Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Erbaluce: Passion Into Excellence

Last month, I told you about how I met Chef Charles ("Chuck") Draghi at the Spoonful of Ginger event. As we chatted, Draghi intrigued me about Erbaluce, his new restaurant, and I desired to dine there, to determine whether Chef Draghi's obvious passion translated into culinary excellence.

On the recent occasion of my mother's birthday, I took her to Erbaluce and my dining experience confirmed my hopeful expectations, that this restaurant is exceptional and well deserving of its accolades. I heartily recommend Erbaluce and certainly will be returning there soon.

Erbaluce is owned by Chef Draghi and his partner Joan Johnson. It is located in the Bay Village area, not far from the Park Plaza and Theater District. The restaurant was named after an Italian wine grape, one of the oldest white grapes of the Piedmont region and which may extend back to the ancient Romans. The term "erbaluce" is actually composed of two words, "erba" which means "dawn" and "luce" which means "light." Though I note that some translate the term as phrases such as "shining grass", "grassy light" or "bright herbs."

Chef Draghi has a lengthy and illustrious culinary resume. Many may remember Chef Draghi's from his fame at Marcuccio’s Restaurant in the North End. Well, Chef Draghi has returned, presenting his unique take on Italian cuisine, with a Piemontese slant though not a traditional one. His culinary skill remains as good as ever, if not even better.

The restaurant is small and cozy, with a more minimalistic decor. It certainly lacks pretentiousness. You can see partially into the kitchen, watching Chef Draghi and others prepare your meals. There is a long bar where you can have a drink and which also has its own separate menu.

The restaurant only serves wine and beer. The wine list has a page of about 17 wines by the glass ($7-$12) and five pages of wine by the bottle, nearly all Italian except for a few French Champagnes. These are carefully selected wines, including some more unique and unusual wines. They are generally not the well known producers, but more small, artisan producers. Though the list is somewhat pricey, there are almost 20 wines that cost under $40 per bottle. I found plenty of interesting choices and eventually decided on two.

The 2005 Albino Armani Casetta Vallagarina "Foja Tonda" ($56) is made from the Casetta grape, also known as Foja Tonda, which I had never had before. The ancient grape is indigenous to the Vallagarina region and nearly was extinct until Albino Armani resurrected it. Currently, only 12 hectares of this grape exist and Armani only produced about 2400 cases of this particular wine. This wine reminded me of a fine Burgundian Pinot Noir. Lots of restrained red fruit flavors, a touch of spice, and a pleasant earthiness. A lighter wine with plenty of complexity and character, it also paired very well with our food. I was really impressed with this wine and will be seeking this out at my local wine store.

I also ordered the 2004 Nino Negri Valtellina Superiore Sassella "La Tenses" ($68) which is made from the Chiavennasca grape, another name for Nebbiolo. The name of this wine has colorful origin. "Le Tense” derives from the domination of the Swiss Three Grey Legions (1512-1797) when the best vineyards were “tense,” meaning they were defended by the "arbostrari," the guardians of the vines. This was a bit of a heartier wine, with an enticing melange of flavors, including black cherry, plum, raspberry and dark spices. The tannins were moderate and the finish was lengthy and pleasing. An excellent wine for heavier dishes, such as steaks or wild game.

Their food menu changes often, dependent on what is fresh and in season, though there are some constants, such as the rack of wild boar. The menu is divided into First Courses, Pastas and Main Courses. There were about eight choices for First Courses ($9-$14), five Pasta choices ($21-$26) and seven Main Course choices ($26-$36). Though it is not on the menu, you can also get a Tasting Menu so if you are interested, just ask your waiter. There may also be Specials not listed on the menu.

One of the key aspects that differentiates Chef Draghi from many other Italian chefs is that he prefers to create sauces from vegetables, fruits, herbs and spices rather than butter, cream or oil. This generally makes for lighter dishes, though certainly full of flavor. You'll feel satisfied at the end of your dinner, though not bloated from overly rich dishes. Chef Draghi also uses what is in season, what is freshest, which is always a good thing. I found his cuisine to be innovative and enticing, flavorful and intriguing.

We began with several First Courses, sampling some of the appealing choices, including two evening specials. One of those specials was the Lobster Risotto, which was made with carnaroli rice, toasted in lobster oil (made from the coral). Then, a rich lobster stock was added with some fresh tomato juice to cook the rice, along with a little saffron, chopped lobster meat, parsley, mint, chopped tomatoes, and a tiny amount of mascarpone. The dish was then garnished with lobster meat that had been poached in extra virgin olive oil with fresh bay leaves. An amazing dish that was very rich in flavor, yet still remaining light. The rice was cooked just perfectly and there was an interesting creaminess to the sauce that did not overwhelm the dish. Definitely one of the better risottos I have ever had.

Another special was the Shad Roe, a delicacy only available for about five weeks each year in the Spring. It was sprinkled with chopped marjoram, thyme, parsley, mint, and white pepper, and then wrapped in a thin layer of caul fat and speck. It was roasted rare-medium rare, and served with a roasted red pepper and pink peppercorn sugo. Plus there were some sauteed fiddleheads on the dish. Imagine silky foie gras with a bit of brininess and some tasty herbs. A light, elegant dish with rich flavors that tasted decadent. And unless you knew what Shad Roe is, you never would have suspected you were eating fish eggs.

From the regular menu, the Mixed Greens and spring dug parsnips came with a poppyseed and spring herb dressing. Very fresh ingredients with a light, flavorful dressing. The Roasted Native Roe Scallops, with a shrimp and thyme vinaigrette, came in the shells making for an interesting presentation. The scallops themselves were tender and tasty, a light sauce atop the scallops adding flavor without overpowering the scallops.

These initial courses set-up a delicious introduction to Chef Draghi's culinary skill. They had all been quite tasty with interesting blends of flavors and textures. It was now time though to move onto the main courses.

The Roasted Potato Gnocchi, one of the pasta dishes, came with a ragu of veal, spring parsnips and white vegetables. The pillowy pasta was cooked just perfectly with a rich, meaty ragu and fresh veggies. Such a great collection of textures, from the soft gnocchi to the crunchier veggies. The Pan Roasted Rabbit, with a wild mushroom and black olive sugo, was an amazing dish with plenty of moist, tender meat with an earthier flavoring. One of the best rabbit dishes I have had in some time. I had to order the Rack of Wild Boar, one of their specialties, which was roasted with lavendar, rosemary and a grape musto. Two large, thick boar chops that were very tender and flavorful. They were not gamey at all, tasting like high-end heritage pork. The grape musto added some sweetness to the meat. This is a must order dish!

All of the dishes were reasonably priced for the quality and quantity of food you receive. Everything was moist, tender and flavorful, cooked just right. And you don't miss the heavy butters and creams that you'll find at other restaurants. Chef Draghi's culinary philosophy certainly works very well.

I still had some room for dessert and the menu has about eight choices ($7-$14), including a cheese plate. The Saffron Poached Pears come with mascarpone and a lavender caramel sauce. The pears were soft yet firm, not mushy at all. The saffron was restrained and the sweet caramel added some interesting floral notes to the taste. The Budino of Apples has an almond puree and cardamon creme anglaise sauce. The apples were cooked as well as the pears, not too soft and not too crisp, and the flavors of the almond and cardamon paired well with the fresh apple flavor. The most hedonistic of the desserts was the Giandjua, a dark chocolate truffle with hazelnuts, and minced apples marinated in honey and mace. Unbelieveably rich with a delicious melange of tastes.

Service was excellent, and our server was professional, knowledgeable and accomodating. I was extremely satisfied with this dinner, very impressed with the innovative and delicious cuisine. Chef Draghi is operating an excellent restaurant and you should dine there. Check out his passion and savor his dishes.

69 Church Street
Boston, MA
Phone: 617-426-6969

Erbaluce on Urbanspoon


adele said...

Sounds like a fantastic meal. Love the sound of that wild boar. :)

Wine said...

Sounds like a nice pairing with the game dishes.