Monday, February 28, 2011

Rant: Battle Royale--Tea vs Coffee

Are you a coffee or tea drinker?  It seems clear that the majority of Americans prefer coffee to tea.  All you have to do is compare the overwhelming number of coffee houses to tea stores.  Though nearly all coffee houses also sell tea, coffee gets the vast majority of attention. But why is that the case?
I am a tea drinker, and dislike the taste of coffee.  But I know plenty of people who need their coffee every morning, who will drink coffee all day long.  While pondering over the matter, I decided to check out some statistics.

After water, tea is the most widely consumed beverage in the world.  But, in the U.S., tea occupies the sixth position, after water, soda, coffee, beer, and milk.  But when comparing annual per capita consumption, the U.S. occupies the 23rd position for tea and the 26th position for coffee. Interestingly, Turkey is in first place in regards to tea consumption and Finland occupies first place for coffee.

On average, about 54% cent of Americans drink coffee daily and average 3.1 cups of coffee each day.  Close to the same amount of Americans, about 50%, drink tea daily but not as many cups each day as coffee. The greatest number of tea drinkers are located in the South and Northeast regions.   

A fascinating fact is that approximately 85% of the tea consumed in America is iced. That was a major surprise to me, though it is definitely my preferred way to drink tea.  I drink iced tea nearly every day, and usually three or more glasses.  Iced tea was invented in the U.S., likely sometime during the 1800s in the South.  There is a legend that iced tea was created in 1904, during the World's Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, by an Englishman Richard Blechynden. But, there is evidence iced tea existed before 1904, so Richard may be considered more the popularizer than the inventor. 

Could caffeine be the reason for the popularity of coffee?  An 8 ounce cup of coffee, dependent on the type and method of brewing, may contain about 80-175 milligrams of caffeine.  Tea on the other hand may only have 30-60 milligrams, so a significant lesser amount than in coffee.  Consider those people who "need" coffee to start off their morning, to give them an energy boost so they can wake up and get working.  Or those who need a coffee boost in the middle of the day.  Caffeine might be at the heart of the matter. 

So do you prefer tea or coffee?  And why do you hold that preference

Friday, February 25, 2011

A Taste of Portugal at Prezza

Portuguese wines offer some of the best values in the wine world, including plenty of excellent wines under $10. No other region consistently delivers as much as Portugal does at this price point. Their wines provide intriguing aromatics, exotic tastes and plenty of character.  Yet they produce some top-notch higher-end wines too.  If you are not drinking Portuguese wines, then you need to expand your palate.

During the Boston Wine Expo weekend, I was invited to drink and dine with some representatives of Value Vines, LLC, an import company which specializes in Portuguese wines.  The company is relatively young, having been founded in 2009, and their name is intended to reflect "the wonderful price/value ratio to be found in these wines."  I was eager to taste some new Portuguese wines so agreed to meet them, especially considering we would dine at Prezza, one of my favorite Italian restaurants (and which was just reviewed in the Boston Globe.)

It was a pleasure to meet Adele, Carl and Anthony of Value Wines, and they were passionate and knowledgeable advocates for Portuguese wines.  They presented wines from Enoforum, an export company founded in 2004 by a group of grape-growers from the Alentejo region of Portugal. Their purpose is to promote, educate, and sell wines from Alentejo. Prior to the formation of Enoforum, the wines from this region constituted only a tiny business in the U.S., so the growers came together to try to change that.    

The Alentejo region, in southern Portugal, is quite large, covering almost 1/3 of the total area of the country and possessing over 22,000 hectares of vineyards.  They produce mostly red wine, but also produce good whites and roses. The region's history extends back thousands of years, to the ancient Phoenicians who probably were the first to plant grapes here.  Around 31 B.C., the Romans conquered the area, continuing vine cultivation and wine making.  When the Moors arrived in the region, they also continued wine making, despite Koranic prohibitions, reminding me of the history of the sherry region. 

This region is also the primary producer of cork, possessing the world's largest cork oak forest, which covers about 520,000 hectares.  Compared to the cork forests, the amount of vineyards is only a small percentage.  Alentejo is a vast agricultural area, of great importance to Portugal.  It is also supposed to be quite a beautiful land.   

We began tasting wines from the Alente brand, including one white and two reds.  Alente has three levels of red wines, dependent on the amount of oak used.  The three men on their label represent shepherds and minstrels. It is obvious why shepherds, in such a major agricultural area, are there but minstrels?  Well, there is a strong and rich musical tradition in Alentejo, where many agricultural workers sing while they work.  So minstrels have a significant connection to this region.    

The 2009 Alente White (about $10) is a blend of Antão Vaz and Arinto, which was fermented in vats and American oak, and then allowed to remain sur lie for another 3-4 months. It has an alcohol content of 13%. This wine was very aromatic, with that intriguing nose I often associate with Portuguese wines.  It was a crisp and pleasant wine, with delicious fruit flavors of apple and melon, along with a subtle minerality.  It had plenty of character for a wine at this price point, and would be great paired with seafood, salads, and light chicken dishes. What helps to elevate this wine above others at this price point, is its subtle exoticism.     

I began my dinner with an appetizer of Rabbit Parmigiano, a superb dish with a moist and perfectly cooked piece of rabbit. If someone tasted this blind, they would love it, even if they thought they disliked rabbit. The sauce and cheese did not conceal the sweet taste of the rabbit, only contributing to the harmony of this dish.

To accompany this dish, I drank the 2007 Alente Red (about $10), a blend of Trincadeira and Aragonez, which was aged in French and American oak and had an alcohol content of 13%.  It possessed an alluring nose, plenty of dark fruit and spice notes. On the palate, the wine was light and smooth, with delicious ripe plum and blackberry flavors and lots of spice. You get good complexity for this price point, and it paired well with the rabbit dish. This is a wine that would pair well with Italian cuisine, especially red sauce dishes.  It would also be a good pairing for pizza, BBQ, burgers and more.
My entree was the Braised Lamb Shank, a hearty and tasty dish with plenty of tender, flavorful meat atop a creamy polenta. There was enough food to sate almost any appetite. With such a dish, I needed a bigger wine and had two selections that fit the bill.

The 2005 Alente Reserva (about $18), is a blend of Alicante Bouchet, Trincadeira and Aragonez, which was aged in French and American oak for 12 months and had an alcohol content of 13.5%.  This was my favorite wine of the evening, presenting a complex and compelling wine which paired excellently with the lamb.  Its nose was so alluring, an exotic melange of black fruits, spice and vanilla, and the taste was equally as alluring. Its velvety taste was dominated by dark spice and lush blackberry, black cherry and raspberry.  The finish was lengthy and pleasing, and the tannins were mild.  At this price point, this wine is an excellent value and easily is worth twice the price.  It gets my highest recommendation. 

The 2006 Alem Red (about $16) is a blend of Touriga Nacional and Syrah, which was aged in French and American oak for 10 months and had an alcohol content of 14.5%. This wine was very good, with an interesting nose and a delicious taste of blueberry, black cherry and plum.  It was a bigger wine than the Alente Reserva and not as spicy.  It went well with the lamb, though it might have been overshadowed by the Alente Reserva which impressed me so much.

This dinner bolstered my thoughts about Portuguese wines, presenting some excellent value wines. And of course the food was superb, though I expect no less from Chef Caturano of Prezza.  Many consumers may not be familiar with the Alentejo region, being more familiar with Port, Douro, and Dao wines.  But they should learn about Alentejo, and seek out their wines. You won't be disappointed.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I am back again with a new edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I briefly highlight some interesting wine and food items that I have encountered recently.
1) Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day at Grafton Street or the Irish Village

Grafton Street's St. Patrick’s Day menu includes:
--Slow-Cooked Corned Beef & Cabbage (Boiled Cabbage, Red Potatoes, Carrots, Parsley Sauce)
--Rustic Shepherd’s Pie (Lamb, Root Vegetables, English Pea, Potato Puree)
--Guinness Beef Stew (Hearty Vegetables, Potatoes)
--Grilled Wild Salmon (Brussels Sprouts & Bacon, Mashed Potato, Apple-Horseradish Cream Sauce)

In Brighton at the Irish Village, you can score a complimentary corned beef sandwich from 11am to close and a pint of Guinness from bartender and Irishman Kieran McWilliam, who has been pouring Guinness at Boston’s original Irish pub for more than 20 years. Kieran expertly pours Guinness in a way that upholds the beer’s sought after bitterness and creaminess. Served at an ideal temperature in a traditional 20 ounce Imperial pint glass.

2) The Wine Connextion is hosting their second annual Battle of the Big Cabs, a tasting of high-end Cabernet Sauvignon.  On Saturday, February 26, from 12pm-5pm, the Wine Connextion will feature a complimentary in-store wine tasting featuring high-end, luxury wines that are rarely uncorked.  Some of the Cabernets they will open include 2007 Paul Hobbs Cross Barn Cabernet, 2007 Beaulieu Vineyards Rutherford Cabernet, 2005 Heitz Cellar's Napa Valley and 2008 Caymus Napa Valley Cabernet. Guests will have the opportunity to sip and swirl the featured wines before voting on their favorite. All of the featured wines will be available for a special price throughout the day, and knowing this store, you probably won't find a lower price anywhere else in the state.

3) "Remember that hand-made pasta dish you had on your trip to the Amalfi Coast and now you can't find anywhere? What about that recipe your family and friends love so much, and you just know if you had your own restaurant it would be a sell-out item. Now is your chance to relive all your food memories and bring that dish from research and development to market. Tryst, located minutes outside of Boston in Arlington, MA, is launching a special evening dedicated to all of its customer’s whims-- both large and small."

Throughout each month, Executive Chef/Owner Paul Turano will be collecting ideas, recipes and pitches to be featured on a very special night when his customers dishes will be the only offering on the menu. If you want to experience one of your favorite meals all over again, yet you can’t find the dish, simply e-mail Chef at and he'll do the research and work to recreate the dish for you. Have a dish you think is a homerun? Send along the recipe and the dish might just make it to the menu. On the last Tuesday of every month beginning March 29, Chef Turano will put together a special “You’re on the Menu!” featuring a selection of dishes that were submitted throughout the month. The dishes that actually make it to the menu that evening will be listed with the person's name and a back-story on the dish.

4) In a departure from the oft-done wine tasting series, Morton’s Seaport is taking it to the next level, selecting other alcoholic beverages for pairings.  Experts will guide guests through a sampling of potent potables paired with signature Morton’s hors d’oeuvres. Dates and themes are as follows:

March 3: Beers from Belgium
April 7: All Things Bubbly
May 5: Mojitos
June 2: Sangria
July 7: Margaritas
August 4: Heavenly Mortinis
September 1: American Craft Brews

WHEN: First Thursday of every month, from 6pm-7:30pm
COST: $35 per guest, inclusive of tax and gratuity.
RESERVATIONS: Required. Call 617-526-0410 to reserve your spot as space is limited.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Mystery Meet: Tasting Tripping With Chef Hussain

For a short time, I was a bit nervous, the possibility of a nightmare coming true.  Good News: You won a ticket to a free dinner.  Bad News: It is a vegan/vegetarian dinner. 

Last month, I won The Unknown Gastronome contest on Mystery Meet, garnering me a free ticket to their next dinner.  Founded by the personable Seth Resler, Mystery Meet hosts a special dinner each month, though the location of the meal is a secret.  Some clues are provided but you still must buy tickets without definitively knowing the location. Then, 24 hours before the meal, you will be provided the identity of the restaurant.  This is a fun concept, and I had previously read some good reviews of their dinners.

Based on the initial clues, I still was not clear as to the restaurant's identity.  The day before the event, I learned that the meal would be held at The Cambridge School of Culinary Arts.  The Chef would be Eliana Hussain, of Saffron & Cinnamon, who is a culinary instructor and personal chef. As I researched Eliana, I found she produced numerous vegan products, and taught some vegetarian cooking classes.  Was this what I would find at the Mystery Meet dinner?  Would it be a veggie buffet?  Please say no!

Fortunately for me, that was not the case.  Instead, the theme of the dinner was Taste Tripping, assessing the efftcts of the Miracle Fruit. This fruit, from a plant scientifically known as Synsepalum dulcificum, is native to West Africa and was first encountered by Europeans around 1725. If you chew the berry, the juices coat your tastebuds and then everything you eat for a short time, from 15 minutes to an hour, tastes sweet. The berry contains a protein called miraculin "which binds with the taste buds and acts as a sweetness inducer when it comes in contact with acids."

So, at the start of the dinner, we all bit into one of the berries, swishing the juices around the insides of our mouths.  You were not supposed to bite down on the seed at the center of the berry, as that is bitter.  We then got to test the miracle effect by biting into lemons and limes, and it passed the test. The sour taste vanished, replaced by something sweet.  It was a very strange thing, to have something known to be sour suddenly tasting sweet. I also tasted some sriricha hot sauce, and though it still had its heat, it tasted sweet. 

The food courses then started arriving, beginning with a Citrus Salad with Mint and Yogurt. 

Then Shrimp & Strawberry with Meyer Lemon Mignonette.

Fennel & Apple Salad.

Tomato & Tamarind Soup.

A Cuban Sandwich.

It was around this point that the effects of the berry wore off of me. Though it was an interesting experiment, and the berry certainly did add sweetness to all of the dishes, it had a negative impact too.  It concealed the complex flavors of these dishes, making them more one-dimensional.  That is not good for someone who really loves the melange of potential flavors in food. And it does a disservice to the chef, whose food cannot be properly appreciated.  So, though it was fun, I would not repeat the experience. I would rather enjoy the full panoply of flavors, whether sour, bitter or spicy.  This berry could be useful though if a person has to eat a certain food, which they normally would dislike, by altering its flavor.

We then moved on to Chicken Piccata, which I was able to better taste and which was good, a nice moist piece of chicken.

Maybe my favorite dish of the evening was the Butternut Squash Cannelloni with Parmesan Cream sauce. A rich, cheesy and naturally sweet dish, this was a perfect comfort food for a cold, winter evening.  The evening would then end with a cup of Spiced Hot Chocolate, which also was perfect for the night.

Around 35 people or so attended the dinner, some who had attended previous Mystery Meets and some, like me, who had never been before. It was fun to meet some new people, and it was an interesting social event. I like the idea of Mystery Meet and am pleased that I was finally able to attend.  Though the dinner itself was not one of my favorite meals, it was a unique experiment and I am glad I tried it.  So if you are an adventurous food lover, I recommend that you look into Mystery Meet.  A new event is coming up on March 8.

Stoneham Sun: Bergamot

My new column of "A Passionate Foodie" can be found in the February 23 issue of the Stoneham Sun newspaper. This is a weekly column that concentrates on reviews of local restaurants though it also deals with other food and wine topics.

The new column has been published today and will be available online soon. The new article, Bergamot: Creative & Compelling Cuisine, is a review of Bergamot, a new restaurant in Somerville which has received many raves. I finally dined there, finding it to be very impressive, with some spectacular food and service.  Bergamot receives my highest recommendation. 

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

Dine with passion

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Chef Brooke Vosika: A Culinary Lesson

What would you expect from a chef who has worked for the same hotel chain for 25 years?  Would you expect him to maybe be jaded, to have lost some of his passion for culinary matters?  Would you expect his cuisine to be more institutionalized, with a lack of concern for matters such as sustainability? 

Forget all of those expectations with Executive Chef Brooke Vosika of the Four Seasons Hotel.  Though Chef Vosika has worked for various Four Seasons properties for the last 25 years, his passion does not appear to have dimmed at all. He is concerned about sustainability, and also helps to give back to the community, especially through programs designed to educate young people about local food and nutritition.  This is not a chef who "phones it in."  This is a chef who still has a deep love for food and wine, who still immensely enjoys culinary endeavors.  Chef Vosika was impressive on multiple levels. 

Every month, Chef Vosika holds a public cooking class, and last week a group of food bloggers were invited to participate in a special cooking class, to give us an idea of what the Four Seasons has to offer.  There were eleven of us, including such fine people as Katie of The Small Boston Kitchen, Rachel of Fork It Over, Boston, Megan of Delicious Dishing, Meghan of Travel, Wine and Dine, William of The Boston Foodie, Michelle of Fun & Fearless in BeantownFiona of A Boston Food Diary, and Aimee of The Apron Archives.

Much of the cooking class was a demonstration by Chef Vosika of how to prepare two different dishes: Bay Scallop Chowder and Chicken & Truffle Dumplings.  During the demonstrations, we also got to sample other tasty dishes prepared by the rest of the culinary staff.  Plus, there was wine to accompany the food, including a couple made by Chef Vosika himself!  A chef who makes his own wine certainly intrigues me.  We got to taste his Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio, both which were simple but pleasant wines.

An appetizer of buffalo fried brussel sprouts, which the other bloggers seemed to really enjoy.  There were also plates of cheeses and sliced meats for us to nibble upon.

This was the Bay Scallop Chowder, which Chef Vosika makes unique by adding gin to it, rather than sherry or wine.  He likes the addition of the taste of juniper to the chowder, and it certainly possesses that flavor without having a strong gin flavor. The base chowder is easily adaptable for other seafood as well, from lobster to white fish.  It was relatively simple and quick to prepare, so almost any cook could easily make it.  

We also had the opportunity during the class to check out their dry aging storage room. All of their beef is sustainable and grass fed, most undergoing both wet and dry aging, often about 30 days wet age and then 21-28 days of dry age.  This room is a carnivore's heaven, and indicative of Chef Vosika's passion for quality ingredients. Not many restaurants have their own dry aging room, which allows the chef to carefully monitor the progress of the aging process.

And yes, we got to sample some of the beef, which had some of that delicious gamey taste you acquire through dry aging, and the meat was very tender too. 
Another appetizer was Pork Belly over Potato Pancake, which will be an addition to their bar menu soon.  Of course it was excellent, such tender and sweet pork belly, atop a moist pancake.  I would order it again off their menu. 

The Chicken and Truffle Dumplings seemed very easy to prepare, and produced a delicious and hearty dish.  This would be a great winter dish, something to warm you up while filling your belly.  Plenty of tender and moist chicken, fresh veggies, and a savory broth.

We also received some lessons from Executive Pastry Chef Tim Fonseca, who taught us how to make a Warm Chocolate Cake and an Apple Crisp.  He too was very personable and down to earth.

Chef Fonseca not only showed us how to prepare these recipes, but also gave us advice and suggestions on easily modifying the recipes.  We could add our own touch to these versatile recipes, such as relying on seasonal fruits, or emphasizing our own personal preferences. 

Overall, this was a fun, educational and tasty event.  Chef Vosika makes an excellent instructor, being very personable, down to earth and witty.  Chef Fonseca was also a good instructor.  It was eye-opening to learn more about Chef Vosika, and I will be following up with him on a couple of matters, which you will read about here in the near future.  I recommend taking one of his upcoming cooking classes, especially if you get a group of friends to take it together.   

Cooking classes at the Four Seasons cost $140 per person, and include including light fare, beverages, applicable taxes and gratuity.  Upcoming classes include: Perfect Pasta & Sauces on March 1 and May 11, Sushi & Sake For Couples on April 6, and Summer BBQ on June 16.

Sake?  Mmmmm, I wonder who is doing their pairings.

Three Amigos vs Taco Bell

Taco Bell has recently been the center of controversy over what type of meat is in their tacos.  They are being sued, and the class action alleges that their taco filling contains only 36% beef.  But Taco Bell has fired back, stating their taco filling actually contains 88% beef. Despite this controversy, there is no question that the taco filling is a processed food and probably contains some ingredients you would not use at home if you made your own tacos. 

But, their tacos are cheap, costing only 99 cents for either the hard or soft taco.  The tacos include seasoned beef filling, shredded lettuce and cheddar cheese. Now, I have recently eaten a few times at Three Amigos, a Mexican restaurant in Stoneham.  Their tacos, which also include chopped tomatoes cost $2.89, nearly three times as much as Taco Bell.  Are they worth that much? 

Three Amigos is located in a small strip of stores off Main Street, and it is a small restaurant with maybe a dozen tables or so.  They are open for both lunch and dinner, and have an extensive menu of Mexican food including Tacos, Tostados, Quesadillas, Enchiladas, Burritos, Fajitas, Taco Salads and more.  Plus, they have a Gringo menu, with burgers, hot dogs, salads and wraps. It is a popular restaurant, and also does a good takeout business.

When you sit down, they give you a complimentary basket of tortilla chips with a choice of mild or hot salsa. you won't find that at Taco Bell.  I tried both the ground beef and chicken tacos, and feel that they contain roughly twice the amount of fillings as you get at Taco Bell. These are good-sized tacos, and the ingredients seem fresh.  The beef filling more closely resembles what you would make at home rather than what you find at Taco Bell. It seems like ground beef, not some type of beef paste, that they have mixed with seasoning. It is flavorful, and overall they make a very good taco. 

Thus, based on a better quantity and quality, I feel the tacos at Three Amigos are reasonably priced.  I would rather pay more there, than buy the cheaper tacos at Taco Bell. 

I have also tried the Ground Beef Burrito ($5.49) at Three Amigos, which consisted of an overly plump tortilla packed with fillings.  Again, the restaurant did not skimp and the burrito seemed very fresh and was quite tasty.  It too puts to shame the burritos from Taco Bell. 

For consumers, you need to determine for yourself whether you will choose food based on cost or quality.  Taco Bell may be cheaper, but the quality is commensurate with the price.  Pay a little more, and you can get better quality food. I'll opt for better quality.

Three Amigos on Urbanspoon

Monday, February 21, 2011

Rant: Beating a Dead Food Horse

We don't need another cupcake store.  There are already too many of them, and frankly, most of them produce a mediocre product.  Yet, for unknown reasons, it remains a trend, so we probably will see more cupcake stores open up in the near future.  But why beat a dead food horse?

The problem with food trends is when they get overdone, when too many people jump on the bandwagon and the trend becomes too ubiquitous.  Often, the trend started because the product was more unique, but once it becomes commonplace, it loses much, especially when most of the imitators offer an average quality product.  Though competition can be good, we certainly do not need everyone competing with the same product.

It is easy for a place to ride on the coattails of a trend, to hope to garner customers by giving them a product that is already hot.  But it can also be a very lazy way to run a place, and in addition, you have much more competition.  For example, try to start a cupcake bakery now and you already have tons of other bakeries with which to compete.

Let me use another example, the suburban town of Wakefield. It has a population of about 25,000 and already had several Italian restaurants.  Yet within the last year or so, even more Italian restaurants opened, most within about a half-mile or so.  How many similar Italian restaurants does one small suburban town need?  Why would a restauranteur decide to open another Italian place, when there is already plenty of competition?  It doesn't seem to make good business sense.   

It is much more difficult to be an innovator, to be someone who starts a food trend.  It is certainly riskier to do that, but also can be much more rewarding.  The uniqueness will be a draw for customers, and your competition will be much less.  Plus, it will be more satisfying, knowing you are a leader and not just a follower.  So why don't more people try to do this?  Is the easy way that compelling?

Let's consider the whoopie pie.  It appears to be on the verge of becoming a food trend, yet it is still in its infancy.  A few pioneers are taking the chance on it, trying to produce high-quality products to entice consumers.  Whoopie pies are nothing new in of themselves, yet they are ready for a major surge in popularity. Those who capitalize on it now will likely succeed, while those who wait until it has become ubiquitous, will be those beating a dead whoopie pie.            

The same applies in nearly any field, including blogging.  Will you be a leader or a follow, an innovator or a copier?  Will you take the easy route, or try to be a pioneer and blaze your own way?

I would rather be a pioneer.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sake Tasting: Nothing Harsh Here

It pleases me to see someone taste a chilled, premium sake and watch their reaction when they realize it does not taste harsh, that it does not conform to their erroneous preconceptions.

Last Thursday, I presided over a sake tasting for a special networking event held by New England Home Magazine at the Quidley & Company Fine Art Gallery on Newbury Street in Boston.  Close to 100 people in the design field attended the event, mingling and conversing amidst compelling artwork.  Numerous guests also took the opportunity to try some sake, many who had little experience with this intriguing brew.

I chose six different sakes to pour, including:

Shirakabegura “White Label” Tokubetsu Junmai
Kurosawa Kimoto Junmai
Wataribune "Ferry Boat" Junmai Ginjo 55 
Gekkeikan Horin Ultra Premium Junmai Daiginjo
Momokawa Organic Nigori
Hou Hou Shou Sparkling Sake

I wanted to expose people to a variety of styles and types of premium sake, from low alcohol and slightly sweet sparkling sake to a more full-bodied, dry Junmai.  With all of the diversity of sake, there is sure to be something that will appeal to nearly everyone.  And nearly everyone who tried the sakes found at least one which appealed to them. 

The most common reaction was surprise, when they realized the sake was smooth, and not harsh.  They had assumed the sake would be harsh, some saying they thought it might taste like diesel fuel.  They were probably used to hot sake, which certainly can seem like that.  But these premium sakes are much different, more appealing and more similar to a good wine. 

I know I made at least a few sake converts that night, and some people even contacted me the next day seeking more information.  It satisfies me immensely that my passion for sake spreads, and I hope to continue doing so next month, at least four different sake events.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Bergamot: Creative & Compelling

Last evening, I fulfilled one of my New Year's resolutions: dining at Bergamot.  Bergamot, located in Somerville, opened last year and has received many raves.  I have wanted to dine there for some time, but just never made it there until last night.  And now I can't wait to return.

When you walk into this medium-sized restaurant, your initial impression is positive. There is an ambiance of casual elegance and comfort, a very welcoming vibe with an attractive decor.  There is a small bar area in one corner, seating around 10 people, and a partially open kitchen area in another corner.  The tables are spaced just enough away from each other that you have an element of privacy. 

Though I did not order any wine, I reviewed their wine list, and found it very compelling, with the addition of an eclectic mix of some more esoteric wines.  Cabernet Franc from the Finger Lakes, Coturri wines from Texas, Jura wines, and much more.  Wine lovers will find much to intrigue their palate, and many prices actually seemed reasonable for a restaurant, maybe only twice retail.  There is much I want to try when I return here.   

Their cuisine is Progressive American Cuisine, which is still a relatively new cuisine and undergoing definition.  But, in general, it is a cuisine that starts with classical French techniques but uses regional American ingredients.  Bergamot uses many local ingredients, and their menu often changes, reflecting the variable availabilty of certain ingredients. 

The menu has Appetizers ($10-$12) and Entrees ($22-$27), around seven or so of each.  Plus, there is a Blackboard Special, a set three-course dinner for $39.  There is plenty of variety on the menu, with dishes including vegetarian, beef, poultry, seafood and more.  Much of the cuisine has an interesting creative flair, though you might be initially skeptical about some of the combinations.  Put aside your skepticism though, because these dishes are harmonious, compelling and delicious.    

Our meal began with a pleasant amuse bouche, a small piece of a tasty flatbread with a creamy cheese and I believe a type of pepper. We also received some fresh slices of bread with a sweet butter, and we were offered more bread throughout the meal.

My appetizer was the Berkshire Pork Belly Ravioli ($12), with braising greens, pistachios, crispy shallots and quince. What a sublime dish, one which thoroughly impressed me in every way.  I received three, plump homemade ravioli in a delicious light cream sauce with crunchy shallots, adding a nice texture, and tiny squares of quince, providing a little sweetness to the dish. Some might not have considered quince would work here, but it was a great complement to the pork.  The ravioli had plenty of tender and tasty pork within them, and all of the ingredients worked so well together.  I even sopped up the remaining sauce with some of my bread.  What a great way to start my meal and I highly recommend this dish.

For entrees, we shared two dishes, the Hudson Valley Duck Breast ($27) and Pork Three Ways ($26).  The duck came with sweet potato puree, cipollini onion, swiss chard, black trumpet mushroom, and mustard-spiced honey. The tender, sliced duck breast was cooked perfectly, and was one of the best duck dishes I have enjoyed in some time.  The mushrooms were crunchy and delicious and my dining companion loved the swiss chard too.  The pork dish included braised shank, belly confit, and fennel sausage which were topped with herbed bread crumbs and accompanied by cannellini beans.  The shank meat was very tender, basically falling apart, and the sausage was very moist and flavorful.  Another excellent dish.  

The Dessert menu had five choices ($8-$14), four sweets and a cheese plate.  We decided on the Meyer Lemon Beignets ($9) and Cinnamon Chocolate Cake ($10).  The beignets came with Corralejo tequila ice cream, an espresso glaze and cocoa nibs.  The beignets were like small donut holes and had a strong, but not overwhelming, sweet lemon flavor.  The glaze was very mild so there were only hints of coffee while the ice cream had a definite tequila flavor, though again a balanced flavor.  The flavors of the dessert blended well, much better than you might have thought just from reading the menu.  The cake has crumbled graham crackers, tiny marshmallows, candied peppadews and peppadew ice cream.  Peppadews are sweet piquanté peppers, and may be a strange ingredient for an ice cream but they worked well.  It had the definite flavor of pepperdew but just added an interesting and tasty element to the dessert.  The cake was moist, with a rich chocolate flavor. The pastry chef deserves kudos. 

All of the dishes were presented well, and portion size was just right.  We left sated, without being overly stuffed.  Every dish was creative, prepared well and absolutely delicious.  Service was excellent, and though we had a primary server, several other servers assisted at various times.  The servers acted like a well-seasoned team, being professional, personable and accomodating.  We had the type of dining experience which pleases in all ways.   

Bergamot deserves all of the accolades it has received, and I also give it my highest recommendation.  I cannot wait to return and try more of their dishes. 

Bergamot on Urbanspoon

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I am back again with a new edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I briefly highlight some interesting wine and food items that I have encountered recently.
1) The Beehive partners with Save Venice Boston to create a Baroque musical party & dinner to celebrate Carnival/Mardi Gras the Venetian way on Wednesday, March 9th, from 5pm-2am. Enjoy Italian specialties including octopus salad, scallops with Swiss chard and polenta, roast cod with Orecchiette & broccoli rabe and carnival fritters. Celebrate with one of the most extensive wine and cocktails lists in Boston, MA at the bar while An “All Baroque Ensemble” including the best early music players in from the Longy School of Music in Boston play high energy and thumping classical music.

Later in the evening the music will be taken over in a contemporary way by Roberto Cassini and members of Gran Fatilla for a funky take on Italian folk music. "A Carnevale Ogni Scherzo Vale." It means, “...anything goes at carnevale,” It is rarely said aloud, for the words would be wasted, redundant. Masks, period-style attire and costume are highly encouraged. Reservations recommended by calling 617-423-0069.

2) Great food and a great cause.  The “A Spoonful of Ginger” food tasting event, to benefit Joslin Diabetes Center’s Asian American Diabetes Initiative, will be held on Monday, March 28, from 6:30 p.m.–9:30 p.m.  This will be a fun and delicious event, held in the new Art of the Americas wing at the Museum of Fine Arts – will bring together Boston's finest chefs to raise funding and increase awareness of the growing incidence of diabetes among Asian Americans.

This year’s event will honor Dick & Deb Carlson, Eugene & Lai Wong, and Boston Chef Joanne Chang for their long-standing commitment to the Joslin Diabetes Center and the Asian American Diabetes Initiative (AADI). Participating chefs and restaurants include Ming Tsai of Blue Ginger, Jasper White of Summer Shack, Joanne Chang of Flour Bakery and Myers + Chang, Wesley Chen of Changsho, Jose Duarte of Taranta, Cafénation, Chinatown Café and many others.

All proceeds from A Spoonful of Ginger support Joslin’s AADI which enhances the quality of life and health outcomes for Asian Americans living with diabetes through research, education, outreach and culturally appropriate treatments.  Tickets to this event cost $250 each and all proceeds benefit Joslin’s AADI.  To purchase tickets: Please visit, or contact Joslin’s Development Office at 617-309-2531.

I attended last year's event, and will be attending again this year, and it was an excellent event, with lots of great food and all for a very worthy cause. The Museum of Fine Arts makes for a unique and fascinating venue, while the line-up of star chefs brings its own fascination.  And this year, they might even pour Sake, in conjunction with the usual wine and beer.  Hope to see you there.

3) Tryst Restaurant, in Arlington, is bringing value to dinner with their special “Return To The Table” menu, which is also supposed to remind us of the past, when families gathered around the dinner table at 5pm to share a meal together

Beginning Sunday, February 20th, Tryst Restaurant is offering a “Return to the Table” menu on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday evenings from 5pm-10pm, which features 10 of Executive Chef Paul Turano’s house-made entree, each for only $10 each (tax and gratuity are not included).  So what’s the catch? No bar or lounge seats for you. This special is only available in Tryst’s dining room. Reservations are not necessary, but recommended by calling 781-641-2227. “Return to the Table” menu is offered in addition to Tryst’s regular dinner menu.

Return to the Table Menu
--Classic Sliders (pickles, cheddar & sea salt chips)
--Fish & Chips (house-made tartar sauce & sea salt chips)
--Tomato & Fresh Mozzarella Flatbread
--Pork Ribs (house-made slaw, cornbread & scallion mashed potatoes)
--Mac & Cheese (country ham, peas & ritz cracker crumbs)
--Hearts of Romaine (grilled chicken, spicy pepitas, cornbread croutons, avocado & chili lime dressing)
--Tagliatelle Bolognese (shaved parmesan)
--Mushroom Pizza (goat cheese, sweet onions & truffle vinaigrette)
--Turkey Panini (Gruyere, apple, smoked bacon with house pickles & sea salt chips)
--House-Made Pork Sausage Sandwich (vinegar peppers & sea salt chips)

4) Can Boston chefs compete with top celebrity chefs?  The answer is clearly Yes, and we have had proof in the past, such as Chef Joanne Chang when defeated Chef Bobby Flay on his Throwdown! television show.  Another challenge has now come to Boston, and let us hope Boston can once again prevail.  Chefs Carla and Christine Pallotta of Nebo will face off against Bobby Flay on his Throwdown! show in a battle over vegetable lasagna. The show will air on March 2nd at 8:30pm on the Food Network.

Nebo was my 2010 Favorite North End Restaurant, Moderate and I recommend it to everyone. Plus, they both are from Stoneham, my home town. So I am really pulling for Carla and Christine to win this one.  Tune in on March 2 and root for the ladies to take down Bobby Flay!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Wine Blog Wednesday Returns: WBW #70-Spain

After a hiatus of nine months, Wine Blog Wednesday has returned!

I am especially glad to see it return as I was the host for the last one, WBW #69, and did not want to be seen as even partially responsible for killing off WBW. Only five people participated in WBW #69, and I fervently hope that many more people will participate in this new event.  It is a cool and fun event and worthy of participation by many wine bloggers. 

Ryan and Gabriella, the fine people behind Catavino, are the hosts for WBW #70, and the theme is Spain. They asked the participants to "Seek out Spanish wines that you’ve never had before! Get creative! Hunt for unique styles such as a Sherry, Cava, Fondillon or Mistella; an unheard of region like Arribes, Txakoli de Alava or Extremadura; or a unique native grape like Prieto Picudo or Treixadura." Though that is probably an easy theme for many, I actually had some difficulty with it.

As I have long been a fan of Spanish wines, and love trying new and different wines, it has become more and more difficult for me at local wine stores to find something I have not tasted before. Though there are likely indigenous grapes from Spain I have not tried before, they are not readily available at local wine stores. So what was I to do? What wine could I choose for WBW that might conform to the guidelines?

Fortunately, my good friend Adam, a wine lover and author of the Wine Zag blog, unintentionally came to my rescue. We both played poker over the weekend and Adam brought a Spanish wine, the 2007 Bodegas Avanthia Mencia from the Valdeorras D.O. I have tasted Mencia from other Spanish D.O.s (such as Bierzo), and drank Godello from Valdeorras, but have never tasted Mencia from Valdeorras. So, this was something new to me.

In the northwestern region of Galicia, you will find the D.O. of Valdeorras, established in 1977 and located on the banks of the Sil River.  The term "Valdeorras" translates as “Valley of Gold” and might have been the first wine producing region in Galicia.  Its history extends back to the time of the ancient Romans, who mined for gold in the nearby Las Médulas Hills, located in the Léon province.  The Romans planted grapes in the Valdeorras valley, to produce wine for their settlements in this region.

Godello is currently the primary grape in Valdeorras, though Mencia is starting to see a surge. I have enjoyed several Godellos from this region, but until now, I had not tasted one of their Mencias.  Mencia wines used to be rather light, simple and easy drinking wines but much more complex and exciting wines are now being made from the grape. It was once thought to be a clone of Cabernet Franc, but that was disproven by DNA testing, and it was found to be identical to the Jaen du Dão grape of Portugal.  I think Mencia wines often are delicious on their own, but also great for food pairings.

Bodegas Avanthia is a joint project, founded in 2006, between the Gil family of Jumilla, Bodegas Godeval and Jorge Ordoñez. The winery is located in the mountains next to El Barco de Valdeorras, the vineyards planted on the mountainsides and primarily with Godello and Mencia. Their two Mencia vineyards are located at about 1800 feet above sea level, and the soil is mainly decomposed black slate and quartz. Each vineyard has old vines, one 70 and the other 85 years old. 

The 2007 Bodegas Avanthia Mencia ($60-$70) is produced from 100% Mencia, which was hand harvested and comes from both of the Mencia vineyards.  It underwent aging in new French oak for about fourteen months and was not filtered. It has an alcohol content of 13.5% and only 100 cases of this wine were produced. So because of this tiny productiuon, this might be a tough wine for you to find, but I highly recommend that you pick up a bottle if you can find it (and are willing to pay the high price).

The aroma of this wine immediately captivated me, a seductive nose of raspberry, blueberry, underlying spice and floral notes. The taste was lush and silky smooth, an appealing melange of rich fruit flavors, hints of minerality, spice notes and a lengthy and satisying finish. With plenty of complexity, a good structure and nice balance, this wine was ready for drinking now, but showed the potential to age well too.  It was a hedonistic wine in some ways, but without being over the top or a fruit bomb.  It was more quietly seductive, an alluring partner whose lips beckon to be tasted.  I was very impressed with the wine and believe it is worth its price tag.

I think the Avanthia is a lucky wine too, as I also won at poker.  So change your own karma and drink some Avanthia.

Thanks to Lenn for bringing back Wine Blog Wednesday, and thanks to Ryan & Gabriella for this new theme.  I'll be looking forward to WBW#71 next month as well.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

2009 Stadlmann Rotgipfler Anninger Classic

What is Rotgipfler?  No, it is not a strange German zombie disease or some Austrian streudel.  Instead, it is a rare Austrian wine grape.  With my penchant for unusual and rare grapes, I was very pleased to receive a sample of a wine produced from Rotgipfler, to taste what it can create.

The 2009 Stadlmann Rotgipfler Anninger Classic is made by Weingut Stadlmann, owned by Johann and Michaela Stadlmann.  The winery was founded back in 1780 by Johann Stadlmann, and seven subsequent generations have continued the wine making tradition.  The winery practices organic agriculture and believe in no manipulation of their wines.  Their 30 acres are planted with grapes, about 2/3 white, including:  Zierfandler, Rotgipfler, Neuburger, Pinot Blanc, Muskat, Riesling, Gruener Veltliner, Pinot Noir, St. Laurent, Zweigelt, and Cabernet Sauvignon. 

The winery is located in the Thermenregion area, which ranges from the outskirts of Vienna to the plain south of Baden. The name "Thermenregion" stems from the thermal springs in the area, and it is one of the warmest of Austrian's wine regions.  To the north of the region is the Anninger, a large foothill of the Vienna Woods.

Zierfandler and Rotgipfler grapes are indigenous to this area, extending back at least as far as the Hapsburg Empire.  Back then, they were both known as “Gumpoldskirchner,” probably named after a similarly named village in the region, and were called, “the wine of kings and the king of wines."  Rotgipfler derives part of its name, "rot" which means "red," for the red tips of its vine leaves.  It is also known to be a cross between Traminer and Roter Veltliner.  So what did I think about the wine made from this grape?

The 2009 Stadlmann Rotgipfler Anninger Classic (about $15) is made with 100% Rotgipfler, from 20 year old vines, and has an alcohol content of 12.5%.  The wine is fermented in stainless steel and spends about four months in large, old oak barrels.  I was having some rappie pie this weekend, and decided to pair this wine with it.  Rappie pie probably pairs best with white wine and I thought this wine might work.   

This wine brought to mind a cross between Gruner Veltliner and Gewurtztraminer. The wine was full bodied, with an interesting palate of bright citrus and pear with underlying, and more subtle, spices. Thus, it has some of the fruitiness I associate with Gruner, but with some of the spicy nature of Gewurtz.  It had excellent acidity, some mineral notes, and good character for this price point. It paired well with the rappie pie, the mild flavors of the potato, chicken and pork, as well as cutting through the butter.  A nice value at this price, it offers a slightly exotic option which is worth checking out.  And why not expand your horizon and try a rare grape?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Non-Rant: Embrace The Passion

Today is Valentine's Day, a time of love and passion, so it is not an appropriate time for a Rant.  Instead, let me ask my readers to embrace their passion.

What is passion?  The word supposedly derives from an ancient Greek term "paskho" which basically means "to suffer," and some modern dictionaries provide that as an obselete definition. That meaning has changed over time, and now a popular definition is that it is an intense interest in a person, place, object, activity, cause, etc.  To me, passion also helps give meaning to life, elevating mere existence to a higher purpose. Without any passion in our lives, we might as well be automatons, simply going through the motions without experiencing positive and fulfilling emotion.

I have a passion for food and drink, and suspect my readers may have similar passions, or you probably would not be reading me.  Continue to embrace those passions, to let food and drink bring joy to your lives.  If you possess other passions, embrace those as well.  It is not important the nature of your passion, as long as you possess passion for something.  And feel free to have multiple passions, as people are certainly capable of possessing more than a single passion.  As an example, besides food and drink, I also have a passion for books, being a voracious and eclectic reader.

It is those people who have not embraced their passion though who need to listen the most.  They might work too many hours, feeling too exhausted to embrace any passion.  But their lives may be monotonous and boring, the same drudgery day in and day out.  They exist but they do not really live, not in a fuller sense.  They need to find some time for their passion, to bring some light into their dreary existence.  You probably know people like that and I encourage you to help them find and embrace their passion.

Embracing your passion can take many forms. You don't have to write about them as I do.  The key is simply bringing joy to your life with the object of your passion.  That should be easy for anyone to do. Just find what brings you joy and allow it into your life.

Happy Valentine's Day and embrace your passion.         

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Upcoming Sake Events

March is shaping up to be Sake Month in the Boston area as I will be presiding at several sake events, including a class, a couple tastings and a dinner. These should all be fun, informative and interesting and I hope to see many of you there.  This is the perfect time to learn more about sake, and to correct your misconceptions about this compelling drink.  Plus, there are more potential events in the near future which should prove equally as interesting. 

1) Want to learn more about Sake? Then you can do so at my upcoming "Chilling With Sake" class at the Boston Wine School on Wednesday, March 16, at 6:30pm. This will be a fun introduction to the realm of sake, covering diverse topics such as sake history, the brewing process, sake types, rituals & customs, terminology and much more. No prior knowledge of sake is required to take this class.  We will taste through a number of sakes, as well as enjoy sushi. Don't be intimidated by sake any longer. Instead, arm yourself with the knowledge you need to safely navigate a restaurant's sake menu or a wine store's sake selection.

2) After the recent fun and success of the Sherry and Thai dinner, I will be returning to Ronnarong in Somerville on March 8, Thai Tapas Tuesday, for Sake and Thai. The details are still being worked out, such as which Sakes will be poured, but mark down the date on your calendar. Space will be limited so once sign up starts, you should reserve a space quickly to ensure you can be there. Thai Tapas Tuesdays are held on the second Tuesday of each month. Order a drink and your tapas is free! (drink price must equal or exceed tapas price)

3) Almost in my backyard, I will be presiding at a Sake tasting at the Wine Cellar of Stoneham, located in the B.J.s Wholesale Club in Stoneham, tentatively scheduled for March 20, from 1pm-3pm..  The store was a Runner-Up Discount Wine Store in my 2010: Favorite Wine & Spirit Related Items.  They have excellent, discounted prices and the sakes I will be pouring will have some of the lowest prices in the state.

4) Pizzeria Posto, located just off Davis Square, was one of my Favorite Restaurants of 2010, and has a top notch brunch, delicious pizzas and killer pasta. I am currently working with Chef/owner Joseph Cassinelli on a Sake-paired Italian dinner for a likely Tuesday or Wednesday night during the last two weeks in March.  This multi-course dinner will showcase several different sakes, presenting how sake can pair well with Italian cuisine. Think umami, as that fifth taste will be put to the test.  More details will soon follow and I think this dinner will really be an exciting experience.

5) Very tentatively, there could be a Sake-pairing dinner in the future at The Melting Pot.  First, Sake and cheese is a great pairing so a cheese fondue would work well with sake. Second, the entree fondues certainly resembles Japanese shabu-shabu, and sake would likely pair well with that too. The type of fondue broth would certainly dictate the type of sake to pair with it, but that would just be a matter of the proper combination.  And there are dessert-style sakes you could pair with chocolate fondue too.  So, when I know more details about the possibility of Sake & Fondue, I will post about it.

6) There are a couple other potential events that I am working on, but can't reveal the details yet.  Please also remember that if you want to run a sake-event at your wine store, restaurant, school, function, etc., please contact me to discuss it.  Sake is a very versatile, diverse and delicious beverage.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Sake, Amino Acids & Food

Amino acids are important to sake, especially concerning food pairings, yet it is not an area which most consumers understand. So let me try to demystify the topic, without getting too technical.

At its simplest, amino acids are the basic building blocks of proteins. I won’t go into a more detailed scientific explanation for it is not necessary for my intent here. The key to know is that each amino acid has its own specific function and they play a significant role in the consumption of sake.

There are over twenty different amino acids in sake, a greater variety than found in any other alcohol. As an example, sake contains seven times more amino acids than red wine. During fermentation, about 55% of the protein in rice gets broken down and converted into nitrogen compounds, of which around 45% are amino acids. Higher quality sakes, with greater rice polishing rates, have less proteins available for conversion so tend to have lower levels of amino acids. 

As the fermentation process for sake is generally longer than that of wine, it also tends to produce more amino acids. In addition, the more traditional brewing processes, kimoto and yamahai, which can take twice as long to ferment, generally have the most amino acids of any sakes.

The degree of amino acids in a sake is known as the amino sando, and you may see that number listed on a sake label or in the sales materials. Amino sando levels tend to average between about 0.7 and 1.5. Each specific style of sake has an average amino acid level, though obviously there is variation. Some examples are: Futsu-shu 1.3, Ginjo 1.3, Honjozo 1.3, and Junmai 1.5.

In general, higher levels indicate a more full-bodied, rounder, and richer tasting sake. Thus, you are more likely to have a higher level with a Junmai. Lower levels indicate a lighter, cleaner, and more mellow sake. Thus, the more elegant sakes like Ginjo and Daiginjo will have lower levels. But there is more to amino acids than these basics.

Four kinds of amino acids are considered to most affect taste: alanine, arginine, glutamic acid, and aspartic acid. Alanine is said to produce sweetness while arginine produces bitterness. Both glutamic and aspartic acid can create produce acidity and astringency. But, glutamic acid may be the most important because of its added role in creating umami. As a side note, most wine contains very little glutamic acid.

Umami, the fifth taste, is often defined as “savoriness” and you will find it in foods such as soy sauce, ripe tomatoes, parmesan cheese, scallops, mushrooms and more. When you combine two ingredients with umami, it intensifies the overall umami flavor. Thus, when an umami-rich sake is paired with umami-rich food, it enhances the umami in the whole dish, making it taste even better.

Because of this umami magnification effect, sake can pair well with many different cuisines, and not just Japanese. Would you think of sake and Italian cuisine? Well, an umami-rich sake would pair well with the umami of tomatoes and parmesan so it could go well with many Italian dishes. Or you could pair a high umami kimoto sake with a mushroom dish, like a risotto, and see how the flavors were intensified.

As an added bonus, the amino acids in sake also help to neutralize fishy flavors in seafood, something wine generally cannot do. Thus, sake may be a better pairing with seafood than wine, especially any seafood that might tend to possess a fishy flavor. As an example, some red wines contain minute amounts of iron that cause seafood to leave a fishy taste in your mouth. That does not happen with sake.

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. As a non-food related bonus, there are amino acids in sake which activate skin cells and help prevent skin cell aging.

For example, sake contains plenty of alanine, which is found in collagen, and it also responsible for skin strength and elasticity. Thus, there are numerous companies which create skin moisturizers, cleansers and bath supplies from sake. You could take a saké-buro, a sake bath, which 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.

As you can see, there is much more to sake than maybe you thought.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I am back again with a new edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I briefly highlight some interesting wine and food items that I have encountered recently.

1) Towne Stove and Spirits is ready to put their new winter menu into practice, as created by Culinary Director Lydia Shire and Executive Chef Mario Capone. The revamped carte du jour at Towne will refresh some signature dishes while adding in some future classics. Towne Stove and Spirits features an eclectic menu with cuisine spanning the continents, with Shire and Capone’s inspired creations conveniently denoted by their respective world flags.

For “starters,” Towne Stove and Spirits will offer the following new options: Clams (1/2 dozen baked littlenecks with croutons, watercress, garlic and Pernod butter - $17); Crisp Semolina Flatbread (Venetian with warm goat cheese, crema & sauce pomodoro - $12); Zucchini ‘Tangle’ (French fried with crisped calamari, sweet & hot pepper pot - $18; $28); Ravioli (Pierogi with potato & ricotta, smoked lamb riblets - $18); Soup (Apple & celery root with chestnut flan - $12); and, Scallops (Day boat with chili roasted pork belly, sugarcane skewered, taro mash, tart yuzu - $21). In addition to Towne’s signature Lobster Popovers ($6 per piece), Shire and Capone now serve up the following preparations: Lobster Tail (Bacalao + beets - $12/tail); and, Lobster Cheddar Toast (with hot teacup of bisque - $14).

Moving onto the “ocean + wood fired” section of the menu, the culinary team at Towne is proud to unveil: Cod “Bullet” (with lobster ravioli in Thai broth, Kaffir lime leaves - $32); Swordfish (Winter’s crisped Maine Shrimp, speckled heart grits, smoked shrimp butter - $31); and, Lobster Tails (Wood grilled, family style with lemony grilled rosemary mousseline or garlic + green chive butter – market price). Towne Stove and Spirits is also featuring new “carnivore + wood fired” options, including: Chicken (1/2 ROTO, Senegalese w/ manioc, yucca and spicy peanut - $24); Double Kurobuta Pork Chop (with sweet potato sformato, toasted pecans & bruleed mini marshmallows - $30); Sirloin (16 oz. prime dry aged, simply grilled or peppered “au poivre” - $26; w/ grilled lobster tail – market price); and, Tomahawk Rib Steak (hand cut & sizzling with Towne steak sauce – market price for two, three or more).

For “sides,” Towne Stove and Spirits will now dish out the following: Colombian Rice (Crisped shredded beef, green onion, cilantro & achiote - $10); King Oyster Mushrooms (Garlicky & wood grilled on whole grist polenta with or without roasted marrow - $12); and, Cauliflower (whole head, golden roasted with golden raisin, pine nut & parsley ‘picada’ - $11).

2) Mohegan Sun has plenty of offer for Valentine's Day and here is a sampling of what you can find. You can get more information by calling 1-888-226-7711 or checking their website.

Dining Offerings: 
At Birches Bar & Grill, a special Valentine's Day 3-course meal will be offered both Sunday and Monday beginning at noon. Start the meal off with either Soup du Jour or the Birches House Salad, followed by Surf & Turf featuring an 8 oz. Sirloin Steak with two Seafood Stuffed Shrimp, Chef's Vegetable and Rice Pilaf. And no meal is complete without dessert. Guests will enjoy "Love Thy Chocolate" a Molten Chocolate Heart Cake with Wild Strawberry Mousse on a Strawberry Coulis painted plate. Price is $29.95.

Michael Jordan's Steak House has a special 3-course meal planned.  Begin with a Prosciutto Caprese consisting of Fresh Mozzarella with Heirloom Tomatoes, Roasted Red Pepper & Crumble Blue Cheese tossed in Chianti Vinaigrette, followed by a 32 oz. Tomahawk Steak for two that offers Long Bone Prime Aged Rib Eye Steak dressed up with Worcestershire Reduction and Elephant Roasted Garlic. The dessert will be Long Stemmed Strawberries Dipped in Chocolate Ganache. The meal includes a complementary bottle of Cataregia Gran Reserva Tempranillo wine and is served at $149 per couple.

SolToro Tequila Grill is also having the celebration go all weekend long with a Surf and Turf Valentine's Day special. The delectable platter will feature an N.Y. Strip Loin, Cilantro and Serrano Pepper Biarnaise, Wild Mushroom Pilaf, Jumbo Shrimp, Veracruzana Sauce, Chorizo and Jalapeqo Cornbread. This special can be purchased for $29.95 or for two at $57.95

Jasper White's Summer Shack will be serving up a weekend long Valentine's Day special that includes an Oyster, Clam & Shrimp Raw Bar Platter for two. The entrie specials feature either a Surf & Turf option for two which includes Grilled Lobster & Steak Tips or a Whole Steamed Sea Bass for two with Starch & Veggies. Dessert is Bananas Foster for two. This holiday special will run from February 12th - 14th.

Hotel & Spa Specials
Guests looking for something a bit more intimate can enjoy one of Mohegan Sun's special hotel packages. The new "Get Lucky" hotel package feature plush accommodations for a one night stay, an intimacy kit including oils, massaging relaxation tools and more. In addition, guests get a cozy meal for two at Lucky's Lounge which includes a gourmet pizza and two domestic beers of their choice and a $10.00 free bet voucher, per person. The rate for this special starts at $192.00. Couples looking to book should mention code PTGLK.

This Valentine's Day, couples can also take advantage of a romantic getaway with Mohegan Sun's "In Love" package which includes VIP check-in and a dozen Chocolate Covered Strawberries delivered to your room while being greeted with rose petals. In addition, the package includes two martinis at Leffingwells Martini Bar and a couple's massage. This special night can also be capped off with one free in-room movie as well. This package is based on double occupancy and starts out at $520 total.

Elemis Spa will also be running an "In Love" spa treatment that includes a 50-minute couple's massage, a couples lite lunch and a Visible Brilliance Facial for her & Urban Skin Cleanse Facial for him. The total for this package is $625.00 and the duration is two hours and thirty minutes.

Stoneham Sun: Winestone, A Gem for Wine Lovers

My new column of "A Passionate Foodie" can be found in the February 9 issue of the Stoneham Sun newspaper. This is a weekly column that concentrates on reviews of local restaurants though it also deals with other food and wine topics.

The new column has been published already and will be available online soon. The new article, Winestone: A Gem for Wine Lovers, is a review of Winestone, a cool wine store in Chestnut Hill.  The wine store has an exciting selection of wines, at all price points, including many under $25.  This is the type of wine store I really enjoy and I can't wait to return there.

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

Drink with passion

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

2009 Martin Codax Albarino: Thoughts of Summer

Like many in the Northeast region, I am tired of all the snow that has fallen this winter.  I despise shoveling more than any other household chore.  So, anything which reminds me of summer is especially pleasing at this time of year.  And though I drink it year round, Albariño still brings to mind a warm summer day. 

Albariño is an indigenous grape in Spain, and grows primarily in the Galicia region, in the northwest of Spain. It is the signature grape in the Denomination de Origin (D.O.) of Rías Baixas, which is also the only exclusively white wine D.O. in Spain.  Though 12 grape varieties are permitted in Rias Baixas, Albariño remains king, representing 90% of all plantings.  The key to Albariño wines in this region is the terroir, the cool Atlantic climate and the more than 2,200 hours of sunshine each year.  The flavor profile of this grape varies dependent on the terroir.  For example, different terroirs might yield a more mineral-driven and structured wine or a softer, rounder wine.

Albariño is popular in the U.S., which imports more than half of the total exports of Rias Baixas. The grape is now grown in many other parts of the world, including the U.S., where the first plantings were actually in Virginia. The grape commonly produces crisp and aromatic wines, with flavors including honeysuckle, citrus, melon, peach, pear, apricot, mango, and other exotic fruits.  The wine is an excellent pairing with many types of seafood, as well as other light fare.  I love an Albarino with steamed clams, mussels, shrimp, or grilled white fish. 

The 2009 Martin Codax Albarino (about $15) is made from 100% Albariño, which was fermented in stainless steel tanks and about 40% of the wine underwent malolactic fermentation.  Following fermentation, the wine was aged sur lie for four months.  It has an alcohol content of 12.82%.

The winemaker is Katia Alvarez, who started her career in wine at age 19 as an intern at a Galician winery. She eventually earned a degree in viticulture, worked in a Rioja winery, and spent a couple years in Chile before joining Martin Codax.  Interestingly, over half of the nearly 200 wineries in Rias Baixas have female winemakers. This has been a very recent change as back in 1990, there were few female winemakers in this D.O.  The surge of female winemakers has led to higher quality and more complex Albariño wines.  They have continued experimentation and I bet their wines will only continue to improve. 

The wine has a light golden color and an alluring nose of bright fruits, reminding me of a summer farmer's market. It is a full-bodied and crisp wine, with clean and delicious flavors of apple, peach, lemon and touches of pineapple. It has character and complexity, and the finish is fairly long, smooth and pleasing.  It is refreshing, and one sip easily leads to another and then another.  I could drink this on its own, slowly sipping it on a lawn chair beneath the summer sun, or paired with food. An excellent wine at this price point and a good example of the delights of  Albariño.     

Buca di Beppo: Bring a Hearty Appetite

Buca di Beppo is an Italian restaurant where all but the most ravenous diners will have doggie bags to take home. They serve family-style food in two sizes: Small, which feeds up to three people, and Large, which feeds up to six people. The only exception is that at lunch they offer single-serving dishes.  But, in general, you are going to have lots of food on your table.

Buca di Beppo is a chain, the first restaurant having opened in 1993 in Minneapolis, and there are now approximately 87 locations across the country, including four in Massachusetts: Lexington, Dedham, Shrewsbury, and Seekonk. In 2008, the company was purchased by Planet Hollywood International Inc. Its Massachusetts' locations are relatively new and I was recently invited to check out their Lexington restaurant.

Though it is a chain, I don't dismiss a restaurant simply because of that fact.  Not all chains are the same, and some actually produce tasty food.  Each chain needs to be evaluated on its own merits, though also considering the intent of the restaurant. Buca Di Beppo wants to appeal to families and groups, providing lots of food at reasonable prices. It is not seeking to produce gourmet cuisine, and is trying create the type of food that is familiar to most consumers.

Their menu is fairly extensive, with Antipasti, Insalate, Pizza, Pasta, Baked Pasta, Entrees and Side Dishes. Plus, they have a number of limited-time specials. You'll find lots of the usual red-sauce Italian dishes, from chicken parmigiana to meatballs, from lasagna to fruitti di mare. Prices seem reasonable considering the amount of food you receive, such as small entrees, enough for three people, ranging from $17-$26.

I did have an initial issue with my menu being dirty and sticky, and my companion's menu was also dirty, though not to the extent of mine. That left a bad first impression and Buca needs to address that issue.  Their menus have that plastic-like coating and it should be easy to keep them clean, though they need to regularly check the menus.

The wine list has many mass produced, commercial choices, not much to excite a wine lover, but most are reasonably priced.  I tried their House Chianti though and was pleasantly surprised, as it was an easy-drinking, fruit driven wine with more character than I would have expected at its low price point.  I also tasted the Italian Margarita, which was ok but too sweet for my tastes.  But, I can see how many others would enjoy it.  They make homemade sodas, so I had to try one and decided on the Purple Pear.  I really enjoyed it, especially as it was not overly sweet and had nice tastes of pear and strawberry. 

We began our meal with a basket of Mozzarella Garlic Bread ($9.45/small), and it was tasty with fresh bread, lots of cheese, and big pieces of garlic.  It is something you can enjoy on its own, or use later in your meal to sop up sauce.  It was a promising start to the meal. 

We then moved onto an Antipasti, the Buca Trio Platter ($19.95), a sampling of Fried Calamari, Fried Mozzarella and Stuffed Mushrooms served with marinara, a spicy marinara and a pesto cream sauce. The calamari were crisp and tender, while the mushrooms were flavorful, filled with prosciutto, cheese and spices.  The fried mozzarella was crisp on the outside, with lots of creamy cheese within. A good fried appetizer. 

The Chopped Antipasto Salad ($12.45/small) includes diced pepperoni, red onions, pepperoncini peppers, cucumbers, provolone, feta and Gorgonzola cheeses, tossed with a lettuce blend in an Italian vinaigrette.  This is not quite what I expect from an Italian Antipasto, and is more just a regular garden salad with a few additions.  As a regular salad, it was good, the veggies seemed fresh and I liked the dressing. The different cheeses were a nice addition, adding more flavor and texture to the salad.

For our first entree, we tried the Chicken Saltimbocca ($20.95/small), sautéed chicken breasts layered with fresh sage and prosciutto, topped with artichoke hearts, lemon butter sauce and capers.  The chicken was moist and tender, and the sauce was light and buttery with only mild hints of lemon. 

My favorite dish of the evening was the Lobster Ravioli ($22.95/small), home-style ravioli stuffed with North Atlantic lobster, topped with shrimp and in a scampi sauce.  The ravioli were excellent, apparently home-made, and filled with plenty of sweet lobster.  The scampi sauce was very good, a bit creamy with lots of flavor.  A perfect sauce for dipping your bread.  This is a dish I would highly recommend, though note that it is one of their limited-time specials.

As the server made a mistake, we ended up with a plate of Cheese Ravioli and the ravioli were as good as the lobster ones.  The inside of the ravioli had plenty of cheese and the red sauce was good.

Though you might have a huge dinner, you should try to save some room for dessert.  The Tiramisu ($10.45) has homemade ladyfingers soaked in dark rum and espresso, layered with sweetened mascarpone cheese and topped with cocoa and crumbled hazelnut biscotti.  This huge bowl of dessert has powerful flavors and a light and creamy texture. An absolutely delicious dish, I enjoyed some the next day too as I certainly could not finish it all at the restaurant.

As Buca di Beppo is new, I give it some leeway so they have sufficient time to work out the initial kinks. But, the food in general is good, with a couple dishes that are excellent. Plus note that I only tried a small sampling of their menu so I can't speak for the rest of the food.  It would be a great place for families and large groups to dine. It is not a fine-dining establishment but does not pretend to be either.  It is a place for hearty fare, to sate almost any appetite. 

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