Sunday, February 28, 2010

Beacon Hill Wine & Gourmet: Saké Tasting

Yukimi-zake once again!

Yesterday, as snow flakes drifted down, I attended a Saké tasting at Beacon Hill Wine & Gourmet in Melrose. Adrienne, a representative from Classic Wine Imports, was on hand to pour and explain about the Saké. I had previously tasted a number of the offerings, but a couple were new to me.

First up was the Hakushika Junmai Ginjo, which is produced by the Tatsuuma-Honke Brewing Company Limited that was founded in 1662. "Hakushika" translates as "white deer" and has an intriguing derivation. There is an ancient Chinese legend about a white deer which had lived for over one thousand years. This deer was revered as a holy animal, a symbol of longevity. The Hakushika was named after this deer, with the hope that their Saké would "be always synonymous with life energy flow, longevity and good omen."

The Hakushika has a SMV +0, making it more neutral in character. It is smooth, light & has some nice subtle fruit flavors. This has always been one of my favorite every-day Sakés, something mild enough to appeal to most people. It generally comes in a 300ml bottle, so you can take a chance on a small bottle rather than risking your purchase on a large bottle.

Next up, the Murai Tanrei Junmai from the Momokawa Brewery in Japan. Associated with the SakeOne brewery in Oregon, the Momokawa Brewery produces the Murai Family line, after the name of the owners. Momokawa's origins can be traced back to the late Edo Period (c. 1603-1868), when the influential Miura Family began brewing saké in Momoishi Village. On each bottle of the Murai line, there is a picture of a Nebuta Warrior. This famous symbol has numerous origin stories and one claims that the fiery warriors were created by General Tamuramaro out of bamboo and paper to scare off rebels.

This Tanrei Junmai is made from Mutsuhomare rice, which has been milled to 65%, and has a SMV of +5, making it a bit dry. Tanrei translates as "crisp and dry" and very much describes this Saké. It has a fruity nose, nice melon and apple flavors, with a very crisp, clean flavor. An excellent choice for sashimi. This is also a good Saké for newcomers, smooth and easy-drinking.

The third offering was the Chikurin Fukamari Junmai, made by the Marumoto Brewery in the Okayama prefecture which was founded in 1867. "Chikurin" means "bamboo" and "Fukamari" means "depth." It is made with Yamada Nishiki rice, milled to 60%, and has a SMV of +4, making it slightly dry. What really makes this Saké unique is that it is blended with a bit of Koshu, aged Saké, which is from 1-5 years old. The idea for doing this was inspired by the smell of rich incense at a local temple. This would be like adding the flavor and richness of a Port to a wine.

This Saké was full bodied and rich, with a smooth creaminess. It was very different from the two prior Sakés which were light and crisp. I tried some of this Saké with some bleu cheese and it paired well together, the richness of the Saké complementing and taming the tangy taste of the cheese. A milder Saké would have been overwhelmed by this cheese. It also would pair well with many other foods, including fried chicken and possibly even a steak.

From the richness of that Saké, we then moved onto a much lighter one, the Ozeki Osakaya Chobei “First Boss” Dai Ginjo. The Ozeki brewery has been around for almost 300 years, and was the first major Japanese brewery to begin production in the U.S. "Ozeki" is roughly translated as "champion" and its origins extend back hundreds of years when men used to gather for sumo wrestling. Ozeki was originally the title for the sumo champion, though that term eventually changed. Yet, the brewery currently awards an Ozeki Cup to victorious sumo wrestlers.

The Saké is made from Yamada Nishiki, polished to 50%, and with a SMV of +4, making it slightly dry. It has a bit of a floral aroma, and its flavors are more subtle and complex, with some white fruit tastes. This is an elegant Saké to slowly savor and enjoy. It should be paired with light dishes, such as fish or chicken.

Now onto a more fun drink, the Ume No Yado Hoshi Usagi “Star Rabbit” Blueberry-Infused Sparkling Saké. “Ume No Yado” means “Plum House” and stems an ancient plum tree located on the grounds of the brewery which has been there for as long as anyone can remember. The brewery, founded in 1893, is located in the mountain region of Nara in Japan. The Saké appears a bit cloudy in the bottle, almost like a Nigori.

This Saké has been infused with blueberry juice adding a prominent blueberry flavor. It is crisp and refreshing on the palate, with a touch of sweetness. It only has a touch of effervescence so the carbonation does not overwhelm. It has a low alcohol content, around 7%, and will appeal to most people, even those who generally dislike Saké. It has enough sweetness to appeal to most people, but not so much that is seems cloying or syrupy.

For the finish, was the Murai Nigori Genshu, from the Momokawa Brewery like the previous Murai Tanrei Junmai. This Nigori is made from Mutsuhomare rice, milled to 75%, with a SMV of -18, making it very sweet. As this is a Genshu, it means additional alcohol is added, bringing its alcohol content up to 19.9%.

This is a thick and creamy Saké, with sweet flavors of coconut and vanilla. It is more of a dessert drink, though you could pair it with some spicy dishes, such as curries. You could pour this over ice cream rather than chocolate sauce. For me though, it had too much alcohol, and it is very noticeable in the taste. I would question why this Nigori was made a Genshu, when I would suspect it would taste better without the added alcohol.

Kudos to Beacon Hill Wine & Gourmet for helping to promote Saké, and I am sure their selection will continue to expand and improve.


Lamb Jam Boston: March 7

In honor of Lamb Lovers Month, and on behalf of the American Lamb Board, the first American Lamb Jam will be held in Boston, hosted in partnership with

This event will take place on Sunday, March 7, from 3pm-6pm, at the Charles Hotel. This event will bring dozens of Boston’s top restaurants and chefs together to celebrate American Lamb and celebrate Boston Restaurant Week by creating succulent and savory selections paired with local Boston beer for over 400 lamb loving attendees. Chefs will compete on behalf of their favorite charity for the chance to win a $1000 donation to that organization and garner top honors in a variety of categories such as Best of Show, Most Creative and First Place Awards for leg of lamb, shank and loin tastes.

Order tickets online in advance at The cost of entry is only $33.10 per person and includes all lamb tastings.

This certainly sounds like a compelling and tasty event to me, and I will be attending. There have been plenty of pork events in the area, but lamb events are rarer. Lamb is quite delicious and well deserving of culinary attention. Hope to see some of my readers there.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

AKA Bistro: An Inside Look

Snails on the children's menu? Certainly daring and nice to see a restaurant willing to let children experience more than grilled cheese or chicken fingers.

I recently posted about the upcoming opening of AKA Bistro, a new restaurant in Lincoln that is a collaboration of Christian Touche, the GM who assisted in opening Ken Oringer’s Clio Restaurant in Boston, as well as managed it for 12 years, and Chef Chris Chung from Uni. The new restaurant will feature Japanese sashimi and traditional Provençal fare, presented separately, with respect for each of the two cuisines.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to tour the restaurant, while it is still under construction, as well as chat with Christian and Chris about their plans. They were both very pleasant, and obviously passionate about their plans for this new endeavor. Please note that some of what they told me, especially concerning numbers, is still tentative though the actual numbers, if different, should be very close.

The restaurant is located in Lincoln Station, a small shopping area which shares a similar architectural style. There is plenty of available free parking so access won't be an issue. It is located only a few miles off Route 128, just take the Trapelo Road exit, and is easy to find.

Above, is the exterior of the restaurant, and I'll note that at the left side of the picture will be a patio for the summer where about 25-30 diners can eat outside. With its large windows, it will also allow much natural light during the daytime. The right side of the building is the entrance area.

This is the entrance, and if you continued further down the right side, you would be in the rear parking lot. The exterior appears to be largely completed, but the interior still is undergoing extensive work.

This is part of the main dining room, where there will be a large banquette, and it will seat about 42 people. The sashimi bar will seat about 18 people, for a total restaurant capacity of 60 people, more during the summer with the outside patio. There will be an open kitchen and some of the prep work will be done in the basement area due to the lack of additional space on the main floor. They lack a function room, also due to space constraints.

The restaurant will possess the "spirit of a bistro," and will have two different menus, dependent on where you sit, whether in the main dining area or at the sashimi bar. This is not a fusion restaurant, and each cuisine is respected on its own. But, no matter where you sit, you will still get the opportunity to try both cuisines. For example, in the main dining area, the menu will contain about 80% Provençal fare and 20% sashimi. Where as at the sashimi bar, the percentages would be reversed. That will make it much less worrisome about where to sit as both cuisines will be available.

So why present these two cuisines together in the same restaurant? The obvious answer is that each of the owners brings their own unique cuisine to the table. But, it goes deeper than that. Both cuisines have a lengthy culinary tradition, and Christian and Chris feel they are also complementary. For example, in bistros it is often common to begin with a seafood platter, and the sashimi thus could fill that place. Both cuisines also rely on fresh, local ingredients.

The menu will change seasonally, although certain staple dishes, like Beef Bourguignon, will always be available. Plus, there will be daily specials, dependent on what is available at market. There will be a traditional black board where all of those specials are noted. They will source many ingredients locally, whenever possible, considering availability and price. Farms in Lincoln, and surrounding communities, will benefit. But, no matter the source, everything will still be organic and from small farms rather from the huge factory farms.

Above, the kitchen area will be to the back and you can also see Christian working, doing some painting. Christian and Chris appear to be very hands-on with this new restaurant.

The menu is likely to have about 10-12 appetizers, 10-12 entrees and 7-8 desserts. Appetizers will generally be priced $7-$18 and entrees from $20-$29. The intent of the restaurant is to make it affordable for most people, while also catering to those who wish to splurge. For example, they will carry Wagyu beef from Japan, which is quite an expensive but delicious item, and it will be priced outside of the above average. Yet that is understandable and the average person will still find plenty on the menu to enjoy within the average price range.

The restaurant is not catering to any specific demographic. They want to make it accessible and attractive to everyone, from families to business men, from a place for a romantic date to a place to go with your buddies after work.

You will find some more adventurous items on the menu, from bone marrow to frog's legs. Charcuterie will be made on the premises, from pates to duck prosciutto. Desserts will also be made in house, and will include many traditional items, as well as some with an Asian flair made by Chef Chung. The children's menu will be a bit different from the norm, more of a gourmet menu for the kiddies, including dishes like snails and sashimi, though there will be a couple usual dishes too, like mac n' cheese. The nontraditional menu though is meant to educate children, to offer them something new to experience.

The sashimi menu will include various types of sashimi as well as cooked items but they will not carry nigiri sushi or maki rolls. Chef Chung currently has over 600 unique recipes for the sashimi menu so he is not likely to run out of ideas any time soon. The seafood will be both local and imported, and one of Chef Chung's primary considerations is health, trying to carry seafood which he feels is healthier for the consumer. Though Chef Chung is concerned as well about sustainability, he is willing to make some concessions for the consumer.

AKA Bistro will be the first in the Boston area to feature Kindai bluefin tuna from Japan. Kindai is different in that it is farm raised from the egg, making it a better alternative to wild-caught bluefin, but it still is not sustainable. Chef Chung acknowledges that though he believes Kindai is better because it has far less mercury, so it is safer for diners. Please note that Kindai tuna is currently expensive, especially considering how little is now available.

Chef Chung also stated that they will serve some wild-caught bluefin as well, because the demand is there. The consumer will be given options, to purchase it or not. So some of the other sashimi on the menu might not be sustainable either. This might not please some who were hoping that the restaurant might serve only sustainable seafood. Yet it does point out how the demand affects what many restaurants will stock. So, if the demand for nonsustainable seafood drastically decreased, then maybe more restaurants would move toward only sustainable items.

The restaurant possesess only a wine and beer license, and will not have a "bar" area or any wide-screen television. It is not intended to be the type of place where you hang out, drink and watch sports. They will carry about 80-100 wines, and the stock will rotate continuously, so there will always be something new. They will carry many smaller producers, as well as some local wines, such as Turtle Creek, which is actually located in Lincoln and is one of my favorite Massachusetts wineries. Wines by the bottle will generally be around the $30s, with some high-end wines at a commensurately increased price. Wines by the glass, about 12-16 choices, will run around $7-$16.

They will also carry Saké (good news to me), hard cider and a variety of beers, both domestic and imported. You will also be able to order some inventive cocktails, made from what they can sell. Maybe there will be a Saké cocktail made with Yuzu, or even a beer cocktail. It could be quite intriguing to see what they create.

The restaurant is tentatively scheduled to open around March 22, though that is provided that everything comes together in time and as expected. Any changes to that opening date should be minimal, maybe by a week or so. Let us keep our fingers crossed.

Initially, they will only be open for dinner. As time passes, they will then open for lunch and eventually brunch on Saturdays and Sundays. By September, they even hope to make take-out available. This would allow the commuter rail passengers to stop there on their way home from work and pick up their dinner. They would be able to order online so everything would be ready for them when they arrived.

I am excited about this new restaurant and eagerly look forward to their opening next month.

What are your thoughts about this forthcoming place?

AKA Bistro
145 Lincoln Rd.
Lincoln, MA

The Wine Bottega: Wine Dinner March 25

Join The Wine Bottega for "An Evening in Oltrepo Pavese, Lombardy." This will be a special wine dinner, including two winemakers, five courses and eight wines, held on March 25, at 7pm.

The Special Guests will be Paolo Verdi of Bruno Verdi and Gian Maria Vercesi of Vercesi del Castelazzo. They will share their wine, including two of The Wine Bottega's favorites. Verdi's Sangue di Giuda and Vercesi's Cla Barbera.

The event will be held at:

Vinoteca di Monica
143 Richmond Street
The North End

The cost is only $60 per person and please call (617) 227-6607 for reservations.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Saké: Not Just For Drinking

Sure, Saké is delicious to drink. But it has uses beyond that of which you may not be aware. And women especially might want to take notice.

Ever hear of a saké-buro? It is a Saké bath, and they have been popular in Japan for a very long time. There is even a special Saké sold for that purpose, tama no hada Saké, or “skin like a gleaming jewel” Saké. Many cosmetic stores sell pre-made Saké bath solutions, or you can just add some Saké of your own to your bath. Add about 8-12 ounces to your bath.

Why would you take a Saké bath? First, it is thought that it warms your body for a longer time than a normal bath. Second, it may help to stabilize your blood pressure. Third, it is great for your skin.

The Japanese say, “The skin is the mirror of the internal organs.” This means that your skin reflects your overall health, so good skin means you likely are in good health. Saké is thought to be good for your skin because it contains so many amino acids. Saké has the most amino acids of any alcohol, and seven times as many as red wine. For example, Saké contains amino acids such as glutamic acid (which creates protein), alanine (which is found in collagen), leucine (important for growth during infancy and maintaining muscle), and arginine (important in cell division, wound healing, and the immune function). The Japanese also use Saké in other cosmetic products, such as skin moisturizers and cleansers.

So even if you don't like to drink Saké, you still might want to buy some to add to your next bath.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

TTL: Sparkling Wines of the Finger Lakes

I am generally not a big fan of inexpensive Champagne. I think there are much better values found in sparkling wines from other regions, such as Spanish Cava or Italian Prosecco. Some U.S. wineries also make excellent value sparkling wines, such as Westport Rivers in Massachusetts and Gruet Winery in New Mexico.

Thus, when the opportunity arose, I was very interested in checking out some bubbly from the Finger Lakes region. Lenn of New York Cork Report and Morgan of Finger Lakes Wine Country recently hosted a Taste Live event, showcasing four sparkling wines. Representatives of some of the wineries were also present, discussing their wines and answering questions.

Locally, I hosted the tasting at my home and my friends and fellow bloggers Dale and Amanda came over to share the wines with me. This was Amanda's first Taste Live event and you can check out her thoughts. We ordered some delicious Thai for dinner, and I think it was a fun choice with the bubbly. Prior to the start of the tasting, I also shared a Saké with Dale and he enjoyed it!

Interestingly enough, the three of us agreed on the top two wines of the evening, and our top choice also seemed very popular with most of the others on Twitter. But, as usual, there were plenty of very different opinions about the wines and they involved more than just differing flavors. For example, Dale and I felt the finish on the Chateau Frank was too short, yet others on Twitter felt it had a rather long finish. Always fascinating.

My favorite wine of the evening, as well as the least expensive, was the NV Goose Watch Winery Pinot Noir Brut Rosé ($18). This wine is a blend of 79% Pinot Noir and 21% Chardonnay. It has an alcohol content of 12% and only 600 cases were produced. I loved the crisp strawberry and bright cherry flavors of this Rosé, which had only a touch of sweetness. It felt very refreshing, clean and we loved it so much that we finished off the bottle after the tasting was concluded. At less than $20, I think it is a very good value and I would highly recommend it.

My next favorite was the NV Lucas Vineyards Extra Dry Cayuga White ($18.99), made from a hybrid grape, Cayuga White, and with an alcohol content of 12%. With a mild sweetness, this wine showed plenty of acidity with tasty apple and melon flavors. A pleasant, easy-drinking wine that would likely please most people. I would have thought this sparkler was made with Chardonnay, but am pleased that Cayuga can produce wines as good as this one. I think this is also a good value wine and would recommend it as well.

The 2002 Chateau Frank Blanc de Blancs ($29.99) is a blend of 90% Chardonnay and 10% Pinot Blanc. It only has an alcohol content of 11.5%, and was the most expensive wine of the evening. It was a pleasant sparkler, with nice green apple and lemon flavors and a mild yeasty touch. But, the finish seemed too short and I would have liked more acidity. Though I did enjoy this wine, I think it is too pricey for what you get, especially considering the previous two sparklers which cost under $20.

My least favorite of the evening was the 2002 Glenora Wine Cellars Brut ($24.99), a blend of 54% Pinot Noir and 46% Chardonnay. It has an alcohol content of 13%, the highest of the four wines. I felt this wine had too much of a yeasty flavor for my preferences, but then I have never been a fan of yeasty Champagnes either. I can see though that if you like this style of bubbly, then you might enjoy this wine.

But the Glenora did impress me for one reason, where the other three let me down. I believe the term "Champagne" is proper only for sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France. I dislike when non-French wineries call their own sparkling wines "champagnes." It only confuses consumers, and that seems to be part of their reason for using the term. But as someone who wants to educate consumers, I think it is wrong. Wineries should respect the term and not use it.

The Goose Watch, Lucas and Chateau Frank sparklers all state they are "champagne." The Goose Watch and Lucas only mention it on their websites, while the Chateau Frank actually has it on its label. Now, legally, they might be able to do so, due to a grandfather clause. But, just because they can do something does not mean they should.

Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse: Red Sox Limo Package

The Red Sox Limo Package is including a new partner this year: Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar!

The Red Sox Limo Package provides fans an opportunity to purchase an entirely worry-free trip to Boston for a Sox home game during the 2010 regular season. Brewster Coach will send one of its finest stretch limousines to pick-up 10 of your VIP guests and take them in style to dinner at Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, and then to and from Fenway Park.

Before hitting the game, indulge in a three-course meal at Fleming’s. The package menu will feature the most popular selections of hand-cut Prime Steaks, chops and fresh seafood. Fleming's also features a full inventory of audio visual and meeting supplies - including high-definition video conferencing and drop-down screens in all private rooms to assist in your pre-game meeting needs.

Once at the game, you will have 10 newly constructed Right Field Roof Box seats to soak in all of the action. Enjoy a personal in-game scoreboard message as well a baseball hat for each guest. Your limousine will pick you up after the game at any gate and whisk you off to a destination of your choosing.

WHEN: Most games available in the 2010 season

COST: $325 per person, ($3250 for 10 people)

MORE: For more information and reservations, please visit:

NOTE: For some select 2010 dates there will be multiple Red Sox Limo Packages available with seats together and two or three Limousines to accommodate your larger groups of 20 and 30.


· Package pricing reflects pick-ups within a 50-mile radius of Fenway Park. If your final pick-up address is outside the 50-mile radius, then you may have to negotiate a small additional fee with Brewster Coach.

· No age limit, although minors must be accompanied by at least one adult.

· Limo service will depart no more than 45 minutes after the conclusion of the game.

· All service is provided by Brewster Coach, Inc.

· VIP Limousine transportation for 10 guests to and from Fenway Park. (Pick-up and drop-off locations must be within 50 miles of Fenway Park.)

· Complimentary non-alcoholic beverage service in Limousine.

· In the event of a rain postponement, any purchased Red Sox Limo package will be honored on the MLB established make-up date and no refunds will be issued.

· All sales are final. No refunds will be issued.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Paso Robles: The Basics

What do you know about Paso Robles?

My own knowledge is limited, so as preparation for my upcoming trip to that region, and per my usual routine, I have been researching the region, learning more about it before I arrive there. I recently discussed the issue of Ignorant Travelers, and my own usual habits prior to a journey. I also wanted to share some of the fruits of my efforts with my readers, as well as seek your own input. I'll start with some basics.

Paso Robles, more formally known as El Paso de Robles ("pass of the oaks"), received its name because of all the oak trees scattered through the region. It is located in San Luis Obispo County, along the Central Coast area, and situated roughly halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It is approximately 2660 miles by plane, from Boston to Paso Robles. The city is almost 20 square miles and has a population just under 30,000.

The Paso Robles AVA (American Viticultural Area) was established in 1983 and expanded in 1997 and 2009. It now forms a rough rectangle of about 35 miles east to west, and 25 miles north to south, with over 26,000 acres of vineyards. Back around 1990, there were less than 20 wineries in this AVA, but it has since become California’s fastest growing wine region and now there are over 200 wineries. About two-thirds of these wineries produce less than 5,000 cases and more than 95% of the region’s brands are family owned and operated. I really like the fact that so many of the wineries are small, family-owned operations.

More than 40 wine grape varieties are grown in this region, and the most widely planted are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Sauvignon Blanc. Bordeaux blends, Rhône-style and Zinfandel wines are very popular in this region. Interestingly enough, about 58% of Paso Robles grapes are sold to wineries outside the AVA. So you might be drinking wine from Paso Robles grapes and not even know it.

I have previously enjoyed a number of wines from the Paso Robles region, from wineries including Victor Hugo Winery, Clautiere Vineyard, Tablas Creek Vineyard, Justin Vineyards & Winery, Changala Winery, and Tobin James Cellars. I am excited to try even more Paso Robles wines, especially from the smaller, artisan wineries.

Several large wine festivals are held in this region, including the Hospice du Rhône, a celebration of Rhône variety wines; the Zinfandel Festival; and the Paso Robles Wine Festival. Unfortunately, I will be in Paso Robles just after the Zinfandel Festival has occurred.

Paso Robles also possesses several producers of olive oil from locally grown varieties, which seem to do very well in the region. You can visit some of the olive farms, and partake of a number of olive oil tastings. There is even an annual Olive Oil Festival.

What experiences have you had in Paso Robles?

Forthcoming: The History of Paso Robles

Paso Robles: Food, Wine & Travel

In the latter part of March, I will be traveling to Paso Robles, California. I have never been there before so I look forward to the opportunity to learn more about this region, and to experience the variety of food and wines they have to offer.

In the interests of full disclosure, this will be a press trip arranged and paid for by the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance. Approximately six to eight journalists will participate in this four-day, three-night trip. Though we have not yet received the exact itinerary, it will include visits to wineries, farms, restaurants and more.

I made it clear that my acceptance of this opportunity was contingent on my usual policy as per samples and review products. I am under no obligation to write anything about this trip, and if I choose to do so, I have complete discretion as to what to write. My regular readers will know that though I try to stress the positive, I do not refrain from constructive criticism as well. That will remain the case with Paso Robles. If I do write about the trip, you will hear both the positive and negative.

Press trips are not without their controversy, and you may have read previous discussions concerning the ethical issues associated with such. Some feel that you cannot be truly unbiased if you attend such a trip. It is true that one must be very careful when assessing and reviewing such trips, to try your best to limit any potential bias. Yet it is the same basic caveat that occurs when you receive free samples, albeit on a larger basis. I will do my best to limit any potential basis in any future posts about this trip that I write.

Such trips though provide an excellent opportunity to learn and experience a region that you might not otherwise have visited. Bloggers generally do not get paid for their writing, so much of their travel, food and wine, is paid for by themselves. As few, if any of us, are independently wealthy, our income does limit what we can buy. We don't have the expense accounts that may be provided by professional print media. We can't afford to take a dozen trips each year, to visit regions all over the world. So, to learn and experience more, these press trips can be a great benefit.

This Paso Robles trip will be similar to other trips I have taken on my own. The hotel and restaurants I will experience will be on a similar quality level to many others I have visited on my own in prior vacations. Thus, the press trip will not be offering something that is far above what I am used to, which I believe will help limit any potential bias. Plus, I can better compare my prior experiences to what I find in Paso Robles.

In the end, my readers will judge me in this matter, and whether any subsequent posts I write are biased or not. I am sure you will be able to make such a determination, and I vow to you to do my best to eliminate or minimize any potential bias.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Rant: Newspapers, Where is My Food & Wine?

It is not news that newspapers are in trouble. Because of such, many newspapers have either eliminated or significantly reduced their coverage of food and wine. Some food and wine columnists, even long term ones, have been let go. It is saddening news, and I yearn for more coverage of such matters. Newspapers, why have you forsaken me?

Does it really help newspapers to omit or limit such coverage? Though they might save space, I am not sure the benefit is outweighed by the negatives. I would think it reduces some of their readership, alienating some of those who enjoy food and wine. Plus, as so many newspapers have reduced coverage, it presents an excellent opportunity for a newspaper to capitalize, and actually increase their coverage, attracting the dissatisfied. As so many newspapers have gone online, they could also just place additional food and wine articles online, even if not in the actual print.

Local newspapers sometimes have a food and wine column, though they often pay little or nothing to the writer. Yet the columns seem to be quite popular. That certainly makes it more difficult to attract and keep writers. Why so little respect for such writers?

Is it any wonder then at the proliferation of food and wine blogs? There are so many people who wish to write about such matters, as well as many people who want to read those articles and posts. Such substantial readership should indicate to newspapers that a demand exists. So why cut their own coverage and lose those potential readers?

Some things don't make sense.

Beacon Hill Bistro: Mangalitsa Menu

As heritage pig breeds become all the rave in foodie culture, one of the top heritage breeds may be the Mangalitsa. The Mangalitsa (MON-go-leet-sa) lard-type pig breed was created in 1833 by the Hungarian Royal Archduke Jozsef. As the popular pig gave way over time to leaner and lesser tasting heritage breeds, the popularity of the breed was lost to piggy history.

Now with farmers, breeders and chefs impressed by the high-quality, and much more expensive meat, the breed is making a slow and steady comeback. With restaurants such as The French Laundry, The Herbfarm and The Spotted Pig spotlighting the breed, public knowledge has spiked and the Mangalitsa is on its way to regaining its rightful place in piggy culture.

Now Chef Jason Bond of the Beacon Hill Hotel & Bistro is hosting a special Mangalitsa dinner. Bond will hold a very special “Black and Tan Dinner” (named after the two, organuc pasture-raised Mangalista pigs he brought to New England). The six-course menu will be held on Wednesday, March 3, with two seatings (6pm and 8:30pm) and costs $65 per person with an optional wine pairing for an additional cost.

I'm very proud to be the guy who brought this breed to New England and gave Boston its first taste of these fabulous pigs which we raised on a rotating organic pasture,” said Bond.

Known for its high quality fat, Mangalitsa meat is more heavily marbled, delivers a more pronounced and flavorful meat, and is hailed as some of the world’s best tasting pork. While a lard-type breed, the Mangalitsa fat is more unsaturated than normal pig fat. I have previously eaten Mangalitsa at the Beacon Hill Bistro and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Join Chef Bond for this very special event. Reservations are highly recommended and can be made by calling 617-723-7575.


GRIVES, BREAD and Whipped Lard

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SALUMI AND ANTIPASTI: Lonza, Olive Oil and Knotweed, Lardo, Panella, and Local Honey,
Guanciale and Roasted Agen Prune, Hure du Porc Noir

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CREPINETTE IN ROASTED GINGER BROTH, with Garlic Chives, Sesame, and Spring Burdock

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RED COOKED SIDE OF PORK WRAPPED IN ROMAIN with Black Garlic, Pickled Quail Egg, Tatsoi and Red Shiso Kim Chi

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JAMBON AU FOIN – Clover, Timothy, and Sudan Grass, Arrowhead Cabbage Choucroute, Boudin Blanc, and Confit Belly

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ICES FROM OUR FORAGING EXPEDITIONS – Spice Bush, Black Walnut, Russian Olive, Sassafras, Black Birch

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SWEET PORK, Sanguinaccio et Chiacchiere, Pizza di Sangue et Citron, Crackling Marshmallows with Angelica, Green Tea Macaroons with Sweet Lard

Sunday, February 21, 2010

How Wine Stores Can Sell More Saké

I have been to your wine stores, and seen how you display your Saké, if you even sell it. I know when you showcase Saké at your weekly tastings and special events, which usually is rare. I have spoken to you and gauged the extent of their knowledge of Saké, often which is limited. I am sure you wish you could sell more Saké, but you may be unsure exactly how to do so.

Let me offer some advice and suggestions in this regard. I have a deep passion for Saké and I wish to share that with others, as well as share my knowledge about this mysterious brew. In the end, this may increase your sales, and what wine store owner doesn't desire that?

First, educate yourself. The more you know about Saké, the better able you will be to sell it. You will be able to explain about it to your customers, to be better able to answer their questions. This is just common sense. You learn about the wines you sell, the various grapes, fermentation process and wine regions, so why not learn about Saké too? It is not as difficult to learn about it as you might think.

Second, carry premium Saké. If you want your customers to enjoy Saké, then don't stock the the cheapest, lowest quality brews. Carry the premium ones, and give your customers a quality beverage that they are more likely to enjoy. There are plenty of premium Sakés that cost under $20, and some even under $10, so price should not be a real impediment.

Third, carry some half-bottles. Many Saké brands come in 300ml half-bottles, rather than the usual 720ml bottle. Customers are more likely to take a chance on a Saké if they can buy only a half-bottle. It does not seem as great a risk as buying a full bottle. Plus, a half-bottle is cheaper than buying a full bottle so it becomes more enticing. You should carry full bottles as well, but make sure you have a good mix of bottle sizes.

Fourth, educate your customers. Not enough people understand about Saké so they are very reluctant to try it. Wine still intimidates many people, and Saké probably intimidates them even more. So run some basic Saké classes at your store, give your customers a foundation of information that will remove their fear and trepidation. If you don't feel confident running such a class yourself, I am available for hire to do so. Or there are other people knowledgeable enough to run such a class.

Fifth, tell your customers stories. Don't just provide them the cold, hard facts about Saké. Tell them stories about this ancient brew, its history, rituals, and personalities. Fascinate and intrigue them, making Saké come alive. They might not always remember the terminology or steps of the brewing process, but they are far more likely to recall the interesting stories.

Sixth, let your customers taste. Have more Saké tastings, and give your customers a chance to see the diversity of types and styles of Saké, the varied flavors it can contain. If they get to taste the Saké, they may realize they actually do enjoy it and will be more likely to buy some. They have preconceptions that need to be broken down, and letting them taste Saké is one of the best ways to do that. At your large tasting events, add a couple Sakés. Have some Saké-only tasting events. Add a Sparkling Saké to your next Champagne & Sparkling wine tasting.

Seventh, provide info sheets. Your Saké often sits alone on the shelves and a customer may be confused if they simply look at the label. The kanji and unfamiliar terminology may intimidate them. What is needed is a brief information sheet accompanying each Saké, telling your customers something about it, giving them a reason to give it a try. For example, tell your customers whether the Saké is dry or sweet, full bodied or light, or even fruit-flavored or earthy.

Eighth, add some food. Saké is very food friendly, pairing well with many other foods besides Japanese cuisine. Yet most people mistakenly believe it is mainly good for sushi. So add some non-Japanese cuisine to your Saké tastings, showing how other foods do work well. Try a nice Junmai with some fried chicken, or a mushroom risotto with an earthy Yamahai or Kimito. Add pairing suggestions to your info sheets. Show your customers its versatility.

So now go forth and sell more Saké!

Kubota Manjyu Junmai Daiginjo: Yukimi-zake


The Japanese have some beautiful terms for drinking Saké under a variety of different circumstances. On Tuesday evening, it was snowing, the large, fluffy flakes gently falling outside my window. So I decided to open a bottle of Saké and drink it as I watched the snow fall, which is the act of yukimi-zake. A zen moment, as the chilled Saké warmed me and I watched the beauty of nature.

The Kubota Manjyu Junmai Daiginjo ($75-$90) is produced by the Asahi Shuzo brewery, located in the Niigata Prefecture. The brewery was founded in 1830, and is a relatively small brewery, producing just over 180,000 liters of Saké annually. They specialize, producing only junmai ginjo and daiginjo. They were a pioneer in producing fine Saké, such as being one of the first to use stainless steek tanks. Their website states: "We brew Saké for sipping, not Saké for drinking, nor Saké for selling."

This Saké was originally named Asahiyama, but in 1985, the name was changed to Kubota. This was a brewery nickname, and means "sunken rice paddy." As for Manjyu, it is a composite of two words, "man" and "jyu." Man means "ten thousand" and jyu (or "ju") means "celebrations" or "congratulations." So, it is roughly translated as "10,000 celebrations." There are other Kubota Sakés, such as the Senju ("1000 celebrations") and Hyakuju ("100 celebrations").

Though this Saké is a Junmai Daiginjo, a top quality grade, that is not listed on the label in English. The quality grade is listed on the label in Kanji, but that won't help most English speakers. I am not sure why they chose not to place it in English on the label, as it would likely make it more difficult to sell to a customer that did not know it was a daiginjo, especially concerning its high price.

To qualify as a Daiginjo, at least 50% of the rice must be polished away, but this Saké went even further, polishing away about 65% of the rice. The rice used was Gohyaku Mangoku, and the Saké has an alcohol content of 15%-16%. It also has a Saké Meter Value of +2, which makes it essentially neutral between dry and sweet. The brewers of this Saké say, "Treat it kindly, softly."

This is a sublime Saké, something which is going to impress most Saké lovers. It is very clear in color, almost like water, and has a subtle nose of floral aromas and melon. It was lightly creamy in my mouth, with a clean, elegant and smooth taste. It is subtle and complex, definitely something to sip and savor, pondering the flavors that flit about your mouth. An exceptional Saké which just dazzled me. I cannot recommend this enough, and it is worth its high price.

Let the snow keep falling, and I will just keep drinking the Kubota Manjyu.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Niigata Saké Book: A Prefecture Guide

There are plenty of Japanese books about Saké which unfortunately never get translated into English. But one such translation was published last year, adding a fascinating look into the brewing industry within one specific prefecture, Niigata. Saké production is very important in Niigata, and they have an excellent reputation.

The Niigata Saké Book (March 2009, $45), an English translation of the Japanese Niigata Seishu Tatsujin Kentei Koshiki Tekisuto Bukku, was published by the Niigata Saké Brewers Association. The book is a trade paperback of 128 pages, and contains some additional information, which is not in the original text, for English-language readers.

This book is an inside look at the Saké brewing industry in Niigata, as well as providing plenty of basic information about Saké. It begins with 32 pages of color pages including a map of Niigata with the location of its 96 breweries. It then gives some brief info on each brewery, showcasing one of the Sakés they each produce. Sadly, Niigata had over 1200 breweries in 1879, and less than 10% of them remain. This is the case across all of Japan, where so many breweries have disappeared.

The first chapter details the Niigata prefecture, its climate, rice, water, and people, which all contribute to their Saké. Its climate is ideal, with many sunny and warm days in the summer and many snowy days in the winter. This is conducive to excellent rice growing in the summer and brewing in the winter. The rice they use is mostly grown in Niigata, and they have invested much research in developing better varieties. Their water is usually soft, and considered excellent for brewing.

The Echigo Toji, or Niigata Master Saké Brewers, are very talented and knowledgeable, renowned throughout Japan. The prefecture also established the Niigata Saké Academy to train new brewers so that the art does not die out. The number of Toji decreased from 922 in 1968 to only 259 in 1998, mostly due to retirement. Thus there was a strong need to ensure the art continued by training new brewers. In addition, the prefecture established the Niigata Professional Saké Research Institute, the first independent Saké research & development organization in Japan.

With 96 breweries, Niigata has the second most in Japan, with Hyogo prefecture in first place. Their annual Saké production is third in Japan, behind Hyogo and Kyoto. But, 62% of their production is Premium Saké, far higher than the Japanese average of 26%. Plus, their per-capita Saké consumption is 18 liters, higher than the national average of 7 liters and the highest in Japan. So, they stand by their product, drinking a significant amount of Saké. Kanpai!

Chapter Two then moves onto the Saké brewing process, with specific references to brewing in Niigata. For example, they discuss the specific Saké rices used in Niigata. Much of this chapter is a primer on Saké brewing, written in fairly clear language, and will help any reader understand the process. The chapter ends discussing the nature of Niigata Saké, how it is best described as tanrei, "clean-smooth-gracious."

The next chapter is also a primer on Saké, including its quality grades, types, how to read a bottle label, Saké tasting, serving temperatures, a food pairing with Niigata cuisine, and even how to minimize a hangover. This is another good chapter with lots of introductory information. It also contains some tidbits which might be new to even those experienced with Saké. For example, I learned about Scarlet Saké, a unique Niigata brew that is made with a scarlet fungus that adds color and flavor to the Saké.

The final chapter deals with Niigata Saké Topics, though much of it is applicable to Saké from any prefecture. Some of the topics include the relation between yeast and Saké flavor, Saké workers, and Sugidama. For a more specific item, there is a brief item about the Niigata Saké Festival.

Overall, I was very pleased with this book and would love to see similar books for all of the significant prefectures of Japan. It is more of an inside look, like getting a closer look at a wine region. Even if you know little about Saké, you are likely to enjoy this book, as well as learn plenty.

I do have a few criticisms though. First, parts of the book may contain touches of exaggeration, almost propaganda, but that is to be expected from a book published by the brewing association of Niigata. I do not think it was overdone though so it is a minor issue. Second, the translation is sometimes awkward and could have used more editing. You will understand everything, though you might chuckle at how some of the sentences read.

Lastly, and most importantly, this book is very expensive. At $45 on Amazon, I could not recommend it as it is a small book, and you could find much of the information elsewhere for much cheaper. You might be able to find it cheaper at the Kinokuniya Bookstore, but I am not sure. I suggest taking a careful look at it before deciding whether to buy it or not. At this price, the casual Saké lover won't be buying it.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Red Newt Cellars: Finger Lakes Wines

Last year at the Boston Wine Expo, I had visited a few of the Finger Lakes wine tables, but for some unknown reason, I never checked out the Red Newt Winery. Within the last few months, I had the opportunity to review a couple of their wines, including their 2006 Red Newt Wine Cellars Reserve Riesling and 2007 Red Newt Wine Cellars “Sawmill Creek” Cabernet Franc. Both were enjoyable wines so at this year's Expo, I knew I had to visit their tasting table, and check out more wines from their portfolio.

Red Newt Winery, located on the southeastern shore of Lake Seneca, was founded in 1998 by Winemaker David Whiting and Chef Debra Whiting. At the Expo, I met Brandon Seager, the assistant winemaker, who I have previously spoke to on Twitter (and pictured on the right).

Brandon was very personable and animated, a passionate advocate for the Red Newt wines. He tasted me through seven wines, five whites and two reds. Overall, I enjoyed all seven of the wines, and think the winery is doing an excellent job. My primary criticism is that I feel a couple of their wines may be overpriced for what they deliver.

I began my tasting with three Rieslings. The 2006 Dry Riesling Reserve ($23.99), of which only 240 cases were produced, was dry, crisp, and had delicious fruit flavors of green apple and citrus. It had some nice complexity and a fairly long finish. If you prefer your Rieslings dry, this would be a good choice.

The 2008 Dry Riesling ($15.99) of which only 226 cases were produced, had a bit of sweetness but still restrained. It also had plenty of acidity, nice fruit flavors of citrus, especially orange and line. It was not as complex as the Reserve but still was very pleasant and easy-drinking. If you want some sweetness in your Riesling, then this should be your choice.

The 2008 "Circle" Riesling ($11.99), of which 2100 cases were produced, was the sweetest of the three, though not cloying so. It was a simpler wine, with flavors of orange, lemon and apricot. It would be nice with some spicy Asian cuisine. Though I generally prefer a drier Riesling, there are plenty of people who prefer it sweet, and this wine should appeal to many people. Plus, it is inexpensive and a good value.

Next up, were two Gewurtztraminers. The 2008 Gewurtztraminer ($18.99), of which only 500 cases were produced, was very typical for this grape. It was dry, aromatic, and spicy with more exotic fruit flavors. A very nice example of this grape and I found it very pleasing and delicious. It was well balanced, with a moderately long finish and would pair well with food.

The 2007 Gewurtztraminer Sawmill Creek Vineyards ($35.99), of which only 240 cases were produced, was a much bolder and bigger wine, with much more pronounced spiciness. It is a bit more complex, with more intense fruit flavors, and the finish is a bit lengthier. It is a very good wine, but I feel the price is too high. It just did not possess enough of a wow factor for me to pay over $30 for this wine. Devout fans of Gewurtztraimer might differ.

The 2005 Viridescens ($45.99), of which only 208 cases were produced, is a blend of 51% Cabernet Franc, 38% Cabernet Sauvignon and 11% Merlot. The wine was named after the Eastern Red-Spotted Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens), which is very common in the Finger Lakes region. I enjoyed the nose on this wine, very aromatic and appealing. I also enjoyed its taste, with nice flavors of plum, blueberry and black cherry as well as some vanilla and mild spice. But again, this wine lacked that wow factor which would make me willing to pay over $40 for this wine. It was very good, but not special enough for me to pay that much.

The tasting ended on a high note, the 2007 Cabernet Franc Glacier Ridge Vineyards ($38.99). Only 120 cases of this wine were produced and it reminded me very much of the 2007 Red Newt Wine Cellars “Sawmill Creek” Cabernet Franc which I previously reviewed. The Glacier Ridge was complex, smooth and without any vegetal flavors. The fruit flavors, ripe plum, blueberry and raspberry were lush and nuanced. There were hints of spice and a touch of smoke too. The finish was very lengthy and satisfying. This wine did possess the wow factor I desire, and thus I felt the price was justified here.

My advice: Check out the wines of Red Newt and see what you think. With their portfolio range, you should be able to find a wine that suits your preferences, whether dry or sweet, white or red. I found much I enjoyed and think many others would enjoy their wines too.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Culinary Creativity: Chef Anthony Caturano

(Check out my Introduction to the Culinary Creativity series.)

Anthony Caturano grew up in Revere, and his initial career path sent him in the footsteps of his father, a prominent Boston accountant. But he opted out of Merrimack College in a radical shift to pursue his culinary calling. In 1993, he received his degree from The Culinary Institute of America and then got his start cooking with Chef Todd English, of Boston’s famed Olives during the 1990’s.

Caturano later rounded out his training in Miami and Los Angeles, with a detour to his ancestral homeland of Italy, where he spent a month bonding with his grandmother’s birthplace of Prezza, a tiny ancient village in the Abruzzi region, and in the Northern regions, where he studied the cooking traditions of Piemonte. Eventually, Caturano set out on his own and in 2000, he opened Prezza as tribute to his love of Italy and to honor his grandmother’s hometown.

When not in the kitchen, Caturano can be found hunting and fishing in North America’s remote back country. From Montana to British Columbia, and even Alaska, he has hunted moose, elk, mountain goats, deer and grizzly bear. “When you get to live with the animal you hunt, you truly become one with your prey – you respect that animal in a way that is different than going to the grocery store and buying it. You’ve really earned it,” claims Anthony, who butchers, packs and prepares the game immediately after a hunt. He admits some of his best dining experiences have been on these trips- not with fancy silverware and white-gloved service- but with the interesting people he has met along his hunts. Of course, he smuggles a few bottles of old wine in his pack to enjoy with the catch. That primal connection between hunting and cooking inspires Anthony to feature an array of quail, rabbit, duck and venison on his menus, in a passionate reflection of his love for the age-old sport.

Now onto the interview--

How important is culinary creativity to you? Why is it important?
Creativity is very important, but I think you have to know your customer and how far you can push them. You attract your customers by your reputation, although Prezza is expensive I think we offer value, larger portions with some level of creativity but yet on the menu is something for everyone. Prezza is not overly complicated but it is very unique and I think that is what attracts our customers. I would love to experiment with more of the trends that come around however I realize that my customers come in for what has become my style of food.

What are your most significant inspirations for your culinary creativity? What makes those matters so inspiring?
A lot of my inspiration comes from going out and traveling. I think my greatest inspiration though has been to “cook to order” and make everything from scratch that we possible can, you know keep it old school. We make our own pastas, we have a wood grill that we light everyday, and we don’t precook any of our food. Obviously some stuff is made ahead, Bolognese sauce for instance cooks all day long, but when you order a steak that’s when it goes on the fire. A lot of inspiration also comes from seeing what a lot of talented chefs have accomplished and I just try and raise myself to that level but in my style or grab a classic recipe and make it my own.

Where do you get your ideas for new recipes/dishes?
A lot of what is on my menu is food that I love. When I go out to eat I say “boy I wish I could just get this or that”, so I go back to the restaurant and that’s what ends up on my menu. For instance why cant I just get some huge lamb chops with rabe and garlic and mashed potatoes with olive oil drizzled all over it, then the next day I come in and say to the guys hey lets put this on.

What is your process of creating a new recipe or dish?
The process is pretty simple, we don’t ever change our entire menu, we sort of take a few things off and then replace them with something new. Sometimes we start off with one idea and then end up with something totally different. But really we just order what we need the night before and play around with it a little, try the wait staff and some regulars on it, modify what we need and then put it on the menu.

Do other members of your staff assist with creating ideas for new recipes/dishes? How do you test new recipes/dishes?
I try and let the guys in the kitchen have some input as well. So we will bounce some ideas off of each other, I have been lucky half of my entire restaurant staff has been there from day one so they are not uncomfortable with telling me, “Hey this really sucks… Why don’t you try this.” or the wait staff will say customers are asking for that. It’s nice to get everyone involved.

What is the most difficult part of culinary creativity?
Staying focused is the hardest part, dealing with the restaurant is tough, stuff breaking, money flying out the window, you know unexpected curve balls, then you have to pick yourself up and find inspiration to change up your style it’s not always easy.

Do you ever experience “writer’s block,” an inability to be creative, and if so, how do you deal with it?
I definitely get the creative block, the great part is that we have so many regular customers and they all seem to have their favorites so it’s tough to pick what to change. We have developed quite the list of signature dishes so it becomes a problem as to what do I take off the menu, and when you do, how do you beat that last great dish. Picture going to Italy and having a spit roasted goat in this restaurant that’s known for it and then going back ten years later and its not on there… That would suck. Its like you set the bar for yourself and sometimes you can’t beat it, it gets frustrating but then I realize how lucky I am to have such a busy little 100 seat restaurant in the North End. So what I do is I just take a step back and try to get back to the basics get out and eat, read some books, talk food with people, check out some new places. I just went to NY and Florida and ate at some great places, Milos, Felidias, YOLO. I am off to Georgia on a quail hunting trip this weekend, I am pretty sure there will be some new menu changes when I get back.

AKA Bistro: Coming Soon to Lincoln

AKA Bistro is coming....and it intrigues me.

Christian Touche, the GM who assisted in opening Ken Oringer’s Clio Restaurant in Boston, as well as managing it for 12 years, and Chef Chris Chung of Uni are collaborating on AKA Bistro, which is set to open in mid-March in Lincoln. AKA Bistro will feature original Japanese sashimi and traditional Provençal fare, presented separately, with respect for the two cuisines. "AKA" means "red" in Japanese, and you can see the color reflected in their logo.

Touche will supervise the front of the house. Chung, who will serve as executive chef at the new AKA Bistro, was recently named the 2009 Boston Rising Star for his innovative sashimi creations. Chung combines the east/west food influences he grew up with in Macau, China, a former Portuguese colony, with other cultural influences.

Chung has over 600 unique recipes to rotate into the sashimi bar menu. The restaurant will feature both local and imported fish and will be the first in the Boston area to feature Kindai tuna from Japan. Kindai is unique in that it is farm raised from the egg and is supposed to be more sustainable than wild caught bluefin. Though the practice is not without controversy, and I will explore the issue in the near future with Chef Chung.

I have always cared about the environment. I want to show people we can still enjoy good food without destroying nature,” said Chung.

The French side of the menu will introduce the authentic Provençal recipes handed down from Christian’s great grandmother through his mother, Anny Touche. Whether choosing from the French bistro or the sashimi menu, everything will be fresh, seasonal and locally grown when possible. Touche and Chung will maintain a strong relationship with local growers and consider the farms around Lincoln to be one of the restaurant’s biggest assets. The small community of Lincoln with its surrounding farms has many of the same idyllic characteristics as Beaumes-de-Venise near Avignon, the rural village in France where Touche is from.

"This is the food I grew up eating in southern France, so it comes easy to me,” said Touche.

AKA Bistro will bring a city dining experience to Lincoln with quality food and quality service, but without city prices. “It is casual country dining with a pedigree.” The new space will be rustic and casual, comfortable for a family dinner, date night, or business gathering. Open for lunch and dinner, the restaurant will also serve brunch on weekends and provide take-out.

We want people to feel relaxed when they are here and know this is a place they can return to again and again,” said Touche.

I will be getting more information about AKA Bistro so look forward to a future post.

AKA Bistro
145 Lincoln Rd.
Lincoln, MA

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Prezza: Vietti Wine Dinner

Last Wednesday, a major Nor'easter was forecast, and it was thought we would have a foot or more of snow. I was disappointed as I had plans to attend a wine dinner in the North End. Fortunately, the forecast was wrong and we barely had a couple inches of snow, so I was able to easily trek into the city. And I am extremely glad that I did.

The four-course wine dinner, which I had been invited to as press, was held at Prezza, with a special guest, winemaker Lucca Currado of the Vietti Winery in Italy. Prezza is owned by Chef Anthony Caturano, pictured above, and he named the restaurant after the ancient Italian town where his grandmother was born. The restaurant has a rustic style, with influences from other Mediterranean regions, and emphasizes seasonality. Thus, the menu frequently changes to capitalize on what is seasonal.

Based on the dinner, I have to praise Chef Caturano for an amazing culinary experience. Each dish was superb and I savored every bite. I will most certainly return to try more of his cuisine, and I anticipate that I will equally as impressed. Based on my experience, I give Prezza my highest recommendation.

There were only twelve of us at this dinner, and we sat at a long table, beside a window looking out onto the street. I sat directly across from Lucca Currado, the guest of honor (pictured above). Lucca was extremely personable, with a good wit, and obviously passionate about wine. The wines he provided were also excellent, pairing very well with the various courses. Great food, great wine, and stimulating conversation made for a top-notch evening.

Lucca feels that "wine is made in the vineyard," so they view winemaking more as delivering the wine from the vineyard, rather than trying to manipulate it to their desires. It is very hands-off winemaking. They have also been organic for about 25 years. Lucca believes that they have "grapes and vineyards that no one else has." Amusingly, Lucca stated that our life is a "small fart" of about 40 years compared to the vineyard which has over 400 years. Thus, embrace the terroir and don't try to impart your own style onto the vineyard.

The evening began with a glass of the 2008 Roera Arneis, made from 100% Arneis which has not seen malolactic fermentation or oak. This was delicious, with a floral aroma, crispness, fine citrus flavors and hints of minerality. A refreshing wine which would also pair well with food.

The Vietti Winery actually bears much responsibility for saving Arneis, as well as making dry Arneis so popular in Italy. Arneis used to be referred to as the "wine of the mother-in-law," something which was often blended with other grapes. It was sometimes blended with Nebbiolo to make a Rose or made into a sweet wine. But, it was dying off, with less and less plantings, and could soon vanish completely.

Alfredo Currado though saw potential in Arneis, and desired to make a dry Arneis. So he somehow convinced some priests to assist him, by bringing him whatever Arneis vines they could find. Alfredo then started to experiment, making his first dry Arneis in 1968. This eventually became extremely popular, the government even taking cuttings, and the grape was saved from extinction.

Prior to our first course arriving, we received baskets of warm, fresh bread, some rustic Italian and foccacia, with a dish of olive oil and olives, black and green. Of course this started me off in a very positive mood, as everyone knows how much I love warm bread.

Our first course was Rabbit Saltimboca with Saffron Risotto, paired with the 2007 Dolcetto D’Alba Tre Vigne. The tender, rabbit loins were wrapped in prosciutto and were fantastic! I love rabbit and these loins were moist and flavorful, with the fine, salty flavor of the prosciutto. Plus, the risotto was delicious, reminding me a bit of paella due to the saffron flavor. The pasta was cooked perfectly, and the intense flavors went well with the rabbit. This is a dish I would definitely order again if it were on the menu.

Lucca has spent extra time working on Dolcetto, taking it on as a special mission. The wine is made from old vine grapes, 100% Dolcetto D'Alba. I found it to have lush fruit flavors, including black cherry and blueberry, good acidity and soft tannins. An easy-drinking wine, it would be perfect for everything from pizza to pasta.

The second course was Goat Cheese Gnocchi with a Lamb Ragout and Pecorino Cheese, paired with a 2006 Barbera D’Alba Scarrone and a 2006 Nebbiolo Perbaco. This dish seduced my nose, the aromas so alluring. And its taste fulfilled the promise of its aroma, an exceptionally rich, rustic dish with plenty of pieces of very tender lamb and pillowy gnocchi. Each bite pleased me more and more, and I don't think this dish could have been any better. I could probably have eaten three plates of this dish.

The aroma of the Barbera was equally as compelling as the food. The fruit smells were so enticing, it took a time before I tasted it, simply reveling in the delightful aromas. On the palate, there was plenty of cherry flavor, with touches of vanilla and spice. It was smooth, with a moderately long finish, and went well with the pasta. I have tasted the Nebbiolo before, having enjoyed it then as well as now.

The final entree was Rosemary Braised Pork Shank with Asiago Polenta and Braised Greens, paired with a 2005 Barolo Castiglione and 2004 Barolo Lazzarito. The pork was meaty, very tender, and extremely flavorful. It just melted in your mouth, a rustic delight. The polenta was also very pleasing, a cheesy pleasure. Chef Caturano had scored a hat trick, three dishes that scored perfectly.

The two Barolos were fantastic, complex, rich and profound. The Castiglione is made from a blend of Barolo crus. The Lazzarito is from land where a hospital is located, which had been built about 400 years ago to deal with a local plague. The wines went well with the pork shank and it was difficult to choose which of the two I preferred. They both were compelling, and you would not be disappointed with either.

For dessert, we had a plate of assorted cheeses and accompaniments. I was quite happily sated at the end of dinner. The food had been exquisite, the wines sublime and the conversation compelling. It was nice to see and chat with Caroline and Eric, the owners of Vintages: Adventures in Wine. It was also nice to meet some new people. I was so glad that the weathermen were wrong, and that snow did not prevent me from attending this wonderful dinner.

I am sure I will return to Prezza, again and again.

24 Fleet St.
Boston, MA
Phone: 617-227-1577

Prezza on Urbanspoon

Stoneham Sun: Shaken Not Stirred

My new column of "A Passionate Foodie" can be found in the February 17 issue of the Stoneham Sun newspaper. This is a weekly column that concentrates on reviews of local restaurants though it also sometimes touches on other food and wine topics.

The new column has been published today and will be available online soon. The new article is a review of The Boston Shaker, a new cocktail supply store in Somerville, near Davis Square. This small store has a wide variety of cocktail tools, equipment, books and ingredients, many hard to locate elsewhere. For cocktail novices or experts, this is a worthy shop to visit.

If you have any questions or comments about my column, feel free to add them here.

Drink with passion.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Ashmont Grill: Chef Douglass Now Cooking

It’s been an interesting eight months for Boston chef and restaurateur Chris Douglass.

Icarus, his beloved fine dining restaurant in Boston's South End, closed in July after a run of over 30 years. Rather than mourn the end of an era, Chris spent the remainder of 2009 shuttling back and forth between Ashmont Grill and Tavolo, proactively growing his two casual concept restaurants in the Dorchester neighborhood where he lives. He acted as handyman, host, janitor, bookkeeper, butcher, baker and sommelier.

Effective this week, Douglass will be cooking dinner at the Ashmont Grill every night. A new winter menu debuts today.

Featured entrees include:

* Navajo Stew: hominy, beans, chiles and fry bread ($15)

* Braised Lamb over Pappardelle with dried cherries, gremolata ($17)

* Baked Macaroni & Moody Bleu Smoked Cheese ($15)--I love the name of this cheese!

* Slow-Roasted, Cider-Glazed Pork Belly with Boston baked beans, brown bread and apple slaw ($17)

* Spare Ribs with apricot-chipotle glaze and hush puppies ($16)

* From Pastry Chef Clare Garland: Hazelnut Marjoleine, nutty cake layered with orange buttercream, coated in chocolate ganache, garnished with praline ($8)

Also be sure to check out their Monday Night Wine Club: $30 for a Night of Big Pours and Small Plates

March 1 – Sonoma
March 8 – Loire Valley
March 15 – Marvelous Malbecs
March 22 – Washington State
March 29 – Germany
April 5 – Tuscany vs. Puglia
April 12 – Grapes Grown in the Hills
April 19 – Russian River Valley
April 26 – Classic Cocktails

Ashmont Grill
555 Talbot Ave.
Dorchester, MA
Phone: 617-825-4300

Myers+Chang Inaugural Cooking Class

I am now an Iron Chef of Asian cuisine, a chef extraordinaire! Ok, maybe I am just a Master Chef. Well, the reality is that I am still very mediocre, but at least I now have some additional knowledge which has enhanced my culinary skills.

Myers + Chang, which was my Favorite Asian Restaurant of 2009 as well as my Favorite Brunch, Non-Traditional Fare, held their inaugural cooking class this past Saturday morning. Twelve of us sat at the counter before the stoves and watched Chef Matthew Barros lead the class, demonstrating how to create scallions pancakes, papapya slaw and Mama Chang's pork & chive dumplings.

When the class was originally announced via their email newsletter, I was quick to respond with my interest. I wanted to know more about how they created their dumplings, and the scallion pancakes and slaw were an added bonus. I was not disappointed.

Prior to the class starting, we got to enjoy some treats from Flour Bakery, which certainly was a tasty way to begin. The blueberry muffin top was excellent, with plenty of blueberries, and it was not overly sweet. Christopher Myers then spoke briefly, introducing the class and providing the three objectives for the class: 1) To feed us; 2) For us to have fun; and 3) For us to learn how to prepare the three recipes at home. In the end, the class was a success on all three fronts.

Chef Matthew Barros then took over, first describing his culinary background. Though he claimed to be nervous, and probably was a bit, it was not evident in his manner. He did very well, explaining everything with a bit of humor and humility. We were free to ask any question, and Matt answered them all as well as possible. His down to earth manner, and lack of pretension, made him a very good instructor.

Matt first demonstrated to us how to make scallion pancakes, and you can see him above spreading the scallion mix atop the dough. Scallion pancakes are a traditional Chinese street food, and usually are made with non-leavened bread. But Myers + Chang uses a foccaccia bread, a yeast dough that gives the pancake a light, fluffy texture. At home, you could use a pizza dough, though Flour Bakery does sell their foccacia dough. The scallions are sliced thin, using just the greens, and then minced. We learned plenty of tips to ensure the pancakes came out correctly, and then we got to taste the finished product.

Now, I am very picky about my scallion pancakes, primarily because I prefer smaller pieces of scallions and many places use large pieces in their pancakes. This scallion pancake was excellent, with its finely minced scallions. Plus, the pancake itself was light, crisp and flaky. I will definitely order these again on my next trip to Myers+Chang.

Next up, we learned how to prepare papaya slaw. This dish uses an unripe papaya, which is not always easy to find. An unripe papaya is like tofu, basically flavorless and it takes on the flavor of whatever else is mixed with it. Plus, it has a firm texture and a longer shelf life than a ripe papaya. The finished slaw is hot and spicy, with citrus notes and crunchiness from the roasted peanuts. Another delightful treat.

We then moved onto the centerpiece of the cooking class, Mama Chang's pork & chive dumplings. Matt prepared the pork mixture, which uses 70% lean pork, Napa cabbage, garlic chives, ginger, sesame oil and soy sauce. It was then our chance to get interactive, to make our own dumplings. We each received three dumpling skins, and scoops of the pork mixture, and we were supposed to press the dumplings together. Easier said than done.

Joanne Chang showed us her technique for crimping, though she later noted that some of her staff do it differently. There is really no single way to properly crimp dumplings. And as Andrea Nguyen notes in her new book, Asian Dumplings, "Asian dumplings don't have to look pretty to taste fabulous." (p.3) That is very appropriate for my own efforts in that regard.

Above, are the results of my own crimping, and as you can see, I need much more practice. Too many gaps, and they don't look as good as the ones you usually see at restaurants. But it was fun to try, one of the highlights of the cooking class. I just need more practice, like most any skill. I am sure they would have tasted fine anyways.

My wife did a far better job of making dumplings, and they definitely look as good as you see in any restaurant. And she does not have any prior experience at making dumplings.

The cooking class lasted for about ninety minutes, and time flew by. It was then was time for Dim Sum brunch. We got our choice of the dim sum menu, and there are plenty of great choices there, including some new items such as their fried egg and bacon banh mi sandwich. That was quite a large and tasty sandwich. The twelve of us gorged ourselves on a wide variety of items, and no one left that table hungry. Everyone was very happy with all they ate.

After our brunch, and as an unexpected treat, Chef Barros took us over to Ming's Supermarket, which is across the street, for a brief tour, especially to show us the items he used in making the three recipes we learned. I had never been to Ming's before, and was impressed at its size and diversity of available items. It was quite busy, though understandable considering it was the day before Chinese New Year. I picked up a few things, including black Chiangking vinegar and sesame oil.

As for the original objectives for this class: 1) We definitely ate plenty of delicious food; 2) We had lots of fun; and 3) I think I learned enough to make the recipes at home, and will try to do so in the near future. So overall, the class was quite a success.

Chef Barros hopes to run about two cooking classes a month, changing the theme monthly. For his next class, he might run a sustainable seafood class. These classes will be limited to 12 people and you should sign up for the Myers+Chang newsletter to get notified about upcoming classes. They do sell out quickly so if you want to go, you better reply as soon as you learn about the class.

The class costs $50 per person, which includes the cooking demonstration plus a full dim sum brunch. I think this is a very fair price for all that you get and I certainly would recommend the classes to everyone. I know I will be signing up for more classes in the future.

Great work Chef Barros!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Rant: Ignorant Travelers

Near the end of March, I will be traveling for several days to Paso Robles, California. So I have been spending some time researching the region.

Whenever I go on a trip, I do plenty of research beforehand, especially seeking food and wine spots, from restaurants to markets, from wine stores to wineries. I want to know about some of the best and most interesting places before I get there. I want to know which places are closest to my hotel, those places I can easily walk to and those places I might need to drive to, or take a taxi.

Sure, I do like to wander around a new place, to stumble upon a place of interest by surprise. But, I don't want to rely only on surprise. For that can be a mixed bag, sometimes finding a good place, and other times being very disappointed. I want to minimize my potential disappointments, so I do my research first.

I might visit an area only once and never return, or not until years later. Thus, I want to experience the best of that area that I can, and that is unlikely to happen without research. I strongly doubt I could get lucky and just stumble upon all such places. A prepared traveler is more likely to have a better and more thorough time, getting to sample the cream of a city.

There are some places you might never stumble upon, because they are hidden away, in more remote areas. They might be well off the established tourist routes, or simply difficult to find as they are but one of dozens of similar places in the same region. For example, I would never have stumbled upon Raku, a superb Japanese restaurant in Las Vegas, as it was but one Asian restaurant out of at least 50 others in the same neighborhood. I needed advance information.

With the Internet, such research is quite easy. There are plenty of websites that will provide reams of information about your destination. All it takes is a little time and you will have almost anything you need. Yes, you will have to weed through some useless information, but the search is worthwhile. It has definitely made my prior journeys so much better.

So why do some people remain ignorant travelers? Why do they fail to do the proper research before traveling? Why take such a huge risk, especially when you may only get a single opportunity to explore a new region?

When you travel, do you do research first, or just wing it?