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Valentine’s Day Experiences

March 1, 2019 2 comments

Valentine's Day RosesCooking is the ultimate expression of love. This is always true, but even more though on Valentine’s Day, as the whole holiday is all about love – the holiday which exists since about the 5th century – it is really fun to celebrate something so deeply rooted in history.

Our personal love story was simple – yet, probably, equally uncommon – the love at first sight. It took three days since the moment we saw each other for the first time until everything was decided. So you can imagine that Valentine’s Day was always an important holiday for us. At first, we tried to follow to common path, working hard to score coveted restaurant reservation – until the dinner at one of the most expensive, and supposedly, best Italian restaurants in Connecticut, which we left asking each other “what was that???”. That was the end of our “eating out” Valentine’s Day celebrations, and the beginning of the “eat in” tradition.

One of the advantages of “eat in” celebrations is a much better wine program. You don’t need to desperately comb through the pages of the wine list, finding that you can’t afford any of the wines by the bottle you want to drink, and common sense preventing you from getting any of the wines by the glass which can be classified as a “seemingly affordable rip off”. Instead, you can spend hours combing through your own wine shelves, looking for the bottles which you will deem worthy of a special celebration –  and which will also work with the menu you have in mind.

Valentiens Day wines

Martinelli Syrah which you see in the picture was a backup wine in case anything will be wrong with the Pinot. Now it is back in the cellar, waiting for its turn.

Last year’s celebration was about steak and Cab – obviously, I couldn’t repeat myself, so the search was on to find an appropriate protein replacement. Somehow that resulted in the duck breast – and what wine does the duck breast call for? Of course, the Pinot Noir!

Before we talk Pinot we need to talk bubbles. Bubbles don’t have to exclusively narrow down to Champagne. Champagne is a wonderful sparkling wine, perfectly appropriate for any celebration – but the world of wine moved up tremendously over the past 15-20 years. I don’t have any stats to prove this objectively, but I have a feeling in the USA at least a third of all wineries if not half of them produce sparkling wine – if not for the wide distribution, then at least for the wine clubs and tasting room visitors.

I also have to say that ever since I visited the Franciacorta region in Lombardy, Italy, Franciacorta sparkling wines became my go-to choice of bubbles for any special celebrations. In my mind, Franciacorta wines are very consistent, and today, as they honed their production methods to perfection, this translates into the “you can’t go wrong with” Franciacorta wines in general. La Valle was one of my top highlights of that Franciacorta trip and the La Valle Rosé really hit the cord then – and it continues to do now. This 2011 La Valle Brut Rosé Franciacorta was superb – fine mousse, delicious strawberries on the nose with the hint of the toasted bread, and more strawberries on the palate – a perfect opener for our evening.

Now, the Pinot time. Similar to the bubbles, Pinot Noir also enjoys quite a universal appeal around the world nowadays. There some regions, however, which do a better job than the others – and California Russain River Valley is definitely one of them. I tried 2007 Charles Mara Pinot Noir for the first time back in 2010. It was silky smooth and powerful at the same time. I was so impressed with this wine that it became the top wine of the inaugural Talk-a-Vino Top Dozen Wines list. I still had a bottle of 2007, and I decided that it would be a perfect choice for our Valentine’s Day dinner – and the wine didn’t disappoint. Now, 9 years later, this 2007 Mara Laughlin Road Ranch Pinot Noir Russian River Valley became even more round and less “in your face”. Characteristic California Pinot plums and smoke on the nose, succulent dark fruit on the palate with a hint of violets, perfect acidity, perfect balance, lots and lots of pleasure. And it also worked perfectly with the duck.

Let’s talk about the duck. I had it a number of times before, either made by friends or at the restaurant – but duck is rarely my go-to dish. The form of duck I cooked before was either duck legs as part of the Cassoulet or the whole duck as part of the Turducken. I never attempted cooking the duck breast before, so obviously was concerned with the outcome. After studying a number of recipes, I was concerned even more, as a number of commentators complained about rendering duck inedible even after repeated attempts, so I was really not sure about my own success.

I don’t know if it was a quality of the ingredient, Moulard Duck Magret, which I got at our local Fairway Market, or the cast iron pan, a combination of the above, or the beginner’s luck, but the duck breast came out perfectly. I also made a Port (you saw it in the picture above) and berries reduction, which elevated the nicely gamey taste of the duck breast and was a bridge to connect it all to Mara Pinot Noir – all in all, a delicious dinner. Nevermind the paper plate in the picture – everything in life has a story, but this is not the story for this blog post.

There you go, my friends – not a timely share, but still an experience worth sharing. If you still remember, I’m curious to know how was your Valentine’s Day dinner. Cheers!

 

 

Restaurant Files: Comfort and Classy Italian – Bar Zepoli In Stamford, Connecticut

February 6, 2019 2 comments

Bar Zepoli table settingComfort Italian food? Oh, yes! Italian immigrants played a big role in creating the USA as we know it, so it is not surprising that Italian food is one of the most popular here – and yes, more often than not, it falls in the category of “comfort food”. For example, pasta and meatballs – isn’t that just a different way to spell “comfort”? Or how about pizza? Or anything with mozzarella, the word which non-Italians can’t even pronounce in a tasty way (it is “mozzarell” to you!), wouldn’t copious amounts of mozzarella make any dish a comforting one?

Can the food be comforting and classy at the same time? Why not? There are many ways to add a classy element to the comfort dish – presentation might be the simplest one. Or you can just add a tasty cocktail or a glass of wine to the same dish, and all of a sudden you have the next level of experience.

Bar Zepoli has one of the most central restaurant locations in Stamford, right in a middle of the “restaurant district” if Stamford would ever designate one. The restaurant is technically located inside the Marriott Courtyard hotel, but it is easily accessible right from the street without the need to navigate the maze of the hotel and its self-focused guests. Once you walk inside, dark paneling and dim lighting quickly get to you to quickly install “yep, this is comfortable” mood.

As usual, we started with the cocktails. The Pear Bears Margarita (Reposado Tequila, Pear Syrup, Honey Triple Sec, Cinnamon sugar rim) was good, maybe a bit too sweet for my taste. The KGB Will Wait For No One (Apple-infused Vodka, Muddled Cranberries, Ginger Simple Syrup, Ginger Beer and Cider) – I just had to try the wine with such a name. It was again a bit on a sweeter side, but quite tasty nevertheless. The wine list is small but offers a good variety, including some of the “local” selection, such as few wines from the Finger Lakes region.

We started our dinner with a set of appetizers.

Eggplant Rollatini (eggplant cutlets, ricotta, Grana Padano) had excellent seasoning, perfectly executed dish. Zepoli Chicken Wings (classic buffalo, roasted garlic, Parmesan) were delicious, done at the level when you want to lick your fingers after you eat one; let’s not forget an excellent, classy presentation. Marinated Beef Tips (24 hour marinated beef tips, smoked pepper aioli) were literally surprising, as cooking the beef to such a level of tenderness is not easy – excellent, tender beef, melt in your mouth dish.

Our next comfort group included Pizza and Pasta. Margherita (San Marzano tomatoes, basil, fresh mozzarella) was very good; Roasted Butternut Squash (Sage, red onion, kale, mozzarella) not only was tasty, but it was very unique – when was the last time you had a pizza with roasted eggplant on it? This was definitely a first for me. Zepoli Ravioli (whipped ricotta filling, wild mushroom cream, topped with arugula and crispy pancetta) were excellent, rich and generous; Cavatelli (broccoli rabe, sausage, roasted fennel, marinara) was also tasty, and one of my favorites – pasta with sausage is one of my favorite ways to eat pasta.

We closed the main part of our dinner with two of the entrées. Herb Roasted Chicken (free range chicken, red bliss potatoes, baby carrots, peas, pan jus) – spectacular. Everyone who thinks it is easy to prepare a delicious, juicy, not dry and boring chicken is dead wrong – delicious, tasty chicken requires great skill. Bar Zepoli perfectly delivered the deliciousness in one composed dish. If this is not the comfort food, I don’t know what is. When it comes to Braised Short Rib (parsnip puree, sautéed kale, roasted potatoes), short rib might be my favorite cut and preparation of beef – this dish was outstanding, fork tender and flavorful.

Sugar is definitely an element of the comfort. Dessert, anyone? Raspberry Tart (fresh strawberry, caramel sauce, raspberry coulis) was very good, not too sweet. Chocolate Polenta Tart (vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce, fresh raspberry) was definitely unique – never had polenta-based sweet dishes before. Cheese Cake Crème Brulee (creamy cheesecake, caramelized sugar, marinated strawberry, whipped cream) was again another unique cake, combining two of the classics – Cheesecake and Creme Brulee.  last but not least, Cinnamon Zeppole (Italian donuts tossed in cinnamon sugar, with side raspberry sauce) was a perfect finishing note to an excellent dinner.

What are your favorite comfort Italian dishes? Cheers!

Restaurant Files: Eat Well On The Go and Not – Station House in Port Chester, New York

January 20, 2019 Leave a comment

station house restaurant port chesterIf we think of the US history, this country was largely developed around and with the railroad infrastructure. The fortunes were built and the country flourished with the advancement of railroads, the ability to transport both people and cargo. The trains powered the first industrial revolution in the US, changing the idea for what is possible and making the country a lot smaller.

Today, the situation is quite different. The plane and the car are definitely the preferred means of conquering the distance in the USA. Of course, the tracks and trains didn’t disappear from the land, but unlike Europe and Asia, passenger trains in the USA are mostly the short haul, helping to offload transportation grid of the large metropolitan cities, without providing much of a meaningful alternative to the plane and the car for any long distance travel.

Okay, after this long intro, let’s go back to the core of this blog – food and wine. Only today, we are talking about food on the go. No matter how and how far you are traveling, you have to be able to eat. Train station, airport, rest area along the highway – ability to find a bite on the go, and preferably a tasty bite, is a key to the happy travel. Of course, safely and timely arriving from point A to point B is a whole substance of the journey, and it is the most essential part – but think about your own travel experience – are you happier when hungry or when well fed? Yeah, I thought so.

When it comes to the food on the go, airports in the USA definitely trumpet the train stations (the only exception might be Grand Central Terminal in New York, which offers a great range of fine dining options, even though United Terminal C at Newark airport might give Grand Central a fight for the supremacy). However, there is one important difference between the train stations and the airports – no matter how amazing the airport food is, it is strictly available “on the go” – you need to be flying somewhere to have a boarding pass in your hand to reach that coveted restaurant, like United Classified. However, you don’t need to be going anywhere (or you might be) to have a great meal at the train station’s restaurant. Case in point – Station House restaurant in Port Chester, New York.

As the name says it, the restaurant is situated in the old Station house at the Port Chester train station (if you are not a commuter, your only challenge might be parking – but this shouldn’t stop you from having a good meal). Once inside, you will find a modern restaurant well placed in somewhat of a nostalgic setting:

We had a dinner at the Station House a while ago, and had an opportunity to taste through a variety of dishes, which will suit you well whether you are truly on the go and want to grab a pizza to shorten your ride, or you are arriving after a long day at work and need to feed the family, or even if you are not going anywhere and simply looking for a quiet dinner in an unpretentious atmosphere.

Assuming you got some time, how about starting your evening with a cocktail? We had New Haven Bound (Tito’s Vodka, Blackberries, Strawberries, Lemon, Soda) which was tangy and refreshing; Hop on Board (Vodka, Honey, IPA, Lemon) was light and crisp. You can start with the cocktails and continue with beer and wine – the restaurant offers a good selection in both categories to perfectly supplement the casual fare.

We had a few appetizers to start. Blue Point Oysters were, well, delicious – what else can you expect from the fresh oysters. Summer Asparagus (Farro, Feta, Tomato, Dijon Vinaigrette) was excellent, with asparagus been snappy and crunchy (overcooked asparagus is a big no-no in my book). Charred Baby Bell Peppers (Basil Sea Salt) were good, Homemade Whipped Ricotta (Honey Herbs, EVOO, Toast Points) was tasty, a good flavor combination.

We continued with Coal-Fired Wings Thyme & Lemon (Sea Salt, Caramelized Onions) – love caramelized onions on anything, and it was a very nice addition to the well-cooked wings. Mama’s Meatballs (Marinara, Provolone, Parsley) were fork-tender and well seasoned; Baked Mac & Cheese (Four Cheese, Béchamel, Bread Crumbs) was homey and comforting.

Every restaurant should have their “specialty”. For Station House, it is the Coal-Fired pizza.

clam and bacon pizza station house port chester

classic pepperoni pizza station house port chester

four cheese pizza at station house port chester

sweet and spicy pizza station house port chester

For the regular (tomato-sauce based) pizza, we tried Classic Pepperoni (Tomato, Mozz, Pepperoni), which was excellent, and Clam & Bacon (Littleneck Clams, Parmesan, Garlic Oil, Chili Flakes, Parsley) which was perfectly garlicky (love garlic!). Two of the white pizza were also very tasty, Four Cheese (Fresh Mozz, Herb Ricotta, Fontina, Parmesan, Garlic, Herbs) and Sweet & Spicy (Fried Onion, Cherry Peppers, Fontina, Honey, Provolone), which was, as suggested, deliciously spicy (I find it personally very important that the “advertisement” would match the “content”).

cannoli at station house port chester

Do you think we left without the dessert? Of course not! Cannoli offered a perfect finish to the casual and comforting meal.

There you are my friends – on the go and not, you can always find a delicious bite by the tracks. Do you have your own train station food standouts? Cheers!

Wine and Bacon? Why Not?!

January 15, 2019 10 comments

There is a good chance that you love good food and wine pairing as much as the next connoisseur. We all know that successful pairings are very far from trivial, and we also know that not all the foods are good with the wine.

So have you ever thought of pairing bacon with wine? I’m sure that there is a very good chance that such a pairing never crossed your mind, despite the fact that you might love each one on its own – bacon and wine – almost religiously (there are lots of people in this world who will start drooling just at a sound of the word “bacon”).

Before we continue – or before you stop reading this as you don’t eat bacon for whatever reason (religious, veganism, anything) – I need to ask you (beg you?) – please do not fret. Bacon doesn’t have to be made out of pork! In today’s world, besides turkey bacon, which I agree is generally very pedestrian and not satisfying, there are also Beef Bacon, Duck Bacon, and even variety of Vegan Bacon – your life doesn’t have to be bacon-less, even if pork is off the menu for good.

What wine to serve with bacon is typically not the question you are facing, though. The main reason is that in the direct form – a slice of bacon and a glass of wine – they belong to the different, non-overlapping “time zones”. Bacon is a morning food, and wine, umm, really not. Yes, bacon easily takes on the role of a condiment at lunch and dinner, but then it is a whole another story in terms of the wine pairing.

But then there is brunch, where bacon is still a star, and who doesn’t like a glass of wine with their brunch? Or have you ever enjoyed bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with the blue cheese, so popular in many Spanish restaurants? So maybe bacon can be and should be paired with wine? Folks at Drinkable Gifts surely think so, and they even came up with infographics to illustrate their bacon and wine suggestions. As I’m an infographics junkie, I’m happy to share it with you. You can find all the detailed bacon recipes and pairing suggestions here.

I’m also curious in your opinion if you think suggested pairing combinations will work. Enjoy!

Source: DrinkableGifts.com

Japanese Cuisine Beyond Sushi – Experience Fresh Energy of Kashi in Stamford, Connecticut

December 11, 2018 1 comment

What is the first association you get when you hear “Japanese restaurant” or “Japanese cuisine”? If you say “Sushi”, this, of course, would be a good answer, but keep in mind that if you will visit Japan, sushi will not be the first food option you will find – ramen, chicken, pork, or veggies would be more readily available (and cheaper).

I don’t know if you are contemplating a visit to Japan (you really should!), but even if you are, this post will not help you to get ready. Instead, I would like to tell you where you can experience Japanese cuisine well beyond sushi – how about Kashi Japanese restaurant, located in downtown Stamford, Connecticut?

Kashi Stamford

Kashi means “fresh energy” in Japanese, and this is what you get at the restaurant. Beyond the eclectic decor, there is creative, off the beaten pass Japanese cuisine, offering literally the “tapas”-style dining with lots of unique dishes. As usual, we need to talk about drinks first before we will get to the food.

As expected in the Japanese restaurant, the wine list includes a good selection of sake. Truth be told, I’m not really a sake connoisseur, but one of my favorites is sparkling sake. The restaurant had a few to offer – Ozeki Hana Awaka Sparkling Sake, and Ozeki Hana Fuga Peach Sparkling Sake. Both were tasty, with my slight preference toward Ozeki Hana Awaka as it was more complex. I also had Cucumber Saketini, which was an ultra-dry cocktail, and then we shared Scorpion Bowl (Vodka, Gin, Rum, Fresh Fruit) – great presentation for sure, and most reminiscent of sangria taste-wise. The restaurant also offers a number of wines, but I decided to stay with the cocktails and sparkling sake for the rest of the evening.

I hope you are not ultra-hungry, as there is a lot of food coming. We had an opportunity to experience a wide range of dishes, many of them coming from the Seasonal Special Menu. We started with Grilled Fresh Octopus (seasonal vegetable, piquillo pepper in yuzu kosho pepper sauce), which was well cooked (always appreciated with the octopus) and very tasty. Kashi Tacos (Tacos with pork, cajun, shrimp, corn, onion, avocado, cilantro & wasabi sour cream) was a great play on a classic Mexican dish, offering a nice amount of heat. Bone Marrow (Teriyaki glazed roasted bone marrow, salt, garlic, shichimi powder, ikura teriyaki sauce) is not something you get to eat every day. The dish was definitely interesting and unusual. I like the way it was served with the toast. If you like roasted bone marrow, this one was expertly done.

We continued with the Double Wrap (Soy paper wrap with spicy lobster salad, shitake, salmon, mango chili; naruto cucumber wrap with spicy tuna, yuzu Squirt), a sushi-like dish without any rice – great texture, excellent dish, very nice kick of spices. This was followed by the Grilled Lobster (grilled seaweed, cheese lobster, chili sauce) – expertly cooked lobster, very creative dish, then Seared Yellowtail (seared yellowtail, cucumber, celery, tuiles, yuzu, kosho gel and yuzu dashi sauce), which was nicely done, and then a surprising Avocado Tempura (spicy tuna topping, yuzu dressing) – I know avocado is everywhere nowadays, and I love it, but this was my first experience with avocado tempura, definitely unusual.

Thai Basil Chicken (wok sauteed chicken, mushrooms, onion, carrot, fresh basil, chili paste, sweet basil sauce) was homey and tasty, a “comfort food” type. It was followed with two of the Kashi Signature Rolls – Volcano (tuna, salmon, yellowtail, cucumber, topped with tuna, salmon, served with sriracha & spicy kabayaki aioli) – nice and spicy, and Deep Blue Sea (Blue crab, avocado, shrimp, mango, topped with seared spicy tuna and spicy eel sauce) – delicious fresh fish undertones. To complete the sushi experience, we had Sushi and Sashimi for 1 (5 pcs sushi, 15 pcs sashimi 7 spicy tuna roll) – very good.

We finished our main course with Blue Crab Fried Rice, which was delicious (another comfort food), and Shrimp and Angus Steak Hibachi – who doesn’t like well-cooked hibachi offerings?

Not every Japanese restaurant offers a dessert menu, but Kashi does. We had an opportunity to taste Yuzu Cheesecake, which was an interesting rendition of the classic dish, as well as Green (Macha) Tiramisu, which was very well executed, with excellent texture and flavor combination.

Here you go, my friends – if you want to experience Japanese cuisine beyond sushi, Kashi might be just the place. And if you be visiting, drop me a line – I will be happy to join you. Cheers!

Thanksgiving with Smith-Madrone, And a Few More Delights

December 9, 2018 4 comments

Holidays are all about pleasure. The pleasure of the company. The pleasure of food. The pleasure of wine. As the very least, they should be.

Let me tell you about the pleasures of my recent Thanksgiving – in one picture:

Turkey with Smith-Madrone wines

If this would be an Instagram, I could end my post here, but in this blog, I can add a few words, right?

Let’s talk about the wine first. Everyone has their ideas as what is the best Thanksgiving wine. Some talk about how difficult it is to pair any wine with the Thanksgiving table, due to the large variety of dishes and often prevalent sweet flavors (this is not universal, of course). I have a very simplistic view of the wine and food pairing – give me tasty food and good wine, and if they don’t work together – no problems, I’m happy to consume them one by one. Difficult or not, pairing is not the focal point of my Thanksgiving wine selection. I really have only one strong preference for the Thanksgiving wines – they should be all American. Thanksgiving we celebrate here in the USA is all about this country, and so the wine should match that. And thinking about American wines, you understand how easy it is nowadays to have all-American wine experience.

How many of you heard of Napa Valley? Okay, I see that look, this was a stupid question, I know. But let me go on. How many of you heard of Spring Mountain District? Okay, I see your facial expression changing to say “hmmm, I’m not so sure”. And the last question – how many of you heard of Smith-Madrone? Okay, don’t feel too bad, at the end of the day it is one of the about 400 wineries located in the Napa Valley, so of course, one can’t know all of them. But – this is why I’m talking about it – this is the winery you might want to get better acquainted with.

Smith-Madrone is one of the oldest wineries in Napa Valley, started by brothers Stuart and Charles Smith in 1971. Smith-Madrone property is about 200 acres, with some parts of the vineyards planted more than 100 years ago, all located near the top of the Spring Mountain in Napa Valley. The name Smith-Madrone combines the family name with the name of the evergreen Madrone trees, prominently growing at the property. Well, instead of me trying to regurgitate the past and present of the Smith-Madrone winery, let me direct you to this article – it is a good story, well worth a few minutes of your time.

Smith-Madrone wines

When was the last time you had Napa Valley Riesling? If you answered “never”, it could’ve been my answer too – until I discovered this Smith-Madrone Riesling. Riesling is simply not a common grape for the Napa Valley, but Smith-Madrone produces the absolutely beautiful rendition of the famous grape. It might be due to the mountain fruit – all the Smith-Madrone vineyards located at the altitude of 1300 to 2000 feet, with slopes reaching 34%. Sustainable dry farming and winemaking practices also play a role, but one way or the other, the 2015 Smith-Madrone Riesling Spring Mountain District Napa Valley (12.9% ABV, $32) was just delicious. varietally correct both on the nose (honeysuckle, a touch of tropical fruit, lemon, apples) and the palate, which was beautifully balanced with golden delicious apples, a touch of honey and acidity. To make me ultra-happy, the Riesling is sported a distant hint of petrol, which is my pet peeve.

2015 Smith-Madrone Chardonnay Spring Mountain District Napa Valley (14.4% ABV, $40, 10 months in French oak) was equally beautiful. Again, the wines of that styling I call in my book “classic”. A touch of vanilla and apples on the nose, a distant hint of butter, continuing with the same vanilla and white apples on the palate. Clean acidity, noticeable minerally undertones, restrained, balanced – a very classic example of “how to do chardonnay right”.

With the risk of sounding very boring and repetitive, I have one more classic wine for you – 2014 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon Spring Mountain District Napa Valley (13.9% ABV, $52, 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Cabernet Franc, 7% Merlot, 70% new French oak, 30% one-year-old French oak for 18 months). How classic was this wine? Bordeaux-classic. The mountain fruit was shining, showing great restraint. This was not an exuberant typical Napa Cab – lean, tight, well-structured, with cassis both on the nose and the palate, the wine was very enjoyable now, and it will be equally or more enjoyable in 30 years.

So that was my main wine story on the Thanksgiving day. The rest was about the food – starting the smoker as 9 am in the 21°F weather (about -6°C), and then watching the turkey slowly getting to the right temperature. The silver lining of that cold weather was the fact that instead of 4-4.5 hours in the smoker, it took about 6 hours to get that big bird to the right doneness – and slower cooking results in more tender and more flavorful meat. A glass of Smith-Madrone Riesling was adding to the cooking enjoyment.

After celebrating Thanksgiving at our house, we went to see our close friends in Boston. What I love about that house is that there are always a few of the older wine bottles laying somewhere on the shelf. You never know what you will find in the older bottle, but that is what makes it fun, isn’t it?

The first bottle I opened was 2007 Tishbi Cabernet-Petite Sirah Shomron Israel (12% ABV, 70%  Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Petite Sirah). Judging by the pronounced brickish, almost orange, color, my first thought was “this probably fully turned”. And it was not! Complex nose of dried fruit and herbs was supported by plums and prunes forward, but balanced palate. Good amount of acidity, tertiary aromas – this was a very enjoyable glass of wine. Only one glass, I have to say – by the time I wanted the second, the wine was gone.

Without much thinking, I pulled another wine, realizing later that I opened another wine from the same vintage – 2007 Marani Kondoli Vineyards Saperavi-Merlot Kakheti Georgia (13.5% ABV). This wine couldn’t be more different from the previous 2007 – dark garnet color, not a sign of any aging, tight, fresh, blackberries and blueberries on the nose and the palate, firm, fresh and young. I’m really curious about how much longer this wine could’ve last.

One last wine to mention – 2010 Massandra White Muscat Crimea Ukraine (16% ABV). Massandra winery roots go back to the old Tsar’s Russia in late 1800, but their cellars hold wines from the 18th century (if you are not familiar with Massandra wines, here is an article by Jancis Robinson). Massandra is best known for sweet fortified Muscat wines, like the one we tasted. To me, this 2010 was most reminiscent of a Sherry, and not necessarily an ultra-balanced one. But then the same Jancis Robinson’s article says that Massandra wines require 45-60 for the full maturity, so I guess the wine tasted within the expectations…

Spring Mountain District in Napa Valley, Israel, Georgia, and Ukraine – not a bad wine play for the holiday, what do you say?

Here you go, my friends. I will leave you with some beautiful wines to look for. And how was your Thanksgiving, if you still remember it? Cheers!

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 9 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 Rosé arrived – the Juliette Rosé from Provence, which was delicious, perfect acidity, slightly bigger body than a typical Provence Rosé 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 12 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!

 

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