Monday, June 30, 2008

Best of the Main Line… And a Brief Sojourn

Some of you may have already noticed the shiny new badge – the one that says BEST – in the left column of this here blog. For those of you not attracted by the frill around the edges, I thought I’d lavish a bit of shameless self-promotion upon you, front and center, right in the meat of the page.

The July edition of Main Line Today has just hit newsstands. In it, you’ll find yours truly featured as proud recipient of the title of Best Local Wine Guru in the magazine’s annual “Best of the Main Line and Western Suburbs” awards. My photo was withheld in order to protect my anonymity as a critic (though I may have spoiled that when I put my real name on the masthead of my blog…). In all seriousness though, my thanks go out to the critics and editorial staff at MLT who saw fit to lavish their praise upon me. It’s always nice to be recognized for something you love doing.

In celebration – actually, it’s pure coincidence – I’m headed off for a few days in New York to participate in a fringe event at the Fancy Food Show and to enjoy some food, wine, friends and fun along the way. As a result, it may be quiet around these parts for a couple of days. But I’m sure I’ll have plenty to report upon return.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Pourquoi Gris de Gris?

Corbières Rosé “Gris de Gris,” Domaine de Fontsainte 2007
During a spontaneous shopping trip earlier this season, I was struck by the appearance of Gris de Gris, something I don’t often see on the labels of French rosés, on a particular bottle from Domaine de Fontsainte. The very fact that it managed to catch my eye, I suppose, means that the label had done its job. But that very facet also led me to wonder whether Gris de Gris might not be just another vino-neologism, cooked up by creative wine makers and marketers to try to capture a new market segment, whether centric or geeky. Nonetheless, the bottle came recommended by the shop manager and recommended itself, as I’ve alluded to so often before, with the rear label of a trustworthy importer. I bought it primarily with an eye to simple enjoyment. But its label language also led me to conduct just a tad of research.

Simply Googling Gris de Gris turns up only a little to do with wine, far more about voodoo and music. Most of the wine related matches that do come up point straight back to reviews of the very wine I was researching – telling, but not all that illuminating in terms of what I was after.

The etymology of Gris de Gris is an elusive thing. Even The Oxford Companion to Winemakes only a passing reference to it, not with its own listing but rather under the heading Vin Gris:

“Vin Gris is not, happily, a grey wine but a pink wine that is usually decidedly paler than most rosé, made exactly as a white wine from dark skinned grapes, and therefore without any maceration. No rules govern the term vin gris but a wine labeled gris de gris must be made from lightly tinted grape varieties described as gris such as Cinsaut or Grenache Gris.”

In literal terms, this makes perfect sense. Just think of Blanc de Blancs Champagne, wherein white wine is made purely from white fruit in a region where most wines are made with some blend of black and white fruit. Following the same logic, it would seem perfectly sensible for rosés made purely from pink skinned fruit to be referred to as Gris de Gris. Additionally, it turns out that there’s a measurable if small tradition for use of the term in various parts of the Loire Valley as well as in some of the more obscure Vin de Pays areas situated in the sand-based vineyards around the inland lakes formed by the Rhône delta.

Does any combination of that logic or tradition apply to the wine in question?

It doesn’t appear so. The largest AOC in the Midi, Corbières is far from the Loire and, though not far from the Mediterranean, its soils are much more continental than in most of the Vin de Pays zones for Gris de Gris production. A quick check of Domaine de Fontsainte’s website also tells us that the wine’s production methods and blend contradict the “rules” mentioned in the Oxford Companion (though it’s worth mentioning that I could find no reference to such rules on the INAO website). The wine does see a brief maceration before being bled from the vat in the typical saignée method. And while its blend does include some Grenache Gris and Cinsaut, decidedly dark skinned berries like Syrah, Mourvèdre and Carignan also play a role in the mix. It would appear that fashion, in this case, does indeed trump tradition when it comes to the language on the bottle.

What’s in the bottle? A rosé at the pale end of the Languedoc-Roussillon color spectrum, with just a hint of copper at the rim and silver at its heart. Aromatically, there’s not much on offer. And at first sip, I found the same on the palate. Low acidity, expected from the region, was offset by a cool serving temperature. The wine remained soft through and through. Fresh, fuzzy red fruits prevailed in the mouth, avoiding the candied character that some of the region’s rosés can carry but also missing the typical aromas and flavors of garrigue, that spicy, herbaceous, underbrush character than can make Mediterranean rosés so compelling with regional foods.

As I drank more of the bottle, I did grow to enjoy it more. I could see the appeal in its delicacy of body (only 12.5%) and subtlety of fruit and texture. It would actually make for a convincing introduction to dry rosé for those that are often put off or unconvinced by its fruitier or more boldly spicy counterparts from the Rhône and Provence. I’d happily drink it again, particularly as something with the malleability to suit Tex-Mex food. But it won’t make the cut as my go-to rosé for summer. For that, I want something with livelier acidity, more captivating perfume and a more honest voice. $14. 12.5% alcohol. Nomacorc. Importer: Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, CA.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

If It’s Good, Must You Like It?

I’ve long been an upholder of a principle that is very likely to irk some readers: simply liking a wine does not mean that the wine is good. Conversely, and just as potentially irksome, simply disliking a wine does not mean that the wine is bad. Like it or not, true wine appreciation, what wine writer Matt Kramer might call “connoisseurism,” entails more than just expressing subjective, personal opinion. Coming to grips with these aphorisms is a difficult but necessary step in developing a well-rounded foundation for the understanding of wine.

I’d like to think that I’ve developed a reasonable knack over the years for knowing how to avoid buying truly bad wine (though it’s important to taste bad juice from time to time both as a reality check and as a basis for judgment). On the other hand, I don’t think anyone who’s truly interested in wine, no matter how careful, can ever be exempt from occasionally picking up a bottle – a good bottle – and finding it not to be to their liking.

In originally selecting the wine that inspired this soap boxing, I’d followed some important cardinal rules of wine shopping. It was a current vintage release procured from a reasonably good wine shop, both guidelines that reduce the chances of ending up with an abused bottle. Likewise, the capsule spun freely, with no sticky or sweet smelling signs of leakage. Just as importantly, this being European wine, it came from an importer whose selections and handling practices I trust. It even came with recommendations, strong enough to have stuck in my memory, from my cohorts Brooklynguy and Canada Joe. All of these variables considered, I opened this bottle with every expectation of liking it.

Cheverny Blanc, Domaine du Salvard (Delaille) 2006
Bright, clear straw to the eye. Intensely aromatic, redolent of grass, mint and white flowers, all of which carry through to the palate along with flavors of kumquat, lemon water ice, white pepper and gooseberry. The wine is balanced, dry but fruity, refreshing and entirely proper – essentially good wine – yet I found it not to be to my liking. Why? The primary reasons are twofold.

First, Salvard’s 2006 Cheverny said nothing to me of its place. If I’d been handed a glass of it in a blind tasting, I most likely would have guessed New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or, in any event, certainly an unoaked, new world SB. The minerality and more subtle herbaceousness I expect from Middle-Loire Sauvignon were respectively missing and far from subtle.

Second, in spite of the clean, lively texture of the wine, I found there to be something coarse about the wine’s overall impact. Maybe my expectations are unrealistic but I want even my everyday, under $15 wines to display some elegance.

I think Brooklynguy’s pal NorthCarolinaguy put his finger on the aspect of the wine that bugged me: aromas and flavors of dandelion. I like dandelion greens in salad, at least in small quantities, for the bitter spark they provide. I like them even more when sautéed with garlic and olive oil – very nice on pasta. I even like dandelions in my yard for their diversity of color and flora. But the cattiness of their aroma doesn’t work for me when it comes to wine. The French call the dandelion “pissenlit,” literally “urinate in bed.” Wikipedia attributes that etymology to the plant’s diuretic properties. I, for one, think it’s a little simpler than that.

$14. 12.5% alcohol. Nomacorc. Importer: Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, CA.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Hello Again

Forgive me for not being very bloggerly of late. It's been a very busy week, what with craziness at work, wine tasting events in the evening and the need for sleep in between keeping me from writing anything for a few days running. In the temporary absence of new content here, let me at least point you to some recent and worthy tidbits from around the wine blogosphere.

Dr. Debs recently -- actually, it's been about a week -- posted her summary of the last episode of Wine Blogging Wednesday, which focused on white Rhône style wines.

Subsequently, the host and theme of the next installment of Wine Blogging Wednesday have been announced. The folks at Grape Juice will be marshaling WBW #47. Their selected theme -- wines directly related to the letter "S" -- isn't one of the more didactic focuses of late but will no doubt result in fun and creative effortS aS participating bloggerS try to outSmart one another. Entries are due on Wednesday, July 9.

It's been a full two weeks now, but Alfonso Cevola, author of the poetic, insightful blog On the Wine Trail in Italy, recently posted a thought provoking piece on the current state of restaurant wine lists and the potentially pernicious influence of the young buck sommelier. It stuck in my head and it's very much worth a read.

Finally, a new entry into the world of wine blogging that I stumbled upon in recent days is J. David Harden's Rational Denial. If its first month on the ground is any indication, it's a site that you should all consider adding to your reading lists and blog rolls.

I'll try to get back to business as usual in short order. Until then, happy summer solstice, all.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

New Heights in Customer Service Theory from the PLCB

What’s the latest, misguided stroke of Orwellian benevolence to issue forth from the hallowed halls of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) you ask? It’s front page news here in Philadelphia: a proposal to install wine vending machines – kiosks if you prefer – in supermarkets. According to current PLCB Chairman PJ Stapleton, the Board’s “focus right now is on what the consumer wants.” He and the rest of his staff in the state capital seem to have figured out that being able to buy milk, Pepsi and wine in the same place is the foremost desire of citizens throughout the state.

If the PLCB moves ahead with its plans, consumers will be able to do just that. Only just. The vending machines are designed to hold 500 bottles but will offer a scant dozen selections. The plan is likely to result in about as diverse and natural an array of options as on the menu at your local McDonald’s. And it will be almost as convenient.

To use the machine, all you’ll have to do is register your proof of age, credit card information, fingerprints and an infrared scan of your arm with the PLCB customer service department. Until you’ve completed the registration process, you won’t be able to see what’s on offer in the machines. The selections will be enshrouded behind opaque glass, a manifestation of the PLCB’s ongoing campaign to protect minors from the inherent evils of viewing wine bottles. Just place your arm and fingertips in the kiosk’s biosensor unit and, voilà, the glass will clear and your dozen choices will be revealed.

As the PLCB has already figured out through their years of experience running Pennsylvania’s state liquor store system, consumers don’t actually want knowledgeable guidance in making their wine selections. So, for your shopping convenience, the machines will be unmanned. However, the system will monitor your buying habits – just to make sure you’re not developing any bad habits – and check your blood alcohol level before allowing you to make a purchase. Just what you’ve been waiting for, no?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


Nope, this isn't about wine, though there are plenty of wine bars out there that have borrowed on the double entendre. I was perusing a Hollywood pop culture mag in the reading room this AM when I came across a reference to Brian Eno as U2's producer. Well, that he is. But to refer to Eno -- a founding member of Roxy Music and a founding father of art rock, art punk and ambient sound -- solely as a background contributor to Bono's stardom was flat out offensive to my sensibilities. What can I say? He deserves better.

I was hoping to find video from the early Eno solo days but couldn't come up with anything. So here's a montage set to a tune from Eno's mid-phase collaboration with David Byrne.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Vouvray Pétillant Brut, Domaine Huet 2002

I could just post a picture, point you to Brooklynguy’s recent write-up of Huet’s Vouvray Pétillant and leave it at that. But that wouldn’t be very bloggerly of me now, would it?

I received this bottle as a gift from a friend several months ago and it’s been biding its time in my wine fridge, waiting for the right occasion, ever since. Saturday night turned out to be one of those evenings where, with not much else in the works, opening the bottle was the occasion in and of itself.

That Huet’s Vouvray Pétillant Brut is produced from the estate’s youngest vines (only three to ten years old) does not come as a surprise in the broad context of a sparkling wine’s place in a Vouvray grower’s overall portfolio. It does come as a surprise, however, in the context of tasting the wine. This is much more than simple sparkling Vouvray. The wine has both finesse and concentration in spades. As Peter Liem points out, it’s an absolutely top-notch alternative to Champagne. And I’ll second Brooklynguy’s opinion that it gets the better of many entry-level Champagnes when it comes to complexity, balance and even its expression of autolytic flavors, which are no doubt helped along by four years of sur lie aging. What I loved about the wine is how it does all of that while still maintaining a clear expression of its place, of its very Vouvray-ness.

The wine’s mousse is sparse, to be expected of the lower pressure of the Pétillant style, yet I found its bead to be finer than in most Vouvray Pétillant. Poured in a white wine glass, the bubbles dissipate and the wine quickly becomes still to the eye. Aromas are of blanched nuts, lightly baked apples, cinnamon, mace and brioche. Behind that come some of the hallmarks of Vouvray: a telltale note of beeswax followed by the springtime scent of yellow daffodils and ripe pear fruit. A honeyed note emerges on the palate, yet the flavor and structure are completely dry. Limestone and clay minerality are submerged in the lingering finish, all wrapped up in a blanket of toasty goodness. There’s nerve enough to make this a fantastic food wine – I enjoyed it in particular with a simple dish of scrambled eggs and sautéed asparagus – yet it’s ample and forward enough to function as an aperitif. In other words, I’d be more than happy to drink it just about anytime. $34. 12% alcohol. Natural cork. Importer: Robert Chadderdon Selections, New York, NY.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Sly Fox Beer Dinner at Chick's Café

This post is PR, plain and simple. Just helping to spread the word about a cool event at one of the nicest beverage-savvy spots in town. On Tuesday, June 24, brewmaster Brian O'Reilly of Phoenixville's Sly Fox Brewing Company will present a side-by-side tasting of his own local brews along with the old world standards on which they're modeled. Comparative tastings like this can be a great way to sample different styles and gain a better understanding of your own preferences. I wrote here before -- in the context of a memorial to the great beer author Michael Jackson -- about a Belgian vs. US Belgian knock-off event, held many years ago at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, which remains one of the most memorable beer tastings I've ever attended. Will the event at Chick's be the same? Of course not, but I'm sure it will be a more than worthy event in its own right.

The details:
Tuesday, June 24, 2008, 7:00 PM
Chick's Café & Wine Bar
614 S. 7th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19147
$65 per person, plus tax and gratuity, covers all beers, a paired four course dinner and even a little entertainment.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Google Ads are Going Bye-Bye

I'm sure someone out there is earning a buck or two by placing Google Ads on their blog but it sure isn't me. Besides, I'm sick of seeing ads for "How I Lost 55 Pounds" peppered in with wine and food links I've never visited myself. Arrivederci, baby!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

WBW #46: Whites à la Mode du Rhône

Our host for this month’s edition of Wine Blogging Wednesday is Dr. Debs, the left coast blogger behind Good Wine Under $20. Her theme for this current installment is Rhône style whites. The chosen wines can originate from anywhere in the world but should be based on one or more of the multiplicity of white grape varieties native to France’s Rhône Valley. In her original announcement, Deb offered up bonus points to anyone writing up wines from more than one region. Never one to shy away from a challenge, I selected two wines for this month’s shindig, one a Northern Rhône original, the other a California knock off, albeit with French roots.

Saint-Joseph Blanc “Ro-Rée,” Domaine Chèze 2006
Domaine Chèze is a relatively young estate, founded in 1978 by Louis Chèze. Starting thirty years ago with just one hectare of vines in Saint-Joseph, Monsieur Chèze has since expanded his property to include 30 hectares in the communes of Saint-Joseph and Condrieu as well as in areas where the wines are classified as Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes. His sole Saint-Joseph Blanc produced in most recent vintages is the cuvée “Ro-Rée,” a blend of 60% Marsanne and 40% Roussanne. The Roussanne comes from a hillside plot near the town of Limony, the Marsanne from the plateau above; both are planted in heavily granitic soils.

Though Chèze farms naturally and strives for expression of terroir in all of his wines, he does not entirely shy away from some arguably modernist approaches in the winery. After pressing and débourbage – a temperature controlled holding period during which solids are allowed to settle from the wine prior to racking – Ro-Rée is racked (moved from one vessel to another) into small barrels, where it undergoes both primary and malolactic fermentations. It then spends eight to ten months in those barriques (20% new and the rest two to three years old), occasionally undergoing batonnage, a stirring of the lees meant to nourish and enrich the texture of the wine. Techniques like these are common in the wine world but can really get arguments going between the old world and new world schools of thought. From my perspective, the key is to use the techniques, new barrels for instance, honestly and for the right reasons – to support a wine’s inherent structure, not to dress it up as something it’s not. Chèze seems to have a good understanding of those principles. So, let’s taste.

The oak is immediately apparent in Ro-Rée, not just on the nose but even to the eye. Its color is a shimmering gold in the glass, richer in hue than would be typical for a young un-oaked wine. Yet the barrel influence does not subdue the natural aromas and flavors of golden apples and raisins, honey and honeysuckle, acacia and fresh pineapple, quince and fig gelée. It’s quite round in the mouth, even slightly oily in texture, yet it stays clear of overtly buttery, over-handled characteristics. Medium acidity and firm texture keep it balanced. The oak influence broods but is well integrated, supported by the sweet, nutty concentration of the wine’s fruit. On day two, my notes remained fairly consistent, though an additional nuttiness emerged – pecans I think – along with dark, stony minerality and a touch of wood tannins on the finish. This is not my everyday cup of tea but it’s definitely well made wine that would be well suited to fish and white meats with rich sauces. $35. 13% alcohol. Natural cork. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.

Paso Robles Roussanne “Tablas Creek Vineyard,” Edmunds St. John 2004
Oddly enough, the wine I selected from the new world is actually much more old world and old school in style than my French selection. Just read Steve Edmunds’ epistle to his readers on the home page of his website and you’ll get a feel for his approach. No new wood, picking based on tasting rather than chemistry tests, taste of place… it all boils down to what he calls an expression of wine’s “cultural context.” And that’s a very old world view, one that I embrace wholeheartedly. It’s also a philosophy that, along with the style of Steve’s wines, has brought him into the focus of attention from writers as dichotomous as Alice Feiring and Robert Parker. You can check out Ms. Feiring’s recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle for more detailed history of the debate. As much as I’d love to jump into the fray, I’ll refrain for now as this is actually my first experience with an Edmunds St. John wine.

Style aside, there’s a real French connection to Steve’s 2004 Roussanne. It was produced with fruit sourced from Tablas Creek Vineyard, a property owned in part by the Perrin family, proprietors of Château Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The Tablas Creek property, situated in Paso Robles, was selected by the Perrins for its Mediterranean climate, similar to their home terroir. The vineyard is planted with clonal selections of vinifera vines that were imported from the Perrins’ own vineyards in the Southern Rhône.

By sheer coincidence, our host for this WBW happens to have reviewed Tablas Creek Vineyard’s own Roussanne, also from the 2004 vintage. But what about Steve’s wine?

Considerably paler in the glass than Chèze’s Saint-Joseph, this is akin to the color of dried hay. Initial aromas are rather neutral, with just a suggestion of beeswax and a saline, seashell quality. It’s texturally lean, even a little jagged, and just slightly oxidative in style. In that sense, I found it somewhat reminiscent of a Loire Valley Chenin Blanc – Savennières perhaps – when caught in its dumb phase. The wine has intense length though, with hazelnut and lanolin tones emerging in the mouth. There’s high-toned acidity and a vaguely vegetal hint (no, vegetal is not always a bad word) on the mid-palate. This is built for food and is solid, very interesting wine, at once muscular yet crisp. The only problem is its high alcohol, which doesn’t quite burn but does create disjointedness in the wine’s overall harmony. On day two, it became more aromatic, with a nose of potpourri, lime zest and peach blossoms emerging and then giving way to intense minerality. I’d like to look at this again in another couple of years. And I’m intrigued enough that I’ll definitely be seeking out more of Mr. Edmunds’ wines. $26. 14.5% alcohol. Natural cork.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

More from Sunday's Scorcher

For my readers wondering where all the wine writing has gone, I've been going through a bit of a dry spell of late. Not that I haven't been tasting at all, it's just that nothing has jumped out as post-worthy in a while. I'll be back at it in short order though, as tomorrow is Wine Blogging Wednesday. In the meanwhile, here are a couple more photos from Sunday's Core States First Union Wachovia Commerce Bank Philadelphia International Cycling Championship.

My favorite non-racing shot of the day.

I made the mistake of fiddling around with the various pre-programmed settings on my Fuji FinePix E900 in action rather than in a test environment. As a result, most of my race shots turned out a bit blurry. Nonetheless, this is one of my favorite racing pics of the day. From an early lap, it really captures the riders' focus (no pun intended).

Monday, June 9, 2008

98 Degrees in the Shade

The sudden and severe heat wave that's currently smothering the Mid-Atlantic area arrived just in time for yesterday's Philadelphia International Cycling Championship. In the twenty-four year history of the race, it's never once rained. Yesterday, though, had to have been one of the hottest race days on record, making for a serious race of attrition. Matti Breschel, Danish rider for Team CSC, toughed it out to take the field sprint in the 156-mile men's race. The crowds around the course seemed a bit thinner than in years past but those fans that braved the heat had a blast as always. The race may have lost its status as the US Pro Championship a couple of years back but it's still one of the things that makes Philly a special place for me.

Does six-and-a-half hours of racing in 98 degree, high humidity weather sound like your idea of fun? The late race effort shows on the faces of riders as they grind up the penultimate ascent of Lemon Hill.

You don't see them around town very often but the Philadelphia Police force's motorcycle drill team makes an appearance at the race every year, leading the race caravan on their Harley-Davidson police cruisers.

A shady hiding place was a must. And of course, a spot near the kegs couldn't hurt.

Year in and year out, from the local criterium circuit to the Tour de France, the Mavic neutral support drivers are out there taking care of the racers' emergency mechanical needs.

The second year of A Burger and a Beer. This year, it was Brian of Keswick Cycles sweating it out at the grill on Lemon Hill.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

More on the PA State System

This one from Joe Dressner. Nice to see I'm not the only disbeliever.

Friday, June 6, 2008

The Revolution Will Be Televised

Word on the street is that the computers that drive the special liquor order (SLO) system at the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) have been down for days. This means that restaurants all over the state are unable to order the non-"regular” wines they rely on as the bread and butter of their daily beverage programs.

My heart goes out to all of the sommeliers and beverage managers that are scrambling around their local state stores looking for wine to fill the gaps.

But my mischievous side is smiling with glee at this massive system failure in terms of the repercussions it could have for the PLCB. Maybe this is just the fuel needed to fire the revolution that will be necessary to bring about the long overdue dismantling of Pennsylvania’s state controlled system. A long shot, I know, but one can always hope.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Much More than a Burger and a Beer at Maia in Villanova

Set in a rather antiseptically upscale strip mall and corporate office complex, Maia, the dining and food court megaplex that opened just three weeks ago in the center of Villanova, isn’t much to look at from the outside. Inside, though, there’s something for just about everyone. At least that seems to be the idea as conceived by chefs/owners/brothers Patrick and Terence Feury, along with their partners and investors in a bevy of pan-culinary suburban Philadelphia outposts that, in addition to Feury outpost Nectar, includes Basil, Cin Cin, Tango and Yangming.

The sheer scale at Maia is daunting. 22,000 square feet of showroom floor – the space was previously a briefly lived Fresh Grocer supermarket – allow for numerous subdivisions. Front and left, there’s a white tiled coffee, pastry and juice bar, seemingly tailored to the suburban mom on the move. Behind that is the large bar and lounge area – all brick and dark, right down to the parquet flooring – the site of both an apparently bustling weekend bar scene and of Maia’s full service but casual dining area. Beyond that yet, at rear and center, is an open kitchen clad in polished stainless steel. According to our delightfully helpful server, it’s just a fraction of Maia’s absolutely cavernous, luxe kitchen space.

Once past the gauntlet of hostesses in the entrance foyer, the right side of Maia’s ground floor is site to the market portion of the business as well as to its most casual dining space, more cafeteria than café. One entire wall is lined with refrigerated beverage cases, displaying an extremely deep selection of bottled beers. Following along the walls, from right to left, front to rear, there’s another coffee bar, more pastry, a charcuterie counter and, finally, the market’s prepared food selections, displayed in glass cases which run the length of the back wall, eventually converging with the open kitchen area.

And that’s just the ground floor. There’s a full second floor as well, home to Maia’s more formal, fine dining room.

The upside to all that space is the obvious opportunity it provides for diversity, even if it carries with it a certain lack of focus. The downside is an economy of scale in which the scale may just prove too large for the possibility of economic success. Time will tell, I suppose.

In any event, I’m getting well ahead of myself. I stopped into Maia recently for Sunday brunch with my wife and some friends. Stemming from our casual meal, this post was really just supposed to be an installment of A Burger and a Beer. So, on to the food.

In the Feury brothers’ own words, their menu draws on "the rich culinary traditions of Scandinavia, Alsace and the abundance of natural resources afforded by the East Coast's fertile soils." Their “bistro brunch” menu is peppered with Alsatian classics like choucroute, tarte flambé and a charcuterie platter. They take their place alongside a cured fish smörgåsbord and grilled Norwegian salmon, anchored by a balance of dishes that draw equally from French bistro and American café standards.

I started with something that showcases the restaurant’s attachment to the buy local phenomenon. Their “Bistro Salad” is an undeniably fresh assortment of arugula, radiccihio and red mustard greens, topped with a few candied walnuts and crumbled goat cheese from local Shellbark Hollow Farm. This may sound ridiculous but it was the best salad I’ve had in ages. Quality ingredients helped it along but what made it for me was the perfectly balanced, deeply flavorful citrus shallot vinaigrette.

The Maia Burger fell a little short of the standard-setting salad. The house ground, dry aged sirloin was intensely beefy. But somewhere between our order and the kitchen, the medium-rare test was failed. I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt on this occasion, as I think the mistake may have been in communication rather than entirely in the cook’s hands. Nonetheless, what arrived was a perfectly shaped (almost too much so) patty that had been cooked into completely gray submission. Choosing such a lean cut for a burger may make that a hard error to avoid. Luckily, the burger, like the salad, was clearly made from prime raw materials. Along with a generous topping of melted Pennsylvania Noble Cheddar, the quality of beef helped keep the burger flavorful in spite of its overcooked state. A welcome spark of heat was delivered from an unexpected quarter – the firm, black pepper potato roll on which the Maia Burger is served.

In addition to the aforementioned tremendous selection of beers in bottle, Maia also pours a solid lineup on draft. Choices are listed by style followed by brewery, name, location and alcohol information. Standouts on the current list include locals like Troegs Pale Ale and Sly Fox Pikeland Pils, and Belgians such as Grimbergen Dubbel and Géants “Goliath.” I whet my whistle with a crisp, refreshing Kölsch from Gaffel, a brewery in Köln, Germany, and then settled into a pint of Founders’ “Centennial” American IPA to accompany my burger. The list of wines available by the glass is a touch less exciting but does include a few reliable choices such as Weingut Huber’s Grüner Veltliner “Hugo” and the Crémant d’Alsace Rosé of Lucien Albrecht. Prices, running anywhere between 2x to 3x markups, are moderate relative to the oft outrageous PA scale.

It will take at least another half-dozen trips to Maia to really come to grips with all it has to offer. The temptation level is certainly there. Heck, even the ham and Gruyere sandwich in their to-go case looked damn good. I just hope there’s enough community demand to justify and support Maia’s huge scope.

Maia Restaurant and Market
789 East Lancaster Avenue
Suite 150
Villanova, PA 19085
Maia on Urbanspoon
Subsequent visits:

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

A Few Seats Left for Friday Night Wine Dinner

Still in search of something to fill your social calendar -- or to sate your wine and food cravings -- for this Friday night? There are still a few seats remaining for the wine dinner I'll be hosting at Brandywine Prime in Chadds Ford, PA. The festivities begin at 6:30 PM sharp, this Friday, June 6. You can check out my original post for the menu and full details. Or stop thinking about it and just do it... make a reservation.

I Want Diddley

I may have let the recent passing of California wine industry pioneer Robert Mondavi go without comment but I can't bring myself to do the same with Bo Diddley, who left the living just two days ago on June 2, 2008.

The video above is hardly one of his greatest performances of his signature tune but it captures his spirit and is interspersed with short clips of an interview with Mr. Diddley himself, aka Ellas McDaniel. Below, one of many tributes to the man. While it's actually a cover of a 1965 hit by The Strangeloves, there's no doubt that it's directly descended from "Bo Diddley," originally released in 1955. It's proof, at the very least, of the diversity of his influence. Rest in peace, Bo.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Wines at the Bistro

Friends and I headed out to Bistro on the Brandywine for dinner a few nights ago. Taking advantage of their BYOB policy, which continues in spite of the recent approval of their liquor license, we carried along a few bottles with a view to ensuring enough versatility to suit the restaurant’s French bistro influenced menu.

Cheverny, Le Petit Chambord (François Cazin) 2006
François Cazin’s low-yield farming shows through in spades in the richly concentrated fruit and slightly unctuous texture of his 2006 Cheverny Blanc, a blend of 70% Sauvignon Blanc and 30% Chardonnay. Given its high alcohol (14.5%) and marked residual sugar, I can’t help but consider this atypical for Cheverny. The herbaceous and mineral edge I expect from the AOC are missing and subdued respectively, replaced by round, ripe lemon and tangerine fruit and aromas of white tree blossoms. Cazin was obviously working with some pretty ripe raw materials in this vintage. The wine stops just short of being fully honeyed. On the up side, its alcohol is not at all apparent. There’s a chalky acidity that stands out on the mid-palate. In spite of all the concentration, its purity of fruit, along with that high-toned acidity, helped to make this pretty satisfying as an aperitif. It also worked well with the daily salad special of field greens, goat cheese and roasted golden beets. $16. 14.5% alcohol. Natural cork. Importer: Louis/Dressner, New York, NY.

Irouléguy Blanc “Ilori" ("Les Jonquilles"), Domaine Brana 2004
When I learned a few years back that the shop where I spend my days would be dropping the Wine Traditions portfolio, I was dismayed. Importer Ed Addiss brings in a book of characterful wines from a cadre of small estates, with particular strength in SW France. I made sure to snag a couple bottles each of a few of my favorites before they’d no longer be easily accessible. This is one, especially tasting it now, which I wish I’d gone long on.

“Ilori” is Basque, “Les Jonquilles” French, for Narcissus jonquilla, the yellow wildflowers native to southern Europe that grow widely on the terraced hillsides in Irouléguy. This is Domaine Brana’s “basic” white, a blend of Gros Manseng and Petit Courbu, vinified without wood influence. At first sniff, it gave off a cheesy pungency that I’ve noticed before in Jurançon Sec and other Pyrenéean whites. With air, that funk transformed into a much fresher expression of lime pith, kumquat and hay, with mountain meadow floral and herbaceous notes evocative of the wine’s name. Although it’s a tad lower alcohol than typical for Irouléguy Blanc, it still shows the area’s savage power and dryness via its combination of visceral acidity and intense persistence. Lip smackingly good even at first, it just kept getting better right up to the last drop. Spot on with the saffron cream sauce in which our mussels were cooked. $14 on release. 13.5% alcohol. Composite cork. Importer: Wine Traditions, Falls Church, VA.

Barbera d’Alba “Cascina Francia,” Giacomo Conterno 2005
What can I say about this that hasn’t been said before? The wines of the Giacomo Conterno estate are a benchmark for the traditionalist style in Piedmont. They are widely considered to have few if any peers, particularly in the context of their famous Barolo Riserva, “Monfortino.” Though the winery is located in Monforte d’Alba, this Barbera is sourced from the estate’s 16-hectare vineyard, Cascina Francia, located high on the hillsides of Serralunga d’Alba. This is wine that somehow manages to capture the innately rustic personality of Barbera yet express it with elegance, structure and fine balance. The characteristic muscle of Serralunga fruit is all there. Plum and mulberry fruit and dense earthiness are followed by a hint of cocoa-driven opulence and restrained spiciness, the influence of a two-year aging regimen in old botti of Slovonian oak. Hardly every day Barbera, this is profound, a real vino di meditazione. There may not be a better pairing out there for the short ribs and gorgonzola gnocchi served at the Bistro. $30. 14% alcohol. Natural cork. Importer: Polaner Selections, Mount Kisco, NY.

Monday, June 2, 2008

First Look: Bistro on the Brandywine

Opened just two months ago, Bistro on the Brandywine is the newest venture of Brandywine Valley restaurateur Dan Butler. Sister restaurant and parking lot neighbor to Brandywine Prime, it’s Butler’s second opening on the Route 1 corridor in sleepy Chadds Ford, PA in just a little over a year.

By way of full disclosure, I’ve conducted wine dinners at a number of Dan’s restaurants over the years. (In fact, for those of you who may have missed the announcement here a few days back, I’ll be hosting a wine pairing dinner at Brandywine Prime this Friday.) As a result, I’m not a stranger when walking into any of his establishments. Also as a result, I generally opt not to write up my dining experiences at said establishments. However, I figured I’d make an exception this time, given that the Bistro is new, BYOB – more on that later – and a generally charming little spot. Given the full house on a Friday night, it also seems to have filled a void in its neighborhood, fitting neatly in the gap between fine dining and basic pub grub.

The country farmhouse feel provided by stone walls and bead board are made contemporary by sunny views, high ceilings and exposed ductwork.

There were some clear standouts based on our quick sampling of the menu. Medium-sized mussels, which can be ordered in both appetizer and entrée sized portions, were drenched in a deeply flavorful and intensely creamy saffron sauce. The accompanying frites are cut in house, double-fried and combine crispiness with surprisingly potato-y fleshiness given their matchstick size. The only minor shortcoming on that plate was the aioli dip for the fries, which could be a bit zestier and a little less rich. A massive tousle of the same fries came as a de facto part of my main course of steak frites. The hangar steak itself was richly beefy, cooked perfectly medium-rare (except at its most tapered end), appropriately chewy and ratcheted up a notch by a drizzle of shallot infused demi-glace.

The brightest light of the evening – no pun intended, given the sun streaming through the front windows – may just have been the amuse bouche of steak and eggs on truffled toast sent out compliments of the chef.

I would have preferred a thinner, crispier crust, along with more acidic sauce and slightly higher seasoning for the pizza margherita we shared as an appetizer. That didn’t stop us from asking to take the leftovers home, though. And it may just be an appealing style for the customers that come with kids in tow. For those with a predilection for richness, the short ribs are an exercise in the extremes of comfort food. Braised in veal stock, served with Gorgonzola gnocchi and generously sauced, they were, no bones about it, decadent.

A few of the dishes we enjoyed (clockwise, from top left): Pizza Margherita, Moules Frites, Steak Frites and, for dessert, Banana-Caramel Bread Pudding.

Chef de Cuisine Seth Harvey and Managing Partner Paul Bouchard are both imports from other outposts of Chef Butler’s dining empire. Formerly the sous-chef at Wilmington’s Deep Blue, Harvey has put together a menu of French bistro favorites, accented with occasional touches of creativity and with a few nods to the restaurant’s locale – Kennett Square mushroom soup, for instance. Mr. Bouchard has moved on to manage Bistro on the Brandywine after years running Butler’s original Toscana Kitchen + Bar. Given the relative dearth of trained wait staff in the outer suburbs, Paul has already done an admirable job of bringing the young front of the house staff up to speed. Service, though not without a minor hiccup or two, was affable, well paced and comfortable.

No doubt good news to the restaurant’s potential cash flow, its liquor license application was approved just the day before our visit. There is already a short list of Pennsylvania beers in bottle and a wine list so tiny as to be cute – just two whites and two reds, all offered by the glass and the bottle. I’m sure the list will quickly come up to speed. The good news for the local wine-toting crowd is that Bouchard plans to continue the restaurant’s BYOB policy indefinitely. The $5 corkage fee per bottle is justified by quality stemware and waived if a bottle is ordered from the list.

Bistro on the Brandywine
1623 Baltimore Pike
(at Routes 1 & 100)
Chadds Ford, PA 19317
Bistro On The Brandywine on Urbanspoon

Sunday, June 1, 2008

4700 Miles from Home

My homage to Dr. Vino's fun with photos. Hit the comments with your caption.
Blog Widget by LinkWithin