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For The Love of Chowder – 2018 Edition

October 30, 2018 1 comment

Blogging is all (mostly?) about traditions, isn’t it? I’m talking about topics, things or experiences we like to write about. If you blog for a while, you have a number of posts which can be called traditional, as they cover the same subject – yearly, monthly, weekly, daily? (ouch!). For sure it works this way for me – there is a number of experiences I like to talk about on the regular basis – as those experiences take place.

One of such experiences is the Chowdafest, a fall event dedicated to the humble (or not) soup, generally known as Chowder – if you want a bit of an education on what the chowder is, I can offer you the post I wrote after attending my first Chowdafest back in 2015, which provides a few details on the different types of chowders.

The 2018 event took place at around the usual time (Sunday, September 30th), at the usual place – Sherwood Island State Park in Westport, Connecticut. Even the weather was the usual – sunny, bright and not too cold. However, the summer and early fall in New England saw an incredible amount of rain, so the grounds were unusually wet and people had to be careful walking around.

As we entered, all visitors were given a ballot and a pencil, to mark down their favorites. The back side of the ballot had a map of the event, as in addition to all the competitors, there were lots of vendors (sponsors) offering other tasty treats, so one didn’t have to survive on the chowder alone. Cabot Creamery, Harney & Sons Tea, Ocean Spray, Stop & Shop, Polar Beverages, and many others were serving Mexican and Italian food, ice cream, juice, tea, coffee, sparkling water – you had a lot of fun food options beyond chowder.

 

Same as last year, there were 5 categories were participants were competing for the title of “the best” – Classic New England Clam Chowder, Traditional Chowders (Manhattan/Rhode Island’s), Creative Chowder, Soup/Bisque, and Vegetarian. The participating restaurants this year represented states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington.

Obviously, I’m not going to give you much of a detailed report here about all the chowders I tasted, so here are my overall impressions:

  • For the 4 years that I’m attending the event, I’m happy with the overall quality and variety. It is not boring and once I get out of the food coma at the end of the event, I’m instantly happy to think about next year’s Chowdafest.
  • The overall level of booth decorations in 2018 was less than in the previous years. Many places would just have a serving station and maybe a recipe. It takes away a bit from the “Fest[ival]” experience. Hopefully, in 2019, we can go back to more festive booth settings.
  • A few vendors run out of chowder/soup in the middle of the day. I saw one just pack up and leave, and another one saying “more soup is coming in 30 minutes” – not good for visitors, and really a bad plan for competitors – you can’t win by serving only half of the visitors.
  • I’m still puzzled how Pike’s Place from Seattle always wins the New England Clam Chowder category – I think it is a combination of service – they carry their chowder around so people don’t have to wait in line, and intimidation – they display all their trophies from the past years, and people automatically think “ahh, they must be the best with so many awards” (works the same way as multiple medal pictures on the wine bottles). To me, their chowder is not bad, but for instance, I preferred the one from 250 Market far more than Pike’s Place. Oh well, the people have spoken…
  • I’m happy that at least in one category – Vegetarian – my top choice matched the people’s choice. Truffle Mushroom Bisque from Old Post Tavern in Fairfield, CT was delicious, and it won the category.
  • I’m also happy that Drunkin Pumpkin Seafood Chowder from Our House Bistro in Winooski VT took the top spot in Creative Chowder category – their soups are always good, the presentation is excellent with lots of “self-serve” condiments, and the booth is always a pleasure to look at.
  • For the first time, I saw the competition trophies. At first, I didn’t understand the collection of the old ship memorabilia in a middle of the field – until the later when I saw the plaques and realized that those were actually the trophies.
  • Believe it or not, but in the Chowdafest 2018, my favorite soup was not really a chowder at all – it was a Curried Chicken Chowder from Hale & Hearty from Boston, MA – the only soup I gave the top 10.5 rating.

Here is the list of winners in the 5 categories we mentioned before (Classic New England Clam Chowder, Traditional Chowders (Manhattan/Rhode Island’s), Creative Chowder, Soup/Bisque, Vegetarian). For the more detailed list, which includes 2nd and 3rd place winners, please use this link.

Pike Place Chowder
Our House Bistro
Geronimo Tequila Bar & Southwest Grill
Dunville’s
Old Post Tavern

As usual, let me leave you with a copy of my ballot – just to prove that I take the Chowdafest competition very seriously 🙂

You can already mark your calendars for Sunday, October 6th, 2019 – the 12th annual Chowdafest competition.

Before we part, you might want to check out Chowdafest’s sister event – the Great Mac & Chili Challenge, taking place this Sunday, November 4th at 11 AM at the same Sherwood Island State Park in Westport, CT. The weather should be great! Cheers!

CLASSIFIED Brunch

October 15, 2018 8 comments

 

United CLASSIFIEDHow many emails do you get per day? I would safely bet that we all get at least 50 emails per day (don’t laugh too hard out there, please – of course, it is on a slow, really slow day).

The real question is – how many of those emails do you open? Speaking for myself, I delete at least 90% of all the emails after just glancing at the subject line and the source. For the rest, I would open them to read at least the first couple of lines and then decide what to do with it. Okay, bear with me, please – it all will make sense in a second.

I’m a frequent flyer with United, so of course, I get emails from them. Most of those emails are deleted right after reading the subject line (sorry, United). When I received the email from United with the subject line “Your invitation to CLASSIFIED”, the mouse pointer quickly advanced toward the “delete” symbol. However, something prompted me to open the email and read through at least a few lines.

The email was inviting me to experience the new secret (!) restaurant in the Newark airport, called CLASSIFIED. Secret restaurant? In Newark? I fly from that airport all the time, and I know of all the restaurants there, I never saw anything called “CLASSIFIED”. “It must be a scam” my thought continued as my hand was directing the pointer towards the big X. Again, something prompted me to stop and do a bit of a research on the internet – and it appeared that yes, there is a secret (semi-secret) restaurant in the Newark airport, which a number of people already visited and wrote about.

I was still puzzled as to what was the criteria for United to send me this invitation – I don’t have such a high status with them – I struggle to make to the “gold” every year, I’m not a million miles flyer, it was really a puzzle. But hey, I’m a foodie, so if you tell me “new restaurant”, “unusual experience” – you definitely got my ear.

So once you are invited, you need to make a reservation. I had to wait a bit to find a good occasion to make a reservation, as I wouldn’t want to come much earlier to the airport if I don’t have to, and if we are talking about the “experience”, I need to allow the sufficient time for a restaurant visit. The opportunity presented itself as I was connecting in Newark and had 5 hours to kill between my flights this past Saturday. I logged into United with my invitation, got to the restaurant website, and after browsing the menus, made the reservation for Saturday brunch. I got the confirmation email which stated the following:

When you arrive at the airport, please make your way to Saison, a restaurant located in Terminal C near Gate C120. After you let the host know that you’re dining at CLASSIFIED, you’ll be escorted to a private entrance and seated at your table. 

After arriving at the Newark airport on a beautiful day

Newark Airport

I did exactly as I was told, and was quickly escorted to an indiscreet section of the wall in the far back corner of the Saison restaurant, which simply happened to be a door. After a short walk in the dimly lit corridor, I entered the small dining room – the CLASSIFIED restaurant.

As I got situated at my table, my excitement started dissipating as soon as I saw the familiar iPad screens, used for food ordering everywhere throughout Terminal C. The waiter confirmed my suspicion when he asked if I know how to use those iPads, which I confirmed with the sigh. Considering that food at CLASSIFIED is priced at the level of New York’s fine dining establishments, I was expecting the real menu. Oh well, the iPad ordering it is.

Just to set your expectations right, this was the last “low-down” I experienced during the brunch.

First, the RosĂ© arrived – the Juliette RosĂ© from Provence, which was delicious, perfect acidity, slightly bigger body than a typical Provence RosĂ© with a touch of residual sugar – very enjoyable, and a great value at $11. It even arrived with a little extra, courtesy of the restaurant.

The next surprise was the appearance of the Amuse Bouche – a White Bean and Tomato Bisque, which was superb – good texture, nice and warming, good seasoning – really a great start.

Then my main brunch dish arrived – Salmon Eggs Benedict with Home Fried Potatoes and  the side of Chanterelle Mushrooms:

CLASSIFIED Eggs Benedict

The eggs Benedict were cooked perfectly – runny yolk, delicious hollandaise with just the right amount of acidity, generous amount of smoked salmon – one of the very best I ever had. Home fried potatoes with some fried onions were outstanding. And chanterelles… I really have no comments – simply outstanding, just the right amount of seasoning, just the right crunch, a mushroom orgasm on the plate (hope you can relate). CLASSIFIED Nice Touch

I was too full to have any dessert, but still, the little box appeared on the table, containing a set of chocolates. Yet another nice touch, which all together, one little detail after another, adds up to what we call “the experience”. A fine dining experience at the Newark airport. Thank you, United, for making flying something you can look forward to.

Note to self – sometimes, it makes sense to read the emails. Cheers!

Perfection, or When Everything Works Together…

October 1, 2018 11 comments

Il Poggione Rosso and EVOOIf you are into the wine and food (or food and wine, whatever your preferences are), I can safely bet you were looking for that climactic moment of combining the food and wine to reach the new, higher level of pleasure. Yes, I’m talking about that “oh my God” moment when your taste buds experienced that already exceptional bite of food becoming something beyond exceptional in combination with the sip of the wine. By the same token, if you were looking for that moment, I’m sure that more often than not (actually, a lot more often than not) you couldn’t find it – those beautiful pairings are often equally evasive.

Here I want to share with you my account of recent encounter with perfection, that climatic experience if you will.

A few months ago I got a box in the mail (one of the little perks of the wine blogger). Inside, there were a bottle of wine, a bottle of olive oil, a jar of sea salt and a recipe – for Bistecca alla Fiorentina.

Bistecca all Fiorentina is a dish coming from the Tuscany (Florence) and depending on the historical account, it traces its origins either to the 16th or the 19th century – well, the history of Bistecca all Fiorentina is definitely not something we will be talking about here, so let’s move on. I’m sure you understand that “Bistecca” simply stands for the “beef steak”. However, the recipe calls not for any steak, but specifically for the porterhouse or T-bone steak, which should be simply prepared rare or medium-rare over the charcoal. As the recipe is very simple, here it is in its entirety:

Ingredients (serves 4):
2 (1.5″ thick) bone-in porterhouse steaks (3.5 lb)
1/4 cup Il Poggione EVOO
Tuscan sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 sprigs rosemary

Get the charcoal ready. The distance between the hot charcoal and steak should be about 4 inches (10 cm). The steak should be at the room temperature before you start grilling (it should be out of the fridge for about 10 hours to get to the room temperature). Grill steak on one side for 5-8 minutes, flip it with tongs (no forks of any kind!), salt the top surface with Tuscan sea salt and pour some olive oil. Cook for another 5-8 minutes, then stand the steaks on the bone and cook for another 5 minutes. Take it off the heat, put it down to rest, salt the other side and put some olive oil on it. After 5 minutes of rest, you can slice and serve your steak. See, can it get any simpler?

Now, it is time to talk about the perfection.

First, the perfection started from the exceptional meat. In addition to what I already described, the box contained a gift card for Pat LaFrieda. The story of Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors started at the beginning of the 20th century when Anthony LaFrieda arrived at the USA and opened his first butchery – you can read the rest of the story on Pat LaFrieda website. Whatever the story is, the proof is always in the pudding – or on the fork in this case. I have to honestly tell you that I never had a better a steak than this – the meat was sublime and was simply melting in the mouth – a good start for the perfect experience.

The second element of the perfection was, of course, the wine – 2016 Il Poggione Rosso di Montalcino (14% ABV, $27, 12 month in large oak barrels). Tenuta Il Poggione is one of the oldest producers in the Montalcino area, started to make Sangiovese wines – now known as Brunello – at the beginning of the 1900s. Today, it is one of the largest wineries in Montalcino, with 1500 acres, out of which more than 300 acres are under vines and 170 acres planted with olive trees (that Il Poggione EVOO in the package was superb).

The wine actually happened to be one of the best Rosso di Montalcino wines I tasted in a long time. The key word to describe this wine is finesse – it had a welcoming nose of the tart cherries, medium intensity, and a hint of the herbs. That profile perfectly continued on the palate, where delicate fresh cherries were joined by sage and rosemary, with clean acidity and excellent balance. Definitely one lip-smacking, delicious wine (8+).

Let’s not miss any details – we are talking about perfect pairing here. As the devil is in the detail, there was one more element  – little, but essential – to this amazing pairing, besides superb meat and outstanding wine. The last element? Tuscan sea salt. This was not some random sea salt – this one was Tuscan Sea Salt from AG Ferrari, listing the following ingredients: “Italian sea salt, fresh rosemary, fresh garlic, sugar, fresh sage, ground black pepper” – this Tuscan Sea Salt became the bridge which connected the flavor of the seasoned meat with the perfectly aligned flavor profile of the Il Poggione Rosso di Montalcino, delivering the genius pairing and an amazing experience.

I have to honestly tell you – I tried to replicate this experience two days ago – and failed. I used the same Tuscan Sea Salt, but I had a steak from the local supermarket butcher shop (1/3 of a price compare to Pat LaFrieda), and the wine was 2015 Collosorbo Rosso di Montalcino. The steak was simply not good (happy to be blamed for it as a cook – but I cooked the one from Pat LaFrieda too). The wine was okay, but a lot fruitier than Il Poggione, thus the pairing simply didn’t work. Which once again proves my point about the evasive nature of a great wine pairing.

Did you have any climactic food and wine pairing experiences you care to share with the world? Or maybe you want to recount the worst moments? Will be happy to hear about it either way. Cheers!

Restaurant Files: Smoke, Fire, and Spice, and Everything is Nice – at Bobby Q’s in Norwalk, Connecticut

September 24, 2018 6 comments

Bobby Qs Cue & CoI love food – well, of course, this is not a secret. Let me refine that. I love good food. That would be a much more precise statement (duh, who doesn’t). Same as with the wine, where I can never name my favorite grape or wine, I can’t tell you what my favorite food is. Except for that one type – good food. Good food is what I love – will it be sushi, steak or vegan burger – as long as the food is tasty, it will be my favorite food of the moment.

And then there is barbecue. Is that my most favorite food? No, it is not – this is why I gave you the opening statement. But, nevertheless, I really appreciate good, tasty, smoky, spicy food. The barbecue (or BBQ, as it is often abbreviated) might be the only authentic American cuisine – okay, the Southern cuisine is, but BBQ is indelibly a quintessence of Southern cooking – whether it is Texas, Tennessee, Kansas, Georgia, or Alabama – the BBQ there is “it”. And on the East Coast of the US? Well, BBQ is popular, and many restaurants say that they do it – only to fail the actual taste test. This is why the visit to Bobby Q’s in Norwalk, Connecticut was so vibrantly refreshing.

Bobby Q’s restaurant had been around since 2004 – however, located in Westport, just a next town over from Norwalk. It won numerous accolades of “Best in Connecticut”, “Best in Fairfield County” and many other “bests”. But in 2016, the building it was in was sold, and the restaurant had to find a new home – which it did at the Waypointe District in downtown Norwalk, where it opened its doors last year.

Before we talk about food (have you had dinner yet? take a moment, go eat something first, will you?), let’s talk about the drinks. The drinks menu is heavily focused on the whiskey and bourbon (that’s what BBQ is typically calling for, right?), but also includes a good number of cocktails. I had Smoking Gun (Bulleit Bourbon, maple, black walnut & creole bitters, hickory smoke), which was tasty and very potent, first. Then I continued with Bramble On (Buffalo Trace, maple, lemon, blackberries, lime & rosemary) which was not too sweet (my pet peeve – don’t like sweet cocktails) and very refreshing. There is a limited number of wines on the drinks menu, but we decided to stay only with the cocktails for the evening.

Bobby Qs Austin City Limits Flatbread

We started our dinner with Spicy Brisket Hand Pie (Guacamole, chipotle aioli, empanada crust) – very tasty, and then Bobby Q’s Classic BBQ Nachos (crispy tortilla chips, pulled pork from the pit, jack and cheddar cheese), served in the ‘Q It Up Version (pit beans, sour cream, guacamole, house pickled jalapeño) – I love nachos, and I love loaded nachos even more – so this was Super-Loaded nachos dish, absolutely delicious (healthy? of course not!), with perfectly cooked pulled pork, perfectly flavorful, with pickled jalapeños, just yum. Wood-kissed Wings (Korean BBQ, Nashville Hot) were outstanding. Nashville Hot were my favorite, as I really appreciate the dry rub on the wings, and these were superb, with a good, but the very controlled amount of heat, and a perfect amount of smoke. Austin City Limits Flatbread (brisket, roasted poblano peppers, caramelized onion, gruyere, Big Rack Bold BBQ drizzle) finished our introductory course and was also very tasty.

Next, we had a Vegan/Vegetarian BBQ Sandwich (Jackfruit, coleslaw). I heard that cooked Jackfruit has the texture similar to the pulled pork – this was definitely the case here. Without cole slaw, this sandwich can be served as vegan, and the addition of coleslaw makes it vegetarian. Cue’bano Sandwich (pulled pork, smoked turkey, Swiss, pickles, caramelized onions with Carolina Mustard sauce, grilled sourdough) and The Colonel Sandwich (Fried chicken, pickles, jalapeno-bleu cheese slaw, hot sauce, bun) were both excellent. The Cue & Co Burger (Pimento cheese, tomato, arugula, bacon jam) was served with Fire Fries (Ghost Chili dust, Basin’ BBQ, jalapenos, habanero, chipotle mayo), which was one of my favorite dishes of the evening. The Fire Fries looked quite innocent, and at first, they even tasted like that. A few seconds later, the fire started – these fries are not called Fire Fries for nothing – 15 seconds later, the whole mouth was on fire, albeit delicious.

And now, the time has come for the main attraction – BBQ platter (house pickles), which included Beef Brisket, Beef Burnt Ends, St. Louis Ribs, Texas Pork Sausage, served with the sides of Mac & Cheese (sharp cheddar, smoked gouda), Yankee Corn Bread (maple bacon butter) and Pit Beans (molasses, burnt ends, finished in the pit) – I don’t even know where to start. Yankee corn bread – superb, Pit Beans – outstanding, with a delicious amount of smoke and excellent addition of meat. Brisket was tender, juicy and perfectly smoked. The ribs had dry rub and were excellent, burnt ends – in general, one of my all-time favorite BBQ foods, and this rendition didn’t disappoint at all; sausage was flavorful and had the perfect texture. Simply a great smoked food extravaganza.

Bobby Qs Bacon-laced Ice Cream Sandwich

Do you think we left without having a dessert? Think again! The Apple Cider Doughnuts (Vanilla Anglaise) were melting in your mouth, Banana Pudding (Ripe bananas, Nilla Wafers, melted butterscotch drizzle) was sublime, and Bacon-laced Ice Cream Sandwich (soft baked chocolate chip cookies, vanilla ice cream, bits of bacon)… Ice cream with the bacon. Do I need to say anything else? Yep, it was as good as you think it should be, and maybe even slightly better.

Here you are, my friends – an account of smoky, spicy and even fiery experience. If barbecue is your crave, Bobby Q’s is well worth a special trip – and you can thank me later. Cheers!

 

Restaurant Files: Art of Food And Wine at Domaine Hudson in Wilmington, Delaware

September 2, 2018 2 comments

 

Domaine Hudson Special MenuAlmost for as long as this blog exists, and practically every year around this time, I confess my love of traditions. The reason it happens every year around August is rather simple – this is the time when we typically have our “Adults getaway” – a group of friends going away for a weekend of food, wine, and laughter, an insane amount of laughter.

We always spend time arranging for a special dinner – this year was not an exception. It took a bit of work, but after calling and emailing many places around our destination – Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square in Pennsylvania – we found the place which was willing to accommodate our group and seemed to offer good food and wine options. Typically we try to find the restaurant which will offer a tasting menu and allow us to bring our own wines. It does take a bit of effort to come up with wine pairings for the dishes we never tasted – but usually, we fare reasonably well at that exercise. This year, for a change, we found the restaurant which offered us a tasting menu – and paired all the dishes with wines, so all we needed to do is to come and enjoy (one would hope, at least).

It was not just the fully paired tasting menu which was different this time. Typically, when we select a restaurant, we go by Yelp ratings and close proximity to the place we are staying at. As we usually stay in small towns, the restaurants we find are more of a “local significance”. The story with Domaine Hudson is quite different as the restaurant has Wine Spectator’s Best of Award of Excellence. There are only about 1200 restaurants with this type of awards in the whole of the United States, so I hope you agree that it builds some level of expectations.

All the planning behind, and finally we arrived at the Domaine Hudson in Wilmington. Once we got situated, the dinner started with the “Chef’s Surprise” (the Amuse-bouche), which became a double-surprise. The first part of the surprise was in the fact that it was not expected, of course. But the second surprise was the dish itself – Deviled Eggs.

Okay, what can be surprising about the deviled eggs, you ask? You see, for people with Russain heritage, deviled eggs is a staple of the party, and I’m very, very particular to how this simple dish is executed. I had deviled eggs on multiple occasions in the restaurants, and don’t mean to offend anyone, but in the absolute majority of the cases the dish could be described simply as “blah”. Not here. At Domaine Hudson, this was one superb deviled eggs – the egg white was smoked, the filling was creamy and perfectly seasoned, and the smoked salmon on top gave the texture and completed the dish. The simply delicious beginning of the evening.

Before we continue, I have a confession to make. Every once in a while, you want to forget all your social media obligations (obsessions?) and just be a normal person on vacation – don’t take pictures, don’t take notes, don’t try to memorize the experience, just relax, have fun and enjoy the moment. This is what I honestly tried to do. I didn’t bring my SLR, I decided not to take any pictures, just enjoy the dinner and the company. After the first sip of wine and bite of food, which were both excellent, all good intentions went out of the window, and the need to “document the story” kicked in, more as an instinct, a muscle memory so to speak. But – I was left with only my cell phone (meaning – mediocre pictures), and any missed picture opportunities are just that – missed picture opportunities. Now, let’s get back to our dinner and the wine pairings.

Duck Liver Mousse (port wine aspic, pickled stone fruit, grilled bread)
Wine: 2015 Rubus Old Vine Zinfandel Lodi

Superb is a word. The mousse was delicious – texture, flavor combination with all the condiments – I finished the full ramekin by myself, couldn’t stop until the last morsel. The wine was excellent as well – nice raspberries profile, a touch of fresh fruit, not overbearing, but enough sweetness to perfectly complement the mousse. A successful pairing by all means.

Domaine Hudson Culver Farms Baby Greens salad

Culver Farms Baby Greens (grilled corn, fennel, Marcona almonds, lemon aioli, Pecorino)
Wine: 2017 Gateway Vinho Verde DOC, Portugal

Another delicious dish. Fresh, simple, light, very summer-y, fun to eat with all the different crunch elements. Vinho Verde was fresh, grassy and lemony, just as you would expect, and it obviously played perfectly with the salad. Another successful pairing.

Ricotta Gnocchi (forest mushrooms, hazelnuts, summer truffle cream)
Wine: 2016 Domaine Cornu-Camus Bourgogne Hautes-CĂ´tes de Beaune, France

I love mushrooms, so this dish definitely delivered that – great variety of mushrooms, a perfect textural addition of hazelnuts, truffle cream was very flavorful. The gnocchi, which were supposed to be the star of the dish were too dense, I would definitely prefer for them to be lighter and fluffier. Still, not the dish you can really complain about. The wine was fresh and young, red crunchy berries, great minerality, very firm and structured, with excellent acidity – an excellent young Burgundy. However, the pairing didn’t work. I guess the idea was to pair on the contrast, but that didn’t work for me. But – I definitely enjoyed the wine on its own.

Nordic Halibut (Fava beans, Holland leeks, forest mushrooms, lemon butter sauce)
Wine: 2015 Talley Vineyards Estate Chardonnay Arroyo Grande Valley

Crispy fish? Check. Fava beans? One of my personal favorites; check. Mushrooms? Check. You got all my happy ingredients, and they worked very well together. Chardonnay was spot on – varietally correct, just a touch of butter, vanilla, apples, fresh, well balanced with good acidity. And a successful pairing for sure.

Domaine Hudson Prime Holstein NY Strip

Prime Holstein New York Strip (fingerling potatoes, Fois Gras butter, braised greens, red wine demi)
Wine: 2013 Three Wine Company Suscol Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Block 5 Napa Valley

Steak and Cab – need I say more? The steak was perfectly cooked, great flavor, juicy, good sauce – nothing else I can say – if you like steak, you would like this dish. But then the wine… This was easily the best Cabernet Sauvignon I tasted in a long time (bold statement for me, I know). This was in-your-face, juicy, powerful, super-extracted, luscious wine only California can produce – imagine having a ripe bunch of cassis in your hand, and just taking a full bite right there – cassis, blackberries, mint, eucalyptus, everything is there – but perfectly balanced, with good acidity and unquestionably dry – wow. I would never guess this wine had 15.3% ABV – it was just perfectly integrated. Bottom line – superb wine and excellent pairing.

Plum Gelato with Sugar Cookie

The meal should have a sweet ending, right? Excellent gelato, light, fresh, good flavor. A perfect finishing touch.

Let’s summarize the experience – in a word, outstanding. The food was very good, and the wine program was excellent, most of the pairings worked, so I have to say that the Best of Award of Excellence has a good merit, and it definitely makes sense to me.

Have you dined at the restaurant with similar distinctions? How was your experience? Cheers!

 

Restaurant Files: Flinders Lane – Visiting Australia in Stamford

August 5, 2018 7 comments

Flinders lane Stamford DecorFor those of us who like to travel, why do we like it so much? More often than not, the travel itself is not fun – the stress of the airport, cramped planes with the seats getting narrower by the minute, airline food – it leaves lots to be desired. But once we arrive, it is the experience that makes all those travel troubles worth it – the culture, the people, food, wine – this is what we are looking for.

Visiting Australia is squarely on my “bucket list” – I’m sure one day I will be able to experience the culture. I had been drinking Australian wines for a long time – this doesn’t replace visiting the winery, but it is as close as it can get. When it comes to food, the only place in the USA which can be associated with Australia is a chain of Outback Steakhouse restaurants – they constantly run the ads on the TV, with supposedly an Australian-accented narration – this is as much of the Australian experience as you can get there (the voice in the ad might be the most authentic part of experience).

And then Flinders Lane Australian restaurant opened in Stamford. Of course, when I was invited to visit, I was excited – not as much as if it would be an actual country, but still. I would guess the name of the restaurant takes its roots from one of the oldest streets in Melbourne, Flinders Lane, which now hosts a variety of little shops and the restaurants.

What authentic Australian food should you expect to find at the Flinders Lane? I actually know very little about authentic Australian food, so let’s see: Kangaroo? Check. Vegemite (have you heard of it?  I will explain later)? Check. That’s about all I know, so let’s just talk about our experience.

You have to start the evening with a cocktail, right? Well, even if you disagree, it is still right – and this is what we did. Fresh Grapefruit Mule (Absolut Elyx Vodka, Cucumber, Grapefruit, Lime, Bundaberg Ginger Beer) was very refreshing. Floral Cucumber Margarita (Blanco Tequila, Elderflower, Cucumber, Thai Chili Tincture, Lime, Agave) was different but equally refreshing. Limoncello Collins (Villa Massa Limoncello, Vodka, Lemon, Club Soda) – just look at that presentation, isn’t it too pretty to drink? Nicely lemony and very tasty overall.

If we are talking cocktails, we have to talk about the wines. The wine list is not very large, but diverse and versatile, with reasonable prices and a good selection of wines by the glass. I also was happy to see the Australian wines on the list (which is not common for the most of the restaurants, but hey – if not at Flinders Lane, the Australian restaurant, where else?). I had prior experience with Hewitson Baby Bush Mourvèdre, and this 2014 was outstanding – soft, round, supple, perfectly balanced – it was an excellent accompaniment to our dinner.

The dinner was divided into the courses, so here is what transpired:

Course 1

We started with Arancini (black garlic mayo, pecorino cheese), which were outstanding, very good texture and flavor. Pork Sausage Rolls (sambal mayo) was more of a traditional Australian style (at least this was my understanding), and a very tasty bite. And Heirloom Tomato, Burrata, Truffle Soy dressing was perfectly presented just for the single bite – and there are very, very few things which are more delicious than a combination of fresh burrata and heirloom tomato. Yum!

Course 2

Next, we had Tuna Tartare (soy mirin dressing, cucumber, plantain chip) – I’m extremely particular about my tuna tartare, and I have to honestly say that this was not bad, but not my favorite. Something was not matching in the flavor profile – for my palate, of course. Pork and Veal Meatballs (ricotta salata, grilled baguette) were delicious, crispy on the outside, but airy enough inside.

Flinders Lane Diver Scalops

Flinders Lane Kangaroo Salad

Course 3

Truth be told, scallops are probably my most favorite choice of protein. If there is a scallop dish on the menu, there is a very, very good chance that that would be the dish I would pick. Diver Scallops (cashew chili relish, hijiki) didn’t disappoint – perfectly cooked, perfectly spicy – very tasty. And then the Kangaroo salad (chili lime dressing, cilantro, crispy garlic) – my first taste of the kangaroo, lean and gamey taste profile, rather as expected, overall quite tasty.

Course 4

Branzino is another one of my favorites, and this Pan-seared Branzino (sesame ginger broth, bok choy) was excellent – delicious, great flavor combination, might be the tastiest dish of the whole dinner. Of course, you have to have the Australian lamb if you are visiting the Australian restaurant – Braised Lamb Gnocchi (tomato, pecorino) had a nice flavor, but very lamb-y in your face, which is generally not my thing, but overall this was not a bad dish.

Vegemite

Okay, now let’s talk Vegemite. First, the disclaimer – Vegemite was not a part of our dinner – this was something I knew as quite famous in Australia (not always in a good sense) and was very much interested in experiencing, so I asked Chef Brad Stewart if we will be able to try it, and he gladly obliged. If you are wondering what the heck is Vegemite, you can read about it here. It is a paste made from yeast, and it has an extremely (my opinion) pungent flavor. It plays somewhat of a role of peanut butter in the Australian school lunches, typically used a spread on a piece of bread or a toast. I made a mistake of not trying it with butter as it was offered to us, and I can tell you – it is not my thing. But – I tried it, that what matters! 🙂

Flinders lane Sticky date Pudding

Flinders Lane Pavlova

Course 5 – Chef’s selection desserts

Do you think Australians eat dessert? Of course they do – and here what had an opportunity to try

We had Lamington (traditional Australian dessert), Sticky Date Pudding (another traditional Australian dessert and Chef Brad’s grandma’s recipe), Carrot Cake (Chef Brad mom’s recipe) and Pavlova – don’t ask me for individual notes, please – they were all one better than the other, absolutely delightful, and a great finish to our dinner.

 

Here you are, my friends, I hope I didn’t make you too hungry – while you are contemplating your trip to Australia, you can come to Flinders Lane here in Stamford to get a little taste of it now. No boarding pass required. Cheers!

Flavor, Next Level – Beyond Salt And Pepper

April 17, 2018 11 comments

I love cooking. Cooking allows you to be creative, and you are only limited by your own imagination in what will show up on the table in the end. That and maybe some skill – but skill, of course, can be learned and mastered.

While creativity, imagination, and skill are important, one quality will separate success and failure in the final dish – flavor. Of course, the situation is not that dramatic in real life – this is what “not too bad” and “interesting” descriptors are for, but the flavor rules. This for sure is true in the home cooking. If dish on the table looks great – excellent, definitely a bonus. The texture typically is important too – if the rice more resembles mashed potatoes, that is not really cool. But flavor rules – once we take the first bite, the presentation becomes secondary and the flavor is what we are looking for to either jump of joy and pleasure or make face and say “ouch” (don’t strangle that inner kid in you, let the reaction come out).

One of my favorite shows on the TV is “Beat Bobby Flay” on the Food Network. Bobby Flay, who is an Iron Chef and a well-known restaurateur, is challenged by some other, also well established and well-regarded chefs, to cook the dish of their choice, their own “signature dish”. The panel of three judges decides on who made a better dish in a blind taste test. Quite often, Bobby Flay wins even when he has to cook the dish he only tried once in his life and never cooked before – and sometimes even those which he never tried. What makes him the winner? When you listen to the judges explaining their decision, there is one most important word which you hear over and over again – flavor. The dish might not look anything like the classic version, and sometimes even not taste anything like the classic version, and nevertheless, the Flavor is the word you hear the most often, explaining the vote of A versus B.

If you see home cooking as a chore, this is probably not the post you want to continue reading. If, however, you are after the pleasure of both cooking and then eating the tasty food, let’s talk more about flavor. As a home cook, you have an arsenal of tools available to you to achieve the flavor – you start simply with herbs and spices, and then enlist the help of various techniques and methods – marinating, basting, slow cooking, pressure cooking and on, and on, and on. I personally like cooking with open fire, and thus grilling is definitely one of my preferred methods, especially when the weather is cooperating.

One of the things I like using to enhance the flavor of the food on the grill is a cedar plank. I would typically make salmon on the cedar plank so the salmon would have that delicious sweet smokey flavor. There is only one problem with this – I typically forget to pre-soak the plank at least for an hour – and unless the wood is soaked, it will burn in no time on its encounter with open flames.

It appears, that my problem (don’t tell me it is only my problem, and looking on a gorgeous piece of salmon you never had to hit yourself on a forehead saying “why I didn’t prepare the plank before”) had been solved! Here comes Beyond Salt and Pepper – a company which was founded (I’m very happy to give you full disclosure here) by my close friend Henry. We always shared our love for cooking with Henry, but Beyond Salt and Pepper takes that passion to the next level.

Pre-soaking of the plank is required before using it for cooking. I’m sure that when you think about soaking of the wood, you think water. But why only water? Wine is a liquid too, and wine is used in cooking, so maybe…? That’s right – we can use the wine, but not only the wine, also beer, rum, bourbon and any other type of alcohol – each one bringing its own unique flavor profile to the table – your table.

I visited my friend – and essentially, the headquarters of Beyond Salt and Pepper, located in the garage, as any self-respecting startup should – and we had a blast (a feast would be a better word).

First, I saw the process – the pre-cut planks of cedar – but not only cedar, Henry uses white oak too and says that imparts particularly nice flavor on the steaks – are soaked in the liquid of choice for days. Then the planks are getting into the machine where they are vacuum-sealed. Put on the label, pack, and voilĂ , ready for shipping.

And then there was cooking, lots of cooking. If you are still thinking planks are only for salmon, forget this notion as soon as possible. Unleash your imagination – you can make anything you want on the planks – and you can see the proof here in the pictures.

When cooking with the planks, there is a bit of technique which goes into the process – all explained in the recipes available on the Beyond Salt and Pepper web site. In most of the cases, you need to pre-heat the plank by putting in on a hot grill for 1 – 2 minutes on each side. And then you slightly pre-cook the food – for instance, sear steak on one side, and then flip it over on the plank and let it continue cooking as usual – that’s about all the special technique you need.

We had asparagus, artichokes and snap peas cooked on the Chardonnay-soaked planks – we couldn’t keep the snap peas on the table, everyone loved them. How about some little red wine infused smoke on the mushrooms and potatoes? Salmon and tiger shrimp on the Bourbon soaked planks? Yes, please! Chicken with some Merlot smoke on it – yum! Then the steak on the white oak and rum planks – superb. And then some cheese for dessert – but of course, made on the Chardonnay infused plank. Flavor, flavor, flavor – there are no limits to one’s creativity.

 

Here you are, my friends – a simple tool to add to your cooking tools arsenal, to get the flavor to the next level. If you are interested in trying these planks for yourself (and you should, seriously), you can get them directly from the website, or on Amazon (the website offers a bit wider selection). If you need some inspiration and cooking ideas, follow Beyond Salt and Pepper on Instagram. And by the way, while on the website, look for their selection of gourmet peanut butter… Mmmmm… Happy cooking!

Restaurant Files: Brunch Island Style – at Beach House Sono

April 13, 2018 11 comments

Beach House SONO Decor (6)What do you think of brunch? Yes, that late breakfast which is slowly becoming a lunch. Can this be ultimately the best family meal? It takes place over the weekend. It is not yet late in the day. It is the weekend, so you are (hopefully!) not in a hurry, and you can eat slowly, and talk. Breakfast is just … too early, and dinner… might be too late for the family time? So really, what do you think?

Okay, let’s assume you agree with me (you don’t have to, of course), and you also like the idea of brunch. Then the only questions remaining are when are where. Can’t help you with “when”, but as far as “where” is concerned, I might actually help you. If you happen to be in a close proximity to Norwalk, Connecticut, how about Sunday brunch at the newly opened Beach House Sono?

The “Island Style” to me is ambiance and food. As you walk into the Beach House Sono, located on the North Water street in Norwalk, right across from the entrance to the famous Maritime Aquarium, the maritime-style decor sets you right into a proper mood:

I like starting the brunch with a little cocktail – of course it can be a Mimosa, but at Beach House Sono, you have quite a few options fro chose from. I decide first to try Ring of Fire (house bloody mary mix, jalapeno peppers) – it was not as spicy as I wanted, especially for the cocktail which includes Jalopeno peppers among the ingredients – but it was still a good rendition of Bloody Mary. Coconut Mojito (cream of coconut, captain white rum & malibu, muddled fresh mint and lime, club soda), on another hand, was superb – I’m very particular about my Mojito, and not big on the coconut flavor profile in the drinks, but this cocktail was balanced, refreshing and delicious. The Best Dang Manhattan (bulleit bourbon, cocchi, luxardo brandied cherry) was also a pretty good take on the classic.

Let’s talk about food. We shared quite a few dishes for the starters. First, we had Meat and Cheese Plate (prosciutto, soppressata & capocollo, marinated olives, house select gourmet cheeses) – a very good selection of traditional Italian cured meats and cheeses. Next came Gorilla Bread (cinnamon roll filled with cream cheese, dulce de leche), which I wouldn’t even dare to call a “starter” – that is a whole meal, more looking like an over-stuffed French toast – very tasty, though.

We continued with Deviled Eggs (paprika), which were tasty (deviled eggs is one of my favorite dishes, but proper deviled eggs have roots in Russian cuisine and most of the restaurants in the US are only serving an okay version). Tuna Tartare (avocado, scallion, masago, spicy sesame soy) was good, but unnecessarily spicy to my taste – I would definitely tone it done, the heat was distracting from enjoying the delicate flavor of tuna. Goat Cheese Wonton (mixed with cream cheese, lightly fried, pepper jelly) were excellent, a nice crunch and a perfectly spicy jelly.

As this was not enough food already, from here we moved on to the so-called Plates. Frist, Chicken and Waffles (marinated country-fried chicken, freshly made waffle, habanero jelly, Brookside Farms maple syrup) – excellent, well-marinated chicken, good acidity, good spices. My only tiny gripe would be the habanero jelly which didn’t pack any punch at all. Another Southern classic, Shrimp and Grits (smoked tasso (pork), spring onion, pimento gravy) were excellent, great flavor, texture – just an outstanding dish all around; one more of the Southern classics, Chicken Fried Steak (smoked-paprika pork sausage gravy, breakfast potatoes, sunny side up egg) was delicious. The sausage gravy was so good that it inspired me to make it at home the next night, and everyone really enjoyed it. Great representation of the Southern cooking and three of my most favorite dishes of our brunch experience, right there.

Beach House SONO Chicken and Waffles (19)

Beach House SONO Chicken and Waffles (22) Beach House SONO Shrimp and Grits(22)

Beach House SONO Shrimp and Grits(21)

Beach House SONO Chicken and Waffles (20)
We tried two more dishes from the Plates selection – Lobster Benedict (grit cake, hollandaise, baby greens), probably my least favorite dish from the whole experience – the grit cake was falling apart, and the tiny piece of lobster had no seasoning, so that didn’t work. Organic Salmon BLT (grilled salmon, lettuce and tomatoes, bacon, cilantro jalapeno aioli) was interesting and creative – bacon was adding some good flavor notes.

We were pretty much done here, but still managed to try the dessert – Pistachio and Ricotta Cheesecake – which was simply a riot – melting in your mouth flavor bomb. Great finish to a great meal.

Beach House SONO Pistachio and Ricotta Cheese Cake

Beach House SONO Pistachio and Ricotta Cheese Cake 1

So, what do you think? How does the brunch sound for the next weekend’s plan? Well, as I said, I can’t help you with “when”, but at least I told you “where”. Cheers!

Beach House Sono
19 North Water St
Norwalk CT, 06854
203-956-7171
http://www.beachhousecafe.com/

Cooking as an Ultimate Expression of Love, or Early Valentine’s Day Experiences

February 13, 2018 12 comments

I’m always happy to admit that Valentine’s Day is one of my favorite holidays. Of course this is a personal statement, and of course, I perfectly understand that I’m lucky to be able to say it wholeheartedly, as this is not a universal truth.

Outside of presents (which is fun), overpriced flowers and cheesy cards (nevermind all the heart-shaped chocolates, I don’t even want to mention those), Valentine’s Day is all about food and wine. Many years ago, we ditched the tradition of oversubscribed and underdelivering restaurants, offering strictly timed moments of celebration in favor of homemade dinners, which also include the whole family.

Valentine’s Day dinners at home offer a lot of pleasure in itself – you get to contemplate and select the menu, and you have an opportunity to touch lots and lots of bottles until you grab the one which somehow, magically, will become “it”. And then you get to cook that dinner, and most importantly, if everything works as you are hoping it will, you get an extra dose of happiness looking at the happy faces around the dinner table. By the way, if you need any wine recommendations for the Valentine’s Day, I wrote a few of them in the recent years – here and here are two of my favorite ones.

This year, Valentine’s Day dinner came in early – we will be leaving for vacation exactly on the February 14th, thus in order to maintain the tradition of family celebration, the dinner had to take place earlier – on Sunday before the Valentine’s Day. And so the next idea was – why don’t we start early on Sunday, let’s say with a nice breakfast?

What is your favorite celebratory breakfast meal? Eggs Benedict is definitely one of my favorites, so that was an easy decision. Smoked salmon is one of my favorite choices for the eggs benedict, so the prep for the breakfast started two days prior, first by making smoked salmon (you can find the recipe here).

This is Valentine’s Day dinner, so we need to up the game, right? What can elevate breakfast better than some crispy bacon? Yep, bacon it is!

Traditional Eggs Benedict are served on top of the English muffin. Truth be told, I don’t like English muffin – not with eggs benedict, not by itself. So my choice of bread? A fresh biscuit. I have friends who can easily whip a batch of biscuits on a moment’s notice, but I have my limits – thus buttermilk biscuits by Pillsbury work just perfectly for me.

Next, we need to make the Hollandaise sauce. It is somewhat of a tedious process, involving a double-boiler and some serious skills – unless you have a recipe from Suzanne, which is very simple and guarantees a perfect result – as long as you follow it precisely. The Hollandaise came out perfect, both taste and texture, so last prep step was to poach some eggs. All you need to do is to get hot water with vinegar to borderline boil (it shouldn’t be actively boiling, so take your time to adjust the heat) in a deep skillet, then carefully crack the eggs, set the timer and voilĂ . To my shame, I have to admit this is where I failed – I set the timer for 10 minutes (this is what I read in one of the recipes online), and this was a mistake – I completely overcooked the eggs. I believe the right time would be 5 minutes at the most.

Another important step – let the eggs cool off after cooking (ice bath recommended) – I didn’t do it, and as the result, Hollandaise was not covering the eggs properly – oh well, it was still really tasty. So the last step was to assemble the Eggs Benedict – the biscuit on the bottom, then smoked salmon, bacon, egg, and Hollandaise.

Now it is time to make dinner. More often than not, simplicity is your friend when it comes to food. Going the simple route, our Valentine’s Day dinner plan was simple – steak and potatoes.

For the potatoes, we have a recipe where potatoes are thinly sliced on the mandoline, then slices are stacked at the little angle and fried – it is a great recipe except that my fingers and mandoline are not great together, but love requires sacrifices, right?

And for the steak – you can’t beat the simplicity of the pan-fried filet mignon:

Where there is steak, there is also wine. As I mentioned, after spending good 20 minutes going through the different shelves of the wine coolers, I pulled out the bottle which happened to deliver an insane amount of pleasure – 2005 Neyers AME Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley.

I like to know critics scores for the wines, but only out of curiosity – my buying decisions are not based on those scores at all. Besides, my own take on the wine rarely correlates with the critic’s opinion. Except for this wine – when I read Robert Parker’s description, to my surprise and delight, it was well aligned with the way I perceived it – so here is Robert Parker’s take on this 2005 Neyers AME:

” 93 points Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate

The finest 2005 is the Ame (which means “soul” in French), a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon cuvee fashioned from a parcel of the estate vineyard in Napa’s Conn Valley. Perhaps because of that, it possesses more minerality along with licorice, black currant, and cedar wood notes. Dense, full-bodied, rich, and impressively endowed, with good acidity, tannin, and extract, this 600-case offering will be at its best between 2009-2018. Range: 91-93“.
I would only disagree on one point – “best between 2009 – 2018” – it is 2018, and while the wine was perfect, it will go on for at least another 10 years before it will show any sign of age – but I will not be able to prove it to you as this was my last bottle. Nevertheless – spectacular wine, impeccably balanced. This is the type wine which makes people say “OMG, from now on, I’m not going to drink anything else”.
We need to finish dinner with the dessert, right? So what comes to mind when you look at the egg whites left after you make Hollandaise sauce? Egg whites omelet? Sure, but this is pedestrian. Meringue? Yes, now you are talking! So our dessert of choice was Pavlova of sorts, which is, as I learned, one of the national desserts of New Zealand!
Here you are, my friends – our early Valentine’s Day dinner experience. Happy Valentine’s Day! Cheers!

Thanksgiving Day Experiences

December 3, 2017 5 comments

Thanksgiving is one of my most favorite holidays. It revolves around food. Before you beat me up, of course, it is about family, friends and lots and lots of good reason to be thankful – but still, the food is at the core of this family gathering. This makes me double-happy – I get to spend time with the family and cook my heart out – and let’s not forget the extra bonus – I have a reason to chose special wines.

Since this blog started, there was only one year when I didn’t post about Thanksgiving. Otherwise, I did my best to talk about food and wine experience of this special day, sometimes even with few posts on the subject (you can find those posts here). This year, I had two resolutions for my Thanksgiving dinner. First, it will be simple – which means no Turducken, for instance. Second, I will serve only an American wines – to be more precise, only the wines from California. As Napa and Sonoma greatly suffered from the recent fires, this was only logical to embrace Californian wines to support the people there.

Thanksgiving Wines 2017

First, let me say a few words about the food. Turkey is a cornerstone of Thanksgiving – at the same time, it is hard to cook a whole turkey in really an exciting way. Over the years, we tried lots and lots of different recipes – with stuffing and without, turducken, smoked, deep fried, deboned… Some were definitely better than the others (turducken is typically a standout), and some of those preparations can be very laborious. Thus this year, I decided the smoked turkey is the way to go.

This was not a random decision – earlier this year I discovered so-called PBC (Pit Barrel Cooker), which I absolutely fell in love with. In the past, I had to spend literally a whole day, dancing around my simple smoker, trying to maintain the temperature and still ending up cooking all the food in the oven. PBC changed that dramatically – no need to precook ribs anymore, just start the fire, hang your piece of meat and come back in a few hours to enjoy. Based on all the prior success, smoking the turkey was simply a done deal.

This might be the simplest turkey I ever have done. Buy already brined turkey (many stores sell pre-brined turkey, which greatly simplifies your life), rub it generously with PBC All-purpose rub, start the fire and just hang it inside the PBC – you can estimate the cooking time based on the size, and of course, use the meat thermometer to make sure the turkey is cooked through.

Thanksgiving smoked turkey

Another dish I want to mention is the dessert. I got a recipe from a friend, many years ago – however, it was also a while since I made this dessert. I wanted to find a similar recipe online, just to use it as a reference – but failed. So here is the recipe without the usual ingredients and measurements, as here you can make everything approximately. Let’s call this dessert

Crepes Napoleon with Wine-poached Pears and Cranberry sauce

You will need the following:

  • 4 firm pears, I recommend Anjou, carefully peeled, halved and cored
  • 10-12 crepes (can be more, can be less, depending on how many layers do you want)
  • 1 lb cranberry sauce (canned is fine, fresh is better)
  • 1 bottle of port – you can use red wine too, but then you would need to add sugar.
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

Put peeled, halved and cored pears into the large pot, cover it with wine, add cinnamon stick and nutmeg, and put it on the stove. Once liquid started boiling, reduce heat and let it simmer for about 30 minutes. Remove from heat, cover and let peras to cool off completely in the wine, preferably overnight (when cool enough, put the whole pot into the refrigerator). Next day, thinly slice pears and put aside. You can also reduce the wine for a later use – it is quite delicious.

You can buy crepes or you can make crepes. If you will decide to make them, Alton Brown has an excellent recipe – this is what I used.

Crepes Napoleon

Once crepes are made and cooled off, you are ready to start making the Napoleon! Take a plate you will serve the dessert on. Put the first crepe on the bottom. Thinly spread cranberry sauce. Cover with another crepe. Now take slices of pear and put them around the crepe in a single layer. Cover with another crepe, spread cranberry sauce, cover, put pears and continue the process until you will be satisfied with the overall height of the Napoleon. I recommend a round of pear slices on top with cranberry sauce in the center, but of course, you can make your own decoration. Cover (plastic wrap will do) and put it in the cool place for the flavors to be absorbed into the crepes. Later on, slice and enjoy!

Time to talk wines!

Holiday celebration should start with the sparkling, isn’t it? Finding tasty California sparkling wine is really not a problem. One of my favorite California producers, Field Recordings, offers an interesting selection of the sparkling wines, with most of them packaged in the cans (yes, cans). I had a can of NV Field Recordings MethodĂ© Aluminum Edna Valley (11.9% ABV, 100% Pinot Noir), and it provided a perfect start for the evening – fresh, supple, with good body weight and a nice touch of a fresh bread – definitely was a crowd pleaser.

I wanted to have a full California wine experience, so next, we moved on to RosĂ© – 2016 Conundrum RosĂ© California (13.1% ABV). Truth be told, I’m not a fun of Wagner family wines – Conundrum, Meiomi, Caymus – doesn’t matter, they generally don’t work for my palate. So I threw in the bottle of this Conundrum RosĂ© simply because it was available – I thought we will open it, taste it and move on. Boy, was I wrong. This wine had beautiful strawberries all the way on the nose and the palate, supported by tons of herbs – lavender, mint, basil. Perfect mouthfeel with very good presence, but not overwhelming and with good acidity – this wine was enjoyed to the fullest.

We drink with our eyes first – thus the label on the 2014 Durant and Booth Blanc California (14.6% ABV, $36, blend of Chardonnay, Grenache Blanc, Ribolla Gialla, Roussanne, Greco di Tufo) was extremely drinkable and very promising (the label represents the art technique called water marbling – you can read more here if you are as intrigued as I was). I brought this wine from California after attending Wine Bloggers Conference 2017, where this wine was presented to us at the Napa Valley Vintners lunch – I plan to write a separate post about this event).

As you can tell, this wine is made from quite a few grapes, and I’m typically a bit concerned if the chorus will sing harmoniously. Oh yes, it was  – starting from the beautiful touch of butter and vanilla on the nose and the palate, then immediately offering silky plumpness of Roussanne with a gentle touch of butter and tropical fruit on the palate – this delicious wine was gone in no time.

Next, it was the time to move on to the red wines. We started with 2014 Acorn Alegria Vineyards Cabernet Franc Russian River Valley (12.5% ABV, $38, 93% Cabernet Franc, 2% Malbec, 2% Merlot, 2% Petite Verdot, 1% Cabernet Sauvignon and Tannat). All Acorn wines are made from a co-fermented blend of grape varieties which are growing at Acorn’s Alegria Vineyard. This Cabernet Franc had a beautiful open nose with a touch of mint and cassis – the same continued on the palate with more cassis in a smooth, round package, supported by some herbal notes and perfect acidity. It was unmistakably Cabernet Franc, but also unmistakably California Cab Franc, without much of the green bell pepper presence and fruit dominant, but perfectly balanced.

Our last red was coming from the California region I was not really familiar with until now – El Dorado County (it is not only gold you find there, yep). 2015 Boeger Barbera El Dorado (15% ABV) was another wine I brought back from California after the same wine bloggers conference. I tried few of the El Dorado wines at the conference and was not very impressed, so I looked at it as an interesting experiment. Another score! This wine was dense and brooding, with tar and tobacco on the nose, and surprisingly polished dark fruit on the palate with sweet tobacco undertones. To make things even more interesting, I can tell you that we didn’t finish the wine during dinner, so I pumped the air out using the usual Vacuvin, and put the bottle aside almost for 10 days. After 10 days, the wine was still perfectly fresh and enjoyable, which makes me wonder how long this wine can actually age.

Time to finish our Thanksgiving dinner with the dessert. As our planned dessert had cranberry sauce in it, I decided to go with Cranberry wine for dessert. Tomasello Cranberry Wine New Jersey (9% ABV) was a perfect pick for it – good acidity, tart cranberry profile, it played perfectly with our dessert – while the wine was not from California, it still provided a perfect finish for our celebration.

Here we are, my friends. How was your Thanksgiving? Did you enjoy more the turkey, the wines or the company? Cheers!