Saturday, October 25, 2014

José Maria da Fonseca: Portuguese Pride

Extending back 180 years, to its founding in 1834, José Maria da Fonseca is a family-owned Portuguese winery with one foot firmly planted in its rich history and traditions, and the other foot stepping forward into the future.

My own experience with their wines extends back as well. About eight to nine years ago, in the wine blog I wrote before I began The Passionate Foodie, I positively reviewed their 2004 Periquita ($10). stating it was a great value wine. Recently, I tasted the 2012 Periquita, and it is still only $10, remaining an excellent value. It is amazing that this wine has remained at the same low price for nine vintages.

A couple weeks ago, I attended a media lunch at Post 390, and met Domingos Soares Franco, the senior winemaker and vice president at José Maria da Fonseca. Domingos is part of the 6th generation of the Soares France family, and three members of the 7th generation are currently involved in the winery too. Domingos was the first Portuguese national to graduate in Fermentation Sciences (Viticulture and Oenology) from the University of California, Davis in 1981.

During lunch, Domingos was a fascinating conversationalist, possessed of great pride in Portugal, but also cognizant of the areas where Portugal could improve its wine industry. And he didn't shy away from being controversial either. He came across as honest, earnest and personable.

The J.M. da Fonseca winery is located in the village of Vila Nogueira de Azeitão, on the Setúbal Peninsula. just south of Lisbon. As the senior winemaker, Domingos has a trusted team in place, allowing him the ability to travel during harvest time. The winery possesses over 1600 acres of vineyards, growing about 35 different grapes. Domingos has been instrumental in changing the vineyards to primarily grow indigenous grapes, as he doesn't see much reason to use international grapes when they have so many interesting native grapes. Annually, they produce about 12 million bottles, over 34 brands, and export about 80% of their production to around 70 countries.

With a touch of controversy, Domingos claimed that Portugal possesses more indigenous grapes than any other country in the world. There are currently about 250 known indigenous grapes in Portugal, and each year, scientists discover about 3-4 new grapes through DNA analysis of grapes in old vineyards. Domingos believes there could eventually be about 400 indigenous grapes in Portugal. Other authorities, such as Jancis Robinson, have previously written that Italy possesses the most indigenous grapes, from 377 to 500, but Domingos feels they are wrong, counting some of the same grapes multiple times under different names.

I don't know which position is correct, though it is incontrovertible that Portugal possesses a significant number of fascinating indigenous grapes. Domingos noted that this significant number is due to an ancient glacial push, which benefited Italy, Spain and Portugal. Personally, I've often preferred Portuguese wines made from indigenous grapes, which I think provide the wines with more of a Portuguese character, more reflective of terroir. Domingoes also mentioned that his favorite Portuguese grape is Touriga Francesca.

Climate change has affected Portugal, Domingos noting that during the last four years, average temperatures have been decreasing. They have gone from four seasons to almost just two, a rainy season and a dry season. He also indicated that the southern reaches of Portugal are the most in danger and in fifty years may become too desert-like to grow grapes.

Domingos spoke about some of the general problems and issues with the Portuguese wine industry. Portugal has better wine makers than viticulturists, so that is something that needs change. They should also work together more as wine is made in both the vineyard and winery, and a better collaboration will make better wine. In addition, winemakers generally don't meet together to discuss common issues. They need to unite, to share information and work together in furtherance of common goals. That type of collaboration has benefited many other wine regions and it could only serve to do the same in Portugal.

He also advised that Portuguese wineries need to be more innovative, and to spend more money in vineyard sites. They should be planting small amounts of different varieties, and different clones, for at least ten years, to determine which grapes do best on their land. He added that Portugal is producing much better white wines now, as they are using more native varieties. However, there is a learning curve involved in working with these indigenous grapes, so he predicts the white wines will get even better with time. Domingos also believes the Portuguese should not over price their wines, and with seeing Periquita remain the same price for nine years shows he is following his own advice.

Most of the wines that we drink today are consumer driven, and nearly all of the Fonseca wines fit that description. However, Domingos produces eight wines, six red and two white, which he thinks are made the way a wine should be made. Domingos doesn't enjoy blockbuster wines, or too much sugar, oak or alcohol. He prefers elegant, easy going wines which you can sit and drink a few glasses without any issue. There are too many wines which you have a single, overpowering glass, and you don't want to drink a second. Domingos would rather a glass of wine that makes you think. This is exactly what I was told by a Chilean winemaker earlier this month.

When asked about what other wine region most excited him, Domingos stated that he felt Washington state was the wave of the future, producing superior, elegant and well balanced wines. He has been to the region once before and is eager to return, to taste more of their wines.

During the course of our lunch, we sampled seven Fomseca wines, which included one made as Domingos feels wine should be made. He also advised people to taste single varietals, to better understand how each grape contributes to Portuguese blends. In addition, Domingos mentioned that he doesn't consider Aragonez to be a Portuguese grape, as it actually is Spanish Tempranillo and as such, he is using less of Aragonez in some of his wines.

We began our afternoon with the 2013 Periquita Rose ($9.99), a blend of 50% Castelão, 40% Aragonêz, and 10% Trincadeira, with an alcohol content of 12.2%. Fermented in stainless steel, it is dry and clean, with delicious strawberry and cherry flavors. A simple and easy drinking wine, it would be excellent for summer though you can drink it year round, especially as it is food friendly.

The Periquita brand, which was started in 1850, is the oldest table wine in Portugal which is still available in the market. The winery has bottles in their cellar dating back to around 1880. They currently produce about 100,000 cases of this wine, and its primary market is Sweden, and they have crafted the wine to appeal to their tastes.

The 2012 Periquita ($9.99) is a blend of 74% Castelão, 14% Trincadeira, and 12% Aragonêz, with an alcohol content of 13%. The wine is aged for about six months in new and used American and French oak. It is an easy drinking wine, with plenty of red and black fruit flavors, spicy accents and a touch of vanilla. Though inexpensive, it has more complexity than many wines at this price point. Great with or without food, it makes for an excellent pizza or burger wine. It should be a crowd-pleaser at any party.

The 2012 Periquita Reserva ($14.99) was also made for the Swedish market, and was a huge success,selling about 500,000 cases in only 9 months. Is a blend of 38% Castelão, 34% Touriga Nacional, and 28% Touriga Francesca, with an alcohol content of 13.1%. The wine is aged for about eight months in new and used French oak barrels. It is a darker red than the original Periquita, and the aroma has more vanilla notes. It is a more New World style, with a fuller body, riper black fruit flavors, lots of vanilla and accents of some other spices. It is easy drinking too, though my personal preference is for the original.

The 2011 Domingos ($14.99) is named after Domingos, and is intended to reflect a blend of tradition and modernity. This wine is a blend of 60% Touriga Nacional and 40% Syrah, a combination of an indigenous grape and an international one, with an alcohol content of 13.2%. Out of all the international grapes in their vineyards, they have the most of Syrah. The wine spends about nine months in French oak casks with medium toast. It is inky dark in color, with a silky elegance, ripe plum and blackberry flavors, vanilla, and some underlying spice notes. It is an enjoyable wine, but I still prefer Portuguese blends that don't use international grapes.

The 2010 Domini ($15.99) stems from a joint venture between Domingos and winemaker Cristiano Van Zeller, from the Douro. Starting in 1999, they began purchasing land and making leases with growers, eventually leading to 77 acres of vineyards planted with traditional Douro grapes. From these vineyards, they have produced two table wines and two Ports. This Domini is a blend of 48% Touriga Nacional, 30% Tinta Roriz, & 22% Touriga Franca, with an alcohol content of 13.2%. It spends about three months in new oak, and has a bright, medium-red color with a compelling nose of red fruits and a bit of earthiness. On the palate, the flavors form a nice melange of fruit and spice, with earthy elements. The tannins are well integrated, the finish is long and pleasing, and it presents plenty of complexity for this price point. Overall it is a delicious wine, one I would easily drink over the course of an evening. Highly recommended.

The 2008 Domini Plus ($40), the second wine of the Douro partnership, is a blend of 65% Touriga Franca, 20% Tinta Roriz, & 15% Touriga Nacional, with an alcohol content of 13.7%. However, in 2012, they changed the blend in this wine, eliminating the Tinta Roriz, so it is now just made with the two other grapes. It spends about 12 months in new French oak. Similar in some respects to the Domini, it elevates the complexity and flavor profile, creating an elegant and enticing wine, that is still powerful yet restrained. This is a perfectly ballanced wine, one to slowly sip and savor, thinking on everything to be found within your glass. This is one of the 8 wines that Domingos created to fit what he believe a wine should be. It is an amazing wine, well worth the price, and which might cost twice as much in any other wine region. Highly recommended.

Our final wine was the 2004 Moscatel de Setubal ($10.99 for 375ml), and the winery is one of the most important producers of this fortified wine. Though this wine was created before the founding of Fonseca, many still see the winery as inextricably entwined with this wine. Fonseca currently makes it very similar to the original method, Made from 100% Moscatel de Setúbal, this wine has an alcohol content off 17.3%, and by law it cannot be lowet than 16%. The wine is aged in oak barrels, which are at least ten years old. With a deep color, the wine is fruit and sweet, though balanced by a good level of acidity. You get flavors of caramel and honey, orange and apricot, and some herbal notes.

Interestingly, regular brandy is used for this Moscatel, but Fonseca makes two others, one using Cognac and the other Armagnac. Neither of those are available in the U.S.yet, and Fonseca won't sell both of them in the same country. Though they cannot place Cognac or Armagnac on the front label, you will find it on the back. They sound very intriguing.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Kavalan: Taiwan Whiskey

During the last approximately hundred years, Japanese whiskey has taken the world by storm, winning plenty of international awards and thrilling the palates of whiskey lovers everywhere. It is not the only Asian country which is involved in whiskey, and you will likely soon hear more and more about an island in Asia which is producing world quality whiskey.

The island of Taiwan.  

Probably the oldest alcohol produced on the island of Taiwan is millet wine, which was made by the aboriginal peoples and was an element of many of their rituals and festivals. Eventually, they started producing rice wine though nowadays, it is used far more often in cooking than for drinking. Currently, Taiwan’s most famous spirit is Kaoliang, a clear alcohol made from fermented sorghum that commonly ranges from 76 to 120 proof.

Besides these wines and spirits, and because of the country’s hotter temperatures, beer is extremely popular, and many people enjoy drinking their beer over ice. At most bars, they serve beer in a bottle, and taps are uncommon. One of the most popular local beers is Taiwan Beer, an amber lager which is brewed with barley and fragrant penglai rice.

In the last twenty years or so, international spirits, including whiskey, from all around the world have begun to appear on store shelves in Taiwan. As such, whiskey gained some popularity there, and eventually led one local entrepreneur to construct his very own whiskey distillery, the first of its kind on the island.

At the beginning of the 20th century, there were over 2600 commercial producers of alcohol on Taiwan however, that all changed when the Japanese seized control of Taiwan after the First Sino-Japanese War. The Japanese established the Monopoly Bureau of the Taiwan Governor's Office, which became responsible for all liquor, tobacco, opium, salt and camphor products in the country. However, even when Japan was defeated in World War II, the government monopoly on alcohol remained in place, though it was soon after renamed the Taiwan Tobacco & Wine Monopoly Bureau.

Significant change would not arrive until January 1, 2002, when Taiwan officially became the 144th member of the World Trade Organization (WTO). The Monopoly Bureau was renamed as the Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Corporation and new laws were enacted that permitted private companies to open distilleries and produce alcohol. This opening quickly led to a number of wineries and microbreweries opening up in recent years, and one whiskey distillery.

The Taiwanese have a healthy appetite for whiskey, and the market has been growing significantly in recent years. Taiwan is around the 5th or 6th largest export market for Scotch Whisky, though they are around only 20th place for whiskey consumption per capita.

The King Car Food Industrial Company, founded in 1956 by Tian Tsai Lee, has been involved in numerous businesses, including beverages, food, biotechnology and aquaculture.  It is known for such products as Green Time Natural Drinking Water and Mr. Brown Coffee. With the breaking of the government alcohol monopoly in 2002, the path was opened for the company to construct a distillery, and they were interested in producing whiskey, though many people were skeptical that the plan would work. However, they went forward with their plans anyways, assembling a research & development team to explore the possibility, traveling to Scotland to study their options.

Tian Tsai Lee was born in Yilan County, located in the northeastern region of Taiwan, and chose to build his distillery there, in the township of Yuanshan. As an homage to the aboriginal people of the Yilan, we decided to name his whiskey Kavalan. The term "Kavalan" roughly means the "people of the plains"and is also the name of the people who once inhabited this area. Yilan was partially chosen because it possesses excellent natural water sources, which flows down from the Central and Snow Mountain ranges. This is also the source of the Green Time Natural Drinking Water which King Car bottles. In addition, the Yilan is close to the Pacific Ocean, so the distillery benefits from that climate.

In 2005, construction of the distillery began and surprisingly, it was completed in only nine months, when it usually takes five years. The facility is quite substantial, and has even grown since its initial construction. Originally, it had the capability of producing 3 million bottles annually but that has now grown to about 9 million bottles. There are approximately 46,000 casks in storage. The distillery has a large visitor center and over one million people visit each year. In comparison, that is roughly the same amount of tourists to visit all of the whiskey distilleries in Scotland!

Dr Jim Swan, a Whiskey consultant, worked with the people of Kavalan, including Master Blender Ian Chang, to set up the distillery and overcome the potential problems and obstacles with producing whiskey in Taiwan. Ian Chang is also the whisky producer’s brand ambassador, director of global business development and head of R&D.

The primary problem is the hotter temperatures in Taiwan, which result in a more rapid maturation. For example, what might take 8-15 years of aging in Scotland only takes 3 years, or even less, in Taiwan. On average, Taiwan is about 27 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than Scotland. The higher temperatures also mean that the whiskey barrels lose much more to evaporation, the "angel's share," than they would elsewhere.  The angel's share might be 2% to 3% in Scotland, but in Taiwan it is more like 10% to 15%, a huge difference. In addition, these higher temperatures can lead to increased bacterial growth. As such Dr..Swan and Chang worked together to find ways to handle these issues.

For example, they use stainless steel fermenting containers, instead of wood, to prevent bacteria. By the way, their barley is imported from Europe. Much of their work is directed toward the maturation of the whiskey, including the creation of a five-story warehouse. The higher levels are hotter so larger barrels, 500-700 liters, are used on that floor while smaller barrels,18-250 liters, are used on the lower and cooler floors. Experimentation and research into other methods of slowing maturation are ongoing.

The first whiskey from Kavalan was produced in March 2006, and the first bottles began to be sold in December 2008, nearly six years ago. Initially, to cater to the taste of Taiwanese consumers, ther whiskies presented with a fruity flavor profile. All of their whiskies are also cask strength, non-chill filtered and natural in color. The squared-off design of the single malt bottle was inspired by the Taipei 101, one of the tallest building in the world. Kavalan now produces about ten different whiskies, with at least six available in the U.S.

The Kavalan whiskies have received a number of accolades and awards, and are being taken very seriously. They have proven that world class whiskey can be made in Taiwan, despite the hitter temperatures, which should be interesting news to other countries which have considered making their own whiskey. In time, maybe additional distilleries will open in Taiwan. Right now, the Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Corporation bottles some other whiskies, under labels such as Yutai Golden Whisky and Jade Supremacy Taiwan Whisky, though that is actually distilled in Scotland. They merely blend the whiskey in Taiwan.

The distillery is part of a substantial site on the plains at Yi-Lan, with many acres of company-owned ground at its disposal for expansion. A steep range of heavily-wooded hills and mountains lie just behind the distillery and their lush, green slopes suggest that water shortages are unlikely to represent a future problem. The parent group is well-financed and, as a family-owned company, capable of taking the long-term decisions essential for success in the whisky business

I received a media sample box containing five different whiskies produced by Kavalan, and I understand why Kavalan is receiving so many accolades. I tasted these whiskies both without and with the addition of a little water, and found that the water generally brought our more fruit flavors in the whiskies, especially in the Solist line. If you are a whiskey lover, you need to put these on your radar and see why so many are raving about Kavalan.

The Kavalan Single Malt Whisky ($89.99) was the first whisky produced by Kavalan, and has an ABV of 43%. With a light amber color, it has a fruity and floral nose, On the palate, it is silky, with a lush blend of flavors, including tropical fruit, honey, vanilla, orange peel and coconut, with chocolate notes on the lengthy finish. Clean and complex, this should appeal to most whiskey lovers.

The Kavalan Concertmaster Whisky ($99.99) is a single malt whiskey, that was finished in Port casks, and has an ABV of 43%. The Port casks include ruby, tawny and vintage port. With a slightly darker amber color, the nose is more chocolate and savory notes. However, on the palate, there is more fruit, including red berries, along with vanilla, chocolate, and a bit of leather. A little heavier in the mouth feel than the basic Single Malt. It was also silky and complex, clean and with a lengthy, satisfying finish.

The Kavalan Solist Ex-Bourbon Cask Whisky ($159.99) is a single malt whiskey aged in ex-bourbon casks, and has an ABV of 57% (bottled at cask strength). With a nice golden color, the nose reminded me of sweet bourbon, and similar flavors came out in the taste. A bit sweeter than the other whiskies, there was plenty of vanilla, coconut, and tropical fruit notes, with accents of honey and spices. Despite the higher alcohol, it was still easy drinking, and possessed a pleasing finish.

Maybe my favorite of the five was the Kavalan Solist Sherry Cask Whisky ($184.99). which is a single malt whiskey, aged in Oloroso sherry casks, and has an ABV of 57% (bottled at cask strength). With a dark brown color, the same as an aged Oloroso, is provides an intriguing nose of dried fruit, nuts and spice. On the palate, it will remind you, in part, of aged Oloroso, with vanilla, nutty notes, spices, caramel, honey and raisins. It is fairly silky, with lots of complexity, and a very lengthy finish that never seems to stop. This is a whiskey you'll want to slowly savor over the course of an evening, reveling in its complex profile. Highly recommended.

The Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique Whisky ($159.99) is a single malt whiskey, aged in used American oak wine barrels that have been toasted and re-charred, and has an ABV of 57% (bottled at cask strength). It is a lighter color than the Sherry Cask, and the nose is a pleasing blend of fruit, dark spice and chocolate. On the palate, those same tastes blend harmoniously together with citrus, vanilla, caramel, and black pepper. An intriguing whiskey, it is a bit bigger and bolder than the others, offering an excellent drink for a winter evening.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Red Heat Tavern: The Food & Drinks (Part 2)

How does food taste cooked in the Josper Charcoal Broiler Oven?

Red Heat Tavern, located in Wilmington, opened in March 2014 and is owned and operated by the Burtons Grill restaurant group. It is easily accessed from Route 93, or you can get there via Route 129. The restaurant is open for both lunch and dinner, and on both times when I visited, the restaurant was very busy, and obviously is a popular dining destination for many.

The restaurant is moderately sized, with a large, thirty-two seat bar with six televisions, numerous booths, tables and high-tops. There is also an outdoor patio, where people were seated on both of my visits as the weather was pleasant. It has an open kitchen, which I always like, and it has a casual, homey vibe, what you desire from a tavern-style restaurant. It is the type of place to go for a drink and some food while you watch football, or a spot to hang out with a group of friends. On Tuesdays, they have a weekly trivia event, with tequila & tacos, and on Thursday evenings they have live music. In addition, they host other special events on a regular basis.

As for alcohol, beer is king, and they have an impressive list of about 50 selections, including Drafts, Bottles and Cans. The beer menu includes local craft brews as well as international selections, Draft beers are available in 14oz and 20oz pours. You can even find some beer cocktails available. The wine list is relatively small, with most wines by the glass costing $5.50-$10. It is not an exciting list, but will have many names familiar to the average consumer.

Their cocktail list, most ranging from $7-$10, includes a number of their own takes on some classic cocktails, such as the Fire House Iced Tea and the Wilmington Cranberry Gimlet. The Jack & the Giant Peach (pictured above) is made from Jack Daniel’s, peach puree, & agave. Both the bourbon and peach flavors were well balanced, and it had only a slight hint of sweetness to it. A very satisfying drink, one you could easily have a few over the course of an evening. The Spicy Strawberry Margarita is made with Tequila, Cointreau, strawberry puree, jalapeno, & agave, and again it was well balanced and with only a touch of sweetness to it. There was a nice spicy kick, and it too was a satisfying drink.

The kitchen cooks everything from scratch and they use seasonal, fresh ingredients. The menu has plenty of choices, including about 13 Appetizers ($4.95-$11.95, with 1 exception), 9 Salads ($9.95-$12.95), 14 Sandwiches & Burgers ($9.95-$12.95), 15 Entrees ($13.95-$16.95) and  12 Sides. There is a flame symbol next to some of the menu items, indicating that the dish was at least partially prepared using the Josper Charcoal Broiler Oven.  It is a menu that emphasizes comfort food, with plenty of hearty dishes and tavern fare, though you can find some lighter items too, from salads to seafood. Price wise, it is very affordable, especially considering the ample portion sizes of many dishes.    

At the beginning of your meal, at both lunch and dinner, you'll receive some moist cornbread with a sweet cinnamon & honey butter.

My favorite dish, and which is also indicative of the potential of the Josper, was the Mesquite Smoked Wings ($11.95, or a double order for $17.95). The wings can be ordered either with a buffalo-style sauce or a sweet Thai chili sauce, and I opted for the latter on both visits. The Thai wings comes with a sriracha mayo for dipping. The wings are slow cooked during the day in the Josper, and then later crisped up prior to being served.

Honestly, these were some of the best wings I've tasted in some time. There was a delightful crispiness to the outer skin, and plenty of tender meat inside. The sweet, and slightly spicy, taste was accompanied by a nice smokiness, all of the flavors blending together harmoniously. That smokiness is due to the Josper. I could easily eat these wings by the dozen and they receive my highest recommendation.

The RHT Nachos ($10.95) is a hearty appetizer of crispy corn tortilla chips, melted colby and monterey jack cheese, cherry peppers and diced tomatoes, all topped with fire roasted salsa verde and RHT sour cream. You can also add chicken or chili. The chips were a bit thicker than some, and made for a sturdy platform for the rest of the toppings/ I don't like when the chips are too thin and continually break when you load them up with toppings. There was plenty of gooey melted cheese, and the salsa verde added a pleasant smoky flavor to the dish. Very good comfort food to snack on while watching the Patriots.

Another hearty appetizer is the Smothered Wild Cat Fries ($7.95), a bowl of french fries covered by a five cheese sauce, BBQ gravy and applewood smoked bacon. What a delectable dish of comfort food, kind of a variation on poutine. The cheese sauce, savory gravy and bacon enhanced the crisp fries, providing a nice blend of taste and textures. This is a dish which you will be sure to finish.

The BBQ Burger ($11.95) is a half pound of Angus Beef topped by cheddar, applewood smoked bacon, honey BBQ sauce and onion strings on a toasted bun. Burgers come with a choice of Sweet Potato Wedges, French Fries, Onion Strings, Creole Potato Chips or Coleslaw. I opted for the Sweet Potato Wedges. This is a hearty burger, with a nice meaty taste enhanced by the toppings. A good-sized dish for the price. The rippled Wedges were excellent, with a nice crunchy exterior and plenty of tender sweet potato inside. As wedges, you get far more sweet potato taste than a skinny fry. A great alternative to the usual potato French fry.

The RHT Philly Wrap ($11.95) is made from their house roast beef with RHT steak sauce, onions, peppers, melted provolone and American cheese with crispy onion strings rolled in a chipotle wrap. Another hearty and tasty sandwich.

The Fresh Catch Basket ($14.95) contains plenty of lightly battered fresh cod with fries, crispy onion strings, fried pickles, coleslaw and tartar sauce. The crisp and thin batter covered very moist and flaky fish, and there were enough pieces to make any seafood lover happy. I have to give some kudos to the fried bread & butter pickles, which balanced the thin batter with the crisp pickle slices. I've had too many soggy fried pickles but these didn't disappoint. You can also get them as an appetizer.

For sides, you could try the Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Bacon, which combine smokiness and salt to these small, leafy veggies.

Or maybe you would prefer the Five Cheese Mac & Cheese, which is topped by an onion string crust. A compelling blend of cheese, and tender pasta make this tasty comfort food.

If you want lighter fare for your entree, order the Miso Glazed Salmon ($16.95), which has a sweet miso glaze and is served over lemongrass and edamame jasmine rice, and topped with a warm slaw of carrots, sugar peas and sesame seeds. The salmon, which sees time in the Josper, had a nice cruncht crust to its exterior, and plenty of moist, flaky meat inside, with a slightly smoky accent. The rice and slaw was a nice blend of flavors and textures, enhancing the dish. Highly recommended.

The Josper Roasted Sirloin Tips ($16.95) were the only disappointment of my two visits. These tips, cooked in the Josper, are in their signature RHT marinade and served with chimichurri sauce and herb parmesan fries. This was an ok dish, but didn't stand out as anything special, and seemed like a dish I might find at any tavern. As the kitchen did so well with all of the other dishes, it was a bit of a letdown to have such an average dish. Maybe their Tavern Chateau Steak would have been a better choice.

I didn't try any desserts as I was too full from the rest of the meals. Service on both visit was excellent, with the servers showing an excellent knowledge of the food and drinks menus. Everyone was very personable, and the servers seemed to be very attentive to all of their tables. Overall, I very much enjoyed Red Heat Tavern, and a couple of their dishes, like the Wings and Salmon, were top notch, as good as you find most anywhere. For a comfort food fix, or a reasonably priced lunch or dinner, or even just drinks and apps, this would be a good destination. I understand why it is so popular, and recommend that my readers check it out.

As for my original question, how does food taste cooked in the Josper Charcoal Broiler Oven, I think the answer depends on the preparation. The Wings are the perfect showcase of the great potential of the oven, and the Salmon indicated that it can do well with seafood too. The salsa verde on the Nachos were another good example of the flavors the oven can impart. However, the steak tips failed to live up to the potential, Overall, I am impressed with the Josper.

(Disclaimer: I received a media comp for dinner though I had lunch there on my own. Please be advised I was under no obligation to actually review this restaurant and if I chose to review it, I was under no obligation to say anything specific, whether positive or negative, about my experience. All of this content was solely at my discretion.)

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I am back again with a new edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I highlight some interesting wine and food items that are upcoming. **********************************************************
1) On Saturday, November 1, the Olé Restaurant Group is celebrating the Day of the Dead holiday with traditional fare and customs. In Spanish, this holiday is called Día de los Muertos. Men, women and children of all ages honor and celebrate their loved ones who have passed away, participating joyously in a festival that has roots nearly 4000 years old.

Ole will have a festive atmosphere with special decorations, traditional dishes, and creative cocktails. The altar will be set, and they encourage everybody to leave a small thought of a love one. All diners will receive complimentary “Traditional cinnamon Day of the Dead bread and hot Mexican Chocolate” with their dinner. Complementary bread and chocolate with the purchase of entrée per person. One per person per table.

November is also the kick start of Ole’s acclaimed “Festival del Mole” (Mole month festival). Mole are sauces, including black, red, yellow, red, green peppers, almendrado and pipian. Many Mexicans celebrate with special dishes using mole sauces. Chef Ramos invites all guests to share this tradition as well.

The menu, available for the entire month of November, will feature different mole sauces different regions of Mexico. Some options will include, Mole Negro with Turkey, the darkest of all the moles, Mole Mancha Manteles with Lamb Shank, a deep red mole famous for “staining table cloths” and Mole Verde with vegetables a vegetarian pumpkin seed base mole with seasonal vegetables. Don’t miss the opportunity to taste these intricate sauces, made of up to 30 components cooking for several days as tribute of love ones, life and tradition. The Festival del Mole Menu is served in conjunction with the regular menu.

The bar will be offering a special drink: “Sangre de Judah” – Zapopan Reposado Mezcal, Vago elote, fresh squeeze lime juice, and curacao, top with Sangre de Guida wine

For Reservations, please call 617-492-4495

2) On Monday, November 10, at 6:30pm, Legal Harborside will team up with Andrea Pace, USA Brand Manager of Ceretto, for a four-plus-course wine dinner. Located in the hilly area of Langhe in northern Italy, Ceretto is predominantly recognized for its selection of red wines, its sprawling vineyards, environmentally sustainable practices, architecturally modern wineries and design. Family-owned for three generations, the Ceretto family is one of the largest vineyard proprietors in Piedmont with more than 395 acres of estate-owned vineyards, located primarily in the Langhe and Roero region, including in the prestigious areas of Barolo and Barbaresco. The Ceretto name is synonymous with estate-grown, carefully produced wines that express true varietal character with purity and elegance.

The menu will be presented as follows:

Baked Clam - ciabatta pancetta crumbs
Sunchoke Soup - crispy prosciutto, poached pear
Crispy Pork Belly - thinly sliced scallop*, apple mostarda
Baccala Fritter - salsa verde, lemon & white anchovy aioli
Ceretto “Blangé” Arneis, Langhe, 2013
Porcini Mushroom Soup (braised rabbit, marsala prunes)
Ceretto Barbaresco, Piemonte, 2011
Truffle & Chestnut Agnolotti (slow roasted veal shank, crispy sage)
Bricco Asili “Bernadot” Barbaresco, Piemonte, 2007
Charred Strip Steak (smoked lentils, oxtail, bone marrow bordelaise)
Ceretto Barolo, Piemonte, 2010
Bricco Rocche “Brunate” Barolo, Piemonte, 2008
Poached Pear & Hazelnut Torta (mascarpone cream, local honey)
Ceretto “Vignaioli di Santo Stefano-Belbo,” Moscato d’Asti, 2013

COST: $135 per person (excludes tax & gratuity)
Reservation required by calling 617-530-9470

3) As if it were ripped straight from the pages of Bram Stoker's Dracula, Pier 6 will be offering Transylvanian fare in celebration of Halloween on Friday, October 31. “Our chef thought it would be interesting to research, prepare and showcase Transylvanian cuisine for guests and we haven’t seen this done in Boston before,” said Sal Boscarino, Managing Partner of the Charlestown waterfront eatery.

The chef he is speaking of is Chef Adriano Silva who has been working in Boston kitchens such as B & G Oysters, Green Street Grille and Sportello for over ten years, working his way up from a dish washer, to line a cook, sous chef and eventually Executive Chef at Pier 6.

While some creative license was exercised, all the dishes are connected to traditional Transylvanian cuisine with dishes like, clătite, savory seafood crepes featuring lobster and scallops in a white wine cream ($16), Transylvanian Goulash with slow-braised beef, smoked paprika and sour cream ($22) and a traditional Transylvanian Apple Tart ($8). Guests can choose any of the items as specials which will be offered in addition to Pier 6’s regular menu.

The bar will also be highlighted during Halloween at Pier 6 with special night walker cocktails including The Twilight with a mix of Triple 8 Vanilla Vodka, White Crème, Triple sec and a splash of Milk & Grenadine ($10) and Dracula’s Kiss featuring Tito's Handmade Vodka, Cointreau, Pineapple Juice and Raspberry Puree ($11).

The Transylvanian food and beverage specials will be served in addition to Pier 6’s regular menu and is available only on Friday, October 31, from 5pm-10pm. Reservations are highly recommended so please call them at  617-337-0054

4) Besito Mexican, a Mexican restaurant venture from restaurateur John Tunney III, opened its first Massachusetts location in June at the Burlington Mall, I previously wrote a rave review of the Burlington restaurant, and their second Massachusetts restaurant will open on Friday, November 7, in The Mall at Chestnut Hill. The Chestnut Hill restaurant will have over 125 seats and a full bar and during the warmer months will offer outdoor patio seating. The menu will be similar to that of Burlington, and I anticipate the food and drinks will be equally as good. Check out the new Besito when it opens in a couple weeks.

5) Chef & Owner Brian Poe is adding seasonal southern comfort dishes – and some wild game – to his menu at Estelle’s. In addition to the signature burger options, po’ boys, and classic southern fare, Chef Poe’s revamped menu brings forth new tastes and flavors to the South End.

For starters and salads, highlights include: BBQ Wings (peach-basil BBQ & beer glaze - $10.95); Southern Nachos (fried chicken skins, jalapeños, cherry peppers & pimento cheese sauce - $8.95); Buffalo Brussel Sprouts (buffalo sauce, blue cheese - $8.95); Tater Tots (horseradish cheese sauce, fried sage, lava salt - $8.95); and, the Autumn House Salad (arugula, apples, blue cheese, champagne cider vinaigrette - $6.25).

New savory burgers and entrées include: Elk Burger (rosemary and onion char-grilled maitake mushroom, cured cherry tomato, Belgian white mustard - $10.95); Turkey Burger (cranberry-fennel slaw - $10.95); Fried Avocado Burger (cilantro lime crema - $10.95); Poe Dawgs (alligator Andouille, venison, bison mini hot dogs - $12.95); and, Duck & Andouille Sausage Etouffee (trinity, tomatoes and spiced white rice - $23.95). Other newcomer sides are the Cornbread with Molasses Butter ($4.25) and Fried Sweet Potatoes ($4.25).

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Red Heat Tavern: Josper Charcoal Broiler Oven (Part 1)

It is the only one of its kind in Massachusetts, and one of only three in New England. It is an intriguing piece of equipment, and it perked my interest enough to learn much more, delving deeper into its origins and capabilities. All this excitement over an oven, An oven?

This fascinating oven is the Josper Charcoal Broiler Oven and is part of the kitchen at the Red Heat Tavern, a relatively new restaurant in Wilmington, easily accessible from Route 93. I've spoken to two chefs at the Tavern, dined there on two occasions, and got a chance to view the oven in operation. And I remain excited about this oven, and I believe other chefs should investigate the capabilities of this unique item.

The Josper Oven was created in 1970 by Josep Armangue and Pere Juli, who opened the restaurant Mas Pi in Pinedar de Mar in northeast Spain. They enjoyed cooking over charcoal, but wanted a better way to do so. The Josper is both grill and oven, and you have the ability to close its front door to keep the smoke, moisture and flavor inside of the oven. Working with 100% charcoal, it also cooks faster than an open grill, and even uses less charcoal. Originally only available in Europe, the Josper has since been made available in the U.S. through Wood Stone, Currently, only a small number of U.S. restaurants are using this oven, and Red Heat Tavern has become the first in Massachusetts to put in into their kitchen.

I recently spoke with Chef Martha Leahy, of Red Heat Tavern, to interview her about the Josper. Chef Leahy actually began a career in finance, but eventually decided to make a change and go to culinary school, graduating from Johnson & Wales. She then obtained a Master's degree in Italian cuisine in Italy. Afterwards, she spent time in culinary research & development, concepts and even taught at culinary school. She began working at Red Heat about a month after they opened their doors in March 2014.

The Josper oven, which was new to everyone at Red Heat, was something unique, and they felt it would help their concept stand out. There is certainly plenty of restaurant competition, so such differences can be significant, if they work well. At first, the Josper was delivered to Executive Chef's Alan Frati's home so he could experiment with it for a time before they added it to the restaurant. It is a bit more expensive than a regular restaurant oven, but its advantages seem to make the purchase worthwhile. However, like any tool, the key is how you use it.

One of the disadvantages of the Josper is that it has a steep learning curve, that cooking with it is both art and science. You need to learn how to control the heat through varying the amount of charcoal as well as the amount of air allowed into the oven. The high heat, which can reach 800-900 degrees, was initially intimidating to some of the kitchen employees. Chef Frati mentioned to me that, at first, many of the cooks wore large, hear-resistant gloves and aprons while using the Josper, but once they became more comfortable with its use, those gloves and aprons vanished.

The Josper has two different grills and they use four different cooking zones within that oven. The bottom level is the charbroiler while the top level is more the oven. Each morning, around 7am, they start the grill, raising it to about 400-500 degrees, using it for their prep work such as roasting tomatillos or slow cooking chicken wings. For service, they bring the Josper up to 800-900 degrees, so it gets hot working around this oven..

As fuel, they use a hard wood mesquite charcoal which they purchase from a company in Maine. They believe mesquite provides the best flavors to their food, and they go through about 30 pounds of charcoal per day. The Josper cooks food about 40% faster than other ovens or grills, which can be a great time saver during a busy service, and the enclosed area allows the heat to come from all sides, helping to cook food more thoroughly. In addition, the enclosed area keeps the smoke within the chamber, imbuing more flavor to the food.

Chef Leahy stated that the Josper works with most foods, obviously doing well with beef and other meats. Seafood, which you might think is too delicate for the oven, actually cooks well inside the Josper too. Vegetables even do well, caramelizing nicely, as well as acquiring smoky elements. Chef Leahy loves the fact that the Josper was inspired by an ancient coking method, the covered fire pits that were once used in Spain.

How does food taste cooked in the Josper? I'll tell you my thoughts in Part 2.