of 20,000, reduced from last year's 50,000 case minimum. Such a minimum ignores plenty of excellent, artisan wines under $15 which are not produced at such a high quantity. That seems to give preference for more mass produced wines, not exposing consumers to other possibilities.

The book also instituted a new nomination process this year, permitting wine professionals such as producers, sommeliers, importers, and retailers to nominate wines. First, doesn't that create potential conflicts of interest? Could a producer nominate his own wines? Could importers nominate the wines they import? Or could they nominate the wines of friends? How many total nominations were received? How were the nominations whittled down to 450? We should have much more information on this nomination process.

There were then a series of blind taste tests, but there is no information provided on how they were conducted, the number and demographics of the tasters, the experience levels of the tasters and much more. Which expensive wines were used for all of the blind taste tests? Who chose those expensive wines? How can we trust the results when there is almost no information provided on how the tests were conducted? The lack of transparency in this area really bothers me a lot.

Though the book spends plenty of time supporting the reasons in support of blind taste testing, they would have been better served by supporting their own specific results and providing details on the methodology. They spent time discussing a prior study they conducted, but fail to address the particular taste tests that led to the wines included in their book.

Some blame is placed on the major wine magazines for promoting the idea that expensive wines are better than inexpensive wines. But wine bloggers also receive some blame for their "passionate enjoyment of expensive wine." The book basically calls for all wine reviewers to conduct blind taste tests of the wines they review.

There is also a chapter that addresses some prior criticisms of the Wine Trials, much of it dealing with articles written by Eric Asimov, a New York Times wine writer. One of Asimov's major points is that wine is meant to be drunk with food, so it should be reviewed in that manner. The book actually agrees that "Most wine is better and more complex with food;... " (p.34) But the book does not feel you can "seriously evaluate" wine with food, and that doing so causes the same problems as non-blind tasting. But is that really so?

I guess it depends on what you mean by a serious evaluation, and the goal of your wine reviews. Are your reviews directed to wines people will drink on their own, or wines they will pair with food? The book does agree that a wine you drink on its own may not provide the same experience as if it is paired with food. But it appears the book's position is to provide reviews of wine to enjoy on their own. So, the wine recommendations are not as useful if someone is seeking a wine to pair with dinner.

Though the recommendations in this book are generally supposed to be for wine novices, even the authors have some caveats. First, they state to "...take our blind tasting results with a grain of salt." (p.56) They then continue to state: "To some extent, these choices might reflect the preferences of wine experts more than those of wine novices,..." (p.56) Obviously these caveats increase my skepticism.

I remain very skeptical of the Wine Trials and would like to see much more transparency from the authors. There are too many questions that have been left unanswered. As such, I cannot recommend this book.

Stoneham Sun: Sutton Cellars White Vermouth

My new column of "A Passionate Foodie" can be found in the January 27 issue of the Stoneham Sun newspaper. This is a weekly column that concentrates on reviews of local restaurants though it also sometimes touches on other food and wine topics.

The new column has been published today and will be available online soon. The new article is a review of the new Sutton Cellars White Vermouth. This is a delicious new product, and I also provide some basic information and history of vermouth. New artisan vermouths like this may lead to a big comeback for this often neglected item.

If you have any questions or comments about my column, feel free to add them here.

Drink with passion.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Aura Restaurant: Valentine's Day:

Chocolate, roses, champagne…and bento boxes?

Chef Rachel Klein of Aura Restaurant livens up Valentine’s Day with her unique take on the sharable plates trend: Bento Boxes for Two. Designed for couples looking to experience Valentine’s Day dinner in a distinctive way, Chef Klein’s bento boxes include small appetizers and desserts intended for sharing. If you don't want to try the Bento Boxes, you also have other menu options. But the Bento Boxes sounds very intriguing to me.

FIRST COURSE (Select one):

BENTO BOX FOR TWO --Vegetable spring rolls, chicken skewers, beef skewers, crispy calamari, Fried oysters with sesame seaweed salad, dipping sauces

GOAT CHEESE RAVIOLI --Spinach, beets, thyme, aged Balsamic vinegar, brown butter

ARUGULA SALAD --Port wine poached pear, arugula, roasted garlic vinaigrette, Goat cheese and herb crostini

POTATO SOUP --Black truffle, leeks, herbs

SECOND COURSE (Select one):

STEAK & EGGS --Potato purée, truffle‐fried egg, asparagus, bordelaise sauce

“SURF & TURF” --Roasted yellow fin tuna, Kobe beef & black truffle ravioli, sweet & sour rutabaga

ROASTED SIRLOIN --Shallot ginger jam, Chinese long beans, sweet potato purée

GEORGES BANK SCALLOPS --Creamed spinach, baby carrots, French fingerlings, Serrano ham

THIRD COURSE (Select one):

DESSERT BENTO BOX FOR TWO --Crème brûlée, chocolate parfait, cheesecake lollipops, strawberry sauce, Chocolate covered strawberries

TART TARTIN--(Cooked to order) Ginger Ice cream, Chantilly cream, caramel

WHEN: Friday, February 12th and Saturday, February 13th
Seatings start at 5:30 p.m.

COST: $120 per couple, $190 per couple with wine pairings

Aura Restaurant
1 Seaport Lane
Boston, MA 02210-2013
Phone:(617) 385-4300

Mare Sustainable Seafood Dinner

Italian cuisine is more than just pasta and pizza. As Italy has an extensive coastline, it also has a rich, culinary tradition of seafood. Concentrating on those traditions is Mare, a North End restaurant with a "coastal Italian menu." Most of their menu items are seafood, and in addition they use many natural and organic ingredients. Plus, they aim to be more ecologically conscious, working towards providing all sustainable seafood.

As a media guest, I recently attended a sustainable seafood wine dinner where Mare partnered with The CleanFish Alliance, a national seafood purveyor, and The Wine Bottega, a local wine store. Executive Chef Greg Jordan prepared a four-course dinner featuring sustainable seafood while Alisha Lumea of Cleanfish discussed the seafood and answered questions about sustainability. Kerri Platt, the owner of the Wine Bottega, chose the wines, which were organic, biodynamic, or natural, as well as spoke about them during the dinner.

The restaurant does not look like the typical North End restaurant, and has a more modern style. Large windows look out onto the street, and this would be especially compelling during the summer. There are a few "televisions" in the corners of the restaurant but they actually only show scenes of Italy so really do not distract from the atmosphere, rather enhancing it.

Jackie Church of the Leather District Gourmet and Donna Goodison of the Boston Herald were a couple of my dining companions. Jackie was her usual self, a fun and interesting conversationalist, while this was the first time I met Donna, who was also very nice and added to the discussions.

Our dinner began with a delicious Amuse Bouche, some American White Sturgeon Caviar atop a polenta bellini. The caviar was not overly fishy, and had a nice salty flavor that went well with the corn-flavored bellini. Our first wine of the evening had been poured prior to this dish, a 2007 Alois Lageder Muller Thurgau from the Alto Adige region. This wine had a pleasant floral aroma with hints of spice, that spice coming out more prominently in the taste. It was a crisp wine, with more tropical fruit flavors, and a good choice for seafood.

The Muller Thurgau also paired well with our first course, Atlantic Halibut crudo with grapefruit pulp and basil. The raw halibut was silky smooth with a strong grapefruit taste and the slight herbality of the basil. If you enjoy sashimi or ceviche, then this dish would impress you. The halibut was farm-raised on Gigha Island, Scotland.

For the second course, we enjoyed Blue Abalone with roasted foie gras, fig gastrique and brioche toast. The abalone was firm, though not rubbery, and the gastrique made a delicious sauce for the abalone. The foie was of course excellent, creamy and decadent. It also tasted good with the fig gastrique. The abalone was farm-raised in Bream Bay, New Zealand. Our wine for this course was the 2007 Antonio Caggiano Fiano di Avellino "Bechar" from Campania. It had a rich body and plenty of acidity, thus perfect for the foie and abalone.

Up next was the Spaghetti alla chitarra, with Laughing Bird Shrimp, wilted arugula, cherry tomatoes and lemon crema. These shrimp are never frozen. The dish was quite good, with a rich, creamy sauce and restrained lemon flavor. Lemon can sometimes overwhelm a dish but the chef did not allow that to happen here. The pasta, which is usually made on premises, was cooked just right, al dente. The shrimp were plump and flavorful, and are farm-raised in Belize.

Kerri actually chose a red wine for this dish, the 2007 Bocchino Langhe Rosso "Tom" from Piemonte. This is a blend of 70% Barbera and 30% Merlot. And it was a hit! The lush and smooth wine was just right for the creamy sauce. It was delicious on its own, with lots of good fruit, though clearly is an excellent food wine as well.

The final course was Faroe Island Sea Trout with a Chianti mustard glaze, pancetta braised swiss chard, and cannellini bean puree. The trout was moist and very flavorful with the glaze, which had a prominent mustard flavor. The final wine was the 2004 Castello di Volpaia Chianti Classico Riserva from Toscana. This wine is 100% Sangiovese, a clone used to make Brunello and referred to as the "King of Sangiovese." A superb Chianti, rich in berry flavors with some restrained spice, plenty of acidity and moderate tannins.

Service was very good and overall the dinner was excellent, with delicious food and wines. This was my first visit to Mare and I certainly will return again. I like the fact they are aiming for sustainable seafood and Chef Jordan is obviously very talented. Plus, it is a more unique North End restaurant, different from the many red sauce places you'll find.

Though I will likely expand on this issue in a later post, I did want to briefly address the sustainability of the seafood. Alisha's position is as an "Evangelist" and she seemed very knowledgeable when questioned concerning the seafood and sustainability. But, she did admit there was some information they considered proprietary and thus there is not full transparency. CleanFish is essentially a marketing organization, promoting their client's products. So, there are some questions about the company.

But, my own brief research on the seafood we ate did not uncover any significant issues with the sources of the seafood. I should note that sustainability is not always a simple issue, especially where seafood is concerned. I fully understand the difficulties the average consumer encounters when buying seafood, and I hope to expand on the matter in the near future.

135 Richmond Street
Boston, MA
Phone: 617-723-MARE

Mare on Urbanspoon

Monday, January 25, 2010

Rant: Is Your Wine List Local Too?

It is a pleasure to read a restaurant menu and note that they use locally grown or raised ingredients. More and more restaurants are promoting this fact, trying their best to only use local ingredients. This is a benefit to local farmers and providers, and can also be more enviromentally friendly.

Yet there is one group of local farmers and providers who are often ignored by these restaurants. This fact points to a double standard by many restaurants claiming to be "local." It puzzles me why such a double standard would exist. If you desire to be local, then you should try to embrace it as much as possible.

What bothers me is these "local" restaurants fail to have local wines on their wine lists. They ignore local grape growers and wine makers. Tell me, why should "local" be restricted only to the food? It should embrace wine as well, to complete the entire picture. There are good wines being made all across New England and which would benefit any wine list. "Local" restaurants have little excuse to ignore these wines and fail to add them to their wine lists. This is also a matter not limited to New England.

I would not expect a local restaurant to only carry New England wines. But, I do think having at several local wines is not an unreasonable expectation. A restaurant could find good, local wines including sparkling wines, whites, reds and dessert wines. Adding such wines to their list would show a true passion for being local in all regards.

So restaurant owners, tell me why you don't add local wines to your lists.

Prezza: Vietti Wine Dinner

On February 10, starting at 6:30pm, Prezza, located in Bostons North End, will hold a four-course wine dinner with Italy’s Vietti Winery. It will be hosted by Prezza’s Anthony Caturano and winemaker Lucca Currado from Italy. Guests will experience delicious Italian cuisine paired with select wines from the Vietti’s vineyard.

The history of the Vietti winery traces its roots back to the 19th Century. Only at the beginning of the 20th century, however, did the Vietti name become a winery offering its own wines in bottle. Patriarch Mario Vietti, starting from 1919 made the first Vietti wines, selling most of the production in Italy. His most significant achievement was to transform the family farm, engaged in many fields, into a grape-growing and wine-producing business. Then, in 1952, Alfredo Currado (Luciana Vietti’s husband) continued to produce high quality wines from their own vineyards and purchased grapes. The Vietti winery grew to one of the top-level producers in Piemonte and was one of the first wineries to export its products to the USA market.

The Menu will include:

Rabbit Saltimboca with Saffron Risotto
Paired with a 2007 Dolcetto D’Alba Tre Vigne

Goat Cheese Gnocchi, Lamb Ragout and Pecorino Cheese
Paired with a 2006 Barbere D’Alba Scarrone and a 2006 Nebbiolo Perbaco

Rosemary Braised Pork Shank with Asiago Polenta and Braised Greens
Paired with 2005 Barolo Castiglione and a 2004 Barolo Lazzarito

Final course will be assorted cheeses and a final selection of wines.

Cost: $125 per person

Seating is limited so please call 617-227-1577 for reservations.

24 Fleet St.
Boston, MA
Phone: 617-227-1577

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Central Bottle: Saké Tasting on Feb.11

On Thursday, February 11, from 5pm-9pm, Central Bottle will hold a special Wine Bar, or actually a Saké Bar. Come join Michael Simkin, Saké expert, as he leads a tasting of the excellent brews from the Ichishima Brewery. See how they pair with Italian cicchetti!

I had the pleaure to meet Michael previously, as well as to taste through the Ichishima line-up. Michael currently consults with some breweries to help get their Saké introduced into the U.S. market. He also runs numerous seminars, acting as a Saké ambassador. He will be sure to answer whatever questions about Saké you might have.

The Ichishima Brewery is located in the Niigata Prefecture of Japan. There are about 96 Saké breweries in this prefecture, which is sometimes referred to as the "King of Saké brewing." Ichishima was founded around 1790 A.D. and has been owned by the same family continuously. Ichishima is also famous for being the first brewery to have licensed female toji, brew masters. They first began employing women in 1965 and the first woman was licensed as a toji in 1976.

For more information and some tasting note on the Ichishima Sakés, please see my prior post. I will be going to this Saké Bar and hope to see you there too.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Sutton Cellars: Crown Caps & Vermouth

It used to be that you needed a corkscrew to open a bottle of wine. Then screwcaps came around and you didn't need any special tool to open your wine. And now there are wines that require a different kind of tool to open them, a bottle opener like you would use to open a bottle of beer!

As I mentioned yesterday, I recently went to the Wine Bar at Central Bottle and Carl Sutton of Sutton Cellars was their special guest wine maker. Carl had also been on Skype during the Central Bottle grand opening and I had got to ask him a few questions then. I am a big fan of his wines and you can read my prior reviews of his Rattlesnake Rose, Carignane, and Syrah. Carl produces artisan, low-production wines which are absolutely delicious and very reasonably priced.

I was fortunate to spend some time chatting with Carl at the Wine Bar. As I have said before, he is easy going, down-to-earth and passionate about his wines. He is the type of guy you would like to hang out with, drinking wine and having fun. You can't help but like him.

Carl has started bottling his Rattlesnake Rose with a crown cap, which looks like a bottle cap you would see on a beer bottle. I had to ask him about that as it was so unusual. Carl stated that the cap was more efficient and cheaper. A cork costs about 25 cents but the cap only costs 1/2 a cent. That can lead to a significant savings. This cap is actually known as a tirage cap, and used to seal champagne bottles while they age before disgorgement. There are also some Austrian Gruner Veltliners that are sealed with these caps. These caps should not cause any problems with aging either.

Will these caps be the wave of the future?

I also got to taste Carl's new White Vermouth ($20), and Boston is only the second market to see this release, the first being San Francisco. I think many people don't quite understand vermouth but they should learn more about it. Especially when artisan vermouths like Carl's exist.

Vermouth is a fortified wine that has been flavored with aromatic herbs and spices. It is also known as an "aromatized wine." Similar products have existed since ancient times but it acquired its name, and initial commercial success, in Italy during the late eighteenth century. In 1786, Antonio Benedetto Carpano, of Turin, Italy, coined the term "vermouth" because he was inspired a German wine flavored with wormwood. The German word "wermuth" means "wormwood."

There are three basic styles of vermouth: extra dry, dry (white), and sweet (red). The earliest vermouths were all sweet and it was not until the early 19th century that the French invented dry vermouth. Thus, red vermouths are sometimes called Italian vermouths and white vermouths called French vermouths, though both countries now make red and white vermouths. There are a few other rarer varieties including a rosé vermouth and strawberry-flavored vermouth.

There is no specific recipe for creating vermouth. There are easily over forty herbs, roots and flavorings which might be added to any particular recipe. Some include camomille, cinnamon, citrus peel, cloves, coriander, ginger, juniper, nutmeg, quinine, and sage. Vermouth makers often jealously guard their recipes.

Vermouth is mostly used in cocktails, helping to reduce the alcohol content as well as adding an herbal component. During the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, vermouth was frequently used in the U.S. in cocktails, such as martinis and Manhattans. But, around the time of the Second World War, vermouth started falling out of favor. The demand for dry martinis increased and vermouth became neglected.

But there are now delicious artisan vermouths, which can enhance cocktails or even stand on their own. It is time for people to revisit vermouth, and to experience what it can do for them. And a good place to start is with Carl Sutton's White Vermouth.

Carl's vermouth was inspired in part by the Italian Amaro, a herbal liquer. His vermouth contains 17 ingredients besides white wine, and he would only tell me that two of the ingredients were camomille and dried orange peel. Others include various herbs, barks and roots, nearly all purchased from the Rainbow Coop except for one which comes from the land near his winery.

Carl had to get his vermouth recipe approved and all of the ingredients were supposed to be on the GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) list. But one of his ingredients was not there so he needed to get special approval to use it. He could go through an FDA approval, which would be very lengthy and costly. Or he could provide a book reference, from before the 1950s, noting the use of the ingredient in a culinary manner. Fortunately, he found two references, one as a leaf and one as a root, and received his approval.

It took plenty of experimentation for Carl to get his vermouth as desired. The timing of the infusion was very important to the end flavor of the product. Eventually, he determined the best way was to first produce the wine, then fortify it and finally then do the infusion. It was difficult as there is little written about how to make vermouth, and producers keep their methods and processes secret.

At the Wine Bar, Carl made vermouth and club soda, with a bit of lime. And it was delicious, clean, light and with a fine herbal taste. This is certainly something which would benefit either a cocktail or is fine on its own. It seems like it would be very versatile and maybe we shall see a return to using it more often in martinis and other drinks. Many of the others who tasted the vermouth also were impressed.

Carl has produced another hit and I was sure to pick up a couple bottles. It did not take me long to open a bottle at home and enjoy more of the vermouth. I think I may need to get more fairly soon. Central Bottle is one of the few places where this vermouth will be available so stop by there and check it out.

Later this year, Carl may release a red, sweet vermouth. I look forward to it and expect it will be equally as good.

Burtons Grill: Valentine's Day

For Valentine's Day, you might consider visting the Burtons Grill in Boston. In addition to their extensive regular menu, Burtons will be offering a “Valentine’s Day Features Menu”, as well as, a special gift to diners that choose to dine there.

Each party that orders two entrees after 6pm on Valentine’s Day will receive $20 in gift certificates good towards a future purchase (redeemable at the Boston location only, Monday – Thursday, February 15, 2010 – March 31, 2010g) “We are always looking for ways to encourage our patrons to make us their neighborhood restaurant, whether they live in the Fenway or not. A true neighborhood restaurant to us is an establishment that consistently strives to make their customers feel welcome,” said Bridget Kelly, General Manager of Burtons Grill.

Burtons Grill Valentine’s Day Feature Menu will include:

Crispy Oysters-$9.95
Blue point oysters lightly breaded and fried, served over crispy polenta fries, micro greens and garnished with applewood smoked bacon and remoulade sauce

Prosciutto Wrapped Cod-$24.95
Georges bank cod wrapped with prosciutto and pan seared, served over our creamed corn risotto with applewood smoked bacon and a touch of jalapeno.

Steak Au Poivre - $38.95
Seasoned with pink and black peppercorns, grilled and served with a cognac cream sauce, accompanied with a baked potato and grilled asparagus

Profiteroles- $6.95
Light and flaky, served with vanilla bean ice cream and hot fudge sauce

The Burtons Grill Valentine’s Day menu is presented as a la Carte specials in addition to their extensive regular dinner menu. Valentine’s Day reservations are recommended by calling 617-236-2236 and hours of operation on Sunday, February 14, are 11:0AM to 10:00PM.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Central Bottle: Wine Bar

Most local wine stores are places you go to buy, not drink, wine. You may be able to attend a tasting, and get some small tastes, but they won't sell you a glass of wine. But there is at least one wine store where that is not the case.

Once a week, on Thursday evenings, Central Bottle transforms into a Wine Bar. Central Bottle, a new wine store in Central Square, Cambridge, was my 2009 Favorite New Boutique Wine Store. They have an excellent selection of artisan wines and gourmet foods, and also run numerous interesting events.

At their Wine Bar, they offer several wines available by the glass as well as a variety of cicchetti and other foods, such as a cheese plate for two. So you can hang at the wine store, drinking and dining, as well as chatting with everyone else present. You can also walk around, examining their wine selection. It is informal and fun, a nice place to visit after work, maybe as a precursor to a night on the town.

There is usually a theme for each Wine Bar, so the available wines will vary each night. Sometimes wine makers will be present at the Wine Bar, showcasing their wines. So you can drink and ask questions directly from the wine maker. For my first Wine Bar, Carl Sutton of Sutton Cellars was pouring some of his wines as well as his new vermouth. (I'll go into more detail about Sutton in another post very soon.)

The vermouth and three wines all cost from $6-$9 per glass, and the foods started at about $2. There were plenty of food choices available, catering to all palates, from carnivore to vegetarian. I have enjoyed the cicchetti and other foods at Central Bottle on several visits, and there always seems to be something new and delicious for me to try.

I really enjoyed the Wine Bar, especially as I got to chat with Carl Sutton. Good food, good wine, and good conversation. How could anyone complain? I will be back for more Wine Bar nights and recommend my readers check it out as well. Central Bottle is doing things right.

Gennaro's 5 North Square: Valentine's Day

If you would like an intimate Valentine's Day dinner in the North End, then let me suggest you make reservations at Gennaro's 5 North Square. I have recently dined there, had a wonderful experience and the food was delicious. Their upstairs dining area is elegant and intimate and I recommend you reserve one of their cozy, leather upholstered booths.

For Valentine's Day, they are offering a special Pre Fixe Dinner for $55 per person.

Prosciutto Roulade: Golden fig puree, goat cheese & toasted pecans rolled up in prosciutto and drizzled with a balsamic glaze. (An incredible dish and very addictive!)

First Course:
Avocado & Seafood Salad: Lobster and shrimp lightly sauteed and tossed with diced avocado and crumbled ricotta salata. Served on a bed of butter lettuce garnished with a lemon aioli and cherry tomatoes.

Duck Confit & Poached Pear Salad: Crispy skin, tender duck leg served with bibb lettuce, toasted pecans, goat cheese and poached pear salad.

Second Course:
Chilean Sea Bass Cioppino: Roasted sea bass served over lentil and bok choy in a cioppino broth with clams, mussels and shrimp.

Stuffed Quail: Artichoke and ricotta stuffed quail served over creamy polenta and julienne vegetables finished with a white wine jus.

Trio of Sorbets

Molten Chocolate Cake

Add a bottle of wine and receive $10 off each of your pre fixe dinners, which is like getting $20 off the bottle of wine. Limit two persons per bottle. Offer only good with pre fixe dinner selections.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar: Valentine's Day

Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar is another option for couples to share their passion for food and wine. In celebration of Valentine’s Weekend – Friday, February 12th through Sunday, February 14th – Fleming’s will offer a special Valentine Sharing Menu created especially for two, in addition to the regular a la carte menu.

To add extra flair to this romantic occasion, Fleming’s Director of Wine Marian Jansen op de Haar has created a custom cocktail, the Valentini. “In creating the Valentini, my initial inspiration was the Belllini — a famous Italian sparkling wine cocktail made with Prosecco and fresh white peach. I wanted to this Valentine’s Day’s cocktail to feature bubbles because they always add a romantic effervescence, and a pink sparkling wine seems even more endearing,” says Jansen op de Haar.

Valentini: A Bellini-inspired cocktail with Belvedere Vodka, Peach Schnapps, fresh peaches, fresh lemon juice topped with Chandon Brut Rosé --$9.95 per glass

To give couples another reason to celebrate, Fleming’s is offering each couple dining during Valentine’s Weekend a “Valentine Card” with a complimentary $25 Fleming’s card inside to use toward a future rendezvous with their sweetheart.

The Valentine’s Weekend Sharing Menu Offers:

Saucy Glazed Porterhouse Steak, Double-thick cut with a cognac mushroom glaze, served with parmesan cheese mashed potatoes and green beans glazed with porcini butter
Served with choice of Fleming’s, Caesar, or Wedge Salad
$98.00 for two
Suggested wine pairing: Beaulieu Vineyard, Tapestry Cabernet Blend Napa Valley, 2005

Blue Cheese Crusted Filet Mignon & Lobster En Fuego, Two filets paired with generous chunks of Maine lobster baked in the shell with our creamy sriracha chile sauce, served with oven braised potatoes and roasted cauliflower with kalamata vinaigrette
Served with choice of Fleming’s, Caesar, or Wedge Salad
$89.00 for two
Suggested wine pairing: Oberon, Merlot Napa Valley, 2006

Red Velvet Cake & Chocolate Dipped Strawberries, Classic three layer red velvet cake with strawberry cream cheese frosting, garnished with two double dipped chocolate strawberries
$9.50 for two*
Suggested wine pairing: Croft, Tawny Port 10 year old Portugal NV

For reservations please call 617-292-0808.

Oishinbo: Izakaya, Pub Food

The seventh and final volume of the compelling Oishinbo series has just been released and is titled, Izakaya: Pub Food. It deals primarily with izakayas, a kind of Japanese pub which serves small plates of food. The book discusses a variety of foods served in izakaya, as well as touching on other related items such as the arts of pouring beer and heating Saké. This final book, as were all of the pst volumes, both enjoyable and informative.

Also like the previous volumes, this book begins with a recipe, this time being: Fried Sardine Fish Cake. Then there are eleven chapters and the back of the book has a series of notes, many dealing with Japanese terms, concerning the text.

The first chapter captured my interest as it dealt with two new items to me, black edamame and a master beer pourer. Most people know of the usual green edamame, a type of soybean, yet there is a rarer black variety as well. They are supposed to be delicious, with a different flavor from the green ones. I also was unaware of the intricacies of pouring beer, of why you want a perfect head of foam atop a good beer.

Chapter Two then deals with sardines, and the various ways they might be prepared, from sashimi to sardine salisbury steak. Often thought to be an inferior fish, this chapter praises its taste. Chapter Three begins discussing sazae, the horned turban, which is a new seafood to me. It is supposed to be a highly prized gastropod, kind of snail-like, and a Japanese delicacy. Chapter Four then continues, discussing intriguing dishes such as Fried Prawn Dumplings, with caviar inside of them, Scallop Rice and Engawa, a dish using the dorsal fin of a flounder.

The next two chapters deal with a large izakaya franchise, Pink Hippo, which is seeking new dishes for their menu. There is a discussion of some standard izakaya dishes, though the franchise owner wants more unique ones, something their customers won't be able to get elsewhere. Ultimately, dishes are added for the end of the meal as it is though izakaya usually don't pay attention to that type of food. Some of those dishes are actual sweet desserts with others are noodle dishes. They are intended to fill that void that some izakaya customers feel when leaving the bar.

In Chapter Seven, there is an amusing tale of a samurai challenged to eat a potato, a food he vehemently dislikes after a near fatal incident with a potato that got caught in his throat. A recipe is devised though that allows him to eat, and even enjoy the potato, which must be presented whole. The dish is Potato Stewed in Butter, which is a whole potato immersed in soup. Place potatoes in some dashi with butter and let boil. The potatoes should then melt in your mouth, and the samurai loves the dish.

Chapters Eight and Nine start with the hero of the series trying to determine names for his newborn twins. He stops by an izakaya for a drink and some food. The chef concocts some playful dishes, and the hero soon realizes that "playing is an important part of life." A Dutch historian, Huizinga, coined the term Homo Ludens, which means "man the player" as he felt that humans were different from animals because humans can play. (I would disagree there as anyone with pets knows animals enjoy playing too!).

The next chapter then concentrates on eel and the myriad ways that they can be prepared, especially using every part of the eel, from the liver to the fins. They are all cooked on skewers, with different preparations, showing an amazing versatility. I do enjoy eel and would love to experience some of the different dishes from this chapter.

The final chapter surprised me as I thought it would have been in their Saké volume. It describes the okanban, the person who keeps watch on Saké while it is being warmed. He is able to gauge the best temperature for a Saké. Most premium Saké is meant to be drank slightly chilled while hot Saké has a bad reputation. But some Saké can benefit from a gentle warming, and this chapter explains the reasons for such. A few specifics Sakés are also presented along with food pairings. What a nice way to end this series.

I am saddened that the Oishinbo series has ended, as it was a fun and educational series. I highly recommend all of the books to any food lover. I'll keep hoping too that they decide to publish more volumes in the future. Once again I also have to ask, why can't an American publisher do something like this?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Walters Handmade Honey Nougat

I have long been a fan of South African wines, from Chenin Blanc to Pinotage. But my experience with South African food has been very limited. But I have recently tasted a couple sweet treats from South Africa which delighted my palate and which will be sure to please my readers as well.

The Beacon Hill Wine & Gourmet in Melrose is now carrying several different food products from South Africa. I stopped by recently to buy some of these new items, including two treats produced by Walters Handmade Honey Nougat, a family-based company in South Africa.

In 1999, the Walters family moved to a new home, which they called Wedgewood, making it a venue for classical music concerts. Gilly Walters would prepare home-made food for the audiences and one of the most popular items was her Nougat. It was so popular that she began selling it at farmers' markets, and then eventually retail stores. The growth has continued and now it is a significant business, with additional products.

There are some limitations though. As their nougat is made by hand, the amount they can produce is limited to some degree. So, they have chosen to concentrate on making the highest quality product that they can. They select quality natural ingredients and do not use gelatine, preservatives, or artificial colors. They also aim to be environmentally and socially responsibe, and work towards creating a sustainable business.

The nougat currently comes in several different sizes and flavors, including: Macadamia, Almond, Pecan Nut, Black Cherry & Almond, and Cranberry & Almond. Too many of the nougats I have tasted in the past have been hard and overly sweet. So I was a bit leery about Walters nougat but Rebecca at Beacon Hill Wine then gave it her recommendation. So I gave the Macadamia Nougat a try and was extremely glad that I did.

The nougat is very soft, almost like a thick marshmallow in consistency. It has a distinctive honey flavor, but the sweetness is restrained and pleasing rather than cloying and overwhelming. There were plenty of pieces of Macadamia nuts in the nougats adding an interesting crunchy texture to the soft nougat, as well as adding a nutty flavor. It is simply one of the best nougats I have ever tasted and it gets my highest recommendation.

Besides the nougat, they also produce Angels Nougat Biscuits. These are shortbread biscuits, made with real butter, and containing crisp nougat chunks and nuts. The small cookies are big on flavor, with a strong buttery flavor. The nougat adds an intriguing taste to the cookie, though you get more of a crunch than you do with the nougat bars. It seems easy to eat cookie after cookie until the box is gone. These also get my recommendation.

If you enjoy sweets, then stop by the Beacon Hill Wine & Gourmet in Melrose and get some of Walters Handmade Honey Nougat and Angels Nougat Biscuits. Maybe you will see me there stopping up.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Culinary Creativity: Chef Scott Hebert

(Check out my Introduction to the Culinary Creativity series.)

Executive Chef Scott Hebert works at Troquet, a French-American restaurant in Boston on Boylston Street. I have previously given raves to Troquet and part of the pleasure of dining at Troquet is due to the culinary skill of Chef Hebert.

Growing up in central Connecticut, Scott knew at a very early age that he wanted to feel his hands on food, so he got a job at a butcher shop, and later a small French restaurant. The two experiences cemented his resolve, so he attended Newbury College for a culinary degree. Upon graduating, Scott worked at the highly respected Seasons at The Bostonian Hotel. Later, he moved to New York City to expand his horizons and ended up working side by side with some of the city’s biggest names, including David Burke and David Bouley. He became Executive Chef of Indigo, and later Chef de Cuisine at Veritas, where his cooking won a three-star review from the New York Times, and two stars from the Michelin Guide. In 2001, Scott and his wife Natalia moved to Boston and Scott joined the Troquet kitchen team. Thanks to his unwavering dedication, ability to cook with and for wine, and his dogged pursuit of excellence, he was recently named co-owner.

Now onto the interview--

How important is culinary creativity to you? Why is it important?
Creativity is the reason I chose cooking as a career. Making the same dishes every day, or just following a recipe, is not a challenge. Creating an entire menu based on the best products available on a given day … now that keeps cooking interesting.

What are your most significant inspirations for your culinary creativity? What makes those matters so inspiring?
I am usually inspired by customer feedback, and I am always trying to create new dishes or twists on familiar concepts, so that our regulars don't get bored with the menu. That in itself is motivating enough. I also enjoy sharing new ideas and techniques with staff; I find that it helps morale when they feel they are in a learning situation.

Where do you get your ideas for new recipes/dishes?
Most of the dishes are inspired by seasonal produce. I usually look at what is available and local (for the most part) and then I plan the menu. I really don't know where the ideas come from. Things evolve naturally by trial and error, although I try hard not to compromise the freshness or natural flavor of any ingredient.

What is your process of creating a new recipe or dish?
The process of creating a dish starts with two lists. The first is a list of available produce and proteins, or, several cuts from a whole animal. The next list is one of compatible flavor combinations. Then I use these flavors throughout the entire dish, whether it be in the sauce, the vegetable, the starch or the marinade. This is the point where trial and error begins.

Do other members of your staff assist with creating ideas for new recipes/dishes?
The kitchen crew is responsible for executing three recipes on a daily basis, usually from scratch. Their job usually involves simplifying my recipes and methods as the dish evolves. I usually allow the cooks some flexibility in their approach, unless I feel that the original concept of the dish is compromised by change.

How do you test new recipes/dishes?
We try the dish out as a special first, and if both staff and customer feedback are positive, then we put the dish on the menu.

What is the most difficult part of culinary creativity?
Creativity is the fun part of a chef’s job. The difficult part is making sure one’s ideas are executed properly. If it seems as if my cooks just can't execute a dish properly, then chances are that dish needs to be simplified. This is why some of Troquet’s simplest dishes are the most popular. Too many variables makes for bad food.

Do you ever experience “writer’s block,” an inability to be creative, and if so, how do you deal with it?
When I don't feel inspired to come up with new ideas, I don't fight it. I just go with things I am familiar with. For me, forcing yourself to come up with new ideas usually doesn't produce quality results.

I usually come up with specials late at night when I can't sleep, so I always keep a pad and paper near my bed to jot down ideas, so that I don't forget them in the morning.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Rant: Emergency Charity?

Turn on the news and the dominating story is the devastation caused by an earthquake in Haiti. Very quickly after the earthquake, numerous organizations and individuals began working on raising charitable contributions to help out the Haitians. Restaurants, wineries, wine stores, bakeries, wine & food lovers and more have all been very supportive of this worthy cause. It has been an amazing effort.

But it also bothers me to a certain degree. Why did it take a terrible tragedy before people were willing to contribute to helping Haiti's problems?

Haiti may be the poorest nation in the world, and its abject poverty has obviously caused great harms to the people of Haiti. Food and clean water have long been difficult to obtain for some Haitians. Yet how often had you heard of charitable efforts to raise money to help Haiti prior to the earthquake? Probably very little, if at all. The harms caused by the earthquake might not have been so great if Haiti had received much more support prior to the tragedy.

So what am I suggesting? Don't just give when tragedy strikes. Give to as many different causes as you can, at all times, and not just when a catastrophe occur. I often post about local, charitable food and wine events. Most of these are for everyday problems, such as diabetes, and not any immediate tragedies. The goal is to prevent significant problems, such as through research and preventive methods.

Don't just react to tragedy, but be more proactive and try to prevent it.

Dine and drink with charitable passion!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

More Valentine's Day Options

Seeking a place to celebrate Valentine’s Day next month? I have already provided several choices for you, and now am here with even more.

Avila Modern Mediterranean
One Charles Street South
Boston, Ma
Phone: 617-267-4810

Brunch: 11:30am-3pm; Cost: $30 per person; $8 Veuve Clicquot drink specials; $50 Veuve Clicquot bottles
Dinner: 5pm-10pm (a la carte: prices vary); Cost: $58 per person; $75 w/ wine pairings

Avila Modern Mediterranean invites you to celebrate your love for food and that special someone over a brunch. Pamper your sweetheart with a three-course Valentine’s Day brunch tasting menu, including choices like: Churros, Dulce de Leche, Dark Chocolate Sauce; Jamon Serrano Redondo Iglesias, Manchego Cheese; and, Avila’s Egg Benedict, Buttermilk Biscuit, Crispy Pancetta, and Lemon Hollandaise. End your dining experience off on a sweet note with dessert that includes Seasonal Fresh Fruit and Honey Crème Fraîche. Three refreshing specialty Veuve Clicquot cocktails will also be offered: Orange, Peach, and a distinctive Pomegranate-infused Cocktail. Veuve Clicquot will also be offered at a special price by the bottle.

At night, Avila will offer a customizable 4-plus-course prix fixe menu with optional wine pairings. Selections from the menu include: Island Creek Oysters, Champagne Mignonette; Hand Rolled Potato Gnocchi, Fresh Lobster, Shallot Vanilla Cream; and, Beef Tenderloin, Potato Mousseline, Tarragon Béarnaise.

BOKX 109 American Prime
399 Grove Street
Newton, MA
Phone: 617-454-3399

Friday & Saturday: 5pm – 1am; Sunday: 5pm – 12am
Cost: $75 per person (includes wine pairings)

BOKX 109 American Prime will celebrate Valentine’s Day for three nights this year, offering a lavish 4-course celebration paired with selections from Domaine Chandon Winery. Executive Chef Evan Percoco’s customizable menu includes choices like: Winter Squash Bisque; Vermont Cheddar and Onion Tart; Porcini Dusted Petit Rib Eye; and, Roasted Shrimp.

40 Edwin H. Land Blvd
Cambridge, MA
Phone: 617-497-4200

Saturday & Sunday: beginning at 5pm
Cost: $75 per person; $100 w/ wine pairings

Amore is in the air at Restaurant dante as Owner and Executive Chef Dante de Magistris creates that lovin’ feeling in the kitchen. On Saturday and Sunday guests will enjoy a menu fit for cupid himself with a four-course tasting menu that guarantees an unforgettable evening. Each course (flirt, smooch, foreplay, climax, spooning and bubble bath) offers playful and tantalizing options to set the mood for the special evening. Dishes featured on this Perfect Date menu include items like; Menage a Foie (foie gras three ways), Canoodling Noodles (lemon tagliolini, hearts on fire greens, poppy seeds and rabiola), Love Bird (Poached organic chicken breast, crispy confit, baby arugula and blood orange), and White Hot Soufflé for two.

Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar
217 Stuart Street
Boston, Ma
Phone: 617-292-0808

Friday & Saturday: 5:00pm – 11:00pm; Sunday: 4:00pm – 9:00pm

Saucy Glazed Porterhouse Steak, for-two: $98
Blue Cheese Crusted Filet Mignon & Lobster En Fuego, for-two: $89
Red Velvet Cake & Chocolate Dipped Strawberries, for-two: $9.50
Valentini cocktail: $9.95

In addition to Fleming’s regular menu, guests will be able to enjoy three specialty items, prepared and price for-two, from February 12th through 14th. Each special comes with your choice of a Fleming’s, Caesar or Wedge Salad: Saucy Glazed Porterhouse Steak (double-thick cut with cognac mushroom glaze, served with parmesan cheese mashed potatoes and green beans glazed with porcini butter); Blue Cheese Crusted Filet Mignon & Lobster En Fuego (two filets paired with generous chunks of Maine lobster baked in the shell with creamy sriracha chile sauce, served with oven braised potatoes and roasted cauliflower with kalamata vinaigrette). Couples can also indulge in the Red Velvet Cake & Chocolate Dipped Strawberries (classic three layer red velvet cake with strawberry cream cheese frosting, garnishing with two double-dipped chocolate strawberries). Fleming’s will also feature a special cocktail, Valentini (a Bellini-inspired cocktail with Belvedere Vodka, Peach Schnapps, fresh peaches, fresh lemon juice topped with Chandon Brut Rosé.

By making a Valentine’s weekend reservation at Fleming’s, you will be gifted a $25 Valentine’s Card valid toward a future visit. Fleming’s also offers for you to reserve their Mercedes Crossover courtesy car to pick you up and drop you off wherever in the city your night takes you.

90 North Washington Street
Boston, MA
Phone: 617-723-6326

Friday & Saturday: beginning at 5pm
Cost: $85 per couple

One of Boston’s Italian ristorantes, nebo, is offering guests an evening of romance and charm this Valentine’s Day. Delight with your loved one in a delicious four-course sharing dinner by candlelight that will dazzle your taste buds without breaking the bank. nebo’s Valentine’s menu begins with a toast to love with a glass of red Sangria di nebo or Prosecco followed items like: Timballo di Melanzana; Calamari Fritta; Pappardelle Bolognese; Portolana Pizza; and, for dessert, Loveknots (heavenly puffs topped with powdered sugar).

The Beehive: Valentine's Day

Don’t be tied down by only one night of Valentine’s Day celebrations! The Beehive, in Boston’s South End, will be presenting “3 Days of Luv’n!” This is a 3-day long love-fest of Valentine’s Day inspired brunches & dinners accompanied by romantic live music and menu specials including: Roasted Scallop Nicoise Salad, Oysters-3-Ways, Spanish Paella for Two, and Porterhouse Steak with Truffle Butter just to name a few.

Pair the brunch or dinner of your choice with one of New England’s most extensive and unique champagne lists! So come one, come all, and make your plans early for 3-days of true Luv’n. Reservations are highly recommended, and can be made by calling 617-423-0069.

Performance Schedule:

Friday, February 12:

· Romantic Early Dinner Jazz Set 6:30PM - 8:30PM

· Valentine's Day 3 Days of Luv'n: Featuring Akashic Record 10:00 PM - 2:00 AM

Saturday, February 13:

· Saturday Jazz Romance Brunch 10:30AM - 3:00PM

· Romantic Early Jazz Set 6:30 PM - 8:30PM

· Valentine's Day 3 Days of Luv'n: Featuring Toni Lynn Washington 10:00PM - 2:00AM

Sunday, February 14:

· Saturday Jazz Romance Brunch 10:30AM - 3:00PM

· Romantic Early Jazz Set 6:00PM - 9:30PM Featuring “Evil Gal” Michelle Wilson. With four critically acclaimed albums under her belt, Michelle gets bad and bluesy with her line up of “bluesicians” for your Valentine’s Day Dinner listening pleasure!

· Valentine's Day 3 Days of Luv'n: Heat up after a cool dinner stage-side or in our dining room with a very special Valentine’s Day Salsa Sunday! 9:30PM - 12:00AM.

The Beehive
541 Tremont St.
Boston, MA
Phone: 617-423-0069

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Beacon Hill Bistro: Wine & Dine Mondays

Take a culinary tour around the world with the Beacon Hill Hotel & Bistro’s Wine & Dine Monday series. Visit various wine regions from your seat at this bistro situated on historic Beacon Hill, as co-owner and resident wine director Cecilia Rait and Tracy Burgis of M.S. Walker brings you from region to region and explains the complexities of each selection. Cecilia states, "Wine & Dine Mondays are about wonderful wines, creative food and friendship."

Each of the eight events will be held on the second and fourth Monday of every month beginning on January 25th, 2010 and ending in the Spring on May 10th, 2010. Each four-course dinner showcases regional fare as well the culinary artistry of Executive Chef Jason Bond whose selections will accent each featured wine.

This intimate adventure is set in family style seating to encourage conversation, and for the price of $55.00 per person (tax and gratuity not including), guests are treated to a full four-course dinner including various wines to accompany their educational experience. The event is great for all levels of wine lovers!

January 25, 7pm
Mendocino and Lake County
Heralded for their natural beauty, California’s two northernmost wine regions offer an array of gorgeous wines as well. During this dinner we will sample a select few.

February 8th, 2010 7:00PM
Puglia stretches from the spur of the Italian boot to its heel. It is together with Sicily the most productive wine region in Southern Italy. Many exciting wines have been crafted in the area since the wine revolution of the 1980’s. Have your passport in hand as we travel through Puglia and sample the region.

February 22nd, 2010 7:00PM
It's all Greek to me
Birthplace of Western civilization, Greece is in many ways also the birthplace of our modern wine culture. Greek wine has come a long way since an appellation system was put into place in the 1970’s. Travel both across the pond and back in time for this wine dinner.

March 8th, 2010 7:00PM
Barossa Valley/Langmeil Winery
Barossa is considered one of the top districts on the Australian wine map. Despite being made in a high-tech and modern fashion, the area’s wines are like the Australian people: outgoing and unpretentious. Join us for this culinary adventure.

March 22nd, 2010 7:00PM
Tempranillo is a black grape varietal widely grown to make full-bodied red wines. The Phoenicians brought this grape to the Iberian peninsula where it found its home. We will not only sample the wines from Spain and Portugal, but also a new world version from California.

April 12th, 2010 7:00PM
Alsace-Maison Hugel
Hans Ulrich Hugel settled in Riquewihr, France in 1639 after the Thirty Years War and soon took charge of the Corporation of Winegrowers. The family has been making wine in Alsace ever since. During this journey we will sample some of the traditional varieties of the region.

April 26th, 2010 7:00PM
In the 1980’s the Austrian Parliament enacted perhaps Europe’s most stringent wine legislation drawing young winemakers and cutting-edge techniques to the vineyards and cellars with the law’s emphasis on quality over quantity. Austria makes some of the raciest, most exciting wines in central-eastern Europe. Still relatively unknown, they deserve wider recognition. Come see what you think!

May 10th, 2010 7:00PM
Blind Tasting
For the last wine dinner of the season, we will blind taste some of our favorites from our previous adventures. If you’ve been with us the entire journey maybe you’ll be able to identify some of your favorites as well. If this is your first trip with us it will be a memorable one!

Reservations are necessary. Please call 617-723-7575

Beacon Hill Hotel & Bistro
25 Charles Street
Boston, MA
Phone: 617-723-7575

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Strange Case of Dr. Franc and Mr. Vegetal

Robert Louis Stevenson penned the classic novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in which he examined the duality of man, the two faces of each person, one good and one evil. I have engaged in a similar examination of duality, though with a different subject, the Cabernet Franc grape. In my case, I would title my investigation as The Strange Case of Dr. Franc and Mr. Vegetal.

For a time, it seemed that all of the Cabernet Franc wines I drank had a vegetal aroma and flavor which turned me off. I derisively referred to such wines as "salad" wines, which had far too much green flavor for me. Cabernet Franc was not alone though as I encountered similar flavors in many Carmeneres too. Yet there were other wine lovers who enjoyed the vegetal nature of these wines, so it was clearly a matter of preference.

But I perservered, continuing to taste Cabernet Franc wines, hoping that I might find one I could enjoy, one without those vegetal tastes. I was eventually rewarded for all of my effort spent on that quest, and began finding numerous examples lacking that greenness. I had found the other face of Cabernet Franc, a more appealing one for my palate. One of the primary places where I found Cabernet Francs which I could enjoy was in New York.

Thus, I was excited for the recent Taste Live event, a tasting of four Cabernet Francs from the Finger Lakes region. Lenn of Lenndevours: The New York Cork Report led the tasting with co-hosting by the people from Finger Lakes Wine Country. Dale of Drinks Are on Me joined me at my house for the tasting.

I had some slight concerns that maybe the Cabernet Francs would show some vegetal flavors, but was willing to give them a try and hope for the best. My worries were needless as none of them expressed any such greenness. I was a very happy man. They were all Dr. Franc without any Mr. Vegetal.

I should first note that I opened and decanted the wines for about five hours prior to the event, and I do think that affected the smell and taste of the wines. For example, some of the other tasters found some barnyard aromas in a couple of the wines but I did not detect any in mine. Such aromas may have dissipated with time which is why I could not detect them. We were recommended to decant a couple of the wines and that appeared to be good advice.

We began the tasting with the 2007 Fox Run Vineyards Cabernet Franc/Lemberger ($14.99) which was an excellent start. This wine is a blend of 47% Cabernet Franc and 53% Lemberger (also known as Blaufrankisch) and has an alcohol content of 12.5%. Only 825 cases of this wine were produced. Like all four of the wines in the tasting, this was from the 2007 vintage which is considered to be an excellent vintage.

This was a juicy, delicious and easy-drinking wine, making an excellent introductory Cabernet Franc. There were nice blueberry notes with red fruit accents and hints of underlying spice. Its lighter red color reminded me of some Pinot Noirs, though the taste was definitely influenced by the Lemberger. This is a wine I could easily enjoy with pizza or a burger, or simply on its own. It is a wine to drink and enjoy, rather than something to sip and ponder over. It earns my recommendation, and placed me into a pleasant mood at the start of the tasting.

The 2007 Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards Cabernet Franc ($22) only has an alcohol content of 12.3%. As an aside, I really do enjoy the lower alcohol contents of many of the New York wines. Red wines seems to average 12-14%, and it is rare to see wines over that. Unfortunately, the Hazlitt wine did not really please me. It seemed to be overly spiced to me, the fruit flavors buried beneath that spice. Others at the tasting enjoyed this wine but it just did not satisfy me.

The 2007 Rooster Hill Vineyards Cabernet Franc ($19.99) was very different from the Fox Run. The Rooster Hill seemed more of a serious wine, with stronger tannins, more subdued dark fruit flavors and some Christmas spice notes. This is the type of wine where you really start thinking about what you are drinking. It has more complexity, more depth of flavor. It probably also should be drank with food, as the tannins might be too much on their own. Another good example of the Dr. Franc aspect of Cabernet Franc, the non-vegetal side, which showcases such good fruit and spice. I recommend this wine too.

My favorite wine of the evening was clearly the 2007 Red Newt Wine Cellars “Sawmill Creek” Cabernet Franc ($38.99). This is a blend of about 90% Cabernet Franc with the other 10% being Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. It has an alcohol content of 13.7% and only 120 cases were produced. This wine will be released in February 2010.

When I tasted this wine, it brought back memories of the 2007 Shinn Estates Cabernet Franc, a wine which thoroughly impressed me last year. The Red Newt was not quite as good as the Shinn, but it was impressive nonetheless. It was a big wine, but did not overwhelm, possessing an excellent balance. There was plenty of complexity, such as an intriguing melange of lush flavors, including ripe plum, black cherry, blackberry, vanilla and more. The silky tannins made this a very smooth wine, and something I could easily enjoy on its own or with food. The finish was lengthy and pleasing, a feeling you did not wish to end.

This was a "wow" wine and gets my highest recommendation. Now, admittedly this is a more expensive wine. But I do think the price is justified for the quality of this wine, though the Shinn, which is similarly priced, remains the better value.

This tasting was good on two fronts. First, it showcased some delicious, nonvegetal Cabernet Francs. Second, it showcased some quality red wines coming out of the Finger Lakes region. I suggest you check out both fronts, and try one of these Cabernet Francs from the Finger Lakes.

Do you prefer Dr. Franc or Mr. Vegetal?