Friday, February 24, 2017

Boston Wine Expo: An Overview

Last year, 13 of the 42 wines on my annual Top Ten Wine lists were tasted at the 2016 Boston Wine Expo. The 2017 Boston Wine Expo took place last weekend and how many of the wines I tasted there will end up on my year-end Top Ten lists for 2017? I suspect the total will be at least similar to the prior year and I wouldn't be surprised if it were higher.

Some of my wine finds this year include the following: a 20-Year Old Spanish Palo Cortado Sherry, an Alsatian Pinot Noir, a number of intriguing Georgian wines fermented in traditional qvevri, Slovakian Mead, an extremely old Port from 1870, fascinating wines from Luxembourg, a Spanish Bobal Rosé, South African Pinotage and Chenin Blanc, Old-World style California wines, tasty Israeli wines, and much, much more. What were some of your wine finds this year?

This year, the Boston Wine Expo was held on February 18 & 19 at the Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center. Produced and managed by Conventures, Inc., in collaboration with the Boston Guild of Oenophilists, the Expo gathered together thousands of wine lovers, producers, importers, distributors and others. As a media guest, I attended both days of the Expo, seeking out new wines, talking to wine makers & importers, enhancing my wine education, exploring new foods, and hanging with some good friends who also enjoy wine. Overall, it was a fruitful weekend as I discovered plenty of interesting wines, and I'll be writing about my favorites over the course of the next few weeks.

Once again, I devoted most of my time to the Grand Tasting room, which featured over 200 producers and over 1800 wines, though I also visited the Vintners' Reserve Lounge and attended one of the Seminars. Overall, I tasted about 175 wines and spirits over the course of the weekend, which is almost 10% of what was available. However, that also means that I didn't get to taste over 90% of what was offered for sampling. It is a huge event and everyone can only taste but a mere fraction of all the wines which are showcased. I'm sure I missed some excellent wines, but hard choices needed to be made, and I had to confined my tasting to only a small slice of the available wines.

Once again, the Grand Tasting offered intriguing diversity in some respects, but failed in certain other areas. On the positive side, you could find wines from lesser known wine countries including Bulgaria, Georgia, Israel, Lebanon, Luxembourg, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. More well known regions, such as California, France, Italy, Spain, South Africa and Portugal were well represented. I was pleased to see more spirits showcased at the Expo and hope that trend grows in the next few years. However, some countries and regions had very limited or no representation.

For example, there was only one Sake producer at the Expo and as I have often said, I fervently wish many more Sake breweries were represented at the Expo. I would also like to see more Alsatian wines, Spanish Sherry, Ports from Portugal, Italian Franciacorta, wines from U.S. states besides the major ones, and Uruguayan wines. The Vintners Reserve Lounge also suffered from a lack of diversity, presenting many California wines but much less from other world regions. In addition, a significant number of the wines in this Lounge were the same as in prior years, albeit some might be newer vintages.

I understand some of the reasons for the lack of diversity in some areas. It isn't cheap to have a table at the Expo and not all producers, especially the smaller ones, believe they receive a sufficient economic benefit for the cost. As I mentioned last year, maybe the Expo organizers could try to address this matter by providing reduced pricing for small wineries, maybe based on production levels. In addition, maybe Expo organizers could also be more proactive in trying to bring more exhibitor diversity to the event by actively seeking out producers in regions which have been under-represented in the past.

During the trade hours, from 11am-1pm, it is a quieter time so I was able to taste plenty of wines and speak to the producers, distributors and importers. Once the public hours began, at 1pm, it was tougher to do so, especially on Saturday, when the crowds fill the great hall. You often have to wait in line to reach a specific table, and the producers, distributors and importers have less time to speak with each person who comes to their table. On Sunday, the crowds were smaller so it was easier to access the tables and talk to the pourers.

While tasting wines during the public hours, at several different tables, consumers asked to taste the wines that I was tasting, saying that as I was taking notes, I probably knew what I was doing. It indicates to me that some consumers want guidance of what to taste at the Expo. With over 1800 wines available, it is difficult to know what you should taste. Prior to the Expo, I provided my own Suggestions for what I thought that attendees should taste and some people took advantage of my list. Hopefully I can get my recommendations out to more people next year. In addition, maybe the Expo could offer private tours to attendees, taking them from table to table, trying to show them some of the most interesting wines at the Expo.

The Expo is a social occasion, and the vast majority of people that attend the Expo do so with friends and/or family. I got to see a number of my own wine loving friends at the Expo, including Andrew, Karin, Chanie, Terry, Brad, Susan, Roz, Jonathon, and Larry. We shared some of our favorite wine finds and though I enjoy discovering new wines, I also get much enjoyment from sharing those discoveries with others. And it is even better when your friends find joy in the wines you recommended.

The wine seminar which I attended, on wines from the Douro Valley of Portugal, was well attended. A number of fascinating wines were presented for sampling and the speaker was personable, humorous and informative. I'll be posting a more in-depth report on the seminar in the near future. Did you attend any of the seminars? If so, what did you think of it?

Besides all the wine available at the Expo, there were a number of food exhibitors, many offering free samples of their products. As I've often repeated, at such a large wine event it's beneficial to have plenty of food samples to help absorb the alcohol and cleanse the palate. I have also recommended before that attendees should try to pair some of these food samples with the wines they taste. I enjoyed a number of different and new foods and will talk about them in the near future as well. What were your favorite foods? Did you try any food and wine pairings at the Expo?

Stay tuned for my upcoming reviews of the foods and wines I most enjoyed at the Expo. 

Thursday, February 23, 2017

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 Tuesday, February 28, from 6:30pm–9p.m, the Boston Harbor Hotel will host The Macallan Whisky Tasting & Dinner at the Rowes Wharf Bar. Chef Daniel Bruce will serve up a three-course dinner, paired with pours of The Macallan. Included in the tasting for the evening is Reflexion, a luxurious offering from the brand’s 1924 series and a true reflection of the foremost influence of the first fill sherry seasoned oak casks.

The menu for Dinner is as follows:
The Macallan Double Cask 12 YR
Citrus Glazed Char Seared Diver Scallops
Smoked Grilled Shrimp with Black Salt
Bacon Wrapped Lamb Chop with Scotch Glaze
First Course
The Macallan 15 YR
Char Roasted Line Caught Cod Loin (Pink Grapefruit, Vanilla and Scotch Butter)
Second Course
The Macallan Reflexion
Cocoa Rubbed Roast Venison Loin (Caramelized Candied Mushrooms, Gingered Potatoes and Crispy Kale)
Third Course
The Macallan Rare Cask
Warm Chocolate Date Cake (Cherry-Vanilla Ice Cream, Ginger Caramel)

Tickets are $175 and can be purchased through Eventbrite.

2) Anthem Kitchen and Bar, the comfortable neighborhood restaurant tucked away in the heart of Boston’s Faneuil Hall, is bringing the beloved tastes of the South to New England with a special pop-up Country Brunch on Sunday, February 26, from 9am-2pm.

You'll enjoy the unique flavors and takes on traditional country dishes at this pop-up featuring country favorites such as Sour Cream Pancakes with Maple Pecan Butter, Beignets with Bananas Foster Sauce, Ham and Goat Cheese Quiche, Spicy Fried Chicken with Sweet Grits & Berry Compote, Shrimp Andouille Omelet, and many more. Wash it all down with sips of some southern charm with drinks like the Milk Punch, the John Daly, the Maple Bacon Old Fashioned and the Ghost of Maria.

To make a Reservation, please call 617-720-5570

3) The Mandarin Oriental, Boston will debut its MOtini Pop-Up Lounge on Wednesday, March 1. This pop-up will be located in the hotel’s lobby and will blend classic contemporary style with modern Oriental touches. Set amongst the exotic blonde wood paneling and cozy fireplace, the ambiance is luxurious yet comfortable, making it an ideal spot to enjoy a pre-dinner cocktail, a late-evening nightcap or an inviting place to gather socially and unwind after a busy day in Back Bay.

The MOtini Pop-Up Lounge will feature a selection of seasonal small plates, complemented by an array of hand-crafted martinis. The select menu will include: Kombu Cured Tuna Crudo enhanced with a wakame seaweed salad and bonito ponzu; Crispy Pork Belly glazed with Korean peppers and cucumber kimchi; freshly shucked New England Oysters accompanied by a red wine mignonette; classic Shrimp Cocktail and Fried Olives served with a creamy blue cheese dressing. In addition, an assortment of petit fours from Pastry Chef Robert Differ will provide a sweet finish to this light fared menu.

Signature martinis, $15 each, will include: Sandalwood Fire Knob Creek Rye Whiskey, Dolin Rouge and Cocchi Americano Rosa; Azure Nights Smith & Cross Jamaican Rum, Falernum, allspice, passion fruit and pineapple; Vetiver Poivre Żubrówka Vodka, green chartreuse, lime and thyme and ‘Jacks Are Wild’ ($10, non-alcoholic) apple cider, red cranberry, lychee blend and lime.

The MOtini Pop-Up Lounge at Mandarin Oriental, Boston is able to entertain 25 seated guests or a reception for up to 50. Regular hours of service will be Tuesday to Saturday from 5pm-10pm.  Reservations for groups of six or more people are available. For additional information, please contact (857) 400 2062.

4)Laissez les bons temps rouler!" is a Cajun expression meaning "Let the good times roll!" and it strongly conveys the joie de vivre ("joy of living") attitude of The Beehive’s 10th Annual Mardi Gras celebration on Fat Tuesday, February 28. The Beehive has spared no expense in making this year’s festivities as authentic as possible with Cajun style cuisine and hand-crafted New Orleans-style cocktails. Diners and partygoers alike can look forward to the soulful sounds of jazz musician and trumpet great Alex Lee Clark and his band which will keep the crowd singing and swinging all night long.

From 5pm-12am, trumpet player, composer and arranger Alex Lee Clark who has played with the Temptations and the Four Tips, will take The Beehive’s stage along with his band to fill the space with the life that Mardi Gras deserves! Clark has crafted a unique and exciting sound by blending jazz and pop sensibilities and is one of the most in-demand jazz performers.

Chef Gregory Torrech will cook up Cajun-inspired a la carte specials, like Louisiana shrimp and grits, pan-fried catfish and Cajun seafood jambalaya in addition to the regular dinner menu. In addition to dinner, revelers can enjoy celebratory cocktail and complimentary Mardi Gras beads!

There is no cover charge for this event. Regular menu served in addition to all special items.
To make a reservation, please call 617-423-0069.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A New Chef At Committee Makes His Mark

Last fall, one of my favorite restaurants, Committee, started off the fall season of their monthly wine dinners highlighting the cuisine and wines of the island of Cyprus. I previously wrote that the waters surrounding Cyprus were "...said to have once been the lair of Scylla, a terrible sea monster which is alleged to have possessed a serpent's body, six canine heads, and twelve limbs. Scylla was supposed to have taken six sailors from the ship of Odysseus."

This month, the wine dinner at Committee (at which I was a media guest) highlighted the cuisine and wines of Lamia and Central Greece, and there is an intriguing connection to the earlier Cypriot dinner. The city of Lamia may have been named after Lamia, the daughter of the god Poseidon, and she is said to have been the mother of the monster Scylla, as well as another creature, Acheilus the Shark.

The region around Lamia is very marshy land, so grape vines don't grow well there, though it is the home of Retsina, a Greek resinated wine which has a bad reputation in some circles. However, it is a reputation that needs redemption as there are a number of excellent examples of Retsina which can now be found. This is also an area which is very meat-focused and as there is little red wine in the region, they traditionally drink white wine with their meat dishes. That is certainly a more unique pairing.

This wine dinner also was intended to introduce Committee's new Chef de Cuisine, Theo Tsilipanos (pictured at the top of this post). Theo is a native of the city of Lamia, having owned a restaurant there for eight years before deciding to move to Boston. Locally, Theo has worked at restaurants including Sel de la Terre, La Brasa and L’Espalier. For this dinner, Theo collaborated with Consulting Chef Diane Kochilas and Wine Director Lauren Friel, who selected the wines for each course.

If you've never attended one of their wine dinners, you really should do so. They are usually held in a small, private room and the multi-course dinner will intrigue and delight your palate, as will the well-paired Greek wines. Chef Theo didn't disappoint, creating a delicious dinner which was evidence of his culinary skills. I've also been back to Committee since this wine dinner, trying more of Chef Theo's cuisine, and he impressed me once again. I continue to highly recommend Committee to everyone.

We began the evening with Babanatsa, homemade cornbread with greens, which is not a combination I usually would consider but it worked. The cornbread was moist and tasty, and the green added an interesting texture as well as a bit of bitterness in opposition to the sweetness of the corn. This type of traditional food was intended to be easy to carry, when farmers and others were climbing up and down the mountains of the region.

We then proceeded onto a Greens Salad with Winter Fruit & Grilled Formaella Cheese. The Formaella Cheese of Arachova is a traditional Greek cheese, a semi-hard cheese made of sheep's milk. It is commonly eaten as a table cheese though sometimes it is fried or grilled. I loved the taste of the grilled cheese and it was well balanced against the fresh greens and fruit. The cheese had a squeaky texture and I think it would be a nice substitute for cheese curds in a Greek version of poutine.

Our first wine of the evening was the Mylonas Savatiano, made of 100% Savatiano from 50+ year old vines. It was aged in stainless steel and was beautifully aromatic, fresh and delicious, with pleasant flavors of pear and lemon, and a crisp acidity. This would also work very well with seafood.

Our next course was Trahanopita with Shaved Bottarga Mesolongiou and Lemon Zest. Trahanopita, which roughly translates as "pasta cake," is made with trahanas, cracked wheat boiled with milk, which is then dried and preserved. It is a "farmer's breakfast," akin to Greek oatmeal. The bottarga is Greek caviar, Red Mullet roe. This had an interesting taste, almost like a potato cake but with more nuttiness, and an intriguing briny, earthy aspect. The lemon added a subtle acidity that helped to balance the dish.

Paired with this dish was the Harlaftis Attiki Chardonnay, produced by one of the oldest estates in Greece. It is made from old vine Chardonnay, with fermentation in French oak and then 4-5 months of aging sur lies. It is a Chardonnay of power, with big citrus and stone fruit flavors, some mild spicy notes, and a hint of caramel. Good acidity, a lengthy finish and a nice structure.

Our next course was a variation on a more traditional dish, Kontosouvli, which is usually spit roasted meat, commonly pork. Instead, we had Red Snapper 'Kontosouvli' with a Celery Avgolemono, and I didn't have any complaints. The fish was moist and tender, delicious with a nice touch of char. Seafood is always a good choice and fish grilled like this would appeal to many people.

The Domaine Vassiliou ‘Siban’ is a more traditional-style wine, made from 100% Savatiano. It was fermented in stainless steel and was crisp and elegant, with bright citrus notes and hints of almonds, especially on the finish. This was certainly an excellent seafood wine, and would love to try it with oysters.

Next up was Kelemia, a whole baked onion stuffed with ground meat and Kefalograviera (a hard Greek cheese). The stuffing was juicy and spicy, with a tang from the cheese. The onions were tender with a nice sweetness, balancing out the spicier filling.

The pairing for this dish reflected the uniqueness of the region of Central Greece, a Kourtaki Retsina. Wine Director Lauren Friel is a big fan of Retsina and was pleased she got to pair it with this dinner. The Kourtaki is made from Savatiano, is unoaked, and has a touch of pine resin, giving it a more subtle piney aroma and taste. I've enjoyed a few Restinas in the past and this one was food too, being more subtle and thus more amenable to wine lovers than some of the more prominent and resinous wines.

The last savory course was Kapamas, a lamb stew with warm spices, wine and tomatoes, which was served over Bobota (a cornmeal cream with Feta). What an alluring aroma from this dish, and the taste was its equal. The spicy lamb was tender and flavorful, with a mild earthiness and a complex blend of tastes. The Bobota was also delicious, a rich corn flavor with such briny elements. A hearty and compelling dish, this is excellent for the winter.

With the lamb, we enjoyed the Muses Estate ‘9 Muses’ Rosé, which is made from 80% Syrah and 20% Mouchtaro. And yes, Rosé is not just a summer wine, and should be enjoyed year round, especially as it is so food friendly. Mouchtaro is a very rare grape, which only grows in the area of Askri, and this winery was the first to revive this ancient grape. This dry Rosé had subtle and delicious tastes of red fruits, with a touch of white pepper and a mild herbal note. Very tasty and it stood up to the hearty lamb.

Dessert was a Pasteli (a sesame and honey bar) with Greek yoghurt mousse and topped by chestnut syrup. The pasteli was crunchy and nutty, with mildly sweet accents, topped by a slightly sour mousse and the sweet, nutty syrup. Our final drink was the Muses Estate ‘Zacharias’ Tsipouro, a strong Greek brandy, sure to warm you up on a chilly evening.

This past weekend, after a Saturday spent at the Boston Wine Expo, I dined at Committee with a friend who had never been there before. It gave me the opportunity to try more of Chef Theo's new dishes, and once again I was impressed, as was my friend. I just want to highlight a few of those new dishes, to showcase the new chef's talents.

One of the specials that night was a meat version of their Artichoke Moussaka. The bottom was a layer of pasta, topped by ground beef and with a potato layer on top of it all. The beef was spiced nicely and went with the pasta, while the thick layer of potatoes was like an excellent comfort food.

These are Cheese Loukoumades, which are basically Cheese Donuts! Who could refuse such a thing? These light and crispy donut holes were filled with three Greek cheeses, including Manouri, Kasseri, & Feta, and topped by a Greek honey-vyssino glaze. Superb! The cheese blend was bright and bold, a melange of compelling flavors, and the glaze added a nice sweetness to balance off the strong taste of the cheeses. I probably could have sat and ate these loukoumades all night with a bottle of wine. Highly recommended!

For dessert, we thoroughly enjoyed the Sokolata, which consisted of melted chocolate halva, crispy kataifi, pistachio powder, and mastiha ice cream. That chocolate was amazing, rich, creamy and with a nice depth of flavor. You'll want to lick the plate clean. The crispy kataifi added a nice textural element to the dish and the unusual ice cream added an intriguing flavor to the rich chocolate. I would stop by Committee just to have this for dessert again. Also highly recommended.

The new Chef de Cuisine, Theo Tsilipanos, is certainly making his mark at Committee and I continue to give the restaurant my highest recommendation.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Rant: The Boston Wine Expo Wine's I Disliked

This past weekend, I spent two days sampling wines, spirits, and food at the Boston Wine Expo, tasting about 175 wines and spirits. That might seem like a lot, but you also have to note that it means I didn't taste over 1600 wines and spirits. I tasted a fraction of what was available, having to make hard choices of which tables I visited, which wines I wanted to experience. I know I missed some excellent wines but that couldn't be helped. There were just too many wines for any one person to handle.

Of those wines I sampled, I found plenty of delicious and interesting ones, but I also disliked a number of those wines. Every year, I write about those wines which I most enjoyed, showcasing those worthy wines. However, which wines did I dislike at the Expo? Which wines did I think were "bad?"

Frankly, I'm not going to mention which wines I disliked. In general, the wines I disliked didn't conform to my own personal preferences, such as being too sweet or too oaky, but other people might enjoy them as they have different preferences. This is made clear at the wine store where I work, where I see plenty of people enjoying wines that I wouldn't drink because our preferences are different. Thus, I can't really say a wine is "bad," but rather that I didn't enjoy it though others might find pleasure in it.

At the Expo, I saw it as well, comparing favored wines with friends, and though we might agree on many of the wines, there would always be a few on which we differed. We all have our own personal preferences and that needs to be respected. Wineries often target certain groups of consumers, those who share certain preferences, and sometimes you might not be their intended audience. It won't be surprising then if you dislike that particular wine. The beauty of wine though is its immense diversity and that means there are wines for all preferences.

During the upcoming weeks, when I provide specific recommendations for the wines I most enjoyed at the Expo, I don't expect every reader will be in complete agreement with my choices. However, what is most important to me is trying to expose my readers to new and diverse wines, grapes and regions, to give them reasons to expand their palates. For example, I'll be highlighting a number of wines from the country of Georgia, as I sure many of my readers will know little about their wines, but I'm also sure they would enjoy them if they sampled them.

I want to embrace the positivity of my wine experiences from the Expo, rather than dwelling on the negative examples. And I fervently hope that my passion for the wines I will highlight will infect my readers and cause them to seek out at least some of those wines.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Island Creek Oyster Bar: The Catch of Burlington

As the number of new restaurants in Burlington continues to rise, one of the hottest new additions is the Island Creek Oyster Bar, located near the Burlington Mall in The District complex. Similar in many respects to the original Kenmore location, this Island Creek is larger, with three private dining rooms, raw bar seating, and a more spacious dining room. Earlier this week, I had lunch at Island Creek with my mom and the meal was so excellent, I needed to write about it immediately, though please note that this is not a full review, just an initial glimpse into the seafood wonders you'll find here.

They have an extensive and interesting drinks programs, with a number of local spirits and intriguing cocktails (priced $12-$13). The wine list is also diverse with lots of fascinating choices, and wine lovers will definitely find plenty that interests them. I opted for a glass of Orleans Borbón Manzanilla Fina Sherry, an excellent choice for seafood and fried food. However, I do wish they added some Sake to their list, which is also a great pairing with seafood.

The lunch menu, which changes to some degree every day, has a Raw Bar section, Appetizers, Salads, Soups, Lunch Entrees ($13-$18), Shore Food Entrees ($15-$27), and Sides. The Raw Bar has numerous Oysters, Crudo/Ceviche, and Shellfish. The majority of the menu is seafood, but there are a few non-seafood options, such as a Colorado Angus Burger and ICOB Rigatoni, but make no mistake, this is a shrine to the bounty of the sea.

We began with Shrimp Cocktail ($3.50/piece) and these were monstrosities, some of the largest shrimp you'll find most anywhere. They were tender, cooked perfectly so that they weren't rubbery or tough. An excellent beginning to lunch and if you love shrimp, then you definitely need to order these.

We also started with the Yellowfin Tuna Poke ($15), with cucumber, sesame, chili, nori and large taro root chips. Silky tuna, with tangy citrus and mild spiciness, delighted my palate. The thin, crisp taro root chips were a nice platform for the poke and the sesame seeds added a bit of crunchiness and a nutty element. Another compelling dish.

The Fried Ipswich Clams ($27/large) come with some cole slaw and french fries, and the clams tend to be smaller than some places, but that isn't a flaw. These are sweet and tender, with a fresh and light batter with a delicious crunch. They aren't gritty in the least, and are certainly addictive, as you find yourself popping fried clam after fried clam into your mouth. Fried perfection. And even the french fries are top notch, with a nice crunchy coating and a fluffy interior.

A Tuna Melt is a rather common sandwich, yet there are restaurants which elevate it to new heights, and Island Creek accomplishes that objective. The Confit Yellowfin Tuna Melt ($13) is on white rye, with ICOB pickles and Fontina cheese, and it is frankly one of the best tuna melts I've ever eaten. The creamy and delicious tuna filling doesn't ooze mayo like some other tuna melts, and the pickles add a nice texture as well as some sweetness. The melted fontina adds some nutty notes and the bread, with panini-like grill marks, is just the right thickness. Everything meshes well together, creating a superb sandwich and one I highly recommend.

How do you end such an excellent lunch? With an equally compelling dessert. The Banoffee Pie ($9) is an English dessert pie, commonly a blend of bananas and toffee, though Island Creek uses dulce de leche. The banana slices atop the pie have a light, crunchy layer of dulce de leche and would be a tasty dessert on their own. The silky and sweet cream is compelling, a fine topping for the thick banana slices beneath. Though the pastry shell beneath the pie was tasty, it was a little too thick for my preferences. But that is a minor issue with an otherwise scrumptious dessert.

Service was excellent, and the entire staff shares working together at every table. They are consummate professionals, knowledge and personable, attentive without being obtrusive. It was such a positive lunch experience, with superb seafood, and I'm eager to return. Island Creek Oyster Bar is a welcome addition to Burlington and I highly recommend you dine there.