Tuesday, March 26, 2024

XOXO Sushi Bar: An Impressive Spot, Newly Opened in Chestnut Hill

Edomae-style sushi. With origins extending back about 200 years, this style has been returning, and there are a few spots in the Boston+ area where it's now available. In short, this style refers to aged sushi, seafood which has been preserved through a variety of methods. Most people think that fresh sushi should be eaten as soon as possible, but aging and preservation can actually enhance the taste of the seafood, especially bringing out more umami notes.  

On March 8, XOXO Sushi Bar opened in Chestnut Hill, on Route 9, and it specializes in Edomae-style sushi. I was recently invited as a media guest to dine there and experience their Japanese cuisine and sushi. I was extremely impressed with their food and their sushi is definitely some of the best I've ever tasted. It's a great addition to Chestnut Hill and I suspect it will become extremely popular.

The owners of XOXO Sushi Bar are Fred Starikov and Steve Whalen, developers and the co-owners of City Realty Group. Their website states: "We develop a wide range of asset classes, including apartments, condominiums, retail, commercial and R&D space." They also own the Silhouette Lounge in Allston, and founded CityKids, whose mission is "to spark intellectual curiosity in the children of Boston and beyond by providing them with unique experiences and valuable educational resources."

They hired Executive Chef Kegan Stritchko (pictured above) to oversee and create the menu at XOXO. Kegan has over ten years of restaurant experience, having worked locally at Uni and Fat Baby Sushi. He has also worked at other Japanese restaurants in Texas, Colorado and Florida. One of maybe his most impactful experiences was when he worked as a sous chef to the famed Makoto Okuwa, who specializes in Edomae-style sushi. At XOXO, Kegan follows many traditional practices of Edomae-style sushi, but also uses modern technology to enhance those traditions.     

The restaurant is casually elegant, modern and cozy, large enough for about 55 guests, including 16 at the sushi bar. We sat in one of the booths, although the seats at the sushi bar might be the best location in the restaurant, allowing you to watch and interact with the chefs preparing the sushi. Chef Kegan was hard at work behind the sushi bar, assisted by three others, Pedro, Dayne and David. It was a Tuesday night, and it was fairly busy, probably partially due to the restaurant only having been open for a couple weeks. From what I could observe, the other guests seemed to be quite happy with their food.

The term "Edomae" is a combination of two words: "Edo," which is an old name for Tokyo, and "Mae," which means “in front." It basically referred to the Tokyo waterfront, where the fisherman brought in their fresh catch. The fishermen and vendors realized they needed a way to make their fish last longer, so it didn't rot before they could sell it. They started preserving the fish in a number of ways, such as curing it in salt or cooking it with soy sauce. Today, with modern refrigeration, such preservation methods may seem unnecessary, but they actually can enhance the taste of Sushi. Thus, Edomae-style sushi has seen a return, with clever chefs using innovative preservation methods to enhance the taste of their fish.

At XOXO, behind the sushi bar is a glass case of hanging fish, which is actually a dry-ager, helping to preserve and enhance the fish. It currently is aging Tyee King Salmon, Ishidai, Sakura Masu and Kanpachi. I asked Chef Kegan about this matter and he explained, “Despite being a relatively new innovation for most countries around the world, dry-aging fish has been part of Japanese tradition for centuries. Primarily, dry-aging techniques prevent fish from going bad as it makes its way from the fishing nets to fish shops and restaurants. Apart from extending the fish’s shelf-life, dry-aging also improves the quality of its flavor and ironically tastes even fresher than fresh fish!" 

"Have you ever had sashimi at a sushi restaurant and thought this had to be the freshest fish you’ve ever tasted? Ironically, good sashimi comes from dry-aged fish and most sushi restaurants still incorporate these techniques in their food preparation. Unlike dry-aged steak, for which dry-aging is used to magnify flavor and texture, the primary objective of dry-aging fish is to enhance their freshness. There are different ways to dry-age fish, some techniques using salt or baking soda to reduce moisture, whilst others involve a controlled, low-humid environment designed for this specific purpose. Yet, in all cases, the fish have to be scaled and thoroughly cleaned before put through the dry-aging process. The precise dry-aging period entirely depends on the size of the fish. Small fish are typically dry-aged for a few days whilst larger cuts – including salmon and bluefin tuna – need around two weeks to dry-age properly. In the end, by ridding the fish of any excess blood, moisture and slime, it loses that unpleasant fishy smell and yields a much cleaner flavor and a firmer texture.” 

I'm sure this eye-catching display sparks questions from the guests dining at the sushi bar, allowing the Chef to explain and educate about the benefits of dry-aging fish. And the excellent taste of the Sushi will showcase those benefits.  

Their Beverage Program, overseen by General Manager Ashif Nirola (who used to work at Douzo), ranges from Cocktails to Sake, Japanese Whiskey to Wine. Their Cocktail list has 9 listed cocktails, all priced at $18 each, including the Lychee Martini, Shochu Expresso, and Matcha Vesper. Many of the cocktails are created with some Japanese ingredients, such as Yuzu, Shochu, Ume, Ki No Tea Gin, and more. 

I ordered the Tokyo Old Fashioned, which is made with Toki Whiskey, Rihei Ginger Shochu, Japanese Bermutto, Sakura Bitters, Cherry & an Orange Slice. It was a hearty drink, with a large ice cube, and a complex and intriguing taste. A very tasty and well-balanced cocktail. Bermutto, used in some of their cocktails, is the first Japanese "Vermouth," a fascinating product, made from Junmai Sake and Kuma Shochu. Four botanicals are added, including Yuzu, Kabosu, Sansho & Yomogi. I first tasted Bermutto back in 2021, and keep a bottle in my home bar. 

The Beer list has 5 choices, priced $9-$18, including Sapporo and Hitachino Nest. Their Japanese Whiskey list has 10 choices, from Suntory Toki to Kaiyo "the Rye" 10 Year old. The Wine list ranges across the world, including California, New Mexico, Australia, Italy, Argentina, France, Austria, and Spain. There's also a Reserved List of higher end wines. Many of the wine selections are from well-known wineries, but there are some lesser known wines scattered amidst the list as well. 

I was particularly interested in their Sake list, which includes 3 Junmai, 2 Ginjo, 8 Daiginjo, 2 Nigori, 2 "Others," and 5 choices on a Reserved List. Prices by the glass range from $13-$20, and bottle (720ml) prices generally range from $64-$225, with a few 300ml and one 500ml bottle for certain selections. There are plenty of good choices on the Sake list, and during the course of our dinner, we ordered glasses of the Wakatake Daiginjo and Dassai 39 Junmai Daiginjo, both excellent choices which pair very well with the restaurant's cuisine. 

The Reserved List has five exquisite choices, although more splurge choices are they priced from $280-$650. For example, the Katoukichibee Shouten, Born Yume Wa Masayume Junmai Daiginjo ($650/720ml bottle) commonly retails for $250-$300, if you can find a bottle. This Sake is "specially limited" and is said to be an exceptional Sake. The Tatenokawa 18 Junmai Daiginjo ($575/720ml) commonly retails for $200-$250, and its rice has been polished down to 18%. It's also considered to be a very impressive Sake. 

The Food Menu has plenty of diverse options, as well as nightly Specials. If you don't want to have to choose individual courses, you could opt for a 16-course Omakase, with dry-aged dish and sashimi. You could also choose the Chef's Choice of 7 pieces ($62) or 11 pieces ($98) of Nigiri Sushi, of 5 types of Sashimi ($10 pieces/$55) or 9 types of Sashimi (18 pieces/$102). Caviar and Truffle are available as supplements. 

The Sushi/Sashimi menu has about 19 options, with Sushi priced per piece and Sashimi priced per 6 pieces. For example, Bluefin Akami is priced at $6 per piece of Nigiri Sushi and $18 for 6 pieces of Sashimi. The Bluefin Chu-toro is $10/$30 and the Bluefin O-toro is $15/$45. A5 Waygu is available as Nigiri for $28 per piece. Other choices include seafood such as Hamachi, Hiramasa, Kinmedai, Madai, Ikura and Snowcrab. The nightly Specials menu adds a number of additional Sushi choices.   

Other menu options include Temaki Handrolls (7 choices, priced $12-$22), such as Miso Scallop and Crab Butter. There are also Hot dishes (12 choices, mostly $12-$29), such as Tempura Rock Shrimp  and Miso Black Cod, and Cold dishes (7 choices, mostly $23-$45), including Tuna & Truffle and Wagyu Tartare. You can also select the Robatayaki, charcoal grilled dishes (9 choices, priced $10-$20), such as Japanese Street Corn, Skirt Steak, and Hokkaido Scallop.

I began my dinner with a cup of Miso Soup ($9), made with green crab dashi, White Rose Farro Miso, and negi (Japanese long green onions). With an alluring aroma, the miso soup was delicious, with a nice depth of flavor and plenty of umami. It definitely ranks with some of the best miso soups I've ever tasted, so much more flavorful than the average miso soups you find at many Asian spots. I often order Miso Soup at a new Japanese restaurant, as I've found that if the soup is impressive, then the rest of the cuisine is likely as impressive. 

This Miso Soup is also more unique as it uses a different type of miso paste. Most miso paste is made with fermented soybeans, but the White Rose Farro Miso is made from Emmer Farro grain, an ancient grain, and the paste is said to possess aromas of whiskey, banana, and butterscotch. Chef Kegan stated, “The farro grain miso is an organic miso made by keep well farms in Pennsylvania (two ex-pastry chefs that now own a farm). They ferment all their own produce turning them into miso and vinegars. I like supporting local farmers and people that push the industry forward with passion. That's why I use there farro grain miso. It's also delicious.” 

From the Hot menu, the Unagi Crispy Rice ($29) consisted of four pieces of BBQ American Eel, atop fried sushi rice, and sprinkled with crispy onions. The eel was tender and flavorful, with a slightly sweet BBQ sauce, and complemented by the crisp, crunchy rectangles of sushi rice and crisp & sweet onions. I'm a big fan of eel, and this was an excellent dish, a nice combination of flavors and textures.

I opted for two types of Robatayaki. The Pork Belly ($15) was made with pork tare and sweet chili miso. I received three large pieces on a wooden skewer, and each piece was a wonderful combination of silky fat and tender meat, with crispy charred edges. It possessed a delicious, lightly sweet and savory sauce. Each bite felt like it melted in my mouth. A great choice!

The Chicken Thighs ($16), with negi and brown sugar soy, were moist, tender and flavorful, again with a delectable sauce and a touch of char. Based on these two options, I suspect the rest of the Robatayaki would be equally as tasty. 

From the Hot menu, I chose the Karaage ($18), which is another iconic dish I often order at a new Japanese restaurant. The Karaage is made from chicken thighs with ponzu (a citrus-based sauce) and togarashi. This dish was a rather large bowl of chicken, with a crisp coating, tender and flavorful meat. It was enhanced with citrus notes and pleasing spices. A great bar snack, and a nice accompaniment to a glass of Sake.

The Live Uni ($28), on the nightly Specials menu, was sourced from Maine and the uni sits atop a yuzu panna cotta. With an appealing plating, the Uni was superb, both creamy and briny, and the panna cotta provided a sweet and citrus aspect to balance the saltiness of the uni. 

Our first plate of Sushi included Chu-Toro ($10), medium fat cut bluefin tuna, and O-toro ($15), the fattest cut bluefin tuna belly. All of their sushi is delivered to your table already seasoned with the amount of soy sauce and wasabi which the Chef believes it should possess. However, if you desire more soy sauce or wasabi, you can request it. I chose to accept the Chef's preparation for all of the sushi I ordered, and didn't feel any of it needed more soy sauce or wasabi. 

Just look at the sushi, and you'll delight in its color and fattiness. And once you take a taste, you'll find it to be buttery smooth, with a mild briny touch, and a hedonistic deliciousness. Such compelling pieces of tuna, and if you've never tasted these cuts before, you really need to change that fact. In some respects, these cuts are like the Wagyu beef of tuna, rich and fatty, melt-in-your mouth pleasure. 

Our next plate of Sushi included 6 different choices, and I'll mention them from left to right. First, there was the Bluefin Akami ($6), a lean cut, which was nice to compare with the prior Chu-Toro and O-Toro. With a deep red color, it was tender and flavorful, but not as silky smooth as the Chu-Toro and O-Toro (although that was expected). It was definitely an excellent piece of Bluefin. I'll also note that all of the Sushi seemed quite fresh, even those which were dry-aged. 

Next up were two pieces of Ora King Tyee Salmon, including the regular version ($6) and the Toro ($8). This is a sustainable Salmon, farmed in New Zealand, and has been a hot item in the seafood industry for at least the last 5-6 years. It has won a number of sustainability awards and its flesh is considered to be exquisite. I've previously tasted this salmon and loved it, finding it rich, tender and flavorful, better than many other salmon. And this Sushi too was excellent, especially the Toro, the salmon belly.   

The fourth piece was on the nightly Specials list, Ishidai ($9), a fish I had never tasted before. This fish is known by a number of other names, such as Knifejaw Snapper, Striped Beakfish, Barred Knifejaw, and Stone Snapper. The Ishidai was sourced from Japan, and it's a small fish with distinctive black and white stripes. It had a bit of a chewier texture, with a mild sweetness and a good amount of fat. A pleasant flavor, which would appeal to many Sushi lovers.

Another fish from the nightly Specials list was the Sakura Masu ($9), listed as "cherry blossom trout," and which was also sourced from Japan. Again, this is another fish I'd never tasted before. Interestingly, although it is seen as a trout in Japan, others see it as a salmon, and it is sometimes called Masu Salmon or Cherry Salmon. Its scales have a pink-cherry color, which is the reason for its "cherry blossom" name. If you look at the sushi, it certainly looks like a piece of Salmon, and is tender and fatty, with a pleasing taste which did remind me in many respects of an excellent piece of salmon. 

Finally, and also from the nightly Specials list, I had the Muki Hotate ($10), Japanese live scallop, which was tender with a mild chewiness, and its flesh was sweet and delicious. I often order Hotate at sushi restaurants, and this was one of the better ones I've ever tasted.  

I had the opportunity to ask Chef Kegan his three favorite types of Nigiri Sushi, and he replied:
Saba (Mackerel), Kinmedai ("Splendid Alfonsino"), and Shima Aji (Striped Jack). All three are available on their regular Sushi menu.

From the Temaki Hand Roll menu, I chose the Unagi Foie ($22), made with BBQ Unagi, Foie Snow, and a Truffle Kabayaki sauce. It was crunchy and meaty, savory and sweet, with hints of truffle, a wonderful melange of flavors and textures. Another hedonistic pleasure. 

From the Cold menu, I also chose the Hamachi & Blood Orange ($24), made with yellowtail sashimi, blood orange zu, supremes & zest, and thai chili. It was a light dish with bright citrus flavors, silky & fatty fish, and a little spicy heat. 

They only have two options on their Dessert menu, including Tropical Yuzu and Nikka Choco (both priced at $18). We opted for the Nikki Choco, which is made with chocolate sauce, almond chocolate sponge, Nikka Coffey malt whisky ice cream, chocolate thai chili ice cream, and cocoa tuile & nips. A decadent and tasty dish, the chocolate was rich and flavorful, enhanced by the ice creams, one which was spicy and the other with the taste of whiskey. Another excellent combination of flavors and textures, this is a dish that would appeal to all chocolate lovers, or anyone who loves an interesting and delcetable dessert.

Overall, I was thoroughly impressed with their cuisine, from their excellent Hot and Cold dishes to their superior Sushi. All of their dishes, from the Miso Soup to the Robatayaki, were elevated above the usual Japanese cuisine you'll find at an average restaurant. Sourcing is very important at XOXO, including some local seafood, such as Uni and Scallops, as well as imports from Japan. And the dry-aging process is fascinating, with such excellent results. 

Service was good, without any significant issues, especially considering they had only been open for a couple of weeks. Although we had a primary server, other servers assisted as well, often delivering some of the dishes to our table. 

Prices are high, but they are comparable to other high-end Japanese sushi restaurants. You also need to consider the excellent quality of their ingredients. You can certainly find lesser quality Sushi at a cheaper price, but if you desire higher quality fish, Sushi which will thrill and excite your palate, you need to pay a higher price. Dining at XOXO Sushi Bar is well worth the price so grab a seat at the Sushi bar and indulge.  

XOXO Sushi Bar earns a hearty recommendation and I will definitely be returning, to try more of the menu, as well as re-order some of my favorites. 

Monday, March 25, 2024

Rant: Free Your Mind & Enjoy The Taste Of Rabbit!

Easter is Sunday, March 31, and many children will receive baskets of candies and treats from the "Easter Bunny." At various stores and malls, some children may even how gotten their photo taken sitting on the Easter Bunny's lap. Plenty of Easter decorations involve pictures of cute bunnies or anthropomorphic rabbits.  

However, when I think of Easter and bunnies, I picture rabbit on my dinner plate. I think of its delicious, versatile and nutritious meat but that thought makes some people squirm, those who wouldn't ever eat a rabbit.

Why are so many people opposed to eating rabbit, despite the fact it is so tasty, extremely sustainable, and a healthy option?

Their main resistance to eating rabbit appears to be primarily psychological. Rabbits are seen as too cute to eat, too much like a pet. Some people may have had a cute, fuzzy bunny as a pet, keeping it in a small hutch, and thus feel squeamish about eating something they once had as a dear pet. These feelings are relatively modern and that sentiment wasn't an issue for many prior generations. We need to return to those earlier sentiments as the consumption of rabbit is good on several fronts, as it's the most nutritious and sustainable meat that exists.

Around 1100 B.C., when the Phoenicians first came to Spain, they found rabbits there and it's probable that they then spread rabbits throughout the Mediterranean region. The ancient Romans enjoyed rabbit meat, and they even created leporaria, walled areas where they raised rabbits for later slaughter. There once was even a Roman law that all young women had to eat rabbit because it was thought it would make them more beautiful.

Rabbits have continued to be eaten as food throughout history, though consumption in the U.S. has apparently declined greatly at least over the last hundred years. Have you ever noticed that it seems almost every movie about the Middle Ages shows rabbit being eaten? Nowdays, Europeans are far more amenable to dining on rabbit and France is the largest producer and consumer of rabbit.  My first time eating rabbit was when I was in Spain over 20 years ago.

Why should we eat more rabbit?

First, it's an excellent sustainable choice, far more sustainable than beef, pork, lamb or poultry.  Rabbits eat grass and marginal forage, thus they do not compete for resources with people and are more easily fed than many other animals.  They will even eat food scraps, which would be a great use for all of our vast food waste. We all know how rapidly rabbits can reproduce and they are available year round. Rabbits require little space, certainly much less than other food animals. You could even raise rabbits at home, which is relatively easy to do. It's said that a rabbit can produce six pounds of meat for the same amount of resources which a cow needs to produce a single pound. 

The carbon footprint of raising rabbits is far lower than other common food animals, and thus much better for the environment. As the demand for meat continues to increase, it may be impossible to meet that demand without causing significant environmental problems due to increased resource intensity. Beef may be the largest offender, requiring significant resources which could be instead used for other purposes which might better feed more people. The increased consumption of rabbit could alleviate these issues, as rabbits require far lesser resources. It is something that needs to be seriously considered.

Second, rabbit meat is very healthy and nutritious. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has even stated that rabbit is the most nutritious meat. Rabbit has only 795 calories per pound, compared to chicken at 810, turkey at 1190, beef at 1440 and pork at 2050. Rabbit also has the highest percentage of protein of any meat. In addition, rabbit has a lower percentage of fat and less cholesterol than chicken, turkey, beef, or pork. Rabbit is easily digested, and has very high levels of Omega-3's and other good fats. Those are all good reasons to opt for rabbit.  

Third, and a very important reason, rabbit tastes good. It has a mild and slightly sweet flavor, in some respects like chicken, though it can also remind you of veal or even pork. You won't find it to have a gamey flavor, which can be offputting to some. Plus, nearly all of the rabbit is white meat, which appeals to many people. It is generally lean meat, so be careful about overcooking it. In addition, different parts of the rabbit have different characteristics so you can get a variety of flavors within the rabbit. If you tasted rabbit blind, you would very likely enjoy the meat though you probably would not realize it was rabbit.

If you're actually concerned about the food you eat, if you want to eat healthier and more sustainable, then you should be eating rabbit. Break through your psychological barrier and try some tasty rabbit. It is good for you, good for society, and good for the environment.

Eat The Bunny!

(This is a partially modified post from the past which is still very relevant and involves a sentiment which bears repeating).

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I'm back again with a new edition of Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I highlight some interesting, upcoming food and drink events. I hope everyone dines out safely, tips well and are nice to their servers.
1) Are you a mustard lover? Are you intrigued about the history of mustard and its myriad of styles and flavors? Would you like to learn much more about mustard? 

Ken Zuckerman, the "Mustard Maestro," will be teaching a one-night course through Arlington Community Education on Wednesday, May 29, from 7-9pm. Ken is the Head of Marketing for a local artisanal food distributor and a passionate devotee of all things vinegary & fermented. He's also on the board of the National Mustard Museum in Wisconsin, which sports a collection of over 6800 mustards, and which for the past 30+ years has conducted the Worldwide Mustard Competition featuring 500 entries facing off in 19 different categories. 

The description of the class: "Ever marvel at the many kinds of mustard, in so many colors, consistencies, and flavors? There is literally a mustard to please every taste and palette. We’ll try a dozen varieties paired with a wide array of mustard’s perfect accompaniments—cheeses and cured meats. Taste the difference between Pommery and Dijon, deli style vs. spicy brown, Bavarian vs. British, and coarse-grained vs. whole seed. Get a detailed overview of the history of mustard, how it is grown and processed, what makes it hot or not, its many nutritional attributes, its legacy in medicine as heralded by Hippocrates, and even mustard’s distinguished place in advertising and pop culture."  

The class will also feature a wide array of mustard’s perfect accompaniments--namely cheeses and cured meats. There is literally a mustard to please every taste and palette, even if you think mustard is not for you.  

The cost of the class is $49 per person, and Ken's remuneration is being entirely donated to the National Mustard Museum. To register for the class, go HERE.

2) Easter is coming, on Sunday, March 31, and here are a few restaurants you might want to visit for Easter Dinner. 

Abe & Louie’s: Back Bay steakhouse will be dishing out a quintet of specials in addition to shaking up two cocktail features. To start, there’s Deviled Eggs with Kaluga Amur caviar ($25) as well as a chilled Asparagus Vichyssoise with crème fraîche and crispy leeks ($13). For entrees, there is Roasted Rack of Lamb with fingerling potatoes, butter-braised radish, baby carrots and rosemary au jus ($57) in addition to pan-seared halibut with lemon poppyseed gnocchi, fava beans and spring onion soubise ($59). The dessert feature is a Limoncello Raspberry Cake with raspberry compote and vanilla ice cream ($12). Cocktail pairings include Bunny Punch with Grand Marnier, sangria and sparkling wine ($17) and Spritz of Spring with cava, St-Germain, elderflower tonic and lemon juice ($16). For reservations, call (617) 536-6300.  

Atlantic Fish Co.: Serving fresh seafood since 1978, Atlantic Fish Co. will feature their full menu of seafood classics in addition to some special features. To start, there is English pea soup with herbed croutons and radish ($13) while the main course is a New England lobster pot pie with puff pastry, peas and carrots ($46). For something sweet, opt for the lemon blueberry crumb cake with whipped lemon crème fraiche and blueberries ($12). The cocktail special is I’m All Ears with gin and sugar snap pea cordial ($18). For reservations, call (617) 267-4000.  

Coach Grill: Coach Grill, in Wayland, will dish a collection of food and cocktail specials over three days. The starter features are spring pea soup with Nueske’s bacon lardons ($12) as well as sofrito mussels with sausage and cherry tomatoes ($18). Bring your appetite for the main courses, roasted T-bone lamb with baby carrots and snap peas ($50) and dover sole meuniere with roasted fingerling potatoes and wilted spinach ($62). Leave room for dessert, a limoncello raspberry cake with raspberry compote and vanilla ice cream ($12). To sip, there is Hop to It with gin, lemon juice, Butterly Pea Flower syrup and bee foam ($16); Bunny Patch with vodka, cranberry juice, lemon juice and raspberry puree ($16); and Spring is in the Air with Stoli vanilla, limoncello and lemon juice ($16). For reservations, call (508) 358-5900. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

A Tavola: A Tour of Italian Noble Grapes Wine Dinner

A Tavola, one of my favorite restaurants, is expanding, spreading to the space next to it. This will allow even more people to dine there, to experience their excellent Italian cuisine. Last week, I dined there once again, attending their latest wine dinner, A Tour of Italian Noble GrapesCiro Pirone, of Horizon Beverage, led the wine tasting aspect while Chef Joe Carli spoke about the food. Ciro is a charming and knowledgeable wine expert, and he presented several delicious and intriguing wines. And Chef Carli presented another inventive and compelling menu.    

The first wine of the evening was the 2021 Villa Matilde Fiano di Avellino, made in the Campania region. This wine is made from 100% Fiano, and the vineyards have limestone soils with a top layer of volcanic soil. It's aged for about four months in stainless steel, and will age well. It possesses an alluring aroma of citrus and floral notes and on the palate, it's complex, dry, and crisp. You may get notes of apple and lemon, floral notes and hazelnut, as well as a backbone of minerality. A lengthy, pleasing finish completes this well balanced and delicious wine. I enjoyed this wine so much that I bought a couple bottles to take home.

With the Fiano, we enjoyed Scallop Crudo, with an almond brodo, chili & crispy leeks. The plentiful thin slices of tender and sweet scallop were complemented by the subtle and tasty almond brodo. There was a mild heat, and the crispy leeks added a nice textural element. This was an excellent wine pairing, and the Fiano would do well with many seafood dishes. 

The 2019 Fanetti Rosso di Montepulciano, from Tuscany, is made primarily from Sangiovese, and the owner is a staunch traditionalist. For this wine, there is a long maceration on the skins and it is aged for two years in the barrel and one in the bottle. It's a more dry and rustic wine, with cherry flavors mixed with notes of mushroom and herbs. Good acidity, moderate tannins, a long finish, and plenty of complexity. It's a wine that's best paired with food. 

The second course was a Prosciutto & Brie Panini, with truffle honey and black pepper. The fresh, crispy bread contained plenty of salty and tender prosciutto, creamy, triple-creme Brie, and the earthy notes of truffle, with a tinge of sweetness. A great mix of tastes and textures, and a pure delight on the palate. Everyone at my table loved this sandwich, and if it were on their regular menu, I'd definitely order it. 

The 2019 Palladino Langhe Nebbiolo D'Alba was my favorite wine of the night. An alluring aroma, a palate of complexity, and pure deliciousness. Such an intriguing melange of black cherry, raspberries and ripe plum, with hints of violets and mild spice. Restrained tannins, well-balanced, elegant and compelling. This is a wine to slowly savor over the course of an evening, enjoying how it evolves over time. Highly recommended, and I bought some to take home. 

With the Nebbiolo, we enjoyed a dish of Bigoli with Braised Duck Leg. The shredded duck meat, tender and flavorful, went well with the thick pasta, shaved celery and parsley. As a lover of duck meat, this was quite a pleasure to me, and Chef Carli's pasta is always impressive.  

The 2019 Elena Fucci Aglianico del Vulture ‘Sceg is made from 100% Aglianico, from 90 year old vines in volcanic soils. Sceg is a local word for pomegranate, a symbol of fertility and good luck. This is a complex and interesting wine, with rich black fruit flavors, smooth tannins, dark spice notes, hints of leather and tar, and minerality notes, especially on the lingering finish. Well balanced, impressive, and delicious. Definitely would pair well with beef or another hearty dish.

Our next course was a Cotechino Ragu with yellow lentils, with notes of cinnamon, mace and allspice. This was like a hearty stew, with plenty of tender pork, a savory and tasty ragu, and hearty lentils. A great choice for a winter evening, soothing comfort food.

The final wine was the 2021 Donnafugata Ben Rye, from the island of Pantelleria, located to the south of Sicily. It's made from the Zibibbo grape, also known as Moscato di Alessandria, and is produced in the passito fashion, where the grapes are first dried under the sun. It's a golden color, with a pleasing blend of flavors, including apricot, peach, dried citrus, honey, and herbal. The acidity well balances the sweetness, and the finish is long and satisfying. An impressive dessert wine. 

For dessert, there was a Lemony Ricotta Tart with a toasted italian meringue. The meringue was light and airy, with a nice toastiness. The rich lemon curd was smooth and creamy, with a thick, crunchy tart enclosing it. It went well with the dessert wine. 

Chef Carli's next wine dinner is scheduled for May 1, with Sicilian wines. His wine dinners are always fun and delicious, and well worth attending. You also have the opportunity to purchase the wines, to take home, from the dinner. And if you can't attend their next wine dinner, just dine there another night, and enjoy their impressive Italian cuisine. 

Monday, March 18, 2024

Rant: How To Boost The Popularity of Sake

How do we make Sake, that wondrous Japanese alcoholic beverage fermented from rice, more popular in the U.S.? It remains a niche beverage that hasn't yet made a major breakthrough with American consumers. We may now consume more Sake than ever in our history, but it's still such a tiny amount when compared to beer, wine and whiskey. How do we make Sake more mainstream?

I've been deeply involved in research on the presence and perception of Sake in the U.S. since the 1800s. As I perused through various newspaper archives, visiting hundreds and hundreds of articles, I started thinking about this issue once again. One statistic that stuck out to me was that for many years, approximately 80% of Sake was consumed in the U.S. at Japanese restaurants. I suspect that figure hasn't changed too much in the present day. 

There are plenty of valuable suggestions on how Sake can be made popular, from increased education to making Sake labels more approachable, however most of those will only make incremental progress to the objective of mainstreaming Sake. Slow but steady progress. Is there any suggestion which might have a greater and quicker impact? 

I believe the greatest impact, the best way to make Sake more mainstream, is by getting more non-Asian restaurants to place Sake on their menus. Currently, Sake is mostly found at Asian restaurants, so the average consumer equates it only with Asian cuisine, from sushi to katsu. That misconception prevents Sake from becoming more mainstream, relegating it only to a certain type of cuisine, ensuring it remains more of a niche beverage. 

We need non-Asian restaurants to have the courage to place Sake on their drink menus, to show consumers that Sake pairs well with a diverse selection of cuisines and foods. I want to see Sake served with burgers and pizza. I want to see a sommelier at an Italian bistro recommending Sake with a pasta dish. I want to see seafood restaurants recommending Sake with oysters, fried clams or a lobster roll.  

Sake can and should be paired with appetizers, entrees and dessert. It works well with a myriad of cuisines from Italian to French, Mexican to Spanish. It's an excellent accompaniment to a diverse selection of foods, from burgers to pizza, seafood to poultry, mushrooms to cheese. Its versatility is without question yet few restaurants, except for Asian spots, take advantage. In some cases, it's even a better food pairing than wine.

I've previously written about how well Sake pairs with food, in articles such as The Science Of Sake & Food PairingsPairing Cheese & SakeSlurping Oysters & Sipping SakeSake, Seafood & Lobster, and Sake For Thanksgiving. I've presided at Sake dinners at local restaurants, pairing it with Italian and French cuisine.

Unfortunately last year, the Tasting Counter, in Somerville, closed and it was the only non-Asian restaurant in the Boston area to offer a significant Sake program. With their multi-course dinners, you once could have opted for the Sake pairing, and receive ten different Sakes with their fantastic and creative cuisine. They did a great job in showcasing the versatility and potential of Sake with all types of dishes. Why can't other local restaurants follow their example and institute their own Sake programs?

We need Sake to be seen as a commonplace choice wherever you dine. As long as Sake is seen as only an accompaniment for Asian cuisine, then it will never become mainstream, remaining forever a niche beverage.

These changes will involve some work for restaurants. It will require more education about Sake on the behalf of restaurants and sommeliers, who should be excited to learn about this compelling beverage. They need to learn how Sake will pair well with their cuisine. They need to learn how to persuade diners to take a chance on a Sake pairings. None of this is difficult, and mainly involves an investment of time and a willingness to experiment

Those pioneering restaurants willing to take a chance on Sake would be in a unique position, with a new selling point for consumers, standing out from other restaurants. They could lead a path to a future where Sake becomes more popular and mainstream. So what are you waiting for?


Friday, March 15, 2024

Travel to Portugal In October: Check Out The Webinar For More Info

Would you like to vacation in Portugal this October, exploring the wine and food of this compelling country? I'm collaborating, as a wine tour guide, with Sagres Vacations, a local company which specializes in exciting vacations to Portugal and Spain. We've created an interesting itinerary that will explore the wine and food of northern Portugal. I'm hoping some of my friends and readers will decide to join me on this upcoming trip.

As you're aware, I've long been an ardent lover and promoter of the wines of Portugal, including Port Wine. I’ve written over 100 articles about Portugal, including its wines, spirits, cuisine, history, culture and more. Over 60 Portuguese wines have ended up on my annual Top Ten Wine lists, including 6 in my recent Top 20 Wines of 2023. In addition, I’m a Certified Wine Location Specialist, a collaboration of the Center for Wine Origins and the Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Do Porto,  which includes Port wine and the Douro region. I've also been inducted as a Cavaleiro in the Confraria do Vinho do Porto, a Knight in the Brotherhood of Port Wine, an honor bestowed upon me for my ardent promotion and support of Port wine. 

Our tour, Wine Vibes in Portugal, will take place from October 8-17, 2024 and includes luxury accommodations for eight nights. We'll visit the Vinho Verde, Douro and Dão wine regions, as well as the cities of Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia. Some of the wineries we'll visit include Quinta da Lixa, Quinta do Vallado, Quinta da Pacheca, Kopke, Caminho Cruzados, and Quinta dos Roques. This list includes three wineries whose wines have ended up on my annual Top Ten wine lists. There will also be a walking tour of Porto, seeing many of its historic and interesting sites. Numerous meals are included, including lunch at DOC, a superb restaurant in the Douro. Check out the full itinerary for all of the details, including the cost and how to register for the trip.

This small trip will consist of just 15 people, and the only prerequisite is that you should enjoy wine. You don't have to possess any specific level of wine knowledge, but be willing to learn about the wines of Portugal. So eager beginners are just as welcome as those who already know Portuguese wines well. 

Got questions about this vacation trip? Check out our Webinar, which will be held on Wednesday, March 20, at 7pm EST. This Webinar will last only about half an hour, and is your opportunity to learn more about the itinerary and ask any questions you might have. Pre-register for the Webinar HERE. And if you have specific questions, please let me know before the Webinar so I can assure we get you the answers you seek. 

And as I've said multiple times before: "I have heard the clarion call for the wines of Portugal, those intriguing wines which seduce with their tantalizing aromas and flavors. It is my desire that many others feel the urge of that clarion call too. To that end, I have become an ardent advocate for Portuguese wines, to share all the excellence I have found in their wines." I hope you can hear that clarion call as well, and will join me in Portugal in October

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I'm back again with a new edition of Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I highlight some interesting, upcoming food and drink events. I hope everyone dines out safely, tips well and are nice to their servers.
1) Kane’s Donuts is pleased to announce a limited-edition donut with Castle Island in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day and in honor of Boston’s St. Patrick's Day parade. The Castle Island Parade Beer Donut will be available in stores beginning Thursday, March 14th through Sunday, March 17th at all Kane’s Donuts locations.

A collaboration with the Norwood and South Boston brewery, the Castle Island Parade Beer Donut is a light, airy yeast dough topped with a glaze made with reduced Castle Island Parade Beer and then infused in Kane's Signature Honey Glaze topped with St Patty’s Day sprinkles. Castle Island's Blonde Ale Parade Beer is a light, refreshing blonde ale.  

Kane’s will also have a selection of new flavors for the entire month of March. Customers can enjoy a Lemon Chiffon Bar, Pistachio Donut, Marble Donut, Gluten-free Peppermint Patty Donut, and Vegan Old Fashioned Glazed Donut all month long.

Monday, March 11, 2024

A Tavola: Bourbon & BBQ Dinner

A BBQ dinner at an Italian restaurant? At first, that might sound like a strange idea, however, when you give it more consideration, when you realize that a talented chef can be skilled in a variety of different cuisines, then the idea becomes intriguing. It becomes a fascinating insight into the culinary skills of a chef, and can end up as a fun and tasty dinner. 

Recently, at A Tavola in Winchester, Chef Joe Carli and Sous Chef David Paige executed an impressive and delicious five-course BBQ dinner, accompanied by whiskey and cocktail pairings. This dinner was first advertised in December 2023, and it sold out a short time later, even though the menu had not yet been listed. It's obvious that plenty of people had faith that this would be an excellent event, and were willing to try something different from the restaurant's usual Italian fare. 

Both Chef Joe Carli and Sous Chef David Paige have long had an interest in BBQ, and have even considered the idea of opening a BBQ restaurant one day. At a previous wine dinner, they had prepared a pulled pork dish for one of the courses, and it was compelling, so I had some prior evidence of their BBQ skills. 

The first course included Bacon-Wrapped Stuffed Jalapeños, with a biscuit & honey butter. With a crispy bacon coating, the jalapeños were stuffed with a seasoned mix of cream cheese and meat, and offered a slightly spicy bite as well. The biscuit was excellent, fluffy and moist, buttery and tasty, enhanced by the slightly sweet honey butter. A fine way to begin this BBQ dinner.

This course was accompanied by a small glass of Old Elk Straight Wheat Bourbon. Philip Mancini, of MS Walker, presented all of the whiskies during the dinner. This bourbon, made in Colorado, has a mashbill of 51% corn, 45% wheat and 4% malted barley. It had a soft taste, with a light heat, and notes of caramel, vanilla, salted nuts, and a mild grassiness. 

The next course included Burnt Ends, an agave mustard sauce and Calabrian collard greens. The burnt ends were scrumptious, with a fine crunchy char, silky fat, and lots of juicy, tender meat. They were enhanced by the mild mustard sauce, although they were also quite enjoyable without any sauce. The collard greens were slightly spicy with the addition of the Calabrian chilis. 
With this dish, we had a Golden Derby cocktail, made with Mellow Corn, Canton Ginger & Grapefruit. Mellow Corn is not technically a bourbon, but is a Bottled in Bond Kentucky Straight Corn Whiskey. The Mellow Corn has a mashbill that is at least 81% corn and is aged for at least four years in used bourbon barrels. The cocktail is generally made with 1 1/2 ounces of Mellow Corn, 1 1/2 ounces of Domaine de Canton Ginger Liqueur, and 2 ounces of grapefruit juice. A smooth and nicely balanced cocktail with bright flavors of ginger and grapefruit, enhanced with some sweetness and vanilla of the whiskey. 

The third course consisted of two Pulled Pork Sliders, with a Carolina style bbq sauce, on potato rolls. The tender and flavorful pulled pork was covered in a delicious and tangy vinegar-based sauce. Such an excellent sandwich, and the type of sandwich I'd love to enjoy on a regular basis. 

This dish was paired with the Elijah Craig, 12 Year Old Small Batch Bourbon, and it was my favorite pairing of the night. The Elijah Craig was complex and intriguing, with notes of vanilla, caramel, smoke, and citrus. Its sweet notes were an excellent balance to the vinegar tang of the pulled pork. 

The final savory course were Smoked Grass Fed Beef Ribs with jalapeño & cheddar cornbread. These were huge ribs, tender, juicy and meaty, with a crunchy bark. They were topped by a compelling BBQ sauce, which was sweet and tangy, enhancing the savory and slightly smoky beef. The carnivore in me was immensely pleased. The cornbread was very good too, with a spicy kick from the jalapeños.  

This dish was paired with a glass of Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon, from one of my favorite bourbon producers. This was a complex and interesting bourbon, with fruity notes, caramel, baking spices, and mild floral notes. Smooth, with a lengthy finish. Another excellent pairing. 

The BBQ on the beef ribs was a recipe created by Sous Chef David Paige, pictured above in the Charizard hat (a Pokémon dragon). The recipe is about seven-years old, and David has been tweaking it over the years, making it better and better. 

Bottles of his BBQ sauce were also available for sale at the end of the dinner, and I was sure to buy one. 

Finally, dessert was an Apple Crisp with a caramel whipped bourbon cream. That cream was excellent, and went well with the crisp apple slices and crunchy coating.

The final pairing was the Drink Your Dessert cocktail, made with Nooku bourbon cream, Tito's, and coffee. The Nooku is made with two-year old Old Elk Bourbon and fresh dairy cream. I tasted some of the Nooku on its own, and it was creamy and tasty, with a nice richness and a pleasant bourbon flavor. A great choice for cocktails, and a nice match for coffee. 

Chef Joe Carli and Sous Chef David Paige know how to create impressive BBQ, and they will likely hold additional BBQ dinners in the future. This was a nice change from their usual Italian cuisine, as well as an insight into their overall culinary skills. This is also another reason why A Tavola is one of my Top Three Favorite Restaurants

Now, I look forward this Wednesday to another Wine Dinner event at A Tavola.