Friday, February 12, 2016

Alexander Jules Manzanilla 5/41: The Wine Of Joy

Manzanilla is sometimes known as vino de la alegria, the wine of joy, as well as el mas fino de los finos, the finest of the fine. It is a type of sherry unique to a single city in the sherry region, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and even has its own Denominación de Origen, called Manzanilla de Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Commonly, it is drier and paler than Fino sherry, with a taste often thought to be salty, reminiscent of the briny sea off the coast of Sanlúcar.

Spaniards love Manzanilla and a single example will illustrate the extent. At the Sevilla Feria, the famed Spring Festival of Seville, the capital of Andalusia, it is said that attendees drink approximately 600,000 bottles of Manzanilla over the course of only six days. What a massive consumption in such a short period of time. And when we look at total Manzanilla consumption in Spain, we see more evidence of their love for this Sherry style.

In 2014, Spaniards produced about 36.6 million liters of sherry, consuming about 11.5 million liters and exporting the rest. More than half of their consumption was Manzanilla, over 6.5 million liters. Their second most consumed sherry is Fino, at about 2.4 million liters. Sherry exports to the U.S. constituted about 1.47 million liters and of that amount, there was only about 50,000 liters of Manzanilla, a mere drop in the bucket. That is the rough equivalent of only 5500 cases. Far too many Americans still are unaware of the joys of this briny sherry.

For more information about Manzanilla, you should check my two-part article on this sherry: Manzanilla: The Neglected Sherry (Part 1) and Manzanilla: The Neglected Sherry (Part 2). Learn more about its origins and production methods, its different styles and food pairing. It is certainly one of my favorite sherry types, especially as I love its briny nature. It can be like a bottle of the ocean, bringing to mind fresh seafood and time spent on a boat on the sea.

Alexander Russan, the founder of Alexander Jules, is similar in some respects to a negociant, visiting Sherry producers and cellar owners and carefully selecting some of their barrels to create a special Sherry. I previously reviewed the first three of his Sherries, as well as provided more info about his company and you should check out my article for additional background on Alexander Jules. Those three Sherries made my 2014 list of Top Ten Wines Over $15. Last year, I reviewed his Los Abandonados 6/8 Oloroso and it made my 2015 list of Top Wines Over $50.

Recently, he released two new Sherries, the Fino 4/65 and the Manzanilla 5/41, and I received media samples of both. On Wednesday, I posted my review of the Fino and now I'm here to review the Manzanilla.

The Manzanilla 5/41 (about $40/750ml) was bottled in May 2015, only 1000 bottles were produced. and it has a 15% ABV. The Sherry, which is an average of eight to nine years old, is a blend of five barrels from the Maruja solera in Juan Piñero's La Playilla de la Red bodega, with the grapes from the Sanlucar Pago del Hornbill. The bodega was founded in 1910 while the Maruja solar was only started in 1980.

Usually, solera barrels are kept at the bottom of the stacks but in this case, the Maruju solar barrels are actually at the top. This makes a difference as the higher barrels receive less humidity but higher temperatures, causing the flor to be thinner and have a lesser impact on the Sherry. Russian chose 5 barrels, from the top row, out of the 41 in this group. In addition, when the sherry was ready for bottling, he didn't add any sulfites and the Manzanilla was not fined or cold stabilized, though it was moderately filtered. As such, this Manzanilla could likely qualify as en rama, raw sherry, which is as close to sherry out of the cask as you will find.

With a deep golden color, there is an aromatic and alluring salty edge to its aroma, a touch of the sea. As soon as I removed the cork, the aromas seemed to fill my nose and I felt transported back to Sanlucar, sipping Manzanilla on a patio with tapas, including jamon de bellota. As I sipped the sherry, I found it to be bone-dry, briny, and with nutty undertones. It was an elegant sherry with a delicious savoriness which will make you yearn for another glass.

Paired with a sashimi dinner, it was a superb pairing, the silky fish with salty soy sauce balanced well with the dry and briny Manzanilla. I would love this sherry with a couple dozen East Coast oysters, or any type of seafood for that matter. It's acidity would help cut through a creamy clam chowder or deal with a buttery lobster.  I'm sure this Manzanilla would pair well with fried foods, spicy Asian cuisine, and much more. Like Fino, it is very food friendly.

Between the new Alexander Jules Fino and Manzanilla, my person favorite was the Manzanilla, because I generally prefer that sherry type to Fino. However, both sherries are excellent, great examples of the types and you won't go wrong with either one. Both receive my highest recommendation, though I'd personally give a little more push to the Manzanilla.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I am back again with a new edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I highlight some interesting, upcoming food & drink events.
1) On Thursday, February 18, from 8pm-12am, Beat Brasserie, located in Cambridge’s Harvard Square, presents a very special tribute to the late great David Bowie. An award-winning artist, actor and pioneer, Bowie paved the way of modern music. To honor his legendary career and influence, Dennis Brennan and Jim Haggerty bring together a group of outstanding performers to take the stage at Beat Brasserie for a memorable tribute. The evening will feature food and drink specials and live, spontaneous performances from a variety of singers and musicians, all of whom will express the intimate and important influence that Bowie has had on both their work and music today.

While enjoying the music, guests are welcome to a full dinner with selections such as Smoked Salmon Blini ($12), a potato pancake with dill and parsley sour cream, Roasted Cape Cod Diver Scallops ($28) with creamy polenta, sunflower romesco and broccoli rabe, and Red Wine Braised Beef Short Ribs ($25) with mustard spaetzle, duck fat cipollini onions. Pair the meal with one of the 36 artisanal American wines on tap from the Beat’s state-of-the-art tap system including exclusive selections such as the Qupe Vineyard, Chardonnay (2013) or the Pietra Santa Winery, “Estate Sangiovese” (2010). Prices vary on wine selections on tap.

To make a reservation, please call 617-499-000
No cover charge, cash bar. Reservations recommended.

2) With this year’s calendar featuring an extra day, Legal Sea Foods is giving everyone the chance to get an extra lobster with its Leap Year entrée special, “An Extra Day, An Extra Lobster,” on February 29.

The one-day special offer will showcase two, one-pound steamed lobsters and a choice of two sides for $29, available only on the 29th day of this month. For the other 365 days of the year, lobsters are only served individually at Legal Sea Foods. The current market price of a one-pound lobster is $25.95.

The twin-lobster two-for-$29 offer on 2/29 will be available all day at all Legal Sea Foods restaurants (excluding airport locations). Other concepts, including Legal C Bar, Legal Harborside and Legal on the Mystic, will be on-board as well.

Adding another day to winter might not appeal to most people, so we jumped at the chance to treat everyone to an extra lobster this Leap Year,” said Roger Berkowitz, President and CEO of Legal Sea Foods. “We’re doubling down on the occasion and looking at it as the gift of an extra day to enjoy lobster and all seafood.”

The quadrennial promotion features a choice of two side dishes from the following list: French fries, onion strings, brown rice, broccoli & cheese, cole slaw, seaweed salad, jasmine rice, mashed potatoes, baked potato, and jalapeño cheddar polenta (selection may vary by restaurant).

3) Last October, I reviewed a Nikkei cuisine cookbook, lamenting that there weren't any local restaurants which offered this cuisine. Well, that has changed. At Tico, Chef Michael Schlow is now offering a special, late-night Nikkei menu, fusing Japanese and Peruvian cuisine. This new menu starts February 11 (today) and will be served Thursday to Saturday, from 10pm-1am. In addition, the famous Schlow burger, which used to be at Radius, is also on their late night menu.

Some highlights of the new Nikkei menu include:
Deviled Eggs with Uni, Chiles, and Tempura Bits
Quick Tuna Ceviche with Soy, Chiles, and Masago
Local Scallops w/ Lemongrass, Chiles, Crispy Garlic
Hamachi Tartare with Spicy Aji-Miso and Two Texture Rice
Shrimp and Octopus "Sunonmo" with Tigre de Leche
Mussels w Roccoto, Coconut Milk, Cilantro, Red Onion, and Lime
Short Rib Gyoza with Panca, Sesame, and Toasted Onion
Sanguche of Pork Belly, Spicy Fennel, and Aji Amarillo
Homemade Noodles w/ Pork, Soft Egg, Green Onion, Chile Paste, and Cashews
Crispy Tempura Bok Choy with "Miracle Sauce"
Platter of Boneless Fried Chicken with Scallions, Crushed Peanuts, and "Numbing Sauce"

I'll be checking out their new Nikkei many next week and am already looking forward to what I want to order.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Alexander Jules Fino 4/65: King Of Food Pairings

"Although it is indeed a rare pearl, the king of food pairings really exists, and it's fino sherry."
 --Taste Buds and Molecules: The Art and Science of Food With Wine by Francois Chartier (p.69)

As I previously explained, there are no absolute rules in wine and food pairing but there are scientific and logical reasons why some wines and foods pair better together than others. What is the most versatile wine for food pairings? In what I am sure will be a surprise to many, it appears to be Fino Sherry, a dry, fortified wine from Spain that is under-appreciated in the U.S., partially as most of the Sherry that Americans drink tends to be sweet rather than dry. It is time that Fino Sherry takes front stage in the U.S., that it ends up on more restaurant wine lists and shows up on the shelves of more wine stores.

Fino Sherry undergoes what is known as biological aging, where the wine sits in the barrel under a layer of yeast called flor. for the entire length of its aging. This flor feeds off oxygen, forming a barrier that prevents the wine from oxidation. It is an important element of Sherry production and the flor is generally unique to the Sherry region of Spain. This flor contributes to the dryness, texture and flavor of Fino and Manzanilla Sherry.

There are four basic strains of Saccharomyces yeast that create this flor, including beticus, montuliensis  cheresiensis, and rouxii. Beticus is the most common yeast, accounting for about 75% of all yeast found in the flor, especially in younger Sherries. Montuliensis is the next common, accounting for 15% of the yeast in flor, and it gets more prevalent in aged Sherries. In addition, it tends to lead to increased acetaldehyde, a volatile compound, which causes increased aromatics.  Acetaldehyde's are also present in foods including walnuts, green apples, and Spanish ham.

A key to food pairing is through these volatile compounds and there are approximately 307 volatile compounds found in the different types of sherry. food. Few, if any, other wines have as many volatile compounds. Because of all these volatile compounds, sherry thus has an affinity for many different foods, which share the same aromatic family. No other single wine has an affinity for as many different aromatic families. As some examples, Fino and Manzanilla have dominant volatile compounds such as acetaldehydes, acetoin (fatty, creamy & buttery flavors), lactones (apricot, peach, coconut), diacetyls (butter and cheese), solerone (dried figs), and terpenes (citrus fruits and flowers).

The main takeaway? Drink more Fino Sherry with your food. 

And let me give you one specific recommendation.

Alexander Russan, the founder of Alexander Jules, is similar in some respects to a negociant, visiting Sherry producers and cellar owners and carefully selecting some of their barrels to create a special Sherry. I previously reviewed the first three of his Sherries, as well as provided more info about his company and you should check out my article for additional background on Alexander Jules. Those three Sherries made my 2014 list of Top Ten Wines Over $15. Last year, I reviewed his  new Los Abandonados 6/8 Oloroso and it made my 2015 list of Top Wines Over $50. One of his newest Sherries is the Fino 4/65, of which I received a media sample, and I sampled it over the course of two days.

The Fino 4/65 (about $40/750ml) was bottled in May 2015, only 1000 bottles were produced. and it has a 15% ABV. The solera was started in 1940 by an almacenista named Angel Zambrano, who has also supplied Sherry to Bodegas Lustau. San Francisco Javier, the bodega which housed this solera, was constructed in 1910 and almost a hundred years later was bought by Juan Piñero. The 65-barrel solera is rarely used, despite the fact the grapes come from two of the best vineyards in Jerez, 70% from Pago Macharnudo and 30% from Pago Añina.

The average age of the Fino is about nine to ten years but which makes this Fino really special is Alexander's selection of the specific barrels. Though most of the solera contains flor from the beticus yeast, a small amount of the barrels are dominated instead by montulienses yeast and that is where Alexander concentrated his blend. He selected three barrels with montulienses and one of beticus. An intriguing blend for sure and it could be the first Sherry specifically selected for its flor.

In addition, when the wine was ready for bottling, he didn't add any sulfites and the Fino was not fined or cold stabilized, though it was moderately filtered. As such, this Fino could likely qualify as en rama, raw sherry, which is as close to sherry out of the cask as you will find.

Over the course of two days, I enjoyed a bottle of this Fino, drinking it on its own as well as pairing it with a number of different foods. I found this Fino to be aromatic, bone-dry, intense and briny. It is one of the most muscular Fino Sherries I have tasted, yet its power is still restrained and well balanced. There is some umami savoriness in its taste and it is intriguing on its own, though it might be even better when paired with food.

I started drinking some of the Fino with an Irish cheddar and salted cashews, and it went well together, especially the saltiness of the cashews. I moved onto some Thai food, from a fried chicken appetizer to a chicken, pork & garlic dish, and once again the pairing worked great. I even paired it with a spoon roast and spicy, roast potatoes, and it was strong enough to hold up to the beef and it also helped to mute some of the spicy heat in the potatoes. A white wine with beef? Yes, it can work with the right wine, such as a powerful Fino. With its dry, briny taste, this would also be a superb match for oysters.

Alexander Russan has created another winner, an intense Fino which showcases a different type of flor yeast. And with only 1000 bottles available, you better seek it out now before it is gone. Even if Russan bottles another Fino from this solera, it is unlikely he will use the same barrels as the fino changes so much all the time. So, if there is another Fino from this solera, it may taste very different from this bottling.

Americans need to understand the wonders of dry Sherry and must expand their palates beyond the sweet Sherries that too many people think is the norm. Sherry lovers are going to be enthralled with this Fino and hopefully it will also convince other wine lovers that Sherry is a fascinating wine deserving of their attention.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

OISA Ramen: Tonkotsu, the Specialty of Fukuoka

"Ramen is not one thing; there are many, many different types."
--Chef David Chang

After an evening of enjoying some Irish whiskey, why not enjoy some Ramen as well? That was my logic last week, as I attended a special Ramen pop-up hosted by Chef Youji Iwakura of Snappy Ramen. The event was held at Snappy Sushi on Newbury Street and featured Moe Kuroki of OISA Ramen, a pop-up ramen shop. OISA Ramen, which has been around for over a year, holds one or two events a month, at various locations in the Boston area. I'd hadn't been to any of their previous ramen events and this sounded like an intriguing dinner.

At this event, there were four different seatings, each for 20 people, and each seating included three different items, including Edamame, an Eel Bun, and Tonkotsu Ramen. The first three seatings were $30 per person while the final seating, which I attended, was $35, but the Ramen was a little different, with hand-made noodles and extra pork. It was a fun and delicious evening, and a real pleasure to meet in person both Youji Iwakura and Moe Kuroki.

Chef Youji Iwakura (pictured above) prepared the first two items for our dinner, the Edamame and Eel Bun. Youji, who loves Sake, is personable and passionate, a skilled chef who has been dedicating much of his current labors to creating ramen.

That wonderful Eel Bun! This wasn't some small bun, barely filled with food. Instead, you got an Eel bun stuffed with Unagi, mixed greens, cucumber, tempura bits, and a couple sauces. Chef Iwakura originally made this dish about two years ago at Snappy Ramen in Davis Square when they still served sushi. A great way to start the meal, the bun was soft and fluffy and each bite was a delightful melange of flavors and textures, with meaty eel, crunchy tempura, and a savory sauce. Even if you are not a big fan of eel, this bun might change your mind.

Ramen Bunny Ninja?

Moe Kuroki (pictured above) is serious about her ramen but she isn't a serious person, preferring to embrace fun and silliness. Just check out the OISA Ramen Facebook page and you'll get a sense of her infectious personality. She also is energetic and passionate, humble and talented. It isn't a surprise that she has a growing following in the Boston area, seeking out her ramen.

Moe grew up in the Fukuoka Prefecture of Japan, the home of Tonkostu Ramen, which is made from a pork-bone broth. In the Boston area, Moe had difficulty finding tonkostu ramen so decided to create her own, which entailed several years of trial and error, testing and experimenting. In November 2014, Moe and her husband, Mike Betts (a chef who once worked at Clio), started OISA Ramen, a series of pop-up ramen events.

I asked Moe a few questions about her process of making the ramen for this event, and her initial comments for both the noodles and soup were similar, "It is made with love." I would have to agree that it comes from her deep passion for ramen. Without such passion, it's doubtful she would invest as much time and effort in making her ramen as is necessary. Moe went into some details on the process, starting with the noodles.

First, as the noodles are hand-made, it's time intensive though she is getting more efficient with time. and practice. She uses a small, motorized pasta maker and notes that the dough is not soft and tender like pasta dough, having only just enough water to bind it together. In addition, she kneads the dough by hand, a laborious process. Moe also makes her own Kansui, an alkaline solution that affects the texture of the noodles. She knows it's working properly when her noodles suddenly turn a bright, light yellow color. She aims to make noodles that are thin enough to slurp but also have a proper texture with a crunchy chew.

As for the soup, it too is a lengthy process, starting wth preparing the pork bones, which must be boiled and clean to eliminate any impurities which might make the soup taste bitter. Then, the broth takes all day for simmering and skimming. Within the soup, there will be two different types of flavored oil, mayu (burnt garlic oil) and her own infusion oil, both oils made with lard and acting as the fat in her soup. The tare, the basic essence of the soup, is soy sauce based, and it is adjusted dependent on the saltiness of the toppings.

Her ultimate goal is to create a harmonious balance between the toppings, soup and noodles. She also notes that her soup is on the lighter side though that is due to the buttery pork belly, which has been cooked very slowly so that the fat renders out.

My verdict? A stellar bowl of Ramen. The plentiful pork belly melted in my mouth, like pork fat butter, and easily fell apart against the edge of the spoon. The broth was savory and complex, with an intense umami element, a salty edge and some heat from a peppery topping. The flavors were deep and balanced and it wasn't too salty in the least. It was like a bowl of liquid pig. The thin noodles had a nice bite to them, a good textural element. I could have devoured a second bowl of this compelling ramen, especially accompanied with an umami-rich Sake, like a Kimoto/Yamahai.

This was my first experience with OISA Ramen but it won't be the last. Moe's passion for ramen is more than evident in the quality of the finished product, a result of much time and hard work. I highly recommend you check out future OISA Ramen events. Chef Iawakura's culinary skills were also clearly evident in the Eel Bun and I need to get to Snappy Ramen in the near future to taste some of the ramen dishes that he has created, such as Tsukemen.


Monday, February 8, 2016

Rant: Fear Of Dining Out

Don't let fear prevent you from dining out in certain cities, towns and neighborhoods.

In a recent Boston Globe article, As Chelsea begins to bloom, struggles remain, a dark picture is painted of the city of Chelsea, noting significant drug use and crime. Though the article mentions some of the improvements and growth in Chelsea, it seems to revel in the more seedy aspects. I believe that one consequence of this article will be that some people won't want to travel to Chelsea, fearful of what might happen to them there. The same applies to other places which often seem to have a poor reputation in the media, including Roxbury, Dorchester and Lynn.

However, excellent restaurants exist in these cities, giving plenty of reason to visit these places. For example, Ciao Pizza & Pasta, located in Chelsea, has received my raves and was one of my Favorite New Restaurants of 2015. They make excellent house-made pasta and wood-fire pizzas and I frequently dine there. I have never once felt in danger while visiting this restaurant and I haven't seen anything in the neighborhood to give me concern. Yet I know people who won't dine at Ciao simply because they think Chelsea is too dangerous. How absurd!

Fear is preventing some people from checking out other excellent restaurants too, such as The Blue Ox in Lynn, the Ashmont Grill in Dorchester, and Merengue in Roxbury. Though I have not been there yet, but intend to visit in the near future, I have heard many good things about Chill On Park, a new ice cream shop, in Dorchester. Instead, those fearful people will seek out restaurants in areas which they consider to be "safer."

The truth is that no place is completely safe. Criminals exist in all towns and cities and pose a potential threat. Your car could be vandalized or you could be robbed in any city or town. There might be a greater chance in certain areas, but there are plenty of things you can do to lessen your chances. You need to be aware and smart wherever you travel and your chances of being a victim of crime will greatly diminish.

The potential threat in places like Chelsea, Lynn, Dorchester and Roxbury is lower than the media depicts and should not be sufficient to keep you from patronizing the excellent restaurants in those areas. Don't be a victim of fear. Take control of your life, be smart and don't miss out on any culinary experiences.

Does anyone have some other recommendations for excellent restaurants in Chelsea, Roxbury, DorchesterLynn or similar cities which are thought to be "dangerous?"