Friday, July 30, 2010

Wine & Saké Tasting Competitions

Plenty of wine contests and competitions are held all over the world, and wineries often boast about the medals won by their wines. These medals are thought to help boost sales of their wines. Even if a wine does not garner a high score by a top wine critic, they might be able to boast of what gold medals they have won at a local or regional competition.

There is some controversy over the value of these wine contests, as well as the fact there is a large number of these contests. The same wine might fare badly in a several competitions and then win a gold medal in another one. One could argue that these competitions provide a far greater benefit to the wineries than consumers.

In the Saké world, there is a radically different type of competition and maybe the wine community should take notice. The Zenkoku Shinshu Kanpyōkai ("National New Saké Tasting Competition”) is an annual, national event which awards medals to the best Sakés. Though there is a significant twist, setting it apart from most, if not all, wine competitions.

Initially, the Japanese Tax Department wanted to ensure the quality of Saké because it provided such a significant revenue. So in 1911, they initiated a Saké competition though only 17 breweries participated. Yet over time, the number of participating breweries grew and grew so that now, most breweries take part. There has been a contest every year except for two exceptions: 1945 (due to WWII) and 1995 (when the National Research Institute of Brewing was moved from Tokyo to Hiroshima). The 100th competition will be held in 2012.

But, as of 2006, the government is no longer associated with this competition. It now continues under a joint effort of several industry organizations.

As for the twist, the Saké submitted to the competition is not the normal Saké produced by the breweries which they sell to consumers. Instead, special Saké is brewed just for the competition, and such Saké is rarely ever sold. It is produced in very small batches and usually has added distilled alcohol to enhance aromatics. Can you imagine California wineries doing something similar, producing wine just for a contest and not selling it? I very much doubt they would ever participate in such a contest.

There are up to 40 judges, who include toji, brewers, NRIB personnel and official government tasters. They will taste blindly from identical cups. Until recently, all of the Saké entries were tasted together but that has now changed. Now there are two categories, based on the type of rice, Yamada Nishiki and all others. Yamada Nishiki is considered the best of all rices so it was felt it should only be compared to other Sakés made from it.

The judging system is very simple and conducted in two rounds. During the first round, each shinsain ("taster") rates the Saké on a one-to-five scale, with one being the highest score, and they made add some brief comments for the brewer. The top scorers then move onto the second round, where they are then rated on a one-to-three scale. About the top half of those Sakés will receive gold medals, the rest getting silver. Kinsho jushoshu is a "gold prize-winning Saké."

Gold medals are very prestigious, especially if a brewery can win golds over multiple years. But who cares if the winning Sakés are not available for purchase? First, the competition has actually led to some important technical developments in brewing, such as the invention of new yeasts. Second, the contest is an excellent indicator of a toji's skill in being able to produce a Saké within very strict guidelines. Third, it helps to improve a toji's skills.

There is a often a good correlation too between a brewery that wins gold medals, especially in multiple years, and a brewery that produces excellent Saké for sale. As the skill of the toji is so important in the production of Saké, then a toji skilled enough to win multiple gold medals will most likely produce excellent Saké for consumers.

It would be fascinating to see wine competitions similar to these Saké contests. Though I doubt that will happen any time soon, if at all.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

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

1) In celebration of my birthday, we were to go out to dinner with a couple of good friends. I was allowed to choose any restaurant I desired, so I carefully pondered over a myriad of choices. Obviously, I wanted to select a place which everyone would enjoy as well as a place that I would especially savor. Not an easy task when there are so many good restaurants in the local area. In the end, I chose Prezza, a top-notch Italian restaurant in the North End. My prior visits to Prezza had thoroughly impressed me and I had faith that my dining companions would be impressed as well. None of them had ever been to Prezza before, but I knew they all loved Italian cuisine.

We ordered numerous appetizers and entrees, sharing our dishes with each other so we could all sample a variety. The food was once again superb and everyone loved what they ate, from the Wood Grilled Squid and Octopus to the Veal Porterhouse. I especially enjoyed the Sweet Corn Raviolini (with rock shrimp, pancetta, toasted corn, white wine and parmigiano cheese) which had definitely an exciting sweet corn taste. The Roasted Black Figs stuffed with gorgonzola and wrapped in prosciutto with aged balsamic was another amazing dish. To accompany our food, I ordered a couple Vietti wines, a Nebbiolo and a Barbera, which also pleased everyone.

Service was excellent, and our server, Nicholas, well-paced our meal so we could relax and enjoy every course. They certainly made my birthday celebration a joyous and delicious event and I am extremely glad that I selected Prezza. The food was hearty, creative and very satisfying. Once again, I give Prezza my highest recommendations. It is consistently excellent and such consistency elevates it to the elite of Boston restaurants.

2) Troquet is another consistent restaurant where you are very likely going to be impressed. I recently had another amazing dinner there, with a few great friends and fellow food/wine lovers, including Adam, Dale and David. Currently, Troquet is having a special wine blowout, selling off some older wines and miscellanous others from their cellar at extreme discount prices. Great food and inexpensive wines? Hell yeah!

The four of us went through eight bottles of wine, and the prices ranged from only $10-$30. Some of the bottles cost what you might expect to pay for a glass of wine. Such incredibly low prices for some older vintage wines. A wine lover's dream. Our list of wines included:

2008 Domaine de Fontsainte Corbieres Gris de Gris Rose
1983 Meursault Perrieres Pierre Morey
1970 Concha Y Toro Cabernet Sauvignon
1975 Lungarotti Rubesco Riserva Monticchio Torgiano
1983 Porta Dos Cavaleiros Reserva Dao
1998 Domaine La Bouissiere Gigondas
1997 Kongsgaard Napa Valley Merlot
2004 Leitz Rudesheimer Berg Roseneck Spatlese Riesling

All of the wines were still good, and my top favorites were the Lungarotti, Concha and the Meursault. We enjoyed these wines with a tasting menu, showcasing some of the best of Troquet. And the dinner was capped at the end with a superb Blueberry Souffle, pure decadent pleasure. The wine sale is still going on but won't last much longer so make reservations now!

Besides the excellent food and wine, the meal was best enhanced by being with such good people. It would not have been the same if I were there alone. In reflection, it was a near perfect evening, marred only by Adam's late arrival, due to lengthy plane delays. I certainly wish his flights had been on time so he could have enjoyed more of the dinner with us. You should also check out Adam's excellent post about this dinner.

Two great meals, with a perfect combination of good food, good drink and good friends. That is one of the greatest joys of life.

Boston Summer Restaurant Week

The newest edition of Boston's Summer 2010 Restaurant Week will be here soon and it is time to start planning for it, making your reservations to ensure you get into whichever restaurants you really want to visit.

From August 15-20 & 22-27, 2010 diners can take advantage of prix-fixe menus at more than 200 of the region’s restaurants, including 2-course lunches for $15.10, 3-course lunches for $20.10 and 3-course dinners for $33.10. Note that prices are per person and exclude beverages, tax and gratuity.

You can go online to see a list of participating restaurants, peruse menus, and make reservations. You can browse by restaurant name, neighborhood, or meal period.

In support of local farms and food producers and to promote MassGrown, restaurants have been encouraged to include as many local foods and ingredients as possible on their Restaurant Week menus. Each participating restaurant will display the Mass Grown Logo on their info page and menus. I urge you to support those restaurants choosing to go local.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Stoddard's Fine Food & Ale: Pickles to Rabbit

Back in January, I first visited Stoddard's Fine Food & Ale, to attend a pre-opening cocktail party. It was a visually compelling restaurant and bar, with a fascinating architecture and decor, especially to a history buff like me. Though the restaurant was not fully completed, you still could perceive the totality of the image the owners were trying to present.

But due to multiple delays, months passed before the restaurant finally opened. And their "private club" still has not opened, though I was told it would open in September. I was recently invited to check out the restaurant, now that it has been open for a time. I was accompanied by Jackie, the Leather District Gourmet, and we were very curious what we would discover at Stoddard's.

The restaurant building was built around 1848, in a Greek Revival Style. "It’s been a corset store, sewing machine retailer, bait and tackle shop, and cutlery." The history is reflected in nearly every aspect of the restaurant, making this a fascinating stop for tourists or anyone interested in Boston history. On a Wednesday evening, the restaurant was quite busy, and there were almost no empty tables. I did not expect them to be so busy on a Wednesday, but obviously the restaurant has become quite popular.

Some might refer to Stoddard's as a gastropub, a term which can be vague but commonly refers to a bar with high quality food, a cut above the average pub fare. That definition is appropriate, as their cuisine is very good, and often better than what is usually found in bars and pubs. To elevate their cuisine, the owners chose Executive Chef Mark Cina to run their kitchen, and I believe they made a very good choice. Chef Cina has worked at places including Rendezvous, Craigie Street Bistrot, and Ivy.

Though before considering the food, I should begin with the beverages. First, they have a huge beer list, including about five cask ales. As I am not a beer aficianado, the list does not appeal to me but I certainly respect its diversity. For a beer lover, there is much to appreciate. Second, they have a full bar and have created a list of special cocktails, essentially using very old recipes. I tried their House Punch, which is made with bourbon, port and orange juice, and found it quite tasty. It was not overly sweet, having a bit more tartness, and with nice fruity flavors. The Moscow Mule, made from vodka, lime and ginger beer, was refreshing and delicious, with a prominent ginger taste. An excellent drink for a hot summer day.

Back to the food. The restaurant has a "by scratch" kitchen, meaning that nearly everything is made in-house. That definitely appeals to me, knowing that the food is prepared fresh and it not previously frozen or processed. The Menu consists of Hors D'Oeuvres, Appetizers (most $8-$11), Entrees (most $13-$25), and Side Dishes. Dishes are reasonably priced, considering the quality and quantity of food.

An excellent start to your dinner would be the Charcuterie Plate (Market price), which has eight different types of meats including pate de campagne with pistachios, bresaola, sausage with eggs, duck prosciutto and more. I found the various meats to be quite flavorful, spiced properly, and texturally alluring. This charcuterie plate certainly shows much skill and was a very promising way to begin our meal. My only criticism is that the bread slices were a bit soft, and I would have preferred a crunchier, stiffer bread or crackers.

The Pot of Pickles ($4) has plenty of home-made gherkins and bread & butter chips. Though the gherkins were ok, nothing special, I really enjoyed the bread & butter pickles. They had a nice crispness with a mild sweetness.

Their Onion Rings ($6) brought up memories of my childhood days visiting the amusement park at Salisbury Beach. I used to get a box of onion rings like these, large, thick battered and sweet. Such a pleasant memory and these onion rings were clean, fresh, and delicious.

For the carnivore in you, try the Beef Tartare ($10), with elephant garlic chips, sauce gribiche, and toasted brioche. These brioche are what I would have preferred for the charcuterie plate. The tartare, chopped to order, was smooth, flavorful and meaty with an intriguing, mild citrus taste. I liked the addition of the garlic chips too, which only had a mild garlic flavor. A recommended dish.

Another good appetizer was the Aged Gouda and Cask Ale Fondue ($10) with house made pretzel bites and crudite, including green apple slices. Using two types of gouda, the gouda flavor was most prominent with the ale taste only a background taste. Who doesn't enjoy cheese fondue? The pretzel bites were good with the cheese, as were the green apple slices, which I have long found a perfect accompaniement to fondue.

The Meyer Ranch All Natural Beef Rib Eye (market price) is a seared and fat poached cap, roasted glazed eye, potato puree and asparagus. Though a tasty and well-prepared steak, it just didn't seem anything special. You won't go wrong with this dish, but if you are seeking something exciting, this is not the choice.

For something exciting, definitely order the Ballotine of Vermont Rabbit ($24), a boneless rabbit stuffed with rabbit mousse and wrapped in house pancetta , served with glazed salsify and stewed prunes. Rabbit is an underappreciated meat, one which I very much enjoy. It actually can be a very sustainable meat too. This dish was superb, with a delightful combination of harmonious textures and flavors. You would not even realize you were eating rabbit if you just tried the dish. The tender and flavorful meat was compelling, and highly recommended.

For dessert, we tried the Chocolate Terrine with a fresh blueberry compote and homemade whipped cream. This was a very rich, dense chocolate dish which was almost like fudge.

Overall, I was impressed with Stoddard's. The food was often very good, flavorful and reasonably priced. The restaurant is a place to get a good drink or a beer, as well as to enjoy some quality cuisine. It exceeded my expectations and I recommend that you stop by for dinner and drinks.

Stoddard's Fine Food & Ale
48 Temple Place
Boston, MA
Phone: (617) 426-0048

Stoddard's Fine Food And Ale on Urbanspoon

Stoneham Sun: Urban Grape-Wine By Weight

My new column of "A Passionate Foodie" can be found in the July 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 review of the new Urban Grape, a wine store in Chestnut Hill. The wine store carries over 800 wines, over 200 crafts beers, 15+ Sakés, and spirits. Plus, it has Enomatic machines, allowing customers to taste 16 wines, for free, anytime they visit the store. The store also stocks their wines in a more unique way, by weight/body. It is well worth checking out this store.

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

Drink with passion.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Rant: Why So Hard To Be True?

Though I want to give my support to those who ardently advocate for local, sustainable food, I sometimes find it hard to do when those advocates don't live up to their convictions. Especially when it would have been easy for them to follow through on their own words. This struck me once again this past weekend.

Yesterday, I attended the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival in Shelburne, Vermont. It was generally a fun and tasty time, especially as I met several friends there, including some other local bloggers. There was plenty of delicious food and drink available for tasting, and I will go into much more detail in the near future. But what bothered me occurred during a cooking demonstration.

As it was hot in the barn, I decided to sit in the courtyard and watch a demo by Chef Sean Buchanan of the Stowe Mountain Lodge, who is an advocate and crusader for the use of local, organic and natural ingredients. He prepared five different recipes, and most of the ingredients he used were local ones. But, while preparing one of the appetizer dishes, he used a meat, a pork product, from San Francisco! This was a jarring inconsistency to the theme of the demostration, of the use of local ingredients.

There was no reason he couldn't have used locally made meat. There are plenty of local, artisan pork producers in Vermont. He seemed to have taken the care to select plenty of other local ingredients. So it saddened me to see such a disconnect. It is such moments that make you doubt a person's sincerity to their stated cause. It would have been so easy to follow through, and select a Vermont-made meat.

If you have strong convictions, please just follow through on them, especially when it is easy. Though you should follow through with them even when it is hard. That is what makes them true convictions.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Saké Nomi News Article

Check out a new article in the Japan Times, "Seattle pair put sake on local map" by Kris Kosaka. It is about Johnnie and Taiko Stroud, who established Saké Nomi, a Saké shop and tasting bar in Seattle. The story tells about their background and discusses a bit about their store. This is one of only four all-Saké stores in the U.S., and unfortunately I have not had the opportunity to visit it yet. But I do receive their email newsletter and it sounds like a very cool place.

If any of my readers have been there, please add your thoughts to the comments. Thanks.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Stanhope Grille: Taza Chocolate Desserts

Executive Chef Raymond Southern of The Back Bay Hotel and Stanhope Grille, a locavore with a penchant for chocolate, is rushing to aid the flash flood-damaged Taza Stone Ground Chocolate in Somerville. After a discussion with his chocolatier associates, they came up with a solution to help replace their damaged machinery: Buy more chocolate!

From now through the month of August, Executive Chef Raymond Southern will be giving an extra “push” to menu items that incorporate the luxurious Taza Stone Ground Chocolate. Each guest of Stanhope Grille will depart dinner with bite-sized versions of Chef’s signature Boston Cooking School Brownies. On the other side, The Back Bay Hotel will be giving the bite-sized brownies as a departure gift to guests, along with their customary packet of Forget-Me-Not seeds.

Executive Chef Raymond Southern’s Taza Stone Ground Chocolate menu items that will be available through August:

Stone Ground Chocolate Pudding $9
(Taza Stone Ground Chocolate, Malted Vanilla Ice Cream, Chopped Georgia Peanuts)

Salted Caramel Ice Cream Sandwich $8
(Taza Chiapan Chocolate Cookie, Locally Produced Batch Fair Trade Ice Cream)(This sounds like it would be my choice of the bunch).

Boston Cooking School Brownies $9
(Our Rendition of Fannie Merritt Farmers 1911 Recipe Using Taza Fair Trade Stone Ground Chocolate)

Taza Chocolate French (French) Toast $20
Classic Style Baked French Toast with Melted XStone Ground Chocolate, Topped with Crispy Maple Smoked Bacon and Vermont Syrup
--Available as a Sunday Brunch Plate; price also includes a basket of breakfast breads, 100% Florida Orange choice, your choice of Starbucks Coffee or Tazo Tea, and your choice of a Bloody Mary or Mimosa

Taza Chiapan Chocolate Pie $33.10
(Black Cherry Jus, Fried Orange Zest, Chantilly Cream
**Available in a 3-course prix fixe only during Restaurant Week Boston from August 15-20; 22-27

I previously visited the Taza Chocolate factory and was impressed with their philosophy and products. The recent torrential rains caused flooding at their factory and they are trying to rebound. Why not help them out and buy some Taza products?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

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

1) Last year, I had a superb dining experience at David Burke Prime Steakhouse at the Foxwoods Casino. Since then, I know several people who have also had excellent meals there, including their Sunday brunch and Monday lobster specials. I recently returned to Foxwoods and chose to return to David Burke. The food was once again quite good, fine steaks and prime rib, though we had some service issues. It was as if our server was not really listening to us, and committed several minor errors. There was nothing significant, but enough little things added up so that the dining experience was marred. Based on what I have heard from others about their experiences, this seems more of an isolated incident.

2) Sam's Bistro in Reading is now open and I recently stopped by for lunch. The menu is somewhat different from Stearn's & Hill's Bistro. The lunch menu includes appetizers, soups, salads, sandwiches and entrees. Prices seem reasonable and quantity is good, if not sometimes quite large. Food quality was a bit uneven, some dishes being very good, and others so-so, but I do realize this is a very new restaurant which requires some time to work out its kinks. A couple of the highlights include a large and tasty Salmon BLT sandwich and a very good Mac n' Cheese side dish. Service was a bit slow too and that may also be due to the newness of the restaurant. I will be returning and will report back again.

Sam's Bistro on Urbanspoon

3) Chef Dante de Magistris of Restaurant dante is bringing back the tradition of his signature Italian film-inspired grilled cheese sandwiches, available for $2 each at the bar and lounge on Tuesdays. Chef Dante de Magistris’ newest installation of Grilled Cheese Tuesdays includes the following:

July 27th: Roman Holiday: crescenza cheese, pistachio, sundried tomato
August 3rd: Three Coins in the Fountain: buffalo mozzarella, tomato, basil, pepperoncini
August 10th: Under the Tuscan Sun: smoked scarmoza, pancetta, arugula

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Stoneham Sun: Stoneham Farmers' Market

My new column of "A Passionate Foodie" can be found in the July 21 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 review of the new Stoneham Farmers' Market on the Town Common. It is larger than last year, with more vendors, and is located in a more easily accessible area. It is well worth checking out, and you are likely to find me there each week, stocking up on a few items such as Mamadou's bread.

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

Dine with passion.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Some Wine Makers Love Climate Change

Is climate change actually good for wine vineyards? Some winemakers seem to think so, as it has helped them achieve consecutive years of excellent vintages. So they have little incentive to make any changes that would either adapt to climate change, or take measures to decrease their carbon footprint.

Are these winemakers correct, should we not care about climate change? Or are they blind to the true dangers ahead, and if so, how do you convince them otherwise?

In the current issue of Mother Jones magazine (August 2010), there is an interesting article,"Grapes of Wrath," by Mark Hertsgaard. It concerns the effect of climate change on vineyards and wine making, and is adapted from his forthcoming book, Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth.

Mark mentions how some winemakers are joyous about climate change. "Some of the most expensive wines in Spain come from the Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa regions," Pancho Campo, the founder and president of the Wine Academy of Spain, says. "They are getting almost perfect ripeness every year now for Tempranillo. This makes the winemakers say, 'Who cares about climate change? We are getting perfect vintages.' The same thing has happened in Bordeaux. It is very difficult to tell someone, 'This is only going to be the case for another few years.'" (p.38)

How do you argue with these winemakers? How can you convince them that these prime vintages won't last? It may be a very difficult task.

Mark continues with a dire prediction for vineyards in the U.S., though obviously the potential threat is worldwide. "If current trends continue, the "premium wine grape production area [in the United States]...could decline by up to 81 percent by the late 21st century," a team of scientists wrote in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2006. The culprit was not so much the rise in average temperatures but an increased frequency of extremely hot days, defined as above 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit). If no adaptation measures were taken, these increased heat spikes would "eliminate wine grape production in many areas of the United States," the scientists wrote." (p.38)

Is this how most people react, unconcerned unless something directly affects them? And if it benefits them, are they are less likely to be concerned? When they finally act, will it be too late?

Monday, July 19, 2010

Rant: Why So Creamy & Rich?

It seems to be that a salad is intended to be a light dish. It is usually a precursor to your heavier entree. The key is having fresh vegetables and other, similar items (such as eggs, bacon, tuna, etc.) in the salad. You want to be able to enjoy their fresh, individual tastes. So, it makes sense that any dressing applied to the salad should also be light, with some flavor of its own but not so much that it overwhelms and conceals the flavors of the salad itself. It should provide an accent, a compliment, and not take center stage.

So why is it so common to find thick, cream and rich dressings atop salads? Russian, Blue Cheese, French and more. That seems to run counter to the purpose of a salad. Those dressings would seem to conceal the flavors of the vegetables, making the dressing the most prominent taste. Plus, it makes the whole dish much heavier, and thus your entire meal heavier too. Is that really what you want? Why conceal your fresh and tasty vegetables?

Another good reason not to opt for such heavy dressings is that they are usually less healthy than vinaigrettes and other light dressings. Seems to defeat the intent of a healthy salad to add a less healthy, thick and creamy dressing. It is like eating a healthy piece of fruit for dessert, like a banana, but then adding chocolate sauce onto it.

Savor your vegetables! (Yes, that is really me talking). Don't hide them behind a thick curtain of dressing.

If you like creamy, rich dressings on your salad, please tell me why.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Comparison Tastings Are Educational

Probably the best way to learn about wine is to taste. No matter how much you read and learn, unless you have actually tasted the wine, there will be a gap in your knowledge. Tasting can solidify and reinforce what you know, provide you a concrete example of what you only theoretically understand. But not all tastings are the same. Some can be far more educational than others, and I would like to see more of those tastings around.

At the Saké Professional Course, we tasted about 90 different Sakés, and they were specifically grouped to provide the maximum amount of information. The Sakés were set up for comparison tastings, which helped you truly understand the differences caused by various brewing practices. Those type of comparison tastings would be extremely useful for wine as well. Let me discuss a bit more about the Saké comparisons I experienced.

We began with a vertical tasting of the various main types and grades of Saké, from Futsu-shu to Daiginjo. That proceeded to a more detailed exploration of the effect of rice polishing. We tasted three Dassai Junmais, similar in all respects except their Seimai Buai, rice polishing rate. The Seimai Buais were 50%, 39% and 23%. That then led to a tasting of mainly Junmai Ginjo, primarily different only in the type of rice used. From those tastings, you understood the effects of these two factors, rice polishing and rice type, far better than what any book could teach you.

The yeast used to brew Saké primarily affects the aroma, but will affect the taste a bit as well. That was shown through a tasting of 9 brews, which varied mainly in the type of yeast used. For example, we tasted three examples of the Nanbu Bijin Daiginjo, varied only by the yeasts: Iwate yeast, Hiroshima Ginjo yeast and Meiri yeast. And there were significant differences.

There were then comparison tastings of Namazake (unpasteurized) vs Pasteurized Saké, including a couple that had gone bad. One of my favorite parts of the tasting was a showcase of Saké brewed in the Yamahai and Kimoto methods. It was then interesting to follow up with a comparison tasting of three Nanbu Bijin Daiginjos, the same except each was produced by a different pressing method: Yabuta, Funeshibori and Shizuku. We moved onto a comparison of Saké aging, including a tasting of three years (2004, 2006 & 2008) of the Nanbu Bijin Tokubetsu Junmai.

A fun tasting was a sampling of more esoteric and different styles of Saké, from Sparkling to Nigori, from Zenkoji to a Honjozo Muroka Nama Genshu. I really found the Zenkoji to be intriguing, a sweeter drink but with complexity and depth of flavor. We moved onto a comparison of glassware, the effect of a traditional porcelin ochoko compared to a more modern wine glass. There were definitely differences. Next, there was a tasting of Saké at various temperatures, showing that gently warming Saké can sometimes be the best. For our final tasting, we tasted Saké from various prefectures of Japan, seeing how regionality can affect taste and style.

Unfortunately, too many local wine tastings are simply a mix of different wines, and do not constitute comparison tastings. The main goal at those tastings is to see if you enjoy the wines or not. It would be more educational to hold comparison tastings, to teach the differences involved in wine making. For example, showcase three Chardonnays, but one without malolactic fermentation, one with partial malolactic and one with full malolactic. Or showcase three wines, with similar blends, except a differing percentage of a specific grape. The tasters will still have the opportunity to determine whether they like the wines or not, but they will also learn something from the tasting.

To make wine less intimidating, the consumer needs to be educated about wine, and comparison tastings are one path toward that goal. Wine stores, why not add some comparison tastings to your events list. Consumers, ask your local wine store owner to set up some comparison tastings.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

What Is The Best Way To Organize a Wine Store?

Most wine stores are set up in a similar fashion, with the wines separated by region/country and/or grape type. Sometimes they might also have sections for different wine types, such as sparkling wines and dessert wines. I find this type of set-up easy to navigate, and it allows me to zero in on the specific type of wine I might be seeking.

For a knowledgeable wine lover, I think this set-up works well, but what about the average consumer, someone who might only have limited wine knowledge? Does this type of organization cause problems for the average consumer? Is there a better way to organize a wine store?

The average consumer, if unfamiliar with the various wine regions, might only look at those areas which he knows something about. He might ignore certain countries and regions. He might not expand his taste horizons, sticking to the usual wines. Such a consumer might need help from the wine store staff, to get suggestions for other wines he might enjoy, based on his tastes.

To help these consumers, some wine stores organize their wines in a different way, generally by style or weight. This is intended to be more consumer friendly, to help them find similar wines to those they already enjoy. Though it generally still requires the assistance of the wine store staff, to help describe the system to their customers, as well as help them find the type of wines they want. Let me use a couple of new stores as examples of alternative wine organization.

First, The Urban Grape, a new wine store in Chestnut Hill, generally organizes their wines by weight, using a ten point system, 1 for the lightest wine to 10 for the heaviest wines. But they still separate their wines by a few categories as well, including whites, reds, rose, sparkling wine and Kosher. Within each category though, they still use their ten point system. The owners state this has worked out well for them and many customers have appreciated the system.

As the rating system is based on the owner's palate, customers may not always agree with his decisions. You might find a wine to be lighter or heavier than it is rated, though generally it should not be a significant difference. It might be beneficial for the store to hold some comparison tastings, showing the differences of the rated wines. For example, they could let customers taste five red wines, rated 4-8, showing how the wines get progressively heavier. There is also difficulty if you are seeking all of the wines of a specific grape or region. You must either look through all of the shelves, or get assistance from the staff. That would make it tougher and more time consuming if I were just seeking which Greek wines they carried.

Second, Pairings: Exploring Wine & Food is another relatively new wine store in Winchester and they only recently chosen to arrange their wines by style, in nine categories. This reminds me of the system that Best Cellars used to use, with categories like Fresh, Juicy & Soft Reds and Soft & Aromatic Whites. This is still a work in progress, and they have been considering customer input. So some of the details may change in the near future.

Within each category, they often stock the wines in alphabetical order, by name of the prominent grape. But, they also have tried to keep wines made from the same grape within the same category, even if a specific wine does not fit that category. For example, all of the Pinot Noirs are in the Smooth & Elegant category, even if they would be more appropriate in Fresh, Juicy & Soft Reds.

I don't think you can have it both ways. If you want to use the categories effectively, you should separate the same grape if warranted. They do separate Chardonnay, between the Unoaked and Oaked ones, so they could do the same with others. If a customer buys a Pinot from the Smooth & Elegant section, but it actually is a juicy, soft wine, will the cashier always know to ask the customer if that is what they wanted? Their system, like that of Urban Grape, also has a problem if a customer comes in seeking just wines from a certain wine region.

I am conflicted about these alternative methods of organization. I do see some issues with them but I also understand the reasons behind them. For the average wine consumer, these alternative methods may actually be better. But, for the more advanced wine lover, I am not sure they are that useful, and may actually cause more problems.

This could be due to a difference in how the average consumer as opposed to an advanced wine lover buys wine. The average consumer is usually buying wine for an immediate need, such as dinner or a party. They commonly will drink the wine they buy within 24 hours. So they are seeking a specific type of wine, maybe something to pair with a scallop dinner or a nice BBQ wine. It then makes sense for them to seek a wine by style or weight. For example, Pairings emphasizes food and wine pairing, so its category system assists in that goal.

When I go to a wine store, I am more there to seek out something interesting, but which I might not drink for weeks, or even months. I rarely go seeking a wine I need that evening. So I don't care so much about selecting a wine by weight or style, as I am not filling a specific need. I am more apt to be seeking something exotic from Greece or Israel that I will try in the near future. So, organizing wines by region is much more useful to me.

I realize though that there are far more average consumers than people like me. There is probably no optimal way to organize a wine store, all systems having their advantages and disadvantages. But, catering to the larger audience is probably a more financially beneficial system for a wine store. If the style/weight organizational system is more effective for the average consumer, then maybe it is the way to set up a wine store.

No matter how the wine store is organized though, it still is very important that the wine store staff be knowledgeable and capable of helping their customers find wines they might enjoy. They still have to explain how the store is organized, describing the details of any alternative system of organization. I think that maybe the nature and knowledge of your employees is more important than the actual method of organization. Their help, or lack thereof, to a customer, will affect your bottomline far more than how the wines are shelved. So wine store owners need to choose their staff with great care.

What do you think is the best way to organize a wine store?

Friday, July 16, 2010

Magners Irish Cider: A Richer, Earthier Taste

It has been quite enlightening on my hard cider quest, learning how very different these ciders can be. I had expected to find many similarities and only minor differences, but that has not been the case. Though all have an apple flavor, their styles and flavor profiles have been widely divergent. My latest tasting, Magners Irish Cider, was no different.

In 1935, commercial cider production began in Clonmel, Ireland by local man William Magner. He was successful and in 1937, he secured rights from English cider-makers H.P. Bulmer and Company to use the Bulmers brand name in Ireland. In 1949, Mr. Magner withdrew from the business and the Bulmers name became prominent. But, to avoid confusion with the English cider, the cider is sold outside of Ireland as Magners Original Irish Cider. This is Magner's 10th anniversary in the U.S.

The cider is made from 17 different apple varieties including Michellin, Dabinett, Yarlington Mill, Bulmer's Norman, Tremlett's Bitter, Breakwell Seedling, Taylor's, Harry Master's Jersey, Medaille d'Or, Reine des Pommes, Ashton Bitter, Brambley's, Grenadier, Brown Thorn, Brown Snout, Vilberies and improved Dove. They grow many of their own apples in a 250 acre orchard in Clonmel. They also purchase additional apples, being Ireland's largest buyer of apples. buy some apples from other Irish growers.

The Magners Vat House, where the cider ferments, was commissioned in 1936 and most of the vats, from 2000 to 60,000 gallons, are oak. Many other cider companies do not use oak vats for fermentation. They also use the same presses they have been using for the last fifty years. In addition, they filter their cider while other companies only pasteurize their cider. These differences do affect the taste of the final product.

Magners Irish Cider has 125 calories per 11.2 oz, is 4.5% alcohol and is also 100% gluten free. The taste really pleased me. It has only a light carbonation, which I prefer, and is mostly dry, with only the slightest hint of sweetness. It does not remind me of normal apple cider but has an earthier, richer flavor, which is likely due to the vats. The apple flavors are more subdued, though noticeable, with a bit of bitterness, though not in an unpleasant way. This is definitely the type of hard cider I could drink all day as the flavor profile really appeals to me. I really enjoy its earthier taste, and I think it might pair well with foods that other hard ciders might not.

Something you might not consider, but you could also cook with Magners Irish Cider. Why not? Plenty of people use regular apple cider while cooking, so it is not a big step up to hard cider. I was provided several recipe examples but one stood out to me:

Seared Scallop with Potato and Roasted Quince Cider Sauce

2 large dry scallops-cut in half (scallops which come 8-10 per pound work best)
1 cooked Idaho potato (cut into rings the same size as the scallops)
4 TBL butter
6 oz. Magners cider
1 shallot
1 tomato diced
1 bunch of basil (chopped for chiffonade)
1 Quince (diced)
salt and pepper to taste

1. Core and peel Quince. Sauté in butter until soft. Set aside for sauce.
2. Heat pan until it is very hot. Add a little oil. Season scallops and potatoes with salt and pepper. Add potatoes and scallops and sear.
3. Brown scallops. Flip and remove immediately.
4. Finish browning potatoes on both sides. Remove potatoes.
5. Drain oil. Add shallots and lightly sauté. Add Magners cider and reduce by 1/2. Add diced tomato. Slowly whip in butter. Season with salt and pepper. Add chopped basil and roasted Quince. Stir well and remove from heat.

To Plate:
Arrange potatoes and scallops in a circle in the center of the plate, alternating. Spoon sauce on plate around scallops and potatoes (not over the scallops and potatoes). Serve.

Have you tasted Magners Irish Cider? And if so, what were your thoughts?

Disclosure: I received free samples of the Magners Irish Cider.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Copa Jerez Wine & Food Pairing Competition

The Sherry Council of America announced that the U.S. National Finals for the Copa Jerez Wine & Food Pairing competition will be held in New York City on October 6th, 2010. Chef and sommelier teams across the United States are invited to compete for the U.S. Finals. The winning U.S. team will be chosen by a panel of judges to compete in Spain at Copa Jerez, the international food and Sherry competition, against renowned chefs and sommeliers from eight countries including Spain, the United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Japan.

To select the U.S. Finalists, a panel of expert judges will narrow down the submissions to three teams. These teams will travel to New York City for a live cook-off on October 6th to present their creations at the U.S. National Finals. One team will be selected as the winner and will then travel to Jerez, Spain to compete for the International Copa Jerez title.

Submissions will be received during the summer, with a deadline of August 15th. “We expect record submissions this year,” said Steve Olson, lead judge of the U.S. national panel. “The versatility of Sherry allows sommeliers and chefs to really express their creativity, so we are seeing an even greater diversity in the types of cuisine that enter the competition- from Sushi to Steakhouse.”

During the 2009 Copa Jerez competition, Roger Kugler and Seamus Mullen from Suba Restaurant in New York City were selected as the winning U.S. team. Roger Kugler went on to receive the award for “Best Sommelier” in the international competition, making him the first American to win this title.

I’ve been integrating Sherry into my wine menus for some time now, so I saw this competition as a great opportunity,” said Roger Kugler. “It was a great honor to win, and share my passion for Sherry, showing how well it works with so many foods and flavors. ”

Copa Jerez showcases the innovative ways top chefs and sommeliers experiment with the flavor profiles of Sherry wine,” said Sonia Smith, Director of the Sherry Council of America. “It is a wonderful way to discover authentic Sherry wines, from Jerez – a town in Spain’s southern-most province of Andalucía.”

For more information about the competition or for rules and regulations please contact Natalie Alhonte at 202-777-3549 or

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

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

1) I recently had brunch at AKA Bistro, where I have previously had some excellent lunches. Brunch was just as enjoyable with top notch food and very good service. The Panier de Viennoiseries fait maison ($9) is a basket of assorted breads and pastries, all made on premises. It included a croissant (light, flaky and buttery), pan de chocolate, madeline and more. The Omelette printaniere ($12), which is an omelet with asparagus, vegetables and fresh goat cheese was quite large and delicious with an ample portion of thinly sliced potatoes. And the Oeuf en Brioche et bacon ($12) was an intriguing and tasty dish, a poached egg baked into a home made brioche with bacon pieces. Overall, a top notch brunch and I continue to strongly recommend this restaurant.

2) On Sundays in July, Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar will offer a special thre-course, Sunday Prime Rib Dinner. The 3-course meal features 12 ounces of succulent Prime Rib served with a trio of sauces; your choice of The Wedge, Fleming’s or Caesar salads; plus, one side dish and dessert. The cost is only $29.95 per person.

3) Last week, I mentioned that Sam's Bistro, a new restaurant in Reading would soon be opening and it actually had a soft opening this past weekend. So it is now open and I will stop by there soon to check it out, and will then report back.

4) With all of the hot weather recently, I have been drinking plenty of rosé. I find it very refreshing and it is very food friendly. I generally prefer an Old World style, which tends to be more dry than many New World rosés. Though I will also drink rosé year round. I highly recommend you drink some rosé this summer, and find how well it goes with both the season and food.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

New Discount Wine Store Coming To Reading

The Wine Bunker, a new, discount wine store in Reading, may open sometime in August. Though initially declined, the owner Peter Donovan of Arlington, was able to fight the denial and get the Reading Selectman, in a 3-2 vote, to approve the store.

The new store will be located at 128 Marketplace Shopping Center, One General Way, near the Market Basket. Mr. Donovan already operates a wine store in Woburn, Corporate Wines, with which I am familar. For the new store, the license prohibits the sale of nips, lottery tickets, tobacco and wine coolers. The proposed times of operation will be 10am-8pm on Mondays through Saturdays.

I don't know whether the Wine Bunker will be similar to Corporate Wines or not, though I suspect they will be fairly similar. If it is similar, then I don't expect it will have a very significant impact on other local wine stores. Though Corporate Wines had started off strong, including with some interesting wine tastings, it seemed to have stagnated for a time, and stopped holding tastings. I was not impressed with my most recent visits.

I will be sure to check out the Wine Bunker when it does open, and will try to speak with Mr. Donovan prior to that time to see if I can gather some more information about plans for the new store.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Urban Grape: Sparkling Wine Grand Tasting

Can you get me a knife? No, that knife was not needed to slice some bread or cheese. Instead, it was to be used for sabrage, to open a bottle of Champagne. In the video above, you can watch my friend and fellow wine blogger Dale teach Aimee how to perform sabrage. It is actually an easy practice, and Aimee did it perfectly.

So where did this fun event occur? In the parking lot outside the new Urban Grape, which I have previously reviewed. They recently held a Grand Tasting of Sparkling Wines and Champagnes, showcasing 15 wines, and I stopped by for the tasting as well as to check out any changes that had occurred in the store. I also got to hang out with Dale and Amanda, which is always enjoyable.

The fifteen wines, priced from $13-$94, included sparkling wines from Spain, Italy, California, and South Africa, as well as French Champagne. The least expensive Champagne was $35, and I feel that inexpensive Champagne, generally costing less than $25, is not a good value. At that price point, there are so many better alternatives, from Cava to Prosecco. And that is where I would like to concentrate in this post, emphasizing three excellent value sparkling wines that I tasted.

The Parés Baltà Cava ($16) is organic and biodynamic, and I visited the winery when I was last in Spain. This is a delicious sparkling wine: dry, crisp and clean with nice flavors of apple and melon. It is also smooth, full of flavor and very satisfying. I am very partial to Spanish cava, believing it is often a very good value. The Riondo "Spago Nero" Prosecco ($14) is another excellent value, an Italian sparkler which is also crisp and clean, with a hint of sweetness. You get some green apple flavors but with a bit of orange peel as well. The 2005 Graham Beck Brut Blanc de Blanc ($22) was one of the surprise finds of the tasting. Made from 100% Chardonnay, if you blind tasted this wine, you would probably think it was a fine Champagne. Dry and crisp with a complex taste of green apple, pear and hints of cream. For the price, this wine certainly delivers plenty and it gets a strong recommendation.

Any one of those three wines would be an excellent alternative to buying a Champagne under $25. They should be real crowd-pleaser wines, which most people will enjoy.

The Urban Grape has added plenty to their inventory, more wine, more beer, and even more Saké. They now carry 15 Sakés, with another 15 to come in the near future. There are plenty more craft beers, hard ciders, and lots of spirits. An excellent selection of items, well using their limited space.

They even carry two Shochus now, the Kurokame Imo Shochu ($30) and the Towari Soba Shochu ($34). Check my previous article for an introductory lesson on shochu. I am still new to shochu, mainly because it is still difficult to find in the Boston area. T.J. was kind enough to open the shochus though for a tasting. The Towari is made from buckwheat and the Kurokame is made from sweet potato. Both, on the nose and palate, reminded me a bit of tequila. I found the Towari a bit harsh with the Kurokame being smoother and more pleasing, though potent.

They both probably would be better used in a cocktail. And I did a little experimentation in that regard, mixing in some sparkling wine and a rose. The shochu has a strong flavor so you need to be careful how much you add to a cocktail. I also think a fruit-flavored mixed might help to mellow the flavor.

The Urban Grape continues to impress and I strongly recommend you check it out.

Newport Mansions Wine & Food Festival: 9/24-9/26

Celebrity chefs from the Food Network and American Public Television, exclusive wines from around the world and fabulous food from the region’s best restaurants make the 5th annual Newport Mansions Wine & Food Festival the place to be from September 24-26. Sponsored by Food & Wine, the Festival takes place in one of America’s most picturesque settings—the historic Newport Mansions, Rosecliff and Marble House, in the seaside resort of Newport, Rhode Island.

The Festival will showcase more than 500 high-end international wines, fabulous food and cooking demonstrations by celebrated chefs, a Sunday jazz brunch, live and silent auctions, and a gala celebration. More than 100 of the world's finest vintners, and nearly two dozen of New England's finest restaurants and caterers will be featured.

Highlights of the Newport Mansions Wine & Food Festival include cooking demonstrations by Chris Cosentino of Food Network's “Chefs vs. City” and Incanto Restaurant in San Francisco, David Burke of David Burke’s Prime, and Nick Stellino, Rachel Allen and Christina Pirello of American Public Television and Create TV, as well as seminars led by industry experts such as Ray Isle of Food & Wine and Leslie Sbrocco of Thirsty Girl. Additional celebrity guests include Annie Copps of Yankee, Roseann Tully of Intermezzo, and noted viniculture artist Thomas Arvid, who will be creating one of his unique wine-themed paintings during the Festival.

Tickets to this weekend of fine wine and food are on sale now, and may be purchased at or by calling 401-847-1000, ext. 140. Special pricing is available on tickets purchased before September 17.

The Newport Mansions Wine & Food Festival features an all-inclusive Grand Tasting at Marble House on Saturday and Sunday, September 25-26, from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. A single admission price includes samplings of wines from around the world, small plate tastings of exciting dishes from regional restaurants and caterers, cooking demonstrations by our celebrity chefs, a souvenir glass, tote bag, and free parking and shuttle transportation to/from Marble House. Upon arrival, guests will also have the opportunity to tour the first floor of this historic mansion, which was the most opulent house in America when it was built in 1892.

The weekend’s festivities will begin on Friday, September 24, with the lavishly upscale Wine & Rosecliff Gala, where guests will delight in the “Meet the Chefs” theme that allows for intimate encounters with the Festival’s celebrity chefs, showcasing their recipes and delightful culinary creations paired with exquisite special vintages uncorked exclusively for the evening.

The Newport Mansions Wine & Food Festival also includes a Jazz Brunch on Sunday morning, September 26 at 11:00 a.m. on the terrace of Marble House.

All proceeds from the Newport Mansions Wine & Food Festival benefit The Preservation Society of Newport County, a non-profit organization accredited by the American Association of Museums and dedicated to preserving and interpreting the area’s historic architecture, landscapes and decorative arts. Its’ 11 historic properties—seven of them National Historic Landmarks—span more than 250 years of American architectural and social development

The Newport Mansions Wine and Food Festival is also sponsored by Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company, Infiniti, American Public Television, Create TV, Rhode Island PBS, Dave’s Marketplace, Dasani, Intermezzo, Rhone Valley Wines, Loire Valley Wines, Travelocity, Clarke, Alaska Seafood, Stella Artois, Thirsty Girl, Yankee, Hyatt Regency Newport, and Hotel Viking Newport.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Rant: Alton Brown, I Call You Out!

I am calling you out Alton Brown. I want answers and explanations, to ascertain the rationale for your apparent double standard. I want to determine whether your convictions are sincere or not. Are you a true friend or foe to the bluefin tuna?

Alton Brown is an author and television personality, a host of a few Food Network shows. I have seen him most often on the Iron Chef and own one of his books. I had no previous issues with Alton, and thought he did a good job hosting, albeit sometimes he was a bit cheesy.

Last year, there were major boycotts and outrage, supported and initiated by Greenpeace, against the Nobu restaurants for serving bluefin tuna. Numerous celebrities came forward to support the boycott, calling for Nobu to stop serving the endangered fish. Alton Brown stepped up and stated he would not enter any restaurant that served bluefin.

Alton has been praised for his support of sustainable seafood, receiving the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s 2009 Honored Educator of the Year. You can even read a recent interview with Alton about these issues. But how far does his advocacy go? Does it stop when it would adversely affect his income? Is his salary more important than saving the bluefin tuna? Is Alton engaged in a double standard?

I would never expect to see Alton working for Nobu. That would seem to be in direct opposition to his avid support of the bluefin. Yet it appears that Alton is working for a place that serves bluefin and that really bothers me. It seems to be a double standard, motivated purely by profit. Yet where is the public outrage? Alton Brown, you need to come forward and explain yourself.

Alton is a host on Iron Chef America, a show which I watch sporadically. The other night, during a recent battle between Chef Makoto Okuwa and Iron Chef Michael Symon, Chef Okuwa apparently served bluefin, otoro. How many other times have they used bluefin on the show? Why is Alton thus working for a show that permits the use of bluefin? Why is Alton financially benefiting from the exploitation of the bluefin?

I have not seen Alton take a stand against the use of bluefin by Iron Chef. I have not seen Greenpeace or the Monterey Bay Aquarium step forward and call for a boycott of Iron Chef until they stop using bluefin. Why is this so? Is Alton's outrage only when it does not interfere with his paycheck? I am sure the Iron Chef gig is very lucractive so does Alton not want to rock that boat? Where are his convictions?

If Alton is truly concerned about saving the endangered bluefin, then he should step forward and castigate the Iron Chef for its use. He should step down from his hosting gig until Iron Chef agrees to no longer use bluefin. Though I don't expect that will happen.

Some may say that Iron Chef America uses only a small amount of bluefin tuna so it is insignificant but it is the principle that matters. A man who publicly calls for restaurants to stop using bluefin should not be working for people who do use bluefin. Instead, he should be speaking out against that very place, as he speaks out about so many other places. He should remain true to his convictions, and not make exceptions where he is financially benefiting.

Alton, explain yourself. The bluefin deserve answers.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Saké Brewery Tours

Plenty of people have visited wineries and there are many companies that sell tours of wine regions all around the world. They can be great vacations, both fun and educational. I have visited numerous wine regions and am sure that I will visit more in the future. But what if you are seeking something more exotic? What are your options?

One interesting choice would be to take a Saké Brewery Tour in Japan. A collaboration of famed Saké expert John Gauntner, Tour Leader Etsuko Nakamura, and Michi Travel, their company has two trips currently planned for 2011. The first tour will be February 21 to 25 in Akita and the second tour will be March 14 to 18 in the San-in (Shimane and Tottori) area.

Each trip will start with a Saké educational session by John, which I am positive will be informative and un. Then, you will get to visit a number of breweries, taste just-brewed Saké with great meals, engage in cultural exploration, and have some quality onsen hot springs time. Though the tours are very Saké-centric, they will also touch on numerous other Japanese cultural matters from tea ceremonies to art museums.

I have not been on any of these tours but the idea is certainly very exciting. Saké has such an exciting history and I am sure that getting to tour some of their traditional breweries would be very cool. Wine tourism is great but there is no reason that Saké tourism can't make its own mark and attract adventurous travelers. I do know that it is on my short list.

Stanhope Grille: Sunday Brunch

With the new law in place, allowing alcoholic drinks earlier than noon, the Stanhope Grille at The Back Bay Hotel will start opening their doors an hour earlier every Sunday for brunch.

Today, Executive Chef Raymond Southern will start serving up Brunch Plates inside at Stanhope Grille and outside on their scenic patio. Chef Southern’s Sunday Brunch Plates are served with 100% Florida orange juice, a basket of breakfast bread, and your choice of Starbucks coffee or Tazo tea:

Tuscan Benny: three poached eggs on grilled Tuscan bread, with crispy fried San Danielle Prosciutto, wilted arugula, roasted red pepper hollandaise, and lemony pesto home-fries

Chicken Fried Steak and Eggs: breaded and fried flank steak, eggs your way, fried mushroom Worcestershire, home-fries

Stanhope Double Waffle Maple Bacon Sandwich: two large waffles stacked with maple smoked bacon, Vermont maple syrup, and creamy peanut butter

Chicken and Waffles: crispy fried chicken and a large Stanhope waffle with maple bacon whipped cream, Vermont syrup and chicken gravy (Sounds delicious!)

The Stanhope Brunch Burger: half pound house burger with maple smoked bacon, fried egg, and farmers cheese, potato frites and truffle ketchup (Also sounds quite good)

Taza Chocolate French (French) Toast: classic style baked French toast with melted stone ground chocolate, topped with crispy maple smoked bacon, and Vermont syrup

Irish Brunch Plate: two fried eggs, black and white pudding, bangers, Irish bacon, baked beans, fried tomato, and brown bread.

Scottish Benny: smoked Atlantic salmon, grilled English muffin, sautéed spinach and onion, caper hollandaise, ham and haddie home-fries with a splash of Drambuie

Fenway Toastie: grilled Italian sausage, smothered peppers and onions, and spicy mustard on crispy grilled Tuscan bread, with potato frites and truffle ketchup

Maine Lobster Frittata: lobster and vegetables baked together with farm fresh eggs, served with whipped fresh herb cream cheese, and baked bean home-fries

WHEN: Every Sunday beginning July 11th from 10am-2pm

COST: $20 per Sunday Brunch Plate (includes 100% Florida orange juice, a basket of breakfast bread, and your choice of Starbucks coffee or Tazo tea)

For reservations, please call 617-266-7200.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Are Veggie Burgers Deadly?

I get shivers down my spine when I am at a BBQ, watching the burgers and hotdogs on the grill, and then see someone add a veggie burger. Though that person might think that the veggie burger is healthier for them, they might be very wrong. They might be ingesting a potentially harmful toxin.

In the current issue of Mother Jones magazine (August 2010), there is a one-page article, Get Behind Me, Seitan by Kiera Butler. It discusses veggie burgers and and how some contain hexane, an EPA registered air pollutant and suspected neurotoxin. Why do some of these burgers contain hexane? Well, producers want to make their burgers low in fact and the cheapest way to do so is to use hexane to remove the fatty sobyean oil.

A 2009 study by Cornucopia Institute, a sustainable-farming nonprofit, found that Boca, Morningstar Farms and Gardenburger and numerous other producers of veggie burgers used hexane. As an aside, hexane is also used in other natural soyfoods such as nutrition bars and protein shakes.

The report states: "Hexane is used to extract oil from grains such as corn, soy, and canola. It is a cost-effective and highly efficient method for separating whole soybeans into soy oil, protein, and fiber. In conventional food processing, soybeans are immersed in what the industry calls a “hexane bath” before they are further processed into ingredients such as oil, soy protein isolate, or texturized soy protein (TVP). The soy protein ingredients in most nonorganic foods such as vegetarian burgers and nutrition bars are processed with the use of hexane."

The EPA regulates hexane emissions because of potential carcinogenic properties and environmental concerns. It is worrisome though that the FDA does not monitor or regulate hexane residue in soy foods plus little research has been done on the potential dangerous effects of consuming hexane residues in food. The few, limited studies on rodents do seem to minimize any potential danger from hexane but more study is warranted.

What is important to realize that one needs to look beyond the surface of all foods, and especially processed foods, to ascertain any potential hidden dangers. A veggie burger might sound healthy on its face, but the processing it underwent may have tainted it. The same thing applies to foods that are labeled as "natural." Such items may not be as "natural" as you think as legal definitions and rules considering labeling grant much leeway in such matters. Just think carefully when you go shopping, and don't make assumptions based on appearances.

Iluna Basque: A Taste of Spain

We were seeking something a bit different for dinner in San Francisco and were intrigued by Iluna Basque (which means "Basque night"), a restaurant in the North Beach area which serves traditional and festive Basque cuisine. I made reservations and we later took a short cab ride there, and I am very glad that we took a chance on this place.

Chef Mattin Noblia is a native of the Basque country and has been enthralled with cooking since a very young age. At 14 years old, he entered a three-year culinary training program, and after completion, he worked in restaurants in France and Switzerland. In 2002, Mattin came to San Francisco and opened Iluna Basque a year later.

The restaurant is located near Washington Square and has plenty of competition from all of the other restaurants in this area. That it is still around after seven years is some indication that they are succeeding. Plus, the quality of the food is another important indicator of why they are still around.

The restaurant is small but intimate, with a small bar area that can accomodate about six people. They carry a fully stocked bar, with a list of intriguing cocktails, such as the Basque Martini, and a good wine list with numerous wines from the Basque region, on both the Spanish and French sides. They even make their own Red Sangria, which was pretty tasty. From Monday to Friday, from 5:30pm-7pm, they have special Happy Hour drink prices.

The food menu primarily consists of tapas ($3.75-$9.75) and a handful of entrees. Some of the tapas are more traditional while others are more creative. There are plenty of interesting choices and we chose to just dine on tapas, to sample a variety of dishes.

We began with the Piquillos Pepper Stuffed with Spanish Salt Cod Bacalao ($5.75), a delightful start to our meal. There was plenty of salt cod within the peppers, and all of the flavors blended well together. There was an interesting mix of saltiness with a slight spicy taste.

The Crisp Shaved Potatoes with Herbs & Vinegar ($5.75) were thin, crispy French fries. They had a nice clean taste and made for an interesting side dish.

I was not expecting to find pizza here, but it turned out to be a very pleasant surprise. The Petite Basque Pizza ($8.75) has Spanish ham and a Basque cheese. The thin-crusted pizza was quite delicious, with a rather unique taste which I attribute to the cheese. The slightly salty ham was meaty, with thin ribbons of silky fat.

The Seared Tuna with Bleu Des Basque Sauce ($8.75) was a good-sized piece of fish, lightly seared on the outside. The blue cheese sauce was tasty and tangy, an interesting combination with the tuna which did work well. I think I will experiment more at home combining blue cheese with tuna.

The Garlic Soup with egg ($5.75) was good , and made in a more traditional style which adds an egg. I prefer my garlic soup without an egg but it still tasted good. There was lots of garlic slices in the soup, which I did extract to put on some bread.

We also had the Mini Lamb Burgers ($3.75), basically sliders, and they had a strong lamb flavor which I enjoyed. Plenty of meat for a little burger and the bun was soft and fresh.

We finished up with Plums Wrapped in Bacon ($5.75), as who can refuse bacon? These were fantastic, with a nice crispy bacon surrounding the sweet and juicy plums, and all covered with a sweet sauce.

Service was excellent and we had a very nice dinner. This would probably be a great place to drink and dine on tapas. The food is reasonably priced and there is plenty of variety. If you are thinking about someplace different to eat, consider this restaurant.

Iluna Basque
701 Union St.
San Francisco, CA
Phone: 415-402-0011

Iluna Basque on Urbanspoon

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Incanto: Dinner with Dante & Beatrice

When I was doing some research for my trip to San Francisco, I knew that I wanted to visit Omnivore Books, and had already mapped out a route that ended there. But where to dine afterwards? It made sense to find a restaurant close to the book store, but only if I could find some place good. If I could not find an appropriate place, I would just take a cab elsewhere. Fortunately, I realized that Incanto was just around the corner.

Incanto is owned by Mark Pastore, a New England native, and the Executive Chef is the famed Chris Cosentino, who you may have seen on the Food Network. Chris grew up in Rhode Island and graduated from Johnson & Wales University. He is into snout to tail cooking, and supports local, sustainability movements. This is reflected in Incanto, which serves sustainable produce, meats and seafood, and usually has some dishes with offal on the menu.

The outside of the restaurant has some cool pig busts above the sliding glass doors. Within the restaurant, you will find the main dining room and an open kitchen, what I consider a sign of a confident restaurant. But rather than seat us in the dining room, we were whisked to a private dining area, their "Dante" room. Though generally not for public dining, the restaurant had decided to open up that room for the evening. We actually had the room completely to ourselves until our dessert course. That certainly made for a more intimate dining experience.

The small room, which seats about 20 people, has been dedicated to Dante Alighieri, the famous Italian poet. It is a beautiful room, with a spectacular mural that was created by the Bay Area muralist Tom Mogensen. On one wall, sandwiched between busts of Dante and his lost love Beatrice, is a complete copy of the text of The Divine Comedy. The other wall displays numerous Italian wines. It is a stunning beautiful room, and am very glad that we got to dine there.

Their diverse wine list is primarily Italian and has about twenty wines available by the glass, half-glass, half-liter or in a flight. Our server seemed well verse in the wine list, and able to provide suggestions. We began our meal by trying a couple of wine flights, one consisting of three Italian rosés ($16) and the other, a Mystery flight ($15), where you don't know what three wines you will receive. Most of the wines were quite good, especially the rosés. We also would later order a 1/2 liter of the 2006 Rosso Conero Lanari ($30), a blend of 90% Montepulciano and 10% Sangiovese. A very pleasant wine with delicious flavors of cherry and plum, and restrained tannins. It paired well with our later dishes.

The food menu changes daily, dependent on what is fresh and available. The menu consists of Starters, Pasta/Rice dishes, Entrees and Sides. Though the dishes are Italian, they do not reflect any specific region of Italy. Instead, they are more creative dishes, sometimes containing less common cuts of meat or offal. There may also be specials for that day, as there were on my visit, but that seemed a bit strange to me. If the menu is changed daily, then why couldn't the specials have just been added?

Prior to our first dish arriving, we received a plate of fresh bread and bread sticks with an olive tapenade. The bread, though not warm, was tasty and obviously very fresh. The tapenade was good too, adding a salty tang when smeared on the bread.

We opted for one of the special Starters, an Open Faced Fried Mortadella ($10) atop toast and covered by an egg and picante sauce. This was exceptional, a meaty, well-spiced mortadella complemented by a mild hot sauce and the runny yolk of the egg. I am usually not a fan of mortadella because I have found too many to be bland, but this was far from that. But that is the significant difference between mass-produced and artisan made salumi.

Speaking of salumi, we also very much enjoyed the Boccalone Sanguinaccio ($13) with Manila clams and porcini mushrooms. The plump blood sausage was very tender, with an earthy taste blended with mild spice flavors. The clams were also tender and taste, the porcinis complementing the earthiness of the sausage. Another great choice for a starter.

The pasta/rice dishes are available in both small ($9-$10) and large portions ($15-$16). We decided to order a couple small plates of pasta and above is the Handkerchief Pasta & Rustic Pork Ragù, with plenty of shaved cheese atop it. The meaty ragu was very tasty, spiced well, and with a rich, savory nature. The pasta was cooked perfectly, with just the right amount of firmness. I really enjoyed this hearty dish and would highly recommend it.

The Spaghettini with Sardinian cured tuna heart, egg yolk & parsley was not quite what I expected. I never would have realized that the shaved meat atop the pasta was tuna heart. Once I broke the egg yolk, and mixed it in with everything, this was such an intriguing dish, with a more savory, earthy flavor. Once again, the pasta was cooked just right and I eagerly devoured this dish. You would never have guessed you were eating tuna heart, thinking instead it was some type of beef.

We chose to split an entree after everything else we had eaten, the Pork belly, cherries, dandelion greens & pickled peaches ($24). I really love pork belly and this dish satisfied my deepest desires, with an excellent combination of crispness and silky, smooth fat. Perfectly prepared, the pork was ehanced by the fruit and it was clear to me pig was king at this restaurant.

Service was excellent, our server being personable, knowledgeable and attentive. The food was delicious and compelling, and I was certainly impressed with all of it. I think the prices were actually fairly good, considering the quality and quantity of food we received. For example, at other similar Italian restaurants, their small pasta dishes may often cost $15 or so. Thus, this restaurant deserves my highest recommendation.

And before I left the restaurant, I had to buy one of the Boccalone t-shirts, which says "Tasty Salted Pig Parts." That garnered plenty of positive comments when I later wore it.

1550 Church Street
San Francisco, CA
Phone: 415-641-4500

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