Sunday, November 30, 2008

Chocolee Chocolates: Chocolate Cream Pie

Pecan pie, Swedish apple pie, chocolate cream pie, pumpkin chocolate chip cookies, Snickerdoodles, salted caramel chocolates, and more. A seemingly endless choice of desserts for Thanksgiving of which I succeeded in at least tasting everything. And then collapsing into a comfy chair, a victim of food overload, yet quite happy and sated.

Though nearly everything was homemade, we did buy the chocolate cream pie ($18) from Chocolee Chocolates. I had never had their pies before so I did not know what to expect, except that I knew how well they did with their chocolates, beignets and truffles. But the pie looks homemade and anyone could have easily passed it off as their own. This was not the usual store bought chocolate cream pie but something far more enticing.

Most people could probably have made something similar to this pie if they had the time. The only significant difference would be the quality of chocolate used. This pie had a very rich chocolate flavor and you could tell the superior quality of the chocolate that had been used. This was not made from regular store-bought baking chocolate. To make something similar, you would have had to buy top end chocolate for your own pie, which would not have come cheap.

I very much enjoyed the pie and would recommend it to others seeking something homemade with a lush chocolate flavor. Unfortunately, the pies were only made for Thanksgiving. But, if enough people ask about the pies, maybe they could become a regular item at the store. Or at least something that can be special ordered.

Chocolee Chocolates
83 Pembroke Street
Boston, MA
Phone: 617-236-0606

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Finca Omblancas Denuno Petite Verdot

I enjoy the wines of the Jumilla region of Spain, especially because they generally are Monastrell based (a grape that often pleases me immensely) and usually are excellent values. I recently ran across a Jumilla wine that really intrigued me, as it was not predominantly Monastrell. In fact, it was made mostly from a grape that is more often just a blending grape, Petit Verdot.

Finca Omblancas is a family-owned winery located in Jumilla and they usually produce wines made from Monastrell. In 2002, the Rodriguez-Albendea family acquired the winery and estate. The estate includes the historic Perico Molina winery, which dates back to 1888, and the current winemaking facility built in 1978. The new owners updated the winery, restructured the vineyards, and added new vines. Though they grow mostly Monastrell, they also have vines of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Syrah.

One of the lines of their portfolio are the Denuño wines, their “Crianza” wines which require a minimum of six months barrel aging and one year in bottle. They are considered to be full bodied, concentrated and complex wines. They are produced using estate grown grapes and the lines consists of three single varietal wines, Monastrell, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot.

The 2005 Denuño Petit Verdot ($16.99) intrigued me as I so rarely find wines made mostly from Petit Verdot. And those I have seen usually impress me. This wine is a blend of 90% Petit Verdot, 5% Monastrell, and 5% Syrah and has an alcohol content of 14%. Only about 1200 cases or so were produced of this wine. The wine spent seven months in new and one year in old oak, French (80%), American (15%) and Eastern European (5%).

It was a dark red wine with an intriguing nose of blueberries and a touch of vanilla. The blueberries were also very prominent on the palate as well, quite lush and juicy. I love fresh blueberries so this wine's flavor really pleased me. It was a full-bodied wine, with restrained tannins and layers of subtle spices. The finish was long and satisfying. This wine certainly impressed me for the price and I think it is an excellent value. This wine also shows the potential of Petit Verdot on its own to make a luscious wine. This is a wine I highly recommend.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Widow Clicquot & Champagne

Imagine a world where champagne is commonly served as a dessert wine, sometimes so cold that it is almost slush. The champagne is sweeter than almost any dessert wine you will find at your local wine store. It sounds like a fantasy, especially in a world where brut (dry) champagne, rules. But that was not always the case.

Reach back about two hundred years ago and you will find that the above "fantasy" was actually the reality. What an amazing transformation has occurred with champagne. Yet how did it occur? If you are curious about the history of champagne, then I have a book you should read. Especially if you would also like to learn about the fascinating life of a woman integral to the popularity and transformation of champagne.

The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It by Tilar Mazzeo (Harper Collins, October 2008, $25.95) is both a history and a biography. Most people are familiar with the yellow label of Veuve Clicquot champagne but few know much about the woman who really made this champagne famous. The Widow Clicquot fills in that gap, telling the compelling story of Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, a determined widow who became a powerful business woman and the head of a major champagne house.

As a history buff, this book further intrigued me as it also provides some of the history of the times, from the French revolution of 1789, through the Napoleonic Wars, and into the aftermath. Plus, you learn about the history of champagne, including its disputed and controversial origins. Were you aware that champagne may have originated in Britain? I learned much from this book and found it to be an easy read that peaked my interest from start to finish.

Champagne in the 1790s, and through the early years of the nineteenth century, was much different than what we know now. First, it was rarely even called champagne. It was most commonly known as vin mousseux, sparkling wine. It would not be common to refer to it as champagne under the 1860s. Second, they drank it as a dessert wine, wine makers often using plenty of sugar syrup and brandy to make it sweeter. It might have as much as 200 grams of residual sugar, more than nearly all dessert wines we now have. They might even serve it ice cold, almost like a slush. It would not be until later in the nineteenth century that brut champagne would replace the sweet versions.

There were plenty of other interesting facts I learned from this book as well. I learned about Bouzy, a still red wine made in the Champagne region, and which is still made today, and which can be as expensive as champagne. I learned about the possible origin of sabrage, the use of a sword to open a champagne bottle. It might have begun with Napolean's soldiers who had difficulty opening champagne while on horseback, finding it easiest to use their swords to lop off the top of the bottle. I learned how it was not until 1811 that wine bottles stopped being blown by hand, which had led to uneven bottles that did not stack well and sometimes caused stacks to collapse, bottles breaking.

And then there is the life of the Widow Clicquot, a compelling story of a strong woman persevering against hardship and powerful obstacles. She took a small champagne company and transformed it into a powerhouse, yet there were years of adversity, many times when a lesser person might have just quit. Obviously the fact she was a woman during those times was difficult enough, yet she faced those problems and far more, meeting each challenge head on. You will admire this woman once you finish this book.

Transportation of champagne at this time was largely by wagon and ship, difficult and dangerous, especially when the Napoleanic wars raged across Europe. Plus, there were several poor vintages when the weather failed to cooperate. When the famed 1811 harvest came, the year of the comet, hopes were big that this vintage would transform the industry. Yet who would best capitalize on this? Could the Widow somehow outwit her competitors? Such a tense and exciting story.

There is much more in this book and I highly recommend you read it, whether you love wine or history, or both. It kept my interest throughout and I think it will do the same with you as well.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!!

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Before I begin to enjoy the great bounty of food and wine the day will bring, before my family and friends arrive at my house, I want to reflect on the past year. Much of my thoughts at this time are very similar to those I voiced a year ago.

Though this is a time when many of us reflect upon our lives and consider everything we should be thankful for during the past year, this type of reflection should not be limited to Thanksgiving. We should regularly reflect on our lives and be thankful for what we have. No matter how bad our lives may seem at times, there will always be something of which to be thankful. Seeking the positive may help brighten the darker parts of our lives.

After voicing these sentiments last year, I tried to remember those words throughout the year since last Thanksgiving. It did work, as I sporadically spend time contemplating all for which I should be thankful. I hope to spend more time this year doing the same.

I have much of which to be thankful.

I am very thankful for my family, especially my loving wife, my wonderful mom and my special nephew Thomas. I look forward to spending the holidays with them, and the rest of my family, and sharing the bounty of the year.

I am thankful for my friends, both old and new. This includes my Thursday night wine buddies, my poker friends, my gaming buddies, my North Shore Winer friends, and the wine/food bloggers I have met online, and off, during the past year. It also includes wine store owners, wine distributors, wine makers, chefs and more who I have met this year.

I am thankful for so much. My good health. My job, with my fine boss and co-workers. My two affectionate cats. My home. My new car. My weekend trips this past year.

I am thankful for my position as a food/wine columnist at the Stoneham Sun. I am thankful for all of my readers, of my blog and newspaper column.

The list could go on and on for all of which I am thankful. But I won't make this much longer of a post. Just make sure that you consider your own lives and be thankful for everything you have. Raise a glass of wine today in thanks. Enjoy your family and friends. Savor life and dine with passion!

Happy Thanksgiving to one and all.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Do you have an intense craving for sushi, and lots of it? If you want to gorge yourself on sushi, as well as many other Japanese dishes, then maybe you would enjoy Minado, an all-you-can-eat Japanese buffet.

Minado has five locations, including in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. There is only one location in Massachusetts, in Natick on Rt.9. I stopped by the Natick restaurant last week with a couple of friends, my first time here. It is located within a shopping center across the street from the Natick Collection.

The restaurant is tastefully decorated and seemed very clean. The back of the restaurant had all of the buffet tables and grilles. It was quite an impressive set-up with obviously tons of different dishes available. The restaurant was only partially full which meant there were really few waiting lines at the buffet tables.

They serve beer, wine and sake. They have about a dozen different Sakes available, including a few that I really enjoy. I ordered the Hakushika Junmai Ginjo ($10/300ml), an old favorite which was at an excellent price. This Sake usually sells at retail for about $8-9 so it is a great bargain at this restaurant.

The buffet is available for lunch (Monday-Friday $15.95; Saturday, Sunday & Holidays $19.95) or dinner (Monday-Thursday $27.95; Friday-Sunday & Holidays $29.95). The buffet includes sushi, sashimi, maki rolls, yakisoba, beef & chicken teriyaki, tempura, gyoza dumplings, udon noodles, teppanyaki, salads, Alaskan snow crab legs, oysters, cocktail shrimp and so much more.

There was tons of food and lots of sushi, far more sushi in quantity and diversity than you find at other such buffets. If you like sushi, you easily can eat more than the cost of the meal. Even if you dislike sushi though, there are still plenty of other options, and you still will get your money's worth. This is probably a larger buffet than almost any other Asian buffet I have been to in quite some time.

Now, it does suffer a bit from a common malady of buffets, that the quality and temperature of of the food is not always the best. The sushi is generally good quality, though not exceptional, though also better than the sushi found at many other buffets. The oysters were ok, tending to be small. The tempura shrimp was very good when it first comes out but once it has sit for a short time, it loses much of its appeal. A number of the "hot" dishes were at best luke warm. I would say the food quality is generally average to good, but at this price, it is overall a good value.

1282 Worcester Rd.
Natick, MA
Phone: 508-647-0495

Minado on Urbanspoon

Stoneham Sun: Taste of Siam

My new column of "A Passionate Foodie" can be found in the November 26 issue issue of the Stoneham Sun newspaper. This is a weekly column that concentrates on reviews of local restaurants though it may also touch on a few other food and wine topics.

The new column has been published today and will soon be available online. The new column is a restaurant review of Taste of Siam, a brand new Thai place in Stoneham. It occupies the location that used to house Georgie D's Place. It is a delicious place and a welcome addition to the local culinary scene.

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

Dine with passion.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Cafeteria Boston: Lobster Mac and Cheese

While walking down Newbury Street, I was hungry and seeking some place to get a quick bite to eat. I noticed Cafeteria Boston and as I had not been there before, and the menu intrigued me, I thought I would check it out.

It is not really a cafeteria setting. It has a modern look with numerous high top tables as well as more usual tables. It presents a comfortable ambiance and does not resemble any traditional Italian restaurant decor. The menu has Italian-American cuisine and for lunch you can find pizza, sandwiches, salads, pasta, entrees, and appetizers. It is a bit pricey, though they also use some higher end ingredients such as Kobe and lobster. Almost all of the choices cost between $10-$20.

I started with an appetizer, the Lobster Mac and Cheese ($13). The menu states it has orzo, Maine lobster, Panko top, and brandy syrup. I received an appetizer portion, though a decent size for such, but it actually contained elbow macaroni rather than orzo. I think it worked well with the elbows, maybe better than it would have with the orzo though their menu should have been more accurate. There was more than two claws of lobster meat in the dish, albeit small claws, but still plenty of lobster. The dish was quite tasty, with nice cheese flavors and it was not soupy at all. Plus, I loved the panko topping, so much better than regular bread crumbs. Overall, I enjoyed this dish and would order it again. On a cold November day, it was a perfect choice of comfort food.

I then chose their special, Open Faced Short Rib Sandwich with sweet potato fries ($14). The sandwich was topped with some type of slaw-like mound, which I pushed to the side. there were about three small pieces of short rib on each thick triangle of bread. They were ok but were not memorable and nothing I would order again. The Beehive's Short Rib & Fontina Cheese sandwich has certainly spoiled me for short rib sandwiches. The fries though were excellent, thicker than many other such fries and with a delicious taste. Those I would order again.

Service was excellent. For example, I had ordered iced tea and my server continually brought me a new glass whenever mine was empty, and I never needed to ask for a refill. I will return here to check out some of the other menu items. It is a bit pricey and in these tough economic times, this is not the place for a value meal. But, if you can splurge a little, then maybe you would like to check it out.

Cafeteria Boston
279 Newbury Street
Boston MA
Phone: 617-536-CAFE

Cafeteria Boston on Urbanspoon

2005 Palmina Dolcetto

Yesterday, I mentioned that wine maker Aldo Vajra feels that wine should unify people at the table, it should bring family and friends together. This impressed me and I have since found another winery, in California, which seems to share this philosophy. Palmina wants to bring "...people back to the table to sustain themselves with good wine and food, conversation and a small respite from the hustle and bustle of today’s world."

In 1995, Palmina was formed by famed winemaker Steve Clifton in Santa Barbara County, California. He named the winery after a close friend, Palmina, who sadly succumbed to breast cancer. The winery produces wines from Italian varietals but they are not trying to copy the wines of Italy. They are intended to be fitting to to the region where the grapes are grown, though they are definitely Old World in that they are intended to be food wines. These are not your typical big and bold "Cal-Ital" wines, but rather something more elegant and lighter.

The 2005 Palmina Dolcetto ($18) is a blend of grapes from two vineyards, the Honea Vineyard and the Zotovich Vineyard. The Zotovich Vineyard is located in the cool climate Santa Rita Hills and is supposed to bring "...a darker fruit profile and lively acidity to the blend." The more eastern Honea Vineyard has a slightly warmer climate and "..lends red fruit notes and flavors and soft tannins..." to the wine. The grapes were hand harvested and the wine eventually was aged for five months in neutral oak barrels. The wine was intended to be drank young, to be an every day drinking wine.

This is a very dark red wine, nearly purple, and it has an intriguing nose that is earthy and fruity, especially ripe plum and blueberry. On the palate, it has moderate tannins that smoothed out with the pasta dish I ate with this wine. It has an interesting mix of flavors, including lush black fruits with hints of clove and leather. It actually seemed to be more of a serious wine than most everyday drinking wines. It has a decently long finish and is maybe a bit more muscular than many other Dolcettos I have tasted. That is not bad, just different. I did enjoy this wine and it definitely needs food to show its best side.

This wine does seem to fit the Palmina philosophy as it is wine best served with food. As I said before, people in the U.S. should embrace this philosophy, sharing more wine at dinner, with family and friends. I will check out another Palmina wine too and report back on that as well.

As an aside, I should mention that Bin Ends will hold a Twitter Taste Live event with Palmina wines on January 29, 2009. More details will follow but mark that date on your calendar.

Monday, November 24, 2008

G.D. Vajra Wine Tasting

"Wine is about beauty." --Giuseppe Vajra

What a compelling sentiment and a statement that tells us so much about the philosophy behind this winery. This was not some sales pitch nor was it insincere. There was no doubt in my mind that it came from the heart.

Last week, I had the distinct pleasure to meet Giuseppe Vajra, the son of wine maker Aldo Vajra. Lower Falls Wine Co., in conjunction with Adonna Imports, hosted a special tasting of the organic wines of G.D. Vajra, an Italian producer in the Piemonte region. We had the opportunity to taste seven wines from their portfolio. I have enjoyed several of their wines before so very much looked forward to tasting some others.

Giuseppe impressed me with his passion for wine, clearly evident in all that he said and in his attitude. I think he makes an ardent advocate for the winery and should make a fine successor to his father. His brother is also involved in the winery, yet he prefers to work in the vineyards and seems very happy doing so. Giuseppe is more a front person for the winery, currently traveling to help promote their wines. His youth and energy are both positive assets. And the wines are excellent so he is promoting a fine product.

One of the most striking comments that Giuseppe made involved his father, Aldo. Aldo feels that wine should unify people at the table, it should bring family and friends together. It is more than a liquid, more than just alcohol. It is a social force that helps promote positive relationships. This is very much an Old World concept, where wine has long been an integral part of their cultures for thousands of years. And it is a concept that much of the New World could benefit from if they accepted it. Integrate wine into our lives and make it more than just an alcoholic drink. Let it bring us together, creating closer ties with our relatives and friends, as well as helping to form new friendships.

The first wine of the tasting was the 2006 Dolcetto d’Alba Coste & Fossati ($25.99), a blend from two different vineyards where the vines are around 30 years old. The wine sees only a little bit of old oak because they want to keep the fruit flavors strong. Though this wine could age for a time, it is recommended that you drink it within the first five years. It is a very aromatic wine with lush berry smells. It is a very fruit forward wine, lots of cherry and plum, with moderate tannins that best goes with food. A fresh and vibrant wine that is sure to please and which I very much enjoyed. I should note that all of the Vajra wines are small production.

The 2005 Barbera d’Alba Superiore ($35.99) is from a single vineyard that was planted around 1949. These old vines give less variation each vintage that regular vines. The grapes are hand harvested and undergo a careful selection process to ensure they only use the best grapes. I loved the blueberry nose of this wine, such rich aromatics. On the palate, the blueberry flavors were prominent, as well as some ripe plum and blackberry. There is only the merest hint of spice. It was a bit tannic, a tad muscular, and probably needs about five years of cellaring though with the right food you could drink it now. It does have a pleasing, long finish and I am intrigued at how it will develop in time.

We also got to compare the 2004 Barbera d’Alba Superiore ($33.99), which is from what many consider an excellent vintage. The nose of this wine also had blueberry notes but with some dried cherry smells as well. It was a smoother wine, with milder tannins that the 2005 vintage. The fruit flavors, dried cherry and blueberry, were bright and it had a lingering finish that you did not want to end. I think this was a more approachable wine that could easily be drank now without any cellaring.

The 2004 Barolo Albe ($49.99) is a classic-style cuvee made from 20 year old vines in the La Volta, Coste di Vergne and Fossati vineyards. This wine has a light red color and a compelling nose of tobacco, dried cherry and a bit of earthiness. It has dusty, cherry flavors and moderate tannins with a fairly long finish. It seems fairly approachable now though I am sure it will develop even more with cellaring. There is also an interesting story about this wine's label.

If you look at the picture above, you can see that all of the wines but one have similar labels. The odd label has bright colors and geometric shapes, and seems to resemble a stained glass window. Well, the Vajra family made friends with a local Franciscan monk who was both an artist and architect. The monk designed the stained glass windows in the Vajra wine cellar and they eventually persuaded him to design the wine label as well. Giuseppe remembers that when he was younger, the monk told him to never accept mediocrity and that sentiment has remained with Giuseppe ever since.

The 2003 Barolo Bricco delle Viole ($57.99) is from the Bricco delle Viole vineyard was planted by Giuseppe’s great-grandfather in 1949. I found it more tannic and austere than the Albe Barolo. It also had more floral notes but I think this wine might require more cellaring. I just did not find it particularly compelling.

The 2004 Barolo Bricco delle Viole ($69.99) though impressed me much more than the 2003 vintage. I found this wine to have more prominent fruit flavors than the 2003 though the fruit flavors, blueberry, black cherry and raspberry, were still more subtle. There were also notes of spice, a touch of leather and some vanilla. This was a more elegant and complex wine, with a very satisfying and lengthy finish. It was well balanced and absolutely delicious. Though impressive now, I suspect it will only become even better over time. This is a wine I would highly recommend.

The final wine was the 2007 Moscato D'Asti ($19.99), which I have had before and previously thought was exceptional. At this tasting, my thoughts about it did not change at all. It has an appealing fruity nose with a nice taste of citrus. It is a very refreshing wine with only a slight bit of sweetness and a light effervescence. It would make a nice apertif or a palate cleanser. This has to be one of my favorite Moscatos and you definitely should check this out. It would be great for Thanksgiving, or any holiday.

Overall, a delicious tasting and I strongly recommend you check out the wines of G.D. Vajra!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

P.F. Chang's China Bistro: Return Visits

Banana Spring Rolls once again! How could I resist?

After my first excellent experience at P.F. Chang's China Bistro, I have since returned twice to check out more of their menu. My return visits have been a bit of a mixed bag, though much of it is likely due to the fact that the restaurant is still very new.

The Peking Dumplings ($5.50) appetizer had four, pan fried dumplings filled with plenty of ground pork & vegetables. They were quite tasty with a nice mix of textures and flavors. A good choice for an appetizer. The Northern Style Spare Ribs ($8.50) are wok-braised ribs served with a five spice salt. The ribs were tender, meaty, flavorful and easily came off the bone. Another good choice. The Sichuan Flatbread with Chicken ($7) is like a quessadilla though the flatbread is more like an Indian paratha or chapati than a tortilla. It was an ok dish, though nothing memorable and I would not order it again.

I also enjoyed Chang's Chicken Lettuce Wraps and they were once again delicious! Many of the customers at the other tables also seem to have ordered the lettuce wraps. It is obviously a very popular dish and I understand why.

The Chang's Spicy Chicken ($13) is a plate of cubes of lightly dusted white-meat chicken that was stir-fried in a sweet Sichuan sauce. This is actually a fairly hot and spicy dish and was extremely flavorful, a nice blend of sweet and heat. As it is not fried, it is a lighter dish, much better than a dish like General Gao's chicken. It also comes with a bowl of either white or brown rice.

The Lemongrass Prawns with Garlic Noodles ($16) has several quite large prawns, with garlic noodles, with a savory lemongrass sauce. Though it was flavorful, the prawns were a bit overcooked. The noodles also seemed a bit overcooked as well, having a slightly mushy texture to them. On another visit, I also tried their Garlic Noodles ($6.50) which were tossed with garlic and chili peppers, and accompanied by slivers of cucumber. Though I enjoyed their taste, they too seemed a bit overcooked and slightly mushy. As the noodles were similarly cooked on two different occasions, it seems that is their standard method. They would be even better if they were a bit more al dente.

Service was ok, with a couple minor issues which seem mainly due to the newness of the restaurant as well as some inexperienced help. The restaurant has been very busy since its opening and it may have been a bit overwhelmed. There certainly are some very professional and experienced servers at the restaurant but there also seem to be some who are not as comfortable or experienced. These are problems that can be worked out in time but which could take away from your dining experience right now.

I still do recommend this restaurant but like most new places, they do need to work out a few kinks. No one can expect perfection from any restaurant open for only a couple weeks. I will return there again, and hope that each time I do return, it improves. And I will be sure to report back to my readers.

P.S. I did have the Banana Spring Rolls again and they were just as fantastic as the first time!

P.F. Chang's China Bistro
210 Andover Street
Peabody, MA
Phone: 978-326-2410

Taste of Siam: New Restaurant in Stoneham

Stoneham is seeing the opening of a few new restaurants lately or in the near future. One of the openings that most excited me was Taste of Siam, a Thai restaurant. Stoneham did not previously have a Thai place so I was intrigued by what this place might be like. It has now been open for a couple weeks and I have already eaten there a few times, for both dinner and lunch.

Taste of Siam occupies the previous location of Georgie D’s Place, so it does have a bit of a parking issue. Though they are supposed to be having valet service in the near future which will help to alleviate much of that problem. Plus, as they are still very new, they don't have their liquor license yet, though that is forthcoming.

Only some minor changes have been made to the interior of the restaurant, including adding some tasteful Thai decorations. They did place a small section of wall in the front dining room to block off the view of the kitchen.

They are open for both lunch and dinner and their menu is fairly lengthy and diverse. There are appetizers, soups, salads, curry dishes, noodle dishes, fried rice, healthy stir fry dishes, and entrees specials. Prices are very reasonable with appetizers averaging $6 and most dinner entrees costing under $15. Lunches range $8-10. You will find many standard Thai dishes as well as some of their own creations. There should be something for everyone there.

To start your meal, I highly recommend the Thai Chicken Wings ($5.95) appetizer. They are your standard fried chicken wings but covered with Thai spices and a delicious and slightly sweet sauce. They were fresh, meaty and very flavorful. The sauce elevates this appetizer above the usual wings you get elsewhere. They are messy though but you will probably just lick the delicious sauce off your fingers.

The Shrimp Tempura ($6.95) was good, though the batter was a touch heavier than I prefer. I am very picky about my tempura. Kyotoya in Stoneham still has one of the best tempura around, just so light and crispy that you crave piece after piece of it. The Chicken Coconut Soup ($3.95) has slices of white meat chicken in a broth made of coconut milk, lemongrass, galangal and cilantro. What I especially liked was that I could taste all of the individual ingredients and they mixed well in the soup. The Bangkok Dumplings ($5.95), deep fried, were small dumplings filled with pork that were okay but nothing special.

As for their entrees, they really excel, providing fresh, delicious food in good-sized portions. There are two standard Thai dishes I use in comparing Thai restaurants, Massaman Curry and Pad Thai. If a restaurant can do those dishes well, then there is a very good chance the rest of their menu will be as good. For both dishes, Taste of Siam passed with flying colors.

Their Massaman Curry with Chicken ($12.95) comes in a porcelain bowl sitting above a candle to keep it warm, a cool presentation. Though the bowl at first may seem shallow, it actually contains a ton of food and sauce, more than you get at most other Thai places. It comes with potatoes, bell pepper, carrots, peanuts and basil leaves in a superb coconut curry sauce. Everything seemed very fresh and the sauce really pleased me. I was extremely happy with this dish and highly recommend it.

They have a few different versions of Pad Thai. The traditional Pad Thai ($10.95), is a rice noodle dish with chicken, shrimp, egg, bean sprouts, crushed peanuts and scallions. A nice touch was that the sprouts were on the side so they remained crunchy. This was another large dish of food with plenty of chicken. Also quite delicious and recommended. Their Pad Thai Basil Noodle ($10.95) comes with rice noodles, egg, and some veggies, but also thin slices of a tasty, crispy chicken cutlet. This dish does not come with bean sprouts and I very much liked it, especially the crunchy batter on the chicken.

One of their lunch specials is Gai Kapow ($7.95), ground chicken stir fried with Thai chilies, garlic and basil leaves in a spicy sauce and served atop jasmine rice and with some veggies. This dish was spicy hot though not so overwhelming that you lost the flavors of the dish. There was certainly plenty of food on the plate and it is a perfect dish for a cold afternoon when you want something to warm and satisfy your belly.

They have nine desserts available, from Homemade Thai Custard to Fresh Mango with Sweet Sticky Rice. I tried the Fried Banana ($5.95), which includes several pieces of banana fried in light and crispy spring roll wrappers accompanied by a large scoop of vanilla ice cream with some chocolate sauce and whipped cream. A decadent dessert that you could share, though you might want it all to yourself. It was not as good as the similar dish I recently had at P.F. Chang, but it still was very good and worth ordering.

Service has been very good, despite the fact they don’t have their full staff working yet. Overall, I was impressed with this restaurant. It is an excellent place for reasonable prices, delicious food, and good-sized large portions. It is off to an auspicious start and I look forward to returning there soon to try more of their menu.

Taste of Siam
499 Main Street
Stoneham, MA
Phone: (781) 438-4001 (Note their website does not appear to be working yet)

Taste of Siam on Urbanspoon

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Geographic Wine Clubs

In September, I tried a Syrah from Morocco. It was the first time that I had ever had a wine from that country, and I selected it simply because I had not done so before. I wanted to be adventurous, to try something more unusual. Are you the same?

You probably have heard of the Wine Century Club. It is a loosely organized club where to qualify as a member, you must have tasted at least 100 different grape varieties. If you succeed in doing so, the Club awards you a special certificate. With all the thousands of different grapes out there, this is a very achievable goal.

It is an interesting idea and an excellent way to get wine lovers to try some very different wines. I am very adventurous in my wine drinking and encourage others to do the same, to try any and all wines they get a chance to taste. Yet trying unusual grapes is only one part of being adventurous. There is also the excitement of trying wines from more unusual and different wine regions.

So, I got thinking about something similar to the Wine Century Club but geared more to geographics. Tha led to ideas for two different clubs. The first idea I have called the Wine Country 30 Club. Maybe not the most exciting of names but it is the working title for now.

Wine is made in many countries all around the world but how many of those countries have you tasted their wines? You can qualify for membership in this club if you have tried wine from at least 30 different countries, roughly half the number of countries on the list below.

Here is a list of wine producing countries, though this list is not complete:

Albania, Algeria, Argentina, Armenia, Austria, Australia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Bolivia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, China, Croatia, Cuba, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Egypt, Estonia, Ethiopia, France, Germany, Georgia, Greece, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Madagascar, Malta, Mexico, Moldova, Morocco, New Zealand, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Serbia & Montenegro, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, Syria, Tajikistan, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe.

How many of those countries can you mark off on your list? I qualify for this Club as I have had wines from 32 of those countries. Though I doubt I will be able to add too many more to my list as I have never seen some of the remaining countries available at my local wine stores.

In a similar vein, my second idea is called the U.S. Wine 25 Club. Wine is now made in all fifty states so how many of those states have you tasted their wines? You can qualify for membership in this club if you have tried wine from at least 25 different states, roughly half the number of states.

I don't yet qualify for this club as I have only had wine from around 12 or so different states. It is a bit difficult as the wines of many of those other states are not available in my local wine stores.

So do you qualify for either of these two geographic wine clubs?

At this time, I don't issue any certificates or any other prizes. Your reward is more just personal satisfaction for being an adventurous wine lover. If anyone has some additional ideas or feedback, feel free to post a comment.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Eastern Standard: Repeal of Prohibition Party

All year long Eastern Standard has been celebrating the 75th Anniversary of the Repeal of Prohibition with specially-priced prohibition-era cocktail offerings. To wrap it up, they are hosting a special Roaring Twenties-themed costume dinner and party that begins on Thursday, December 4 and ends after midnight on December 5--the day Prohibition was repealed.

Guests are encouraged to wear flapper-era dress. Bathtub gin will start the evening, followed by a six-course menu featuring dishes enjoyed in the 1920’s, paired with cocktails. There will also be entertainment, dancing, breakfast and party favors. Or just come for the late-night party, which is at a reduced ticket price.


First Course: Ampersand Cocktail (Buttermilk Fried Oysters with Standard Caesar Salad and Pernod Remoulade)

Second Course: Waldorf-Astoria’s Perfect Martini
3 eggs, 3 styles
1) Thin, Toasted Rye Wheel, Smear of Meyer Lemon Cream Cheese, Caviar
2) White Truffle Scrambled (with shaved white truffle)
3) Deviled Egg

Third Course: Maiden’s Prayer (Maine Lobster in Pastry with a Sherry Cream Sauce, Peas and Carrots)

Fourth Course: The Scofflaw (Philadelphia Pepper Pot Stew, Lamb Neck, Sweetbread, and Cockscomb, Root Vegetables)

Fifth Course: The Charles Lindbergh (Roasted Karabuta Pork Chop, Scalloped Potatoes, Housemade Sauerkraut)

Dessert: Corpse Reviver (#3 Pineapple Upside Down Cake with Cardamom Tapioca)

Dinner is on December 4 at 6:30pm. Cost: $120/person
Late Night Party only starts at 10pm. Cost: $40/person

Reservations: Email or call 617-532-9100

Eastern Standard
528 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA
Phone: 617-532-9100

Spirited Gourmet Grand Tasting

Last weekend, I led a group of the North Shore Winers to a Fall Grand Wine Tasting at The Spirited Gourmet in Belmont. This is an excellent wine store, with a fine look and a very diverse selection of wines. It also sells many types of cheese and other gourmet foods. I knew that this would be a fun tasting with some delicious wines.

There were eleven wine distributors present, with a total of about 50 wines available for tasting. I did not taste all of them but I will list my favorites, by distributor, from those I did taste.

Vineyard Road: Always one of my favorite distributors with a diverse and exciting portfolio.

--2006 Eclipse Merlot, Carneros, CA ($19.99): I loved the smell of this wine, such enticing ripe berries. The taste followed through on the promise of the nose, lush dark plum and blueberry and spice notes. Moderate tannin and a lingering finish. More complex and lush than most other Merlots. One of the best Merlots I have tasted in some time and at an excellent price.
--2006 Chave Cotes du Rhone, France ($24.99): I have enjoyed the past vintages of this wine and the new vintage is also a winner. Smooth with dark berry flavors, vanilla, and black pepper. Complex with a long finish. A top notch Rhone.

Gilbert Distributors:

--2004 Clautiere Mourvedre, Paso Robles, California ($23.99): Only 250 cases of this wine were produced. A meaty wine with a nice smoky, bacon flavor. Ripe plum, cinnamon, and a lingering finish. Delicious!
--2005 Las Perdices Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina ($16.99): A big, bold wine with strong tannins that would go great with a rare roast beef or large slab of prime rib.

Boston Wine:

--2006 Prazo Roriz, Douro, Portugal ($17.99): A wonderfully aromatic wine with lots of lush fruit flavors, in a more traditional style. This is what makes Portuguese wine so enticing. A great wine with or without food.

MS Walker:

--2004 Bennett Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa, California ($28.99): A model Napa Cabernet with ripe plum and cassis flavors with vanilla and spicy notes. A touch of smoke and leather with a lingering and satisfying finish. A good price for this complex Cabernet.

United Liquors, Ltd.:

--2005 Faust Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa, California ($49.99): A biodynamic wine which is a rich, full bodied wine. Moderate tannins, good fruit and spice flavors. Excellent finish, plenty of complexity and well balanced.

Ideal Wine & Spirits:

--2007 St. Peyre Picpoul de Pinet, France ($9.99): This white wine, made from the Picpoul grape, has a fresh citrus and apple smell. It is a very crisp and refreshing wine with touches of green apple and grapefruit. Excellent value wine.
--2006 Campinuovi Sangiovese Montecucco, Italy ($21.99): A biodynamic wine with bright cherry flavors, moderate tannins and good acidity. Delicious and would be great with pasta.

The Spirited Gourmet
448 Common Street
Belmont, MA
Phone: 617-489-WINE

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Big Win for MA Residents!

In the near future, Massachusetts residents may be able to order wine directly from wineries! That is fantastic news and a big reason for wine lovers to rejoice.

Back in 2006, Massachusetts House Bill 4498 bcame law and it placed significant restrictions on direct-to-consumer wine shipments. It permitted a winery that produces less than 30,000 gallons to ship to Massachusetts with the proper permits. Any winery that produced over 30,000 gallons could ship too, unless they already wholesaler representation in the state. That restriction prevented appoximately 95% of all wineries from delivering to Massachusetts.

To combat this new law, suit was filed, Family Winemakers of California v. Jenkins. the primary thrust of the suit was that this law violated the nondiscrimination principle of the Commerce Clause, which prohibits “laws that burden out-of-state producers or shippers simply to give a competitive advantage to in-state businesses.” (U.S. Supreme Court, Granholm v. Heald, May 2005).

Yesterday, the court ruled and declared the law was unconstitutional! Judge Zobel stated: "The legitimacy of the three-tier system cannot provide succor to a statute which allows exceptions to that system which benefit in-state interests." What great news for wine lovers!

It is not fully over yet though as there could be an appeal. But, if there is no appeal, then there will only be a wait while the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission complies with the law. Once that happens, out of state wineries can begin to apply for shipping permits.

I am so excited as I may finally be able to order some excellent wines that I have previously been unable to obtain. Let us hope that everything continues to progress forward.


Buyology: Truth and Lies about Why We Buy

When you enter a wine store, what makes you purchase a particular wine? Is it fully a rational and logical decision, or is there something underlying that decision, something less readily identifiable? Do you really know why you buy a certain wine?

Wineries, marketers, distributors and others often take surveys or set up focus groups to try to determine the reasons for why people buy specific wines. The results of these surveys and focus groups often determine where millions of dollars of advertising and marketing is allocated. Yet they may be wasting most of that money, relying on inaccurate results.

For a deeper look into these issues, you might want to read Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy by Martin Lindstrom (Doubleday, 2008). The book details the results of an extensive neuromarketing study and those results are quite intriguing. This is a fascinating book that I would highly recommend to anyone interested in marketing.

The book begins with some amazing figures concerning marketing. In 2007, corporations spent about $12 billion on market research in the US alone. That does not include the expenses involved in marketing an actual product, which are about $117 billion. These are huge amounts but does all that money lead to beneficial results? Most of the time it does not. Eight out of ten new product launches fail within the first three months. So billions of dollars of marketing are wasted on failed products. Obviously many marketers are doing something significantly wrong.

Despite the prevalence of surveys and focus groups, they are not truly reliable predictors of why people buy what they do. The book alleges that approximately 90% of our buying behavior is actually unconscious. That means that our buying decisions are much less rational than we think, that there are more subtle factors involved, matters we do not fully realize. We might think we buy wines for one reason, when that may not be true.

Though you might not want to believe it, your emotions play a significant role in your buying decisions. “Because emotions are the way in which our brains encode things of value, and a brand that engages us emotionally—think Apple, Harley-Davidson, and L’Oreal, just for starters—will win every single time.” (p.27) Do any of the wines you buy engage you emotionally? I previously posted about a study involving wine labels with animals that seems to support that our emotions are involved in wine buying decisions.

One way for products to form a deeper emotional connection with consumers is through the use of rituals. Such rituals provide " illusion of comfort and belonging, stability and familiarity." (p.99) That could be partially a reason why many people prefer wines with corks, the ritual of using a corkscrew providing an emotional connection. A screwcap lacks such a ritual and may not then connect as emotionally.

Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy has much more information about marketing and it is well worth checking out. What really stands out to me is that traditional marketing often is unsuccessful and those companies which innovate, which seek to connect emotionally with their potential customers, may have the best chance of success.

This certainly applies to wine. There are many thousands of different wines available so which wines will succeed? How can a new wine stand out among the crowd? How can a wine store connect better with its customers?

It could even apply to our blogs. Do we connect emotionally with our readers?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

WBW #52: Value Reds From Chile

The theme for Wine Blogging Wednesday #52 has now been announced and it is fitting with our rocky economic times. We all want value wines and this theme caters to that. Tim of Cheap Wine Ratings is this month's host and he has chosen the theme: Value Reds From Chile.

Chile currently produces some very good value wines so Tim wants us to explore them. The rules are simple, choose any red wine from Chile for $20 or less. It is even better if you find a wine for $10. The major areas of Chile include various Aconcagua, Cachapoal, Casablanca, Colchagua, Curicó, Maipo and Maule. You get extra points for a wine from one of the lesser known regions such as Bío Bío, Elqui, Itata, Limarí, Malleco or San Antonio. If you don't know much about Chilean wines, or just want more info, Tim has also provided some links to resources on Chilean wine.

I have had some Chilean wines before, some I liked and some I did not. For example, I am not a big fan of the grape Carmenere, as I find it too similar to Cabernet Franc, too often having a green/vegetal taste to it. But I have enjoyed some of their Cabernets. I do have one high end Chilean wine in my cellar, the 2003 Vina Alamviva, a red blend. I do hope you all participate in this new WBW!

On or before, Wednesday, December 10, just post your tasting review on your blog. Then send an e-mail with a link to your review to

Vicki Lee's Cafe & Bakery

We wanted a quick bite before a wine tasting so we walked around the Cushing Square area of Belmont seeking someplace to eat. We noticed Vicki Lee's Cafe and feeling adventurous, decided to give it a try though we knew nothing about it.

Vicki Lee's is a small cafe, serving breakfast and lunch, and a bakery. They also sell some packaged food, kitchenware and gifts as well as offering cooking classes. The owner, Vicki Lee Boyajian, has been involved in cafes, bakeries and catering for about fifteen years, having opened her first bakery in Arlington in 1983.

Unfortunately, their website does not have their menu, which I hope they remedy. The lunch menu is primarily sandwiches and salads. We ordered a couple of the sandwiches, each about $8 and both which came with fresh fruit. One sandwich had applewood smoked bacon, smoked cheddar, roasted tomatoes and arugala on country white, which can be grilled like a panini. The other had scrambled eggs with parsley, ham, and fontina cheese, also on grilled country white bread. Both sandwiches were very tasty, the ingredients obviously fresh. The bacon sandwich had a nice smoky flavor and the fontina on the egg sandwich gave a nice creaminess to the sandwich. There was a nice portion of fresh fruit including strawberries, blueberries, melon, raspberries and more. Maybe a bit pricey though I have no complaints about the quality or taste.

Their baked goods and desserts did intrigue me and I decided to try some of their cookies, $1.50 each. Again, a bit pricey but the cookies are quite large, about the size you find at Finale. The Toll house cookie with nuts was excellent, soft, fresh and flavorful. I don't like such cookies to be hard throughout. I want some softness, as if the cookie just came out of the oven. The cookie had plenty of chocolate chips and nuts. The Chocolate cookie had a rich, chocolatey flavor and a soft center. Another excellent cookie. The Ginger Snap and Anzac, a type of oatmeal cookie, also were quite delicious. If you love good cookies, then these should definitely please you.

This is a more of a high-end place so their prices tend to be on the high side, but the quality of their product is also high. It is worth checking out.

Vicki Lee's Cafe
105 Trapelo Road
Belmont, MA
Phone: 617-489-5007

Vicki Lee Boyajian on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Bella Luna: Hot & Spicy

How hot do you like it? How much heat can you withstand? Put yourself to the test with the new Chicken and Penne Arrabiata at Bella Luna Restaurant in Jamaica Plain.

Executive Chef Jacob Zachow has always been a lover of spicy food and has always wanted to issue a challenge to others to see if they can truly take the heat! “Anyone can make a dish that is painfully hot….but to make a dish that balances all the flavors in a recipe and delivers a high level of heat is truly a challenge!”

Chef Zachow feels he has met that challenge with his new Chicken and Penne Arrabiata with Honey Roasted Habanero and Fresh Parmesan. The dish is not on Bella Luna’s menu and is only available by asking for it when dining. So it is a bit of an insider secret.

“This dish is not for the faint of heart and I extend the challenge to any and all people who say they like spicy food to give this dish a try.” said Zachow. If you’re seeking the kitschy name of this dish look no further than in the mirror. Each time a diner completes the highest level of heat the dish will be aptly named after them until the new record is bumped off by the next brave soul. Bring your cast iron stomach and ask for the dish in one of the three levels of increasing heat:

1. Beyond the Moon;
2. The Solar System; and the ever dreaded
3. Out of this World!

As a bonus, here is the Recipe:

Chicken and Penne Arrabiata (Serves: 4)
Preparation Time: 45 Minutes

2 Habanero
1 Medium Onion, Small Dice
5 Cloves of Garlic, Fine Chopped
¼ lb. Pancetta, Sliced Thin and Diced
¾ lb. Chicken Breast, Cut into 1 inch Cubes
2 T. Fresh Basil, Chopped
2 T. Italian Parsley, Chopped
3 T. Butter, Cubed
1 T. Honey
3 T. Olive Oil
¾ Cup White Wine
¾ Cup Chicken Stock
4 T. Flour
5 T, Fresh Parmesan, Shaved
¾ lb Penne Pasta, Cooked
Kosher Salt
Fresh Cracked Pepper

Step 1: Cooking Pasta and Roasting Habanero
1. Begin by filling a medium sized sauce pot ¾ of the way with water and adding 2 tablespoons of kosher salt. Place over medium high heat and bring water to a boil. Add pasta and cook for 8-10 minutes until pasta is al dente.
2. Next preheat your oven to 400 degrees. In a small bowl add your honey and 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Toss habanero in this mixture and put on a baking sheet. Bake at 400 degrees for about 15-20 Minutes or until a rich golden brown color is achieved.

Step 2: Preparing and Assembling Ingredients
1. Next you want to assemble all your remaining ingredients in the following order. This will help you follow the flow of preparation. First line up your butter and remaining olive oil followed by pancetta, onions, garlic, diced chicken and flour. Reserve basil and parsley for the end.
2. Next remove the stem from your roasted habanero being very careful preferably using gloves at this stage as the heat can be intense. Run habanero briefly under water rinsing away seeds, then pat dry with a paper town. Next chop habanero briefly and place next to your chicken. Wash hands thoroughly at this stage.

Step 3: Cooking and Presentation
1. Begin by placing a large sauté pan over medium high heat. Let pan heat up for about 3 minutes. Next add butter and olive oil and wait for it to melt down. Now add pancetta, onions and garlic and let these ingredients develop color for about 8 minutes. Next add chicken, habanero and flour and continue to cook until chicken is golden brown.
2. At this stage, deglaze the pan with white wine and chicken stock. Now add the fresh basil and parsley and continue to cook until chicken is cooked and the sauce cooks down about half way. Finish by seasoning with salt and fresh cracked pepper.
3. For presentation, toss penne pasta and fresh shaved parmesan in the sauté pan. Divide pasta between four large pasta bowls and garnish with more fresh parmesan and chopped parsley.

Bella Luna Restaurant
403-405 Centre St.,
Jamaica Plain, MA
Phone: 617.524.6060

Anthony Bell Tasting

At a recent wine tasting, I was thoroughly impressed with the 2005 Bell Cabernet Sauvignon ($44.99). I thought it was an excellent value that was well worth the cost, and which even could compete with some Cabernets at twice the price. Thus, when I learned The Spirited Gourmet was having a special tasting of wines from Bell Wine Cellars, I had to go and check out the rest of their portfolio. I was very glad I went to this tasting.

Bell Wine Cellars was founded in 1991 by John Baritelle and Anthony Bell. John was a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon grower and Anthony was a viticulturist and assistant winemaker at Beaulieu Vineyard. developed a friendship that began in 1980. They began their partnershi, making Cabernet Sauvignon at a small winery in Carneros. Over the years, they moved to a couple other locations, trying to find the perfect place. In March 1998, they purchased the former Plam Vineyards winery and vineyard in Yountville. In June 2002, Ron Berberian, former California wine wholesaler, and Alex Spanos, owner of the San Diego Chargers, formed Spanos Berberian Winery, LLC. They bought Baritelle's interest and formed a partnership with Anthont Bell.

Anthony grew up in a winemaking family in South Africa, learning viticulture at Stellenbosch University as well as the University of California, Davis. He spent time in both Bordeaux and Jerez, Spain. Anthony generally does not submit his wines for reviews or scores from the professional wine media. His wines are low production, many less than 1500 cases.

The first wine of the tasting was the 2006 Bell Sauvignon Blanc Lake County ($21.99) and only 1166 cases were made of this wine. The wine undergoes cold fermentation in stainless steel tanks and never sees oak. It has a pale yellow color with a fres, citrus smell and only a hint of mowed grass. On the palate, it is a crisp wine with vibrant citrus and melon notes, and again a touch of grassiness. It reminds me more of French Sauvignon Blanc than New Zealand. A very good wine that should very much appeal to fans of this grape.

The 2006 Bell Chardonnay ($32.99), of which only 1500 cases are made, again is a wine that is more French in style than the usual California Chardonnays. This wine is also cold fermented in stainless steel but does see some restrained oak and minimal malolactic fermentation. This is a little more yellowish color and a compelling nose of bright fruit, a little citrus and something more exotic as well though the exact smell was a bit elusive. To the taste, it had a slight creaminess without being that overly buttery style. It was still crisp and fresh. There was also much more vibrant fruit flavors and hints of vanilla, exactly the style of Chardonnay I prefer. This is a bit pricey but it is an excellent wine and I did buy a bottle.

The 2005 Bell Syrah Canterbury Vineyard ($34.99), of which only 2500 cases are made, is the biggest seller of the winery. It seems that it is the compromise wine, between those who prefer the whites and those who prefer the Cabernets. It is 100% Syrah and has been aged in oak for eighteen months then spends an additional 3 to 6 months in the bottle before release. This had a medium red color with an intriguing spicy nose. I felt it was more of a lighter style Syrah, not the big, bold wines you might find in Australia. Though it had delicious dark berry and ripe plum flavors, plus a nice spicy backbone, it still felt lighter on my palate. It had restrained tannins, a long finish, and was a smooth and pleasing wine. I could easily drink this with or without food. I had to buy a bottle of this as well and would highly recommend it. I am also intrigued as to what their Reserve Syrah would be like.

The 2005 Bell Claret ($34.99), of which only 512 cases are made, is a blend of 76% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 8% Syrah, 4% Petite Verdot, 1% Cabernet Franc and 1% Malbec. the exact blend does vary from year to year. The Cabernet Sauvignon is a blend of four different clones. Those grapes are the same as used in their other Cabernet wines, just that the best of the grapes go into those others. This had a lighted red color with a bit of spice and red fruit on the nose. There was bright red fruits on the palate, mild tannins and there merest hint of spice. It had a moderate finish. It was a good wine, but for an extra $10, I would much prefer their more impressive Cabernet.

The 2005 Bell Cabernet Sauvignon ($44.99), of which 3000 cases are produced, impressed me again. It is a blend with 80$ Cabernet, 10% Petite Verdot, 6% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Franc and 1% Malbec. It is very smooth, with restrained tannins, and is ready to drink now or you can cellar it for a time. It has a complex melange of flavors, including lush blueberry and plum, some interesting spices that remind me of Xmas, and a long, satisfying finish. This is a Cabernet that should greatly please most people and it gets my highest recommendation.

The 2004 Bell Sonnette Winemaker's Blend ($66.99), of which only 97 cases were produced, Napa Valley. derives its name from a French word meaning "little bell." This is a Bordeaux blend with 52% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Franc and 11% Petit Verdot. This is a bit more tannic of a wine though they still do not overwhelm. It has more lush fruit and seems softer, possibly due to the Merlot. It has a rather dusty, albeit long, finish. An excellent wine and it just depends on your particular Caberent style preference.

The 2005 Bell Cabernet Sauvignon Clone 6 ($94.99), of which only 1,500 6-pack cases were produced, is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Anthony Bell created Clone #6, which will be one of his biggest legacies. It is from an old Bordeaux clone that was brought to California during the Goldrush days. Anthony found it undisturbed on an old farm in the Sierra Foothills and it had never been hit by phyollxera. If you look at the grapes on the vine, the clusters appear very sparse as if birds had eaten some of the grapes. The grapes are also the size of your pinky, much smaller than other Cabernet grapes. When John Baritelle and Anthony Bell dissolved their partnership, John got control of the Clone 6 grapes. Luckily, Anthony had given some cuttings to a few other wineries and he was able to get some of them.

This wine is aged in oak for almost two years and then spends an additional 18 to 24 months in the bottle before its release. It is neither fined nor filtered. It had a deep ruby color and a mild nose, with a touch of green pepper. Supple and elegant, this wine will age beautifully for many years. On the palate, I found the flavors somewhat restrained as well, though clearly there was much complexity there. The tannins were moderate and it had a very long finish. It was quietly elegant though I think it may need more cellaring before it really comes into its own.

Lastly, I tasted the 2005 Bell Talianna Syrah/Cabernet Sauvignon ($94.99), of which only 500 cases were produced. It is named after Anthony's two daughters, Talia and Anna. It is a blend of 80% Cabernet Sauvignon Clone 6 and 20% Syrah. The wine was aged 18 months in a combination of French (90%) and American oak barrels, 100% of which were new. The wine has not been fined or filtered. This is made to be a more accessible wine than the 100% Cabernet, and they succeeded in such.

This is a delicious wine, with lush ripe plum , blueberry and cassis with hints of vanilla and other spices. A very smooth wine with supple tannins and a lingering finish. It is something you could easily drink now or let sit in your cellar for a few years. Another impressive wine that is worth its high price.

Monday, November 17, 2008

A Year of Wine

As I have mentioned before, I generally do not purchase wine buying guides, though there are exceptions. While at my local bookstore, I skimmed through a new buying guide that actually peaked my interest. That was primarily because it was far more than just a buying guide, more than just a dry recitation of recommended wines. So I bought the book and eagerly devoured it in its entirety the next day.

The Year of Wine: Perfect Pairings, Great Buys, and What to Sip for Each Season was written by Tyler Colman (Simon & Schuster, November 2008, $24.00). You probably better recognize Colman as Dr. Vino, a well respected wine blogger, though he is also a wine writer and educator. If you are not reading his blog, you should definitely do so.

I previously reviewed his first book, Wine Politics, and it had more of an academic flair to it. This is not the case for Year of Wine, which has a more casual style, accessible to readers of all levels of wine knowledge. For example, Colman mentions things like fingerprint goobers, schlepfaktor, and edumacation. Those are not terms you would have found in Wine Politics. Colman is having fun with this book and that enjoyment is infectious. It is also enjoyable to read some of Colman's personal anecdotes, including stories with his wife, Michelle.

This is how Colman characterized his new book on his blog: "The book has short essays and hundreds of wine recommendations across the twelve months of the year. There should be something for wine lovers of all levels, newbie to full-on wine geek. There’s also some information for all seasons about wine style, wine service and how to actually find good wines near you. And twelve wine travel sections help you even change your context for maximum wine enjoyment."

In the introduction to his book, Colman states: "So the thesis of this book is: drink different." (p.xiv). An admirable sentiment and one with which I fully agree. I also encourage people to branch out, to try new wines, whether they be different grapes, different blends or different wine regions. Part of the enjoyment of wine is all of its vast diversity. It can never grow dull as there is always something different out there to taste. The fact this book has a philosophy at all sets it apart from many other wine buying guides that simply present standard lists of recommendations.

Another key element from the book is that Colman emphasizes the importance of context when drinking wine. This would include factors such as when you are drinking wine, where you are, the reasons for drinking, who you are with, and much more. As I have said before, sharing a wine with good friends can elevate the quality of the wine. But it is something that probably does not get discussed enough and it is good to see someone addressing that issue. Colman even points out a reason why he does not provide scores for his wines, as such points ignore context. Wine scores are usually generated in a more sterile environment, devoid of any context, as such context might be seen to taint their scores.

So just in his introduction, Colman has already provided excellent advice that would be beneficial to those new to wine, and a good reminder to those who are more knowledgeable. We cannot lose sight of these issues as they strike to the heart of why wine can be so pleasurable.

The book then begins with a number of shorts essays on subjects such as flavor profiles of grapes, pairing wine and food, and picking wine shops. Then he takes a seasonal approach to wine with a month by month rundown. He tries to place wine into context, such as the seasons, specific holidays, and more. Sporadically throughout the book, he has a Q&A with thirteen different sommeliers.

There are plenty of wine recommendations throughout the book, and I think he had chosen many excellent wines. I was glad to see a very positive mention to Abe Schoener of the Scholium Project, one of my favorite maverick wine makers. Though I would have liked to see a mention for wine maker Sean Thackrey as well. Besides specific wine recommendations, he also recommends certain types and styles of wine, depending on the context.

Yet Colman does not just present specific wine recommendations. He also discusses various wine topics throughout the book, sometimes going into more detail about specific wines or grapes, such as Port, Malbec, Cognac and Mouvedre. He gives an opinion on more unusual food pairings, such as which wine might pair best with chips and salsa during the Superbowl, or what wine goes with a hotdog and sauerkraut. I certainly have not given such pairings much thought so it was fascinating to read Colman's suggestions.

As you might expect, there is a short essay on wine's carbon footprint but then there is also a recommendation for a wine that Tyra Banks might enjoy, who has said she basically does not like wine. I never expected to see a wine recommendation for Tyra. Page after page, you never know what will come next as the topics are so diverse. There are recommendations on box wines and advice on what to do if you don'd have a corkscrew. There are travel tips for various wine regions, including Long Island. I was glad to see that Colman thought highly of Paumanok Vineyards, which had highly impressed me on my visit.

There were a number of little tidbits of information in this book that were new to me, as well as getting a different viewpoint on other matters. For example, Colman recommends taking wine tasting notes in a Moleskin leather bound notebook as it makes you look more professional. I also garnered a few intriguing details that would possibly benefit my theme when I host Wine Blogging Wednesday in June.

This was quite a fun and informative book and I would highly recommend it, especially to those relatively new to wine, though I think everyone will find something of value in it. With its easy reading style, this is a book you will quickly finish. And it may even be something you refer back to over time, maybe following his seasonal approach.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Twitter Taste Live: The Bloggers Take Over

As I mentioned in my earlier post today, last evening was a new Twitter Taste Live event, The Bloggers Take Over! For this event, numerous wine bloggers volunteered to take the stage and discuss the wines of their choice. There were no restrictions on what they could choose. This was the first time for this format so there was a bit of trepidation over how it would work. Based on last night's performance, I think it was quite a success.

If you wish all of the notes and tweets from the event, you can check out Twitter Search or Tim of Winecast who also has everything collected. A diverse selections of wines were chosen, from my own choice of a Japanese sake to Spanish sherries. Most of the wines were tasted at the time of the event so you got the blogger's live reactions to the wines, and not always positive ones either. A couple of the wines which really intrigued me were the 2006 Marcel Lapierre Morgon (tasted by @binendswine) and the 2004 Cameron Hughes Lot 93 Tempranillo (tasted by @winecast).

This event was like having wine blogs come alive, and getting an immediate reaction. What was also very cool was the ability to interact with the blogger, to ask questions, make comments and hear the thoughts of others. Unfortunately, that interaction is often lacking on actual wine blogs. Far too people post comments on blogs, yet clearly the readers have questions. Posting comments will help blogs be more interactive, more responsive to their audience. We should not have to wait for these events to interact with each other. Blogs should be a give and take, not just a place to read a single person's thoughts.

Some of the most amusing comments came later in the event, maybe because people had been drinking more by then, or possibly because of the individuals involved. For example:

1WineDude: #ttl Back to the Dry Cream - this wine is like concentrated Fig brandy. It's almost as good as sex (almost.. it's a close call).

winehiker: @1WineDude And, verily, a Wine Bloggers' #TTL should end in viscous lust.

So many people contributed to the success of this event that it would be difficult to list them all. The Twitter Taste Live events continue to prosper and there are many more planned for the near future so you should check out the list of upcoming events.

Thanks to Bin Ends for giving us wine bloggers this platform to discuss our wine selections. I am sure there will be more Blogger Take Over events in the future.

Masumi Okuden Kantsukuri "Mirror of Truth" Junmai

Last evening I had the pleasure of participating in a new Twitter Taste Live event, The Bloggers Take Over! This was similar to Open Mic night at the Improv, where a bunch of wine bloggers were able to take the stage and talk about wines they specifically chose for that night. It was a great evening and I will discuss it more in another post. But I wanted to highlight my own selection, the Masumi Okuden Kantsukuri "Mirror of Truth" Junmai Saké. I chose Saké as I hoped my passion for it might be infectious.

This was another purchase from Sakaya in New York City, and once again I was not let down. The Masumi Okuden Kantsukuri "Mirror of Truth" Junmai ($25.99/720ml) is from the Chubu region of the Nagano Prefecture. Masumi Brewery was founded in 1662 at the foot of the Kirigamine highlands in the Suwa Basin, the mountainous heart of the Japan "Alps." Masumi is a very important Sake brewery and is well known for developing Yeast #7, the most commonly used yeast for non-ginjo sake. This specific Sake is named for the Masumi no Kagami (Masumi Mirror), a national treasure set in the Suwa Taisha Shrine, one of the oldest shrines in Japan.

The rice, Hitogokochi, for this Saké was polished to 60% which would make it technically a Ginjo but the brewery decided to only label this as a Junmai. It has an alcohol content of 15% and a Saké Meter Value of +3, which means it tends to be more neutral, with a touch of dryness. This Saké had a clear color with a nose of subtle fruits and hints of steamed rice. It had a rich, creamy body with a hint of sweetness and subtle flavors of melon and banana. It was very smooth with a moderately long finish. I can see this Saké as pairing well with with richer foods like salmon, tuna, tempura, or even burgers.

This is a reasonably priced Saké and one which I would definitely recommend. I think it will appeal to both those new to Saké as well as those who already have a passion for it.


Saturday, November 15, 2008

P.F. Chang's China Bistro: Northshore Mall

I have to start with dessert. Banana Spring Rolls ($6.50)!!! Six pieces, each basically a half of a spring roll. A thin, light & crispy spring roll covering a firm but soft banana. It is warm and the banana avoids being mushy. Caramel and vanilla sauces have been drizzled atop the spring rolls, which surround a large scoop of coconut-pineapple ice cream. There are also fresh slices of strawberry, some blueberries and raspberries on the plate. A decadent dessert with so many of my favorite flavors. With each bite of the springroll, I smeared some creamy ice cream atop it. I could skip lunch or dinner and just have this delectable dessert.

With that out of the way, now I can go back to the beginning and talk about the restaurant. I don't usually get excited about chain restaurants, but there are exceptions. A new P.F. Chang's China Bistro opened a couple weeks ago at the Northshore Mall in Peabody. P.F. Chang's is very popular and it can often be a wait for a table at the Boston location. I was excited to try out the new location, to see how it would compare to Boston, so I went there for lunch.

As you enter the parking lot and approach the restaurant, you see the familar eleven foot high horses at the entrance. The inside of the restaurant is tastefully decorated and actually presents a rather elegant look. It is a medium sized restaurant with a long bar at the back of the room. Above the bar is a large, lengthy mural of a scene from 12th century China, an impressive and striking mural. The lighting was muted with candles on the tables, even for lunch. The restaurant presents a pleasant ambiance.

As we had arrived early, the restaurant was nearly empty. Though by the time we left, the restaurant was packed and there was quite a line of people waiting for a table. It seems this P.F. Chang's location may become as popular as the Boston one.

The menu is quite diverse, with plenty of familar dishes as well as some of their own creative dishes. Prices are reasonable, nearly all entrees costing under $15. In a comparison, many of their prices are comparable to what you find at the Kowloon Restaurant. I was expecting their prices to be higher but they apparently are trying to make it affordable for everyone. The entire menu is available at lunch.

We began our lunch with one of their signature appetizers, Chang's Chicken Lettuce Wraps ($8). You receive a plate with a mixture of chicken, Shitake mushrooms and water chestnuts, all finely chopped and diced that has been largely cooked in a wok. This was very flavorful, with a bit of crunch from the water chestnuts. You also receive a few large pieces of lettuce, very fresh and crisp, which you use almost like a soft taco shell. I have had lettuce wraps elsewhere, and these were some of the freshest I have ever had. There was enough of the chicken mixture to fill four lettuce wraps. As these were delicious, I understand why they are so popular and I would recommend them.

For lunch, they have a number of special bowls you can order. You basically get some type of meat, poultry or seafood atop a bowl of rice, white or brown. Plus you have a choice of egg drop or hot and sour soup. We both chose the egg drop soup which had a slightly thick broth, with pieces of egg, thin slivers of carrot and scallions. It was hot and tasty.

The Pepper Steak Bowl ($8.50) has pieces of steak with red and green bell peppers, yellow onion, garlic and black pepper. The steak was thin sliced and relatively tender and the pepper sauce was spicy and delicious. It made a great sauce for the white rice. The Crispy Honey Chicken Bowl ($7.50) had pieces of lightly battered chicken in a sweet sauce that was not overpowering. I very much enjoyed the chicken, which is better than similar General Gao dishes at other restaurants. These bowls make for a nice lunch and it seems they are made to order.

Service was excellent and our server, Jarrett, was very personable and attentive. He seemed very genuine and a strong advocate for the restaurant. I have seen plenty of servers elsewhere who recite the company word without any conviction but Jarrett seemed a true fan of the food.

I will definitely return here for both lunch and dinner, to try other dishes, and highly recommend it to my readers. The food tastes very good, the prices are reasonable and service is excellent. But I also recommend that you make reservations, especially for dinner as this is going to remain a popular place for some time to come.

And make sure you try the Banana Spring Rolls! I am going to be thinking about those for quite some time.

P.F. Chang's China Bistro
210 Andover Street
Peabody, MA
Phone: 978-326-2410

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Grapevine Travelers Fall Grand Tasting

Last weekend, I led a group of the North Shore Winers to a Fall Grand Wine Tasting at Grapevine Travelers in Medford. Like previous Grand Tastings, there were fourteen vendors, which include one beer vendor and one cognac vendor. With so many wines available for tasting, I was not able to taste all of them. But I will list my favorites, by distributor, from those I did taste.

Adonna Imports: One of my favorite Italian wine importers, they always have some excellent wines at local tastings.

--2006 Martilde Piume, Oltrepo Pavese ($12.99): This is made from 100% Malvasia and is a crisp, easy drinking white wine with pleasant citrus and green apple flavors.
--2005 Bianco Aldo Nebbiolo ($25.99): A light red color with a nose of bright red fruits. Plenty of fruit on the palate as well with mild tannins and a good finish. Great food wine.

Violette Imports: They carry some excellent organic and biodynamic wines and I am always eager to taste whatever they have that is new.

--2007 Corte Marzago Bardolino, Italy ($16.99): Only 5000 bottles made of this wine, which sees only stainless steel and no oak. This is a very juicy wine, smooth and full of flavor. A pure delight whether on its own or with food. A very good value at this price.
--2006 Guele de Loup, Provence, France ($18.99): This wine's name means "snout of the wolf" which refers to a flower that grows in the region. The wine is a blend of grenache, merlot and cabernet sauvignon. It sees only stainless steel. It has a deep dark red color with strong dark fruit flavors and a touch of earthiness. A very interesting flavor.
--2006 Coturri Albarello ($24.99): The Coturri Winery is one of my favorite organic producers. This is kind of a kitchen sink blend with grapes including carignane, cabernet sauvignon, charbono, petite sirah, and barbera. This was an exceptional wine, with ripe and juicy berry flavors and hints of various spices. It has a satisfying, long finish and also would be good alone or with food.

Classic Wines

--2006 Chateau Moncontour Sparkling Vouvray, France ($18.99): 100% Chenin Blanc made in the usual Champagne method though it sees no oak. A crisp sparkling wine with nice green apple and mineral notes.

Oz Pacific Wines:

--2006 Avondale Pinotage, South Africa ($13.99): Certified organic. An earthy and smoky flavor with dark blackberry and cassis flavors. A fine example of Pinotage and a good value at this price.
--2005 Domaine Rotier Renaissance, Gaillac, France ($20.99): This is an unusual blend of 30% Duras, 25% Braucol, 25% Syrah, and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. It is a dark colored wine with a spicy nose. This reminds me of some Rhone wines, dark and spicy with moderate tannins and a lengthy finish. A tinge of exotic flavor that sets this as a more unique wine.

Charles River Wines:

--2007 Marques Alella Pansa Blanca, Penedes, Spain ($15.99): Made from 100% Xarello, grape often used in Cava. Crisp and fruit with flavors of apple and melon. Easy drinking and should be great with seafood.
--2006 Terres Falmet Cinsault, D'Oc, France ($15.99): Though usually a blending grape, this wine is 100% Cinsault. A big bold wine with strong tannins, dark spices and blackberry and blueberry flavors.

Wine Cask Imports:

--2005 Pyr Gos, Somontano, Spain ($18.99): An intriguing blend of 60% Chardonnay, 25% Gewurtztraminer, and 15% Pinot Noir. Tropical fruit flavors with some apricot. A crisp wine that stands out due to its unique taste.
--2002 DeMeye Trutina, Stellenbosch, South Africa ($28.99): A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz. A big, smoky wine with complex dark fruit and spice flavors. The tannins though are restrained so this was a smooth wine with a lingering finish. Quite delicious.

Genuine Wines:

--2007 Chermette Beaujolais, France ($19.99): Forget Nouveau Beaujolais. This is the real thing, a fine expression of the Gamay grape. Light, fruity, and very easy drinking. A perfect summer quaffer or a nice Thanksgiving choice.
--2005 Buil & Gine 17-XI, Montsant, Spain ($18.99): Similar to the wines of Priorat, this is a less expensive alternative. A juicy wine with a long finish and plenty of complexity for the price.

MSW/Negociants Wines:

--Yalumba Antique Tawny ($19.99/375ml): A wine similar to Port. It is made from a blend including Shiraz, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Muscadelle, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Coa and Tinta Molle. A compelling nose of toffee and nuts leads to a smooth taste with a touch of sweetness and no bitterness. Complex, balanced and absolutely delicious.

Frapin Cognacs: They had four different Cognacs available for tasting ranging from the Frapin V.S. ($43.99) to the Frapin VIP XO ($194.99). They ranged from 6-7 years old to 25-30 years old. I enjoyed all of these cognacs as they were generally smooth, flavorful and complex. And the Frapin VIP XP was simply amazing.

Grapevine Travelers
18 High St.
Medford, MA
Phone: (781) 396-8463