Friday, April 30, 2010

Pairings: Exploring Wine & Food

As I mentioned previously, the Spirited Gourmet wine shop in Winchester was recently sold to Ray and Lori Schaefer. They renamed the store Pairings: Exploring Wine & Food, and it officially opened on April 1. Last week, I finally had the chance to stop by and check out what the new owners have done with the store. It needs to be mentioned that the store is only a few weeks old and is still in a state of transition as the owners put their own stamp on it.

During my visit, I met Lori and chatted with her a bit about the store and her future plans. She was very nice, willing to answer any of my questions.

Much of the store will look familiar to those who visited the Spirited Gourmet. They did though remove some shelves near the tasting area, making it roomier there, and added some shelving elsewhere. The spirits were moved so that they are now located across from the large refrigerated cases, where the beer and chilled wines are kept. Where the spirits once were are now shelves of food.

The wine shelves have numerous empty spots, as the Schaefers continue to restock. It appears they retained some of the old inventory from the Spirited Gourmet, as well as added some of their own choices. As they sell off the old inventory, I am sure they will bring in more of their own selections. They shelve many of the wines regionally, in the same places as did the Spirited Gourmet. They have also retained the "Great Wines Under $15" section.

What type of wines will they stock? Their website states: "That being said, we favor small wineries, with responsible practices. Our favorites make wine characteristic of the environment, and are interesting and varied." That sounds good, and based on some of the wines I saw in the shop, which seemed new, they have made some good choices. For example, it was good to see several wines from Four Vines, a winery in Paso Robles. Prices are average, and seem comparable to what the Spirited Gourmet charged.

When Lori mentioned all the local foods they were bringing to the store, I asked whether they would carry local wines too. Lori stated that would probably not carry many local wines because she did not feel the quality existed there. They do stock a sparkling wine from Westport Rivers, in Massachusetts, and one wine from Connecticut. I did recommend a couple local wineries, such as Turtle Creek and Travessia. There are other good ones too, especially if you include all of the New England, such as Still River Winery in Harvard, MA and Boyden Valley in Vermont.

This is an issue that numerous bloggers have discussed in recent months, how local foods often get lots of attention, yet local wines often fall to the wayside. For example, some restaurants are proud of their local produce and ingredients, yet their wine lists may not even include a single local wine. There are quality local wineries and they deserve support too, especially by local restaurants and wine stores. If local is important to you, then don't do it half-way. Spend the time and find the local wineries that deserve recognition and give them support.

On Saturdays, they hold wine tastings, where all of the wines are paired with food selections. Those wines are displayed at the store prior to tasting, and all are discounted at the tasting. Pairing wine and food is a very good thing, and I think you can better understand a wine when it is accompanied by food. The store is very dedicated to this idea, and it is a worthy objective. I wish more wine stores would pair food at their wine tastings.

The store has other tastings events too, at various times, which include tastings with wine makers. On Saturday, May 1, they will hold a Grand Opening Tasting with four tables of wines, one each for the US, Spain, France and Italy.

They have a good selection of gourmet foods, including many meats from D'Artagnan Foods, such as chorizo, duck bacon, wild boar soucisson and more. Lori stated they carry many local food products, and are seeking at add more too. For example, they carry bread from Mamadou Bakery in Winchester. They also carry serrano ham and prosciutto which they slice to order.

Their cheese selection is large, and they continue to add new cheeses when they find something interesting. So, this is kind of a one-stop shop, where you can buy both wine and food.

This shop has lots of potential and it will be interesting to see how it develops over time. The concept of presenting wine and food pairings is a strong one, and should help many consumers. They have plenty of interesting gourmet foods and cheeses which should please the palates of many. I just would like to see more support of local wineries, to go along with their support of local food vendors.

Pairings: Exploring Wine & Food
600 Main Street
Winchester, MA 01890
781-721-WINE (9463)

Smolak Farms: Opens May 7

The trees are pruned and the grounds have been prepped for the thousands that will soon roam the many acres of Smolak Farms in North Andover, MA. Opening to the public on Friday, May 7, for its 35th season, the farm can trace its history back some 300 years. Today, the 160 acre multipurpose property boasts 107 acres of preserved land that the Smolak family set aside in cooperation with the State of Massachusetts Agricultural Preservation Restriction Program, insuring that the area would forever remain open land, never to be developed.

Smolak Farms means so many things…to so many people. Whether a family was introduced to the farm picking fruits in the Summer, picking pumpkins, taking hayrides and enjoying warm cider donuts in the Fall, or grabbing fresh baked pies, gingerbread houses and their Christmas trees during the holidays; we’ve been so lucky to be part of so many people’s traditions and memories,” said Michael Smolak, the farm’s owner and developer for some 35 years.

This year the farm will continue its traditional activities with their Pick Your Own (PYO) seasons for strawberries, raspberries, sweet purple & tart red cherries, blueberries, currants, gooseberries, heirloom tomatoes, peaches, apples, pumpkins, squash and Christmas trees, along with celebratory festivals to celebrate each crop.

Customers can also look forward to the newly renovated Farm Stand, now celebrating its 25th anniversary, providing customers with not only fresh produce and daily-made baked goods and new lunch items, but Smolak’s world famous cider donuts, pies and gingerbread houses. (I love their cider donuts!!)

This is my first year with the farm and I am extremely excited for the season,” said Smolak’s new Bakery Manager, Roberta Tarsia. Tarsia brings some 25+ years of experience, knowledge and innovation in the food & beverage industry as a baker, caterer and former Director of Catering at the Museum of Science and Marriott Hotels, as well as, Food & Beverage Manager for Sheraton Hotels & Resorts. Customers can look forward to the farm stand providing all their traditional favorites, with the addition of new lunch items, a new “dining in the rough” area complete with Smolak’s newly installed free Wi-Fi for those that may want to “work from home” for the day!

With all that Smolak Farms has to offer it is the perfect place for children of all ages, or just those who are young at heart. Come experience a true New England tradition with the farm’s opening on Friday, May 7. In celebration of the farm’s opening free hay rides will be available all day as well as free bags of feed for the petting zoo for children 7 and under (limit on per family, first come first serve). Smolak’s world famous cider donuts will also be available for only 25 cents in celebration of the farm stand’s 25th anniversary!

Smolak Farms is always free to the public and 2010 hours of operations are as follows:
Monday–Friday: 7am-2pm, Saturday and Sundays: 7am-5pm.
*Special Hours for opening day on Friday, May 7 will be: 7am-5pm

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Announcing WBW #69: "Animal Cruelty"

The 69th edition of Wine Blogging Wednesday is not puppy friendly. We will be drinking wines made with the "dog-strangler" grape.

You might better know this grape as Mourvedre, Monastrell or Mataro. In southern France, this grape is sometimes known as Estrangle-Chien (which translates as “dog strangler”), because of its big tannins. It also has about thirty other different names by which it is sometimes known.

It appears that this grape originated in Spain, and derived its name from the town of Murviedro, located near Valencia. The name Mataro also derives from a Spanish town, of the same name, located near Barcelona. In the late Middles Ages, the grape was transported to the Provence region of France. In the 1800s, the grape spread to Australia and the United States, and you will also find small plantings in other countries too.

I really enjoy Monastrell, from Spanish wines of the Jumilla region to French ones of the Bandol region. You'll also find some good Mourvedre wines from California, including the Paso Robles area. It can be a big wine, with strong tannins, but interesting fruit flavors as well as some earthiness. With the warm weather coming, it can be a nice wine for the pairing with BBQ or grilled foods. You can find $10 value wines or high-end (and pricier) selections. Though often used as a blending grape, it seems to be taking the forefront more and more so now is the time to explore this grape where it takes a predominant role.

For WBW#68, all you have to do is to drink a wine that contains 50% or more Mourvedre, whether a Red, Rosé or Dessert wine. There are also a couple ways to earn bonus points. First, compare Mourvedre wines from two different countries, like Spain vs France, or California vs Australia. Second, for even more bonus points, taste a Red, Rosé and Dessert Wine (with the most points if they all come from the same country).

A few of my favorite Monastrell-based wines include: El Nido Clio (Spain), Yellow+Blue Rosé (Spain), Twisted Oak River of Skulls (California), and Domaine Tempier (Red & Rose-France).

You have until Wednesday, May 19, 2010 to post your review. Please email me a link to your post at If you don’t have your own blog, put up your review as a comment on this blog.

But please don't really strangle any dogs!

Haru: A Revisit

A couple poor experiences had kept me away from Haru, a Japanese restaurant below the shops of the Prudential Center, for about two years. My first experience had been back in December 2007, when Haru was still newly opened. I noted some issues, primarily with service and their tempura, but figured that as they were knew, such matters would be addressed. The restaurant had potential and I hoped for the best.

But a couple follow-up trips in the subsequent months did not please me, and I did not see any changes, except maybe some negative ones. There were still service issues, the tempura was still poor, and some of the other dishes just were not good. So I went elsewhere.

I was recently invited back, to see what changes they had wrought since then. There was a new General Manager, and matters had supposedly improved. I decided to give it a try, to see whether that was true or not.

Before entering the restaurant, I note that they now have patio dining outside, along Huntington Avenue, a sizeable number of tables which can accomodate a decent crowd.

Their drink menu does not seem to have changed much, except for the addition of some new speciality cocktails. They still carry a decent Saké selection, and I enjoyed a few glasses of their different choices, including the Kaori and Kira. I also tried one of their new concoctions, the Electriquila! This is a blend of tequila, Saké, and yuzu, accompanied by a yellow flower pictured above. That is actually a Sichuan button, rarely found in Boston restaurants. You bite down on the flower and wait 5-10 seconds, and will then feel a tingling in your mouth, like an electrical buzz. It actually made the back of my tongue numb, and then you are supposed to drink. It was an unusual experience, and the drink itself was tasty.

Their nigiri and sashimi remain a strongpoint, very fresh fish, large pieces and well presented. The O-toro was exceptional, melting in my mouth like soft butter. The sushi is pricier than the average sushi place, but not as expensive as some of the high-end restaurants. Sushi is sold by the piece, rather than in a pair. So two pieces of maguro, tuna, would cost $7, which would be $2 more than the average place, and $2-$3 less than a high-end place. For the high quality, the added price seems reasonable.

This sampler included four, smaller portions of some of their appetizers. Starting with the top left, and moving clockwise, the dish included: seared tuna & white tuna; salmon wrapped with shiso leaf; lobter mango ceviche and a tuna tartare. I very much enjoyed all of these items, especially the tartare. The flavors of each blended well together, with nothing overwhelming the rest of the dish. Plus, presentation was very nice, and this would be a good way to taste various dishes without ordering four separate appetizers.

The Chicken Kazan was a Special, and has slices of chicken in a spicy massaman curry sauce with jalapenos, and atop a bed of rice. The thin slices of chicken were tender and moist, and I very much enjoyed the spicy and coconut flavors of the sauce. It was not overly spicy, except if you chose to eat the jalapenos. It was a plentiful dish too, lots of food for an appetizer. I should note that generally all of the appetizers had generous portions.

The Shrimp Shumai are a bit different from what you might be used to, as they are much larger and also include some edamame. They are certainly heavier than the usual shumai, but have a very good taste, with prominent shrimp flavors. The addition of the edamame adds a bit of a nice, crunchy texture too. These are a good change of pace from the usual shumai.

Another special, the Pan Seared Scallops sat atop a tempura shiso leaf. The scallops were seared just a little too much, which did dry out the scallops a little bit. Though I liked the seasoning on the scallops, and this dish could have been much better with a little less searing. The tempura shiso leaf was good, with a light and crispy tempura batter.

But there was an issue with the Tempura Shrimp, the same one I had two years before. The tempura batter was too thick, maybe overcooked, and felt spongy when I touched. It was not the light and crispy tempura which it should have been. It was also very different from the tempura on the shiso leaf, which had been done well.

The Lobster Tempura, a Special appetizer, was even more disappointing, and seemed to have an even thicker batter. The batter also concealed the taste of the lobster. Three different tempura dishes, and three different results. This was essentially my only complaint of the evening, and it is an issue that has plagued the restaurant since the opening.

I mentioned the tempura issue to the restaurant and received a reply from General Manager Michael Slavin. "After researching our Tempura Batter recipe, I found out we were not adding enough liquid to the batter. This is totally an oversight on my part. We have since modified our recipe to reflect what every other Restaurant in the Haru concept does; 4 parts tempura batter to 4 parts water and 1 part soda water (previously it was on a one to one scale). Since “revising” our in-house recipe, the consistency is much lighter and crispier on all of the Tempura items."

I will return to Haru in the near future to check out the tempura and hope that this issue gets resolved.

For dessert, I had the Banana Spring Roll, which came with strawberry slices and chocolate. you get two decent-sized rolls on your plate, and they were quite tasty with a crisp outer roll and warm, bananas inside. The addition of the chocolate enhanced the flavors and the strawberries were fairly sweet too. I would certainly order this dessert again, and it is large enough to share.

Service was exceptional, and the servers at the other tables appeared to be doing well and acting professionally. Service apparently had improved dramatically since my prior visits. Our server knew the food and drink menus well, and was attentive without being overbearing. All of the servers seemed to be busy working, rather than hovering together chatting.

Overall, positive changes do appear to have been made at Haru over the last couple years. But they still fail on the matter of their tempura. I will report back on the tempura matter in the near future.

55 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02199
(Beneath the shops at the Prudential Center)

Haru in Boston

Sagra Ristorante: Opening in Dedham

Sagra Ristorante will be opening a restaurant in Dedham, at 910 Washington Street, in early May. The word sagra (sah’-grah) is Italian for “festival.” A pre-opening, reception will be held as a benefit for the Dedham Food Pantry.

Sagra promises an extensive menu of Italian food and wine, cocktails served in a lively and comfortable bar, music, free parking, imported Italian provisions in an adjacent takeout shop called Sagra on the Side, and a large function room called Second Floor Sagra.

Sagra boasts New England’s only Vegawatt system, which turns used vegetable oil into electricity to heat the dining room and provide hot water. The Vegawatt is truly unique, and makes Sagra a better green energy user.

Sagra Ristorante has been operating in Somerville’s Davis Square since 2007. When FINZ of Dedham closed its doors, Sagra’s owners saw an opportunity to introduce the Italian festival food concept to a suburban audience.

The menu at Sagra/Dedham will be almost identical to the one in Somerville, with the addition of several fresh fish and seafood specialties (like Schrod in Fish Fumet with Asparagus & New Potatoes), and a raw bar.

Signature items include: handmade gnocchi with duck ragu and orange essence; Lasagna Vincigrassi, a recipe from the Le Marche region with a sauce of beef, pork and chicken; Frutti di Mare; and lobster served at least four ways. Prices are moderate at $16-22 for most main courses.

Other noteworthy dishes:
Risotto del Giorno
Eggplant or Porchetta Milanese
Veal or Chicken Parmigiano
Ravioli di Langostino with Maine Lobster
Half a dozen appetizing antipasti selections
Local, sustainable fresh fish entrees offered daily
Pizzas, zuppas, insalatas, contorni and fritture

Chef David Artiano comes to Sagra with almost a decade of experience. He worked side by side with Lydia Shire at Biba, Excelsior and Locke-Ober. His resume boasts a degree from the Culinary Institute of America and five years in the U.S. Navy.

As for wine, expect many selections from throughout the boot of Italy, with occasional nods to well-produced wines from Oregon, Spain, California and South America. Bottles are priced reasonably, and more than 20 wines are sold by the glass. Intriguing $10 wine flights are available for those who like sampling.

As for cocktails, Sagra bar professionals are creative and versatile; trained to concoct almost 25 types of martinis alone. Celebrate with a Prosecco cocktail, a Bellini, a rummy Sagra punch, or a Sagra-tini. All drinks are $8-9.

At press time, and pending feedback from Sagra’s customers, management plans to offer karaoke on Thursday nights, the sounds of the 80s on Fridays, and a Salute to Frank Sinatra with locally renowned crooner Rich DiMare and his trio on alternate Saturday nights. Music begins at 9 PM and continues til 1 AM.

Sagra on the Side -- An Italian Market
Adding Italian flavor to the food shopping scene in Dedham, this bright and spacious shop just steps away from the main entry will be open seven days a week from 11 AM to 7 PM for the lunchtime takeout crowd, and for shoppers seeking the best imported Italian olive oils and vinegars, top brand imported pastas, jarred condiments, sauces and vegetables, and more.

Executive Chef David Artiano has provided a recipe for Cioppino

Serves 5
1 TB. olive oil
1/4 cup, onion, chopped fine
bunch scallions, chopped fine
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 green pepper, chopped fine
1 bulb fennel, chopped fine
2 cups bottled clam juice
28 oz. can diced tomatoes, any Italian brand
½ cup tomato puree
1 cup white wine, a dry Italian if it’s handy
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper to taste

15 littleneck clams
1 lb. lump crab meat, fresh or canned
30 large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 ¼ lbs. swordfish, cut into 1” cubes
3 TBS. basil, chopped

In a large stew pot, heat the olive oil til shimmering, then add the onions, scallions, green pepper and fennel. Saute until onions are translucent.

Add the garlic and sauté one minute, or, until you can smell its aroma. Add the wine and simmer until liquid is reduced by half.

Add the clam juice, bay leaf, tomatoes and puree. Cover the mixture and simmer for 45 minutes. Discard bay leaf. The result is a flavorful broth to which you will now add the clams, crab, shrimp and swordfish. Heat through until fish flakes and shrimp curl – approx. 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper as desired.

Serve in shallow bowls with basil garnish and crusty Italian bread on the side.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Donut City: Recently Opened

Forget Dunkin' Donuts and Honey Dew Donuts as the best donuts come from small, independent donut shops. This past weekend, I stumbled upon a new such shop and found plenty of donuts, muffins and pastries to enjoy.

Donut City, in Lynn, appears to be relatively new and occupies the space that once belonged to Java Brewin. I was driving down Route 107, headed into Salem, when I spied Donut City and decided to stop to check it out. Everything looked fresh and enticing, and there was plenty of variety. You'll find donuts, cinammon rolls, apple turnovers, croissants (plain and filled), muffins, kolache, eclairs, and much more. Donuts are $0.75 each. They also have breakfast sandwiches, such as bacon, egg & cheese ($2.99).

Their muffins come in small ($0.79) and large ($1.65) sizes, and I was excited to see they carry coconut muffins. Everything I tried was fresh and delicious, from the light glazed donuts to the large, cinnamon rolls. The coconut muffins were excellent too, moist and flavorful! There is no contest with those chain donut shops. I am going to have to stop by again to taste more of their items, including their breakfast sandwiches, but I expect that I will be pleased.

Lend your support to independent donut shops, and check out Donut City if you are in Lynn.

Donut City
515 Chestnut Street (Rt.107)
Lynn, MA
Phone: 781-477-0766

Donut City on Urbanspoon

Stoneham Sun: Nebo

My new column of "A Passionate Foodie" can be found in the April 28 issue of the Stoneham Sun newspaper. This is a weekly column that concentrates on reviews of local restaurants though it also sometimes touches on other food and wine topics.

The new column has been published today and will be available online soon. The new article is a restaurant review of Nebo, an Italian place in the North End which has a connection to Stoneham. The owners, Carla and Christine Pallotta, both once lived in Stoneham and attended Stoneham High. Their food is delicious and you definitely should make a visit to Nebo.

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

Dine with passion.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Nebo: Two Sisters, One Delicious Cuisine

Located on the outskirts of the North End, Nebo may not get the foot traffic that you'll find on Hanover Street. But as it is so close to the TD Garden, it is a popular spot for those attending sporting events or other Garden events. If you have never eaten there, you need to make an effort to dine there, and savor their delicious cuisine. I had been remiss, and not eaten there until recently, when I was invited to the restaurant and got to meet the owners, Carla and Christine Pallotta.

Carla (on the right) and Christine Pallotta, sisters, previously owned a hair salon in Reading for 23 years. I should also note that they lived in Stoneham for a number of years, and I even went to high school with Christine. After all that time with the salon, they started to grow bored, and wanted a new challenge. They started to consider opening their own restaurant, in the North End, where they had spent many years of their life.

Everything seemed to come together quite fast, and they opened Nebo in June 2005. Thus their fifth anniversary is just around the corner, an admirable achievement. Nebo is an acronym for "North End BOston." Many of their recipes derive from their grandmother and mother, though neither ever wrote down anything. So, prior to the restaurant opening, Carla and Christine scrambled to try to write down recipes while watching their mother prepare various dishes. Much of the cuisine reflects the region of Puglia, which is said to be the "cuisine of peasants" as they would use whatever ingredients were available in their cooking.

Tradition is very important to Carla and Christine. For example, they use rolling pins to make their pasta rather than a machine. Their father had done the same, even making rolling pins out of old broom handles. The sisters also shop locally in the North End, in some of the same places their parents once patronized.

Carla and Christine wanted to create a restaurant of small plates, where diners could share with each other. They did not think there was any other restaurant in the North End that specialized in such. Their motto is "Simplicity demands the finest ingredients" and they seem to follow this motto very closely. In addition, all of their pasta, pizza dough and bread is made fresh daily in house.

I found both Carla and Christine to be very personable and passionate women, truly devoted to their restaurant and desirous of providing delicious and high quality cuisine. They were also very down to earth, fun to chat with, and genuine.

The restaurant is both casual and elegant, with lots of natural wood and brick. They can seat about 120 people, and also have a long bar, marble topped, with plasma televisions. It is a place you can bring a date, your family, or a group of guys prior to a Boston Bruins game.

They have a fully stocked bar, with specialty cocktails, including their own Sangria. I am very particular about my Sangria, and did enjoy theirs. They also have about 19 wines, all Italian, available by the glass ($7-$14). Their wine list by the bottle, also all Italian, has many selections in the $30s, as well as higher-end wines like fine Barolos. So you can find plenty of reasonably priced choices.

The food menu includes Antipasti (averaging $10-$15), Insalate, Carne, Bruschetta, and Handmade Pasta ($18-$21). They serve over 20 different types of Pizza ($11-$17) and you can also customize your own. Whatever your preferences, you should find something here which appeals to you.

It is also important to add that they have a lengthy Gluten free menu. They created this menu after learning one of their friends had Celiac disease, and they investigated the disease further. Nebo is probably one of the few Boston restaurants to have such an extensive gluten free menu.

So what about the food? I was impressed.

The Arancini ($10) were porcini mushroom & mozzarella stuffed rice balls drizzled in chestnut honey. The honey seems an odd choice, as usually arancini have a red sauce accompaniement, but it actually worked. The aracini themselves had a nice crispy coating with a soft, cheesy interior and an earthy bite. The sweetness of the honey did not overwhelm, and made an interesting counterpart to the earthiness from the mushrooms.

The Burrata ($15) was a cream-filled mozzarella with Proscuitto di Parma and a balsamic fig glaze. The quality of the ingredients was quite evident, from the creamy delights of the burrata to the salty tang of the Prosciutto and the sweetness of the balsamic. A simple dish elevated by the fine ingredients.

The Salumi Misti ($13/$27) was a plate of prosciutto di parma, bresaola, hot capicola, abruzzese sausage, formaggi and pepperonata. Once again, a simple dish with high quality ingredients. It will bring out your inner carnivore. The pepperonata, which is homemade, was delicious, with a nice spicy kick.

I cannot fail to mention their homemade potato bread, which was a perfect accompaniement to these antipasti. For a bread lover like me, this was quite tasty. I could have just made a meal of the bread, antipasti and some wine.

The Timballo di Melanzana ($13) was an eggplant and mozzarella timbale in a fresh tomato sauce. I am usually not a fan of eggplant, though I have been a couple places where I have very much enjoyed it. I have to add Nebo to that list now. It was very tender, with plenty of melted mozzarella and a delicious red sauce.

One of the Specials of the evening was a Veal Milanese dish, which is buried beneath the arugula, cheese and tomatoes. There actually was plenty of very tender, thin sliced veal with a light, crispy coating. The veal was not tough in any way, and was prepared just right. There was a chicken milanese available as well and I suspect it would have been equally as good.

I had to try the Pappardelle alla Bolognese ($19), which is a dish I often use as a standard in assessing Italian restaurants. Their Bologonese is a blend of slow cooked veal, pork and beef with tomato, cream, and pecorino romano. As you can see, it was a very meaty sauce (a big plus) and the taste was exquisite, just a proper blend of harmonious flavors. A hearty dish, sure to satisfy any hunger.

Then we moved onto a few pizzas, which are all good-sized (easily serving 2-3 people) with a thin crust. The Michael Diavolo ($15) comes with pepperoni, bacon, traditional sauce, and mozzarella. I very much enjoyed the red sauce, and all of the elements of the pizza worked well. As a pizza lover, this definitely satisfied me, and I think it is a very good value too. The Quattro Formaggi ($15), a blend of fontina, gorgonzola, provolone, mozzarella, was another winner, also showing that the pizza did not need red sauce to be delicious.

The most interesting pizza though was the Pizza con Patate ($16), which contains pancetta, golden potato slices, gorgonzola, rosemary, evoo, and mozzarella. The flavors on this pizza really stood out, especially the gorgonzola and rosemary, yet none of them overwhelmed. The potatoes added a nice texture and taste to the pizza, and the pancetta added a bit of smoky saltiness. You definitely should try this pizza.

Yet my feast was not over, as dessert was still to come.

The mound of Zeppole was showered with powdered sugar. And though these fried treats were plentiful and good, I think they could have used a dipping sauce, like melted chocolate or even caramel sauce. On their own, they were a bit plain.

I am not a fan of Ricotta Pie but this actually did not taste too bad to me. It had a firm texture, with a nice creaminess. I believe that if you do like Ricotta pie, then this would very much appeal to you.

My favorite of the desserts was the Christoforo pizza ($13), which is sweet pizza dough topped with chocolate, nutella and hazelnuts. Sweet pizza you ask? Yes, it works very well, a delightful blend of sweet crust with chocolate and hazelnut flavors. It was not overly sweet, and made for a great ending to my meal.

Service was excellent. Overall, I was impressed with the food, as well as with Carla and Christine. I have often cited my love for the small plates concept, and Nebo delivers on that. With their high quality ingredients, even the simplest of dishes is a delight. Their pizzas alone are reason enough to dine here. So take a detour from Hanover Street and find your way to Nebo.

90 North Washington Street
(North End)
Boston, MA
Phone: 617-723-NEBO (6326)

Nebo on Urbanspoon

Da Vinci Ristorante: Dining Out For Life

Da Vinci Ristorante will be taking part in Boston’s first annual Dining Out for Life event this Thursday. For one special night, Da Vinci and nearly a dozen other Boston restaurants (including KO Prime, Picco, the Melting Pot and Bambara) will kindly donate 25% of their total sales for the evening to help local organization Cambridge Cares about AIDS (CCA) continue their cutting edge, community-based programming into the future.

Chef Peppino of Da Vinci invites guests to toast in the name of charity while dining over his recently unveiled spring menu, a three-course prix fixe featuring seasonally spectacular blends of both Italian and Indian cuisine. Da Vinci will spotlight their Dining Out for Life experience with a special host, drag diva extraordinaire Abby Cummings. This familiar face will be on-hand to pull out chairs, raffle off prizes and throw back a few cocktails with guests throughout the course of the evening.

When: Thursday, April 29th from 5:30pm to 10:00pm

Cost: The three-course dinner is available at $35 per person.

Menu: You get to create your own three-course meal from their new Spring menu. Choose your own Primi, Secondi and Dolci. So you are not limited in your choices like some other pre fixe menus. Some of the pricier dishes have an upcharge.

Reservations: Pllease call 617-350-0007

Monday, April 26, 2010

Rant: Dry Cupcakes

There has been a surge of cupcake mania, from Cupcake Camp to the opening of numerous small, cupcake boutiques. Often, for $3 or more, you can purchase a relatively small cupcake, topped with a mound of sweet frosting. Each such cupcake spot has its avid fans, but I am usually very puzzled by the admiration. Why do so many of those cupcakes taste so dry to me?

I think a good cupcake should be moist, enjoyable even without any frosting. Is that really so much to ask? There is plenty of advice online for the home cook on how to make a moist cupcake. But it seems that most cupcake stores can't seem to make a moist cupcake. So what is the problem? Are they baking them too long? Do they sit on the display shelves too long? Are their recipes just bad? Or is it their intent, to produce a dry cupcake?

Sometimes I feel as if the majority of people prefer dry cupcakes, which I don't want to believe to be true.. That seems to be the only rationale explanation for the popularity of some of these cupcake boutiques. Can someone help me with my dilemma? Can someone explain why dry cupcakes get so many raves? Or do you forgive the sin of a dry cucpcake if you enjoy the frosting so much?

There are moist cupcakes available, but it seems more and more difficult to find them. I hope they are not a dying breed, though they seem endangered. As long as people support stores making dry cupcakes, then moist ones will be pushed to the wayside.

Stand up and be heard. Demand moist cupcakes!

Museum of Science: Food, Glorious Food: Our Palate vs. Our Planet?

The Museum of Science will soon host what promises to be a fascinating discussion concerning the balance between the food we love and the environment we desire to protect. On Friday, May 7, at 7pm, come to the Museum of Science for "Food, Glorious Food: Our Palate vs. Our Planet?"

The panel will consist of three well-known food lovers, including: Joanne Chang (pastry chef/owner, Flour Bakery and Café; chef/owner, Myers+Chang), Corby Kummer (senior editor, The Atlantic Monthly; host, The Atlantic Food Channel; author, The Pleasures of Slow Food) and Helene York (director, Bon Appétit Management Company Foundation).

They will explore the relationship between our love affair with food and our desire to protect the planet. Join them for a conversation about how we can radically redesign what we eat to help the Earth without sacrificing the joy, flavor, and glorious experience of eating food. There will be a book signing after the discussion.

There is no cost for this event but seating is limited. Passes are available in the Museum lobby beginning at 5:45 p.m. on the day of the program. First come, first served. Museum members may reserve a limited number of seating passes in advance by calling between 9am-5pm, Monday or Tuesday the week of the program only: 617-589-3169.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Pasolivo: Olive Oil from Paso Robles

Does your olive oil taste like baby vomit? Yes, that is certainly a very strange question, but I will explain the relevance shortly.

As I mentioned yesterday, we had a Pasolivo olive oil tasting during our lunch at Thomas Hill Organics. You might not know but the history of olive oil in the San Luis Obispo region extends back to the 1700s when Spaniards planted olive trees at various missions. By the mid-1800s, there was a thriving olive oil industry there, and the industry continues to the present. There are currently over 25 olive oil producers in San Luis Obispo County.

Joeli Yaguda led us on our olive oil tasting and she was a fun and knowledgeable person. I sat next to her and she was an engaging conversationalist. Karen Guth began planting olive trees on her 140-acre ranch, Willow Creek, in 1996. Her son, Joshua Yaguda, learned the art of olive milling and Joeli, his wife, assists with their business, Pasolivo.

The ranch has over 55 acres planted with more than 9000 olive trees. There are a dozen olive types including: Ascolano, Coratina, Frantoio, Kalamata, Leccino, Lucca, Manzanillo, Mission, Moraiolo, Pendolino, and Sevillano. They have farmed organically for five years but do not possess any certification. In 2005, they imported a Pieralisi Major II press, a state of the art olive mill from Italy which has really assisted in production.

They currently produce five different olive oils, including:

**Pasolivo Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Tuscan Blend (a blend of Frantoio, Leccino, Pendolino, Moraiolo, and Lucca olives).
**California Blend Extra Virgin Olive Oil (a blend of Manzanillo and Mission olives)
**Meyer Lemon Flavored Olive Oil
**Lime Flavored Olive Oil
**Tangerine Flavored Olive Oil

They used to make the infusion oils with fruit peels but that became more difficult with their new pressing machine, so they now use distilled, organic citrus oils.

Now back to the baby vomit. Joeli shared with us a copy of an Olive Oil Tasting Wheel, which describes the terminology used to describe the smell and taste of olive oils. And one of those descriptors is baby vomit! Obviously it is a flaw, and if I ever tasted it in olive oil, I would never touch that brand again.

You may be familiar with the Wine Aroma Wheel, which was developed in the early 1980s. A similar item, the Mojet Wheel, was designed in 1993 to describe olive oil. It provided fifty different descriptors but that apparently was insufficient. Thus, Richard Gawel, of the Australian Olive Association Tasting Panel, created the Recognose Wheel, a more advanced version which has 72 descriptors, 25 which concern flaws. The descriptors were compiled by analyzing their occurrence in olive oil tasting notes and the experiences of top olive oil tasters.

So baby vomit must be a common enough flaw to have earned itself a spot on this wheel. Other flaws included bacon (how can anything bacon-flavored be a flaw?), cucumber, earthy and blue cheese. Who knew olive oil could be so complex?

We did a taste test of the Tuscan and California blends, using the blue glasses you can see in the top photo. We would first inhale, taking in the scent of the olive oils, and then taste it, swirling it around our mouths as if we were tasting wine. The Tuscan blend seemed more herbaceous, with some bitterness on the finish, while the California blend had more fruit in the taste, even hints of banana, and seemed less bitter on the finish.

I received a bottle of the Tuscan blend to take home, and have been using it, from cooking to simply dipping some fresh bread into it. It has a delicious freshness to it, and is comparable to many other olive oils I have tried from Italy and Spain. Next time you are considering buying some olive oil, give some consideration to those from Paso Robles.

And beware of baby vomit!

Dante: Patio Party on May 2

Start the summer off with a special Patio Party at dante. Their patio is opening once again and they want to celebrate with an afternoon of lavishness. Sip cocktails and get a complimentary sneak-peek of the new tantalizing lunch menu while overlooking the Charles River. New design and décor create a stylish and sensuous ambiance for the space.

WHEN: Sunday May 2, 1-5pm

COST: Gratis

Space is limited. To reserve your spot call: 617-497-4200.

5 Cambridge Parkway
Cambridge, MA
Phone: (617) 497-4200

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Villicana Winery: Delicious Rosé

Joining us for lunch at Thomas Hill Organics were Alex and Monica Villicana, the owners and operators of Villicana Winery (pictured above). They were very nice people, personable and charming. Their winery is very small, producing less than 1800 cases, and with future plans to produce no more than 5000 cases a year. They own about 72 acres in the westside of Paso Robles, but their vineyards cover only about 13 acres, planted with Cabernet Franc Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Merlot, Mourvedre, Petit Verdot, Syrah and Zinfandel. They also purchase some fruit to make some of their wines.

The 2009 Viognier ($24) is one of their wines where they purchase grapes from a grower in the Templeton Gap area, one of the coolest areas in Paso Robles. The wine is made with Alsatian yeast, has an alcohol content of 14.3%, and 20% sees new French oak for about 6 months. Only 29 cases of this wine were produced. Though I am often not a fan of 100% Viognier wines, this was appealing. It had an aromatic nose, a nice crispness and some delicious apple and melon flavors. Plus, it went very well with our appetizers.

A much bigger wine was their 2007 Estate Syrah ($30), a blend of 80% Syrah, 10% Grenache, and 10% Mourvedre. This wine sees about 33% new French & Russian oak, and 67% neutral French & American oak. It also has an alcohol content of 15.74% and only 125 cases were produced. This dark red wine has lots of spice, dark berry flavors and smoky notes. It is a full-bodied wine, with a long finish and good complexity. It borders on the line of using too much oak, so much will depend on your preferences on the use of oak. But, I think it complemented well my burger.

My favorite of their wines though was easily the 2009 Vin Rosé ($18), and it was also one of my favorite wines of my visit to Paso Robles. First, Syrah (45%) was whole cluster pressed and then blended with a saignée of Mourvèdre (35%) and Grenache (15%), while a small bit of Viognier (5%) was added. The wine has an alcohol content of 14.7%, sees no oak, and only 167 cases were produced. It reminded me of an Old World Rosé, dry with restrained red fruit flavors. It had nice acidity, prominent strawberry flavor, and was quite refreshing. It was also an excellent food wine, pairing well with most everything we had to eat. With such a tiny production, you may not get the opportunity to taste this wine, but if you do, seize the moment.

Thomas Hill Organics: Local & Organic

The culinary scene in Paso Robles is up and coming, with several restaurants opening within the last few years. One such place is Thomas Hill Organics, a Market Bistro and Wine Bar, which is located in downtown Paso Robles. They have only been open since January 2009, but have already acquired some well-justified renown.

The owners, Debbie and Joe Thomas, used to run a CSA but decided to take a chance on opening a restaurant. They also own a ten-acre, organic farm where they have over 800 fruit and nut trees, a vineyard of Italian grapes, and raised beds with greens, garlic, tomatoes and various seasonal vegetables and herbs. All of this organic produce is served at their restaurant, and they sell some of their excess to other local establishments. Their menu changes weekly, depending upon what is available and in season. They purchase as much local as they can, from their bread to their meat.

We stopped there for lunch and were seated in their open-air courtyard, which was very pleasant in the warm weather. Our lunch was also to be a tasting of wines from Villicana Winery and olive oil from Pasolivo. (More details of those tastings will follow in other posts.)

We received several appetizers for the table, and then were able to order off the menu. The lunch menu has Appetizers, Salads & More, and Sandwiches. There were two choices of Appetizers ($7-$14), eight choices of Salad ($7-$15), and five choices of Sandwiches ($11-$14). The choices are intriguing, with creative combinations of ingredients. I also note that they are accomodating, and can omit any ingredients that you may not like.

The initial appetizers included:

*Early Spring Pea Salad with House Saffron Ricotta, Mint Italian Salsa Verde
*Thomas Hill Arugula Salad with Blood Oranges and Bacon Avocado
*Bagna Cauda of Purple Potatoes and Farmed Fresh Hard Boiled Eggs
*Shaved Cauliflower Salad with Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette and Candied Kumquats

All of these appetizers used different types of Pasolivo olive oils. Presentation was very nice, and the dishes were good, with tasty combinations of fresh flavors. My favorite of the four was the Bagna Cauda, though the Saffron Ricotta was also especially tasty. The appetizers were very popular with most of our group.

For my entree, I chose the THO Charter Oak Burger and Chorizo with Cambazola Cheese, and Bacon and accompanied by a Field Green Salad ($14). What a compelling burger! The bread was very fresh and soft while the burger was moist and flavorful. There was chorizo mixed in with the beef and its spices were very evident, and quite delicious. The Cambazola cheese, which is kind of a combination of a soft-ripened triple cream cheese and Gorgonzola, was creamy with the tang of a blue cheese. I am unsure if I have ever tasted this cheese before, but I will be seeking it out now.

Dessert was a Strawberry Terrine with a homemade Champagne Ice, sliced strawberries and kumquats. A refreshing treat, it was not overly sweet and possessed bright strawberry flavors. Perfect for a warm weather day, and not too heavy for a lunch dessert.

Overall this was a very enjoyable lunch, and I would recommend the restaurant. Its intent of providing local, organic food is admirable, and the chef is creative in his cuisine. Service was excellent, and the restaurant was quite busy for lunch. This is a popular place and easy to understand the reason for such. If in Paso Robles, make sure to stop by.

Thomas Hill Organics
1305 Park Street
Paso Robles, CA
Phone: 805-226-5888

Thomas Hill Organics on Urbanspoon

Friday, April 23, 2010

Wine Riot 3: Sherry, Vinho Verde & More

Last Saturday was quite a day! Caramel chocolates at Chocolee Chocolates. Dim sum brunch at Myers+Chang. Sampling wines at the Wine Riot. Dinner at Coppa. Drinks and more food at Oishii. It was like an Iron Man challenge for food & wine bloggers.

This Wine Riot, organized and managed by The Second Glass, was the second such event I have attended, and my prior experience was very good, with a couple minor issues. So how did this Wine Riot compare? Did my minor issues still exist, or had there been improvements?

First, the event was held in a different venue than the prior courthouse. They returned to their original spot, the Cyclorama. I liked this venue much better. Everything was on the same floor, though that did seem to make the event seem more crowded than it was last year. There was a fairly good flow to the set-up though, with efforts to place wines from similar regions in the same area.

Second, my primary complaint about the last event dealt with food issues. There was no free food, and the food they did have was not available until at least an hour after the tasting started. Plus, due to some arcane law, you could not use cash to pay for the food. This time, they had one table with free cheese, though I don't think it was sufficient. It would have been much better for at least some cheese & cracker trays at various places throughout the room. Or invite food vendors who would provide free samples. The Boston Wine Expo does well in that regard and the Wine Riot could learn from their example.

The food that was available for purchase was inexpensive and good. You could buy items from Red Bones, Legal Sea Foods, Tremont 647, Masa and The Upper Crust. Many of the items cost $5 or less, and they took cash. This was a significant improvement over last year.

The centerpiece of the event is a tasting of about 250 wines, a diverse selection from all over the world, at various price points. A number of the wines had been at the prior Wine Riot, but there were plenty of new wines, as well as new vintages. I'll present some of my favorites of the tasting, but note that I did not taste everything, and I am sure I missed some good wines.

Yellow+Blue Wines:

This was one of my big finds at the previous Wine Riot. They produce inexpensive, organic wines in eco-friendly Tetra Paks. Their 2008 Rosé was excellent, and one of my favorite, inexpensive wines of 2009. Their 2009 Rosé will soon be available, but they had their 2009 Torrontes, 2009 Malbec, and 2009 Sauvignon Blanc available for tasting. The Torrontes was aromatic, a crisp, easy-drinking wine with pleasant grapefruit flavors. I recommend their wines and with summer coming, the Tetra Paks are very useful. Take them camping, on a boat, a picnic, or more. There are no worries about broken glass or corkscrews. Plus, they are inexpensive and delicious.

Travessia Urban Winery:

This Massachusetts winery was also at the previous Wine Riot, and they are producing some excellent, inexpensive wines which I have reviewed before. They sampled their 2008 Bastard Rosé, 2008 Unoaked Chardonnay and 2008 Vidal Blanc. It is cool to know that such good wines can be produced in Massachusetts, using grapes grown here. Marco, the owner and wine maker, is a very passionate man, endeavoring to make the best wines that he can. Check out his wines and I am sure you will find why I enjoy them.


The above two wines are currently not available in the U.S., but might be in the future. I certainly hope that happens as both are delicious examples of Vinho Verde from Portugal.

The 2009 Adega Cooperativa De Ponte Da Barca is a Vinho Verde Rosé, a blend of 60% Vinhao, 30% Borracal, and 10% Espadeiro. With an alcohol content of 10.5%, this is a compelling wine with a slight effervescence, bright strawberry flavors and a crisp, clean taste. This would be a great summer wine, to sip on a sunny day and would be great with food too.

The 2009 Estreia Vinho Verde, a blend of 85% Loureiro, 7.5% Trajadura and 7.5% Arinto, only has an alcohol content of 9.5%, and is another perfect summer wine. It too has a light effervescence, with clean, crisp flavors of melon and citrus. Simply delicious.

90+ Cellars:

I have tasted some of their wines previously, and they generally are good wines at inexpensive prices. They had about seven of their wines available for tasting at the Wine Riot. As previously, Lot 15, a Pinot Noir, and Lot 8, a Garnacha, still impressed me. I was also very impressed with Lot 12, a Merlot ($11.99), a 2007 Napa Valley wine. I think many Merlots at this price point are very simple, innocuous wines. They taste ok but have no character. Lot 12 though was much different, a smooth, easy-drinking wine with delicious red fruits but with some character as well. At this price, it is an excellent value.

Grupo Barbadillo:

The Barbadillo winery is a family owned business, located in the Jerez region of Spain. They own about 500 hectares of vineyards spread over two estates, Gibalbín and Santa Lucía. They produce a full line of sherries, as well as a unique white wine of Andalucía, "Castillo de San Diego.” In addition, they have ownership interests in wineries in Ribera del Duero and Somontano.

The 2008 Bodega Pirineos Mesache Rosado, from the Somontano region of Spain, is a blend of Tempranillo, Garnacha, Merlot and Moristel. An absolutely delicious Rosé, this is very Old World in style. It is dry, with strong strawberry and watermelon flavors, and a touch of minerality. At under $10, this is an excellent value. Perfect for the upcoming summer weather.

I then tasted through a line-up of their sherries, including a Manzanilla, Fino, Full Dry Oloroso, Cream Sherry and a Pedro Ximenez Sherry. All of these sell for $9-$12, and are also excellent values. The Manzanilla, Fino and Oloroso were all fine examples of these sherry types, and sure to please sherry lovers, as well as those new to sherry. The Oloroso especially impressed me with delicious and smooth flavors of nuts, caramel and honey. I enjoy a nice Oloroso or Amontillado as an after-dinner drink. If you want to start getting into sherry, this line-up would be an inexpensive way to do so.

The Cream Sherry was quite tasty, with much of the flavor of an Oloroso but also a mild creamy sweetness to it. I also learned about the origin of cream sherry, which was interesting. After the end of a night of drinking, men would ask the bartender for a "small brunette," which was a tavern blend of about 80% Oloroso and 20% Pedro Ximenez. Later, British sailors would taste this blend, and fell in love with it. As it tasted creamy to them, it became known as "cream sherry." Currently, cream sherries still generally use a similar ratio as the original tavern blend.

Ty Ku:

Ty Ku produces a line including Soju, a Soju-based Liquer and Saké. At this event, they offered their Black and White Sakés for tasting. You can read my previous review of their Sakés, noting that I really love their White, though it is a very pricey Daiginjo.

Opici Imports:

This import company presented about ten different Spanish wines, so obviously it drew my interest. The 2008 Lusco Zios Albarino de Lusco ($16) was a delicious example of Albarino, great flavors of apple and melon, hints of minerality and good acidity. I note also that the vineyard is sustainably farmed. The 2007 Altos Del Cuco ($11) is a blend of Monastrell, Syrah and Tempranillo. A good value wine, with plenty of dark fruit flavors, lots of spice, moderate tannins, and a good finish. A nice BBQ wine. The 2006 Casa De La Ermita Crianza ($15) is a blend of 60% Monastrell and 40% Petit Verdot. This was a big wine, with rich blueberry and plum flavors, spicy notes and a bit of leather. Another excellent BBQ wine, perfect with a thick juicy steak. For a dessert wine, you might enjoy the 2006 Casa De La Ermita Late Harvest Monastrell ($22/500ml). A light red color, mild sweetness, and lush fruit flavors. Well balanced and perfect for a chocolate dessert, or just some fruit.

Quady Winery:

I was disappointed in this winery. I had planned to taste their two Vermouths, an extra-dry and a sweet, but by 2pm on Saturday afternoon, they were out of Vermouth. As the tasting only started at 1pm, it was unbelievable that they were already out of the Vermouth. Especially as there was still another tasting at 7pm. They obviously brought very little Vermouth to the event.

Overall, I enjoyed my time at the Wine Riot, finding some new wines to enjoy and hanging with some good people. The food was better than last year, though they still could work on providing more free nibbles, which would also help keep people less drunk. The next Wine Riot will be in the fall, so plan to be there for the event.