Monday, February 17, 2020

Rant: Dining Out On Valentine's Day & Other Holidays

Last Friday was Valentine's Day, considered the second most popular day for dining out, with Mother's Day taking first place. However, despite its popularity, there were plenty of people warning others against dining out, alleging that it's actually a bad night for restaurants, chefs, servers, and guests. Similar warnings are often given about other popular holidays or events like the upcoming Dine Out Boston.

There is some truth behind the warnings, but it's not an absolute. You simply have to be very selective in where you dine, carefully choosing the restaurant where you plan to celebrate. You need to do your research, to locate those places with the best menu choices, those which are best likely to be able to handle the crowds. Not everywhere will be able to provide a satisfying dining experience, but there certainly are spots which you will enjoy and provide a pleasing meal.

On Friday, I dined out on Valentine's Day, for the first time in years, and it ended up being an excellent experience. I selected A Tavola, in Winchester, and Chef Joe Carli and his staff didn't disappoint. Why did I choose this restaurant? First, I wanted a smaller restaurant, something more intimate and which wouldn't garner the huge crowds you'll find at some of the large restaurants. Second, though the Chef created a special Valentine's Day menu, which could be ordered as a three-course prix fixe or a la carte, their regular menu was also available. Diners had plenty of options, and I had some difficulty choosing my entree because too many options appealed to me. Lastly, I had faith in the chef to handle the holiday properly.

It was certainly a busy evening at the restaurant, mainly couples, though there was a large table of guests that sat a short time before we finished our dinner. The restaurant had plenty of staff to handle the crowd and I had no complaints about service. All of the food was delicious, prepared properly, and arrived at the same quality as it would any other night. The other guests sitting near us seemed to be very happy with their dinners as well. I made a great choice and expect A Tavola would do equally as well on any other holiday too.  

With Dine Out Boston coming up in March, and similar Restaurant Weeks in the near future, you again need to be very selective as where to dine. Check over the menu offerings at the various restaurants and find something that appeals to you. A number of those restaurants seem to offer similar menus, ordinary salads and chicken dishes, items that don't really thrill the palate. If you look carefully though, you can find places offering something different, something much more appealing. It can be worth the effort to search for these special spots.

You shouldn't just dismiss out of hand dining out on holidays. With a bit of research, you can find a restaurant which will provide an excellent dining experience, even on the busiest of holidays.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

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.
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1) Starting on Saturday, February 15, from 11am-3pm, Bistro du Midi will launch its Bubbles and Brunch series. Upon the purchase of a bottle of Champagne, guests will receive a dozen complimentary oysters. Executive Chef Robert Sisca has also curated a menu of pairings to go with guest’s champagne of choice.

Chefs Perfect Pairings include:
Scituate Lobster Benedict (Baby spinach, chardonnay and chive hollandaise)
Black Truffle Scrambled (Escargot beignet, puff pastry, arugula pisou)
Sea Urchin “Monsieur” (Caviar, tomato, ginger-soy aioli, cilantro)
Ora King Salmon Crudo (Pistachio, saffron rice crispy, sea grapes, pear)
Prosciutto & Goat Cheese Sandwich (Baby kale, champagne mustard)

To book a reservation, please call (617) 426-7878.

2) At Anthem Kitchen, Chef Jason Walker brings Bourbon Street to Faneuil Hall for Fat Tuesday on February 25. Chef Jason Walker started his culinary career in Louisiana and is excited to return to his southern roots to serve up Anthem Kitchen & Bar's Fat Tuesday celebration menu that includes food specials including a fried oyster po-boy, yankee seafood gumbo, Mississippi Catfish and more. From the bar, sip on Bourbon Street classic cocktails including the Sazerac and Hurricane. End the night by cutting into your own Individual King Cake for dessert.

To make reservations, please call (617) 720-5570

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Wine & Soul: Field Blends, Old Vines & Douro Terroir

My love of Portuguese wines, from Vinho Verde to Port, is well known, and there's much diversity to be found in their wines, from hundreds of indigenous grapes to varied terroirs. I often rave about the great values that can be found in the Portuguese wines, but I've also emphasized that they produce some amazing, albeit more expensive wines, as well. At a recent wine dinner, I experienced for the first time the wines of Wine & Soul and was thoroughly impressed with their quality, complexity and taste. These are wines that earn my highest recommendations and I need to buy some for my own wine cellar.

The Wine & Soul wine dinner, of which I was a media guest, was part of the 31st Annual Boston Wine Festival, said to be the longest running food and wine festival in the country. Chef Daniel Bruce (pictured above), the Executive Chef at the Boston Harbor Hotel, created this festival, which runs from January to March, and each year hosts a series of winemaker hosted dinners, seminars and receptions. These wine dinners often present some of the world's top wines, paired with Chef Bruce's amazing cuisine. I've previously enjoyed a number of dinners prepared by Chef Bruce, and have always been very pleased and satisfied with what he created.

Wine & Soul, which was founded in 2001, is owned by a husband-and-wife team, Jorge Serodio Borges and Sandra Tavares DaSilva. They both possess extensive prior experience in the wine industry. Jorge Serôdio Borges was an oenologist at Niepoort, and also owns the winery Quinta do Passadouro with the Bohrmann family. Sandra has the honor of being the first female winemaker in the Douro, having worked at Quinta do Vale D. Maria in the Douro and at her family’s estate of Quinta da Chocapalha in Estremadura.

Sandra and Jorge eventually decided that they wanted to own their own vineyard, and in 2001, purchased an old Port lodge in the Douro, more specifically in the Cima Corgo's Pinhão Valley. The property had a two-hectare plot of 70+ year old vines, the Pintas vineyard, with over 30 indigenous grapes. Wine & Soul was born. In 2009, they also inherited Quinta da Manoella, an estate planted mainly with very old vineyards, some over a hundred years old. Overall, they now own about 45 acres of vineyards, producing only about 30,000 bottles annually.

Sandra, pictured above, was the special guest at the Wine & Soul dinner, which was attended by about fifty people. She began the dinner with a short talk, mainly about their history and vineyards, and spoke a few more times during the dinner, discussing the various wines. Her family owns the Quinta da Chocapalha in Estremadura, and this is probably what might have initially set Sandra on the winemaking path. She spent a year studying in Italy, as she feels it has much in common with Portugal, and then she began working in the Douro. About 20 years ago, she began working at Quinta do Vale D. Maria and she also met Jorge at that time.

I found Sandra to be personable and charming, humble and knowledgeable, a passionate advocate for her wines. Some of her wines have garnered accolades from the major wine periodicals, such as the 2016 Wine & Soul Manoella being included in the Wine Spectator Top 100 Wines of 2019, but Sandra never mentioned these accolades. It seemed as if she wanted all of the guests to judge the wines on their own, and also because she seems to be a very humble person. To me, that is so much more appealing than having a winemaker drone on and on about their wine scores. It was a real pleasure to chat with her about her wines.

Wine & Soul is very concerned about producing wines that reflect the terroir of their vineyards, which includes wanting to best understand their vineyards. Sandra stated that wine should give you "the feeling that you are there," which is an interesting way of describing the concept of terroir. In addition, they are concerned with old vines and indigenous grapes, and one of their biggest challenges is locating plots of old vines available for purchase. In addition, they are currently seeking organic certification, and use indigenous yeasts, with minimal intervention.

Many of their wines are made from field blends, often consisting of 30+ grapes. Such a fascinating palette from which to create their wines. Portugal has over 300 indigenous grapes, a number of them originally brought by monks who carried cuttings with them when they travelled to Portugal. By using field blends, you're not dependent on any one grape, so are less susceptible to problems with a bad vintage. A field blend provides balance, yet still possesses its own identity. In addition, contrary to what some might think, there isn't much difference in the ripeness levels of the grapes, as plants generally want to pollinate at the same time and thus usually flower together.

Most of their grapes are also foot-trodden, in granite lagares, which is supposed to yield fine, silky tannins as it is a more gentle process on the grapes. This is rarely done in the Douro, and mainly for Port wine, although there are still granite lagares existing from the days of the ancient Romans. Thus, this practice is another way Wine & Soul helps to differentiate itself from other producers.

Interestingly, all of their barrel aging, including for their Ports, is conducted in the Douro, though most other Port producers age their wines elsewhere. The Douro was long considered too warm for barrel aging, but the advent of modern technology has changed the need to age elsewhere. Wine & Soul also owns a 19th century building with stone cellars, for the storage of their hundreds of barrels, which creates a natural coolness that works well for their varied wines.

Before we sat for dinner, we began the evening with a glass of the 2018 Wine & Soul Guru Branco (about $35). Sandra mentioned that about 20 years ago, few people in the Douro were producing white wines, as many claimed the region was too warm to produce good whites. However, in the Douro, there are higher-altitude mountainous areas which are cooler and can produce fine white grapes. Sandra and Jorge found tiny plots, with a field blend, at 600-700 meters high. Inspired by old white Ports, they chose to make this wine, what they claim to be a classic wine with aging potential, one reflective of terroir. Its first vintage was 2004.

This wine is produced from a field blend, from a 60 year old vineyard, which is approximately 25% Viosinho, 25% Rabigato, 25% Codega do Larinho and 25% Gouveio. The soil is a combination of schist (which gives the wine texture and flavors) and granite (which gives the wine its length and purity of flavors). The wine was also fermented and aged in French barriques for about seven months.  With a 12.5% ABV, this wine was fresh, crisp and delicious, with a complex blend of flavors, including peach, grapefruit, mineral notes, and a touch of oak. Medium-bodied, it possessed a pleasing finish and a nice elegance. Would love to pair this wine with seafood, from oysters to cod.

The First Course of our dinner was Slow Braised Pork Belly, in a red wine glaze with smoked King Oyster mushrooms and spinach. Chef Bruce mentioned that the pork belly had been steamed for about seven hours and that the mushrooms had been smoked for about 20 minutes. The silky pork belly, with its mildly sweet glaze, was delicious, enhanced by the smoky earthiness of the mushrooms. This dish was paired with two wines, the 2016 Wine & Soul Manoella and the 2013 Quinta da Manoella Vinhas Velhas.

The 2016 Wine & Soul Manoella (about $22) is a blend of 60% Touriga Nacional, 25% Touriga Franca, 10% Tinta Roriz, and 5% Tinta Francisca from the Quinta da Manoella vineyard, which was planted in 1973. This property has been owned by five generations of Jorge's family, and was initially purchased in the mid-19th century. It now consists of 70 hectares of land, 20 which have vineyards, the rest being forest and their plan is to keep it that way. The grapes for this wine were foot-trodden, and the wine aged for 16 months in used French barriques. At 14.2% ABV, this wine had a beautiful dark red color, with a delightful nose of pleasing aromas. On the palate, it was dry and lush, with tasty flavors of cherry, raspberry and mild spices. There was an earthy element as well, with a lengthy finish, nice acidity, and it paired nicely with the pork belly.

The 2013 Quinta da Manoella Vinhas Velhas (about $75) is a field blend of more than 30 indigenous grape varieties, from a vineyard planted in 1900. The grapes for this wine were foot-trodden, and the wine aged for 20 months in used French barriques. At 14.3% ABV, this wine had a more subtle nose than the other Manoella, but on the palate, it was much bolder, though still possessed of elegance and restraint. The black fruit flavors, like ripe plum and black cherry, were more concentrated, and there was plenty of complexity, with elements of dark spice, chocolate and black tea. A full bodied wine, with a lengthy, lingering finish that thoroughly satisfied. So much going on in this wine, and the smoky mushrooms were a nice companion to this wine.

The Second Course was Seared Arcadian Red Fish, with black rice, sweet onion puree, tomatoes, and petit basil. Chef Bruce found this fish while perusing the choices down at the Fish Pier. It is a sustainable choice, an under-utilized species with a delicious taste. This flaky white fish had a nice weight to it, and the ingredients combined for quite a tasty dish, the acidity of the tomatoes helping to cut the fat of the dish.

This was paired with the 2015 Wine & Soul Pintas Character (about $42) which is made from a field blend of 30+ varieties from the Vale de Mendiz vineyard, which was planted in 1970. The grapes for this wine were foot-trodden, and the wine aged for 18 months in French barriques, 50% new and 50% second-use. At 14.1% ABV, this wine is intended to be softer and more accessible than the flagship Pintas wine. It is a rich and bold wine, yet still elegant and silky, with a tasty blend of black fruit flavors and dark spices. The fruit flavors are most dominant, yet this wine still retains complexity as well as a lengthy, pleasing finish.

The Third Course was a fantastic Char Grilled Colorado Lamb T Bone, with fresh thyme, crosnes, and aged pecorino cream. The lamb was extremely tender, juicy and flavorful, just an excellent cut of meat. And that lamb was a killer pairing with our next wine, the 2017 Wine & Soul Pintas!

The Pintas was the first wine made by Wine & Soul, and the term "pintas" refers to "spots" or "splashes" of wine. The vineyard is over 100 years old, and contains a field blend of over 35 indigenous varieties. In addition, the vineyard has a southern-west exposure, with over 40% elevation slopes, and it located at a high altitude. Their desire was to make a full bodied wine that best showed the terroir of the Douro. As they state, "Our goal is to create wines that express all the character of the traditional vineyards and varieties from the Douro Valley. A balanced wine between the concentration, complexity and elegance.

The grapes for the 2017 Wine & Soul Pintas (about $90) were foot-trodden, and the wine aged for 22 months in French barriques, 70% new and 30% in second-use. With a 13.7% ABV, this wine first evidenced a seductive aroma, subtle and complex, drawing you into its beauty. On the palate, there was an intriguing and absolutely delicious melange of complex flavors, such as ripe plum, blackberry, blueberry, mild spice notes, a few floral hints, and a touch of earthiness. Full-bodied and bold, yet elegant, with well-integrated tannins and a delightfully lengthy finish. Well-balanced and compelling, this was a superb wine, certainly evidence that Portugal can make world-class wines. It was an amazing pairing with the lamb. This is also a wine that should age well for many years to come, something definitely you should add to your wine cellar. It earns my highest recommendation.

For Dessert, there was a Hazelnut Torte, with Port-glazed figs, pear sorbet, and salted caramel. A wonderful blend of sweet and fruity flavors.

With this dish, we enjoyed a glass of the 2017 Wine & Soul 10 Year Old Tawny Port ($55), which enthralled me. The grapes were foot-trodden and this Port was aged closer to 15 years, spending time aging in 50+ year old, 630 liter, chestnut barrels. Sandra mentioned that chestnut was used as it tends to be more neutral, with very tight grains. Only 3,000 bottles of this wine were produced, and less than 100 have been allocated to Massachusetts. Sandra stated that this Port was intended to bring new people to drinking Port.

At 19.5% ABV, its nose was compelling, with a subtle sense of sweetness amidst dried fruit and nut notes. On the palate, the Port was more dry, with only a hint of sweetness, and possessed a complex and beguiling flavor profile, with elements of dried fruit, cherry, salted nuts, honey, caramel, earthiness, and more. It drank more like a 20 year-old Port, being well balanced and well integrated, and I could have sat there all evening just sipping this Port. I can easily understand how this Port could convince more people to drink it, especially as it was more dry than sweet. This Port also earns my highest recommendation. In time, Wine & Soul will produce a 20 Year-Old Port. Plus, they make vintage Port and their recent 2017 Vintage Port has been garnering many accolades.

Such a compelling food and wine experience, this was but one example of the type of events held at the Boston Wine Festival. Of the other guests I spoke too, they were unanimous in their love for this dinner. Sandra was such an excellent host, and her wines spoke volumes about the quality of their terroir. I found even more reasons to love Portuguese wine. The Wine & Soul wines are currently imported by Boston Wine Co., so I highly recommend you ask for them at your local wine shop.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Rant: Brave Restaurants & Their Wine Lists

Kudos to two courageous restaurants, A Tavola and Krasi, both which have taken a bold stance with their wine lists. They have chosen to restrict their wines to a single country, the country of their chosen cuisine.

Would you expect to find a Neapolitan pizza on the menu at a Sushi restaurant? No. Would you expect to find a cheeseburger on the menu of a Spanish tapas restaurant? No. In a similar vein, diners shouldn't expect that a restaurant, concentrating on a specific cuisine, will carry wines from all regions of the world. If a restaurant wants to specialize in the wines of a single country, it should be embraced for doing so. Diners should respect that decision and be willing to select wines from that list, even if they aren't familiar with those wines.

Restaurants which go this route spend lots of time carefully curating their wine list, selecting a diverse selection of wines which should appeal to all wine preferences. If a diner likes a certain flavor profile, the restaurant staff should be able to recommend wines which would appeal to that diner. A Tavola has an all-Italian wine list, and although it's relatively small, there's still plenty of diverse choices. Krasi has an all-Greek wine list, of over 150 selections, and there's definitely a wine for everyone.

This is a philosophical choice by the restaurant, an effort to promote a certain culinary tradition and region. We should respect such a choice. Such a wine list a great way to expand your palate, to broaden your vinous experiences. You might even find some new favorites, intriguing unique grapes or wine styles. You might not find some of these wines at any other restaurant, so you have the opportunity to explore something new. Personally, I was very excited to see the Greek wine list at Krasi, eager to sample wines new to me. And at A Tavola, I've already tasted a few wines new to me as well.

However, not all restaurants choose to limit their wine menu to a single country. I certainly understand the reasons why some do so, especially their desire to cater to the desires of their customers. It can be a financial decision, worries that some customers won't dine at their restaurant if they can't find the wines they commonly drink. Some people are too set in their ways, and want to be able to get their California Chardonnay no matter what restaurant where they dine. That is a valid concern to some degree, and as restaurants are businesses, they need to do what they can to survive. That is their choice, but it's not the only available choice.

We should to give our support to those restaurants brave enough to have a single-country wine list, to dine at such restaurants and enjoy their wine choices. We should be open to experiencing new wines, and not limit ourselves to the same old wines. Please dine at A Tavola and Krasi and thank them for the courage in presenting a single-country wine list.

Do you have any favorite restaurants with such a wine list limited to a single country?

Thursday, February 6, 2020

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.
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1) For Valentine's Day, consider the ArtBar at the Royal Sonesta Boston, where Executive Chef Brian Dandro has crafted an extensive four-course Valentine’s Day menu exclusively for the evening.

For the First Course, you have three options, including Local East Coast Oysters, Roasted Winter Vegetable Bisque or a Cheesy Valentine's Salad. For the Second Course, you also have three options, including Winter Squash Empanadas, Lamb Rillette, or Jumbo Lump Crab Cake. For the Third Course, there are four options, including Pork Shank, Surf & Turf, Mushroom Risotto, or Half Buttered Poach Lobster. And for Dessert, there are also four options, including Premier Cheese Plate, Chocolate for Two, Grand Marnier Creme Brûlée, or La Marca Champagne Float.

To toast the evening, the chef has also crafted a special signature cocktail, The Love Bite - a combination of Ketel One Ohranj vodka, Malibu Coconut Rum, Peach Schnapps, fresh limes, and cranberry juice with a strawberry garnish.

The price for this Valentine’s Day Prix-Fixe Menu is $65 per person, and it will be available from February 13-15. To make reservations, please call 617-806-4122

2) On Sunday, February 23, starting at 5:45pm, Puritan & Company’s Chef/Owner Will Gilson and Pastry Chef Brian Mercury bring back OverKill 3 which will feature ten Boston-area chefs, five savory and five pastry, that will each prepare a dish as part of a ten-course blowout. All proceeds will benefit Lovin’ Spoonfuls, a nonprofit dedicated to facilitating the rescue and distribution of healthy, fresh food that would otherwise be discarded throughout Greater Boston, MetroWest, Hampden County, and beyond every weekday. During each course, the chefs will introduce themselves and speak about the dish they have prepared.

Chefs confirmed to participate include: Will Gilson and Brian Mercury of Puritan & Co., Tracy Chang of PAGU, David Bazirgan of Bambara Kitchen & Bar, Meghan Thompson of SRV, Dee Chin of Big Heart Hospitality, Sophie Gees of Oleana, and Kenny Hoshino of Alden & Harlow, Waypoint and Longfellow Bar and a couple more surprise chefs!

Seats for this event are very limited, and tickets are available for $100 at Eventbrite.

3) On February 15 & 16, from 11:30am-3pm, guests at Zuma Boston will get a taste of their Miami location's special brunch service. The Brunch package ($65 per person) will include full access to two buffets – a hot buffet, featuring items from the robata, and a cold buffet, featuring sushi & sashimi offerings – as well as one entrée per person and Zuma’s signature, towering dessert platter to share. Zuma’s resident talent, DJ Tao, will be spinning both days from 12:30-4:30pm.

Sample items from the two-hour buffet package include Maki, a selection of Sushi & Sashimi, Robata skewers and roasted vegetables. There also will be cocktails and limited a la carte starters and additional entrees available for purchase separately.

To make reservations, please call 857-449-2500

4) Harvest Chefs Tyler Kinnett and Pastry Chef Josh Livsey invite guests for the 5th Annual Harvest Winter Party benefiting Furnishing Hope MA, a charity committed to helping those transitioning out of homelessness. On Sunday, March 1, from 6pm-9pm, break out the flannels and pompom hats and join the team at Harvest for a winter lodge-themed party on the heated patio. Sip on Maker’s Mark cocktails and Harpoon brews while enjoying the Harvest ice luge, shot skis, food from Chef Tyler Kinnett and Pastry Chef Joshua Livsey, a charity raffle, and music from DJ Ryan Brown.

Tickets are $55 per person and include food, two drink tickets, and full access to all the party perks. A portion of each ticket, as well as the proceeds from the raffle, will benefit Furnishing Hope of MA, an organization committed to helping families transition out of homelessness and create homes from themselves. Tickets can be purchased on Eventbrite.