Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Modern Farmer Magazine: A Debut, With Chicken Love

Do you care about the source of your food? Do you prefer local, organic products? Do you frequent farmers' markets and local farms? Do you belong to a CSA or CSF? Do you grow your own herbs,  vegetables or fruits? Do you have respect for farmers? Do you want to learn about all of these topics, and more? If you answer affirmatively to any of these questions, then I recommend you check out a new quarterly magazine, Modern Farmer.

While perusing the magazine stands at Barnes & Noble, I noticed the inaugural issue of Modern Farmer, which was newly released. As I flipped through the pages, it intrigued me, with its fascinating photography and article topics. I bought a copy and have spent several days enjoying its contents. The magazine makes a promising debut, I will be awaiting their next issue and it earns my hearty recommendation.

Their website states their intent: "There has been a movement afoot in recent years to make connections between what we eat, how we live and the planet. Modern Farmer exists for people who want to be a part of that movement—it is for window-herb growers, career farmers, people who have chickens, people who want to have chickens and anyone who wants to know more about how food reaches their plate." Besides being a quarterly magazine, Modern Farmer is also a daily website, events series, and online store.

The magazine runs 136 pages and consists of about 35 articles, columns and reports. I love the diversity of the content, from frozen foods to wild pigs, from smoothies to cocktails. I found the various articles to be well written, informative as well as interesting. They did not come across as preachy or pretentious. The magazine also has a global scope, with articles about the U.S., China, Malawi, South Africa, Italy and more. With the articles, there are plenty of excellent, accompanying photographs of people, animals, items, scenes and much more.

There is a 20+ page center section of the magazine, called The Modern Farmer Handbook, and it is devoted to many more practical issues for farmers. You will learn items such as how to select the best breed of chicken to raise, how to turn your backyard into a four-season farm, and how to build a straw bale house. There is even a section on different type of "poop" used for fertilizer. Immediately following this section is a photo essay, Meet the Modern Farmers, which presents pictures of seven farmers, and some of their families, from around the world and devotes a couple of paragraphs to each one. There is even a farmer and restaurant owner from Massachusetts presented there, Mark Firth of Monterey.

Some of these articles are going to lead me to further research into their topics. I was pleased to see the current surge in organic farms in China and worried about the exploding population of wild pigs, including radioactive pigs wandering across Europe. Another uplifting article was on mangoes in Malawi, and how they have become so popular now for smoothies across the world. And it was cool to end the last page of the magazine devoted to a Durian vendor.

Check out Modern Farmer. You won't be disappointed. You will undoubtedly learn plenty. And you will enjoy it.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Rant: Boston Restaurants, Follow New York City's Lead

Consider a hypothetical restaurant which, on average, does 150 covers per night. In a week, they will do 1050 covers and in a month, that will total about 31,500 covers. Think of all the many pounds of ingredients that restaurant needs to create all those dishes. The major problem is that approximately 40% of that food will be wasted, discarded as refuse.

Where does all that trash end up? Far too often, it goes to landfills, creating larger and larger mounds of refuse.

Last summer, I ranted that Restaurants Should Cut Portion Sizes to reduce food waste. "It is estimated that over 40% of the food that is produced for consumption ends up as waste. What an incredible statistic which should bother everyone. The EPA states that in 2010, more than 34 million tons of food waste were generated." Food waste is a huge problem and needs to be addressed by everyone, from home owners to restaurants.

The New York Times recently reported that New York City acknowledged the problem of food waste, indicating that 1/3 of their 20,000 tons of daily refuse are from food waste and that restaurants account for 70% of commercial food waste. Over 100 New York City restaurants have stepped up the plate, vowing to "reduce the food waste they send to landfills by 50%" through composting and recycling. Both high end restaurants and chains will be participating, and hopefully other restaurants will join into this pledge as well.

That seems like a great start to an united effort to reduce food waste in New York City. Let us hope that other cities emulate their efforts and I am calling on all Boston restaurants to step up and make a similar pledge, to reduce their food waste by 50% through composting and recycling. I am sure there are some Boston area restaurants which already engage in such practices, such as Taranta in the North End. Chef Jose Duarte of Taranta is dedicated to making his restaurant green and sustainable, and has engaged in many beneficial practices toward that goal, including composting and recycling.

If any Boston restaurant currently practices composting and recycling, please contact me and I will add you to the post, making known your efforts to help reduce food waste. Or feel free to leave a comment on this post telling us all about your practices. If you are not composting and recycling yet, but want to start, please tell me this as well. If you don't want to compost and recycle, please step forward and tell me why you do not wish to do so.

Let us all do our part to reduce the problem of food waste.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Fladgate Partnership Declares 2011 Vintage Port

"Port is the oil of good conversation."
--Adrian Bridge

Last month, I spoke with Adrian Bridge, the CEO of the Fladgate Partnership, which comprises the three major Port houses of Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca and Croft. During that conversation, he indicated that the decision whether to declare 2011 a Vintage or not had not yet been made but there was optimism that it would be. If it was declared, he was also unsure how much Vintage Port might be produced, though he suspected it would be a smaller amount than previous vintages.

Other Port Houses have already declared a Vintage for 2011, including Sogrape Vinhos (Ferreira, Offley and Sandeman) and Symington Family (Cockburn's, Dow's, Graham's, Warre's, Quinta do Vesuvio and Smith Woodhouse). For specific information on what led to such an excellent vintage for Port in 2011, check out the Vintage Port Site.

Fladgate Partnership has also now declared 2011 a Vintage Port year for Taylor FladgateFonseca and Croft. They knew that the 2011 harvest was exceptional, but a declaration only came after they evaluated the final blends. "The blends from the three houses were carefully assessed over several weeks for quality, potential longevity and consistency of house style."

Adrian Bridge stated, "2011 has produced textbook Vintage Ports, classics in every sense.” The wines have a wonderful purity and elegance, but also plenty of structure and depth of flavor.” The Head Winemaker David Guimaraens also noted, “2011 was an excellent ripening season and produced a well-balanced crop. The 2011s stand out for the purity of the fruit and the quality of the tannins, which are silky and well integrated, but provide plenty of structure.”

This is the fifth great vintage in the past 12 years, which include 2000, 2003, 2007 and 2009. Bridge commented that, “Our 2009 declaration showed that demand remains strong for new release Vintage Ports, and we expect it to grow further as new fine wine markets develop. Wine consumers all over the world are realizing that Vintage Port continues to deliver astonishing value compared to many other classic wines.”

It is true that Vintage Port can be comparatively much less expensive than other great wines, from Bordeaux to Burgundy. Only about 2% of all Port is Vintage Port, and it is commonly said that a Vintage Port needs at least ten years of aging before it is optimally ready to drink. Some Vintage Ports can be drank earlier, but they all benefit from some aging. So be patient with your Vintage Port.

Which 2011 Ports will be available from the Fladgate partnership? First, they will produce a limited number of large formats, from all three houses, which will include double magnums and imperials. Second, the 2011 Vintage Ports from all three houses will be available later this year. Third, there will be a limited release of the 2011 Taylor Fladgate Quinta de Vargellas Vinha Velha Vintage Port. The grapes for this special wine are selected from old vines on two terraced plots, Polverinho and Renova do Armazém, which are classified as World Heritage sites.  For more information on the Fladgate Partnership 2011 Vintage Ports, check out their website.

Will you be purchasing any 2011 Vintage Ports? If so, which producers? Do you usually purchase Vintage Port?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

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) The Barcelona Wine Bar, a new Spanish tapas restaurant in Brookline, has a number of upcoming cooking classes which you might find of interest.

April 29, 7pm: Tapas Party in an Hour 
It's possible to plan and prep for a tapas party in an hour! We have quick, easy, dynamic, inspired tapas that can be easily prepared for a group in about an hour. Executive Chef Steven Brand will show you how to make Chorizo and Figs, Boquerones, Mushrooms a la plancha, stuffed olives, dates with almonds wrapped in Serrano ham, and more.
Cost: $29 per person, plus tax and gratuity.

May 27, 7pm: Spring Vegetable Classroom
Ramps, Morels, Favas, Peas, Asparagus. What's the home cook to do with the abundance of spring vegetables? How do we break through the doldrums of winter and come out inspired on the other side? Chef Steven has the answers.
Cost: $29 per person, plus tax and gratuity.

June 24, 7pm: Pig Roast 101 
Are pig roasts a daunting project for the home cook? We think not! See how fun and easy this process can be for the next time you have a dinner party for 12 people. Once the pig is roasting, Chef Steve will show you some ideas for side dishes that will accompany the roast, even dessert!
Cost: $29 per person, plus tax and gratuity.

To make reservations for any of these classes, please call the restaurant at 617-264-8900.

2) On Sunday, May 5, from 5:30pm-1am, The Beehive is going south of the border in celebration of Cinco de Mayo with its annual event featuring live music and food & cocktail specials. Guests will be able to indulge in Mexican-inspired food specials from Chef Rebecca Newell while getting in the spirit with tequila cocktails made from Leyenda del Milagro Tequila, the finest small batch, artisanal mescal. A special performance by nine piece Mariachi band, Mariachi International, will keep the night going as they take over The Beehive’s stage from 6:30pm-12am. Mexican appetizers, entrées, desserts and tequila specials will be served all night long. In classic Beehive spirit there will be plenty of surprises and there is never a cover charge.

Reservations are highly recommended by calling 617-423-0069. Sombreros welcome!

3) On May 15, at 6:30pm, Legal Sea Foods in Park Square will host a wine dinner with Bethel Heights Winery. Known best for their Pinot Noir blends, Bethel Heights has been a family business since 1977 with its winery located in Oregon. Legal Sea Foods will team up with Bethel Heights’ winemaker, Ben Casteel, to host a four-plus-course dinner featuring signature cuisine paired with Casteel’s choices from their vine.

The menu will be presented as follows:

Curried Scallops, Brioche Toast Points, Cilantro Crème Fraîche
Oysters on the Half Shell, Chimichurri Vinaigrette
Shrimp Gazpacho Shooters, Micro Cilantro
Bethel Heights Pinot Gris, Oregon, 2011
Seafood Trio Soup (Clams, Mussels, Shrimp, Coconut Lemongrass Broth, Curried Crostini)
Bethel Heights “Estate” Pinot Blanc, Eola-Amity Hills, 2011
Pan Seared Halibut Fillet (Ratatouille Niçoise, Provencal Butter Sauce)
Bethel Heights “Estate” Chardonnay, Eola-Amity Hills, 2011
Wood Grilled Faroe Salmon (Wild Mushroom Croquette, Shallot Butter Sauce)
Bethel Heights “Estate” Pinot Noir, Eola-Amity Hills, 2010
Bethel Heights “Flat Block” Estate Pinot Noir, Eola-Amity Hills, 2009
Morbier, Bijou, Camembert (Berry Compote, Buttery Toast Points)
Bethel Heights “Casteel Reserve” Pinot Noir, Eola-Amity Hills, 2010

Cost: $85 per person (excludes tax & gratuity)
Reservations required by calling 617-530-9397

4) On April 29, at 6pm, Lucia Ristorante is presenting a four course wine dinner with a menu designed and executed by Chef Pino Maffeo. The wine is sponsored by United Liquors, a Massachusetts-based distributor focusing on wine and spirits, with guest speakers Claudio Farina of Remo Farina Winery, Don Allen of Banville and Jones Wine Co., and representatives from Pala Wines.

Chef Pino has handcrafted a menu of dishes to complement the authentic flavors of these wines. Chef will guide guests through the menu, which includes:

Roasted Beets with a red wine vinaigrette and shaved Ricotta Salata
Pala I Fiore Vermentino
Veal and ricotta cannelloni with wild mushrooms
Pala I Fiore cannonau
Duck with roasted hazelnuts, brown butter
Remo Farina Valpolacella Riparsso
Remo Farina Amarone dell Valpolacella
Fresh berries with zambaglione

Cost: Tickets are $50 per person.
For reservations, please call 617-367-2353.

5) The Wine ConneXtion, located in North Andover, will be sampling and celebrating the arrival of Rosé on Saturday, May 18, from 1pm-5pm, during the complimentary Rosés Are Here tasting. Guests can gain a new appreciation and explore this light and refreshing wine. Rosés that have finished last in the past when the wine market was flooded with White Zinfandel look-a-likes but, are quickly making a comeback. As the summer weather rapidly approaches, wineries are releasing their best rosés to the market for optimum enjoyment. Guests will not want to miss this chance to drink this chilled wine and discover the full spectrum of flavors that Rosés have to offer.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Locapour Militia Rides: Will They Raid Your Restaurant?

Farm to table. Farm to fork. Seed to table. Ocean to table. Locavores. 

These terms are all the rage and restaurants across the country are touting how they rely on local ingredients. These restaurants support local farms, grow their own herbs, fruits, and vegetables, make their own salt, and more. Seasonality is also important to them. I am supportive of these restaurants, and the chefs and owners deserve kudos for their passion and dedication to the locavore cause. Unfortunately, there is a disconnect at many of these restaurants which disturbs me and others.

Where is the passion for vineyard to table? Where is the support for locapours?

At the recent Drink Local Wine conference in Maryland, while riding on a bus to visit a few wineries, several of us discussed the issue of how many restaurants embrace the locavore cause yet fail to address the locapour cause. Though these restaurants will showcase locally sourced ingredients for their food, they rarely, if ever, showcase local wines. Frankly, this seems like a form of hypocrisy, advocating for the benefits of local sourcing yet failing to follow through with that advocacy for local wines. I mentioned that we needed a Locapour Milita, a passionate group of local wine lovers to confront restaurants about such hypocrisy.

It seems so simple. Vineyards are farms and wine is an agricultural product. In regard to local sourcing, there is no reason it should be treated differently than any other agricultural product. If you are passionate about local sourcing, then you should also be passionate about local wines. Then why does it happen so rarely?

Our bus discussion was continued to a degree during one of the panel discussions at the conference. The panel, entitled Drinking Local, was described as: Does locavore mean locapour? Do Marylanders appreciate their home-grown wine, and if not, how to get the message out. The panelists included Chef Jerry Pellegrino of the Waterfront Kitchen, Jade Ostner, the Director of Events of the Maryland Wineries Association and Al Spoler, co-host of Cellar Notes/Radio Kitchen on WYPR Radio. Unfortunately, the discussion ran only 45 minutes, barely scratching the surface of this topic.

Spoler's comments were directed primarily at the situation within Maryland, though similar concerns exist in many other places around the country. Sopler stated that a wine culture does not currently exist in Maryland. There is an entire generation of people who have a negative image of Maryland wines and he believes that it will take generations to improve that perception. Though many people have met farmers, have patronized local farms and understand the traditions of farming, far fewer people have visited vineyards or wineries. Most people have very limited knowledge of the Maryland wine industry. Misperception and ignorance have hurt Maryland wineries.

This is a similar situation in many other states, where the wine industries are relatively new. Though wine might have a lengthy history in such states, the modern wine industry in such regions is often much newer and still in its relative infancy. As such, many local citizens are ignorant about the status of the wineries in their home state, and their opinions are often negative, based on very limited information and experience. Before people will embrace local wine, they need to understand that locally produced wine can be quality wine, that it can be delicious and worthy of their attention.

Maryland wineries should receive a positive boost from the passing of a new law. As of June 1, wineries will be permitted to sell their products at farmers' markets. This should elevate the visibility of Maryland wines, and give more people the opportunity to taste the wines and learn of their quality. In 2010, Massachusetts passed a similar law and a report was issued in 2012 concerning the effect of this law on local wineries in 2011. Eighteen wineries participated in this program and they saw, in total, a 66% increase in overall sales. In addition, 82% of the wineries reported increased visitors at their winery and 94% reported increased recognition for their wine. More states should consider passing such a law.

Ostner mentioned how the Maryland Wineries Association has supported numerous local wines events, including the annual Maryland Wine Week in June. However, it was interesting that she indicated most people seem to attend these events more for the event itself rather than the local wine. This supports Spoler's comments, indicating that many people still do not have a positive perception of local wines. Hopefully, in time, people will learn more and start attending these events more for the wine.

Some of us were especially interested to hear Chef Pellegrino's comments on this issue. The evening before, we dined at Chef Pellegrino's Waterfront Kitchen, enjoying a four course dinner paired with Maryland wines. At the bottom of our menu was a section mentioning the sources of many of the ingredients used in our dinner. The restaurant is a "seed-to-plate" place, meaning they "purchase ingredients as locally and seasonally as possible."

However, when reviewing the restaurant's website, you will find a two page wine list and none of those wines are from Maryland. You will find wines from all over the world, and many excellent choices, but where is the love for local wines? If the restaurant is so passionate about sourcing local ingredients, then why isn't there a similar passion for showcasing local wines? We looked forward to hearing Chef Pellegrino's thoughts on this issue during the panel discussion.

During the panel, Chef Pellegrino indicated that their small wine program is essentially arranged by producer, about 28 in all, and that they carry approximately 200 wines on their list. Though they are not mentioned on the website, he indicated they carry about 10 Maryland wines. It seems that he too suffers from misconceptions about the Maryland wine industry. He admitted that he hadn't been able to keep up with the Maryland wine industry and that he was lagging behind in knowledge. It was obvious he didn't understand all of the quality wines that were being produced in his own state.

I have encountered such ignorance before in other restaurants and wine shops. The owners often do not study and research their local wines, to discover which wines were worthy of inclusion in their establishments. Far too often they assume the wines are not good enough, but that perception is based on extremely limited knowledge. Yet these same individuals will invest great time and effort in researching local foods and ingredients. Why don't they invest that same passion in researching local wines too? If they are so committed to sourcing as local as possible, then there is absolutely no excuse why they shouldn't extend their efforts to local wine too.

Chef Pellegrino also noted that he generally purchases wines from local wineries at a higher price than the wholesale prices he pays for most other wines. Thus, the local wines are placed on his list at a higher price than other comparable wines. Is that really necessary? High wine mark-ups at restaurants are a pet peeve of mine, and I have said before that restaurants should have low mark-ups on more unique wines in an effort to persuade consumers to take a chance on them. To get more consumers to purchase Maryland wines, a restaurant should not significantly mark up those wines but rather should make them appear to be more of a bargain. With only ten Maryland wines on his list, Chef Pellegrino wouldn't have a significant hit to his bottom line if he lowered the mark up on those wines. In fact, he might make more money through more purchases of those wines.

I was more dismayed when Chef Pellegrino mentioned that he thought you should keep the Maryland name off wines on the list, placing them by the type of the grape instead. He asserted that "ignorance is bliss," that customers would be more likely to order Maryland wines if they did not know their actual origin. That seems contrary to the philosophy of his restaurant, a celebration of local sourcing, where he seems otherwise proud to mention the farms he patronizes. He wouldn't hide the name of a local farm which was the source of his meat or produce, so he shouldn't hide the fact that a wine is locally procured. If the wines are good enough to be on your list, then be honest about their source.

I don't expect a locavore restaurant to only carry local wines but I feel they should carry a representative selection of the quality local wines that are available. Their locavore philosophy should extend to being locapour as well. Adding local wines to their restaurant list would show a true passion for being local in all regards. The local wine industry could use the support as well, creating more advocates who can educate consumers about the advantages of local wine.

Join the Locapour Militia, and encourage your local restaurants to carry local wines.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Graffigna Winery & A New Riedel Malbec Glass

"We make loudspeakers for wine."
--Georg Riedel

What a cool way to think of wine glasses. Riedel creates a diverse selection of wine glasses, including many crafted for specific grapes. The goal is to make those wines speak the loudest and clearest, to best represent their aroma and flavors. On its face, many might find it silly that there is a different glass for grapes like Syrah, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. Does the size and the shape of a glass really make a difference, especially for specific grapes? Or is it merely a marketing gimmick?  

In conjunction with Graffigna Winery, Riedel has now designed a glass for Malbec wines. I was a media guest at an event intended to showcase this new glass, pitting it against two other glasses to determine whether the new Malbec glass had an effect or not. Based on this limited test, I have to conclude that the shape and size of the glass made a significant difference in the aroma and taste of the Malbec wines we tasted. Everyone I spoke to at the event had a similar experience.

The event was led by Federico Lleonart, the brand ambassador for Graffigna Winery. This winery was founded in 1870 by Santiago Graffigna, an Italian immigrant, and was the first winery established in the San Juan region of Argentina. In 1980, the winery was sold to Allied Domecq and then in 2005, it was acquired by Pernod Ricard. For the last ten years, the winemaker at Graffigna has been Gerardo Danitz.

The San Juan region, located north of Mendoza, currently produces about 20% of the wines of Argentina. It is generally hotter and drier than Mendoza, though their Malbec wines are fairly similar, dependent on comparisons of similar altitude wines. San Juan, with about 49,500 hectares of vineyards, is broken into five basic wine regions, including Calingasta, Ullum-Zonda, Tulum, Perdenal, and Jachal. Located in the foothills of the Andes, the altitude of the vineyards ranges from 2,000 to 5,000 feet above sea level.

Federico notes that Malbec in Argentina is less tannic than in the Cahors region of France. To him, "smooth and sweet" tannins are the key to Malbec in Argentina, making them approachable even when they are young.

We tasted tested two different wines, the 2010 Graffigna Centenario Malbec Reserve ($12) and 2010 Graffigna Grand Reserve Malbec ($20).

The wines were poured into three different glasses, which from left to right include a Pinot Noir glass, a typical restaurant wine glass and then the Riedel Malbec glass. The Malbec glass was designed to complement its fruit forwardness, sweet & smooth tannins, freshness and silky tannins. They wanted a larger bowl to provide more aroma, and the glass is taller than the others, almost egg-shaped, with a larger stem base. The glass is also designed to focus the wine to the center and sides of your tongue.

In each of the two flights, the Malbec glass provided the best showing of the wine, giving a more balanced and compelling taste. They were both tasty wines, with delicious, deep fruit flavors, silky tannins and elegant spice notes. The two other glasses provided more oak notes and seemed to emphasize the spice more than the fruit. Compared to the Malbec glass, the other two glasses did not present a balanced view of the wine. The restaurant glass actually performed the worst, which doesn't speak well for the basic wine glasses used at many restaurants.

Neither of these wines were high-end wines, but were rather good value wines. It was intriguing that even these types of wines showed better in certain wine glasses than others. Many of us don't think about our glassware for these types of wines, caring far more about the glasses we use for more expensive wines. However, it is clear that these type of value wines can benefit from the proper glassware as well. It has made me reconsider how I serve these value wines.

I would like to see a different taste testing between similar Riedel glasses that were designed for different grapes. For example, their Syrah glass is also recommended for Malbec, so it would be fascinating to compare the Syrah & Malbec glasses to determine whether there is a significant difference between the two. That might be a better test for whether all of these different grape glasses are necessary or not. The Graffigna test indicates that glassware makes a difference in aroma and taste, but it did not answer the question whether a Malbec specific glass makes a difference in comparison to similar grape specific glasses like Syrah.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Rant: Dining In The Dark

Restaurants with special dining in the dark events are currently popular. In Boston, you can check out Dining in the Dark, where you are blindfolded for dinner, forcing you to rely more heavily on your senses other than sight. These type of restaurants extend back to Germany in 1999, where blind and visually impaired servers were used in pitch dark restaurants. Similar restaurants have sprouted up across the world.

However, I am not ranting about these type of restaurants. Instead, I am talking about restaurants which intentionally keep their lighting far too dim, but not because they are offering a "dining in the dark" experience. In recent weeks, I have dined at two restaurants, The Gallows and Boston Chops, where I had issue with the lighting. I dined there on weekday evenings and still do not understand why they chose to make it so dark.

It was so dim that I could not read the menus without using some form of extra light to illuminate the menu details. Should I really need to use the flashlight app on my iPhone to see a restaurant menu? No, I shouldn't. Not ever. How does a restaurant expect you to make your menu selections if you can't see those choices? Are they trying to hide the prices on their menu?

In addition, the dimness prevents you from adequately viewing the food you order. You won't get a proper view of the presentation, the colors of the food, the visual textures of the dish. All you will see is a mass of shapes and shadows, which can cover many errors. If a mistake is made on your dish, you might not be able to determine it immediately, if at all.

For example, at The Gallows, I ordered one of their special poutines, asking for it without asparagus. When the dish came to my table, there was asparagus in it, though it took some time to discover that as it was too dark for me to easily see it in my dish. I will note that the restaurant very satisfactorily handled the mistake and that is not an issue. I just wish I had the ability to completely see what was on my plate.

Is the darkness a sign of the time of the evening? Does a restaurant think it should be darker the later in the night? At Boston Chops, the lighting started off fine when I arrived around 7pn, but it seemed that by 8pm, the lighting had progressively dimmed until it was impossible to read the menu and difficult to see my food. At the Gallows, I arrived around 7:30-8pm, and it was already too dark to see the menu. Why? Why? Why?

Restaurants, people want to be able to clearly see their menu and food. It might seem cool to make it dimmer at a bar, where people care far less what their drink may look like, but doing so at a restaurant helps no one. Spend a bit more on your electric bill and shine some light in your dining room. You might get more satisfied customers.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Gustave Lorentz: More Alsatian Wine Treasures

Charlie Sheen, oysters, white blood, bäckeoffe and Riesling.

What do all five of these have in common?  I would learn that fascinating answer on a recent Monday evening as I drank some Alsatian wines with dinner.

At Island Creek Oyster Bar, I dined with Pascal Schiele, the Export Director of Gustave Lorentzand Matt Demers of Quintessential Wines.  It was a fun, tasty and informative experience as I got to sample and learn about the Alsatian wines of Gustave Lorentz winery. This winery is making a new marketing effort in Massachusetts, and based on what I tasted, these are wines that you should place on your radar and seek out. For some background on Alsace, please check out my prior post concerning an Alsatian wine dinner.

The Gustave Lorentz winery, with a history extending back to 1836, is situated in the village of Bergheim in central Alsace. It remains a family winery, now in its sixth generation, and they currently have about 85 acres of vineyards on the hills of Altenberg de Bergheim, 4 acres planted on the hills of the Grand Cru Kanzlerberg and 30 acres in the Grand Cru Altenberg de Bergheim. The winery also purchases grapes from other vineyards, mainly in Bergheim.

Interestingly, the average cost of a vineyard in Alsace is the second highest in France, lower only than Champagne. Alsace vineyards, on average, are even more expensive than those in Burgundy or Bordeaux. Despite this high expense, Alsatian wines are not unduly expensive and you will find plenty of good values. Maybe certain regions in California, with expensive vineyard land, could take some lessons from Alsace in this regard.

As of 2012, Lorentz now has a significant portion of their vineyards certified organic and will soon be releasing a number of organic wines. Approximately 50% of their production is sold within France, mostly to restaurants, but that is going to change as French wine consumption continues to decrease. In response, the winery has been seeking markets elsewhere, to boost their exports. To bottle their wines, they use a combination of corks and screwcaps, and their high end wines use only cork as they don't feel they have sufficient experience with screwcaps for those wines. Their corks cost $1 each so definitely are not cheap.

They export to about 55 countries, making them the second largest Alsace exporter in the world. At this time, they sell about a dozen wines in their portfolio in the U.S., and 7 of those are available in Massachusetts (a few never before having been available here). Overall, their wines can be found in about 30 states and they are continuing to expand their distribution. Their U.S. distributor, for the last three years, has been Quintessential Wines. In the near future, they may start selling some of their Single Vineyard and Grand Cru wines in Massachusetts.

Pascal Schiele, pictured above, was born in Alsace and has deep roots in the wine industry. His great grandfather and grandfather were winemakers and two of his uncles are still winemakers. Pascal has desired to join the wine industry since he was a young boy. He never wanted to do anything else and his passion for wine was deeply evident at dinner. Pascal began in the wine exporting business in 1996 and joined the Gustave Lorentz winery in 2001.

During the evening, I asked Pascal what question that no writer had ever asked him before, and which he wishes they would, and his response was quick: "What color blood do I have?" An odd question to be sure, yet the answer resolved much. Pascal stated that his blood is white, because he has Riesling running through his veins. That is his favorite wine, that which most excites him. He certainly enjoys many other wines, but Riesling bears a special place in his heart...and in his veins.

I also asked him about some of his favorite Alsatian foods and three dishes came to mind. Choucroûte, the traditional dish of sauerkraut with meat and potatoes. Bäckeoffe, a casserole with meat & potatoes, often a winter meal. Escargot, a dish made by his beloved grandmother who was born in 1912. Over the course of the evening, Pascal told a couple stories about his grandmother and it was clear how important family was to him.

One of Pascal's favorite aspects of wine is that it "makes everyone on the same level." People of different social and economic classes all become equals while drinking wine. Consuming wine together, they share the same experience, which brings them together in a convivial atmosphere. It creates a positive bond, uniting people from diverse backgrounds. What a special aspect of wine!

Dinner was of course excellent, which I expected from Island Creek Oyster Bar, one of the best seafood restaurants in the city. We started with a dozen raw Oysters, four different types, and then I moved onto a bowl of Clam Chowder. The chowder was creamy, without being overly thick, and full of rich clam flavors with plenty of potato pieces, a bit of smokiness and delicious biscuit croutons. For my entree, I chose the Seafood Casserole, a hearty and tasty dish containing lobster, scallop and haddock. For dessert, I thoroughly enjoyed the Honey Crisp Apple Fritters with a Bourbon Caramel sauce. The wines and the food paired very well together, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to taste the wines with food rather than simply on their own.

Gustave Lorentz produces gastronomic wines, intended to accompany food, and they best can be described as fresh, clean, well-balanced and mostly dry. The six wines I tasted all conformed to that description and I often marveled at their clean taste, which I was later informed is the signature of Lorentz wines. These are also wines intended to reflect the terroir of Alsace and their vineyards.

We began our evening with two sparkling wines, Crémant d'Alsace. The term "crémant" basically means "creamy" and originally referred to sparkling wines that were produced with less pressure, which tended to make them taste more creamy than effervescent. They can offer excellent value, being less expensive than Champagne.

The NV Cremant D'Alsace Brut ($24.99) might be labeled as non-vintage, but the winery does not blend vintages so all of the grapes in this wine are from the same vintage. The Cremant is a blend, in equal proportions of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc. It spends 14-24 months on the lees, is disgorged three times a year, has an alcohol content of 12% and only 4000 cases are produced annually. It has a pleasant, fruity aroma of with a creamy, bubbly taste up front which finishes crisp and clean. There are appealing tastes of green apple, peach and melon. This is the type of sparkling wine that is going to appeal to many bubbly lovers.  

The NV Cremant D'Alsace Rosé ($24.99), as per law, must be produced from 100% Pinot Noir. It spends about 15 months on the lees, has an alcohol content of 12% and only 1500 cases are produced annually. It will be available in Massachusetts in early May. Vintage matters greatly for their Pinot Noir, and they need low yields for the best fruit. 2005 and 2009 were very good years for their Pinot. I was enamored though with this Cremant, relishing the alluring red fruit aroma. On the palate, it was crisper, and not as creamy, as the Brut with a dry taste of various red fruits, from strawberry to cherry. A fine sipping bubbly, I would enjoy this on its own or with various foods. Simply delicious and highly recommended.

My love affair continued with the 2012 Rosé of Pinot Noir ($18.99). The winery once was not strong in Rosé but as the general demand for Rosé wines increased, they chose to raise their production levels. The wine has an alcohol content of 12.5% and only 2500 cases are produced annually. With a bright pink color, the Rosé has a more subtle nose, subtle hints of red fruit, and on the palate, it is dry, clean and crisp with bright red fruit flavors. Refreshing and tasty, I couldn't get enough of this wine. This was my favorite wine of the evening and again it is something I could enjoy on its own or with food. As there are very few Alsatian Rosés in the U.S. market, this is a more unique wine. Highly recommended.

The 2010 Pinot Blanc Reserve ($18.99) is a blend of 90% Auxerrois and 10% Pinot Blanc, with an alcohol content of 12.5%. Pascal stated that Pinot Blanc is a "wonderful introduction" to Alsatian wines and is a "pure pleasure" wine. From its delightful melon aroma to its crisp, clean taste with pleasing flavors of melon, peach and citrus, this was an easy drinking, crowd pleaser. It has enough character to keep it from being too simple, and I would agree with Pascal that it is an excellent introduction to Alsatian wines, one sure to lure in wine lovers. And once you lure them in, they will likely stay for the rest of the Alsatian wines.

The 2008 Pinot Gris Reserve ($22.99) is made of 100% Pinot Gris. There is an Alsatian legend that in the 16th century, Baron Lazare de Schwendi traveled to Hungary where he found and enjoyed the sweet Tokay wines. He brought back a number of vines and they supposedly turned out to be Pinot Gris. Most likely though, the truth is that Pinot Gris vines were brought to Alsace from Burgundy. Unlike many cheap Pinot Grigio wines, this Pinot Gris possesses plenty of character and complexity. It has a richer mouthfeel, with prominent peach flavors, a streak of minerality and nice acidity. Delicious and worth seeking out.

The 2010 Gewurtztraminer Reserve ($24.99) is made of 100% Gewurtztraminer, with an alcohol content of 13.1%. The aroma is enticing, and you won't mistake it for anything else except Gewurtztraminer. On the palate, it possesses very bold and strong, spicy flavors and aromatics, including ginger, lychee, and floral notes. Though I liked this wine, and would have enjoyed trying it with some spicy Asian cuisine, it was my least favorite of the six. There was nothing wrong with this wine, but my personal preference would have been for the flavors to have been slightly less bold.

As I have written before, Alsatian wines don't seem to be on the radar of the average consumer. They need greater publicity to make consumers aware of their quality, value and excellent taste. Restaurants and wine stores need to work on hand selling these wines, recommending them to consumers who are open to expanding their palates. Wine writers need to highlight these wines, to speak of their virtues. The wines of Gustave Lorentz would be a fine introduction to consumers of the wonders of Alsatian wines.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Buy American Seafood: Four Excellent Choices

It is disturbing that Americans currently import 91% of their seafood, up 5% from 2010. Less than 10% of the seafood we consume is from our own country. That is a disheartening statistic and I previously Ranted about this issue, imploring Americans to eat more domestic seafood. Paul Greenberg, a writer, speaker and author of Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, understands this issue and he too strongly recommends that we should purchase more American seafood.

In the new issue of Food & Wine (May 2013), Greenberg wrote an article, Sustainable Seafood: The Good News, offering four excellent and sustainable seafood choices for Americans. These options include Pacific Spot Prawn, Northern Porgy, Atlantic Sea Scallop and Gulf of Mexico Bycatch. Look for these seafoods on restaurant menus, in the supermarket, at farmers' markets and other spots where you purchase seafood.

Though Pacific Spot Prawn is a specific species (Pandalus platyceros), two related species are also sometimes marketed as spot prawn, including Sidestripe Shrimp (Pandalopsis dispar) and Coonstripe Shrimp (Pandalus hypsinotis). They can be found in the Pacific Northwest, British Colombia and Alaska. These are highly sustainable, significantly because of the method of catch. Most other shrimp are caught by trawl nets but spot prawn are captured in small pots, reminiscent of lobster traps. These pots have very little bycatch and cause little, if any, environmental damage. One intriguing fact about spot prawn is that they are protandric hermaphrodites, meaning that they begin their life as a male and later transform into a female for the rest of their life.

These large shrimp can grow to nearly 12 inches in length, which might bring to mind a lobster, and they taste delicious. They can be grilled, steamed, baked or even served as sushi. Greenberg claims that they taste so rich that eating more than a dozen causes a "spot prawn coma." Previously, most spot prawns were sent to Japan but American restaurants and fish markets are starting to see the benefits of spot prawns. Keep an eye out for them!  

Northern Porgy, also known as Scup, are located in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean and they are an example of how fisheries can bring back endangered fish. During the 1990s, porgy was considered endangered due to overfishing so tough regulations were put into place to hopefully bring back the species. This was a great success and in 2009, the species was considered officially rebuilt and stocks are now high. One of the problems had been that squid trawlers caught too much porgy as bycatch so changes to the squid fisheries helped greatly limit this from occurring.

Porgy are available year round, and the fish itself is small, generally weighing around two pounds. They have a mild, but compelling taste, and a fluffy texture, making them versatile in cooking. They can be a good substitute rather than tilapia or flounder.  However, they are still an underutilized species which needs to be promoted more by restaurants and fish markets.

Scallops are a popular seafood but people should realize that Atlantic Sea Scallops are a sustainable choice. Like Porgy, Atlantic Sea Scallops were endangered back in the 1990s but the industry has rebounded and by 2001, the industry was once again sustainable. One beneficial side effect of these new fishing regulations is that many of the scallops are larger than they once were, as the trawling nets have large openings, allowing smaller scallops to remain in the sea. I love scallops and encourage people to seek out Atlantic Sea Scallops.

Greenberg's final recommendation is not a single species but an entire category, Gulf of Mexico bycatch. He mentions that seafood distributor Louisiana Foods created a program, Total Catch, which is a means to sell bycatch from Gulf fishermen. Though some might consider some of these bycatch species to be "trashfish," chefs and home cooks can easily make delicious meals from these varied species. Unfortunately, the Louisiana Foods website has little information, or little easily found, on their Total Catch program beside a listing of seafood. They apparently have a bycatch market at their retail space, and it appears they can also sell these bycatch species all across the U.S. as they do the rest of their seafood. Selling bycatch is certainly an intriguing and sustainable idea, which simply requires consumers to be more open to the types of seafood they will consume.

Eat more domestic seafood, and I hope these four recommendations from Paul Greenberg help motivate you.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Shipping Wine To Massachusetts: A Critique Of Andelman's Plan

Like many wine lovers in Massachusetts, I would like the ability to receive shipments of wine directly from out of state wineries. There are plenty of wineries which do not sell their wines in Massachusetts but which I would like to be able to purchase. However, I still cannot do so because the legislature can't seem to get their act together and pass a constitutional law which would allow it.

In 2006, a law was passed that barred many such shipments into Massachusetts but it was later ruled unconstitutional, a decision affirmed by the U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals. Since that decision on January 2010, several efforts have been instituted to create a legal framework allowing out of state winery shipments. To date, despite the passionate advocacy of groups such as Free The Grapes, all such efforts have failed but I continue to have hope that will change one day.

Currently, House Bill 294, authored by Representative Theodore Speliotis, is in the committee on Consumer Protection & Professional Licensure and it is hoped that it will receive a hearing. Dave Andelman, of The Phantom Gourmet and Restaurant & Business Alliance, seems to feel that House Bill 294 is wrong and has offered his own plan in a column, A Better Way To Buy Out Of State Winein the Metrowest Daily News. I believe Andelman's three-point plan is unduly burdensome, overly protective and based on inaccurate information.

Andelman first point states that out of state wineries should pay a $1000 licensing fee rather than the proposed $100. He states this fee would be comparable to New Jersey but that is incorrect. The New Jersey licensing fee actually is a spectrum, dependent on the production level of the winery, and ranges from $63-$938. So Andelman has provided inaccurate information concerning New Jersey's license fees.

Andelman also sees this fee as a potential means of revenue for the state, yet there is no rationale for why that should be the case. He offers no evidence that a $100 licensing fee would be inadequate to administer the cost of the program. A $1000 fee would be burdensome on small, boutique wineries which already have limited resources. That is the rationale behind basing licensing fees on the size of a winery, to not overburden the small producers.

In his next point, Andelman wants to restrict wineries to shipping one case per month to a household. The current bill allows each household adult to order 2 cases per month. He tries to make the current plan seem scary by alleging a household could order over a million bottles of wine. While technically it is possible, the chance is so remote as to be silly. The average person in the U.S. purchases only about 14 bottles per year. The vast majority of the more dedicated wine lovers still probably own less than 1000 bottles. So Andelman's worries are essentially baseless.

Andelman's suggestion prevents consumers from ordering multiple cases of wine from a single winery at a single time. Consumers generally do not order a case each month of a wine they desire. They usually want to buy it at a single time, to ensure they get the wine before it sells out. They might buy two to three cases of a wine, and then may not buy from that same winery for six months or more. There is no valid reason to restrict sales to a single case per month. That would be an undue burden, based on the usual purchasing practices of wine lovers.

Finally, Andelman alleges that shipped wine should have to be sent to a liquor store, to protect against underage drinking. He mentions that a 20-20 story and a North Carolina University study proved that minors could easily buy alcohol on the Internet. Yet he does not provide a link to either the story or study, or provide any of the actual facts from these two sources. How reliable is this information? Where was the study conducted? Does the study envision a similar system as proposed by House Bill 294? These allegations seem more like fear mongering.

The fact is that wine stores have had plenty of problems in selling alcohol to minors. As one example, the city of Haverhill conducted a series of stings on bars, restaurants and liquor stores and 25% of those places were caught selling to a minor. You can find plenty of other examples of liquor stores which have sold to minors. Yes, we need to ensure minors cannot purchase alcohol but Andelman's plan would not guarantee that.

Andelman's plan also includes that a consumer would have to pay a "nominal" processing fee to the liquor store. Could a liquor store refuse to accept shipments? Who would regulate the amount of the processing fee? Would liquor stores want the added paperwork of processing these shipments? We should not place this added burden on liquor stores. Andelman though seems to believe this would help liquor stores who "..may be forced to terminate employees if their sales fall much further after the increased amount of liquor licenses which have been issued, including large liquor sections at supermarkets."  How is that so?

He fails to explain how it would help liquor stores. They would receive only a "nominal" fee so that shouldn't be enough to make up for any alleged lost sales. He provides no evidence or statistics on whether local liquor stores have seen decreased sales or not. He fails to provide any evidence that out of state shipments would significantly affect small liquor stores.

Dave Andelman needs to provide far more details, evidence and support for his plan as currently it is lacking in many aspects. He has yet to offer valid arguments or a valid alternative against House Bill 294. And his initial inaccurate information about New Jersey licensing fees casts doubt on his own research and credibility.

I will continue to side with Free The Grapes in supporting House Bill 294.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Rant: Local Sports, Local Wine

Sport fans tend to support their home teams, to have a sense of pride in these local sport teams. In Boston, most local residents support the Red Sox, Bruins, Celtics and Patriots. Even if you are not a big sports fan, you still tend to have a sense of pride in your local teams. One's pride in your local teams often does not depend upon the greater success of those teams. These sports teams don't even have to win championships to have local fans with great pride in their teams. For example, Red Sox fans fervently supported their team despite the fact it took them 86 years to win another World Series.

Local teams, local pride.

This is a great concept and I wish people would have that same pride in their local wine industries. Every state in the country now makes their own wine, and those wineries need the support of their local residents. They need to be embraced like they were a local sports team.

Over the weekend, I attended the fifth annual Drink Local Wine conference in Maryland. This was a fantastic opportunity to learn about and taste a diverse variety of Maryland wines. Prior to the conference, I had never tasted a Maryland wine and at the conference, I probably got to taste easily over 100 Maryland wines. In addition, I attended several panels where a number of people involved in the Maryland wine industry discussed the past, present and future of their wine scene. The issue of local pride arose during these panels.

Like many states, Maryland wines have an image problem, including among many of its citizens. Though I saw much pride for their wine at the conference, the grand tasting also showed how numerous people still did not fully understand the type of wines that Maryland produces. Some previously believed that Maryland made only sweet wine so the grand tasting was an eye opener for them, giving them additional reasons to have greater pride in their state. Far more residents of Maryland need to have pride in their wine industry, to embrace it as they do their local sport teams.

I think it was especially fitting that the Grand Tasting was held at the Warehouse at Camden Yards, the park where the Baltimore Orioles play baseball. Maryland residents have great pride in the Orioles and they should have a similar pride in their local wine industry. That requires a greater comprehension of the local wine industry, a willingness to explore and taste local wines to learn what they have to offer.

I heard a local chef, whose restaurant emphasizes local ingredients, explain that he was still ignorant of many Maryland wineries, which was part of the reason why his restaurant's wine list had only a tiny amount of local wines. As he has pride in local food ingredients, he should learn more about Maryland wine and obtain a similar pride in those wines. Locally, I have heard from a number of restaurants and wine stores who possessed much ignorance of the Massachusetts wine industry, failing to realize the quality that exists there.

I am using Maryland as an example and my point extends to citizens in every state. You need to have pride in your local wine industry, no matter where it fits on the spectrum of quality. Maybe your state doesn't make "championship" wine yet, but that still does not mean you shouldn't support it. Your support and pride in your local wine industry will give it an added incentive to improve, to raise its quality. Take some time to learn about your local wine industry and you might be surprised at the quality you discover.

Let your pride for your local sport teams extend to your local wineries!

Friday, April 12, 2013

Friday Sips & Nibbles

I am back with a special Friday edition of Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I briefly highlight some interesting wine and food items that I have encountered recently.
1) Executive Chef Eric Gburski is getting ready to roll out a new lunchtime menu at Estelle’s in the South End. Chef Gburski’s Burger Joint menu will launch on Monday, April 15, and features five juicy burger options and four gourmet salads perfect for all palates. Estelle’s will now be a burger joint by day while continuing to serve up its signature southern cuisine by night and also for Sunday brunch.

Chef Gburski’s quintet of burgers are served with house-cut fries and a variety of sauces and will be flipped as follows: Estelle’s House Burger (100% beef burger with American cheese, tomato, onion, Estelle’s B n’ B pickles, potato roll - $7.95); Double Trouble (double 100% beef burgers, double American cheese, tomato, onion, Estelle’s B n’ B pickles, potato roll - $12.95); Cajun Turkey Burger (spiced turkey with American cheese, tomato, onion, Estelle’s B n’ B pickles, potato roll - $9.95); Crispy Catfish Burger (pan fried, breaded and spiced catfish with lettuce, tomato, onion, Estelle’s B n’ B pickles, potato roll - $10.95); and, Vegan Burger (black eyed pea and corn burger with lettuce, tomato, onion, Estelle’s B n’ B pickles - $8.95).

For salads, there are four options: Cajun Chef’s Salad (smoked turkey, Tasso ham, Gruyere cheese, Romaine lettuce with remoulade vinaigrette, julienne vegetables, house deviled egg - $11.95); Big Chopped Salad (Iceberg chopped and tossed with buttermilk ranch dressing, pickled red onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, cornbread croutons - $9.95); Spinach Salad (warm roasted shallot-bacon vinaigrette, crumbled feta cheese, chopped egg, grilled red onions - $10.95); and, Bitter Greens Salad (chicory, arugula, Tuscan kale, sherry-mustard vinaigrette, roasted beets, goat cheese, orange-spicy pickled carrots - $9.95).

Estelle’s will be open for lunch service Monday through Saturday from 11:30am to 5:00pm.

2) Owner & Chef Brian Poe is springing into the season with the launch of a series of new menus at The Tip Tap Room in Beacon Hill on Thursday. On the culinary side, Executive Chef Poe will introduce a new upscale, entrée concept to his restaurant – devoid of “tips” – while refreshing some of his signature “tips” and lunch offerings to incorporate the premier flavors of spring. On the beverage side, seasonal sips, brews and first-time “mocktail” selections will emerge.

For dinner, Chef Poe will now serve up a quintet of new entrees geared toward those with savory and hearty appetites: Wagyu Flank Steak (marinated in basil and garlic with spring peas, shiitake mushrooms, bacon-mint risotto, cabernet sauce - $24.95); Thai Peanut Crusted Halibut (roasted fingerling potatoes, coconut lemongrass broth, grilled baby bok choy - $26.95); Pork Porterhouse (basil and onion marinade, avocado, chanterelle mushroom and tomato salsa, mushroom glace - $24.95); Shrimp (with lobster-buttered cheese grits - $26.95); and, Antelope Meatloaf (cranberry-jalapeño au jus, crispy cheesy potato cake - $17.95).

On the lunch menu, there are now six gourmet salads and six sandwiches, piled-high, available in addition to many options for soups, appetizers and “tips.” Highlights include: Endive, Radicchio & Arugula (grilled asparagus, toasted pine nuts, kalamata olives, parmesan cheese, aged balsamic vinaigrette - $9.95); Grilled Baby Bok Choy Salad (sauté of snap peas, Thai chilies, caramelized shiitakes, grilled tofu, sesame-soy vinaigrette - $10.95); Buffalo Sandwich (buffalo meat, lettuce, tomato, boar bacon, juniper mayonnaise, Swiss cheese - $12.95); Spring Chicken (grilled chicken tips, Meyer lemon mayonnaise, mint vinaigrette, pea tendrils, tomato - $10.95); and, Grilled Tuna (peppercorn and coriander, grilled medium rare, pink peppercorn-soy vinaigrette, micro wasabi greens - $15.95).

Other newcomers to the spring menus include: Lobster Corn Chowder (lobster, corn, potatoes, ginger - $13.95); Spring Pea Soup (crème fraîche, crouton - $9.95); Spring Salad (peas, carrots, parsnips, cucumber ribbons, morels, seasonal specials - $9.95); and, Celery Salad (roasted celery root, celery root chips, celery, shaved parmesan, watermelon radish, black radish, sea salted walnuts, fennel, red wine Dijon vinaigrette - $11.95).

Available at lunch and dinner, Chef Poe will continue to serve up his seven signature “tips” selections with refreshed accompaniments and his nightly rotating wild game specials.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

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) The Taste of the North End is turning 20 this year. The Taste of the North End was founded by Donato and Nancy Frattaroli in 1993 as a benefit for Casa Monte Cassino. The Frattarolis became aware of Casa Monte Cassino when a family from Italy came into their North End restaurant. The family was staying at the CMC while their four daughters received medical attention at Boston's Children's Hospital Boston. The Frattarolis were touched by their story and inspired by the mission of the Casa; to provide a place to stay for impoverished families from around the world while their children receive serious medical attention in Boston. Over the next few weeks, as the Frattarolis developed the idea for the Taste of the North End to raise funds to help Casa Monte Cassino provide its invaluable services.

The Frattarolis, with the support of the North End restaurant community, held the First Annual Taste of the North End in the basement of St. John's School. That first year, guests were able to try dishes from fifteen North End eateries. The success of the event has been incredible. What started in St. John's moved to the local Coast Guard Base, the New England Aquarium, and finally to the DCR's Steriti Rink on Commercial Street. The Taste of the North End currently features over 30 restaurants, bakeries and distributors. Since its inception, the Taste of the North End has raised over $500,000 for Casa Monte Cassino and other local North End charities.

This year, guests can sample from more than 35 popular North End eateries showcasing a wide array of delectable appetizers, cheeses, entrees and desserts, and sip on refreshing libations from area wine and beer distributors. There will also be a high-end silent auction with hotel and restaurant packages, Boston sporting tickets, memorabilia, and more.

All proceeds from the event are split between multiple non-profit organizations in the North End including elderly, education and health programs to help better then entire community; last year over $100,000 was raised. This is the fourth year that North End Waterfront Health has partnered with the Frattaroli family to put on and host the event.

This year’s event co-chairs are event founder Donato Frattaroli, owner of Lucia Ristorante, and James Luisi, CEO of North End Waterfront Health. The Master of Ceremonies for the 16th year is KISS-108 and NECN personality Billy Costa. This ceremony will also honor Matt Conti, a local North End Community Journalist for his charitable work with North End organizations and North End restaurant owner, Barbara Summa of La Summa Restaurant.

This year’s participating restaurants include: Al Dente, Antico Forno, Aragosta, Artu, Bricco, Cantina Italiana, Carmelina, Ducali, Filippo, Fiore, Gennaro’s 5 North Square, Il Panino, J. Pace, La Summa, Lucca, Lucia Ristorante, Mamma Maria, Massimino, Mercato del Mare, Mike's Pastry, Modern Pastry, Neptune, Pagliuca, Paul W. Marks, Pellino, Perkins, Piantedosi Baking, Quattro, Taranta, Terra Mia, Tresca, and Vito’s Tavern.

The event will be held on Friday, May 10, from 6pm-11pm, at the DCR Steriti Memorial Ice Rink,                                  561 Commercial Street, Boston.

Tickets are $79 and can be purchased in advance at totne.brownpapertickets.com or by calling 617-643-8105. Tickets are $99 after April 26th.

2) Boston Bakes for Breast Cancer is celebrating their 14th year of success in the city. This year, from May 6-12, some of the area’s premiere restaurants and bakeries will be joining forces to help raise money to benefit breast cancer research and care at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Establishments will choose one dessert to feature for a week where 100% of the proceeds from sales will go directly to the Boston Bakes for Breast Cancer organization.

This year, top area restaurants have kindly pledged to donate all of their selected dessert’s proceeds to join in the battle against breast cancer including:

Avila Modern Mediterranean and Davio’s Northern Italian Steakhouse’s Warm Chocolate Cake ($9)
BOKX 109 American Prime’s Local Strawberry, Tarragon & Balsamic Shortcake (basil, peach gelato, rhubarb lattice - $10)
Haru’s Banana Spring Rolls (chocolate dipping sauce - $9)
Legal Harborside’s Savarin Aux Fruit (yeast cake soaked in passion fruit and Bärenjäger with whipped cream, fresh fruit - $7.95 on the second level)
The Tip Tap Room’s Blackberry & White Chocolate Bread Pudding (caramel and brioche - $6.95)
The Varano Group’s Fresh Berry Chocolate Tart ($9 at Strega Waterfront, Strega North End and Nico).

3) On Monday, April 15, at 6:30pm, Tryst Restaurant located in Arlington and Berman’s Wine & Spirits, located in Lexington combine forces to host a four course, prix fixe wine dinner in celebration of international winemaker and the evening’s special guest, Guillaume Gonnet, the co-owner of Font de Michelle located in the Rhone Valley of France.

Font de Michelle has been run by the Gonnet family for over three generations, and offers some of the fairest prices throughout Chateauneuf du Pape sector. Quoting Robert Parker of The Wine Advocate, "One of the top estates in the eastern sector of Chateauneuf du Pape, with cellars located adjacent to Vieux Telegraphe, Font de Michelle has been impeccably run by the Gonnet brothers for a number of years. Moreover, they have kept their egos in check, offering some of the fairest pricing of the appellation."

Hosted at Tryst, guests will indulge in Chef Turano’s four course menu:

P.E.I Mussels (Coconut & red curry)
(2011 Cotes du Rhone Blanc “La Julia”)
Comte & Caramelized Onion Tart (Field greens & lardon’s)
(Cotes du Rhone Rouge “Font du Vent”)
Slow Braised American Lamb (Spring dug parsnip & roasted vegetables)
(2010 Chateauneuf du Pape “Font de Michelle”)
Almond Financier (Orange anglaise & rhubarb)
(Muscat Beaume de Vinise-La Pigeade)

Cost: $75 per person (tax & gratuity not included)
Reservations are required by calling Tryst at 781-641-2227

4) Mâitre d' hotel and Fromager Louis Risoli teams up with Sommelier Erich Schliebe to bring an exquisite Cheese & Champagne sampling to this month’s Salon Session at L’Espalier. On Thursday, April 11, at 6pm, Risoli and Schliebe present an entertaining evening for an intimate and interactive sampling. For $55 per person, guests can indulge in a selection from L’Espalier’s award-winning cheese cart paired with fine champagne. Hosted in L’Espalier’s striking salon overlooking Boylston Street, guests can toast to great cuisine, conversation, and a one of a kind view of the city.

For more information or reservations, please call (617) 262-3023

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Liparita: Cabernet of Balance, Complexity & Value

"Don't cheat!"

That is the sage advice from Jason Fisher, the winemaker for Hoopla WinesHoopes Vineyard, and Liparita Winery. Though such advice is applicable as a general life lesson, Jason was referring to the act of winemaking. He means that wine should be made right, with minimal intervention, devoid of manipulation. Wine should express terroir, and manipulation only serves to conceal and obfuscate that sense of place.

Jason told me that one of the greatest challenges in the California wine industry is the uniformity of style, how few winemakers are willing to think outside the box. Far too much Cabernet Sauvignon tastes the same and terroir too often seems to take the backseat. Some high end California Cabernets have been chastised in the wine media for seeking high scores, creating homogeneous wines. Little can differentiate some of these $100+ wines as they taste largely the same. There should be alternatives available.

Recently, over dinner at Abe & Louie's, I met and conversed with Jason Fisher and John Healy, who is in charge of sales and marketing for those same three wineries. They are part of a three person operation, the third being the primary owner Spencer Hoopes. Besides chatting with the two of them, I had the opportunity to taste several of their wines over dinner, an excellent way to experience such wines.

Jason Fisher, pictured above, has a strong local connection as he once lived in Arlington, Massachusetts and graduated from Boston College. He has previously worked at wineries including Paradigm, Grace Family Vineyards, and Cosentino, as well as spending eight years as a flying winemaker in South Africa. I found him to be down to earth as well as knowledgeable and passionate about wine. It was an enjoyable evening, especially as I very much enjoyed the wines

Liparita Winery has a long and vibrant history, extending back to 1880 when William Keyes, a geologist, arrived in the Napa Valley and found soil which reminded him of Lipari, the largest of the Aeolian Islands, in the Tyrrhenian Sea off the north coast of Sicily. He planted a vineyard on Howell Mountain, calling it Liparita-La Jota, "Little Lipari." The wines became award winning though unfortunately the winery closed with the onset of Prohibition.

In 1987, the label was resurrected but less than ten years later encountered financial troubles and was sold, in 1996, to Kendall Jackson. Ten years after that, the brand was sold, around 2007, to Spencer Hoopes as the principal owner. Hoopes was once involved in manufacturing, but had long been a wine collector and connoisseur. He eventually bought a small vineyard, at first selling his grapes, but decided that he should try to produce his own wine. Mitch Cosentino, of Cosentino Winery, initially made wine for Hoopes and that led to the creation of the brands of Hoopes Vineyard and Hoopla Wines.

Hoopes was familiar with the old Liparita Winery and desired to bring back the label to its former glories so he purchased it in 2007. Part of that homage entailed designing a label that would reflect the original Liparita label. In 2008, they released their first two wines, from the 2006 vintage, both Cabernet Sauvignons, one from the Stags Leap district and the other from Oakville. Their intent was to produce an “ultra premium wine” but at a more reasonable price. They didn't want to be just another winery selling $100+ Cabernets.

I started the evening with the 2011 Hoopla North Coast Chardonnay ($18), which sees neither oak nor malolactic fermentation. Instead, it spends about 6-9 weeks on the sur lies and then is racked off and spends a little more time on light lees. It has an alcohol content of 13.5% and only about 700-800 cases were produced in 2011, about half the usual production. The 2012 has just been bottled and will be available soon. Jason stated that the tannins of oak interfere with the white fruit flavors in white wines, giving more of an oak taste, and they did not want any interference with the fruit flavors in this wine. The Chardonnay had a very pale golden color and the pleasant aroma offered plenty of intense fruit smells. It had a full mouthfeel, very good acidity and delicious, clean flavors of green apple and pear. It would pair well with seafood, light chicken dishes and other light dishes. Highly recommended.

The 2010 Hoopla The Mutt ($28) is a blend of 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, and 10% Petite Sirah. This is the first vintage and the exact blend will vary each year though they will always use Cabernet and Petite Sirah. They use their best grapes for their estate wines and decided to use the others for this blend, rather than sell the grapes. The Petite Sirah is from 90+ year old vines, and the older the vines, the less tannic the Petite Sirah. I would be intrigued if they bottled a 100% Petite Sirah from these old vines. The wine spends about 22 months aging in about 25% new French oak. With a dark red color, and a nice aroma of ripe fruit and spice, the wine was pleasing. It wasn't overly tannic, and possessed a nice blend of red and black fruit flavors, complemented by a spicy backbone. A good wine with a hearty dish, from a rich stew to a juicy steak. Recommended.

I tasted both of their estate wines, from Oakville and Yountville, which are locally distributed by Andes Imports. These are wines that need to breathe for a time once they are opened. They are not intended to be "pop and drink" wines. Terroir is essential to Liparita and they do not fine or filter their wines, believing that fining is not needed if the pressing is done correctly. They only produce about 5200 cases and might double that one day, though they will never expand if it would cause them to lower their quality.

The 2009 Liparita Yountville Cabernet Sauvignon ($55) is sourced from the same location as the grapes used in the Caymus Special Selection, often selling for $125+. This Liparita has an alcohol content of 14.7% and spends about 30 months in French oak, 70% new. A dark purplish color, its aroma was alluring, with notes of black cherry and dark spice. On the palate, there was a delightfully complex melange of ripe plum, black cherry, blackberry, vanilla, and dark spice with strong tannins. It was well balanced, powerful and possessed a lengthy and satisfying finish. Despite its power, it possessed its own elegance and was clearly not one of those muscular, overpowered Cabernets that are favored in some circles. I feel that this Cabernet is comparable in quality to wines offered at twice the price or more and thus it is an excellent value at this price. Highly recommended.

My favorite of the two though was the 2009 Liparita Oakville Cabernet Savignon ($55). This wine has an alcohol content of 14.9% and spends about 32 months in French oak, 65% new. It too possessed a dark purplish color with an alluring aroma, though there was more red cherry, plum and spice on the nose. Its taste was a complex and compelling blend of red and black fruits, vanilla, black pepper and spice. It was not as tannic as the Yountville, being more hedonistic and smooth, yet still possessed of a good structure. It was a wine of less power and more elegance, balanced well and possessed of a near endless finish that made you yearn for more and more. Once again, this Cabernet is as good as wines at least twice the price and is a superb value. Highly recommended.

Jason mentioned that some other wineries have encouraged them to raise their prices, yet they have resisted. I admire their winemaking philosophy, their devotion to terroir, as well as their desire to charge a more reasonable price for their excellent wines. Their wines may be new to many wine lovers but they are wines you should seek out, especially if you love high-end Cabernet but don't wish to pay $100 or more for a bottle. Don't ignore their other labels either, which also are offering delicious wines.

And as Jason Fisher advised, "Don't cheat."

Monday, April 8, 2013

Rant: Parents, Stop Spoiling Your Children!

"Recent immigrants aside, Americans spoil and cater to their children more than do other countries. We buy them more toys, read more books about how to bring them up, and give them larger allowances to spend."
--An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies by Tyler Cowen 

Tyler Cowen is an American economist, academic, and writer. He occupies the Holbert C. Harris Chair of economics as a professor at George Mason University. I have been reading his newest book, which was released last year, and it is a fascinating look at the world of food. He possesses strong opinions, and though I don't agree with all of them, there is validity in much he has to say.

Spoiled children! Even if you won't admit it, I am sure you know plenty of parents who spoil their children too much. You might even be one of those parents yourself, though you probably deny it. There are numerous negatives attached to spoiling children but I am only going to deal with a single aspect here: Food.

Food? How does that fit into being spoiled? Let us start at the beginning. "Food habits start in the family. That is where we learn what to eat, how to eat, and how to value food. While a palate can be retrained, most people keep the food tastes of their childhood." (Cowen) This is an essential foundation and applicable to many varied food issues. If we truly want to change the negative aspects of our food system, much of our efforts should be directed at changing the eating habits of children.

"We also spoil our children by catering to their food preferences, but this damages dining quality for everyone. American parents produce, buy, cook, and present food that is blander, simpler, and sweeter, and in part that is because the kiddies are in charge." (Cowen) Sugar coated cereals, hot dogs, grilled cheese sandwiches, chicken fingers, McDonald's and more. Go to most restaurants, and that is what usually can be found on their childrens' menus. This often bland and predictable food can negatively impact a child's future consumption patterns.

However, the negative impact also adheres to the parents and that may not be as readily visible, but it needs to be considered due to its significance. "A lot of American food is, quite simply, food for children in a literal sense. It’s just that we all happen to eat it." (Cowen) Parents fall into the trap of eating similar food to their children and there are multiple reasons for this. "Since it is easier to cook for the whole family, American food followed this simpler, blander path." (Cowen) Rather than cook two meals, one for the children and one for the parents, many choose to cook a single meal, which caters more to the blander, simpler tastes of the children. When children eat out, many want to go to fast food chains, from McDonald's to Burger King, and they take their parents with them, who then also eat there. "Many fast food outlets target their marketing at children, hoping that parents will be dragged in as well." (Cowen)

When children are on their own, with their own money, their eating habits don't get any better. "...(C)hildren spend a lot of their allowance money on candy, fast food, and snacks. This shapes their tastes and gives them some food autonomy, relative to their peers in other countries, who are typically more dependent on the food chosen by their parents. The result is a lot of bad food and a lot of sweet, bland food. For instance, children have been the driving force behind the prominence of doughnut chains in the United States." (Cowen) You can't expect most children to seek out healthy food when they are out on their own, with their own allowance money.

Other countries often lack their issues. For example, "In France, in contrast, the wishes of children, whether for food or otherwise, are more frequently ignored. The kids are simply expected to eat what the adults feed them." (Cowen) Children are far less spoiled and they learn to eat much better cuisine. Interestingly, at AKA Bistro in Lincoln, which has a French bistro section, their childrens' menu includes items like snails, replicating more of the French experience.

In the end, parents need to seize control and stop spoiling and catering to their children. They need to feed their children better food, more interesting and healthy foods. They need to stop taking them so much to cheap fast food chains and stop them from guzzling gallons of sugary drinks. The children are not going to stop on their own. Parents bear the ultimate responsibility and it is time for them to step up to the plate. Don't look to the government to solve problems such as children's obesity. Parents, look at yourselves and make the necessary changes.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Portsmouth & The Seacoast Restaurant Week & Ristorante Massimo

Not all Restaurant Weeks are created the same. 

The Portsmouth & The Seacoast Restaurant Week started yesterday and will continue through April 13. During this week, you will be able to obtain a three course Lunch for $16.95 or a three course Dinner for $29.95 at approximately 49 restaurants. In addition, some of those restaurants are offering even more for this low price, from free wine to extra courses.

For example, The Portsmouth Gas Light Co.B.G.'s Boathouse and Cafe Nostimo each offer a complimentary glass of wine or beer. The Great American Grill offers a free glass of House Wine. Cava offers a four course dinner while Moxy offers a five course dinner. Tio Juan's Margaritas Mexican Restaurant and Grill 28 are offering their three course meals all day for only $16.95. Check the various menus to see which other restaurants are offering special extras too. Over a dozen restaurants also offer gluten free and/or vegetarian menu options. These include The River House, Blue Moon Evolution, Brazo, Cava, Common Man, Green Monkey, Martingale Wharf, Moxy, Tulsi and more.

On Wednesday, I drove up to Portsmouth to attend a launch party for Restaurant Week at the Agave Mexican Bistro. I arrived in Portsmouth a bit early as I enjoy walking around their downtown region, which is thriving with lots of unique shops, bakeries, ice cream spots, restaurants and more. It is a great place  to spend a day and it is close enough to the Boston area that the ride is only an hour or so. With summer coming soon, it is a destination that should be on your radar, especially as its culinary scene keeps getting better all the time.

At the launch party, there was beer & wine and a couple tables loaded with Mexican food, including grilled beef, chicken and shrimp skewers, fully loaded nachos, quesadillas, and much more. My favorite was the Queso Fundido, a traditional black lava stone filled with sizzling Chihuahua cheese and Mexican chorizo. Lots of great flavor, nice spices and cheesy goodness. If I dined here, I would have to order this dish. The other items were good as well, but the Fundido really called to me.

There was also a Bartender's Competition, a selection of several local mixologists who competed to create the best cocktail. The judges selected Neal Jacobs from Moxy as the winner, his cocktail containing a variety of local ingredients, including: Art in the Age Rhuby, Flag Hill "Josiah Bartlett" Apple Brandy (Lee, NH), Sweet Baby Vineyard Bartlett Pear Sweet Wine (Kingston, NH), Syrup of Locally Foraged Wintergreen, Appleton Farms Maple Syrup (Ipswich, MA), Lemon Juice, and Moxy-Made Bitters. I didn't get to taste the cocktail but it sounds intriguing and creative.

There was another contest as well, sponsored by Martignetti Companies, for all of the attendees at the party, which involved a blind tasting of four wines, trying to guess the grape. The grapes ended up being Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah. I was psyched to learn that I won the grand prize, a $200 gift certificate to McKinnon's Market & Butcher Shop. Blind tasting is far from easy, but it was lots of fun.

I spoke with a few local chefs and members of the Greater Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce and one of the more interesting conversations concerned how to keep their Restaurant Week vibrant and dynamic, to avoid problems like the backlash against Boston Restaurant Week. That is probably a conversation Boston Restaurant Week should have as well, to find ways to inject new life into an event which isn't working as well as it could. It is good to see Portsmouth is paying attention, seeking ways to ensure their Restaurant Week remains an interesting and compelling event. One thing I like about the Portsmouth Restaurant Week is that many of the menus seem far more interesting and diverse than what I often see in Boston Restaurant Week menus.

After the launch party, I was invited to dine at Ristorante Massimo, an Italian restaurant known for its authentic Italian cuisine and superior hospitality. I met Massimo Morgia, the owner, who was born in Pontecorvo, Italy, and he was a gracious host. In 1994, Massimo became the co-owner of Anthony Alberto's Ristorante Italiano and then in 2003, Massimo became the sole owner and changed the name to Ristorante Massimo. Since 2005, their Executive Chef has been Jethro Loichle.

This is Karen Kervick of the Greater Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce and Massimo Morgia.

The restaurant is located in the basement area and has an intimate and homey feel to it, with lots of exposed brickwork, paintings of Italian scenes and wine racks. There is even a tiny corner table, a romantic spot, where a number of people have gotten engaged (pictured above). The waiters are elegantly dressed in tuxedos, representative of old time hospitality, and they live up to that ideal. Each server was professional, courteous and accommodating.

Throughout dinner, I chose to drink a delicious Rosé, the 2010 Croix de Basson Côtes de Provence. It is certified organic, a blend of Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cinsault. It was crisp and dry, with pleasant red fruit flavors, and paired well with the seafood I had for dinner.

Though Restaurant Week had not started yet, Massimo made the menu available to us and it includes a choice of 4 First Courses, 4 Entrees and 2 Desserts. You could start with a dish like the Fried Zucchini Blossoms or Pan Roasted Duck Breast and then move on to a dish like the Grilled Sirloin Steak or Porcini Crusted Day Boat Scallops.

I began with the Pasta con Gamberetti, Gulf shrimp sautéed with angel-hair pasta, basil chiffonade, and a parmesan, black peppercorn and lemon emulsion. The pasta was cooked perfectly and the emulsion was full of tasty flavors, complementing the tender shrimp. It makes me intrigued to try other of their pasta dishes.

For my Entree, I selected the Cioppino di Pesce, pan seared day boat scallops, shrimp, locally caught cod and Bangs Island mussels, served Cioppino style in a fennel and saffron scented broth, with grilled house made bread and rouille. The broth was rich in taste, a savory liquid that enhanced the seafood, such as the very tender and flaky cod and large scallops. I even dipped a few pieces of bread in the broth, sopping up the delicious liquid.

Prior to dessert, I ordered some tea and they brought out a box so I could make my selection. Each choice has a small container of tea leaves which you can sniff and determine if you want it or not. I chose the Bangkok, a green tea with lemongrass, coconut and ginger. It was a mild green tea with subtle flavors and I enjoyed it, especially the minor coconut notes.

For dessert, my choice was the Torta alla Cioccolata, a Valrhona chocolate mousse tart served with amoretto flavored raspberries and toasted salted walnuts. It was very rich, with a creamy mousse, and chocolate lovers would certainly enjoy.

I need to check out Ristorante Massimo another time, when it is not Restaurant Week, as I want to explore their menu in more depth. I saw several dishes on their regular menu which sounded quite appealing.

So why not give Portsmouth & The Seacoast Restaurant Week a try?