Friday, August 30, 2013

Seasons 52 Fresh Grill & Wine Bar: Healthy & Wine-centric

Burlington is becoming an attractive destination for restaurant chains, from Capital Grille to Bobby's Burger Palace. In the near future, places such as Bonefish Grill and Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steak House will open there. To me, chains can be a mixed bag, some which are good and others which offer bountiful portions of mediocre food. The latest chain restaurant to open in Burlington, having opened only yesterday, is Seasons 52, a "fresh grill and wine bar." Earlier this week, I attended a pre-opening media dinner and got a sneak peek at what is coming. And then I stopped by yesterday to check out their lunch.

Located on the second floor of the former Borders Book Store, in the Wayside Commons shopping complex, there is ample parking as well as valet service. Seasons 52 currently has about 32 locations, scattered across the country, and emphasizes a seasonal and healthy menu, with no item, from appetizers to entrees, having more than 475 calories. In addition, they have a specially curated wine list, of about 100 selections, with around 60 available by the glass. The healthy concept, with wine, sounds like an interesting concept but is it executed well? Is Seasons 52 one of those mediocre chains or not? In short, they have started out well and show much potential.

Before dinner, I got a tour of the restaurant and it certainly looks nothing like the former Borders. The decor is elegant and sophisticated, almost resembling some of the higher-end steakhouses. It seats around 300 people, including the main dining area, the piano bar, outside patio and four meeting rooms. The bar is good-sized and every night they have a piano playing there, while the four meeting rooms are appropriate for everything from business conferences to wedding parties. We dined in one of the private rooms, the Sonoma Room, and the sound of the piano can still be heard there.

The kitchen is open and there is also a brick oven, which helps them prepare healthier dishes. I've always liked the idea of an open kitchen as I think it is a sign of confidence in the cooks.

There is a private Chef's Table, for roughly eight people, and you can reserve it for a minimum spending amount, varying dependent on the day. If the room is not previously reserved, a group who comes in may luck out andbe  able to sit here. There is a special Chef's Table Menu too for this room.

Near the entrance of the restaurant is their glassed-in Wine Chateau, where they store around 2000 wines. As they lack any basement storage for their wines, the wines are stored in the Chateau as well as throughout the restaurant.

Within the Chateau, they also are infusing organic vodka with oranges, and will create additional infusions in the future. The fruit will sit within the vodka for about a week.

Our hosts for the evening included George Miliotes, Master Sommelier (on the left), Chef Stefan Jarausch, Executive Chef Partner (in the middle), and Sean Wiseman, Managing Partner (on the right). Chef Jarausch, who is German born, most recently worked at Oak Long Bar & Kitchen at Fairmont Copley. They did a fine job of welcoming us to the restaurant, explaining the food and wine during our dinner, and answering all of our questions.

The restaurant is open for both lunch and dinner, with no item has more than 475 calories, making the restaurant a good choice for the weight conscious. One way they help keep calories down is by not using butter at all. They do not even stock butter in their kitchen. Besides their regular menus, they also have special dietary menus including: Lactose-Free, Low Sodium, Gluten-Free, Garlic-Free, Vegetarian and Vegan.

For Lunch, you'll find Flatbreads, Salads, Soft Tacos, Sandwiches, Burgers and Entrees, all priced from around $6-$20. Try a Red Mole Braised Beef Soft Taco with jalapeño-lime slaw, guacamole, and pickled red onion ($9.75) or a Grilled Boneless Rainbow Trout with baby carrots, parsley roasted potatoes, & grilled lemon ($16.95). The Dinner Menu omits the sandwiches, burgers & tacos, adding more entrees, topping out price-wise at $26.95. You will also find a number of seasonal specials available with each menu.

Though wine-centric, the restaurant has a complete bar, and carries plenty of beers, liquors and cocktails (roughly priced $11-$14). George Miliotes, their Master Sommelier, has personally selected all of the wines on the list for all of the Seasons 52 restaurants. The wine list has about 100 selections, 60 available by the glass, and about half the list costs $50 or under per bottle. The wine list rarely changes, and George has made long term relationships with a number of the wineries and some wines are even produced just for Seasons 52. George stated that as the restaurant is partially about "discovery," so is the wine list and the staff will gladly let you taste their wines prior to your purchases.

The wine list has some of the usual suspects, but there is some interesting diversity on the list as well. For example, they carry 6 Sparkling Wines, including a Prosecco, Cava and two California wines. Their two Champagnes are actually both from Growers, which is something you don't see too often at restaurants. My only concern with the list is with its pricing. It is seemingly priced on a sliding scale of sorts, with the less expensive wines having the highest markup, which can be 3X+ their usual retail price. If I can buy a wine at my local wine shop for $8-$10, I don't want to pay $34 for it at a restaurant. The higher-end wines more often are priced around 2X their usual retail, making them a better buy.

They offer a special, Flights & Flatbreads, with two flights of three wines, one white and the other red, for $15 and you also get your choice of a Flatbread. There is a third flight, of three red wines, for $20, which also gives you your choice of a Flatbread. You get 2 ounces pours of the three wines, and then you get an additional 6 ounce glass of the wine you want from those three. In essence, you are getting two glasses of wine. At the usual price, the $15 flights might cost you as much as $28 separately, so it is a good value.

Prior to sitting down for our dinner, we sipped some NV Chartogne-Taillet Cuvee Sainte Anne Champagne, a fine Grower Champagne with lots of flavor and character. A delightful melange of fruit, good acidity, a hint of smokiness and mild floral notes. It is also very fairly priced on their wine list. With our bubbly, we enjoyed slices of a couple Flatbreads, including a Trio of Roasted Mushrooms and a Chipotle Shrimp. The Chipotle was made with roasted poblanos, grilled pineapple, feta cheese, shrimp and a spicy chipotle sauce. The flatbreads are thin and crisp, and the ingredients made for a harmonious and tasty blend.

Once we sat, our evening began with an amuse-bouche, a spoonful of Lump Crab, Haas avocado and some pico de gallo. A nice little bite, and the fresh, crisp pico de gallo gave a nice boost to this dish. With this amuse, we enjoyed the 2011 Aveleda Vinho Verde, a Portuguese wine with a pleasant crisp taste of apples and a little effervescence. A simple but refreshing wine, perfect for the summer.

Next up was a Cedar Plank Salmon and Lemongrass Sea Scallop, with carrot, asparagus and a pepper. The scallops were from New England and the salmon was from a farm in Canada, though they stated they use wild salmon in season. The seafood was cooked well, with a nice sear on the scallop and the veggies were crisp. This is the type of light dish which is both tasty and filling. This was paired with the 2010 Mer Soleil Chardonnay, from the Central Coast of California, though the oak influence was too prominent for my own preferences, but others at the dinner enjoyed it.

A Baby Spinach Salad, made with Subarashii Kudamono pears, toasted pine nuts, and crumbled Gorgonzola cheese was lightly topped with a white balsamic vinaigrette. Though I am not a spinach guy, the rest of the salad was pleasant, the pears and Gorgonzola making a fine pairing. Our wine for this course was the 2012 Casillero del Diablo Viognier, from Chile, which was aromatic though not perfumy, with a nice taste of citrus, apricot and hints of spice. A good choice.

One of my favorite courses was the Sonoma Goat Cheese Ravioli with harvest vegetables, black mushrooms, and an apple cider & roasted onion jus. The pasta was cooked perfectly, and the creamy filling, complemented by the compelling sauce, was decadently delicious. This is a dish I would order again and highly recommend. The veggies were crisp, making a nice contrast to the creaminess of the ravioli.

Our wine was for this course was the 2009 Retromarcia Chianti Classic, a more Old World style wine made from 100% Sangiovese. High in acidity, it had plenty of dark, dusty fruit with only a mere hint of earthiness. It is a relatively simple but pleasant wine, made to go with food. This is my preferred style of Chianti Classico so I enjoyed the wine.

We ended our savory courses with an Oak-Grilled Filet Mignon (with a red wine demi-glaze) & Roasted Manchester Farms Quail (stuffed with wild mushroom risotto). They were accompanied by Yukon Gold mashed potatoes made with sour cream (and no butter!). The filet was tender with a nice outer char while the quail was moist and tender with plenty of meat. The potatoes were very good too, and didn't need any butter. For meat-lovers, either of these two meats would please you.

We enjoyed two wines with this dish, the 2009 Alto Moncayo Garnacha and the 2009 De Toren Z. The Moncayo, a Spanish wine made from old vine Garnacha, was superb, with plenty of complexity, deep, concentrated black fruit flavors, a spice melange and a lengthy finish. A real stunner, that went very well with the filet. The Toren, a South African Bordeaux-style blend, was also quite good, more Old World in style than New, with plenty of complexity, a nice balance, and lots of flavor, from red fruit to leather. It also went well with this dish.

For Dessert, they offer a variety of Mini Indulgences ($2.50 each), individual shot glasses filled with a variety of class desserts, including Pecan Pie with vanilla mousse, Carrot Cake, Chocolate Peanut Butter Mousse, Key Lime Pie, Mocha Macchiato, Summer Berry Cheesecake, Belgian Chocolate Rocky Road, Raspberry Chocolate Chip Cannoli and Market Fresh Fruit. These are small sweets to satisfyingly end the evening, rather than massive desserts to bloat you. I very much enjoyed the Pecan Pie, with its crunchy, sweet pecans and creamy mousse. Many of the others were also popular with the others at dinner, though the fresh fruit seemed to be largely ignored for the sweets. I enjoyed the Pecan Pie so much that I had it again after lunch.

With dessert, we had a glass of the 2010 Selbach-Oster Bernkasteler Badstube Riesling Auslese, a German dessert wine that was mildly sweet, with good acidity and pleasant citrus flavors. Another nice pairing with the sweet desserts.

Yesterday, at lunch, I decided to start with a Side of Tamale Tots ($2.75) because they are...Tots. Who can resist Tots? They are made from the masa used to make tamales, covered in panko and accompanied by a red mole & chili sour cream. The tots possessed a firmer & creamier texture than the usual tots, almost like mashed potatoes, and a nice crunchiness from the panko. They had an interesting flavor, with notes of corn, and the red mole added some spicy sweetness to the tots. Though I would have enjoyed an even spicier mole, this was an excellent side and I like their take on tots.

There are three Burgers on their lunch menu but none of them are made from hamburger. Rather, you will find turkey, tuna and buffalo. I opted for the Rocky Mountain Buffalo Burger ($9.75) which comes topped by blue cheese and has a side of pickles, tomato, lettuce and truffle sauce. It also comes on a sesame seed ciabatta roll. Buffalo is a leaner meat, and usually tastes so similar to beef that people rarely realize the difference. This was a very good burger, moist enough, and the blue cheese added an excellent tang to the taste. The roll had some of the firmness of ciabatta and it held up well with the burger, not getting soggy in the least.

With the burger, I ordered another Side, the Roasted Idaho Potato Wedges ($2.75) with a truffle sauce & tamarind BBQ sauce. These were ok but might have been a bit overcooked, though I liked the tamarind BBQ sauce. Stick with the Tots.

Service at the media dinner was excellent as expected. At lunch, my server Gustavo also did an excellent job, and seemed well trained. He was personable and accommodating, and I had no service issues. They seemed to have a large service staff, ready to accommodate a full restaurant.

Overall, I find much to like about Seasons 52, from its focus on wine and healthy food, to its tasty dishes and diverse wine selections. Pricing of the food seems reasonable, though wine pricing on their less expensive bottles is too high, partially balanced by their more reasonable markups on their higher end wines. This is one of the better chains and is a welcome addition to the Burlington area. If you are seeking a healthier dining alternative, this is a good option, and their food is delicious enough that it will appeal to even those much less concerned about eating healthy.

Have you dined at any of the other Season 52 restaurants? What are your thoughts?

Seasons 52 on Urbanspoon

Thursday, August 29, 2013

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) On September 16, at 6:30pm, Legal Harborside will host a wine dinner with Italian winery, Altesino. Nestled away in the heart of Tuscany, Altesino’s production averages 220,000 bottles per year, and is recognized as one of the area’s most distinguished producers. Legal Harborside will team up with Altesino’s Commercial Director and Assistant Wine Maker, Guido Orzalesi, to host a four-plus-course dinner featuring cuisine paired with Orzalesi’s choices from the Altesino vine.

The menu will be presented as follows:
Duck “Rognuggets” with Orange Blossom Honey Dipping Sauce
Mushroom Bruschetta, Guanciale, Quail Egg
Polenta, Braised Snails and Shallots, Balsamic Vinegar
Rosemary Skewered Beef Heart, Agrodolce
Altesino Rosso di Montalcino, 2010
Rainbow Chard and Robiola Agnolotti
Braised Veal Shoulder, Smoked Pine Nuts, Ricotta and Marjoram
Altesino Rosso di Montalcino, 2010
Caramelized Lamb Belly (Oxtail Ragù, Lentils, Fermented Garlic and Roasted Squash) Altesino Brunello di Montalcino, 2007
Altesino Brunello di Montalcino, 2008
Roasted 42 Day Ged Prime Rib of Beef (Rosemary-Horseradish Popovers, Puréed Potatoes, Grilled Escarole and Jus)
Altesino Brunello di Montalcino “Montosoli,” 2006
Altesino Brunello di Montalcino “Montosoli,” 2007
Dark Chocolate Panna Cotta with Cherry Almond Biscotti
Altesino Vin Santo “Val d’Arbia,” 2004

Cost: $125 per person (excludes tax & gratuity)
Reservations required by calling 617-530-9470

2) Mâitre d' hotel and Fromager Louis Risoli and Wine Director & Sommelier Lauren Collins present Salon Sessions, held at L’Espalier each month. Louis Risoli's passion for cheese is unparalleled and is the driving force behind the Grand Fromage at L’Espalier since 1988. Lauren Collins, Wine Director & Sommelier at L'Espalier, joined the team in 2012 and is a certified Advanced Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers. Lauren is one of five people in Boston to obtain this esteemed certification.

L’Espalier presents Classic Combinations at Salon Sessions—an intimate yet educational wine and cheese pairing. Join experts Louis Risoli and Lauren Collins, as they share their knowledge on textbook examples of great pairings, such as Triple Crème with Champagne, Stilton and Port, Chevre and Sancerre as well as Clothbound Cheddar with Bordeaux.

When: Thursday, September 12, at 6pm
Cost: $55 per person
Reservations are required. Please call L’Espalier at 617-262-3023

3) Legal Sea Foods is holding their fifth annual Oyster Festival this fall, from September 18 through October 15, Legal Sea Foods will celebrate everything oysters via menu features and a quartet of special events. All Massachusetts Legal Sea Foods locations will feature a series of rotating in-restaurant specials including Fried Oysters ($10.95), Oyster Stew ($10.95), Oyster Legal ($14.95), Oyster Po-Boy ($11.95) and Oyster & Andouille Sausage Jambalaya ($15.95).

Our oyster bars are a hallmark of our restaurants,” observed Roger Berkowitz, President and CEO of Legal Sea Foods. “And no longer should oysters be just the favorites of gastronomes. We want to educate all our guests and encourage experimentation. We’d like everyone to share the belief of the idiomatic saying, ‘the world is your oyster.’”

Special events will be held at various Legal Sea Foods locations and will include:

--Shellfish Shindig, a ‘shuckout’ of $1 oysters at Charles Square’s outdoor Terrace Bar (September 22 from 2-4pm; a la carte pricing)
--Sip, Slurp and Sup, a trio of small plates paired with oyster-friendly wines hosted in the Park Square location (October 1 at 6:30pm; $40 per person)
--Mollusk Mania, an “everything oysters” party featuring a raw bar of eight varieties and four passed appetizers on the all-weather rooftop at Legal Harborside (October 6 from 2-4pm; $45 per person)
--Oyster Brewhaha, a four-course oyster and craft beer dinner at the Kendall Square location (October 8 at 6:30pm; $55 per person).

The health benefits of oysters come by the bushel. The bivalves are rich in protein, low in fat and calories, low in cholesterol, chockfull of vitamins and are nature’s best source of zinc. All shellfish are separated into batches according to vendor and certified bed area and subsequently tested for purity within 24 hours of receipt at its Quality Control Center, a state-of-the-art fish processing center complete with in-house laboratory. Product remains quarantined until test results confirm negative for toxins. Legal Sea Foods thus ensures that its oysters are, indeed, the best tasting and safest in the industry.

4) On Tuesday, September 24, Beacon Hill Hotel & Bistro (BHHB) and the New England Aquarium will co-host a “Celebrate Seafood Dinner” to raise awareness of the challenges facing the oceans and the benefits of sustainable seafood. For just $65 per person, $55 for New England Aquarium members, guests will be treated to a one-of-a-kind, multi-course dinner with communal seating that will satiate the palate while satisfying the soul. For an additional $30, guests can enjoy an optional wine pairing with each course.

Executive Chef Josh Lewin is committed to incorporating local products and sustainable practices into Beacon Hill Hotel & Bistro’s cuisine in unique and innovative ways. To bring this delicious and educational feast to diners, Lewin worked alongside the Aquarium’s Sustainable Seafood Program to bring only the freshest, most sustainable ingredients to the table. Joining the Bistro and Aquarium will be special guests, Pat and Barbara Woodbury of Woodbury Shellfish in Wellfleet, as well as Adam Fuller and Larry Trowbridge from Snappy Lobster Company in Scituate, to speak about their companies and the changing landscape that is affecting local resources. As they speak, guests will be able to taste their product firsthand by indulging into Chef Lewin’s creative take on Woodbury’s farmed shellfish and Snappy’s dayboat seafood.

For reservations please call: 617-723-7575. Seats are limited.

Swordfish Conserva, Mouse Melon, Tomato Vinaigrette
Wellfleet Oyster, gelled in its liquor. Horseradish and Whey Granita
"Rachel Rose" Scallop Mousse. Cherry Cilantro Jam, Mangalitsa Lardo, Sabzi
Harpooned Swordfish and Lobster, Heirloom Tomato, Tomato Consomme, New Potato
Olive Oil Cake, Mexican Chocolate, Beets

For reservations please call: 617-723-7575. Seats are limited.

5) The region’s seafood industry will be the focus of the second annual Boston Seafood Festival. Hosted by the Fisheries Foundation (BFF) on Saturday, September 28 in the Seaport District at the Bank of America Pavilion, the event will be a day of celebration and festivities.

The Boston Seafood Festival will offer a full day of events focused on educating the public about the local and global elements at play in New England’s dynamic fishing industry. The event will take place from 11am-10pm and will include more than 20 vendors serving up fresh-from-the-water fare, an all-day lobster bake, celebrity chef demonstrations on how to cook seafood, an oyster shucking contest, the New England Aquarium Touch Tank and other hands-on activities for children, as well as educational panels presented by scientists, fishermen and nutritionists focusing on seafood and sustainability. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased in advance at

Established by the BFF to raise awareness of New England’s fisheries, the festival highlights America’s original seafood hub, a centuries-old industry facing many modern-day issues. The Boston Seafood Festival hopes to set the tone this year for an even larger celebration next year, which will be held conjunction with the 100th birthday of Boston Fish Pier, an enduring symbol of the New England fishing industry. “We have to work together to sustain and support our fish and fishing families or iconic fishing centers like the Boston Fish Pier may disappear,” says Robert Nagle, co-founder of the Boston Fisheries Foundation and Vice President of Operations at John Nagle Co. The BFF will celebrate New England’s passion for fishing and delicious seafood bounty with locals and visitors at this all-day event. BFF President and Co-Founder Chris Basile, owner of Quarterdeck Seafood Market, says, “Whether you enjoy the most traditional or the most adventurous seafood, you will find it at the festival. We are really excited to share our love of seafood with the public.”

Fishing-related organizations such as Ocean Trust, Saving Seafood and Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association, along with scientists and nutritionists, will be on-hand to share information. There will be local culinary talent presenting stage demos throughout the day; some of the notable chefs who will demonstrate perfect fish preparation include Chef Jose Duarte of Taranta, Chef Rich Garcia of the former 606 Congress, and Chef Bill Bradley of the New England Aquarium. Last year, thousands of guests came to the event to enjoy the seminars, demos, music, and competitions. This year, the organizers anticipate more than 5,000 attendees over the course of the festival.

On Friday, September 27th, the BFF and Boston Seafood Festival organizers will kick off the weekend’s events with the second annual Boston Seafood Gala. This event will include culinary offerings from many of New England’s most prestigious chefs. Tickets to the gala are $125 per person and can be purchased by visiting The gala will take place at the Exchange Conference Center on the Boston Fish Pier in the Seaport District. Proceeds from this celebratory gala event will benefit the Boston Fisheries Foundation.

6) Joslin Diabetes Center, the world's largest diabetes research and clinical care organization, will celebrate with “ritmos de salud” at the Artists for Humanity EpiCenter on September 26th, to benefit its Latino Diabetes Initiative.

Guests will enjoy an evening filled with upbeat Latin rhythms from Grammy nominated Gonalzo Grau as well as a performance by Salsa Matei Dance Company; guests will be encouraged to join in on the dance floor. A fabulous array of food will be provided by 10 of Boston’s most renowned Chefs, led by our culinary chair – Chef Jose Duarte of Taranta.

Diabetes is a disease of epidemic proportions across all populations, affecting certain racial/ethnic groups in even greater numbers. National data demonstrates that Latinos have a two-fold increase in the risk of developing type 2 diabetes compared to the Caucasian population. Joslin Diabetes Center’s Latino Diabetes Initiative (LDI) strives to improve the lives of Latinos affected by diabetes, or at risk for the disease, through culturally oriented patient care, education, outreach and research, as well as working to find a cure.

When: Thursday, September 26, 6pm-11pm
Cost: Tickets are $65 can be purchased by calling 617. 309.2512 or e-mail

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Verlasso Salmon: A Seafood Watch "Good Alternative"

Do you avoid farmed salmon? Do you believe that farmed salmon is not sustainable? Maybe you need to reassess the situation.

Wild or farmed salmon? That is often the dilemma. There have been numerous real problems with farmed salmon, so organizations like the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch have generally labeled all farmed salmon as Avoid. However, I have previously criticized such watchdog organizations for making too broad an assessment which can ignore the good work of specific producers. Not all farmed salmon is the same, and the Seafood Watch is finally paying attention and making positive changes to their assessments to account for such exemplar producers.

For the last two years at the International Boston Seafood Show, I have reported about Verlasso Salmon, a farmed salmon operation which seemed to be avoiding the problems of other salmon farms. In 2012, I stated: "Verlasso seems to be headed in an excellent direction, working hard to be sustainable, and I applaud their efforts." This year, I repeated my sentiments: "Verlasso continues to move in the right direction and it is worthy of your support." You can read my previous posts for some of the specifics that make Verlasso salmon more sustainable, and you will be able to see that they also continue to improve their practices. Plus, and importantly, their salmon is tasty.

In 2012, the Seafood Watch instituted a pilot program for an External Assessment Model, which would "...allow third parties to utilize the Seafood Watch criteria and methodology to assess fisheries and aquaculture operations that would not otherwise be assessed by the Seafood Watch program." The Seafood Watch understands that they have a limited ability to assess all of the aquaculture and wild seafood operations around the world, and this pilot program would allow them to expand their assessments, without decreasing the quality of their program. Since 2012, the Seafood Watch has been testing out this new program on a limited basis and the results are starting to come in.

Verlasso Salmon became part of the Seafood Watch's new pilot program, the External Assessment Model, and its aquaculture practices were reviewed and assessed over a sixteen month period. And the result was a striking success for Verlasso. Verlasso is now the first and only ocean-raised farmed Atlantic salmon to receive a “Good Alternative” rating from the Seafood Watch program. All other Atlantic Farmed Salmon still has an "Avoid" rating, making Verlasso Salmon unique, indicative of their strong efforts to produce sustainable seafood.

The Seafood Watch assessment of Verlasso’s hatcheries, farms, processing plants and management took 16 months,” said Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly, director of Seafood Watch. “Based on the extensive data we collected, which was vetted internally and by external peer reviewers, we’re confident that Verlasso is raising Atlantic salmon with environmentally responsible practices.” This announcement is a positive sign for other individual seafood operations who are committed to sustainability, but who might have fallen under a general Avoid rating in the past. I am impressed that the Seafood Watch has instituted the External Assessment Model and hope it continues to reward worthy fisheries.

Scott Nichols, the Verlasso director, stated. “Verlasso is devoted to finding comprehensive solutions for salmon aquaculture’s historic challenges. We are deeply gratified by Seafood Watch’s recognition of our efforts. We have collaborated with conservation leaders to help us on our journey to raise the best salmon with sustainable practices. The Good Alternative ranking is an exciting validation of our achievement.

Congratulations to Verlasso Salmon for their achievement, and congratulations to the Seafood Watch for making the effort to improve their ratings and address the issue of worthy, individual operations which were previously marginalized under their overly broad assessments.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Learning Risotto at Lucia Ristorante

"Risotto – when made correctly – speaks of Italy."
--Lidia Bastianich

I've been pondering which risotto to make later this week, whether a traditional Risotto alla Milanese or something a bit more creative such as a Pear & Gorgonzola Risotto. Last week, I wrote about Risotto: Origins, Variations & Rice, giving some background and basics on this compelling Italian dish. In addition last week, I attended a Risotto cooking class, as a media guest, at Lucia Ristorante, learning how to prepare three different risotto dishes as well as using risotto to make Arancini. The class was informative and useful, tasty and fun, and I certainly would recommend that my readers attend future cooking classes at Lucia.

Earlier this year, Owner Donato Frattaroli (pictured on the right side) and Executive Chef Pino Maffeo (pictured on the left), began teaching monthly cooking classes at Lucia Ristorante in Winchester. Some of their prior classes covered Soups & Stocks, Artisan Pizza Making, Salads & Vinaigrettes, and Pasta. Each class runs about three hours, includes a meal, and costs $50-$60, making it an excellent value too. Their next class, which should be in September, will cover Preserving & Canning, and when I have more info, I will post about it in one of my future Sips & Nibbles columns.

"If you're cooking for a woman, make a good risotto and a salad."
--Wolfgang Puck

The Risotto class was popular, and there were ten attendees, though the class size is usually kept around five to seven. Originally, we were supposed to learn how to prepare Saffron Risotto, Wild Mushroom Risotto, and Seafood Risotto but at the class Chef Pino and Donato also decided to teach us how to prepare Arancini. Initially, we sat at tables for a brief intro about risotto, led by both Chef Pino and Donato, and soon enough we moved to a kitchen for a more hands-on lesson about preparing risotto.

I've attended other chef cooking classes at local restaurants and they often can be far more demonstrations, rather than having the attendees do much of the cooking. This class though immersed the attendees in both preparation as well as cooking, from dicing up onions and cleaning squid to sauteing mushrooms and cooking the rice. Demonstrations have value, but actual experience at cooking recipes is invaluable, elevating this cooking class above many others.

Chef Pino began by trying to assure us that making risotto is "pretty easy" as well as telling us that "there are no rules." There is no singular method to prepare risotto, and you will find plenty of chefs giving different advice. For example, though many claim that stirring risotto constantly is absolutely necessary, there are others, including Chef Pino, who disagree. It was also interesting to see when Chef Pino and Donato disagreed about certain aspects of risotto preparation, further proof that risotto is not a singular dish. For example, Chef Pino has no issue with using butter to finish a risotto but Donato would never do so, using only olive oil.

Risotto is also a versatile dish, and you can prepare it with a huge variety of different ingredients, dependent on your preferences. Even in Italy, you will find many different versions of risotto, with everything from asparagus to frogs. You can use any type of wine, from whites to reds, or even sake or beer. We used Arborio rice for our risottos, primarily because it is the easiest risotto rice for home cooks to find at nearly any market. Chef Pino mentioned to me though that he actually has had good results from using sushi rice!

"There are no two ways of making risotto; either you make it right, or it is not risotto."
--Lidia Bastianich

Trhoughout the class, Chef Pino and Donato showed us how to prepare and cook certain aspects of risotto and then they had us replicate those methods. Though they prepared much of the saffron risotto, they still had some of the attendees contribute to its cooking, such as stirring the rice after stock was added. Then, the attendees did most of the work in preparing the other two risottos. For example, I cooked much of the seafood risotto, from sauteing the onions, to constantly stirring the rice, letting the rice absorb the stock. Standing at a hot stove, stirring and stirring, while the rice plumped from the seafood stock, waiting until it reached the right consistency, with an al dente core.

Risotto actually doesn't take much skill, more just patience and observation. Work with quality ingredients and that will enhance your final product. Overall, it will take around 25 minutes to cook your risotto, and it will be well worth your time. You can make it as an entree or a side dish, and it can be created to accompany near any main dish. If anything, this class helped people to learn not to fear risotto preparation, which can seem intimidating. I know plenty of people who think it is too difficult at home, yet that is not truly the case.

"Kids today want to eat their risotto with curry and shrimp and sour cream, not risotto alla Milanese, like they should, in my opinion."
--Mario Batali

Above, are two photos of Saffron Risotto, also known as Risotto Alla Milanese. The first photo shows it while it is in the preparatory stages, while the second shows the final product: yellow, creamy and delicious. That is one of the simplest risottos to prepare, but it doesn't lack in flavor. Traditionally, it is served with Osso Buco, braised veal shank. Making this risotto would be a good place to start for a home cook, to better comprehend the steps of making risotto.

For the Mushroom Risotto, we used a combination of Chanterelles, Portabella, Oyster and Shitake mushrooms, though you can use any type of mushrooms that you like. Chef Pino also recommended using mushroom salt in the preparation, as well as a bit of truffle oil, to enhance the savory flavor of this dish. This dish is a huge burst of umami flavor and would pair well with an umami-rich Sake, such as a Kimoto or Yamahai-style.

For the Seafood Risotto, Chef Pino had recently caught a number of squid in the Boston Harbor, and you can't get much fresher than that. So, the attendees had to clean those squids before they were ready to be used in the risotto. It was a funny coincidence that on the same evening of the class, some of the contestants on Masterchef also had to clean fresh squid.

The Seafood Risotto was made with clams, shrimp, mussels, calamari, and some red sauce, and I largely cooked the rice. This was probably the most complicated of the three dishes, because of the added prep, such as cleaning the squid, as well as the need to cook all of the seafood. Each component is not difficult, but you need to be well organized to be able to have everything ready at the proper time. This is the type of risotto that works well as a main dish.

As a special addition, we also learned how to prepare Arancini, rice balls. Each of us got to make an arancini, though Chef Pino cooked the prepared arancini for us. We began by preparing a half-sphere of saffron risotto and filled it with some Bolognese sauce and shredded cheese. Then we covered it with more risotto, shaping the result into a sphere. Afterward, it was rolled into a slurry mixture and then covered by panko. The first picture above shows the arancini before they were cooked. Again, this is a recipe that might seem difficult but it really wasn't.

After all of the preparation and cooking, we sat down at a large table together to enjoy the fruits of our labor. With glasses of wine, I ate some of all three risottos and one of the arancini, and everything was delicious. Each risotto was creamy and rich, yet possessed of its own unique flavors. If I had to choose one as my favorite, I probably would have to go with the mushroom risotto because of its explosion of umami.

I feel more confident about cooking risotto and will prepare it at home. It will probably take more trial and error at home, but I have taken some major steps in the right direction. This was a worthy cooking class and Chef Pino and Donato were fine instructors, making you feel comfortable in the kitchen and making it all fun as well as educational. I will likely take additional cooking classes at Lucia and strongly recommend that my readers do so as well.

Maybe I will try to make the Risotto with Four Cheeses, which contains Gruyère, Taleggio, Gorgonzola and Parmesan.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Rant: Wineries, Don't Assume It's Brand Loyalty

A woman makes her weekly stop at a local wine store, buying the same wine every time, a Yellow Tail Pinot Grigio. Every time a man wants to splurge on a higher end wine, he buys a bottle of Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon. To celebrate every special occasion, a woman purchases a bottle of Veuve Clicquot Champagne. Many people might assume that these three examples are indicative of brand loyalty, customers who intentionally support and choose to make repeated purchases of a specific product. However, what if it isn't really brand loyalty that is leading to their repeated purchases?

To marketers, wineries and others, brand loyalty is a significant attribute to their bottom line. Customers who are loyal to a specific brand tend to buy more of that product than anyone else, making them very important to a product's success. Such customers are often treated differently, if possible, to continue to make them happy. The problem is that a number of customers who make regular purchases are incorrectly labeled as "brand loyal." Instead, their purchasing actions are due rather to habit, and that is a much more fragile reason which needs to be addressed differently than if they were brand loyal.  

Neurobranding, by Peter Steidl, provides a fascinating look into consumer behavior, touching on important neuromarketing studies and research. And Steidl indicates that brand loyalty is vastly over estimated. "Too often we assume that consumers who regularly buy the same brand have a strong brand preference. However, most likely these consumers are engaging in habitual buying. They aren’t making purchase decisions but are simply repeating a behavior without giving it a second thought. This behavior is driven by their memories without any conscious intervention." In all three of the examples I provided, it could easily be said that they are buying by habit, not brand loyalty.

Steidl gives additional explanation of this issue. "Ehrenberg, the father of consumer panels, has proven again and again that repeat purchases are typically not a result of brand loyalty but of habit. True loyalty is based on consumers believing that the brand they buy is the best choice for them. Habitual buying means that the consumer doesn’t think about whether the product or brand is the best choice for them; they simply repeat past purchases. This suggests that the brand ‘works for them,’ but we cannot assume that they are loyal to it. Habitual buying allows consumers to simplify their lives by avoiding the need to spend many hours checking all options open to them with each purchase." How many of your own regular purchases are habitual rather than brand loyal? Steidl has an answer for that as well. "The truth is more like approximately 95% of grocery items are bought habitually."

Habitual purchasers are still important to brands, such as wineries. "Research undertaken by Nielsen shows that customers who purchase a brand eight times have a 97% likelihood of buying the brand a ninth time." It becomes so ingrained that it can be tough to change, especially as those consumers really don't think about their purchases. That is good for wineries, except it also can be dangerous as habitual buyers need to be treated differently than those who are brand loyal. If they are not, you may stand to lose those habitual buyers.

The main difference between habitual buyers and brand loyal customers is that the former does not think about their purchasing decision while the latter actively makes a conscious decision that their purchase is the best for them. That is a significant difference and marketing needs to address those differences. To avoid losing habitual buyers, Steidl states: "When consumers buy your brand on a habitual basis, you don’t want them to think about this purchase. If the consumer starts thinking consciously about the purchase, they may well also start to consider alternative brands and products." With brand loyal customers, you want them to think about their decisions, so you can see the how poses a dilemma to wineries.

What can cause a habitual buyer to think about their purchasing decision? "Any significant change in any aspect of your product – for example, its pricing, distribution or promotion – can activate the conscious mind, ..." For a mass brand like Yellow Tail, raising its price a dollar or more, could trigger a significant number of habitual buyers to reconsider and potentially move onto another brand. For the truly brand loyal, such a price change would stop very few of them from changing brands. Steidl also explains that: "Habits can be broken more easily when a change carries low risk, requires low effort and results in immediate rewards."

That also means that habitual buyers can change their habits due to numerous factors outside the control of wineries and marketers. For example, a wine store that has a wine tasting could make a habitual buyer reconsider their actions. A customer might buy the same Champagne all the time, until they taste a few different ones and find they like the taste of another better. Because they got to taste a different Champagne, the risk of change is low, takes no real effort and results in the reward of a wine they prefer more. Or a wine store might be temporarily out of a specific brand that a customer habitually buys, so that customer must think about choosing something else, which could break their habit.

It is safer for wineries to build brand loyalty rather than rely on habitual buyers. However, that also means that first such wineries need to realize that all repeat purchasers of their products do not possess brand loyalty. And that is something many wineries fail to understand, leading to marketing mistakes which ultimately cost them customers. Not all repeat purchasers are the same so treating them as if they were will only cause problems.

Wineries, do you know how many of your repeat purchasers actually possess brand loyalty and how many are merely habitual buyers?

Friday, August 23, 2013

Red Arrow Diner: Quick Review

Yesterday, after a shopping visit to the Merrimack Premium Outlets in New Hampshire, I needed to find a place for a good lunch. Fortunately, earlier in the week, I received a recommendation from Marc of Boston's Hidden Restaurants to check out the Red Arrow Diner in Manchester, just north of the outlets. It turned out to be a fine recommendation and I must second his recommendation to anyone who finds themselves near Manchester.

The diner originally opened its doors in October 1922, over 90 years ago, and has undergone some changes in ownership over this time. Around 1987, the diner was purchased by Carol Sheehan, who is still the current owner, and there is also a second location in Milford, which opened in October 2008. The diner is open 24/7 and serves breakfast, lunch and dinner all the time. So whenever you get a craving for Belgian waffles or a piece of meatloaf, you can find it here. We could use more 24/7 diners in Boston and the suburbs.

The menu is extensive, with plenty of the usual diner fare as well as some of their own unique specialties like homemade pork pie. Nearly everything on the breakfast and lunch menus, and most items on the dinner menu, are under $10. On the dinner menu, the items basically top out at $12.99. This is a very affordable menu, with plenty of diversity. There are also a number of specials each day, giving you even more choices.

Most of the seating are stools at the counter, with a handful of booths in one corner. There is certainly a diner-ambiance going on. From your seat, you might be able to see their desserts in a refrigerated cooler, such as cream pies and whoopie pies. Service is friendly and good.

I decided on the Monte-Christo Sandwich ($8.99), ham, turkey and Swiss on French toast, which comes with your choice of a side and I opted for the homemade potato chips. The sandwich pleased me, with plenty of pieces of fresh turkey in it, and a nice, eggy bread. One of the better Monte Cristo sandwiches I have enjoyed. And the chips were delicious, though could have used a bit more salt, which is still better than being over salted. All I needed to do was a quick shake of salt over them. They were crisp, slightly warm and had a clean flavor to them.

The other dishes I saw looked good and my dining companions enjoyed their food as well, including the Biscuits Benedict special. And afterwards, I had to try a Dinah Finger ($1.59), essentially their own version of the Twinkie, but with far more flavor, and a creamier filling, than the usual processed treat.

I'll return here the next time I am in the area, and urge my readers to check it out as well.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

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) After 28 years, Chef/Owner Steve DiFillippo is making his way back to his hometown with the opening of Davio’s Northern Italian Steakhouse in Lynnfield at the new Market Street Lynnfield shopping complex. Growing up in Lynnfield, DiFillippo’s passion for food began when he would rush home after long football practices to cook with his mom and learn all the DiFillippo family recipes passed down by his Italian grandmother.

After opening Davio’s restaurants in multiple locations including Boston’s Back Bay, Chestnut Hill, Foxborough, Atlanta and Philadelphia, it is an honor to open in my own hometown. I always dreamed of opening my own restaurant in Lynnfield, this is where I grew up and is a very special homecoming for me.” – Steve DiFillippo

Under the leadership of DiFillippo, Culinary Director Rodney Murillo, Executive Chef Stephen Brown and General Manager Joe Buccieri, Davio’s Lynnfield will offer an array of daily lunch and dinner specials, while engaging guests with signature menu options, including Davio’s classics, fresh salads, handmade pastas, an a la carte section, Prime Brandt Beef and plated entrées.

The menu will include the following dishes ranging from $8 to $31: Tagliatelle Bolognese (braised veal, beef, pork, tomato sauce); Lobster Risotto (Asparagus, Fresh Herbs, Lobster Cream); Roasted Tomato Soup (goat cheese, chive crostini); Crispy Chicken Livers (port balsamic glaze, glass spinach, toasted pine nuts); Kobe Beef Meatball (San Marzano tomatoes) and Warm Spinach Salad (roasted peppers, portobello mushrooms, goat cheese, garlic, olive oil).

Pasta lovers can look forward to a selection of Farinacei (handmade pastas) such as Hand-Rolled Potato Gnocchi (organic mushrooms, basil, white truffle oil); Fettucine Carbonara (pancetta, egg, parmigiano, black pepper) and Spaghetti, Shrimp (hot chilies, white wine, lemon, olive oil) all prepared in house using the “La Monferrina” pasta machine imported from Italy. This new Technology allows for the production of delicious dry pasta in various shapes and sizes, all out of one machine.

While dining at the bar, Chef Stephen Brown has carefully crafted a selection of artisan, handmade pizzas. Priced from $12 to $16 and comprised of classic pizzas such as San Marzano Tomato (fresh mozzarella, basil); Prosciutto (fig jam, arugula, caramelized onions, shaved parmigiano) and Pepperoni. All of the handmade pizzas are cooked in the all-new wood stone oven. This oven heats up to 800 degrees Fahrenheit, cooking the pizza evenly from the bottom and top simultaneously for a crisp and bubbly crust.

Davio’s Lynnfield’s beverage menu includes a vast selection of spirits, premium alcohol and refreshing mixers, in addition to an array of signature cocktails such as the Pompelmo (Absolut Ruby Red, St. Germain, Grapefruit Juice); Davio’s Inferno (Stoli Hot, Fresh Lime Juice, Splash of Red Pepper Flake-Infused Simple Syrup) and Melagrano (Reyka, Pama, Fresh Lime Juice, Cranberry Juice, Splash of Rhubarb Bitters) priced at $11. Offering nearly 250 labels, the varied wine collection is comprised of red, white and sparkling wines from Italy, France and the United States, 20 of which are available by the glass ranging in price from $9 to $16. Paying special attention to its Italian heritage, Davio’s Lynnfield has placed particular emphasis on sourcing from Italy’s Tuscany and Piedmont regions. Taking serious wine connoisseurs into account, a special reserve selection featuring over 20 red and white wines by the bottle are also available.

2) Every Monday night from September 2, the bar at Tavolo will become an enoteca whose theme is Cheap Flights to Italy.  Eclectic bottles of regional Italian wines -- drawn from the identical 20 regions of Italy that are explored each week at Tavolo'’s popular Regional Pasta Tour -- will be featured in combination with three small plates of matching food. Each week, a stamp will be made in the diner’s personal Wine Passport, stored at the restaurant. Cheap Flights to Italy with small plates, hosted by Tavolo sommelier Monica Bolduc, cost $25 per person.

3) Executive Chef Eric Gburski is adding signature southern comfort dishes to the existing “Burger Joint” lunchtime menu at Estelle’s Southern Cuisine in the South End. In addition to the five burger options and four gourmet salads, Chef Grburksi will offer a taste of the south with Po Boy’s and an array of authentic southern plates.

For starters, there are five options: Buttermilk Fried House Pickles ($5.25); Spicy Smoked Chicken Liver Deviled Eggs ($3.95); Tasso Ham Hushpuppies (orange-chile honey & parsley butter - $5.95); Buttermilk Fried Chicken Thigh (watermelon-radish salad & BBQ sauce -$6.95); and, Traditional Sausage & Smoked Chicken Gumbo ($8.95).

Chef Gburski’s Po Boy’s are served with house-cut fries and a variety of sauces and will be as follows: Estelle’s Monte Cristo (smoked turkey, tasso ham, gruyere cheese & red onion jam - $11.95); Slow Roasted Brisket & Smoked Provolone (pickled hot pepper relish & roasted garlic aioli - $10.95); and, Fried Gulf White Shrimp (green tomato – corn chow chow & remoulade slaw - $12.95).

Savory southern entrees include: Buttermilk Fried Chicken Platter (sausage gravy, 2 cheese mac n’ cheese & seared greens - $17.95); and, Cajun Cornmeal Crusted Catfish (pecan-parsley relish, red beans n’ rice & garlic seared greens -$19.95).

Estelle’s is open for lunch service Monday through Saturday from 11:30am to 5:00pm.

4) On Wednesday, September 11, at 6:30pm, Ristorante Olivio, located in Arlington, will host a four- course Italian wine dinner in conjunction with North of Boston Wine Week. The all-inclusive meal ($49 per person + tax and gratuity) consists of four courses with specially paired wines.  

Carpaccio di Vitello (Charred veal tenderloin carpaccio, shaved parmigiano reggiano, capers, zest of lemon and celery, drizzled lemon with juice and white truffle oil)
Wine: Alfredo & Luca Roagna Dolcetto d’Alba (Piedmont)

(Choice of One)
Tortellini (Homemade sweet corn tortellini, with lobster meat, shaved zucchini, roasted cherries tomatoes, lobster and fresh herb broth)
Wine: Villa Matilde Falerno del Massico Bianco (Campania)
Agnolotti (Homemade beef short rib Agnolotti, with fried zucchini, brown butter, shaved parmigiano and toasted bread crumbs)
Wine: Ascheri Barbera d’Alba (Piedmont)

(Choice of One)
Filetto di Manzo (Filet Mignon, potato mash, crispy pancetta, braised rainbow chard, and Valpolicella reduction)
Wine: Tommasi Ripasso Valpolicella Classico Superiore (Veneto)
Spigola con Salmoriglio (Sea Bass, with extra virgin olive oil, garlic, parsley, fresh oregano and lemon, artichokes and zucchini)
Wine: Panizzi Vernaccia di San Gimignano (Tuscany)

Sicilian Cake (Rum cake, ricotta, chocolate, peaches, strawberries, whipped cream & pistachios)
Wine: Le Serra Moscato D’asti

Reservations recommended by calling (781) 648-2300.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Risotto: Origins, Variations & Rice

"Rice is born in water and dies in wine."
--Italian proverb

Risotto (which means "little rice") is basically an Italian rice dish that has been cooked in a stock until it possesses a creamy consistency. It is a versatile dish, and can be prepared with many different, additional ingredients, from uni to mushrooms, peaches to tomatoes. Preparing risotto can take 25 minutes or more, and usually is said to require constant attention, continually stirring of the rice and stock. Because of that lengthy time, restaurants often partially premake their risotto as they usually wouldn't have the time to make risotto to order.

When done well, risotto can be absolutely delicious, with rich flavors and a delightful creaminess. I have savored some fine risottos at places like Prezza, Posto, A Tavola and Bistro 5. I have a special memory of an impressive Uni Risotto at Le Bernardin in New York City. Risotto is a dish I rarely have at home but which I should, and maybe that will change after the Risotto cooking class I will attend tomorrow night at Lucia Ristorante in Winchester.

White rice with melted butter and white sugar is not of this world.”

Rice has been known in Italy since the days of ancient Rome however they primarily used rice medicinally, and rarely as a food source. During the Middle Ages, probably around the 14th century, Italians began considering it more as a food and also started growing it, especially in the Lombardy region. The earliest documentation of rice cultivation in Italy dates to 1475 though it is assumed that cultivation actually began before that date. In Lombardy, the Po Valley was considered a perfect place for rice agriculture and rice soon became a staple in this region.

It is also important to note that after the Spanish took possession of the the Duchy of Milan, in the 16th century, they introduced the spice saffron to the region. Saffron is a pricey spice, and it too was once used far more for medicinal purposes rather than as a food ingredient. The Romans valued saffron, cultivating it in Gaul, but after the empire's fall, cultivation seemed to nearly vanish for a time until the Moors seemed to resurrect it. It is likely from the Moors than Spain became enamored with saffron and eventually brought it back to Italy.

"Don’t trust a hungry man to watch your rice."
--Tibetan Proverb

Common belief is that risotto originated in Lombardy sometime during the 16th century. Allegedly, some of the first rice dishes were prepared in a savory or sweet liquid, creating a soft, porridge-like dish and risotto eventually evolved from this dish. Maybe the most famous risotto, Risotto alla Milanese, which is made with saffron, has an "official" date of invention, September 8, 1574. In 2007, the City of Milan recognized several products, such as cassoeula, michetta, ossobuco, and panettone, as specifically Milanese, granting them a Recognition of Communal Denomination (De.Co.). Risotto received this designation as well and they selected September 8, 1574 as the date of birth of this dish.

This date of birth is derived from a legend about the origin of saffron risotto, and like most legends, has several different versions. In the main versions, while the famous Cathedral Duomo Di Milano was being constructed, a Master Glazer, Valerio di Fiandra was in charge of creating the stained glass windows. Saffron was using in preparing some of the colors for the stained glass. Most of the legends claim that one of his apprentices, either as a joke or an act of revenge for a perceived slight, added saffron to one of the rice dishes at a wedding feast, possibly the wedding of Valerio's daughter. The perpetrator of this act never thought that the guests would enjoy the saffron rice dish but they loved it, and Risotto alla Milanese was born. It is also part of the folklore that saffron is an aphrodisiac.

"Rice is the best, the most nutritive and unquestionably the most widespread staple in the world."

Risotto alla Milanese may be one of the most well known of risotto dishes, but there are many variations in Italy. In Lombardy, you will also find risottos made with snails or pork cutlets. In Venice, they make Risotto al Nero di Sepia, a black risotto prepared with cuttlefish ink. You will also find risotto dishes in the Veneto made with pumpkin, shellfish, asparagus, smoked salmon, radicchio and even frog legs. In the Piedmont, you will find risotto prepared with Barolo wine, and maybe mushrooms, sausage or Borlotti beans. The Piedmontese city of Vercelli is well known for making risotto with frog, and they have even been celebrating a annual frog festival in September since the Middle Ages.

It is a dish that seems to lend itself to creativity, a simple base dish which can be enhanced by any number of ingredients. It can be used as a showcase of seasonal ingredients, and is appropriate year round. One of the most creative risottos I have tasted was made by Chef Vittorio Ettore of Bistro 5 who prepared a Peach Risotto with fresh peaches, Gorgonzola, Prosciutto di Parma & mint oil. I wasn't sure how the peaches would be in the risotto but it all worked so well. A nice blend of sweet, salt and tang.

Without rice, even the cleverest housewife cannot cook.
--Chinese proverb

Rice is the most basic component to risotto but not just any rice lead to a compelling dish. In general, you should use a short or medium grain rice with a high starch content. You probably could make a risotto from any type of rice, but the results might not be what you desire as each type of rice has its own different properties and not all rice varieties lend themselves to the chemistry of risotto. Besides the rice types, there are also designations for rice, indicative of their size and shape, such as Superfino, Semifino and Fino. Superfino is the largest grain and generally preferred for risotto. Three rice varieties are primarily used in risotto, including Arborio, Carnaroli and Vialone Nano, though you may also hear of varieties such as Baldo, Maratelli, Padano, and Roma.

Arborio rice is the least expensive of the 3 main types though it is not as starchy and doesn't absorb liquids as well as the other two types. It is also easier to overcook so care needs to be taken. Vialone Nano, popular in the Veneto, has more starch and produces a creamier risotto than Arborio. However, the purported king of rice is Carnaroli as it possess lots of starch, absorbs liquids well and the inner starch is firm, allowing the rice kernel to possess a firm texture even after it is cooked, a nice al dente. It is more expensive so the added quality comes with a price.

"Rice is a beautiful food. It is beautiful when it grows, precision rows of sparkling green stalks shooting up to reach the hot summer sun. It is beautiful when harvested, autumn gold sheaves piled on diked, patchwork paddies. It is beautiful when, once threshed, it enters granary bins like a (flood) of tiny seed-pearls. It is beautiful when cooked by a practiced hand, pure white and sweetly fragrant."
--Shizuo Tsuji

What are your thoughts on risotto? What are your favorite restaurants for risotto? What is your favorite risotto recipe? 

Monday, August 19, 2013

Rant: Food Trucks Are So Yesterday

Food trucks have had their time in the spotlight, being the next big trend, but that was yesterday. Don't worry though as they are not going to suddenly vanish and new food trucks will still continue to make their debut. However, a new restaurant innovation is poised to take the country by storm and New York City may be leading the way. Will Boston wait to jump on this trend, or will it try to seize the initiative and capitalize on this new trend right now?

About a week ago, Crain's New York Business posted an interesting article, Tiny restaurants turn into small wonders, written by Adrianne Pasquarelli. She wrote about essentially new restaurants which are basically "stationary" food trucks. These new places are brick & mortar establishments, but they occupy small pieces of real estate, usually less than 200 square feet. In New York City, you'll find these places selling sliders to meatballs, cupcakes to gelato.

Such tiny places have advantages, such as low overhead, though there are limitations as well, such as the fact that they need to concentrate on very limited menus. Though even those limitations can potentially be turned into advantages. A restaurant can concentrate on making just a couple of items very well, and can become well known for those two items. The article details several successful businesses, noting that their profits can be lucrative.

Obviously the mobility of food trucks can be seen as an advantage in some respects to a brick & mortar spot though that mobility can be a problem as well, especially in winter when the snows come. It might also be difficult for customers to find a particular food truck at any particular time unless they find its schedule, and the truck has followed that schedule. A brick & mortar gives permanence so customers will be able to find it more easily. And the owner doesn't need to know how to drive!

Running these tiny restaurants might be good experience, and give some indication to the owner whether they might succeed at a larger place or not. They let you concentrate on excelling in a couple items, rather than spreading out your general skills over a large menu. It would also help the community by occupying empty rental properties, providing taxes to the city and more. Bring several of these tiny restaurants together in the same area, and you end up with a far better version of a mall food court.

Place blocks under those food truck wheels and occupy some real estate, though just a tiny piece.

Friday, August 16, 2013

2 Gingers Irish Whiskey: A Whiskey For Women?

Demand for Irish whiskey has boomed over the last decade, outpacing many other liquor categories. For example, from 2010 to 2011, the volume of Irish whiskey grew nearly 24% and from 2011 to 2012, it grew about another 23%. Compare this to the 3% annual growth of the general spirit category. However, the Irish whiskey category is still relatively small, about 2.2 million cases, while the overall whiskey category is at about 50 million cases.

Interestingly, in the first quarter of 2012, the fastest-growing spirit category, having risen nearly 155%, was flavored whiskey and its primary targeted market is women. Women are seen as a huge potential market for whiskey, though many producers seem to think most women won't drink traditional whiskey. Currently, women constitute about 20-30% of whiskey consumers but that percentage basically doubles for most flavored whiskey brands. However, there appears to be at least one non-flavored whiskey which is appealing to a large percentage of women, 2 Gingers Irish Whiskey.

I received a review sample of the 2 Gingers Irish Whiskey, a blended whiskey which was distilled twice and then aged for four years in used bourbon barrels. Most Irish whiskies are distilled three times, but 2 Gingers wanted to retain more flavor so it only distilled it twice. They also wanted to make their whiskey smoother, so they aged it longer than the usual three years. Their whiskey is produced at the Kilbeggan Distillery and the idea for it was spawned by Kieran Folliard, an Irishman who has spent about 25 years in Minnesota.

Kieran operated several pubs in Minnesota and first debuted his new Irish whiskey there. The name of the whiskey, 2 Gingers, was inspired by his red-headed mother and aunt, Mary and Delia, and their faces grace the bottle label. The 2 Gingers Irish Whiskey costs around $20, for a 750ml bottle, and has been expanding its distribution outside of the midwest and is now also available in Massachusetts. In many of the states where it is sold, it is more popular with women than competing brands. In Minnesota, where the brand started, women constitute about 40% of consumers.

It was Kieran's intention to create an Irish whiskey which would have a broader appeal, trying to reach an audience which usually did not choose whiskey. He wanted to create a "genderless, seasonless whiskey that’s very versatile and approachable." The whiskey is also promoted as an excellent base for a variety of cocktails, such as their Big Ginger, a simple blend of 2 Gingers Irish Whiskey and ginger ale.

What did I think? I found the 2 Gingers to be light, mild and smooth, a whiskey profile which would appeal to a broad audience. It possesses a mild sweetness from the bourbon barrels with hints of vanilla and caramel, complemented by bright citrus notes, especially on the finish. The finish tends to be a bit short, though it is pleasant. Even if you are not a fan of most whiskey, the 2 Gingers might be something you would enjoy. I also made my own version of the Big Ginger, using ginger beer rather than ginger ale, and it was tasty and refreshing, a nice summer drink.

As a light and milder alternative to other whiskies, it is good value at $20, and should reach a wider audience of drinkers, whether on its own or in cocktails. It will appeal to those who dislike some of the harsher tasting whiskies. It is not specifically a woman's whiskey, but rather a lighter, milder Irish whiskey for anyone, man or woman. And a nice cocktail base as well.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

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) Bistro du Midi’s Executive Chef Robert Sisca and his team announce the debut of Chef’s Table 100, the latest addition to their upstairs dining room. Chef’s Table 100 offers exclusive open views of the Bistro du Midi kitchen and is an intimate culinary adventure. Guests can now experience off menu dishes and techniques of modern Provençal cuisine. “I am delighted to unveil Chef’s Table 100 for guests of Bistro du Midi,” says Executive Chef/Partner Robert Sisca. “This new addition to our dining room allows me to interact with guests in a more intimate setting while presenting tasting menus comprised of new techniques and modern Provençal ingredient-driven creations.

Chef’s Table 100 features both five and seven course tasting menus that are curated to satisfy the most discerning gastronome. The tasting menus showcase Chef Robert Sisca’s latest culinary muses. The Tour de Cinq is the five course tasting menu, priced at $85 per person. The Tour de Sept is the seven course tasting menu which includes additional courses of fresh pasta and foie gras, priced at $115 per person. More adventurous gourmands can elect to add additional courses such as a cheese selection ($15/person) and seasonal freshly shaved truffles ($50/person). The Tour de Cinq and Tour de Sept tasting menus allow guests to experience menu items not yet available on the regular Bistro du Midi menu, and those which utilize techniques that Chef Robert Sisca has most recently perfected such as smoked Beau Soleil oysters, grilled Spanish octopus with eggplant caviar, and lobster and corn chowder cappuccino.

Chef Robert Sisca can also craft a menu to accommodate the dietary requirements and allergies of his guests. Additionally, Head Sommelier Todd Lipman plays an integral role in the Chef’s Table 100 adventure as he tailors the beverage experience closely with the desires of his guests. Chef Robert Sisca also provides guests with personalized take home menus to commemorate their time at Chef’s Table 100. Reservations at Chef’s Table 100 are available nightly and can accommodate two to four guests by reservation only.

For reservations, please call 617-426-7878.

2) Beverage Manager John Mayer and the staff from Local 149 kick off their annual Tiki Week on Monday, August 19 to Sunday, August 25. Local 149 invites guests to celebrate the warm weather with a tropical experience accompanied by lively entertainment, karaoke, trivia, Polynesian dishes, umbrella drinks and tiki torches. Throughout the week, guests can sip on lively libations such as: My oh Mai-Tai, Singapore Sling, Painkiller and Dave’s Doctor Funk. To accompany the tropical drinks, Local 149 will be offering additional themed items like Malaysian Wings, Crab Avocado Salad, Coconut Panna Cotta and Hawaiian Pizza with Banana Peppers.

Below is a listing of the specialty dishes Local 149 will showcase for each day of the week:
Monday: Lamb Burger with Grilled Pineapple
Tuesday: Tuna Poke with Macadamia Nuts (addition)
Wednesday: Spam Porchetta
Thursday: Spam Wellington with Maraschino Cherry Stuffing
Friday: Tiki Tacos
Saturday: Hawaiian Gnocchi
Sunday: Pig Roast

Reservations can be made by calling the restaurant directly at 617-269-0900.

3) On September 10, from 6pm-9:30pm, the East Broadway Foodie Crawl will open the doors of fifteen local establishments in Somerville to allow ticket holders to taste their way through the East Broadway Business District. The District has restaurants from Vinny’s Restaurant, a Sicilian mecca, to Fasika Ethiopian, for authentic Ethiopian.

East Somerville Main Streets led 1,000 people on this cultural crawl last year – and this year promises to be even better with not only tasty bites but entertainment along the way. The 2013 crawl will include performances by professional magician Matias Legier, on site caricatures from Alejandro Yegros, and free local restaurant guides from Shape Up Somerville. And the event has a mission to boot. East Somerville Main Streets is committed to building a safe, sustainable and prosperous multicultural community by developing a vibrant business district at the neighborhood’s heart – all proceeds from the event will forward this goal.

Topping off this tasty affair are three after parties with local desserts and live music. Other local businesses including local Mezzo Design Lofts, Assembly Row and the Holiday Inn will be on site as well. Crawlers can check out Assembly Row’s portable “MBTA car,” which marks the addition of an orange line T stop to the area, and tastes from the Holiday Inn’s new DRAFT restaurant.

Tickets for the Foodie Crawl are on sale now here. You can buy them for $20 online and $25 at the door if there are still tickets.

4) On Saturday, August 31, from 1pm-5pm, the Wine Connextion invites everyone to celebrate a Summer End Bash, sipping on warm-weather wines while snacking on pulled pork BBQ sandwiches. Guests will be able to taste a selection of wines that will not only compliment a variety of budgets but are sure to please a range of palates. As always, the Wine ConneXtion’s weekly tastings are complimentary.

5) 29 Sudbury, located west of Boston, is now open! A collaboration between Greg Hill and Evan Deluty, 29 Sudbury serves Chef Deluty’s award-winning modern American cuisine with Italian influences (think: fresh pastas, coal-fired pizzas, and an all-local raw bar) in a bi-level space that blends modern finishes with historical elements in a style dubbed “funky colonial.”

Having been a lifelong resident of Stow, it’s always been my dream to open a restaurant nearby that perfectly replicates the Boston dining experience – but without the hassle of driving into the city,” says Managing Partner Greg Hill. “From Evan’s menu, to the craft cocktail program, local beer selection, unparalleled wine list, and sophisticated, yet casual design of the space, we’ve done just that.”

Executive Chef Evan Deluty, chef/owner of Stella, infuses his modern American menu of appetizers, salads, coal-fired pizza, and entrees with Italian flavors and preparations. In addition to a raw bar featuring all local seafood, crustaceans, and mollusks, the menu at 29 Sudbury includes the following sampling of dishes:
· Crispy Fried Artichoke Hearts with Country Mustard Remoulade
· Lemon Arancini with Spicy Tomato · Local Sausage Pizza with Banana Peppers and Fresh Mozzarella
· Rigatoni Bolognese with Reggiano (a Stella staple)
· Linguine, Asparagus Cream, Poached Egg, Truffle, Thyme
· Pork Milanese with Pomodoro, Buffalo Mozzarella, and Basil Oil
· Swordfish “Siciliano” with Capers, Red Onion, and Roasted Potato

Deluty says. “We’re excited to work with local producers like Erickson’s Dairy in Maynard, who are producing tiramisu ice crean exclusively for 29 Sudbury’s dessert menu.

29 Sudbury’s beverage program looks to local, handmade ingredients and producers. Classic cocktails like the Moscow Mule served in a copper mug are offered alongside signature creations like the Blueberry Collins (Cold River Blueberry Organic Vodka from Maine, fresh lemon, soda) and the 29 International (Elderflower Liqueur, Aperol, Prosecco). The wine list, which includes bottles from both Old and New Worlds, features more than 25 varietals by the glass and more than 100 by the bottle. The beer selection offers domestic and imported bottles, drafts, cans, and large-format bottles.

29 Sudbury is now open for dinner and drinks daily, 4pm-1am. Lunch and weekend brunch to begin this fall.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Strega Prime: A Brief Lunch Review

Opened for less than two weeks, Strega Prime, located in Woburn at the site of the former Beacon Grille, is Nick Varano's third restaurant. Strega Prime is intended to be an upscale Italian steakhouse and it seems to fit that objective. I recently ate lunch there and will provide my thoughts though please keep in mind that the restaurant is newly opened and needs time to iron out the initial kinks that all new restaurants face.

Though it maintains a similar basic layout to the Beacon Grille, there have been some changes to the decor, from the "cow hide" bar stools to the multiple TV screens in the main dining room showing black & white movies.

Their wine list is extensive, with over 1300 selections, but it is pricey. For example, the Caymus Conundrum, at an average retail of $20, is on their list for $65. A 3 1/2 times markup on the retail is huge, especially considering the true markup is even higher.  "Upscale" shouldn't mean that wine prices are at such a high markup, catering to businessmen on expense accounts.

The Lunch menu is broken into Raw Bar, oysters or shrimp, ($14), 3 Salads ($7-$12), 2 Soups ($6-$7); 4 Appetizers ($9-$14), 3 Sandwiches ($12-$14), 3 Lunch Salads ($14-$18), 4 Lunch Specials ($14-$26) and 6 Desserts ($8-$9). For example, you could start with a Hand Chopped Beef Tartar ($9) and then get a 12 oz. Sirloin Burger ($14) with Parmesan Frites. Or a Shrimp Caesar Salad ($18) or even a Grilled Chicken Club ($12)

Lunch begins with a warm Popover, which though some see them as old-fashioned, I still enjoy. This was a nice popover, with what seemed like a dusting of parmesan atop it, and I smeared butter all along the eggy inside. A good start to lunch.

I then began my meal with the New England Corn & Clam Chowder ($6) which has crispy pancetta and parsley butter. Though it had a pleasant taste, and plenty of corn, lots of onions and tiny potatoes, it seemed to lack many clams. What clams seemed to be present were minced to tiny, almost unidentifiable pieces. It seemed like far more of a corn chowder, with some clam flavor, and not quite what I was expecting.

The Grilled Salmon ($19) comes with Yukon gnocchi, fresh peas, cherry tomatoes, and is in a white wine sauce. The large piece of fish was cooked well, and was tender and flavorful, complemented by the light white sauce. The gnocchi were well made, pillowy and tender. A good lunch choice.

The Chicken Milanese ($16), with capers, tomatoes, and baby arugula, has a light Marsala sauce which adds flavor to the chicken without swimming in it. It was a substantial piece, with moist, tender chicken covered by a crisp & clean coating. I was impressed with this dish and would order it again. Highly recommended for lunch.

For dessert, the Italian Smores ($9), with gianduja budino, marshmallow, & pizzelle, makes a cool presentation. It is also tasty, with rich, smooth chocolate, covered by sweet marshmallow, with a caramelized crust. You can either take your spoon to the chocolate and marshmallow, or smear it on a pizzelle. It is large enough to share, and I am sure both of you will enjoy it.

There were a couple services issues initially, basically a server who didn't pay attention to what told to him. In addition, another server was apparently soaked in a strong cologne and every time he passed by the table, you couldn't help but have your nose assailed by his cologne, detracting from lunch. These are issues though which hopefully will be fixed in the near future as the new restaurant works out its initial kinks.

I'll return here and report back on the progress of Strega Prime.