We’re looking forward to it — cheers!
Always up for a challenge — and excuses to try new wines — we joined this month’s Wine Blogging Wednesday, focusing on biodynamic wines. I thought we might have a difficult time sourcing an appropriate bottle, so I was pleasantly surprised when the wine merchant at Plumpjack Wines in Noe Valley identified a dozen or more biodynamic wines for us, and another 20 or more bottles that were being produced using biodynamic principles, or by wineries that are in the process of converting to biodynamics.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any indication that the wine we ultimately chose from his options — a white from Domaine Tempier, the producers of our favorite rosé — was created biodynamically. According to information on a number of sites, Tempier is indeed a venerable (albeit uncertified) organic winery, but they only occasionally dabble in biodynamics… and one can surmise that their low-end $12 Bandol Blanc probably isn’t the wine they’re dabbling with. (I’m glad we’ll get to try it… but I’m cranky that it was misidentified.)
So, over to BevMo, this time with Fork & Bottle’s list of biodynamic producers in hand. Trust, as they say, but verify.
Our tasting notes:
Patianna Sauvignon Blanc ’05 Mendocino (California) – $14.99 ($18 winemaker’s list)
80% Sauvignon Blanc clone #1, 20% Sauvignon Musque
Pale champagne color; yeasty on the nose; watery and thin flavors, but with an incredibly long finish (with no unpleasant aftertaste); the merest hint of effervescence. Cameron felt the wine had a toasty nose, and found hints of shellfish and sour in the corners. Anita missed the classic dry melon/pear flavors she loves in Sauv Blanc — in fact, there was little fruit at all. It was hard to believe that this was a New World wine. Compared to the similarly priced Chateau Souverain Alexander Valley Sauvignon Blanc (our “house” white), we agree that the Patianna winds up sour and unbalanced.
Chapoutier Cotes du Rhone Belleruche ’04 – $16.99 (€5.09 winemaker’s list)
80% Grenache, 20% Syrah
Straight out of the bottle and then in the glass, there’s a whiff of caramel nose, which doesn’t last, followed by a faint cherry nose and not much else, even when fully (over)warmed. Clear, medium-ruby colored. A lot of mineral tang at first, and though the wine eventually opened up, it never went far enough for us to really enjoy. Better with food than alone, not surprisingly. Fairly astringent for a 2-year-old wine. Thin, not a lot of complexity — it tastes like dried cherries and not a lot else. Trés French and not unpleasant, but seems over-simple and uninteresting compared to our usual array of $8-12 Cotes du Rhone options. Cameron would buy it again for something uncomplicated to drink in the summer…if we could get it for five Euros. Anita would use her seven bucks to try something else.
When it comes to kitchen remodels, no news is good news. Our contractor’s crew of Irish lads has been rapidly turning the old kitchen into a pile of rubble and debris, and — contrary to our worst fears — there was nothing evil lurking within our 85-year-old house’s walls, floors, or ceilings. Let’s celebrate!
As we stood in the beer aisle, contemplating which six-pack to buy for our demo crew (so that they can toast a good week’s work today, too), Cameron veoted my suggestion of something from The Old Country as being too cliché. But conversations with charming men possessed of lilting brogues leaves me craving a pint of stout, so we put a few Guinness Drafts in the shopping cart. On second thought, seeing as how this was a special occasion, perhaps Champagne would be more apt. So we put a split of bubbly into the cart, too.
Back at home, we faced a serious dilemma: Guinness, or bubbly? Well, why not both…
Irish stout, preferably Guinness Draft
Pour Irish stout into a pilsner or tall glass, to the halfway mark. Top with sparkling wine.
I’m back here in Vegas, and… oh, who am I kidding? I’m back here in Henderson, home of tract houses, chain restaurants, and megamarts. Very nice ones, all of them, but still… a bit prefab. On my last visit, I drove almost 10 miles to the nearest Whole Foods, on the other side of town, in a fit of homesickness. Imagine my disappointment to find rock-hard avocados, bin after bin of out-of-season produce, and sickly looking everything. I guess it was better than Vons, but only just.
So when a friend suggested that I check out a place called Valley Cheese, I was a little skeptical. If even Whole Foods can’t deliver the goods in this culinary wasteland, I didn’t have much hope that a small shop would do any better. When I found their rather sad website, I was even more suspicious. But — what the hell — I was bored and hungry, and needed an excuse to get out of the house.
Valley Cheese & Wine is the kind of place you could drive right by for months and not even know it’s there, set back off the street in what can only be described as an upscale industrial park, adjacent to a construction site. Inside, it’s another world: The spacious shop is anchored by a wall of gourmet dry goods — pasta, oils, vinegar, pickles, and such — on one side, and a pair of cold-cases on the other: one with a well-kept assortment of cheese, and another displaying surprisingly robust charcuterie options. The entire center of the store is given over to rack upon rack of wines.
Both of the owners, Bob and Kristin, welcomed me within minutes. When Kristin found out I was a first-time customer, she offered the “nickel tour”, a full circuit of their various wares, complete with an explanation of the cheese case schematic ( “East Coast artisans on the left, West Coast on the right, Europe on the lower shelf…”) — an obsessive after my own heart, to be sure.
Bob talked about their groceries and salumi offerings, including a half-dozen varieties of Fra’Mani sausage… but nothing from Armandino, alas, due to problems getting their orders filled correctly. He also went to great pains to tell me that everything in the store was hand-selected. They were both adorably proud of their shop, and rightly so.
My only gripe — and it’s a very small one — is that they keep all of their cheeses and meats under plastic, both in the display cases, and when wrapped for you to take home. I’m guessing it’s difficult to keep artisanal products properly hydrated in the desert climate otherwise, and everything looked and tasted just fine, so perhaps I’m just being irrationally persnickety.
This corner of Henderson’s awfully far from The Strip to make Valley Cheese & Wine a side trip for most visitors, but if you happen to be making your escape at Green Valley Ranch or any of the Lake Las Vegas resorts, it’s definitely worth a long browse. Just be sure to bring a map.
Valley Cheese & Wine
1770 Horizon Ridge Parkway
Henderson, NV 89012
I’ve had the idea in my head for this drink for a while, but never got around to putting it together. For one thing, I was at a bit of a loss as to how to get all the various flavors I wanted to combine into alcoholic form.
I wanted to create a drink that offered the lushness of pears with the punch of ginger — a classic combo, to be sure. Although I knew I could make (or buy) ginger-flavored simple syrup, I was worried that so much sugar would push the cocktail in a sicky-sweet direction… definitely not my style, especially as I wanted to build off the flavors of my favorite Belle de Brillet pear cognac.
I consulted with my friend Sean — who knows his way around infusions — but he confessed that his sole attempt at ginger vodka turned out rather blah.
While browsing the baking aisle in the last few weeks before Christmas, an idea struck me: What about infusing vodka with candied ginger, rather than fresh? The flavor’s already concentrated by the candying process, and the little bit of sugar coating the chunks would dilute in the final mix.
So, I took about 3 ounces of candied ginger chunks, and covered them with a cup of vodka in a lidded jar. After the first day, I was worried — the ginger smelled like pine-scented kitchen cleaner, and the vodka tasted sharp and acid. Ugh. I set the jar aside, and resolved to try another route, after the holidays.
The next morning, I shook the jar, mostly out of idleness. And what do you know: As I rattled the ginger against the glass, I noticed dark, syrupy threads diluting into the vodka. Hm! A quick taste test showed we were definitely making progress. By yesterday morning — 3 days after starting the infusion — the mixture actually tasted like something you’d want to drink.
Last night, I decided to try a test run: Belle de Brillet and candied-ginger vodka stirred with ice, then strained into a tasting glass. Both the pear and the ginger seemed overpowering… but what about that bottle of bubbly in the fridge? I poured the mixed liquors into a small cocktail glass, and topped them with a float of the sparkling wine. Success! The dryness and effervessence neatly cut the sugar and the strong flavors, making for a lovely cocktail with a hint of sweetness and a kick of spice.
The Gilded Pear
1-1/2 oz. Belle de Brillet pear-cognac
1 ounce candied-ginger vodka
Stir the cognac and the ginger vodka in a bar glass with ice; then strain into a small cocktail glass. Top with the sparkling wine.
When I heard that this month’s Wine Blogging Wednesday would tackle non-Champagne sparkling wines, I realized that we had the perfect excuse to crack open a bottle of bubbly this week.
Friday marks the fifth anniversary of the evening when That Cute Bald Guy asked me to marry (…with dinner) him. I’m sure we drank plenty of sparkling wine that night, although the details of its origin are lost to the mists of time. But I do have one particular memory of that winter’s wedding planning.
As we sorted through all the wedding details, we realized we had no idea which bubbly we could afford to serve to a crowd without sending our wine-snob friends rushing for the exits. So, we did what any budding foodies would do: We bought a few dozen bottles of under-$20 sparklers, whipped up some nibbles, and invited a gaggle of friends over to help us taste.
As you might expect, we had a blast. In the end, there were plenty of very nice bottles consumed, but a clear winner emerged. And so, the bubbly with which our friends and family toasted our vows the next summer was the Roederer Estate Brut ($17 at BevMo). As an added charm, this bubbly’s made with grapes grown in Sonoma’s Anderson Valley, right around the corner from the vineyards where we were married.
And although it’s affordable enough to serve to scores of your nearest and dearest, it’s also become our house sparkler, a little touch of luxury that’s fun to keep on hand just for ourselves. It’s delightful with a thimbleful of liqueur as an aperitif, mixed into Mimosas for brunch, or as a little splash of holiday sparkle all on its own.
Keep a bottle on hand, and I’m sure you’ll find something lovely to celebrate…
I don’t think that I can keep up with the Queen of Hearts’ six impossible things before breakfast, but this past Saturday I had two new experiences.
Our friend Craig’s dog Koko passed away recently. The official statement read that Koko succumbed to age and infirmity, but insiders whisper that a pack of squirrels in sunglasses was seen hurriedly leaving the grounds on the sad day. Of course, squirrels do pretty much everything hurriedly, but that’s whispering insiders for you.
At any rate, we were honored to be among a small group of friends asked to gather to celebrate Koko’s life. Given Craig’s fondness for wine, I figured that there would be a bottle or two open, but I was completely unprepared for the that table that he had laid. A long-time fan and collector of Karl Lawrence wines, Craig set out an uninterrupted string of Cabernet Sauvignon that started in 1991 and ran all the way up through 2003.
It was the vertical to end all verticals–I have never seen anything like it before in my life. The wine was identifiably all of the same provenance, but it changed from year to year. Some of the changes were due to differences in mix or grape, but as we moved to ever-younger wines, the tannic spine disappeared behind a layer of fruit. It was like watching a movie of someone aging, run in reverse. It was a marvelously poetic way to celebrate the course of a life.
At last, someone raised their glass and called for a toast to Koko. We rattled the trees with our homage, and I’ll add my own here: To man’s best friend, and to family.
Krispy Kreme‘s got a pumpkin spice cake doughnut on offer for the holidays, plus — so cute it’s almost scary — pumpkin-shaped raised glazed with ‘ittle Jack-o-Lantern faces (pictured at right) through the end of the month. Awww!
Hot on the heels of their “$6,000 combo meal” TV spot, the fast-food hucksters at KCE/Hardee’s (that’s Carl’s Jr. to us West Coasters) released a list of suggested wine pairings for their speciality sandwiches. Perhaps monsieur would care for a bottle of Peachy Canyon Incredible Red with his Jalapeño Thickburger?
Or perhaps a bottle of bubbly? Perrier’s launching a new campaign aimed at the younger set, going for that edgy thing in an attempt to ditch its Miami Vice-era aura.
News of the wierd: Until last week, the world’s largest curry house was located in West Yorkshire, of all places. Hard to imagine that it’s gone out of business, innit?
Another shocker: The Amish don’t want your flippin’ food stamps!
Even if you don’t live in Seattle, you’ve probably read plenty about Union, a restaurant that crops up on all the “best-of” lists in glossy food mags. But unlike some hotspots that offer more style than substance, Union actually has the culinary cred to remain a fixture in the fickle downtown scene.
Union splashed onto the foodie radar in fall 2003 by besting the city’s “25 for $25″ promotion with a deal of their own. Just like at the official 25 restaurants, you’d pay just $25 for your November meal at Union. But instead of a cheap appetizer, a meager entree, and a dessert you didn’t want, you’d actually get a full-blown seven-course tasting menu. Needless to say, this made a huge impression on many of our foodie friends — especially when Union reprised the offer in the spring.
Union quickly became known as the place to go for high-end food without the high-end pricetag, a place to enjoy an entire evening’s worth of small, perfectly-exectuted tastes, along with exquisitely paired flights of wine. Even when the $25 deal ended, I think we were paying somewhere in the $75 range for dinner with sommelier-selected wines… an unbeliveable steal of a deal, even in affordable Seattle.
Like all good things, it wouldn’t last. Word ’round the campfire was that Chef Ethan Stowell became frustrated with diners ignoring the a-la-carte side of his menu in favor of the tastings. First the wine pairings disappeared, then the tasting menu shrank to a tiny footnote, eventually disappearing all together. (It’s still available by request for those who ask, but I presume few folks do.) Union’s reinvented itself with a bar menu that would knock the socks off any other restaurant’s main offerings, and it’s paying off: The average age of the clientele has taken a noticable dip, and the buzz near the front windows draws in more customers to fill the main dining room.
The whole place was hopping when we gathered eight of our nearest & dearest on Thursday night for dinner. We’d asked Chef Stowell to return to the days of the tasting menu, and sat at the table just outside the kitchen’s pass. (Pics — such as they are — can be seen here.)
We started out with a salad of tomino cheese, stacked with roasted beets and arugula. Served with a slightly sparkling 2005 Furst Muller-Thurgau, the earthy beets made a convert out of Richard, who just moments before professed his loathing for them. It reminded me of the many times at Union that I’ve eaten things I “knew” I didn’t like, only to discover that I found them much more interesting — and often delicious — when Chef Stowell made them.
Speaking of which… the second course, grilled sardines, came served atop a panzanella that featured tiny breadcubes and baby tomatoes. I’m not a huge fan of sardines, or oily fish in general, but I’ve eaten them plenty of times at Union. I still don’t think I’d go out of my way to order them, but that’s precisely why I love tasting menus. These sardines were quite pungent, but in a flavorful way, and the fresh-crunchy panzanella served as an excellent foil for the fishiness, as did the 2004 Renard Rousanne from the Santa Ynez Valley.
My favorite dish of the evening came next. A signature soup presentation at Union, we were brought bowls with just the garnish — in this case, a poached duck egg and a drizzle of pumpkinseed oil — to which our waiters then added creamy kohlrabi soup. I thought the accompanying 2005 Qupe Chardonnay “Bien Nacidio Y Block” was a touch too oaky-acid for this unctuous soup, but plenty of my friends disagreed. There was no argument that the kohlrabi puree was sublime, as so many of Chef Stowell’s soup courses have always been.
Many at the table felt that the following course of grilled branzino with cranberry beans and parsley pesto was the highlight of the evening. Smoky and perfectly cooked, the firm-fleshed fish worked well with its sides, but I thought the beans were a touch bland. (I think I’m spoiled by all the good heirloom beans we’ve been coooking at home. Even fresh beans can’t compare for me, anymore.) I have no strong memory of the accompanying 2005 Rene Noel Legrand Samur-Champigny “Les Lizieres”, but I’m sure one of my cohorts will step up in the comments section and remind me!
Given the love affair that Northwest chefs have with Wagyu beef, you’d think they’d do a better job of it, on the whole. I’m not the first person to remark that choosing a soft-textured cut like filet mignon when you’re paying for Kobe-style beef is the culinary equivalent of wearing suspenders and a belt: unnecessary and rather foolish. Luckily, this is a principle that Union well understands: Our next course of sirloin steak married the softness of Wagyu with the beefiness of a heartier cut, striking a perfect balance. Cooked on the rare side of medium-rare with a stunning crust, served atop potato puree, Thumbelina carrots and a thyme-heavy red-wine sauce, this was a course for the carnivorous. The 2003 Waters Cabernet Sauvignon set off the heartiness of the beef and the richness of the sauce.
Another Union favorite: pot de creme for dessert. Ours was a chocolate-espresso version served in a demi-tasse, topped with whipped cream and a shaving of cacao nibs mimicking cinnamon sprinkes. With a spot of 1999 Quinta de la Rosa late-bottled port, we had our after-dinner drinks and our ‘coffee’ all at once. Our favorite server (and oft-times maitre d’) Hans took great care of us, and chose an assortment of wines to complement our meal. In many ways, it felt like old times.
Cameron adds: I hadn’t had kohlrabi in at least 25 years and hadn’t missed it much, but one of Chef Stowell’s X-Men powers is an amazing facility with purees, liquids, custards, and creams. It’s like he’s got an extra “texture” sense that the rest of us lack. I also had to smile when the sardines and panzanella course arrived. Anita avoids strongly-flavored fish, and I rank panzanella as one of my least-favorite uses for bread. And yet in the hands of Chef Stowell, Anita found a sardine that she could love and I was able to make peace with bread salad.
1400 First Avenue
Seattle, WA 98101
It’s Monday evening, the first night of NYC without reservations. I stroll purposefully down to Washington Square Park and step through the door at Babbo at around seven. The bar and front tables are full and there’s just one couple sipping wine by the door. A quick chat with the host and the next open spot at the bar has my name on it. I try to find an inconspicuous spot to stand and end up by the doorway, dodging the overzealous greenery stashed at head level. Sly and the Family Stone penetrates the air. While I wait, a man walks in dressed as if the Ralph Lauren Polo box arrives in the mail every three months. “Oh,” he mutters. “Looks kinda crowded,” and darts back out, the way you do when you go somewhere all the time and you’d just as soon just grab a hot dog down the street as wait a half hour for dinner. I hate him. He is evil and probably unkind to animals. I am instantly, passionately jealous.
Salvation. My seat is available. Immediately I am confronted with the extensive wine list, but I am hopelessly uncultured and ignorant of Italian wine, and the only name I recognize is Bastianich. Grasping at straws, I point at a likely white and ask the bartender for a description. Among other things he says, “Minerally,” which when used in reference to white wine is akin to saying, “Al-a-kazaam!” to my taste buds.
It is probably due to a deficiency of character that the more exclusive the restaurant, the more powerfully I am drawn to any offbeat meats that appear on the menu. So, like Vincent Vega at Jackrabbit Slim’s, I run my finger down the menu muttering, “Offal, offal, offal,” until I score. It doesn’t take long; Signor Batali is known for his fondness for barnyard variety. I order warm tripe “alla parmigiana” to start, followed by beef cheek ravioli in crushed squab liver sauce.
When the tripe arrives, I am relieved that I didn’t go for three courses (the lamb’s brains pasta was bleating my name). It is an heroic portion of innards and I tuck in with abandon. The tripe is mildly but not aggressively funky, and the red sauce is smooth and sweet, shot through with occasional sage leaves and chunks of soft, thoroughly cooked carrot. The texture of the tripe reminds me of hand-shaven dan-dan noodles. The wine works with the dish, keeping everything light and bright.
I ask for another wine recommendation to accompany my beef cheek ravioli, and the bartender pulls down a bottle that he says was opened for a reserve tasting. Montevertine 2001. Again, I am uninformed and foolish, but it tastes great. It’s a chianti grape, but there’s none of the lurid, screaming cherry attack late in the palate. How civilized. Not cheap, but very civilized. The beef cheek ravioli are very slightly disappointing. The filling is delicious, as is the sauce, but the pasta itself is not quite right. It’s faintly tough, although I’m particularly sensitive to pasta that’s a little too al dente.
As I eat and drink, the wine retains some mystery. There’s something missing that I can’t put my finger on. The absence isn’t unpleasant, but it’s noticeable. Finally I figure out that I’m not getting the boozy punch that my feeble palate must now be accustomed to after years of drinking huge, alcoholic, New World wines. I mention the difference to the bartender and he nods. Of course.
Eating at the bar of a fine restaurant is a little bit like watching a concert from the first row. You can enjoy the show like everyone else, but you also get glimpses of the artists (and sometimes their supporting cast) at work. You get to share some of the tiny, unacknowledged dramas that pepper every live performance. My bartender asks one of the waiters if the customer wants to taste a particular bourbon. “Oh no,” sighs the waiter. “He wants me to taste it for him and tell him if he’ll like it.”
Somewhere between the tripe and the ravioli the room starts getting more crowded. By the time I’m halfway through the ravioli the place is packed. Behind me, an expensively-dressed foursome in their fifties loudly complains about the delay in outer borough accents so thick that I have to smile. Where is Dr. Higgins when you need him?
Over my shoulder, a man asks for a glass of cabernet and a glass of pinot noir. “We don’t have anything made from either of those grapes,” says the bartender, “But we have wines that taste similar.” The man takes a wine list and begins a debate with his female companion that’s obviously going nowhere useful. The bartender listens for less than a minute, then pulls down a bottle of wine and pours tastes for the couple. They’re happy with his choice and settle in to wait for their table. The bartender sets up a glass in front of me and pours another taste. “This is what I would have recommended if you hadn’t gone for the Montevertine,” he says. A few minutes later, he shows up with another bottle and another glass: “You’ll see that this one is more alcoholic. It’s made from grapes grown high up on Mount Etna.” Truly, I am still foolish and uncultured, but I am now also master of universes both known and unknown. I belong here. I shall borrow a corkscrew and carve my name on the bar and that will serve as a marker until a brass plaque can be ordered.
Another couple presses in on my right and the man asks me about the wines in front of me. I tell him what I know and we commiserate over our lack of Italian wine-fu. “When we were in Italy,” he says, “The best wine was whatever was being made locally.” I nod understandingly, as if I’ve been there. Italy. Of course. The man continues, musing regretfully about the Italian wines that they’ve drunk here in the States that haven’t been up to snuff. “I mean, they’re good and all,” he allows, “But are they worth $250 a bottle?” Again, I nod. Indeed. What can one do? Excuse me, I think that’s my Ferrari the valet is bringing around. Ciao.
The cheese course is wonderful: robiola, Coach Farms Finest, and taleggio latte crudo. There’s no way that I can manage dessert. I’m pretty sure that my feet don’t touch the sidewalk all the way back to the hotel.