Monday, January 31, 2011

Rant: Drunk Before Dinner

During the past couple weeks, I have been to two very large wine events, where over 1000 wines were available for tasting.  These events are not cheap, often costing $50-$100, for a ticket and generally occur on weekend afternoons, before dinner time.  They offer an excellent opportunity to experience a diverse selection of wines but not everyone sees it as such.

To some, it is merely a chance to get drunk before dinner.  They come with empty glass, seeking only to have it filled with whatever is being poured. They tune out anything said about the wine, caring not for its production methods nor the story behind the wine.  You see them thrust their empty glass toward the pourer and then you can watch them knock back the wine.  They do not spit, rather it becomes a marathon event, to see how much wine they can consume in a few hours. 

Inevitably, such people get drunk.  Funny how that works.  So, you then see women in designer dresses stumbling around, sometimes falling to the floor.  Or you might see well-dressed men vomiting on the floor. They become a public spectacle, and you can hear people laughing as they pass these unfortunate souls.  They will become fodder for later stories by the other attendees, a topic for amusement as well as a cautionary tale.       

Why do they do it?  Why do they feel the need to pay so much to get drunk in public before dinner?  They could stay home and do that, for much cheaper and with less embarassment.  It is supposed to be an enjoyable social occasion, and no one wants to be accosted by some slurring drunk.  Vomit does not come out of a designer dress too easily. 

Would be drunks, stay home!  For the price of your ticket, you could buy a case of cheap wine and guzzle it to your heart's content in the privacy of your own home.  The event does not need you or want you there.  The other attendees do not need or want you there either. 

Please, just stay home.   

Friday, January 28, 2011

Culinary Creativity: Chef Susheela Raghavan

(Check out my Introduction to the Culinary Creativity series.)

Susheela Raghavan was born in Malaysia and received an MS in Food Science from the University of Reading. She worked for years in food product development, giving cooking demonstrations, and teaching at New York University before launching her own brand of spice blends, Taste of Malacca. She has also written numerous articles on food, especially ethnic cuisine and spices, for a wide variety of periodicals. I recently reviewed her new book, The Flavors of Malaysia, and found it to be a superb, well-written, and comprehensive guide to the cuisines of Malaysia.

For more information about Malaysian cuisine, as well as a directory of Malaysian restaurants in the U.S., check out this new website launched by Malaysia Kitchen for the World, called Malaysian Kitchen NYC.

Now onto the interview--

How important is culinary creativity to you? Why is it important?
Creativity has been critical to my culinary specialty: creating authentic ethnic foods and recipes for modern western tastes. My desire has always been to use creative thinking to break through traditional boundaries and perceptions of ethnic foods. For example stereotyped ideas (Chinese food is eggrolls and fried rice) or that ethnic foods must taste strange and exotic. Only through creativity can I achieve my culinary goals. It allows me to create ethnic foods that are both authentic and true to their origins yet are in some ways familiar and comforting to modern Western palates. The foods must appeal to first generation immigrants, their westernized children and families, and accessible to current Western consumers. Recipes and products must meet the demands of modern living – they have to be easy and quick to prepare as well as being healthy. Ideally, they should educate people about other cultures because we truly “are what we eat and cuisine is one very tangible way for people to experience and learn fundamental lessons about other cultures and communities. So we must be creative in not just in achieving a certain taste, but creative in the methods of preparation and cooking techniques, identifying and when necessary, substituting ingredients.

We also must be creative in how we communicate. For example my current book Flavors of Malaysia is fundamentally different for the average cookbook. While I give lots of great recipes, I also wanted my readers to understand what it is to be Malaysian and how our foods are such an integral part of our lives. So I did what not many cookbooks do, I created a book with a well-researched introduction to the history, regions, cultures and peoples of Malaysia and included throughout the book information of the origins of the recipes as well as personal stories of family and friends as I was growing up in Malaysia. So ultimately the reader will enjoy the cuisine more with a greater appreciation and understanding of it.

What are your most significant inspirations for your culinary creativity?
First and foremost were my parents and my family members who were my greatest inspiration. My mom, for her endless pursuit in providing the best taste and variety for our family meals, and my father, for his great sense of adventure for food, and for us to try all foods. This sense of adventure ultimately propelled me to travel and work around the world exploring different cultures and their foods. In particular whenever I go to a new country, I like to study their culture and foodways. I also want to experience food as local people do every day. Not just in upscale or tourist restaurants, but exploring the local market places, eating in stalls and little everyday places, learning the foods that accompany the special events of their lives such as weddings and religious celebrations, and learning to prepare foods with local cooks, using authentic preparation styles and cooking methods.

What makes those matters so inspiring?
Without understanding different cultures how do I create anything ethnic? Finally all these experiences drive me to share what I have learned and experienced with others through teaching, writing and creating new recipes for people to try. And it is my greatest passion to understand global cultures and cuisines and when possible to transform them and adapt to current palates and lifestyles. I enjoy educating people on authentic cuisines.

Where do you get your ideas for new recipes/dishes?
Through family and friends, from my travel as I described above, through intensive research into foods, ingredients, history and cultures that created regional and ethnic cuisines.

What is your process of creating a new recipe or dish?
Applying my research and experiences in the kitchen and with repeated testing, till I achieve the taste and preparation I envision.

Do other members of your staff assist with creating ideas for new recipes/dishes?
Not so much the ideas for the recipes but helping me perfect them through tastings and feedback.

How do you test new recipes/dishes?
With family and friends, and at get-togethers, parties, and public events and demos.

What is the most difficult part of culinary creativity?
Creating an ethnic recipe that is authentic yet at the same time is healthy, easy to prepare, tastes good and is accessible to broad group of consumers.

Do you ever experience “writer’s block,” an inability to be creative, and if so, how do you deal with it?
Yes. Enjoy my beautiful garden, listen to music, paint, watch movies and or practice yoga

Relate an unusual or interesting anecdote about the creation of one of your dishes.
When we were young, my father used to take us to the famous Coliseum café, in Kuala Lumpur as a treat once in a while on a Sunday. Coliseum café was frequented by the Europeans living and working in Malaysia since world war ll as well as by locals. As you entered this place you are transported to a bygone era…with rattan furniture, ceiling fans, aged waiters in white uniforms. The air in the bar section would be filled with smoke and smell of alcohol. Families and women were not allowed in there but ate in the dining section. One of their popular dishes was sizzlers and chops---chicken, pork, steak or lamb, generally seasoned with black pepper, garlic, onions, preserved soybean paste, soy sauce and or spices, and, battered. The chefs then were generally Chinese and Indian Muslims, who prepared these western style dishes with local flavors that were mild tasting. I was always intrigued by this place and its foods…foods generally not found at home, or sold by hawkers. But I always enjoyed their lamb or chicken chops, a favorite with my family. This inspired me to recreate one of the recipes in my cookbook, lamb chops in black peppercorn sauce.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Boston Wine Expo: Seeds & Greeks

While perusing some of the food vendors, I made a stop at Gerbs Gourmet Treats, to check out their flavored pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds. Based in Rhode Island, this company concentrates on pumpkin seeds and if you have allergies, this might be the snack for you.  Many of their pumpkin seed products are gluten free, wheat free, peanut free, tree nut free, egg free, soy free, and dairy free.  They are dry roasted and do not include any preservatives or artifical flavors and colors.  Plus, pumpkin seeds are supposed to have numerous positive health effects.

My concern though was not health, but taste.  I tasted the Sea Salt & Cracked Pepper Pumpkin Seeds and the Red Pepper Sunflower Seed Kernels.  I enjoyed both seeds, each with just enough salt and/or pepper to add flavor but without overwhelming the taste of the seed itself.  The Red Pepper Sunflower had a spicy kick to its nutty flavor while the Pumpkin seeds still had that prominent pumpkin flavor.  These would be a great snack and a healthy alternative. 

Greece via Maine

Lakonia Greek Products is a family owned business offering numerous food products from Greece, from olive oils to herbs. The company's founder is Daphne Contraros Rioux, whose roots extend into Greece, and she purchased land rich with olive trees in the region of Lakonia.  Her children now work for the company.  They first started selling their products in 2006 at farmers' markets in Saco, Maine, and their business has since grown.

I got to taste three of their extra virgin olives oils, which had a clean, fresh flavor and distinctives tastes.  They also offered a few of their dressings, included a Balsamic and a Red Wine.  Both also had clean flavors, and I especially enjoyed the Balsamic. Their olives too had a nice freshness to them, with an intriguing taste from the brine, one which was not overly salty. Their products are generally shipped from Greece to Maine, where they then bottle and package everything in small batches.  This helps to maintain the freshness of the ingredients.

They also sell herbs and teas, such as wild bay leaves and wild Greek mountain tea.  I smelled their Greek oregano and it was extremely pungent, one of the most pungent I have ever experienced. Their products are not inexpensive, but they are of high quality.  For example, a 5oz bottle of dressing is $12.50-$12.95 and the oregano is $8.50 for .56oz.  Based on what I tasted, I would recommend these gourmet products.

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I am back again with a new edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I briefly highlight some interesting wine and food items that I have encountered recently.
1) Executive Chef Mario Capone of Towne Stove and Spirits serves up some specials this Valentine’s Day, from 5pm-10pm.  To start off your romantic night, there is an Arugula & Hearts of Palm Salad ($16), complete with warm King Crab and blood orange vinaigrette. For the main course, try the Seared Ahi Tuna ($34), accompanied by gingered sweet potato, steamed bok choy and tart Yuzu. To end the evening on a sweet note, indulge in a Chocolate Milkshake ($16) for-two, with homemade marshmallows and linzer cookies.  For Reservations, please call: 617-247-0400.

2) Celebrate Valentine’s Day at Da Vinci Ristorante on Monday, February 14th, with a romantically themed 4-course Valentine’s Day menu using Champagne accents in each course. The 4-course Valentine’s Day menu will cost $59 and includes:

Arugula Salad (Baby arugula, blood orange, fennel and Champagne vinegar; finished with shaved ricotta)
Mozzarella Fritto (Fried mozzarella with plum tomato putanesca sauce)
Hard Shell lobster Raviolo (Served with crappie fish Champagne sauce)
Gnocchi Con Funghi (Homemade potato gnocchi served with funghi trifolati; finished with white truffle oil and bufala mozzarella)
Salmon (Pan seared with English peas cake and sautéed spinach; finished with Champagne sauce)
Grilled Baby Veal (Served with Italian couscous risotto and sautéed asparagus; finished with creamy peppercorn sauce)
Grilled Duck Breast (Purple potatoes mush and broccolini; finished with dark chocolate sauce)
Mixed Platter (Champagne Chocolate Gelato; Fried Raviolo stuffed with Nutella; Spice chocolate shot)

For those celebrating early, the Saturday evening before Valentine’s Day (February 12th) Chef Peppino will offer his regular menu in addition to the following selection of Champagne specials:
--Arugula Salad $12 (Baby arugula, blood orange, fennel and Champagne vinegar; finished with shaved ricotta)
--Salmon $29 (Pan seared with English peas cake and sautéed spinach; finished with Champagne sauce)
--Mixed Dessert Platter $16 (Champagne Chocolate Gelato; Fried Raviolo stuffed with Nutella; Spice chocolate shot)

To toast your loved one on this special evening, sip on Chocolate Kiss Martini, a blend of Godiva dark chocolate liquor, Grey Goose vodka, Kahlua, Bailey’s, fresh strawberry puree, served with a decadent chocolate covered strawberry ($12); or the Peach Champagne Punch, a bubbly mixture of peaches, Champagne, 7UP, Grenadine, served with fresh raspberries, blueberries and an orange slice ($12).

3) For Valentine's Day, The Beehive in the South End will present “4 Days of Luv’n!,” a fest of Valentine’s Day inspired brunches & dinners accompanied by romantic live music and menu specials including: Roasted Scallop Nicoise Salad, Oysters-3-Ways, Spanish Paella for Two, and Porterhouse Steak with Truffle Butter just to name a few. Reservations are highly recommended, and can be made by calling 617-423-0069.

Performance Schedule:
Friday, February 11:
· Romantic Early Dinner Jazz Set with Sharon Sugar Jones: 6:30PM - 8:30PM
· Valentine's Day 4 Days of Luv'n featuring Melvin Sparks: 10:00PM - 2:00AM
Saturday, February 12:
· Saturday Jazz Romance Brunch with Rajdulari: 10:30AM - 3:00PM
· Romantic Early Jazz Set with Patrice Williamson 6:30PM - 8:30PM
· Valentine's Day 4 Days of Luv'n featuring Marsha Lubin with Akashic Record: 10:00PM - 2:00AM
Sunday, February 13:
· Sunday Jazz Romance Brunch with Michelle Willson: 10:30AM - 3:00PM
· Valentine's Day 4 Days of Luv'n featuring Toni Lynn Washington: 8:00PM - 12:00AM
Monday, February 14:
· Romantic Early Jazz Set with Cece Kim: 6:30PM - 8:30PM
· Valentine's Day 4 Days of Luv'n: Heat up after a cool dinner Jazz set with a very special Valentine’s Day featuring Panayota: 9:00PM - 12:00AM.

4) The restaurants BiNA osteria, Bin 26 enoteca, and Lala Rokh will have special menus for Valentine's Day on Monday, February 14.
BiNA osteria
Four-Course Prix Fixe Menu, $85/person

Choice of:
Lobster Insalata (cauliflower sformato, bina pancetta and citronette)
Carne Crudo (organic chopped beef with pecorino zabaglione, quail egg and fricco)
PrimiChoice of:
Cappellaci (braised capon ravioli, organic egg, fried sage and parmigiano fonduta)
Tagliatelle (cockles, spicy cuttlefish and saffron cream)
Choice of:
Steamed Scottish Halibut (crispy artichoke insalata, sautéed spinach and salsa rossa)
Porcini Dusted Sirloin (wilted winter greens, brown butter roasted potatoes and red wine marrow sauce)
Chocolate Souffle for Two (raspberry sauce, malted vanilla gelato and crystallized mint)

Bin 26 enoteca
Three-Course Prix Fixe Menu, $60/person ($90 with wine pairings). A la carte selection also available.
Choice of:
Filet of Beef Tartar (truffle paste and mushrooms)
Pepper Crusted Tuna, Eggplant and Fennel Salad
Roasted Red and Golden Beet Salad (julienne of endive, balsamic vinaigrette)
Choice of:
Risotto (duck, parmigiano and strawberries)
Cacciucco (Ligurian fish stew with cod, shrimp, mussels and tomato)
Filet of Beef (crusted green peppercorn and cream, truffled mashed potatoes)
Fresh Berries with crème fraiche

Lala Rokh
Four-Course Prix Fixe Menu, $55/person. A la carte selection also available.

Choice of:
Meygo (grilled shrimp with lemon and butter sauce)
Borani-e Kado (roasted zucchini and tomato with garlic, topped with homemade yogurt)
Borani-e Gharch (medley of mushrooms with garlic over grilled corn bread, drizzled with yogurt)
Soup or Salad
Choice of:
Salad-e Makhlute (fresh baby mixed greens, tomato, cucumber and onion with garlic vinaigrette)
Soup-e Labu (pureed soup of beets topped with sour cream)
Choice of:
Abgusht (whole lamb shank braised with okra, string beans, chick peas and eggplant)
Ordak (grilled duck breast sliced and served with current reduction sauce and basmati rice)
Mahi-e rooz (broiled red sea bass filled with fresh herbs and fruit, with bulgur wheat and grilled vegetables)
Valentine’s Day Delight (a special Persian sweet)

5) February is romance month at The Back Bay Hotel in Boston. This year, Stanhope Grille will be dishing out a specially-created customizable three-course prix fixe over three nights to commemorate St. Valentine. Looking to stay the night? The Back Bay Hotel also will offer the “Valentine’s Dinner Package,” including superior overnight accommodations and dinner for-two at Stanhope Grille.

Stanhope Grille’s Valentine’s Day menu includes the following selections:

Amuse Bouche
-choice of-
Crab Cakes, Fennel apple slaw, star anise sauce
Mushroom Strudel, Truffle oil, shaved pecorino
Boston Bibb Salad, Beet chips, champagne vinaigrette
-choice of-
Short Ribs, Braised red cabbage, pomme puree, cider glaze
Sea Bass, Fennel Fontina bread pudding, baby vegetables, golden beet sauce
Statler Chicken, Spice rub chicken, black quinoa, honey citrus pan jus
Panettone Bread Pudding, Crème anglaise, maple walnut gelato
Sorbet Trio, Crispy almond cookies

The three-course prix fixe menu is available from 5:30pm – 10:00pm on Friday, February 11th, Saturday, February 12th and Monday, February 14th.  For reservations, please call 617-532-3827.
Cost: Three-course prix fixe: $75 per person; $90 per person w/ wine pairings.  Valentine’s Dinner Package (includes overnight accommodations and dinner for-two): from $299 per night (excluding taxes & gratuities)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Berkowitz & Legal Sea Food: A Matter Of Trust

It began with a provocative press release which unleashed a firestorm of controversy, as well as plenty of free publicity for Legal Sea Food.  Subsequent sound bites in the media did nothing to quench the flames, and there was even a call for a boycott of Legal.  Two nights ago, the "sustainable seafood" dinner took place and I attended the event, hoping to get closer to the truth of the matter.

Back in December when I first posted about this dinner, I essentially stated that the burden would be on Legal at this dinner to offer answers to all the issues and questions they raised.  If they failed to do so, I felt it would be very detrimental to their cause. Their provocative language had raised red flags but I was willing to wait and see what they had to say for themselves, to let them present their case.  And at Monday's dinner, they did exactly that, explaining their position, answering numerous questions and offering much to ponder.

The dinner itself was held in the wine cellar room, and there were at least 60 people in attendance.  The attendees included members of the Culinary Guild of New England, fishermen and other members of the seafood industry, chefs, member of other culinary organizations, media, at least one politician, and others.  Overall, there seemed to be many attendees who were already in agreement with Legal's position on sustainability.  Then there was also a group of those who were seeking more information on seafood sustainability, who did not know much about the different issues involved.  There were few dissenting voices in the group, though it might have been even more constructive if there were more such voices.

Roger Berkowitz, the President and CEO of Legal, made some opening remarks at the start of the event, beginning with the genesis of the idea for the dinner.  The Culinary Guild approached him about holding an event and Roger suggested a dinner of "blacklisted" fish, those on many seafood Avoid lists.  He wanted to promote a discussion on sustainability because he believes there is not enough information out there and that too many people are relying upon a single source of information.  Roger feels that "discussion is what is needed" and I fully agree with that sentiment.  He admitted though that he had not felt the need to discuss sustainability until more recently.         

He continued, stating that Legal is supportive of moratoriums and quotas, as well as the use of alternative fish species.  He told a tale of how they first started selling monkfish, and how Julia Child helped to popularize that fish.  Legal will not sell Chilean sea bass, claiming that about 85% of the world's catch is illegal.  They also will not sell orange roughy, and are very selective with their swordfish to ensure they do not purchase immature pups.  Roger states "they try to do things in an ethical manner."  He came across as very sincere in this regard, as someone who is truly concerned about sustainability, and my impression only strengthened over the course of the evening.

One of the main thrusts of the evening was over the science of making assessments of fish populations, the alleged "out-dated science" which currently guides the policy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  In brief, NOAA conducts trawl surveys to help determine the biomass of different fish species.  But within the last ten years, these surveys have come under fire, most notably in the "Trawlgate" episode where NOAA admitted their assessments had been incorrect due to problems with the equipment they were using.  Despite the potential problems with trawling surveys, they continue to be used. 

Legal's position is that this trawling method is out-dated, and that better science is currently available but is not being utilized.  Thus, they feel that current assessments of fish biomass are incorrect, and that more fish can be caught sustainably than under the current regulations.  Roger discussed a new type of sonar, Ocean Acoustic Waveguide Remote Sensing (OAWRS), which was developed by scientists from MIT and Northeastern University conducting research for Homeland Security in ways to detect nuclear submarines.  The OAWRS system allegedly can map out a 120 kilometer radius, in four directions, in just 70 seconds.  Trawling surveys usually take about two weeks. 

It was discovered that the OAWRS system could also be used to make fish biomass assessments.  The scientists had NOAA conduct a peer review, and NOAA concluded that the system worked great and would become the next big thing in assessment.  But when it came time to adopt the new system, NOAA stalled for unknown reasons.  Some politicians tried to get a study conducted on the OAWRS but their efforts were recently rebuffed.

The OAWRS system certainly sounds impressive, though I do want to do more research about it before I fully accept what limited information I have been told about it.  But, if accurate, it would be a powerful boost to sustainability by creating more accurate assessments of biomass.  I would like to understand NOAA's reasons for not wanting to adopt this system.  Is it money?  Is it political?  Or do they truly believe the system is not as accurate as some depict?  I would also like to hear from other sustainable seafood proponents on their thoughts concerning OAWRS. 

There are other sustainable issues besides fish populations and biomass, such as environmental aspects.  Those issues did not receive as much attention during the event but were addressed in part. One of the primary points made was that the local fishing industry is so heavily regulated that habitat destruction is not a significant issue.  For example, trawling is regulated, preventing its use in areas where it might cause harm. Roger also addressed the issue in a discussion on the sourcing of his black tiger shrimp, an item on many Avoid lists.

Roger admitted that Asian shrimp farming has had its share of problems, including the destruction of mangrove swamps, though he believes there are other factors which have also destroyed such swamps. But, Roger has strict guidelines for any shrimp farms with which he will deal, to ensure they are sustainable.  He is even journeying to Vietnam in the near future to check out the farms, to ensure they meet his standards.  I am not sure how much more Legal could do in that regard.  It sounds like they are doing their best to ensure that the shrimp they purchase is sustainable.

I asked Roger for his best advice to consumers, those who may not understand all of the issues, on selecting sustainable seafood.  His response was for the consumers to ask questions, of restaurants, retailers and such and then to consider their responsiveness.  Do they have answers?  Are they hesistant about providing information?  Or do they seem quite knowledgeable?  Roger's advice is good, and what is often given by other proponents of sustainable seafood.  Ask questions, lots of them.

The end of the discussion turned political with a speech by Ann-Margaret Ferrante, the Massachusetts State Representative for the 5th Essex District which includes Gloucester, Rockport and Essex.  Though some good information was provided, there was plenty of typical political rhetoric as well, much preaching to the choir.  I am not sure capping off the evening with such a politically charged speech did justice to the event. 

In the end, it comes down to a matter of trust.  I have spoken about the trust issue before, and its relevance won't vanish. So, at this dinner, one of the most important questions to me was: Can Roger Berkowitz be trusted?  Roger is intelligent, personable, witty and charismatic so it is very easy to like him.  Yet he also had plenty of answers concerning sustainable seafood issues and they sounded reassuring.  He comes across as sincere in his advocacy of sustainable seafood, desirous of promoting the best scientific evidence.  Sure, he is also a savvy businessman, but falsity on this issue could easily backfire on him and tarnish his reputation. It seems to make much better sense for him to truly be a proponent of sustainable seafood.

At this point, I choose to trust Roger Berkowitz on this issue.  That doesn't mean I won't keep investigating the issues, asking questions.  We can never get complacent, and I certainly plan to do more research into the OAWRS system.  I also would like to follow up with Berkowitz once he returns from his trip to Vietnam. This dinner certainly gave me more information to contemplate, which is always a positive thing.  Hopefully, it will lead to more discussions in the future on these issues.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Boston Wine Expo: Summary Thoughts

Where is the Sake?  Yes, I asked this question last week as I couldn't find any listed on their website.  And when I attended the event this past weekend, I couldn't find any either.  They have had some in prior years, but not this one.  So why not?  Maybe next year.

The Boston Wine Expo took place this weekend, a massive tasting with wines from all over the world. It is certainly a very popular event, and probably the largest wine event in the Boston area.  This year, they expanded the trade hours by an additional hour, providing the media and other members of the trade three hours to visit the Expo before the consumers were permitted into the event.  The trade hours are a quieter time, allowing you the ability to speak with the wine makers, distributors and representatives about the wines. You still cannot taste all of the hundreds and hundreds of wines that are available, but you have the time to concentrate on those you do taste.

Despite all of the wines though, there are still omissions from certain regions and types.  I did not see any wines from Israel or Lebanon, and I failed to find any Sake.  Though there were wines from the Finger Lakes of New York, there were no wines from Long Island.  Such omissions appear to be due to wineries and importers who have chosen not to attend the Expo or showcase such wines.  It is disappointing that they choose to stay away as it is a lost opportunity to get their wines better known.   

Another partially frustrating aspect of the Expo is that many of the wines don't yet have a local distributor. So, though I might find a superb wine, it may never become available in Massachusetts. The three-tier system can make it very difficult for wineries to acquire representation, and I heard that complaint from several wineries. My hope is that if I highlight some of these unrepresented wines, maybe it will give a distributor an added incentive to bring the wine into Massachusetts.

With all of the wines, I am always glad that there is plenty of free food available to help refresh my palate.  Samples of cheese, bread, pasta, nuts, chocolates, chips, and other snacks are all around and make for a good stop between tastings.  With so much wines, palate fatigue is a definite worry so you should be taking breaks to refresh yourself.  Not all large wine tasting events provide enough food for the attendees.  Some mainly provide food you must pay for, which lessens the incentive for some people to eat.  Plus, you often just want a few handfuls of quick snacks rather than an entire sandwich or slice of pizza.

This year, I tasted a fair share of South African wines, further solidifying my love of this region, as well as finding one of my top wines of the Expo.  I also visited the Georgian wine table, one of my pre-Expo objectives, and found some impressive wines from their more unusual indigenous grapes.  I knew little about their wines before the Expo so wanted to educate myself, to see what type of wines they had to offer.  I am very pleased that I did so.  I also made some brief stops at the Finger Lakes, Massachusetts, Italy, and Portugal.  I will soon be posting my thoughts about all of these wines.

So what was your experience this year at the Boston Wine Expo?  

Bodegas Paso Robles: Tempranillo Treasures

Tapas are not just small dishes of Spanish cuisine.  TAPAS is also the Tempranillo Advocates, Producers and Amigos Society. It is "a nonprofit trade association of over eighty wineries, growers, and amigos, whose mission is to promote Tempranillo and other varietal wine grapes native to the Iberian Peninsula, and wines produced from them in North America."  With my own love for grapes native to Iberia, I believe TAPAS is playing a very important role in California, and its members are producing some fantastic wines from these grapes.  Some of these grapes were planted over 100 years ago by Iberian immigrants, and are in danger of extinction unless they are nurtured and embraced by local wineries.

One of their members is Bodegas Paso Robles, which I visited last year, and two of their wines made my list of 2010: Top Ten Wines Over $15These wines included the fantastic 2006 Bodegas Paso Robles Graciano and 2006 Bodegas Paso Robles Pimenteiro. The owner and winemaker, Dorothy Schuler, is passionate and talented, and I strongly recommend her wines. She is concerned about protecting the Iberian grapes planted in California, and has done her part to promote these fine grapes.  Thus, such winemakers, especially when they produce compelling wines, deserve our support.

I recently received samples of two of her latest wines, the 2007 Bodegas Paso Robles Viva Tu! and 2007 Bodegas Paso Robles Vaca Negra, and these new wines only solidified my belief in the winery.

The 2007 Bodegas Paso Robles Viva Tu! ($28) is produced from 100% Tempranillo, from the French Camp Vineyard in Paso Robles. The wine spent about 23 months in the barrel, a mix of new and neutral French and American oak. It has an alcohol content of 13.8% and only 125 cases were produced. The wine has a deep red, almost purple color, and an enticing spicy nose.  On the palate, the spiciness was strong and appealing, with undercurrent of black fruits, vanilla, and leather. The tannins were moderate and the finish was fairly long, and very satisfying.  This wine felt like some of the modern-style Tempranillo wines from Spain and would be perfect for a hearty dish, from a pasta Bolognese to a steak.    
The 2007 Bodegas Paso Robles Vaca Negra ($24) is produced from a blend of 50% Tempranillo and 50% Mourvedre, all of the grapes from Vista Creek in Paso Robles. The wine spent about 21 months in new and neutral French oak. It has an alcohol content of 14.5% and only 192 cases were produced. This was a very impressive wine, especially as Mourvedre is one of my favorite grapes.  It had a rich red color with a very compelling nose of bright fruit and spice. When you taste it, your mouth is filled with lush fruit, such as black cherry and hints of blueberry, accompanied by a melange of spice notes and an almost elusive earthy component.  Though this would make an excellent food wine, I can enjoy it on its own too.  The tannins are mild and the lushness of the wine makes you want more and more.  I highly recommend this wine!

So support Bodegas Paso Robles and the other members of TAPAS.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Rant: Mr. Trenor, Tear Down This Boycott!

Once again we wade into the murky waters of sustainable seafood.  This time, the issue of boycotts has reawakened and I believe that the effort may be misguided.  This is not the first time I have taken this position, and it probably will not be the last either. A boycott is a drastic action, a significant punitive measure and should not be undertaken lightly.  So, that leads to numerous questions:  Is a boycott warranted or necessary?  Will the boycott actually be effective?  Will the boycott resolve the ultimate problem? 

I'll preface this rant by returning to a prior one: Who Can You Trust?  As I said then, "The key to discerning an accurate source is to question everything.  Question their motivations, their knowledge level, their biases.  Don't accept anything at face value."  And I do question everything, seeking the evidence that will help determine the truth of the matter. Especially when dealing with issues of sustainability, questions may be your most valuable tool.  It is too easy for people to resort to rhetoric without providing sufficient supporting evidence.  It is too easy to be driven by an emotional appeal rather than rationally examine the matter.   

Famed advocate for sustainable seafood Casson Trenor recently wrote an article: "4 Places You Should Never Buy Seafood From," calling for a boycott of four companies.  Trenor's goal, protecting endangered species, is admirable and one I also support, but I am not in agreement with his call for boycotts and I will address two of the specific companies he mentions. In addition, I note that the article is long on allegations, but short on actual evidence.  There are not even links within the article that would provide such evidence, and I feel such evidence is definitely necessary, especially when calling for such a drastic, punitive action as a boycott.

Nobu Restaurants is once again one of Casson's targets, because they sell bluefin tuna, and I do not contest the fact that the bluefin population is in a precarious position. There was a significant call to boycott Nobu back in the summer of 2009 and I wrote about the issue then.  I had many questions about the issue, and some remained unanswered. In Casson's new article, there are few facts about Nobu, only an assertion that they sell a "tremendous amount" of bluefin tuna. That is quite a superlative but how much do they actually sell?  Where are the actual figures? 

Back in June 2009, Casson had commented on my post, responding to my questions:  "How much blue fin does Nobu purchase each year? And what percentage does that constitute of all the blue fin caught worldwide?"  His response was: "A great question, and one I don't know the answer to. But again, I have to remind you that this isn't just about numbers."  So, does he now have the answers or was the "tremendous amount" a mere unsupported assertion?  If he has the answers, what are they are and where is that evidence? I have serious doubts that Nobu sells a "tremendous" amount of bluefin.

We know the commonly cited statistic that Japan consumes about 80% of bluefin tuna, so they clearly are the greatest offender, and no other country even comes close.  There is also evidence that when U.S. consumption of bluefin tuna decreased, consumption in Japan thus increased.  So our decreased consumption accomplished really nothing.  So what effect will a boycott of Nobu's American restaurants accomplish?

It doesn't seem that it will do anything significant to protect bluefin.  The primary offender is clearly Japan so it makes sense that the vast majority of efforts should be directed at them.  Even if every American restaurant stopped serving bluefin, it would not solve the problem of Japan consumption and it would not save the bluefin.   

Plus, the call for a boycott of Nobu has gone on for probably at least two years.  During that time, what effect has the boycott had on Nobu and bluefin?  Has it been effective in the slightest degree? If so, where is the evidence to show its effects? If it has not had any effect, then why not?  If it has not had any effect, then why continue to call for a boycott?

I cannot support any boycott of Nobu without the answers to all of these questions.  These are crucial issues that need to be addressed, and any call for a boycott without such answers is premature, and potentially wasteful and counterproductive.  I would rather an open and civil discourse on the issues rather than a knee-jerk reaction to the issues.  Something truly productive needs to be done, and it does not appear that a mere boycott can accomplish it. 

Casson also calls for a boycott of Legal Seafoods, and his grounds for this boycott are shaky.  Essentially, his reasons center around a "sustainable seafood" dinner that Legal is hosting tonite.  Legal has called into question the science behind the assessments made by the National Marine Fisheries and NOAA.  In his article, Casson failed to specifically address Legal's allegations, simply claiming that the scientists have no motivation to "steer people away from safe, responsibly caught fish." 

I would rather have seen Casson address Legal's specific concerns, and show where those concerns were inaccurate or erroneous. The failure to do so leaves the questions open.  A number of the issues revolve around whether the NMF and NOAA scientists are using the best available scientific tools, and that is certainly a valid question that requires a response.  It has nothing to do with the motivations and biases of the scientists. So Casson did not fully address the concerns of Legal. 

Though it is also perfectly justified to question any potential biases on the part of those making fish population assessments.  And yes, scientists and their organizations too have their potential biases.  As I said before, question everyone.  The mere fact that you are willing to question such people should not be grounds for a boycott.  Instead, that should be the foundation for a civil discourse on the issues, to determine the truth at the heart of the matter. It certainly seems that merely because Legal disagrees with Casson, that he is then calling for a boycott. 

I am also concerned that Casson has called for a boycott before the meal even takes places. That seems extremely premature. Casson is relying on sound bites in news articles, rather than getting the full story directly from Legal.  Instead, Casson or one of his representatives should have attended the dinner, prepared to debate the issue with Legal, prepared to hear Legal's full position on these matters.  Why did Casson feel it was necessary to call for a boycott of Legal before the dinner even took place, before Legal had their chance to fully lay out their position and evidence?

Legal's stated goal is to advocate for sustainable seafood so it is a shame that Casson is calling for a boycott.  Their goals are the same, even if all of the means are not.  Thus, Casson should be trying to find ways to work with Legal rather than making Legal into an enemy.  What will consumers think when they are being asked to boycott a company that claims to support sustainable seafood?  The issue of sustainability is  confusing enough, and this boycott won't make the matter any more clear.  Plus, such a boycott is more likely to stifle discussion rather than promote it.

I will be at the Legal dinner tonite, prepared to listen to what they have to say, to see what evidence they possess.  I will ask questions, and listen to the questions of others.  Then, I feel I will be in a much better place to make a decision on the issues.  I wish Casson would be at the dinner too, to hear the entire story, instead of judging Legal based on very limited information.   

In a slight rewording of famous words spoken by President Ronald Reagan to Gorbachev, I say:

Mr. Trenor, Tear Down This Boycott!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Organic Japanese Sake

Joto Sake, an importer of artisanal Japanese sake, is launching "the first 100% Japanese, USDA-certified organic sake."   Chikurin “Karoyaka” Junmai Ginjo is made by the Marumoto Brewery in Okayama, founded in 1867. The name “Karoyaka” means “lightness.”  Their rice, Yamada Nishiki, is 100% certified organic rice and is also grown by the brewery itself, which is a rarity. Marumoto attained USDA organic certification in 2009, under the direction of Ecocert SA.

Kikusui also produces an organic sake but it is made with organic cooking rice that is grown in the U.S. and shipped to Japan. SakeOne, in Oregon, also produces an organic sake but it too is made with rice grown in the U.S.  The Karoyaka is one of the only organic sakes made from sake rice grown in Japan.

Why so little organic sake?  Well, due to the nature of rice growing in Japan, much is grown on hillside terraces, and water and such from the top will filter down the hills.  So, to be organic, all of the neighbors above you would need to be organic as well, or it would simply defeat your efforts to be organic.  So lots of effort must go into the endeavor of being organic, and it is taking time for rice growers to move in that direction, though you are likely to see more in the future.

I do hope to try this sake in the future, and will then report back on its taste. 

Friday, January 21, 2011

Friday Sips & Nibbles

Welcome to a special Friday edition of my Sips & Nibbles column, where I briefly highlight some interesting wine and food items that I have encountered recently.  It has been a very busy time so there has been plenty to talk about and recommend.
1) Beginning this year, the Ashmont Grill will donate $3 of every $30 from their Monday Night Wine Club dinners to a local organization or cause chosen by chef-owner Chris Douglass, whose charitable roots in Dorchester go deep. As ever, the club takes walk-ins or reservations, seating is communal, and an expert will speak.  Monday Night Wine Club begins at 6:30 PM.

24- EOS Estate, a solar-powered winery from Paso Robles
31 - Under the Tuscan Sun
7 - Murphy Goode Vineyard
14 - Sweets & Treats (dessert wines for Valentine's Day)
21 - Zinfandels
28 - Wines From Down Under
7 - Au Bon Climat Winery
14 - Go "Green" with Yellow & Blue (a super eco-friendly packaged wine & one of my favorites!)
21 - California Dreaming
28 - France's Greatest Hits

On the winter dinner menu: Beer-Battered Shrimp with Fennel Slaw is back by popular demand, as are Spicy Barbacoa Beef Tostadas and Turkey Pot Pie.  Chef de Cuisine John Rush also presents: Smoked Duck Breast with frisee and pickled pears; BBQ Braised Pork Belly with persimmon, white beans and macadamias; Salad of Ham, Sunchokes, Cranberries and Feta; Scottish Salmon in Blood Orange Sauce; and Butternut Soup with toasted pepitas, marshmallow and crispy sage leaves.

2) Chef Peppino of Da Vinci Ristorante is adding yet another unique and tasty treat to his every growing list of frozen concoctions! Known for his signature flavors like Lobster Gelato (delicious), Champagne Gelato & Celery Sorbet, his newest creation is: Blood Orange Spicy Gelato.

This gelato is a dish that blends Italian/Indian traditions, as these are the two cultures closest to Chef’s heart.  You can stop by the restaurant to check it out, or you can even try to make it yourself at home with the following recipe.

Blood Orange Spicy Gelato
- 2 cups dry milk
- 1 cup whole milk
- 8 egg yolks
- 2.5 cups heavy cream
- 1.5 cups sugar
- 1 cup blood orange puree
- 1 Jalapenos (whole)
- 1/2 Jalapeno, skin only (diced)
- 20 pcs. Green cardamom

Mix milk, heavy cream, jalapeno (whole), and green cardamom in a sauce pan. Heat until the mix starts boiling and add dry milk and sugar. Cook in slow heat for 10 minutes. Let mix cool down completely, add egg yolk and blood orange puree. Mix and strain. Put mix in ice cream machine, add diced jalapeno skin and mix for 25 minutes (or until ready).

Thursday, January 20, 2011

My Sake Interview in the Boston Globe

Today, if you pick up a copy of the Boston Globe newspaper, you'll find an interview with me about Sake. The article, He’d like to help you chill out, is part of their G Force series, and you will find it in the main insert. I am obviously pleased to see myself in the newspaper, but it goes beyond that.

It is an indication that Sake is getting more popular, that it is deserving of significant recognition.  Though Sake imports to the U.S. have been increasing each year, it still has a long way to go for more mainstream acceptance. So, articles like this help that acceptance, assisting in demystifying this wonderful drink. I hope that those reading the interview get intrigued about sake, and decide to give it a try. With its wide diversity of flavor profiles, nearly anyone will be able to find a sake they will enjoy.

FYI: The sake bottle in my photo is the Ichishima Junmai Genshu.

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I am back again with a new edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I briefly highlight some interesting wine and food items that I have encountered recently.
Since 1996, Cantabridgians have enjoyed authentic French-Alsatian cuisine in an intimate European-style setting just steps away from Harvard Yard, at Sandrine's Bistro.  This month, proprietor and chef Raymond Ost celebrates the 15th year of operation of the restaurant with three $15 deals.

$15 Alsace Burger:  Available during lunch only, this dish incorporates the best elements of choucroute -- the signature dish of Alsace. A ground pork burger is served on a slice of pate' Perigourdine, atop a mound of white-wine-and-juniper-berry-braised sauerkraut. Served with pomme frites.
$15 Dessert Duo: Go ahead and splurge with this limited time offer of two desserts for $15. Now those who have been loathe to share their chocolate kougelhopf with a companion won’t need to. Seasonal fruit crisps, housemade ice creams and pumpkin-hazelnut clafouti is also available.
$15 Soup Du Jour To Go: Raymond Ost’s will be selling his soups by the quart (serves four) to take home. Just stop by for the specialty du jour, packaged in a microwavable canister. Look for Lobster-Butternut Bisque, Potato-Leek, Fresh Spinach, and more.

And here is a recipe for one of Chef's Ost famous desserts, the Chocolate Kougelhopf.  This Alsatian specialty has been served at Sandrine’s since it opened. It never comes off the menu, and you can purchase the tiny bundt tins at Williams-Sonoma. Or make your own with this recipe which makes four individual cakes.

8 oz. high quality semi-sweet chocolate, chopped
1/2 stick unsalted butter, melted
½ cup sugar
2 large eggs, lightly beaten

Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees; grease and flour (4) six-ounce mini bundt tins.
Melt chocolate over double boiler or in microwave.
Add sugar to eggs and beat.
Add melted butter to sugar and eggs and beat.
Add chocolate to the mixture and beat.
Pour batter into pans and bake for 15-20 minutes.
Cool slightly before unmolding.
Serve with vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce.

2) Flemings's Steakhouse has two upcoming events this January.

First, on every Sunday in January, you can order the Sunday Prime Rib Dinner for $29.95.  This is a three-course dinner featuring 12-ounces of Prime Rib served with a side dish and trio of sauces: au jus, horseradish and Dijon. Guests will start Sunday dinner with their choice of The Wedge, Fleming’s or Caesar Salad and finish with a decadent dessert.

Second, Fleming’s is offering special AFC/NFC “Big Game” offerings all night on January 23rd, 30th and February 6th from their “5 for $6 ‘til 7” bar menu that features five signature appetizers priced at $6 each. Generally available until 7:00pm at the bar, Fleming’s will dish out the following all night on the selected evenings: Tenderloin Carpaccio; Sweet Chile Calamari; Roasted Mushroom Ravioli; Seared Ahi Tuna; Jumbo Shrimp Cocktail; and, Fleming’s Prime Burger.

Thursday Sips & Nibbles: Valentine's Day Edition

I am back again with a new edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I briefly highlight some interesting wine and food items that I have encountered recently. This edition is dedicated to a few Valentine's Day choices.
1) Celebrate Valentine's Day at Restaurant dante as Owner and Executive Chef Dante de Magistris is offering a special four-course tasting menu.  The menu will be offered throughout Valentine’s Weekend, from Friday, February 11 to Monday, February 14.  Each course (flirt, smooch, foreplay, climax, spooning and bubble bath) offers playful and tantalizing options to set the mood for the special evening.

FLIRT (Aphrodisiac Cocktails, not part of the set menu)
© Sparkling Cherry Fizz ($10)
© Strawberry Balsamic Mojito ($10)
© El Diablo ($9)
© Italian Almond Mocha Royale ($10)

Select one item from each of the following courses:
© a cute little couple - big shrimp cocktail, little shrimp cevice
© menage a foie - foie gras three ways
© canoodling noodles – lemon tagliolini, hearts on fire greens, poppy seeds, robiola
© pillows – heart shaped vanilla parsnip ravioli, smoked scallops, hazelnuts
© italiano – beef tenderloin “in crostata” porcini, fig, gorgonzola dolce, speck, salsa frutti di bosco “oh my”
© love bird – Chicken Scaloppini, marsala, garlic chives, chatrelles, black trumpets, spinach
© Vanilla Semifreddo for Two – chocolate lace cookie, passion fruit “leather” banana lather
© prosecco – strawberry nectar, chocolate cigarettes

Cost: $75 per person
Reservations: Please call 617-497-4200

2) On February 8th, Legal Sea Foods will honor lovers a bit early with their first Legal Holiday of the year: Valentine’s Day. Legal Sea Foods will serve up a culinary ménage à trois in Park Square’s 10,000 bottle wine cellar featuring a trio of beverages paired with decadent delights:

First Course
Selection of Raw Oysters
Paired with: Love Potion #9
Second Course
Wood Grilled Arctic Char
Wild mushroom polenta, roasted fennel and tomatoes
Paired with: Hesketh “Wild at Heart” Grenache, Clare Valley, 2009
Third Course
Orange Chipotle Crème Brûlée
Paired with: Grand Marnier

Cost: $35 per session (includes tax & gratuity)
Reservations: Reservations required by calling: 617-530-9392. For online reservations, visit:

3) Lolita Cucina & Tequila Bar is having a number of specials for Valentine’s Day.

Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin ‘Rose’ $14 glass; $70 bottle
Half Dozen Pemiquid Oysters (spicy bloody maria sauce) $14
Add 2 demi shots of Milagro Select Barrel Silver $20
Lobster-Poblano Relleno (grilled poblano pepper stuffed with fresh atlantic lobster, roasted corn and fingerling potatoes with roasted garlic-corn sauce) $18
Filet Mignon
Filet Mignon w/ Lump Crab ‘Huevos Rancheros’ (8 oz prime filet topped with garlic butter-jumbo lump crab, red chile poached egg, salsa ranchero and queso fresco with slow cooked black beans and tortilla crisps) $36
Pork Chop 
Pork Chop Rellanado (grilled 12 oz chop stuffed with spicy chorizo cornbread and huitlecoche with mashed parsnips and guajillo sauce) $23
¡Bomba del Chocolate! (warm mexican chocolate pudding cake with tart cherry sauce and red wine-crème fraiche granite) $10

When: Monday, February 14, 2011, 5 PM – 2 AM
Reservations are recommended so Please call 617-369-5609.

4) For four nights, February 11-14, Executive Chef Rachel Klein of Aura Restaurant at the Seaport Hotel will prepare a three-course prix fixe for $100 per couple.  Couples get a choice from four starters, three entrees, and three desserts, which include: Bento Box for Two; Beet & Asparagus Salad; New England Clam Chowder; Oysters on the Half-shell; Grilled Sirloin; Pan Roasted Scallops; Roasted Statler Chicken; Trio of Desserts; Flourless Chocolate Cake; and, Ice Cream or Sorbet.

5) For four days, from February 11-14, Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar is celebrating Valentine's Day by offering several specials, including:
--Filet Mignon & Crab-Stuffed Shrimp (for two): $98.95 (filet mignon with Madeira sauce, giant black tiger shrimp stuffed with crab and topped with bacon and lemon garlic butter sauce; served with butter poached Portobello mushrooms and parmesan cheese mashed potatoes)
--New York Strip Steak & Shrimp Scampi (for two): $89.95 (prime New York steak, served with peppercorn sauce, shrimp scampi with chimichurri herb pesto; served with lemon-scented orzo pasta and French green beans with porcini essence).
--Red Velvet Cake & Chocolate Dipped Strawberries (for two): $9.50 (three-layer red velvet cake with strawberry cream cheese frosting, garnished with two double-dipped chocolate strawberries)
--Tickled Pink cocktail: $9.95 (Only 99-calories, it has Belvedere Vodka, orange juice, raspberry and Mionetto Prosecco).

In addition, by making a Valentine’s Day reservation one of four nights at Fleming’s, guests will be gifted a $25 Valentine’s Card valid toward a future visit. Fleming’s also offers for you to reserve their Mercedes Crossover courtesy car to pick you up and drop you off wherever in the city your night takes you.

6) This Valentine’s Day, The Back Bay Hotel’s Stanhope Grille will serve a customized three-course prix fixe ($75 per person/$90 with wine pairings) over three nights available with optional wine pairings. Guests will enjoy their choices of the following: Crab Cakes; Mushroom Strudel; Boston Bibb Salad; Short Ribs with braised red cabbage, pomme puree, cider glaze; Sea Bass with fennel Fontina bread pudding, baby vegetables, golden beat sauce; Statler Chicken, spice rubbed with black quinoa, baby vegetables, citrus honey pan jus; Panettone Bread Pudding; and, Sorbet Trio. The Back Bay Hotel also offers the “Valentine’s Dinner Package,” including superior overnight accommodations and dinner for-two at Stanhope Grille.

7) Outside of Boston, you could consider celebrating Valentine’s Day at Tryst Restaurant in Arlington. Executive Chef and Owner, Paul Turano, has created a special menu which will be available from Friday, February 11th through Monday, February 14th, 2011. Tax and gratuity are not included. Reservations are highly recommended and can be made by calling 781-641-2227.

--Slow Roasted Beets 9.
Vermont goat cheese, toasted pistachios & orange poppy seed vinaigrette
--*Tuna Tartare 14.
wonton chips, ginger juice & scallion
--Red Wine Braised Boar 12.
hand crafted cavatelli, chipped pecorino & rosemary
--Hearts of Romaine 8.
spicy pepitas, cornbread croutons, avocado & chili lime dressing
--Sweet Potato & Chestnut Agnolotti 12.
sage brown butter & Reggiano
--*Potato & Leek Soup 9.
Peekytoe crab, apple & creme fraiche
--Crispy Fried Oysters 12.
pickled peppers & spicy aioli
--Steak Tartare 13.
brioche toasts
--*Spiced Long Island Duck 26.
black pepper spaetzle, trumpet mushrooms & pomegranate syrup
--Slow Roasted Bell & Evans Chicken 22.
celery root puree, roasted carrots, mushrooms & pearl onions
--*Grilled Angus Sirloin 32.
wild mushroom & leek tart, crispy shallots & truffle jus
--* Du Breton Pork Chop 24.
hash stuffed apple, smoked onion soubise & sauce Robert
--Almond Crusted Cod 23.
chorizo tater tots, romesco & rabe
--*Seared Scallops 27.
curried basmati rice, cauliflower chips & spiced yogurt
--Butterscotch Tart 8.
chocolate crust & banana
--Orange Blossom Panna Cotta 8.
honey glazed apricots & pistachios
--S’mores 8.
hazelnut shortbread, chocolate torrone & Morello cherries
--Caramel Apple Tart 8.
Calvados ice cream
--Chocolate Truffle Layer Cake 8.
creme fraiche ice cream
--House-made Ice Cream or Sorbet 4.

8) On Monday, February 14, consider Valentine's Day at one of the restaurants of the Grafton Group.

Russell House Tavern
--Braised Vermont Beef Heart Ravioli (Red Wine Demi, Crispy Pecorino, Tart Pear)
--Grilled Shrimp & Grits (Grilled Shrimp, Creamy Black Truffle Grits, Spicy & Sweet Bruleed Sweet Potatoes)
--Cherry & Milk Chocolate Bread Pudding (Cream Cheese Swirl, Toasted Walnuts, Golden Raisins)

Temple Bar
--Slow Braised Rabbit (Crispy Semolina Gnocchi, Roasted Parsnips, Carrot-Ginger Puree, Cocoa-Madeira Jus
--Pan Seared Sable Fish with Cockles (Roasted Baby Yukon Potatoes, Savoy Cabbage, Crispy Pancetta, Saffron Blood Orange Broth)
--Flambéed Banana Bread Pudding (Caramel Rum Sauce, Toasted Hazelnut Toffee)

Grafton Street Pub & Grill
--Blue Crab and Sharp Cheddar Fondue (Iggy’s Brioche)
--Seared Day Boat Scallops and Cherries (Lemon-Porcini Rice, Ginger Cream, Baby Cress)
--Chocolate Bourbon Pecan Torte (Fresh Blackberries, Whipped Cream)

--Pan Seared Scallops with BBQ Duck Confit (Orange and Frisse Salad, Champagne Dressing)
--Brandt All Natural Sirloin (Brussels Sprouts, Baby Carrots, Cheesy Hash Browns, Gravy)
--Mascarpone Cheese Cake (Strawberry Compote, Whipped Cream, Walnut Brittle)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Wine Location Specialist Exam: Passed

Less than two weeks ago, I mentioned that I had just taken an exam for the Wine Location Specialist (WLS) Certificate Program.  I am very pleased to report that I, and 24 others, passed the exam and were awarded certification.  So now there are a total of 44 people who have been so certified.

As a Wine Location Specialist, I am considered to be accredited by the Comite Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC) and the Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto (IVDP), to lead education seminars, tastings, and dinners specific to Champagne and Port. And I will do so, sharing the knowledge that I have learned with others curious to know more about these wines.  Plus, you can probably look forward to some articles on my blog about these wines.

I should make it clear though that I still have much more to learn about these regions and their wines. Yes, I have a solid foundation now but there are plenty of more details for me to learn. Matters may change as well, such as when new laws go into effect, when new techniques are invented, etc.  No single course can teach you everything about a region and its wines.  A certification is a beginning not an ending, and it is up to us to continue our studies, honing our knowledge so we can represent these regions in the best way possible.

I do encourage other wine writers to seek certifications, if only for the personal challenge of learning something new.  

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Cocktails For Carnivores At The Gallows

The strident protests of PETA might soon be heard on Washington Street, outside The Gallows.  Yet they will not be complaining about the food served at the restaurant. Rather they might be complaining about a cocktail, the evocatively named Abbatoir (which is a slaughterhouse).

My preference is for savory cocktails, especially if I will be having more than one drink.  I don't mind a drink with a little sweetness, but the overly sweet cocktails don't appeal to me much. I prefer something more refreshing, and don't need a sugary overload. Fortunately, the craft cocktail movement has led to the creation of numerous savory cocktails, though they are still outnumbered by sweet drinks.

Last evening, I attended the Boston Food Bloggers Launch Party at The Gallows, which has a list of some innovative concoctions.  What immediately caught my eye was their Abbatoir, which is composed of Batavia Arrack, Lillet, Tawny Port, Veal Stock, and Caramelized Onions. Batavia Arrack, made in Indonesia, is similar to rum, being made with sugar cane and fermented red rice.  It was used in cocktails as far back as at least 1862, but eventually fell out of favor until its recent resurgence.

But veal stock???  This is the first time I have ever seen it used as an ingredient in a cocktail, and my inner carnivore was drawn to it. You could also call this the Anti-PETA cocktail, knowing their usual stance on veal.  The onions are in the stock, essentially pureed so you won't find onion slices or chunks in your drink. Some of my friends were hesitant about this cocktail, the idea of veal stock not really appealing to them. But I was extremely curious, and ordered one.

I was very pleased with its savory taste, shades of umami, and the whole of the cocktail worked well. The ingredients blended harmoniously together, and it possessed a unique taste, though I strongly doubt you would have realized it contained veal stock. It was not a thick drink either, not like a heavy gravy.  I enjoyed it so much that I ordered a second one, and that was as delicious as the first. I think this drink is food friendly, and would pair well with any meaty dish.

As I have said repeatedly, expand your palate and try something new. Stop by The Gallows and try some of their unique cocktails, including the Abbatoir.

Sake and Thai: Ronnarong in March

After the recent fun and success of the Sherry and Thai dinner, I will be returning to Ronnarong in Somerville on March 8 for Sake and Thai.  The details are still being worked out, such as which Sakes will be poured, but mark down the date on your calendar.  Space will be limited so once sign up starts, you should reserve a space quickly to ensure you can be there.  

Ronnarong has other interesting Thai Tapas Tuesday events coming in the near future. Thai Tapas Tuesdays are held on the second Tuesday of each month.  Order a drink and your tapas is free! (drink price must equal or exceed tapas price)

February 8:
How HOT Can You Handle? A Thai Spice Challenge
Attendees will test their mettle as we turn Chef Ronnarong loose with his home grown chiles, mortar and pestle.
Salvation provided by Dave Keating of Berkshire Brewing Co. who will pour three Berkshire brews to soothe enflamed palates: Lost Sailor IPA, Traditional Pale Ale and Russian Imperial Stout.

April 12: 
Celebrating Spring with Sparkling Thai Cocktails

May 10:
Patio Season - Opening Party with Pretty Things Brewers

Monday, January 17, 2011

Rant: Where Is All The Wine?

Craig Wolf, the President/CEO of the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America (WSWA) recently claimed that there is no other consumable product that offers as much variety and selection as wine and spirits.  That certainly sounds great but it doesn't reflect the entire story, and the truth is rather depressing.

Paul Mabray, of Vintank, recently interviewed Mr. Wolf about "..HR 5034, the WSWA’s opinion about direct shipping and wine, and the exposure of an upcoming partnership between Shipcompliant and the WSWA."  It is well worth checking out the entire interview.  Mr. Wolf's answers were enlightening, both for what they said and what they didn't say.  But his boast about the plentiful variety of wines available struck me as a half-truth, and the more I considered that proposition, the more convinced I was that it was very misleading.

Yes, there are thousands of wines available at local wine stores. Mr. Wolf stated that Southern Wine and Spirits, the largest wine and spirits wholesaler in the US, may have 10,000-15,000 wine SKUs.  That sounds impressive, until you consider the larger picture.  And when you do, you'll realize that there is no other consumable product where we are denied such a large selection of products.  That is a direct consequence of the current three-tier system.

In the U.S., there are roughly 7000-8000 wineries, and most of them make multiple products.  So, it is probably safe to say, and maybe even a conservative estimate, that there are at least 45,000 different wines made in the U.S.  Which means that Southern, at best, only carries 1/3 of the available wines in the country, thus denying their customers access to 2/3 of the wines.  That sounds bad, but the situation is even worse because we haven't even considered all of the foreign wines.

How many wineries are there in the rest of the world?  Many thousands, and they produce hundreds of thousands of different wines.  So let us very conservatively estimate that there are 300,000 different wines worldwide.  That would mean Southern carries only 5% of the available wines, meaning consumers are denied access to 95% of the wines out there.  Would you be happy if there were 100 different cars available, yet you only had access to 5 of them?  If there any product you would be happy about if you could not access 95% of the available choices?

So Mr. Wolf should not be boasting about the great variety available when consumers cannot obtain a vast amount of the available wines.  The three-tier system is directly responsible for this disparity, and Mr.Wolf even admitted that it can be very difficult for wineries for obtain wholesalers because of the current system.    

Something needs to change, so we can get access to all of these wines which we are denied.  The current system denies us far more wines than it provides, so obviously the system has serious flaws.  Allowing wineries to direct ship to consumers and wine stores would be a major step forward to expanding the amount of wines we can access.

Mr. Wolf, don't boast about a system that denies us so much.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Winestone: A Gem for Wine Lovers

Last year, one of my favorite wine tastings was the Japanese Koshu tasting held at Uni.  One of the hosts of the tasting was Yoko Ota, a very pleasant and passionate woman who also works at Winestone, a wine store in Chestnut Hill, located not far from Urban Grape.  I had never visited the store before and it sounded interesting, so one of my goals for 2011 was to visit the store and I recently did exactly that.  

As you drive down Route 9, you will see a bright yellow sign "Winestone, Unique Wine Experience" and just after the sign you can turn right into a parking lot, which is shared with Starbucks. Winestone is owned by Patrick Dubsky, who used to work at Rialto as a sommelier, wine director and general manager. I met Patrick, who seems very nice and not pretentious in the least.  And I love what he has created in Winestone, as it is the type of wine store I really enjoy.

The two-story shop carries about 300-400 wines, using a metal racking system that allows you to more readily see the labels.  I was impressed by the diversity of wines they carry.  Though there are familiar labels, they have plenty of lesser known wines as well, and those are sure to peak the interest of wine lovers.  They have wines from all over the world, including from Greece, Switzerland, the Finger Lakes of New York and at least a couple local wines, from Turtle Creek and Westport Rivers. You'll find South African Pinotage, Spanish Kosher Wine and French Picpoul.  I found some of my favorite wines here as well as plenty I would love to try.

Prices are average, and have not inflated due to its location, plus you get a 10% discount for purchases of 6 or more bottles, and a 15% discount for a case.  Above, is their "PG-13" section, which includes "Great Values Under $13," a nice selection of value wines, and not your usual suspects.  Overall, many of the wines are at reasonable price points, including plenty under $25, though of course they have some higher-end wines as well.

The lower level is small, and contains a wall of racks of Burgundy and Bordeaux, at various price points.

In addition, the lower level has a section of their high-end wines, behind glass, and the wines range from Champagne to California Cabernet, from Port to Bordeaux. There are some very compelling bottles here for the collector or if you desire to splurge.

I was pleased to see two displays at the store, highlighting two importers: Adonna Imports and Cynthia Hurley Imports. I have advised consumers before that sometimes you can select a good wine by looking for the name of the importer on the back label.  Certain importers have a deserved reputation for bringing in excellent wines, and you often cannot go wrong by choosing a bottle imported by these people. For example, importers Kermit Lynch and Neal Rosenthal are very well known and respected and plenty of people allover the country will seek out their names when selecting wines.

Locally, Adonna and Hurley are also well respected and I am a fan of both importers.  I have probably enjoyed 99% of the wines brought in by Adonna Imports, who primarily import Italian wines. Cynthia Hurley primarily brings in French wines, including some delicious Loire, Burgundy, Rhone and much more.  Few other wine stores emphasize importers in their own displays, though I think it is a great and innovative way to help consumers find wines they will enjoy.

Near the front of the store, there is a shelving unit with some of their more unique offerings, including dessert wines, sherry, spirits, liqueurs, sparkling wines and more.  Wine lovers will find plenty of interest there. Near the unit, on the counter, there were two boxed wines, including from one of my favorite producers, the 2008 Poderi Zanusso Sant'Andrat Rosso.  I am always glad to see the better wine stores willing to carry boxed wines, especially as there are some excellent boxed wines now available.

Near the front of the store is their refrigerated unit which contains chilled wines, a few beers and two sakes (Momokawa Silver and Kikusui Junmai Ginjo).

Complimentary wine tastings are held every Saturday, from 12pm-5pm, and you can check out their list of upcoming tasting themes.

This is a spot that all wine lovers should visit. A great selection, reasonable prices, weekly tastings, and obviously a store that was founded on a passion for wine.  This is not a store afraid to hand sell their wines, or to introduce their customers to new and less common wines.  If I had been going straight home after my visit, I easily could have bought a case of various wines that interested me.  Unfortunately, I was going to be out for most of the rest of the day and didn't want the wines to sit in a freezing trunk for eight or so hours.  But I will be returning here soon to restock my wine cellar.

1160 Boylston Street (Route 9)
Chestnut Hill, MA
Phone: 617-264-0393