Thursday, February 21, 2019

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I am back again with a new edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I highlight some interesting, upcoming food & drink events.
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1) The team at Bistro du Midi welcomes guests to dine on Executive Chef Robert Sisca’s latest tasting menu featuring this season’s finest shellfish and caviar dishes. a decadent meal with each shellfish and caviar dish carefully-paired with a wine selection. Chef Sisca says, “It’s exciting to taste the contrast in flavors between east coast and west coast shellfish. And as I discovered more about shellfish, my love for caviar also evolved. Eating caviar alone is special but pairing it with dishes, gives me an entirely new opportunity to create unique dishes and memories for others.”

The full Chef’s Seasonal Tasting Menu: Shellfish & Caviar is as follows:
Ora King Salmon Crudo, crosnes, blood orange, kumquat, smoked trout roe
Ayala, Brut Majeur, Champagne NV
Crusted Halibut, manila clams, spigarello, spicy crab tomato broth
Hugel, Gentil, Alsace 2015
Scituate Lobster, black pepper tagliatelle, quail egg, white sturgeon caviar
Domaine Costal, Vaillons 1er Cru, Chablis, Burgundy 2016
A-5 Kobe Beef, charred sea scallops, pomelos, champagne hollandaise, Osetra caviar
Domaine Faiveley, Clos des Myglands 1er Cru, Mercury, Bourgogne 2016
Fromager D’Affinois, blackberry coulis, passion fruit “caviar”
La Spinetta, Moscato d’asti, Piedmont, Italy 2017
Yuzu Frozen Mousse, black sesame cake, lemon granité
Petit Guiraud, Sauternes, Bordeaux 2015

The Shellfish and Caviar tasting menu is $125 per person, with the optional wine pairing for an additional $75 per person.
To make Reservations, please call 617-426-7878.

2) Celebrate National Margarita Day on Friday, February 22, from 6pm-9pm, at Rebel’s Guild with tequila pairings from Código 1530. Chef Sean Dutson has created a special menu featuring a variety of dishes that pull inspiration from Mexican cuisine, while still reflecting the American comfort dishes that Rebel’s Guild is known for. Guests will enjoy four courses with pairings that explore Código 1530’s entire portfolio of tequilas.

"Every drop of Código 1530’s tequila has been perfected over several generations the way one would a homemade recipe – embracing time-honored customs without ever veering from the traditions of the Los Bajos region and its tequilieras and jimadors. The Tequila begins with fully-matured agave aged over seven years, which is cooked in stainless steel ovens, fermented utilizing an organic family baker’s yeast in Amatitán, and distilled twice in stills handmade by the distilling family themselves. The Blanco is perfected over a lengthy, 15-day process. The rested Tequilas are meticulously aged to taste in French White Oak red wine barrels procured from the Napa Valley, which helps ensure that each and every barrel is worthy of bearing the Código 1530 name."

The full Código tequila dinner menu is as follows:
Georges Bank Sea Scallop Ceviche (red grapefruit, fennel, red onion & lime)
Código 1530 Blanco
Grilled Calamari (grilled onion, shaved jalapenos, lime & olive oil)
Código 1530 Rosa
Duck Taco (pulled duck meat, orange, jalapeno & cilantro slaw, corn tortilla)
Código 1530 Reposado
Rebel’s Rubbed Skirt Steak (grilled medium rare served with lime butter & dirty fries)
Código 1530 Añejo
Caramel Flan (candied orange with sugar cookie)
Código 1530 Origen

Tickets for the evening are $75.00 each and are available via Eventbrite at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/tequila-dinner-national-margarita-day-tickets-56069521448?aff=ebapi
All attendees must be 21+ with a valid ID.

3) On Saturday, March 2 from 1-3 p.m., Chef Tony Maws invites guests to The Kirkland Tap & Trotter to see (and taste) who can stake claim to the title of Boston’s Best French Fries! The Fry-Off is the third annual year for this charitable culinary competition, hosted by No Kid Hungry, and leading up to the local Taste of the Nation this summer. All proceeds from the “Ultimate Fry-Off” will be donated to the non-profit to help end childhood hunger in America.

Some of Boston’s culinary masters will throw-down the fry gauntlet, serving their best versions of French fries and dipping sauces for a cheering crowd. Attendees have the opportunity to sample all of the fries and crown a “People’s Choice” favorite, and a panel of esteemed judges will select the overall winner.

The competitors are:
Tony Maws--Craigie on Main | The Kirkland Tap & Trotter
Kevin O’Donnell and Michael Lombardi--SRV
Marc Sheehan--Loyal Nine
Mike Pagliarini--Benedetto and Guilia

Tickets are $25/person (kids under 12 are free) and include tastings of each chefs’ fries and accompaniments and two complimentary drinks.
Tickets can be purchased online at https://events.nokidhungry.org/events/boston-food-fights-fry-off/

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The Mind Of A Sommelier: Sandy Block

(Check out my Introduction to the The Mind of a Sommelier series.)

Sandy Block, a Master of Wine, is the Vice President of Beverage Operations of Legal Sea Foods, overseeing the wine program for all of their restaurants. Sandy is an iconic, knowledgeable and well-respected figure in the local wine scene. I've met him numerous times at various wine events, and those he has hosted at Legal Sea Foods are usually fascinating and educational experiences. The wine lists he has created have often offered some of the best values of any local restaurant.

Sandy, an Honors graduate of Vassar College, earned a Master’s Degree in American Intellectual and Cultural History from the State University of New York. He previously worked as Assistant VP of Wine for Horizon Beverage Company, and as General Manager of Whitehall Imports and VP of Product Strategies for the Whitehall Companies. In 2004, Sandy became the VP of Beverage Operations of Legal Sea Foods.

He was also the first American on the East Coast to be certified as Master of Wine, and is one of only 353 individuals worldwide to earn this title. He holds membership in the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs and the Confraria do Vinho do Porto, and received the Diplôme d'Honneur from the Corporation des Vignerons de Champagne. Sandy’s extensive credits include serving as Wine Editor for The Improper Bostonian. He serves on the Editorial Advisory Board of Cheers Magazine, the Executive Symposium Committee of Sante Magazine and the Executive Board of Boston University’s Elizabeth Bishop Wine Resource Center (where he has taught advanced courses since 1999). He developed the curriculum for the accredited Wine Studies program at Boston University and for several years taught a wine tasting course at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts.

Please note that Sandy's interview primarily deals with the intriguing wine program at the 2nd floor dining room of Legal Harborside.

Now, onto the interview:

What term do you use to describe yourself: Sommelier, Wine Steward, Wine Director, something else?
Sandy Block, Master of Wine, VP Beverage, Legal Sea Foods

Please give a brief description of the wine list at your restaurant.
We call it the Legal Harborside Collection; it’s a book of rare wines (none are available at any other restaurant in Boston in the vintage we are offering) selected specifically to balance the restaurant’s culinary offerings. My guiding principle is that in wine, everything begins with “terroir,” that mysterious alchemy reflecting harmonies of soil, climate, grape variety and the grape grower's art. Just as Chefs can only create magic with the freshest of hand-selected ingredients, wines of authenticity and character are only possible when expressing unique regional or vineyard origins. In homage to this vision, the Collection focuses on wine whose personality originates from an individual place; wine, for the most part, whose identity reflects a single family’s connection to the particular parcel of earth that it tends. Each has its own story, illustrated briefly on the menu with notes and images that evoke the place and its singular personality, as well as the family behind the vineyard. The great majority of wines are offered in both a 750 ml. (bottle) and a 375 ml. (half-bottle) size, which our service team will pour into a carafe at table, in order to encourage maximum exploration. There are 85 selections.

What are your objectives with the wine list?
To intrigue guests with unusual bottles they’ve never before experienced that will create harmonies with the food they order. To entice them to return.

How often does the wine list change?
Because these are all limited production small (in some case microscopic!) lots, I change the list whenever a wine runs out of inventory at our distributors’ warehouses.

Are there omissions on your wine list you would like to fill?
Not omissions as much as areas where it’s been hard for me to find wine that fits all the criteria. These omissions are primarily mainstream wine categories, interestingly enough. There’s no Pinot Grigio, only one Merlot (and a high end one at that). Moderately priced North Coast California Cabernet. The requirements of being family-owned, terroir-based, exclusive in the state and satisfying our quality criteria, while working in a complementary way with items on the menu, have made these categories difficult.”

How do you learn about new wines?
Through direct relationships with our small group of wholesale distributors and their suppliers.

What is your strategy on pricing the wines on your list?
We strive to keep the prices accessible and reasonable. Offering any of the wines on the list that are below $75 by the half carafe, and by the glass, enables us to encourage maximum experimentation without having to commit to a full bottle.

What is the most common wine question asked by your guests?
Something along the lines of “I’ve had Cakebread before and I love it, but what’s this ‘Cuttings Wharf Ranch,’ I’ve never heard of that.”

What is the most common criticism you receive from guests about your list?
Not enough wines in a particular category (Italy, for example).

What is your greatest challenge as a sommelier?
To maintain a healthy balance among comfort zone wines, adventurous selections, covering different styles and price points.

Tell me about 1 or 2 of the best value wines on your list?
Trimbach “Cuvee M” Riesling, 2013 from the Alsatian Grand Cru of Mandelberg, just an intensely stony, mineral-accented wine with brilliant length ($49, $26 half carafe, $13.50 by the glass), and for a red, the Neyers "Evangelho Vineyard" Carignan, from Contra Costa, 2014 (same price as the Trimbach), a foot-trodden, earthy, monumentally spicy red, of which there are only 100 cases produced in the world.

Tell me about 1 or 2 of the most unique wines on your list?
The 1997 Schloss Schonborn Hochheimer Domdechaney Riesling Spätlese, from the Rheingau, because it’s rare to have such a delicious 20+ year old white wine available, and the Alto Moncayo “Aquilon,” Garnacha, Campo de Borja, 2011, possibly the most delicious rendition of this amazingly underappreciated grape I’ve ever tasted.

Tell me about 1 or 2 of your favorite wines on your list?
I have to go with two that I’ve selected from barrel. The Sonoma-Cutrer “Les Pierres Vineyard” Single Barrel Private Select, 2016 is a wine that I picked out at a blind tasting while it was still undergoing maturation in spring 2017, that comes from the vineyard’s B North and B Middle North Blocks, and is a beautiful expression of earthy, citric minerality reflecting its stony terroir to perfection (and thrilling with lobster!). The 2015 Pellegrini Family "40 Year Commemorative Cuvée" Pinot Noir, from its Olivet Lane Vineyard in Russian River Valley is a “once and forever” wine of which just 5 cases were crafted for the Sonoma County Wine Auction in 2016 and captures the essence of Russian River; juicy and rich, with silky tannins, featuring notes of bing cherry, spice, toast, and mocha.

Is there anything else you would like people to know about your wine list, your work as a sommelier, or wine service?
Just how gratifying it is to see other wine professionals dining in the restaurant.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Rant: Where Are The Breakfast Reviews?

Do restaurants that primarily specialize in Breakfast get short shrift from restaurant reviewers?

If you look back at the recent archives of some of your favorite restaurant reviewers, you'll probably find that they rarely, if ever, review restaurants that specialize in breakfast. And if they do, the articles are usually compilation pieces, discussing a group of such restaurants, maybe by locale. You might see a list of the top breakfast spots on Cape Cod or the best donut shops on the North Shore. Why is this the case? Why don't breakfast restaurants receive more attention?

This matter came to my attention recently as I prepared to write a couple breakfast reviews of my own. I started pondering why I rarely see such reviews. There must be a reason for these omissions. I don't have any definitive answer but can speculate as to the potential reasons.

First, the number of breakfast spots is certainly much fewer than other types of restaurants so it is only natural that more attention is given to other restaurants. When you look at the lists of upcoming restaurants, there are very few breakfast spots in those lists.

Second, people generally look more for advice concerning dinner restaurants than breakfast spots, especially considering how much money they might spend on a dinner as opposed to an inexpensive breakfast. It is much easier to take a risk on an unknown breakfast spot that might only cost you $20 as opposed to a dinner place where you could drop $100 or more.

Third, many breakfast spots offer the usual standard fare, with little to make them stand out from other such places. So, they don't seem as compelling to review as they don't offer something new, different or more unique.

There may be additional reasons as well, but none of them mean that breakfast restaurants shouldn't be reviewed. There are reasons why many won't ever get reviewed, but there are places that stand out, worthy of some attention. Breakfast can be such a delicious meal, pure comfort, and sometimes with a little sweetness added. And I know that I, and others, enjoy breakfast foods all day long. I can enjoy waffles for dinner, or simple bacon & eggs. An excellent breakfast spot, serving breakfast all day, is special.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Mooncusser Fish House: Giving Some Love To A Scrumptious Seafood Sampling

In recent years, Boston has seen the opening of a number of excellent seafood restaurants, and as you know, I've long encouraged people to eat more seafood. Seafood provides immense health benefits and it is also diverse and delicious, able to be prepared in a myriad of ways. On my recent weekend stay at the Boston Park Plaza, I dined at one of Boston's newer seafood restaurants, Mooncusser Fish Housethoroughly enjoying a tasting menu of fresh and compelling seafood.

Back in July 2017, Mooncusser Fish House opened, a joint endeavor led by Ian Calhoun, Vincent Vela, and Chef Carolyn Johnson, all who also own and operate 80 Thoreau in Concord. This seafood restaurant is actually divided into two parts, the Moon Bar located on the first floor and the Mooncusser Fish House on the second floor. The Moon Bar is the more casual dining area while the upstairs is more higher-end. During the week, at lunch time, they also open Cusser's Roast Beef & Seafood in the Moon Bar, and I recently wrote about my lunch experience there.

For dinner, we chose to eat upstairs in their more formal, though it isn't pretentious, Mooncusser Fish House. Note that it is several levels up so be prepared to climb some stairs, though they do have an elevator if you can't take the stairs. It is a small, more intimate dining room, perfect for date night or a business dinner.

You can opt for a Prix Fixe Menu (3 courses/$49), a Tasting of Local Fishes (5 Courses/$85) or select your own dishes off the menu, which is divided into First Courses and Main Courses. There are 7 options for First Courses, priced $10-$17, and you can choose items such as the Tuna Tartare,  Mooncusser Chowder, or Smoked Char Terrine. There are 6 choices for Main Courses, priced $30-$42, and you can choose items such as the Monkfish, Bone-In Skate Wing or Grilled Whole Fish.

This is a definitely a seafood-centric restaurant and the only non-seafood options are the Baby Chicory Salad (First Course) and the Grilled Lamb Rack (Main). I'm sure those dishes are delicious but seafood is king here. I'll also note that the price range  of their dishes has remained relatively the same since they first opened.

We decided on ordering the Tasting of Local Fishes ($85) with Wine Pairings ($75), wanting to sample a variety of their available dishes. As this was more a dinner for pleasure, I didn't take many notes, simply reveling in the experience. Overall, it was a superb dinner, with plenty of excellent dishes and wine pairings. Mooncusser hits it out of the park with their seafood!

The first course was a Halibut Crudo, with blood orange, mint, pickled ginger, and puffed wheat. The silky halibut was fresh and clean, with a mild but flavorful taste, enhanced by the citrus. The puffed wheat was almost like little pieces of popcorn, adding a crunchy texture to the dish. The wine pairing was the 2017 Gilbert Picq Chablis, an absolutely delicious Chardonnay with complex notes of white flowers, citrus, and mineralogy with a hint of briny salt. It went great with the crudo and I would love to try this wine with oysters too.

The second course was Lobster Bisque, made with wild mushrooms, pumpkin, and white truffle. Creamy and bursting with lobster flavor, sweet pumpkin notes, and earthy notes from the mushrooms and truffle. An excellent blend of flavors and perfect for a chilly winter evening. The wine paring was the 2014 Reynvaan Queen's Road Marsanne-Viognier, from Walla Walla, Washington. This wine brought intriguing notes of peach, melon and pineapple, with an underlying minerality and plenty of acidity, able to cut through the richness of the bisque. Another great choice.

The restaurant presented us with an extra, complimentary course, their Rye Chitarra, made with uni, celeriac, and mushrooms. I loved this dish! Perfectly cooked pasta, briny uni, and umami-rich mushrooms, all combined for a fantastic taste. Such a nice blend of flavors of the soil and sea. Highly recommended!

The next course was Scallops, with sweet potato, pomegranate, and pistachio. Initially, I was confused about the "orange" scallops in the dish before realizing they were actually sweet potatoes that were shaped like scallops and seared in a similar manner as well. And they were so tasty, a nice sweetness with a great sear. This is something I'd love to replicate at home. The sweet scallops were also seared perfectly, bringing fresh, clean flavors enhanced by the nuttiness of the pistachio. Another winner of a dish and highly recommended. The wine pairing was the 2017 Le Roc Des Anges Llum Grenache Gris, a complex and compelling wine, with rich citrus notes, intense minerality, and great acidity. A wine of elegance and restrained power, one to please most wine lovers.

The final savory course was Grilled Tuna, with sunchokes, an oyster, and pearl onions. The lightly seared, and mostly rare tuna, was silky and tender, meaty and satisfying. It was exactly what you desire in a grilled tuna dish. And the briny oyster was a pleasing extra. The wine pairing was the 2012 Sanguis Verve Grenache, from the Central Coast, California, and it was a killer wine. Great fruit flavors, a pleasing spicy backbone, plenty of complexity, and a lengthy finish. Such an excellent wine pairing!

Dessert was Petites Madelines with tangerine sorbet, olive oil, citrus, and coriander. A light and refreshing dessert which didn't overwhelm you with sweetness. The tiny madelines were light and delicious, and I wanted more. Their Pastry Chef Katherine Hamilburg is extremely talented. The final wine pairing was the 2015 Haut Charmes Sauternes, a nicely balanced dessert wine with intriguing and complex flavors.

Service was excellent, attentive without being obtrusive. And all of the food was excellent, well balanced dishes with great, fresh flavors. I was satisfied at the end of the meal, without feeling overly stuffed. The wine pairings worked so well, and I got to experience some fascinating and tasty wines which aren't the usual suspects. If you desire a quality seafood dinner, I highly recommend Mooncusser Fish House and suggest you order the Tasting of Local Fishes.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The Mind Of A Sommelier: Christopher Williams

(Check out my Introduction to the The Mind of a Sommelier series.)

Christopher Williams is the Beverage Manager and Sommelier at Harvest, located in Harvard Square. Harvest is an iconic restaurant, having been in existence for over forty years, which is a huge accomplishment. I recently dined there, attending a The Book & The Cook event which involved Hacking Whiskey. It was a fun and tasty event, with plenty of inventive cuisine.

Christopher Williams has always shown a passion for the hospitality industry, starting as a server at age 18. He graduated from Clark Atlanta University in 2009 with a degree in Psychology and began his interest in wine education in 2013 when he served as a waiter & wine steward at Bone's Steakhouse in Atlanta, Georgia. Christopher became a Certified Sommelier by the Court of Master Sommeliers in 2016. After serving as a sommelier at The St. Regis Atlanta, Christopher moved his talents to Boston and started as the restaurant manager and sommelier at Grill 23 & Bar, and for the past year, he has been making his mark at Harvest.

Now, onto the Interview:

What term do you use to describe yourself: Sommelier, Wine Steward, Wine Director, something else?
Sommelier, I prefer that title because it defines who I am and what I do for my profession. I specialize in providing the finest beverage service and engaging with our guests about different wines from different regions of the world, along with pairing wines from my list with the food our chefs prepare daily.

Please give a brief description of the wine list at your restaurant.
The wine list at Harvest covers the classic representation of wines from regions all over the world. I believe that the wine list a sommelier builds should never be about themselves or what is “trending” for the moment. Our job should be to have a wine list that is fun and engaging, but also true to the character of the wines grown in a particular region.

What are your objectives with the wine list?
I want to continue to be an excellent wine steward like my predecessors before me and add more wines to the list that will grab the interests of all the guests that visit Harvest. They say there is a wine for everyone and my goal is to have a list that is approachable for the guest looking for something of “value,” but also consists of wines that a true wine connoisseur will look through and notice some rare wines from smaller producers that may not be well known to the masses.

How often does the wine list change?
The wine list changes fairly often, sometimes 3-4 times a month due to our futures program and changes in vintages. I try to keep a nice rotation of wines so when one is out, I have plenty of options on reserve to choose from and replace with. It’s great because a guest that dines with us one evening may return a month later and notice newer selections on the wine list.

Are there omissions on your wine list you would like to fill?
I would like to add more Riesling options for both the Alsace and German sections of my wine list. I’m in love with Riesling and unfortunately, I feel people are hesitant in trying it because they believe all Rieslings are sweet. There are dry, off dry, sweet and sparkling representations of this grape. Riesling is so versatile you can match almost anything to it!

How do you learn about new wines?
I learn about new wines from my fellow sommeliers, vendors and even guests that come in to the restaurant. They are always excited to tell me about their recent trip to a country and the wines they had a chance to try. In this profession, you are constantly learning something new every day about wines from all over the world.

What is your strategy on pricing the wines on your list?
Pricing structure for Harvest’s wine list is marked in a way that is fair to our guests, I try to provide as much value as possible for each section of the list..

What is the most common wine question asked by your guests?
The most common wine question asked by my guests is what area on my wine list can they find “value.” I tend to lead them straight to Argentina or South Africa because they can provide excellent wines that are priced very fairly on a wine list..

What is the most common criticism you receive from guests about your list?
The most common criticism I receive from guests about Harvest’s list is that they would like to see more wines with significant bottle age to them. It can be quite the task trying to find wines from the 90’s or early 2000’s that would not cost a pretty penny on the wine list..

What is your greatest challenge as a sommelier?
I think my greatest challenge as a sommelier is fighting against the negative image some people have towards someone in my position. Back in the day sommeliers were thought of as arrogant and snooty towards those who would not spend a lot of money for a bottle of wine. Even now I hear stories from people about their recent visit to a restaurant where the sommelier was trying to sell them a bottle of something they thought was cool or better than what they had originally asked for assistance with. Very few sommeliers act like this and they can make it harder for the rest of us to build trust with our guests who may be hesitant in asking for help. A sommelier above all should always show humility and remain humble. It is always about the guests and their experience, we should never try to force our beliefs or opinions on to someone unless they genuinely wish to know what we like to drink. A good sommelier always wants to help you find a bottle of wine that you truly will enjoy at a price point that you feel comfortable spending..

Tell me about 1 or 2 of the best value wines on your list?
One of the best valued wines I have on the list at Harvest is the 2016 Stag’s Leap Hands of Time from Napa Valley for $66. It is a popular wine on my list made by an iconic estate that at one point in history beat Mouton-Rothschild and Haut-Brion in the 1976 Judgement of Paris blind tasting.

Tell me about 1 or 2 of the most unique wines on your list?
One of the most unique wines on the list is the Chateau Musar from Lebanon. When you think of a Cabernet blend most people would not think of Lebanon, most likely they would go straight to California or Washington state. It is full-bodied, savory and yet has an elegance to it that is quite wonderful.

Tell me about 1 or 2 of your favorite wines on your list?
My favorite wine at Harvest is the 2015 Radio Coteau Savoy Vineyard Chardonnay from California. They make cool climate, single vineyard wines that are out of this world, very terroir driven..

Is there anything else you would like people to know about your wine list, your work as a sommelier, or wine service? 
Harvest’s wine list is constantly evolving, and I believe in feedback from my guests no matter how small the detail may be. I want our guests to truly enjoy themselves at Harvest and know that I am always happy to talk to them about various beverages. I want people to know that they can come “across the river” as they say and enjoy a nice glass or bottle of wine in Cambridge at Harvest.