Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Authors, Alcohol & Accolades: Volume 4

"An alcoholic is someone you don't like who drinks as much as you do."
--Dylan Thomas

I am back with another volume in my new series, Authors, Alcohol & Accolades. Volume 1Volume 2 and Volume 3 each showcased four of my favorite authors, and I have returned to highlight four more, and to delve into their drinks of choice.  I have found this to provide a fascinating glimpse into the life of the writers I enjoy, and hope you like the interviews as well. You can look forward to further volumes in this series too, and any authors who are interested in participating in future volumes can contact me.

Robert Swartwood (Twitter: @RobertSwartwood)
I first encountered the work of Robert Swartwood through The Dishonored Dead, a zombie tale where the "zombies" are actually the living, and the risen dead control the world. It is a more unique and fascinating tale, and its originality should appeal to even the most jaded zombie reader. I followed up by then reading his novels Man of Wax (the first in a trilogy) and The Serial Killer's Wife. Rather than horror, these are both thrillers and have similar beginnings where the protagonists receive mysterious phone calls that initiate perilous endeavors. Man of Wax was an exciting thrill ride, with lots of twists and turns, and I am eager for the sequels. The Serial Killer's Wife was a different ride, but also interesting and intriguing.

"I'm mostly a beer guy -- Coors Light or Blue Moon, whichever is on tap -- but sometimes I'm in the mood for something different and find myself with a rum and Coke -- Captain Morgan, to be more specific, though every once in a while I like mixing some coconut Parrot Bay into the mix instead, which makes it go down all that much smoother."

Jake Bible (Twitter: @JakeBible)
Jake has a bizarre, twisted, irreverent and warped imagination and I love it. Bethany And The Zombie Jesus is a collection of horror stories, some subtle while others more in-your-face, gory and grotesque. The lead novelette, Bethany & the Zombie Jesus, is an irreverent and fascinating romp, while the short tale Blister, which is not for the squeamish, is a delightfully twisted tale as is All The Freaky Bedbugs Of The World. Jake has also written The Man With No Face, the start of a series of horror westerns. It is a blend of Jonah Hex and Clint Eastwood, a revenge tale of a man whose very skin was torn from his body. This is not a tale for the squeamish and the series has much potential. As this is more of an origin story, the plot is relatively straight forward and I hope that subsequent books have more depth.

"I grew up in Eugene, OR. Doesn't take a detective to know what drink I gravitated towards and have stuck with since. Beer. Especially, and almost exclusively, microbrew/craft beer. When I left Eugene in 1997 it had nine microbreweries/brew pubs. I have no idea how many it has today. I went through a bit of a drought when I lived in Florida. Not craft beer friendly, that state. But, now I live in Asheville, NC! BEER CITY USA! Yep, it has been voted Beer City USA three years running and for good reason. This area has eleven craft breweries and is still growing.

"What style do I like most, you ask? Dark. Very, very dark. I am a fan of stouts and porters, the thicker the better. I like to stick a spoon in my beer and have it stand straight up. For me, beer is part of a meal. I make sure to leave room in the ole belly to finish a good pint. Think of it as portion control. That's how I think of it and I'm sticking to that! Do I have a favorite? Nah, there are too many good beers to list. But, I can say that the thin, Irish style stouts are my least favorite. If they are gonna be thin then they better pack some serious flavor into each sip. Guinness doesn't work for me. I don't hate it, but I'll skip it and go for a lighter craft beer if one is available. In fact, if I don't see a beer on a menu I like then I go without. I'll order sweet tea instead (sweet tea is a southern thing and delicious). I'm picky that way! I wouldn't say I'm a beer snob. I certainly don't look down on anyone for what they drink. But I am selective in what I choose to drink. Life's too short and I'm not gonna waste my time on Earth drinking something that doesn't make me perfectly happy."

And now for a nonalcoholic supplement, as not all writers enjoy alcohol...

Luke Romyn (Twitter: @LukeRomyn)
Luke's first book was The Dark Path, a supernatural thriller, that is a non-stop adrenalin rush pitting an amoral killer against dread forces of evil. It is a well written tale with plenty of action, horror and psychological suspense. His second novel, Blacklisted, lacks any supernatural elements and is an exciting action-thriller, with plenty of well crafted combat scenes and plot twists. The writing is tight, pacing is good, and the main character is appealing, despite his violent past. As both books are available on Kindle for 99 cents each, they are excellent values and strongly recommended.

"Coffee, the ground-bean, liquid-elixir, has recently become my favorite non-alcoholic beverage. Its unique flavor is like imbibing a smile, readying me for whatever is to come. This is closely followed by Coca-Cola; though only in small doses – its sugar-laden, narcotic-like properties must always be avoided in large quantities to avoid getting sick. Perhaps I should have stuck to bourbon. Alas. And finally, I love a tall glass of ice tea – the drink, not the rapper (and yes, I know it’s technically iced tea, but that would never have worked for my reference). At the end of a hard day, nothing relaxes me more than sitting in a comfortable chair with my glass of iced tea, letting the troubles of my many lives slip away as I stare at a TV screen and pretend to be normal."

Howard Jones (Twitter: @HowardAndrewJon)
Much fantasy has a European feel to it so I am always eager to check out any fantasy based on a different culture. Thus, I was drawn to Howard's The Desert of Souls and The Waters of Eternity. Desert of Souls is a fantasy novel with an Arabic bent, taking place in a magical version of 8th century Baghdad. It follows the thrilling adventures of Asim, a warrior, and Dabir, a scholar (though he seems more like a detective), as they try to prevent a mystical calamity from befalling Baghdad. This riveting and well written tale is complemented with plenty of humor, action, magic and suspense. Plus, can you say undead monkeys? The Waters of Eternity is a follow-up, a collection of short stories involving Asim and Dabir, and the tales are worthy successors. The next Asim and Dabir novel, The Bones of the Old Ones, is due out in August and I wish it were out much sooner. Both of Howard's books are highly recommended.

"Once I discovered that I didn't hold my liquor better than any other men in the family, I've pretty much steered clear except for wedding toasts and an occasional cheap, sweet glass of wine with dinner. My favorite go-to drink is a Coke, either from bottle or fountain, mixed with cherry syrup or grenadine. I find them much tastier than the actual canned Cherry Coke. I'm also a sucker for Dole's Orange Peach Mango Juice, which my son and I drink by the cart load. Whenever I find myself in a new area of the country I try out regional root beers. Sadly, as I've gotten older, these smaller soda manufacturers have been harder to come by. IBC's probably my current favorite. I've come to prefer the brands of root beer, and even sasparilla, that are made from natural ingredients. It's not that I'm concerned about the artificial components, I just prefer the stronger, original flavors. Modern root beers tend to smooth things out with a whole lot of sugar."

Monday, January 30, 2012

Rant: Want Whipped Cream On Your Monte Cristo Sandwich?

I love a good Monte Cristo sandwich and as I have been eating them for years, I have tasted them at a wide variety of restaurants. Despite my love for this sandwich, there is an element that I dislike and fail to understand.

A Monte Cristo sandwich is essentially ham, turkey and Swiss cheese between two pieces of French toast, though there are plenty of regional variations across the country. For example, the cheese might be different, the sandwich might be grilled or fried, it may contain spicy mustard, and so on. No one seems to know the exact origins of the Monte Cristo though it is believed to be a variation of the French croque-monsieur, which is a grilled ham and cheese sandwich that was invented around 1910.  

One of the Monte Cristo's most well known appearances occurred in 1966 at Disneyland in Anaheim, California. Though it likely existed before this time, the Monte Cristo appeared on their menu of the Blue Bayou restaurant in Disneyland and became quite popular.  As for the name itself, it might have been inspired by the novel, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas though that is pure conjecture.

To my dismay, many Monte Cristo sandwiches are dusted with powdered sugar, and accompanied by maple syrup or fruit jam/preserves. I have previously discussed my dislike of powdered sugar and I don't understand its addition to a savory sandwich. What about turkey, ham and Swiss calls out for powdered sugar? Or maple syrup and jam/preserves? Absolutely nothing. I want a savory sandwich for lunch not dessert as my entree.

It seems that the draw for these sweet additions is the use of French toast. If you receive a plate of French toast for breakfast, it will often be dusted with powdered sugar and accompanied by maple syrup. I dislike that as well, as I don't want dessert for breakfast either. I don't think the mere use of French toast in the Monte Cristo warrants these sweet accompaniments. French toast sometimes comes with whipped cream too. Would you want that on your Monte Cristo?  All the sweetness of powdered sugar and maple syrup covers the taste of the meats and cheese.

So keep all that sweetness away from my Monte Cristo! Or can someone make me understand the allure of these sweet additions?

Friday, January 27, 2012

Port Pleasures at the Boston Wine Expo

"All wine would be Port if it could."
--Portuguese Proverb

The Center for Wine Origins has declared that today is Port Day, a celebration of this unique fortified wine from Portugal. As part of my own observance for this day, I wanted to present some reviews of Ports that I recently tasted at the Boston Wine Expo. Each year at the Expo, there are usually at least a dozen Ports, from several different producers, available for tasting so it is a good opportunity to learn about this fortified wine. It remains an under appreciated wine, but there is hope that interest in Port may be growing. 

Wine tasting can be tricky as so many factors can be involved which will affect your thoughts on a wine. Bottle variation, the setting of the tasting, food pairing (if any), your mood, and so much more. There are times that a wine might not impress me but which will seem so much better at a different tasting. That is why retasting wines can sometimes be beneficial, especially if the first tasting was done under less than ideal circumstances. I experienced just such a case at the Boston Wine Expo.   

I am a fan of the wines of Herdade do Esporão and most recently had attended a wine dinner at Harvest that showcased some of their wines, including the 2008 Quinta dos Murças Reserva Red, which was also at the Expo. I retasted it at the Expo and was still as enthralled with it as at previous tastings, and it had even made my list 2011: Top Ten Wines Over $15. Last summer, while at a Le Cirque wine dinner, I tasted their Quinta dos Murças 10 Year Old Tawny Port which I enjoyed but it did not impress.

But when I tasted it once again at the Expo, my feelings changed and I marveled at the quality of this Port. Personally, I find many 10 Year Old Tawnies to be too harsh for my preferences, yet this was not the case here. In fact, it tasted much more like a 20 Year Old, smoother and more complex, with delicious flavors of almonds, caramel, dried fruit, and a mild sweetness. It was one of my favorite Ports from the Expo and certainly the one which most surprised me. Later in the day, I returned to the table for another tasting of the Port, but this time with a Blue Cheese Flan from Sandrine's Bistro, and it was an excellent and classic pairing.

Can I pinpoint the reasons why the Port had not impressed me last summer? No, I cannot. Maybe it just didn't pair as well with the dessert. Maybe I had been simply overwhelmed with all of the prior wines and food. Maybe there was bottle variation. All I know for sure is that my feelings about the Port were very different this time. Has anyone else tasted this Port, and what did you think about it?  And if you are going to try it, I would highly recommend pairing it with some blue cheese.

Cave Messias, located in the Bairrada region of Portugal, was founded in 1926 and produces a variety of wines from Dão, Bairrada, Douro, Vinho Verde, Beiras, Terras do Sado and Vinho do Porto. At the Expo, I tasted three of their Ports, and they present good values and would make for a nice introduction to the realm of Port wines.

Their Ruby Port (about $10) offered plenty of ripe red fruit flavors, especially cherry and raspberry, and was smooth and easy drinking. A nice choice for a chilly winter's evening. The 2003 LBV Port (about $15) presented more complexity, plenty of delicious red fruit flavors, but also some intriguing spice notes. It was smooth and presented a lengthy, satisfying finish. An excellent value at this price. The 10 Year Old Tawny (about $23) was ok, but too harsh for my preferences.

The Vallegre-Vinhos do Porto is a relatively modern company yet the roots of the Quinta extend back into the 18th century. They own about 55 hectares of vineyards and some of the vines are over 80 years old. They produce a full line-up of Ports and showed four of them at the Expo.

Their Dry White Port (which seems to have been the only White Port at the Expo) is a blend of numerous Portuguese grapes you may never had heard of before, including Viosinho, Malvasia Fina, Gouveio, Arinto, Cercial and Rabigato. The Port had a yellow/tawny hue to it and though it is labeled as Dry, does contain some residual sugar, and I tasted a bit of sweetness. It offered flavors of salted nuts, mild spices and even a few floral notes. An intriguing taste and worth checking out.

The Fine Tawny has about five years of ageing and had a very alluring nose, such a compelling smell. It was fairly smooth and there was a nice complexity to its taste, a harmonious blend of ripe red fruits, some dried fruit, and spices. A nice structure, a lengthy finish and just a pure delight to drink. I would strongly recommend this Tawny.

The 10 Year Old Tawny didn't impress me, for all the usual reasons. It is certainly not a bad wine, just doesn't fit my personal preferences. On the other hand, the 2007 Vintage Port both surprised and pleased me. The Port is produced the old fashioned way, by people trodding upon the grapes in concrete lagares. I was concerned because this is a relatively young Vintage Port, which I wasn't sure was ready to drink. But, that turned out not to be the case and it drank very well at its young age. It had a dark red color with an enticing nose of red fruits. On the palate, there was a moderately complex blend of flavors and it was rather smooth, with mild tannins. You could easily enjoy this Port now, though I think that some ageing will benefit it as well. Since the tasting, I have skimmed through a recent Port article which seems to indicate that more Vintage Ports are being produced that are ready to drink upon release, though which will age well too.

Graham's is a very known Port producer and I have previously tasted a number of their Ports, several which were showcased at the Expo. I had though to retaste their 20 Year Old Tawny, which is a superb example of this type of Port. Its alluring nose will compel you to simply sit and sniff it for awhile, enjoying the aromas almost without a need to taste it. But you will be compelled to drink it, to savor the taste. On the palate, the smooth flavors will seduce your mouth, a luscious and intricate melange of caramel, nuts, toffee, honey, dried apricot and more. A very lengthy finish completes this impressive Port and I highly recommend it.

So what Ports do you recommend?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Thursday Sips & Nibbles: Valentine's Edition

I am here with a special Valentine's Day edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I briefly highlight some interesting wine and food items that I have encountered recently.
1)  The Beehive, located in Boston’s South End, will be presenting “5 Days of Luv’n!” A 5-day long love fest of Valentine’s Day inspired brunches and dinners accompanied by romantic live music and menu specials including: “My Heart Beets Crab Salad” with beets, hearts of palm & sugar snap peas, Rack of Lamb for Two with salsa verde, roasted potatoes & blood orange salad, and Roasted Sea Scallop with spinach & truffle pommes puree, just to name a few. Reservations are highly recommended, and can be made by calling 617-423-0069.

Performance Schedule:

Friday, February 10:
· Romantic Early Jazz Set: 6:30PM - 8:30PM
· Valentine's Day 5 Days of Luv’n featuring Natalie John: 10:00PM - 2:00AM
Saturday, February 11:
· Saturday Jazz Romance Brunch: 10:30AM - 3:00PM
· Romantic Early Jazz Set: 6:30PM - 8:30PM
· Valentine's Day 5 Days of Luv’n featuring Cumbiagra: 10:00PM - 2:00AM
Sunday, February 12:
· Sunday Jazz Romance Brunch: 10:30AM - 3:00PM
· Valentine's Day Blues on Sunday with Bruce Bears & Friends: 8:00PM - 12:00AM
Monday, February 13:
· Valentine's Day 5 Days of Luv’n with Gabriella Martina: 8:00PM – 12:00AM
Tuesday, February 14:
· Valentine's Day 5 Days of Luv’n Romantic Early Jazz Set with Maxim Lubarsky Piano Trio: 5:30PM – 7:30PM
· Valentine's Day 5 Days of Luv’n with Daniel McClain: 8:00PM - 12:00AM

2)  Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar will celebrate the passion this year with three evenings of luxe specials and a unique Valentine gift for couples dining on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, February 12th through the 14th.

To enhance the occasion, Executive Chef Russell Skall has created three special entrees for Valentine’s dinner that will be available in addition to Fleming’s popular a la carte menu. “Valentine’s celebration is always a memorable time for our guests,” remarked Chef Skall. “There is nothing more romantic then savoring the pleasures of a delicious dinner and wine with someone you love.

Filet Mignon & Prawns, Prime New York Strip & King Crab, and Colossal North Atlantic Lobster Tail with Lobster Mac & Cheese will be offered, each at $69.95. A dessert for two, Red Velvet Cake with Espresso Truffles, is $9.50. Wine Director Maeve Pesquera has crafted a special cocktail for the holiday: The Bella-Tini is a Bellini-inspired cocktail with Belvedere Vodka, peach purée and Mas Fi Cava sparkling wine for $9.95.

To give guests another reason to celebrate, Fleming’s is offering each couple dining February 12th through February 14th a complimentary $25 Fleming’s Dining Card to use toward a future rendezvous with their sweetheart. The $25 Valentine’s Card offer is for visits occurring on 2/12/12, 2/13/12 and 2/14/12 only. Limit one Valentine’s Card per couple. Valentine’s Card will be delivered at the end of the dinner and will be valid through March 31, 2012.

3)  On February 7th, Legal Sea Foods will honor lovers a week early with a Legal Holiday: Valentine’s Day. Legal Sea Foods will serve up a culinary ménage à trois of enticing beverages paired with decadent delights in Park Square’s 10,000 bottle wine cellar:

First Course
King Crab Leg Cocktail with truffle champagne vinaigrette, mixed green salad
Paired with Hermann J Wiemer “Dry” Riesling
Second Course
Wood Grilled Mahi Mahi with smokey black lentil salad, roasted tomato coulis
Paired with Tamari Reserva Malbec
Third Course
Strawberry Tiramisu with mascarpone cheese, orange liqueur
Paired with Rosa Regale Brachetto d’Aqui

WHEN: Tuesday, February 7th at 6:30pm
COST: $35 per person (includes tax and gratuity)
Reservation required by calling: 617.530.9392

4)  On Valentine’s Day, Executive Chef & Owner Anthony Caturano of Prezza will dish out three specials available for one night only. Prezza will offer the following three specialty items in addition to their regular menu: Baked Oysters (with mascarpone, radicchio and scallion - $15); Saffron Arancini (with lobster and mascarpone - $16); and, Rotisserie Chicken (with polenta - $26).

WHEN: Tuesday, February 14th from 5:30pm – 10:00pm

5)  From February 11-14, Aura at the Seaport Hotel will offer a special three-course prix fixe for $100 per couple.  The prix fixe will offer a choice of three starters, four entrees, and three desserts. For starters, guests will have the following options: Warm Beet & Celery Root Salad (goat cheese fondue, aged balsamic, micro arugula); Potato Leek Soup (truffle oil, fine herbs); or, Raw Bar for Two (shrimp cocktail, oysters on the half-shell, little necks, cocktail sauce, fennel mignonette, horseradish aioli). For entrees, choose between: Roasted Statler Chicken Breast (creamy polenta, Taleggio cheese, Tuscan kale, pomegranate demi); Grilled Shoulder Tenderloin of Beef (wild mushroom bread pudding, rapini, foie gras butter); Pan Roasted Scallops (Applewood smoked bacon, potato puree, crispy Brussels sprouts, maple beurre blanc); or, Vegetarian Option (roasted garlic and thyme custard, maitake mushrooms, currant jam). For dessert, Aura will serve a choice of the following savory selections: Chocolate Molten Cake (mint chocolate chip ice cream, lemon confit); Trio of Dessert (for two – chocolate raspberry heart, espresso crème brûlée, vanilla cheesecake); or, Crème Caramel (gingered pineapple, candied hazelnuts).

6)  Located in Hotel Indigo, BOKX 109 American Prime’s Jarrod Moiles will be serving up a customizable three-course prix-fixe menu for the five nights leading up to Valentine’s Day. For starters, choose between: Scallop Crudo (pomegranate, radish, jalapeno, scallion, lemon); Grilled Linguica (cannelloni bean ragout, goat cheese, port wine butter); or, Lobster Pizette (garlic aioli, brie cheese, asparagus, Andouille sausage). For entrees, guests will choose from the following options: Roasted Half Duck (blackberry brandy caramel, drunken berries, braised bok choy); Shrimp & Scallop Risotto (pancetta, leeks, tomato, herb salad); or, Cast Iron Seared Brandt Tenderloin (oyster fritto, arugula, shallot, bacon). To finish off the feast, indulge in Goat Cheese Panna Cotta (hot dark chocolate sauce, fresh strawberry), or Deconstructed White Chocolate Cake (raspberry jam, toasted almond).

When: February 10 & 11: 5:00pm – 11:00pm; February 12 to 14 from 5:00pm – 10:00pm
Cost: $65 per person

7)  Strega Waterfront will offer a customizable Chef’s Tasting Menu for the five nights leading up to Valentine’s Day. For appetizers, guests will have their choice of three selections: Oysters ‘Rockefeller’ (sautéed spinach, parmesan, seasoned Italian bread crumbs, garlic lemon aioli); Spinach Salad (crispy pancetta, goat cheese, cherry tomatoes, candied pistachios, champagne vinaigrette); or, Roasted ‘Heart-Shaped’ Beet Salad (ricotta hazelnut, organic local honey). Moving onto entrees, four options will be available: Oven Roasted Porchetta (pork loin stuffed with ham, Fontina cheese, spinach and mushrooms); ‘Heart-Shaped’ Lobster Ravioli (vodka cream sauce); Grilled Swordfish (lemon, white wine, caper sauce); or, Braised Short Ribs (homemade pappardelle with lobster and peas). For dessert, choose between Chef Sal’s Famous Tiramisu (espresso-soaked lady fingers, fresh mascarpone) or a Chocolate Chip Cannoli (filled with fresh chocolate chips and ricotta). Optional wine pairings are also available.

When: February 10th - 14th from 5:00pm – 11:00pm
Cost:  $65 per person ($85 per person with wine pairings)

8)  Join acclaimed pastry chef Judy Mattera, owner of My Sweet Solutions, and the Culinary Guild of New England to whip up romantic confections just in time for Valentine’s Day. Mattera brings an extensive background in fine pastry-making and study of the world’s dessert wines to a lively cooking and wine pairing demonstration, complete with recipes and tasting notes.

The baking/pairing demo includes:
· Lemon Sponge Pudding Cakes
Michele Chiarlo Nivole Moscato d'Asti (Italy)
· Passion Fruit Cheesecake
Inniskillin Vidal Icewine (Canada)
· Cornmeal Currant Wafers with Orange Muscat Gelée and Berries
Quady Essensia (Madera, CA)
· Bittersweet Chocolate Tart with Chilled Cherry Sabayon
Les Clos de Paulilles Banyuls Rimage (France)

WHEN: Wednesday, February 1, 7:00 PM – 9:30 PM
COST: $55 for Members; $70 for Non-Members (includes demonstration, recipes and tasting notes, and samples paired with wines)
WHERE: Waterworks Library, 2420 Beacon Street, Chestnut Hill
REGISTER: Sign up here.

9)  This year Tryst, located in Arlington, is celebrating more than just Valentine’s Day. This year’s festivities will not end on the 14th, but will extend though Wednesday, February 15, to include the celebration of International Singles Awareness Day. Widely celebrated in Europe, this day is dedicated to Saint Faustino, the saint adopted by singles in Italy, and is a way to commemorate the unattached and all of the possibilities that lie ahead.

From Friday, February 10 through Wednesday, February 15, guests will enjoy Executive Chef Paul Turano’s menu featuring specials like Spiced Long Island Duck, Red Wine Braised Beef Short Ribs, Slow Roasted Chicken "Coq Au Vin", and Heirloom Squash Ravioli, all available à la carte. After dinner, lounge and indulge in Tryst’s hand-crafted Valentine’s Day cocktails such as the tragically delicious “Cupid’s Misfire,” made with Ketel One Citron, housemade limoncello and Prosecco ($12) or the romantic “Star Crossed Lovers,” featuring Bluecoat dry gin, Cherry Herring liqueur, a pomegranate reduction and a bottle of vibrant red Banfi Rosa Regale, $12 for two.

Tax and gratuity are not included. Reservations are highly recommended and can be made by calling 781-641-2227.

10)  Join Blue on Highland, located in Needham, this Valentine’s Day, Tuesday, February 14, for a romantic evening featuring sweet & savory food and cocktail specials and complimentary roses for the ladies from 4pm-10pm.

Guests can indulge in the culinary styling of Executive Chef Peter Tartsinis as he presents dinner specials created exclusively for this year’s Valentine’s Day celebration including appetizers such as Fried Ravioli with spicy tomato, basil and parmesan ($8) and entrées like the Lobster Tagliatelle with basil and tomatoes in a champagne-tarragon sauce ($25), or the Cowboy Ribeye with roasted potatoes and spinach with cabernet butter ($32). After dinner, show your sweeter side by sharing the chocolate bread pudding with salted caramel, butterscotch chips, ice cream or Red Velvet Cupcakes (both $8) for dessert. Complement your selections with Blue’s special Valentine’s Day Cocktail, a house-infused raspberry vodka topped with champagne and served with a chocolate covered strawberry ($11).

No matter what your indulgence, your date will receive a complimentary rose from Winston Flowers. Reservations are highly recommended and can be made by calling Blue on Highland at 781-444-7001.

11)  For Valentine’s Day, Tuesday, February 14, 5:30pm-11pm, Beacon Hill Hotel & Bistro is offering a four course, prix fixe dinner for $68 per person (beverages, tax and 20% gratuity are not included) and there is an optional wine pairing available for an additional $32.

Amuse Bouche
--Woodbury’s Wellfleet Oyster with Paddlefish and Fennel Caviar.
--Wild Mushroom Velouté with Madeira and Taleggio
--Butter Lettuce Salad with Hearts of Palm, Grapefruit, Black Truffle and Banyuls Vinaigrette
--Oxtail Ravioli with Pea Tendrils, Black Pepper Ricotta, Brown Butter and Sage
--Rohan Duck Terrine with Violet Mustard, Baguette and House Pickles
--Nantucket Bay Scallop Ceviche with Persimmon, Radish and Meyer Lemon
--Maryland Striped Bass with Wild Mushroom Ragout, Mille-feuille and Beurre Rouge
--Faroe Island Salmon with Orange Scented Beets, Fennel and Quinoa
--Long Island Duck confit with Yellow Eye Beans, Braised Greens and Sour Orange Jus
--Grass Fed Sirloin with Fingerling and Short Rib Ragout, Caramelized Carrots and Red Wine Jus
--Carnaroli Risotto with Brussels Sprouts, Black Truffle and Parmesan Tuile
--Chocolate Pot De Crème with Apricot, Brioche and Fleur De Sel
--Lemon Chiffon Cake with Frozen Lemon Curd
--Vanilla Crème Brulée
--Buttermilk Panna Cotta with chocolate covered strawberries and Mint Ice Cream

Reservations recommended. Please call 617-723-7575

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Boston Wine Expo: Lambouri Winery on Cyprus

At the Boston Wine Expo, I had the opportunity to taste some wines from the island of Cyprus, located in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea and east of Greece. I believe this was the first time I have ever tasted wines from this country, primarily because I have not seen their wines available at local wine stores.

Wine production in Cyprus has a lengthy history, extending back at least over 4300 years and possibly even over 5500 years. At least one of their wines, a sweet wine now known as the Commandaria, has been famous for nearly 3000 years and is still produced today. In more modern times, their wine industry languished throughout much of the 20th century until the 1990s when there was a major push to modernize and improve the quality of their wines. So, despite its long history, in some respects it still is has a young wine industry.

In 2007, a new Appellation of Origin system was established in Cyprus, based on European Union law, and there are three categories including Table wine, Local wine, and O.E.O.Π. (their top designation). There are four designated Local areas allowed, including Lefkosia, Lemesos, Larnaca and Paphos, and 85% of the grapes for a Local wine must come from one of these regions. Wines with the O.E.O.Π. designation have a number of regulations and restrictions, including a minimum altitude for the vineyards, yield restrictions, ageing and more. There are about 120 indigenous grapes in Cyprus though only a small number are actively used in wine making.

The history of the Lambouri Winery, located in Platres which is about 1128 meters above sea level, extends back over 300 years. They are a small, boutique winery which produces about 75,000 bottles annually and also grows only certified organic grapes. The winery presented six wines at the Expo, a sampling of different types and styles.

First up was a white wine, the 2010 Seaside Dream, a blend of Xinisteri and Riesling. Xinisteri, also spelled as Xynisteri and Xynistery, is an indigenous Cypriot white grape grown in about 13% of their vineyards. Xinisteri can produce aromatic wines with a bit of earthiness. I found the flavors of this wine to be more subdued, with a blend of citrus, green apple and minerality, but no earthiness. But, there was a certain exotic element to the taste, a bit indescribable but which elevated this wine above comparable wines.

Next, I tasted their 2010 Summer Blush, a Rosé blend of Grenache Noir and Maratheftiko, another indigenous Cypriot grape. Maratheftiko is an ancient grape variety, possibly the second oldest grape in the world, which is only recently starting to be planted more in Cyprus. It is known to possess high acid and high tannins, as well as be difficult to grow. This Rosé had a strong pink color and a pleasant and subtle red fruit aroma. On the palate it was dry, with flavors of strawberry and raspberry as well as some light herbal notes. An Old World style Rosé, this is the style I enjoy and would recommend this wine.

The 2006 Maratheftiko is produced from 100% Maratheftiko and has spent about 12 months in oak, a combination of new and old, French and American. Though it is about five years old, it is still a young wine and really needs another 5-6 years of ageing. With a medium red color, this dry red wine provides a complex taste of red fruits, mild spices and a certain exotic flavor. It is fairly tannic now, and definitely needs some time but I feel it has potential.  

The 2007 Crimson Sky is a blend of Mouvedre, Mavro and Cabernet Sauvignon. Mavro is another ancient and indigenous Cypriot grape and its name simply means "black." It is also the most widely grown grape on Cyprus, accounting for about 70% of all vines. In addition, the vines are grown on their original rootstock, and have not been grated with North American rootstock. This was another delicious wine, with only moderate tannins, and a pleasant melange of cherry, strawberry, blueberry, spice and herbal notes. It did not present the same exotic profile as the other wines, but was still a very good wine.

Lambouri also presented two compelling dessert wines. The 1998 Apollonia is a late harvest wine, a blend of 50% Mavro and 50% Xinisteri. It is aged for at least 5 years in oak, which is set out under the sun, and it has an alcohol content of 14.5%. It had a beautiful amber color with an alluring nose of honey and flowers, with a sweet taste, balanced by nice acidity. Its honey flavors were complemented with some herbal touches, and it had plenty of complexity and a satisfying, lengthy finish.

Finally, there was the 2000 Commandaria Legacy, the second oldest named wine in the world still in production. It is also is a late harvest wine, a blend of 50% Mavro and 50% Xinisteri, but the grapes spend about 9 days drying in the sun. A dried grape wine, known as Cypriot Manna, was first described in 800 BC by the Greek poet Hesiod. In the 13th century, Cyprus became the base of operations for the Templar Knights and there estate was known first as Gran Commanderie and then later Commandaria. They exported a dried grape wine known as Commandaria and it became quite famous. I found this wine to be even more complex than the Appolonia, with additional flavors of butterscotch, raisins and earthy hints. An amazing wine which I highly recommend.

My initial experience with Cypriot wines was very positive, and you should check out the wines from Lambouri Winery. I definitely want to explore more Cypriot wines.

Update 1/25/12: I just learned that The Spirited Gourmet in Belmont will carry some of these wines, including the 1998 Apollonia and 2006 Maratheftiko.

Boston Wine Expo: Pinotage Rosé to Cape Verde

Here is a sampling of some of the other wines that I found interesting at the Boston Wine Expo, and I will be posting about even more wines this week too.

Long a fan of South African wines, I am even a lover of the Pinotage grape, a rather divisive variety which I don't feel gets enough credit. The quality of Pinotage wines continues to improve all the time. At the Expo, I found a delicious Rosé wine made from 100% Pinotage, the 2010 Fantail Pinotage Rosé.

Fantail is the second label of the Morgenhof Wine Estatesituated on the slopes of the Simonsberg mountains outside Stellenbosch. The winery dates back to 1692 and is currently owned by Anne Cointreau, part of the famed French liqueur company, and she was the first women to invest in South Africa post-apartheid. The winery is small, with 74 hectares under vines and only producing about 35,000 cases each year.

The Pinotage vines for this wine average about 15 years, and the juice receives about three hours of skin contact. It is a small production wine, sells for under $15 and has an alcohol content of 12.75%. It possesses a rich pink color, with a nose of red fruit, and on the palate it is crisp and dry, with tastes of strawberry and bright cherry. It is more an Old World style, and does not possess any of the negative characteristics that some try to attribute to Pinotage. If you tasted this wine, you probably would not even guess it was produced from Pinotage. But you very likely would enjoy it and it is well worth giving it a try.

Several New England wineries were present at the Expo and one of my favorites is Turtle Creek Winery of Lincoln. I posted about some of their wines last year, have written other posts about the winery, and am back with an update on some of their new wines. Kip Kumler (pictured above) is the owner and winemaker of Turtle Creek, a small, artisan winery which produces around 900-1000 cases annually. Kip is very passionate about wine and I believe he is a skilled winemaker.

As a treat, Kip was pouring a barrel sample of his 2010 Pinot Noir, the grapes being from the Carneros region. Though a bit rough, it showed plenty of potential with excellent red fruit flavors, good acidity and a touch of earthiness. This promises to be a very good wine when it is ready for bottling and I look forward to its release. The 2009 Syrah seemed to me to be even better than the 2008, possessed of deep, rich flavors, and being powerful but not overly tannic. Its complexity was attractive and it screamed out for a hearty steak. Check this one out.

Kip is introducing a special Reserve line and those wines will be identified with a black backed label rather than the usual white (and you can see that label above). Most of Kip's wine are priced $18-$20, and the Reserve line will be priced around $30. The 2009 Cabernet Franc Reserve appealed to me, possessed of ripe black fruit flavors, a spicy backbone, and no green, vegetal notes. This is my preferred style of Cabernet Franc so I was very taken with it. It has plenty of complexity, a long and pleasing finish and is well balanced. Another recommended wine and I look forward to more of his Reserve wines.

One of the most unique offerings at the Expo were two wines from Cape Verde, which was the first time the wines had been shown in the U.S. Cape Verde is an island country in the central Atlantic Ocean, consisting of about ten islands. During the 15th century, Portuguese explorers found the islands, soon after settling there and planting grape vines during the 16th century. Cape Verde gained its independence in 1975.

The island of Fogo (which is a Portuguese term for "fire") has an active volcano, which includes a nine kilometer wide caldera, and the island rises to almost 3000 meters above sea level. There is a small village, Chã das Caldeiras (“Plain of the Calderas”), situated within the caldera, not exactly the safest place to be cause of the active volcano. Most of the grape cultivation of Cape Verde occurs on Fogo, and actually within the caldera itself at altitudes of 1500-2000 meters. Wine has been produced in the caldera for about 120 years. The manual agriculture and harvesting is difficult work in this terrain. Two cooperatives, Chã das Caldeiras and Sodade, produce all of the wine and production is very small, only about 160,000 bottles annually.    

The first wine I tasted was the NV Chã Branco, made from 100% Moscatel and with an alcohol content of 14%. It has a light yellow color with an amber tinge and a nose of perfume and herbs. On the palate, there were flavors of flowers, herbs and spices with a mild grapefruit taste as well. It had decent acidity and a touch of sweetness. I would have enjoyed this with some spicy Asian food. The second wine was the Chã Passito, also made with late harvest Moscatel grapes but which had been dried in the sun. It only has an alcohol content of 10.6%. This was a sweet wine, though balanced with nice acidity, and there were flavors of honey, dried apricot, raisins and with some floral notes and even some minerality. Both wines were good and I would like to try more wines from Cape Verde.

Next time you visit a large wine tasting or expo, skip the California Cabernet and French Bordeaux and seek out the less common wines, the more unusual choices.

Update 1/15/12: I have learned that Beacon Hill Wine & Gourmet in Melrose will soon be carrying the 2010 Fantail Pinotage Rosé.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Boston Wine Expo: Mead Wars

Once again I am a bit disappointed because there was no sake. As one of the largest local wine events, the Boston Wine Expo would be a good opportunity for sake producers to introduce their products to both the trade and consumers. So where were they this year? Ah, well, let us move on to other matters.

This past weekend, the Boston Wine Expo took place and I attended on Sunday, as the snow on Saturday kept me from getting there. There were some positive changes this year, from reduced ticket prices to a new mobile app. I actually enjoyed their new mobile app once they added a list of the wines at the event. It became easy then to mark your favorite wineries and wines. The app was easy to use and I hope they continue to use them for future Expos.

Last year, the Expo had lengthened the trade tasting time to three hours but cut it back this year to only two, which had been the norm prior to last year. It would have been better for an extra hour as the trade hours are usually a quieter time, allowing me the ability to better speak with the wine makers, distributors and representatives about their wines. Once all the consumers enter the event, it becomes more difficult to interact with the wine reps.

They also made some changes to the set-up of the event, and it seemed roomier but also a bit smaller, with seemingly less wineries represented. In prior years, the outside aisles were for all the food and lifestyle exhibitors, but this year, they spread those exhibitors throughout the room. As usual, I spent much of my time at the Expo seeking out the less common wines, lesser known grapes, wine styles or regions and I will discuss many of my finds this week. I'll start off my coverage with Mead Wars!
Mead, also known as honey wine, is an alcoholic drink basically produced from honey, water and yeast. Numerous variants exist, over at least 35, where the mead may contain spices, herbs, fruit or other additions and many of those variants have their own special terms. For example, a mead flavored with spice is known as a metheglin while a mead made with fruit is called a melomel. Mead is one of the oldest alcoholic beverages, at least 9000 years old, and there is an argument it might have been the first alcohol ever created. Mead has existed in numerous cultures all around the world, even figuring into the mythology of some of these cultures, such as the Norsemen. There has been a resurgent modern interest in mead, especially by home wine makers, and some commercial meaderies now exist.

My own experiences with mead have been meager, often restricted to what I have found at Renaissance Fairs. Thus, I was eager to taste the meads from two local producers, Moonlight Meadery and Maine Mead Works, at the Expo.

"Mead is passion, it's about romance, it's about enjoyment, family and friends, and sharing."
--Michael Fairbrother

The origin of the Moonlight Meadery, located in Londonderry, New Hampshire, extends back to 1995 when the owner Michael Fairbrother, created his first mead, a cyser, an apple and honey mead. Then, in July 2010, Michael commercially launched his flagship mead, Desire, and now produces about 18 different types of meads, most named by an interesting descriptor, such as Smitten, Tease, Flirt, Wicked, and Paramour. They try to use local honey and fruits whenever possible, and are the first New Hampshire winery to be distributed in California. At the Expo, Moonlight presented four of their meads.

First up was the Sensual, a traditional mead (15.2% alcohol) that was aromatic and had a rich honey taste, though it was not overly sweet. Along with the honey flavors, there were nutty undertones and mild floral notes. It was a tasty drink, which I enjoyed, and would make for a fine dessert drink, or maybe an accompaniment with spicy Asian food. The Embrace is a blend of 63% honey and 27% black currants (15.7% alcohol), which has a more reddish color and presents more dry and strongly tart. The honey notes are very subdued and the currants flavors predominate. I didn't care much for this as it was too tart for my own tastes, but if you enjoy tartness, I believe you would enjoy this mead.

The sweetness returned in Kurt's Apple Pie (16.8% alcohol), named after Michael's best friend, Kurt Demmer, and which is their best selling mead.  It is made with honey, local apple cider, Madagascar-bourbon vanilla and Vietnamese cinnamon and tastes exactly like liquid apple pie. I can understand why this mead is so popular, as the compelling blend of flavors works very well together. It is not cloyingly sweet and would be a perfect accompaniment with dessert. Though the alcohol content is high, it is not reflected in the balanced taste so you should be wary that you don't drink too much. I highly recommend this mead.

The final mead was more unique, the Utopian (16.9% alcohol), which is aged in Sam Adams Utopian barrels, a rare and special beer. The Utopian is a single barrel release and each bottle is noted with the bottling date and number of cases produced. This is certainly an interesting and complex beverage, which does remind me of an artisan beer, though it did not appeal to my own preferences as I am not much of a beer guy. But I certainly appreciate the unique nature of this brew.

The meads intrigued me sufficiently that I want to visit Moonlight, tour the meadery and taste more of their portfolio.

The Maine Mead Works, founded in 2007 and located in Portland, Maine, is owned by Ben Alexander and Carly Cope. They produce about nine different meads, using primarily locally sourced ingredients, including Aroostook County wildflower honey, Glendarragh Farms English lavender, Snell and Maxwell Farms strawberries and Heath Hill Farms elderberries. In collaboration with South African scholar Dr. Garth Cambray, they have also developed a state-of-the-art continuous fermentation system, availing themselves of modern technology to create a better mead. Their meads are known by the brand Honeymaker Meads.

I first tasted their Honeymaker Dry Mead (12.5% alcohol) which is produced in small batches and is oak aged. It actually had a fairly complex taste, dry though with subtle honey notes, as well as touches of citrus (especially orange) and floral notes. A pleasing taste and I would recommend this mead.  The Blueberry Mead (12.5% alcohol) reminds me more of a rosé wine with its light red hue, but it is made with organic wild blueberries. It had an appealing berry aroma and on the palate, the blueberry taste was pleasant, with a bit of tartness. It would be a fun summer wine. Lastly, I tasted the Lavender Mead (12.5% alcohol) which had a strong floral smell which came out dominant on the palate as well. I didn't care for the prominent lavender flavor, which is more a personal preference. All three of these meads are also gluten free. In addition, I would like to visit this meadery and taste more of their meads.

So, if you have not tasted mead before, give it a chance, especially if you live locally and can obtain meads from Moonlight Meadery or Maine Mead Works. With all of the diversity in mead styles and types, you will likely find something that appeals to your personal preferences. I know I will be exploring mead more in the future.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Rant: Stop Eating Cod, Tuna & Salmon

My advice for today: Stop Eating Cod, Tuna & Salmon.

Well, I am not really telling you to completely stop eating these fish but rather to expand your horizons and experience the full bounty of the sea. When dining, far too many people stick to familiar meats and seafood rather than being more adventurous, and even despite the fact that odder meats and seafood may be healthier and more sustainable. For example, I previously discussed the advantages of eating rabbit, noting its health benefits and sustainability. Yet not enough people eat rabbit, primarily for psychological reasons. Yet if we truly care about sustainability, we need to strongly consider these less common choices.

The February issue of Food & Wine magazine has an interesting section on Sustainable Seafood and there is an important quote from Chef Rick Moonen of RM Seafood in Las Vegas: "One of the best ways to fight overfishing is diversity: People must be willing to cook and eat species besides the familiar ones,..." He suggests that rather than enjoying tuna, cod, and salmon, people should eat more seafood like wild drum fish, snook, arctic char, cobia, and branzino. Practically, this makes plenty of sense, that eating less of the popular fish will allow their populations to rebound at a greater pace. The less commonly eaten fish often have plentiful populations so there are less concerns about sustainability.

For example, sardines are considered very healthy, rich in Omega-3s, minerals and B vitamins, and they are very sustainable as well. You can find them on some local menus, but once again, not enough people eat them. Most would rather order a tuna steak or broiled cod than a dish of fried sardines. Yet sardines are very tasty, which is also an important consideration. Europeans seem more apt to eat sardines, and I have enjoyed some superb sardine dishes in both Spain and Italy. Why doesn't the U.S. embrace sardines? It is primarily a mental obstacle, people unwilling to try something different.

In another article in that same magazine, the Trendspotting section mentions that whelks, a type of sea snail, are growing in popularity and notes that local Chef Tony Maws, of Craigie on Main, serves whelks. There is a newly emerging fishery in the Gulf of Maine which is gathering whelks, most which end up in Asian grocery stores in Boston and New York City. Chef Richard Garcias of 606 Congress has written about his recent experimentation with whelks and you will find whelks on the menu of other Boston restaurants as well like Coppa and Bondir. But this all requires diners willing to try the whelks, to order them rather than more common seafood dishes.

Get over your psychological barriers! Don't be afraid of something unfamiliar and take a chance on a different fish. It is time now to stop eating the same old fish all the time and experiment with less common seafood, to broaden your palate to the pleasure of whelks and sardines, cobia and mackerel. You will enjoy the tastes if you only give them a chance, especially if you dine at a good restaurant which knows how to properly prepare seafood. For the sake of sustainability, to save our oceans and all of the endangered species, this is an excellent choice and one you should seriously consider.  

So start eating sardines, whelks and other similar seafoods.

Friday, January 20, 2012

How To Pair Port With Dinner

Port and Blue Stilton cheese. Port and chocolate. 

Two classic pairings but which apparently have also relegated Port to being paired primarily with dessert or as an after-dinner drink. Yet that was not always the case and during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, sweet wines of all types, including Port, often were paired throughout an entire dinner. But that fell out of fashion. Personally, I generally had not given much thought to Port accompanying an appetizer or entree. But, the more I considered it, the more I was intrigued by the idea so I was eager to attend a local dinner where every course was accompanied by a different Port.

Legal Sea Foods recently hosted a five-course Port dinner in the Wine Cellar of their Park Square location. Sandy Block, Master of Wine and VP of Beverage Operations, and Tina Silverberg, Sommelier, were in attendance and led the discussion on Port, including showing some photos of the Douro region which Tina had visited during the last harvest. Sandy has also been to Portugal numerous times so together they brought plenty of Port knowledge to the dinner. The Port pairings were carefully considered and I eagerly anticipated testing the results.

In a very simple generalization, pairing wine with food can be done in either of two ways: matching or contrasting the flavors. For this Port dinner, they generally chose to adhere to the matching method, to try to pair foods with flavors that mirrored those of the Ports. A contrasting pairing with the Ports would have been a valid match as well, but that is beyond the scope of this post. For now, let us consider whether matching Port flavors to food works or not.

The dinner began with a few delicious Hors d'Oeuvres, which generally presented salty flavors with elements of smoke, sweetness and blue cheese.

A Stuffed Olive with Anchovy and Piquillo Pepper.

Grilled Sardines with Cabrales Blue Cheese in a Phyllo Tartlette. My favorite of the three, with its brininess up front and the sharp blue cheese finish.

Sea Scallop wrapped in Apple Smoked Bacon with an Aged Balsamic Reduction

These hors d'oeuvres were paired with a Fonseca Siroco White Port ($16.99) & Tonic, a popular cocktail in the hot Douro region. In a tall glass on the rocks, with a lemon slice, it was reminiscent of a vodka & tonic, but with more citrus flavors and a slight nuttiness. White Port is made in two styles, either dry or sweet, and the sweet version may be known as the Lagrima style. The Fonseca Siroco is a dry style and I would have liked to taste it on its own. But, it did well in the cocktail, and would be very refreshing in the summer. It went well with the hors d'oeuvres, helping to cleanse the palate. I think people need to drink more White Port.

Next up on the menu was Fish Two Ways, which included a Bluefish Paté with marcona almonds & grilled crostini, as well as Cod Cakes with Serrano ham & a saffron aioli. The Paté was superb, creamy and flavorful with salty and nutty elements. I would love to make that at home for a party sometime. The Cod Cakes were moist and tasty, and the ham was very crispy, adding a salty aspect as well.

With this seafood, we drank the Fonseca 20 Year Tawny Port ($49.99), which was served at cellar temperature (about 55-58 degrees Fahrenheit), not room temperature. The idea with this pairing was to match the nutty and salty flavors of the Port to the seafood. The wood aging of this Port made its color lighter, more of an amber than the purple shade of many young Ports. It had an alluring aroma and plenty of complexity on the palate, with flavors of caramel, almonds, raisins, and spice. It was silky smooth with very mild tannins and a lingering finish. A superb Port.

The Port's sweetness was also very subdued, and it reminded me in some ways of an aged Oloroso sherry. Different Port producers have varied house styles, and the level of sweetness of their Ports will vary, generally determined by the timing when the neutral brandy is added to the fermentation process. I felt this was a successful pairing, indicating one way in which a Port can be matched to seafood dishes, and the flavors of the food and wine complemented each other so very well. It certainly might not be your first choice for a seafood pairing, but it would make for an interesting change of pace and could impress your guests.

We moved on to a savory Grilled Duck Breast with a Black Mission Fig Glaze, tender slices of meaty duck with a thick, sweet glaze possessed of a dominant fig taste. Duck often is served with a fruit sauce or glaze, and the idea behind this pairing was to match the sweetness of the fig glaze to the Port's sweetness. I would have preferred the fig glaze to be a bit less sweet but it was easy enough to cover the duck slices with as much, or as little, of the glaze as you desired.

The pairing for this dish was the Croft 10 Year Tawny Port ($26.99) and Croft is the oldest still existing Port House. This Port was a bit darker in color than the previous Fonseca, with a similar aroma though with a bit more dominant fruit. It felt bigger and fuller in the mouth, with more sweetness though it still was at a mild level. The flavors were complex, with subtle nuttiness, and the tannins were slightly more prominent. The ten additional years of aging of the Fonseca do make a difference. This pairing also worked for me, and I think the combination of the sweet glaze and sweetness of the Port complemented each other. What helped was that the Port was not overly sweet, and I would now consider pairing Ports with sweet dishes.

The last savory course was Hickory Wood-Grilled Lamb Shoulder with Mole Poblano and Grilled Corn Cakes. Mole Poblano, which is of Mexican origin, contains numerous ingredients, including chile peppers, nuts and chocolate. The pairing idea was that as Port and chocolate are considered a good match, then the chocolate in the mole would make a match too. The lamb was tender with that distinctive and delicious taste of lamb. The mole was a rich sauce that complemented the slight gamey nature of the lamb, and it was more earthy and savory, rather than spicy so they must have been light with the chile peppers.

The Fonseca Late Bottled Vintage Port 2005 ($22.99) is a traditional style, meaning it is unfiltered. Taylor Fladgate developed the Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) style in the 1950s, trying to create a vintage style Port you could drink young. So, basically a LBV contains grapes from only a single vintage but it is not a declared vintage Port. Yes, it seems a bit confusing so just remember that a LBV is good to drink young, and usually is less expensive than a Vintage Port. This Fonseca had a dark and opaque purple color with a nose dominated by black fruits. It was full bodied, with stronger tannins and powerful flavors of black fruits and raisins. It was also sweeter than all of the previous Ports.

Once again, this was a nice pairing, with the Port flavors going well with the rich mole sauce and its chocolate flavors. I think the pairing might have even be better if the mole had more spiciness, as the Port's sweetness would have been a good contrast. As mole is a versatile sauce, I could see other dishes using mole also pairing well with Ports.

For dessert, they went with a classic pairing, Port and Chocolate. We were served a Warm Chocolate Pudding Cake with roasted walnuts and a Colombian dark chocolate sauce. The cake was fluffy and light, with plenty of rich chocolate flavor that was accented nicely with the salt from the walnuts. A chocolate lover's treasure.

The final port of the evening was the Taylor Fladgate Vintage Port 2000, which is just starting to come into its own and will continue to age for many years to come. It was a dark purple in color, though lighter at the edges. It had more black fruit aromas which also came out prominently on the palate, along with raisins and subtle spices. 2000 was considered a "magical" vintage, one of the best in recent times. It was an elegant Port, with a long and satisfying finish.  Taylor is considered the "Latour" of the Douro, producing classic Ports. With the chocolate, it enhanced the experience, a fine ending to a delicious dinner.  

I was pleased to see how Port could pair with more than chocolate and blue cheese, and it gave me much to ponder. Food and wine pairing can be an art and it is always interesting to try something different from the norm. Not enough Port is consumed in the U.S., but if more people learn how to pair meals with Port, maybe that will change. If you have paired Port with dinner, please tell me about the pairing in the comments.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

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)  On Tuesday, February 7, The Beehive presents “Belly Dancing at The Beehive,” featuring cuisine, libations and entertainment highlighting Middle Eastern culture. Join The Beehive for a celebration of Middle Eastern music and belly dancing featuring music by The Pharohs and nationally known belly dancer Phaedra Rose and guests.

The soul of the Middle East comes alive at 8pm with the sounds of The Pharohs, an international Armenian & Middle Eastern ensemble inspired by Middle Eastern, Arabic, Greek, Armenian and Israeli music. While The Pharohs perform, watch a mesmerizing belly dance performance by the steamy, seductive and mystical belly dancer, Phaedra Rose. Enjoy the lovely melodies of the evening with Executive Chef Rebecca Newell’s Middle Eastern fare with specials such as lamb-filled Moroccan cigars, mezze platters and The Beehive’s house couscous.

WHEN: Tuesday, February 7th, 2012, Doors/Dinner: 5:00PM, Live Music 8:00PM to 12:00AM
COST: No cover charge, cash bar, dinner reservations recommended.

2)  People born under the Dragon are passionate, brave and self-assured. At their best they are pioneering spirits; this Chinese New Year 2012 ushers in the Water Dragon. Water exerts a calming influence on the Dragon’s innate fire. Water Dragons are more open to other people’s opinions than other Dragons which gives them the ability to channel their personal charisma into real leadership qualities.

Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Market introduces a passionate and bold Chinese New Year Menu for Monday, January 23, from 5pm-10pm. He unveils his special menu: "The Year of the Water Dragon" as a seasonal twist and international flavor profile for the New Year. Market will offer a four course tasting menu, for $55 per person, with optional wine pairings that couple the international flavors of Jean-Georges’ travels in the East with the locally sourced ingredients Market in Boston is known for.

--Peekytoe Crab Dumplings (Meyer Lemon Celeriac Tea)
--Slowly Cooked Salmon (Cherry Tomatoes, Crispy Rice, Miso-Yuzu Broth)
--Grilled Beef Tenderloin (Gingered Shiitakes and Soy-Caramel Sauce)
--Vietnamese Chocolate Tart (Condensed Milk Ice Cream)

3)  On Saturday, January 28, from 12pm-5pm, The Wine ConneXtion, located in North Andover, welcomes guests for a complimentary tasting of Lafite Rothschild, the famed wine label whose Bordeaux's regularly fetch five figures. This winemaker is synonymous with excellence and since 1962 has been branching out from its renowned investor wines to offer imports for the wine enthusiast on a budget.

At "Around the Globe with Lafite Rothschild's Imports," guests will enjoy a diverse range of Rothschild’s wines, from their best from France to the great wines they produce in Chile and Argentina, while sampling complimentary cuisine from Sultan Mediterranean Café located in North Andover. The event is part of The Wine ConneXtion’s weekly Saturday tasting series and reflects its willingness to educate customers and refine their tastes.

4)  What do we New Englanders need to know about the Farm Bill? Plenty. Spend the afternoon at the Museum of Science and learn why the Farm Bill should really be called the Food Bill. Most of us know that the Farm Bill is coming up for re-authorization in 2012, but we truly don’t understand why and how much it matters to each of us. Join an expert group of panelists to help break down what the Farm Bill means to the food and farming industry. The event will take place throughout the Museum of Science and will include keynotes, a working session, panel discussions, as well as a meet-up room for the community to learn what local organizations are doing.

Let’s Talk About Food is presented in collaboration with the Museum of Science, the City of Cambridge, and Food Law Society at Harvard Law School, MIT and the City of Boston. This is the first of many Let’s Talk About Food events and initiatives of 2012.

WHO: Keynoters include 2012 Farm Bill experts and national resources: U.S. Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and NYU’s Marion Nestle, PhD. Let’s Talk About Food Founder is Louisa Kasdon.
WHEN: Sunday, January 29, 2:00p-6:00p (Keynote Panel Begins at 3p)
WHERE: Museum of Science, 1 Science Park,  Boston
OTHER: To register, log onto http://www.mos.org/events_activities/events&d=5346.
Founded in Boston 2010, Let’s Talk About Food is a national, educational and event-driven partnership organization aimed at increasing the level of public literacy about all aspects of our food system. From sustainability to food access, cooking to obesity, and food safety to food justice, Let's Talk About Food invites people across the spectrum to join in participatory, engaging and meaningful conversations that can shape the place food holds in our communities, our world, and our hearts. Our goal is to create a community of “Food Thinkers” – a new kind of Food Think Tank that brings experts and the community together to explore food and food issues in our world.

The first Let’s Talk About Food event of 2012 is the Farm Bill Teach In on Jan. 29 followed by the Let’s Talk About Sustainable Seafood Teach In on April 29th. The Second Annual Let’s Talk About Food Festival will be on June 16 this year. For more information, please log onto www.letstalkaboutfood.com.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Feeding the Dragon: A Culinary Exploration of China

This year, Chinese New Year falls on January 23, and it heralds the Year of the Water Dragon. Dragons are very passionate (glad to hear that!) and 2012 is poised to be a year of excitement and unpredictability, an excellent year for starting new projects. So, this is a perfect time to review a cookbook that presents some intriguing information on the culinary realm of China, especially when that book's title touches on a Dragon.

Feeding the Dragon: A Culinary Travelogue Through China with Recipes, written by Mary Kate Tate and Nate Tate (Andrews McMeel Publishing, October 2011, $24.99), is a trade-sized paperback of 290 pages. Mary and Nate are siblings, both with a passion for China, especially its culinary offerings. Their passion led them to undertake a three-month, 9700+ mile backpacking trek across China, visiting 18 provinces and territories. They had to economize on their journey, traveling by various modes from trains to donkeys, and spent their time immersed in the culture and food of China. To document these travels, they began a blog, Feeding the Dragon, which has developed into this book.

The book is a combination travelogue and cookbook, broken down into 9 sections by region, including Beijing, Shanghai, Fujian, Hong Kong, Macau, Yunnan, Tibet, Sichuan and Xinjiang. Each of these regional chapters has a few short essays, from historical to cultural, about that region. The topics are diverse, covering such items as dim sum, eating dog meat, yaks, dining with monks, pandas, the lion dance, and much more. These are interesting essays, providing glimpses into the diverse personalities of the various Chinese regions as well as insights into the personal experiences of the authors. These articles could encourage and motivate readers to seek out additional information, to peer deeper into the topics.

Each regional section also contains recipes, usually 10-15 per region, for a total of over 100 recipes, spanning the range from appetizers to desserts, and including several beverages too. Some of the recipes will sound familiar to most readers, like Hot and Sour Soup, Soup Dumplings, Dan Dan Noodles, Chicken Lettuce Cups, and Kung Pao Chicken. But, these recipes are intended to be more authentic, and might not be similar to what you eat at some local Asian restaurants. For example, the Hot and Sour Soup contains some less common ingredients such as lily buds and black tree ear fungus. There are also some more intriguing and less common recipes, such as Macanese Crab Curry, Dragon Fruit Sangria, Tibetan Noodle Soup, Uighur Roast Chicken and Popiah Rolls. There is something for everyone, no matter what your preferences.

Overall, the complexity level of the recipes appears to be Easy to Moderate, and the most difficulty might be finding some of the ingredients unless you go to an Asian grocery store. Each recipe begins with a paragraph or two that gives a bit of background or a story about the recipe. Recipes are better with some context and I am glad they added that information. A fair share of the recipes have accompanying and appealing photos of the dishes. The final sections of the book include a chapter on Cooking Basics, such as how to season a wok, how to stir fry, and dumpling folding tips, as well as a Glossary of ingredients.

The Tates have written a fascinating culinary survey of China that does not endeavor to be comprehensive. It is more a sampling of recipes from different regions, providing some authenticity for home cooks. I like the fact that it is more than just a collection of recipes, but also includes brief essays about Chinese culture and the author's travel experiences, giving the reader more context as well as making the book, as a whole, more interesting. The book is aesthetically pleasing, with numerous beautiful photos of not only the dishes, but also of the people, places and items of China.

With Chinese New Year coming soon, why not pick up this book and prepare some of the recipes to celebrate the Year of the Water Dragon. It is a great time to start a new project, like learning how to prepare some Chinese dishes.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Red Lantern: From Sushi to Pineapple Bread Pudding

A Japanese red lantern, hanging outside, immediately captured my eye as I walked down Stanhope Street. In Japan, these red lanterns are known as akachōchin, and during the 18th century, they indicated the presence of an izakaya, a sake bar where you could also nibble on some food. Over time, izakayas began to refer to any Japanese bar that served food to accompany alcohol. The lantern that I saw was located outside of the Red Lantern, an Asian restaurant and bar which opened this past June.

Red Lantern is owned by the Big Night Entertainment Group, which is also behind The Estate, a nightclub in Boston, as well as Scorpion Bar, High Rollers, and Shrine at Foxwoods Casino. Contrary to the concept at these other establishments, Red Lantern is primarily about the food, a restaurant with an added bar, rather than a bar that also happens to serve some food. That might be their biggest challenge, convincing people that this is a dining rather than a drinking destination, though you will likely enjoy their beverages as well.

It is a large restaurant, able to sit about 250 people, and the décor includes much appealing red and dark wood colors. The main dining section has smaller tables for couples, larger, circular tables for groups, as well as booths with leather clad seats. You can also sit in front of the sushi bar or even at the counter facing the open kitchen with its wood-fired grill and wok stations. There is a separate room with a 40 foot marble topped bar and a couple televisions. In addition, there is the Apothecary room, a private dining area that can hold 40 people.

Everywhere you turn, scattered all over the room, including inset high up on the walls, you will notice many Buddha and Asian statutes, some complete while others are just heads. The ceiling is filled with red lanterns. The ambiance is hip but with traditional elements that combine in a pleasing décor. It would be a great place for couples or groups, and on a Wednesday evening, the restaurant was packed with a diverse crowd.

Red Lantern is open for dinner seven days a week, and serves food in the dining room until 1am. They also serve takeout cuisine so if you live nearby, you can stop and pick up your dinner. The Executive Chef is Kevin Long, who started working in 1995 at Tosca in Hingham. Chef Long now is in charge of all the kitchens of Big Night Entertainment Group though his primary focus is currently Red Lantern.

They have a fully stocked bar, with a wide range of choices, and their selections are being revised and expanded. Beverage Director Joe O’Connor stated they want the cocktail list to be big and fun, and they have created numerous Asian influenced drinks. You’ll find Martinis ($12) like the Drunken Samurai, made with Moonstone Asian Pear Sake, Amaretto, and fresh lemon. This has an interesting blend of pear and nutty flavors and was not too sweet.  You’ll also find Cocktails ($10) like the Wasabi Mary, made with vodka and Red Lantern’s Wasabi Bloody Mix, which could have been spicier but does sneak up on you over time. Other special drinks include the huge Scorpion Bowl for 4 ($44), served in a trifle bowl, and The Flaming Plum shot ($9).

You will find 16 available wines by the glass as well as over 60 wines by the bottle, starting at $34. Their wine list is predominantly California but with French Champagnes and some wines from other regions such as Argentina and South Africa. They sell more white wines by the glass and more reds by the bottle. To my pleasure, they sell 9 Sakes by glass ($8-$12), such as the Kaori Junmai Ginjo, and 14 by the bottle, thought the prices seem a bit high, especially for the less expensive bottles. They also stock numerous beers, both draft and bottle.

The Food menu is large, but not overly so, and is broken down into Appetizers ($7-$17-Edamame with White Miso Aioli), Dim Sum ($8-$12, Duck Egg Roll), Soups & Salads ($6-$10), Noodles ($16-$22, Teriyaki Noodle steak), Fried Rice ($10-$18, from Shrimp to Char Sui Pork), Specialties & Wok Dishes ($22-$39, Stir Fried Shortrib), Steaks ($32-$42, Bacon Wrapped Filet) and Side Dishes ($3-$12, lobster whipped potatoes).

The higher priced items include more luxury items like lobster and Wagyu beef. Some of their specials include a Pu Pu Platter ($30/$60) and a Whole Roasted Hong Kong Duck ($88, serves up to four). There is also a menu of Sushi, Sashimi, and Maki rolls. This is reasonably priced, such as two pieces of Tuna for $7 or Salmon for $6.  In addition, you will find a Special Monday menu, which includes seven special small bites for $7 each, from fried shrimp shu mai to pineapple fried rice. There is also a featured wine/sake each week.

Five of us dined together, a fun group of food lovers so that the conversation never dulled. Our main server was Kai Le, a personable and energetic person, who explained the various dishes and made sure to bring us whatever we needed, from drinks to plates.

We began with a few dishes to whet our appetite. The Duck Buns include two warm and soft, steamed buns filled with plenty of tender and savory Hoisin duck. They were accompanied by some mirin pickles, an addictive side which were crisp and had a spicy kick to them. The creamy Avocado Salad, with cucumber, tobiko, crabstick, yuzu, greatly appealed to a couple of the diners while the other two were particularly drawn to the Hot & Sour Soup. This soup has 5-spice tofu, pork broth, mushrooms and white Pepper. This soup was much darker in color than others I have tasted, and also had a deeper, meaty taste with lots of umami.

Up next, we tried some sushi and sashimi, including Toro and Dressed Hamachi. A nice presentation and the Toro was silky smooth, fresh and flavorful, with plenty of veins of fat. The Hamachi was also tasty, with only mild heat and almost citrus flavors too. We later tried a few maki rolls too, and the Crunchy Roll, with Bana salmon toro, tobikko, crab stick, and crunchy was the clear favorite, though the Spicy Tuna performed very well too.

I was enamored with the Singapore Street Noodles, a bowl of thin noodles with pieces of shrimp, scallop, and pork with a Madras Curry and XO sauce. Great textures, lots of flavors, and a light dish. A heavy dish, but worthy, was the Mongolian Steak, slices of skirt steak with garlic, ginger, and mushrooms. Tender beef with rich flavors will please any carnivore. It was accompanied by a bowl of sweet potatoes with a crispy exterior and a soft, sweet interior. The Tik Tok Chicken were chunks of water chestnut golden chicken, atop white rice and topped by crisp wonton chips. It has a blend of sweet and spicy flavors, with tastes of orange.

I would even come to Red Lantern just for dessert. The Pineapple Bread Pudding, with coconut ice cream, was superb, a perfect blend of tropical flavors. The bread pudding had a nice firm, but soft, texture and it was bursting with fresh pineapple flavors. A fantastic dessert that made me forget how full I was and want to devour it in its entirety.  The Tempura Bananas are liked banana-filled spring rolls and there is enough to share with someone else.

Overall, I was impressed with Red Lantern. It is reasonably priced for the quality and quantity of their dishes, and there is something for everyone, no matter their preference. The food is obviously very important to them and does not come in second place to their drinks. Yet they have not skimped on their drinks either. Take a group of friends to Red Lantern and have a fun and delicious evening.

(A modified version of this review appeared in Boston Scene magazine, with plenty of great photos.)

Red Lantern on Urbanspoon