Thursday, February 14, 2019

Mooncusser Fish House: Giving Some Love To A Scrumptious Seafood Sampling

In recent years, Boston has seen the opening of a number of excellent seafood restaurants, and as you know, I've long encouraged people to eat more seafood. Seafood provides immense health benefits and it is also diverse and delicious, able to be prepared in a myriad of ways. On my recent weekend stay at the Boston Park Plaza, I dined at one of Boston's newer seafood restaurants, Mooncusser Fish Housethoroughly enjoying a tasting menu of fresh and compelling seafood.

Back in July 2017, Mooncusser Fish House opened, a joint endeavor led by Ian Calhoun, Vincent Vela, and Chef Carolyn Johnson, all who also own and operate 80 Thoreau in Concord. This seafood restaurant is actually divided into two parts, the Moon Bar located on the first floor and the Mooncusser Fish House on the second floor. The Moon Bar is the more casual dining area while the upstairs is more higher-end. During the week, at lunch time, they also open Cusser's Roast Beef & Seafood in the Moon Bar, and I recently wrote about my lunch experience there.

For dinner, we chose to eat upstairs in their more formal, though it isn't pretentious, Mooncusser Fish House. Note that it is several levels up so be prepared to climb some stairs, though they do have an elevator if you can't take the stairs. It is a small, more intimate dining room, perfect for date night or a business dinner.

You can opt for a Prix Fixe Menu (3 courses/$49), a Tasting of Local Fishes (5 Courses/$85) or select your own dishes off the menu, which is divided into First Courses and Main Courses. There are 7 options for First Courses, priced $10-$17, and you can choose items such as the Tuna Tartare,  Mooncusser Chowder, or Smoked Char Terrine. There are 6 choices for Main Courses, priced $30-$42, and you can choose items such as the Monkfish, Bone-In Skate Wing or Grilled Whole Fish.

This is a definitely a seafood-centric restaurant and the only non-seafood options are the Baby Chicory Salad (First Course) and the Grilled Lamb Rack (Main). I'm sure those dishes are delicious but seafood is king here. I'll also note that the price range  of their dishes has remained relatively the same since they first opened.

We decided on ordering the Tasting of Local Fishes ($85) with Wine Pairings ($75), wanting to sample a variety of their available dishes. As this was more a dinner for pleasure, I didn't take many notes, simply reveling in the experience. Overall, it was a superb dinner, with plenty of excellent dishes and wine pairings. Mooncusser hits it out of the park with their seafood!

The first course was a Halibut Crudo, with blood orange, mint, pickled ginger, and puffed wheat. The silky halibut was fresh and clean, with a mild but flavorful taste, enhanced by the citrus. The puffed wheat was almost like little pieces of popcorn, adding a crunchy texture to the dish. The wine pairing was the 2017 Gilbert Picq Chablis, an absolutely delicious Chardonnay with complex notes of white flowers, citrus, and mineralogy with a hint of briny salt. It went great with the crudo and I would love to try this wine with oysters too.

The second course was Lobster Bisque, made with wild mushrooms, pumpkin, and white truffle. Creamy and bursting with lobster flavor, sweet pumpkin notes, and earthy notes from the mushrooms and truffle. An excellent blend of flavors and perfect for a chilly winter evening. The wine paring was the 2014 Reynvaan Queen's Road Marsanne-Viognier, from Walla Walla, Washington. This wine brought intriguing notes of peach, melon and pineapple, with an underlying minerality and plenty of acidity, able to cut through the richness of the bisque. Another great choice.

The restaurant presented us with an extra, complimentary course, their Rye Chitarra, made with uni, celeriac, and mushrooms. I loved this dish! Perfectly cooked pasta, briny uni, and umami-rich mushrooms, all combined for a fantastic taste. Such a nice blend of flavors of the soil and sea. Highly recommended!

The next course was Scallops, with sweet potato, pomegranate, and pistachio. Initially, I was confused about the "orange" scallops in the dish before realizing they were actually sweet potatoes that were shaped like scallops and seared in a similar manner as well. And they were so tasty, a nice sweetness with a great sear. This is something I'd love to replicate at home. The sweet scallops were also seared perfectly, bringing fresh, clean flavors enhanced by the nuttiness of the pistachio. Another winner of a dish and highly recommended. The wine pairing was the 2017 Le Roc Des Anges Llum Grenache Gris, a complex and compelling wine, with rich citrus notes, intense minerality, and great acidity. A wine of elegance and restrained power, one to please most wine lovers.

The final savory course was Grilled Tuna, with sunchokes, an oyster, and pearl onions. The lightly seared, and mostly rare tuna, was silky and tender, meaty and satisfying. It was exactly what you desire in a grilled tuna dish. And the briny oyster was a pleasing extra. The wine pairing was the 2012 Sanguis Verve Grenache, from the Central Coast, California, and it was a killer wine. Great fruit flavors, a pleasing spicy backbone, plenty of complexity, and a lengthy finish. Such an excellent wine pairing!

Dessert was Petites Madelines with tangerine sorbet, olive oil, citrus, and coriander. A light and refreshing dessert which didn't overwhelm you with sweetness. The tiny madelines were light and delicious, and I wanted more. Their Pastry Chef Katherine Hamilburg is extremely talented. The final wine pairing was the 2015 Haut Charmes Sauternes, a nicely balanced dessert wine with intriguing and complex flavors.

Service was excellent, attentive without being obtrusive. And all of the food was excellent, well balanced dishes with great, fresh flavors. I was satisfied at the end of the meal, without feeling overly stuffed. The wine pairings worked so well, and I got to experience some fascinating and tasty wines which aren't the usual suspects. If you desire a quality seafood dinner, I highly recommend Mooncusser Fish House and suggest you order the Tasting of Local Fishes.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The Mind Of A Sommelier: Christopher Williams

(Check out my Introduction to the The Mind of a Sommelier series.)

Christopher Williams is the Beverage Manager and Sommelier at Harvest, located in Harvard Square. Harvest is an iconic restaurant, having been in existence for over forty years, which is a huge accomplishment. I recently dined there, attending a The Book & The Cook event which involved Hacking Whiskey. It was a fun and tasty event, with plenty of inventive cuisine.

Christopher Williams has always shown a passion for the hospitality industry, starting as a server at age 18. He graduated from Clark Atlanta University in 2009 with a degree in Psychology and began his interest in wine education in 2013 when he served as a waiter & wine steward at Bone's Steakhouse in Atlanta, Georgia. Christopher became a Certified Sommelier by the Court of Master Sommeliers in 2016. After serving as a sommelier at The St. Regis Atlanta, Christopher moved his talents to Boston and started as the restaurant manager and sommelier at Grill 23 & Bar, and for the past year, he has been making his mark at Harvest.

Now, onto the Interview:

What term do you use to describe yourself: Sommelier, Wine Steward, Wine Director, something else?
Sommelier, I prefer that title because it defines who I am and what I do for my profession. I specialize in providing the finest beverage service and engaging with our guests about different wines from different regions of the world, along with pairing wines from my list with the food our chefs prepare daily.

Please give a brief description of the wine list at your restaurant.
The wine list at Harvest covers the classic representation of wines from regions all over the world. I believe that the wine list a sommelier builds should never be about themselves or what is “trending” for the moment. Our job should be to have a wine list that is fun and engaging, but also true to the character of the wines grown in a particular region.

What are your objectives with the wine list?
I want to continue to be an excellent wine steward like my predecessors before me and add more wines to the list that will grab the interests of all the guests that visit Harvest. They say there is a wine for everyone and my goal is to have a list that is approachable for the guest looking for something of “value,” but also consists of wines that a true wine connoisseur will look through and notice some rare wines from smaller producers that may not be well known to the masses.

How often does the wine list change?
The wine list changes fairly often, sometimes 3-4 times a month due to our futures program and changes in vintages. I try to keep a nice rotation of wines so when one is out, I have plenty of options on reserve to choose from and replace with. It’s great because a guest that dines with us one evening may return a month later and notice newer selections on the wine list.

Are there omissions on your wine list you would like to fill?
I would like to add more Riesling options for both the Alsace and German sections of my wine list. I’m in love with Riesling and unfortunately, I feel people are hesitant in trying it because they believe all Rieslings are sweet. There are dry, off dry, sweet and sparkling representations of this grape. Riesling is so versatile you can match almost anything to it!

How do you learn about new wines?
I learn about new wines from my fellow sommeliers, vendors and even guests that come in to the restaurant. They are always excited to tell me about their recent trip to a country and the wines they had a chance to try. In this profession, you are constantly learning something new every day about wines from all over the world.

What is your strategy on pricing the wines on your list?
Pricing structure for Harvest’s wine list is marked in a way that is fair to our guests, I try to provide as much value as possible for each section of the list..

What is the most common wine question asked by your guests?
The most common wine question asked by my guests is what area on my wine list can they find “value.” I tend to lead them straight to Argentina or South Africa because they can provide excellent wines that are priced very fairly on a wine list..

What is the most common criticism you receive from guests about your list?
The most common criticism I receive from guests about Harvest’s list is that they would like to see more wines with significant bottle age to them. It can be quite the task trying to find wines from the 90’s or early 2000’s that would not cost a pretty penny on the wine list..

What is your greatest challenge as a sommelier?
I think my greatest challenge as a sommelier is fighting against the negative image some people have towards someone in my position. Back in the day sommeliers were thought of as arrogant and snooty towards those who would not spend a lot of money for a bottle of wine. Even now I hear stories from people about their recent visit to a restaurant where the sommelier was trying to sell them a bottle of something they thought was cool or better than what they had originally asked for assistance with. Very few sommeliers act like this and they can make it harder for the rest of us to build trust with our guests who may be hesitant in asking for help. A sommelier above all should always show humility and remain humble. It is always about the guests and their experience, we should never try to force our beliefs or opinions on to someone unless they genuinely wish to know what we like to drink. A good sommelier always wants to help you find a bottle of wine that you truly will enjoy at a price point that you feel comfortable spending..

Tell me about 1 or 2 of the best value wines on your list?
One of the best valued wines I have on the list at Harvest is the 2016 Stag’s Leap Hands of Time from Napa Valley for $66. It is a popular wine on my list made by an iconic estate that at one point in history beat Mouton-Rothschild and Haut-Brion in the 1976 Judgement of Paris blind tasting.

Tell me about 1 or 2 of the most unique wines on your list?
One of the most unique wines on the list is the Chateau Musar from Lebanon. When you think of a Cabernet blend most people would not think of Lebanon, most likely they would go straight to California or Washington state. It is full-bodied, savory and yet has an elegance to it that is quite wonderful.

Tell me about 1 or 2 of your favorite wines on your list?
My favorite wine at Harvest is the 2015 Radio Coteau Savoy Vineyard Chardonnay from California. They make cool climate, single vineyard wines that are out of this world, very terroir driven..

Is there anything else you would like people to know about your wine list, your work as a sommelier, or wine service? 
Harvest’s wine list is constantly evolving, and I believe in feedback from my guests no matter how small the detail may be. I want our guests to truly enjoy themselves at Harvest and know that I am always happy to talk to them about various beverages. I want people to know that they can come “across the river” as they say and enjoy a nice glass or bottle of wine in Cambridge at Harvest.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

2015 Henry's Drive "H" Syrah: Australia Rocks Again!

As I mentioned in yesterday's Rant, it's time to reconsider the wines of Australia and I'm back with another Australian wine review, exploring a compelling expression of Syrah. This isn't a fruit bomb and showcases more of the elegance in Syrah.

Henry's Drive Vignerons is located in the wine region of Padthaway, in the southeast area of South Australia, a wine region that officially became an appellation in 1999. During the 19th century, horse drawn coaches provided transport to and from the farms and wineries in this region, and one of the coach drivers was Henry John Hill, whose route passed through land now owned by the Longbottom family, owners of the winery. Kim Longbottom and her late husband Mark chose to name their winery after this coach driver, a honor for his hard work and dedication, as well as a connection to their historic past.

Kim Longbottom, who hails from the region of Marlborough in New Zealand, and her late husband, Mark, planted their first vines in 1992, releasing their first wines in 1998. Currently, the property includes about 300 acres, of varied plots, with an additional 30 acres in the McLaren Vale. They grow a variety of grapes including Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Verdelho, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. The Padthaway region has a Mediterranean climate of warm dry summers with cool nights.

I received a media sample of their 2015 Henry's Drive "H" Syrah ($27.99), which is made from 100% Syrah, has a 14.1% ABV, and only about 750 cases were produced. Initially, the wine was  fermented on the skins for ten days and then underwent malolactic fermentation. It was then aged for for 15 months in French oak puncheons and hogsheads, which are 25% new, 25% one-year old, 20% two-year old, and the rest three-year old. The 2015 vintage in Padthaway was said to be an excellent one, with dry conditions throughout much of the season.

I found this wine to have a rich, red color and an appealing nose of blueberries and floral notes, with just a hint of spice. On the palate, there was an initial bust of bright fruit, cherry, raspberry and blueberries though it wasn't jammy in the least. As the taste progressed, there was an undertone of spice notes, especially on the finish. The tannins were well-integrated and the wine presented as silky and elegant, with a fairly lengthy and satisfying finish. Delicious and compelling, this is another wine that doesn't fit the old stereotype of Australian Shiraz.

I paired this wine with a dinner of Australian lollipop lamb chops and it was a very fine pairing, each enhancing the other. This wine earns a hearty recommendation, and is another example of the diversity that can now be found in Australian wine.

NECAT's 2018 Accomplishments: Donate Now!

NECAT (New England Center for Arts & Technology) is one of my favorite causes. In short, NECAT provides culinary training to students who have had troubles or disadvantages in their past, such as drug addiction or incarceration. You can check out my previous article, Support NECAT & Transform Lives, for more background information on NECAT and their mission.

As I wrote before, "NECAT is helping to show their students that they don't need to be defined by their past, that they can move forward despite what they might have once done. They are helped to believe in themselves so that they can change their lives for the better. They might have challenged backgrounds but that isn't sufficient to hold them back, if they are willing to work toward a better future. These are such worthy goals, creating a better community for all of us."

Now that 2018 is over, NECAT has written about their accomplishment during this past year, noting, "What a year for NECAT! We grew our team, launched a new culinary job training program, developed strong partnerships and continued to provide life-changing services to those who need them most." NECAT opened a second culinary training program in Everett, allowing them to train even more people. In 2018, they were able to educate 164 students, and the Everett program had an impressive completion rate of 86% Overall, graduates of NECAT had a 3-month job retention rate of 76%, indicating they are serious about their new careers, and they also have an average starting wage of $14.52. Lives are being transformed, helping these individuals, their families, and the community.

Importantly, revenues for NECAT increased by 33% over 2017, indicative of the strong support they are receiving from the government and community. Unfortunately, government monies are always tentative as cuts are always possible. They need more private donations, enabling them to expand and teach even more students. If you can, please donate to NECAT and right now is a great time as all donations received in the first quarter of 2019, up to $50,000, will be matched by Robert K. Kraft, owner of the Super Bowl champions New England Patriots. Currently, about $21,515 has been raised so there is more room for growth. Please, donate now!

I'd also recommend you keep your calendar open for a NECAT fundraiser on May 16, with special guest Chef Andy Husbands of The Smoke Shop BBQ. These fundraisers events are a great way to learn more about NECAT, enjoy delicious food prepared by the students, and donate to a great cause.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Rant: Let's Reconsider Australian Wine

"Global demand for Australian wine has fallen substantially since exports peaked in 2007;..."
--Market Watch (January/February 2019)

As I previously mentioned, I resolved this year to taste more Australian wines, to assess the diversity and quality that is now being produced in that country. I've recently tasted some excellent examples of Australian wines, such as the 2014 Shirvington Cabernet Sauvignon, which only had a 13% ABV. I certainly understand the reasons behind the decline in the popularity of Australian wines, but maybe it is now time to reconsider, to return to Australian wines and find new reasons to love their wines.

The recent issue of Market Watch (January/February 2019) published an intriguing article about the current status of Australian wines, noting the problems Australian wine has faced. "..., Australian wine exports were down 11% to 17.7 million cases in the fiscal year ended June 2018,..." However, they also noted that there have been some positive changes in recent years. For example, "In the calendar year ended November 4, 2018, Australia posted gains at the luxury ($20-$25 a 750ml) and super-luxury ($25-and-above) tiers,...growing 16.1% to 7.8 million cases and 15.4% to 3.1 millions cases in the U.S.,..." In addition, "The number of Australian wineries present in the U.S. has also risen in recent years, pushing to nearly 300 in 2018 after sinking to 234 just two years prior."

In 2017, close to 70% of Australian wine imports, about 11,714,000 cases, were encompassed by only ten wine brands. The top three Australian wine brands include Yellow Tail (7,350,000 cases but down 6.3% from 2016), Lindemans (1,332,000 cases but down 13.2% from 2016), and 19 Crimes (1,056,000 cases, which has about doubled since 2016). At the wine shop where I work, I see the huge popularity of Yellow Tail, and recently 19 Crimes has also been popular. It would be good if people could look past just these top ten brands and started exploring the greater diversity that Australia has to offer.

The Market Watch article noted ".., there's a lingering stagnation for the category at the retail end." Consumer education is needed, to make them cognizant in the changes in the Australian wine industry. Australian Shiraz was once vastly popular though they often showcased "...high-abv expressions of the grape that burst with bold, ripe flavors," also known as "fruit bombs." There was a backlash against these Australian fruit bombs, and I'll admit they turned me off from wanting to drink Australian wines.

However, changes have been made in Australia. For example, a number of wineries now highlight different expressions of Shiraz, presenting more diversity in the flavor profile of their wines. You can find plenty of Shiraz wines that are not fruit bombs. There has also been a move to highlight other regions of Australia, areas which have received little attention in previous years. These regions produce different wine styles, due to their different terroirs. In addition, wineries are using a wider array of grapes, from Chardonnay to Vermentino, Pinot Noir to Grenache.

There are plenty of reasons to reconsider Australian wine and now is the time to explore their wines. Broaden your vinous horizons, exploring different regions of Australia, different grapes and different expressions of Shiraz. I'll be continuing my own explorations of their wines and encourage all of my readers to join me on this journey.