Thursday, March 29, 2007

Shola's Guest Chef Series: Apamate

I was inexorably drawn to Apamate (1620 South Street) this Tuesday to enjoy the food artistry of Shola Olunloyo, guest chef for the night. I’ve been enjoying Shola’s cooking since his days working in the Starr and Stein dynasties. Since his “retirement” into personal chefdom and creation of the occasional atelier that is Studiokitchen, opportunities to catch him working in a traditional restaurant environment have been few and far between. Shola has long flirted with the lure of getting back into the brick and mortar restaurant arena and this was the first of a string of guest chef appearances he’s planned – a dip of the toe, if you will. At $50 for a four-course meal, it was too good a deal to miss.

Apamate, open for nearly a year now, has essentially fashioned itself as a casual, affordable neighborhood eatery and looks to be a strong part of the Graduate Hospital area renaissance. Their focus is on Spain, emphasizing pintxos and churros, with a basic dinner menu also on offer. Breakfast and brunch are offered on weekends. Aside from the three or four dinner mains, everything on the menu comes in at under $10. The dark red room is fairly warm and inviting, a long, narrow space with a small bar/counter adjacent to the open kitchen, a large group table in the front window and a galley of smaller wood tables running the length of the west wall. With the weight on pintxos, I’d love to see more space given to bar seating. As a BYOB, though, I can see the focus on table space as being the more economically feasible choice. In any event, I’ll definitely need to plan a return visit on a regular night.

Shola’s menu for the evening, “Sabores de Espana” (Flavors of Spain), was developed with Apamate chef Ane Ormachea to bring Shola’s modern approach to dish design and flavor genesis into the context of a traditional Spanish production kitchen. Working with Ane’s staff in the Apamate space, Shola turned out four courses, all of them showcasing his flair for integrating diverse ingredients, some of them hinting at the mastery that he’s showed himself capable of in the solo setting of Studiokitchen. Highlights for me were the starter and dessert courses. The starter, chick pea soup with Chorizo “Bolognese” and paprika oil, was a soulful bowl of pureed essence of garbanzos slicked by a colorful and flavorful dash of paprika infused oil. Hidden within was, truly, a Bolognese-style meat “sauce,” accented with prickly hints of spice from its chorizo base. Dessert was perhaps the most unique dish of the night: “Queso Fresco de Cabra,” a fresh goat cheese sorbet with Arbequina olive oil and olive sugar. The combination of lightly sweet sorbet, salty, savory “olive sugar” and a dash of rich olive oil tantalized the buds.

The only disappointment of the evening, for me, was the second course: shrimp roasted with paella spices, salsa verde, slow cooked egg and lobster-piquillo broth. Both the shrimp and egg were a touch over cooked. And though the lobster broth was delicate and delicious, it seemed separate from the straightforward, well-spiced shrimp. The temptation to treat the shrimp as finger food separated them from the other elements of the plate. We did, however, hit on the best wine pairing of the evening here, with the 2004 Sancerre “Clos de Chaudenay” of Etienne Daulny harmonizing perfectly with all elements on the plate.

Course three – braised chicken “escabeche,” with lentils, morcilla and almond milk – was the comfort food offering of the evening. Chicken thighs, braised confit-style in olive oil, were fall off the bone tender, moist and rich. Delicious on its own, the almond milk foam was almost too subtle for the hearty flavors of the overall dish. The savory lentils, spiked with morcilla, a Spanish-style blood sausage, triggered one of those scent memories that take one back to childhood. It took me a moment to pin down the aroma – sloppy joes. That’s no bad thing. It’s a dish I’d love to attempt to replicate at home and which, with a bit of simplification, could fit right in on the regular menu at Apamate.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Tasting with Sergio Germano

One of the most fulfilling aspects of working in a specialty wine shop is actually getting to know the people behind the products I sell. It’s more than simple “star appeal.” Rather, it’s a humanizing factor which enriches your knowledge and your ability to convey meaningful information to others. Imagine how much more insight you’d have into your favorite novel if you had a chance to get to know the author. It’s like that, but with the sun, sky and land attached.

Over the last five or six years, I’ve gotten to know Sergio Germano through his regular visits to the shop and through the wine dinners we’ve hosted with him. My understanding of the man behind the wonderful wines of Germano Ettore was driven home during a trip to Italy in February 2006. The group I traveled with spent three days at Sergio’s agriturismo. We walked his vineyards, tasted in his winery, breakfasted with his wife – while he worked the cellar – and absorbed the atmosphere of the Serralunga hillsides. And we tasted more wines in one sitting – 25 to be exact, barrel samples included – than at any other stop on our trip. That experience was reinforced just last week, when Sergio stopped by our shop in Wilmington to take our staff members through the entire line-up of his current releases. Following are my tasting notes from the day:

  1. Langhe Chardonnay 2005: Sergio’s 2005 Chardonnay went through 100% malolactic, with 5% of the wine spending a short time in barrel to add structural nuance to the finished wine. Lovely fruit, rich lemon and apple flavors with lively acidity. Fully dry but with ripe, sweet flavors. The Chardonnay is not planted in Serralunga but rather in a vineyard about 25 miles away in the town of Ciglie, near the Dogliani zone.

  2. Langhe Bianco “Binel” 2005: This is Sergio’s signature white, a blend of 60% Chardonnay and 40% Riesling. The Riesling is vinified in steel, the Chardonnay in small barrels of which 15-20% are new. The richer, more formidable of his two whites, redolent of figs and fresh bread with sweet pear fruit on the palate. The oak-flecked richness is cleansed by ample acidity and by a more evident minerality than in the varietal Chardonnay. With air, the aromatic influence of the Riesling really begins to emerge.

  3. Dolcetto d’Alba “Lorenzino” 2005: When the ’05 Lorenzino first arrived in our shop a few months ago, it seemed a bit closed. It’s now emerged from its shell, showing classic inky aromas followed by ripe, round cherry fruit and licorice tones on the palate. Good length and very savory with a gentle little grip on the finish. Explosive. Lorenzino is a single vineyard with a relatively rich soil base and moderate yields, always giving the softer of the estate’s two Dolcetti.

  4. Dolcetto d’Alba “Pra di Po” 2005: With a more calcareous, chalky soil base and naturally lower yields, the Pra di Po vineyard reveals the darker, more structured side of Dolcetto d’Alba. Darker in both color and aromas, with scents of black cherry and brambles. Tannic but round and supple in the mouth. Both Dolcetti are vinified in the same method, in steel with five days of maceration and some pumping over. The differences are all about site.

  5. Barbera d’Alba 2005: Young vine fruit, again done in steel with a maceration of five days. Bottled in April after the vintage, like Lorenzino. Also like Lorenzino, I found this Barbera to be ungiving when first tasted a few months ago. It’s now emerging with red berry fruit and lively (but no longer tangy) acidity. Germano’s simplest wine, but perfect with everyday pasta and white meat courses. Sergio reiterated our understanding that Barbera d’Alba tends to have slightly mellower acidity and richer flesh than Barbera d’Asti.

  6. Barbera d’Alba “Vigna della Madre” 2004: This is one of the wines that puts Sergio in the centrist-to-modernist camp in Barolo. Vigna della Madre is a single vineyard planted to fairly old vines of Barbera. Following one week of maceration, the wine spends one year in barriques, 25-30% of which are new. In most vintages, 2004 included, the della Madre is Germano’s ripest, most opulent wine, always balanced by the characteristic lively acidity of Barbera. The terroir of the site combined with winemaking choices give this cuvee a firm tannic backbone and produce a wine suitable, in Sergio’s opinion, for 10-15 years of bottle aging.

  7. Langhe Rosso “Balàu” 2004: In a region which includes no tradition for blended wines, Balàu, along with its “sister” Binel, represents Germano’s clearest step toward the modernist end of the spectrum. This tendency is driven home by the inclusion of an international grape variety, Merlot. To reflect the character of each vintage, the final blend often changes subtly from year to year, with the final selection for 2004 comprised of 50% Dolcetto, 25% Barbera and 25% Merlot, all grown in the Balàu vineyard. Due to harvest times which can vary widely for these three vines, each variety is fermented on its own. After blending, the wine spends one year in old barriques. Showing a very fleshy, round palate, Balàu is less opulent yet somewhat more elegant than the Barbera della Madre. The 2004 contains the highest percentage of Merlot to date, adding a measured softness and rich, red-fruited tone to the finished wine.

  8. Langhe Nebbiolo 2005: Like all producers in Barolo, some of Sergio’s plantings of Nebbiolo are not suitable for inclusion in Barolo. Like those producers of Barolo who are as conscientious of quality as Sergio, he opts to produce a varietal Nebbiolo meant to showcase the more direct, immediately pleasing side of the noble vine of Piedmont. Selected from the young vines in his Barolo vineyards, the Langhe Nebbiolo is fermented and aged only in steel, bringing out a purity of fruit and delicacy of texture. 2005 was a fantastic vintage for Sergio and this wine makes it absolutely obvious. Its aromas -- violets, roses, red licorice and raspberries -- literally jump from the glass. It’s a “Wow!” wine on the nose and is simply a joy to drink. No patience necessary.

  9. Barolo “Cerretta” 2001: In good years, Sergio produces three Barolo bottlings: a Barolo “normale” and two different cru Barolos, Cerretta and Prapo. Cerretta is always the richest and densest of the three. It’s treated to a more modern touch in the cellar, with aging in barriques (20% new) and 500 liter barrels. And it’s damn good wine. Dark, brooding and powerful with an underlying ripeness, it shows aromas and flavors of tar, blackberry and black licorice.

  10. Barolo “Prapo” 2001: From a separately defined site which is part of the Cerretta hill, Prapo is the more traditional and also longest lived of Sergio’s crus. Fruit from 40 year old vines is aged in botte, the classic large oval casks of Piedmont. It is a leaner wine than Cerretta, more firmly tannic yet also more precise, elegant and sharply defined. The aromas are more floral, the licorice notes more red than black and the wood tones more dusty than sweet. It finishes with fantastic length.

Sergio is quietly proud of his wines and earnest in his desire to receive thoughtful feedback and questions. In showing us his wines, both his drive to continuously improve and a true love of what he does show through. I almost always find the opportunity to learn from great winemakers like Sergio to be invaluable. My above notes for his two Barolo are consistent from vintage to vintage, a sign of good work in the vineyard and the cellar. But my understanding of the wines has been strengthened and deepened by the time we’ve shared. While Prapo always comes across as the more tannic of Sergio’s Barolos, we learned that the Cerretta site actually produces a more inherently tannic wine. This drives Sergio’s choices in the winery, not for the sake of the modern appeal of small barrels and new oak but rather for their tempering effect on Cerretta’s muscle. The increased air space relative to volume in a small barrel, he tells us, softens tannins. It’s a choice made not for its appeal to the big critics but simply for the sake of making a more balanced wine. It’s a mature approach to making a great wine in a world where the immediacy of flash and opulence all too often lead the way. And it makes me proud to sell Germano Ettore wines.

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Recommended reading:

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Real Philadelphia Cheese

Though hanging out, eating well and exploring the countryside is always fun, the real reason Anne had come to town, as mentioned a couple of posts ago, was to showcase some of the products from Saxelby Cheesemongers via a course at the Tria Fermentation School. Class wasn’t in session until early evening though, so that gave us the better part of the day to explore Philadelphia. Heading into town in the late morning, we made a quick stop at Tria’s offices to deliver the cheese and other materials for the evening and then got down to the business of mapping the day. As “tour guide du jour,” I wanted Anne to get a feel for Philly but also to visit some of the town’s major cheese destinations.

With Center City as our starting point, I couldn’t think of a more apt first destination than the new outlet of DiBruno Brothers at 1730 Chestnut Street. This was my first time at this still relatively new location and, even though I had expected something a bit upscale given the address, I was taken aback at the size and scope of their new showpiece. More reminiscent of a Dean & Deluca outpost than of the original DiBruno’s, I was sad to see yet another successful small business feel the need to jump up to “the next level,” as the effort so often, as here, leads to a loss of the character that made the original business so special. That’s not to say that there aren’t wonderful products available or that I wouldn’t stop by occasionally for convenience’s sake if I lived in the immediate neighborhood. There’s still a great cheese selection and the cuts of meat and sausages in the butcher shop looked promising. It’s just that the whole enterprise comes off feeling disconnected, like just another glossy, one-stop, upscale super market. Now that I think of it, perhaps that suits the Rittenhouse neighborhood just right.

After a few more stops and conducting a bit of business, it was about time for some lunch. We headed to Reading Terminal Market, where we met my buddy Bill who was playing half-day hooky from work, and settled right into some roast pork sandwiches from DiNic’s. Appetites sated, and before taking a walk around the rest of the market, we headed for Downtown Cheese. Try as other establishments may have, I feel that Downtown Cheese is the only Philadelphia-area monger that’s ever been able to give DiBruno’s a real run for its money. In many ways, it’s actually my preferred shop. I’ve always had a good rapport with owner Jack Morgan. His stalls are clean, inviting, well organized and easy to browse. He trains his staff well, maintains good relationships with his vendors and is just as happy to let you know when something should be given the pass as he is to recommend something new, interesting or simply in its prime. Regrettably, Jack wasn’t in that day so, as Anne had landed on my doorstep bearing a healthy gift of cheeses from her own stand, we just took the opportunity to survey the current offerings and watch Bill as he amassed an impressive array of goods. As a sidebar, I’ve also long appreciated Downtown’s not-so-downtown location in the Ardmore Farmer’s Market out on Philadelphia’s eastern Main Line. Only a hint larger than its Reading Terminal sibling and with a very similar look and feel, the selection and quality at Ardmore are every bit as good as at the Terminal.

DiBruno's March Madness
Casting usual preferences aside, I must say the most earthily satisfying stop of the day was the original DiBruno’s (930 S. 9th Street). Just walking in the door and taking in the aura of accumulated years of cheese, salami and olive funk that permeates the shop’s core has a certain grounding affect on one’s soul. It didn’t hurt that this was mid-afternoon on a Monday. The store was serene, quite the opposite of the elbow-to-elbow bustle of the weekend scenario, and we had plenty of time to browse and chat with Hunter, who was manning the head of the counter that day. It also didn’t hurt that Anne and Hunter had met before, at last year’s Fancy Food Show in New York. This was the first stop where Anne really let loose and got into talking shop, so we hung out for a while and took in the feel of the place. It was a stroke of luck that DiBruno’s was highlighting the produce of Andante Dairy that day. I’d first encountered Andante’s cheeses during a January trip to Sonoma, where they were featured selections at The Farmhouse Inn in Forestville. Andante’s “Acapella” is one of the finest American goats’ milk cheeses I’ve tasted and DiBruno’s is one of the few sources for Andante on the East Coast. After a few other samplings and musings, and after casting our votes in that day’s round of DiBruno’s March Madness, we settled up our purchases and made our way out to explore a bit more of the 9th Street Market.

After a lovely walk through town and a few more food and libation related stops, the final cheese venture of the day, and the raison d’être for the trip, was Anne’s class on “The Great Northeast” at Tria Fermentation School. She discussed the history of cheese making in the early northern colonies, from its early farmstead roots, to a growth in export trade, into industrialization and its inevitable decline in quality, and then came full-circle to the current explosion of farmstead, artisan dairies in New England. Interspersed with the history lesson was a tasting of six different farmstead cheeses:

  • Jasper Hill Farm Constant Bliss (Greensboro, VT – cow, raw)
  • Brovetto Dairy Harpersfield with Ommegang (Harpersfield, NY – cow, pasteurized)
  • Hillman Farm Harvest (Colrain, MA – goat, raw)
  • Bonnieview Farm Coomersdale (Craftsbury Common, VT – sheep, raw)
  • Cato Corner Farm Hooligan (Colchester, CT – cow, raw)
  • Jasper Hill Farm Bayley Hazen Blue (Greensboro, VT – cow, raw)

I've been a long time fan of Jasper Hill’s work, so the revelations for me were Hillman Harvest and Coomersdale. Both are based on milks from 100% grass-based feeding; their flavors showed it. In spite of different milk types and origins, a fresh, grassy and slightly nutty flavor profile permeated both. The Coomersdale in particular reminded me of some of my favorite Basque sheep’s milk cheeses, and that’s meant to be high praise. Both stood out immediately for balance and depth of flavor but neither was heavy or wearying on the palate. They’re cheeses I could snack on all day and return to regularly.

At day’s end, a look back at our itinerary went something like this:

  • Visiting the new DiBruno Brothers, 1730 Chestnut Street
  • Coffee at La Colombe, 19th & Walnut
  • Business (and gelato tasting…) at Capogiro, 13th & Sansom
  • Lunch and shopping at Reading Terminal Market
  • A quick ride through town with Bill
  • More shopping at the 9th Street (Italian) Market
  • A walk around South Philly, Old City and back across town
  • Mid-afternoon raw bar and beer at Sansom Street Oyster House
  • More caffeine back at La Colombe
  • Class at the Fermentation School
  • Beer, mussels and frites at Monk’s

We all need to explore our own cities like that more often. Sometimes it just takes a visit from a friend, new or old, to make it happen.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Sunday Dinner at Marigold Kitchen

Dogs walked, it was time to get back to food. BYOB restaurants being a bit of a rarity in New York, we decided to take Anne to one of our favorites in Philly, Marigold Kitchen (501 S. 45th at Larchwood). Not that we were necessarily looking for cheap eats, but the Sunday $35 three-course prix fixe dinner is one of the best deals in town. Besides that, I think Chef Michael Solomonov and the rest of the staff at Marigold are turning out one of the soundest BYO dining experiences in the area at the moment.

Our waitress, who greeted us at the door and showed us to our table, remembered my wife Lori and me from our last visit. She wasted no time in popping the cork on our first bottle of the evening so that we’d have something to sip while enjoying the amuse bouche and perusing the menu. The 1999 Ratzenberger Bacharacher Kloster Furstental Riesling Brut Sekt tasted good as always. Ratzenberger’s Rieslings, bubbly included, seem to age effortlessly and this was no exception; still young, bright, bone dry and elegant, it was a fine starting point. Our collective curiosity was piqued when our waitress stopped back a short while later to inquire as to whether any of us had any dietary limitations. A few moments after our resounding “No,” Chef Michael showed up table-side bearing a platter of foie gras “pastrami” sandwiches, little – actually, medium sized – squares of house made rye filled with, you guessed it, foie gras and topped with cornichon slices. Some heart-stoppingly addictive snack food….

As tempting as the five course tasting dinner ($60) sounded, we’d all by then, through no fault of the rich little sandwiches, decided to go with the $35 three course dinners. This is a Sunday only special which allows one choice each from the first course, second course and dessert portions of the menu. To start, Anne chose the “Carrot Soup with Miti-Crema and Mint,” Lori chose the “Salmon Rillette with Warm Flatbread” and I opted for “Seared Chicken Livers with Bacon and Pear.” While waiting for our firsts to arrive, we opened wine two of the evening, 2004 François Chidaine Montlouis-sur-Loire “Les Bournais.” The Chenin Blancs of Chidaine have been on my short list of favorite central Loire wines since I first encountered them in the 1999 vintage. “Les Bournais” is a new cuvée, 2004 representing the first vintage in bottle from this single vineyard site. Though a bit closed at first, it already displayed typical aromas of dried honey and a feel of wet stones on the palate. With air, it continued to open and improve over the course of our entire meal. It worked well, speaking for the group, with all of our appetizers. Certainly, it paired nicely with the perfectly cooked chicken livers which were pan crispy thanks to, I’m guessing, a light dredging before searing. The accents of smoky, salty bacon and slightly sweet, crisp pear in the dish only helped the marriage. As good as this wine is today, I’d strongly recommend holding it for at least a couple of years to give it time to integrate and develop.

As I’d brought two nice red wine options along for the ride, we all leaned toward meat when making our entrée choices. Both women went with the duck, prepared with parsnip purée; the official description eludes me as I neglected to bring home the night’s menu. For me, “Lamb Three Ways” was in order. And while either of the reds we’d brought may have been apropos, I really wanted to take a look at the 1999 Fattoria di Palazzo Vecchio Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, as the estate’s Sangiovese based wines are a perennial favorite of mine with lamb. The “three ways” consisted of a glazed lamb loin chop, a lamb “cigar” (lamb sausage in a pastry wrapper), and lamb stew on a bed of Israeli couscous. All three preparations were solid on their own – I could enjoy a plate of the cigars for breakfast – but came together to form a more perfect whole. As for the wine, well, I wish we’d had more time to spend with it as it only became prettier, more aromatic and silkier as time passed. I was surprised at its youthfulness, though perhaps I shouldn’t have been as 1999 was a terrific year for Palazzo Vecchio and for Tuscany in general.

After a brief rest, revisiting the Montlouis seemed only right given the assortment of cheeses which followed our main courses. The night was capped by a selection of desserts all around, including a light, satisfying, tangy trio of “Lemon Tart with Lemon Curd and Lemon Meringue Sorbet.” This Sunday venture could be habit forming.

Marigold Kitchen in Philadelphia

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Sunday in Chester County, PA

It's not often I head out to Chester County for fun -- unless it's on two wheels -- but this past Sunday, two forces drew me there with pleasure. One was a visit from a new friend, Anne Saxelby, who I'd met on a recent trip to New York. The other force, drawing us to ChesCo specifically, was the new business of old friends, Aimee and Bryan at Talula's Table in Kennett Square.

Anne had been invited to teach a Monday evening course at Tria's Fermentation School in Philadelphia. When she expressed an interest in coming down early to see the area, which she'd never visited, I offered to play host and show her around. Tying things together, Aimee had stopped in to see Anne at Saxelby Cheesemongers during a reconnaissance mission of New York markets a few weeks earlier and Anne was excited for the opportunity to see Aimee in her new digs at Talula's. So off to Kennett we went. I was jazzed as it would give me the chance to get back and check out the progress of the business.

A quiet moment at Talula's communal table
We arrived at Talula's just after noon to find the store well populated by a mix of locals, friends and Sunday shoppers. It was nice to see people availing themselves of the communal seating areas in the front and central areas of the shop and to see families with children in tow sitting down to impromptu lunches. We did just that ourselves, as Aimee prepared for us a lunch sampler of her husband Bryan's house smoked salmon with candied lemon, local mushroom quiche, smoked scallops, and a selection of olives and cheese. As we munched, we noticed pastry chef Claire Shears periodically passing through the shop with fresh loaves, rolls, baguettes and pastry. A particularly decadent looking tray of sticky buns caught our attention and became the clear target for a quick dessert, washed down with beverages from the coffee/espresso bar at the front of the shop.

In only its second week, there is already some added depth in the shop's selections. I noticed a fuller stock of pastas and dried goods, as well as a few more prepared dishes. Bryan and Aimee's passion for food, energy and attention to detail have brought things up to speed very quickly. They've also had good fortune in putting together a tight-knit team of young barristas and cashiers. A little more confidence with customer communications and a bit more experience with the nuances of the espresso machine and the front of the house should be humming right along with the kitchen and proprietors.

Part two of our mushroom country venture, largely at Aimee's suggestion, was a quick dogleg into Avondale, PA, to visit Va La Vineyards. In over a dozen years living in the Philadelphia area, I must admit this was only the second time I'd visited a Pennsylvania winery and the first visit to any of those producers located in the southeastern corner of the state. Sometimes it takes an out of town visitor to inspire a local to really get out to see his own neighborhood, albeit an extended one.

Va La is a small family based producer, with only seven acres under vine. Though they tout a long history for their farm, including the presence of grape growing and wine making, the current "Home Vineyard" is actually a very recent phenomenon, planted only in the late 1990's. In a spirit aimed at the family's Italian heritage, Va La has chosen to focus its efforts, particularly in the red wine department, on Italianate varieties such as Barbera, Nebbiolo and Sangiovese. Though the producers' hearts are in the right place, the climate and soil characteristics of the mid-Atlantic US are notoriously difficult for site demanding varieties such as these and the end results show the challenge. Sunday's tasting table was focused almost entirely on the winery's red bottlings and, while the wines are in the A-league for the area, the Nebbiolo and Barbera both show dilute structure and atypical flavor and aromatic tendencies. Of the three Italian varietal reds we were offered, the Sangiovese showed most strongly, with at least a hint of its typically dusty red cherry fruit and enough spine to lend it some structure. The most complete red being showed on Sunday was a wine called "Il Rustico," based on a rare vine called Carmine, an American crossing of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carignane. Va La is one of the few wineries in the world producing a Carmine dominated red and, while "Il Rustico" earns its name with simple, rustic flavors, it was the only wine on offer which fully matched color, flavor, alcohol and structure with no real damning flaws.

Va La will be interesting to watch in the future, as both the vines and the wine making choices mature and deepen. I'd love to see them make the leap to a real commitment to estate based wine making, to a complete reliance on their own vines and property. Though that's already the intent of their mission, it's not yet reflected in the "Vinted and Bottled by..." language on all of their bottles nor in their decision to buy in fruit from other local and regional growers.

Our tasting and look around complete, it was about time to head back to Philly, walk the dogs and move on to our final destination of the evening -- dinner at Marigold Kitchen. But that's a topic for another post....

Thursday, March 8, 2007

A Quick Trip to New York: Day Two

Over the course of a relaxing breakfast, and after seeing Sarah off to work, Peter and I decided on a mellower itinerary for Thursday. Between the forecast for foul weather and a desire to get back down to Philly early enough to have a productive evening, we would be hitting the road mid-afternoon. Accordingly, we pointed ourselves downtown with just a couple of destinations in mind.

Our fourth for dinner the previous evening was a good friend of Sarah's, Anne Saxelby, the young entrepreneur responsible for the eponymous Saxelby Cheesemongers. Our first stop of the day would be her minute but wonderful shop, located in the Essex Street Market (120 Essex Street, between Rivington and Delancey). The focus at Saxelby is clear and simple: American farmstead cheeses. Most of the produce Anne sells comes from dairies where she's spent time working and learning about each purveyor's particular craft. We had the luck and pleasure that day of finding one of those very cheesemakers -- Debby from Meadow Creek Dairy in Galax, Virginia -- hanging out at Anne's stall. After tasting Meadow Creek's produce and a few other of Anne's current favorites, we grabbed some bread with lunch in mind and headed back to the streets.

Winding our way South and West through the fringes of both Little Italy and Chinatown, our next and final destination would be Tribeca's Chambers Street Wines (160 Chambers Street, between Greenwich and W. Broadway). One of Peter's favorite shops, Chambers Street had been on my must visit list for quite some time but I'd somehow never managed to make it. He was keen to get my opinion of the shop and I was keen to visit based on their reputation for service, knowledge and an eclectic selection of small producer wines. Unlike Rosenthal, which we'd visited the day before, Chambers Street is a somewhat more typical specialty shop. Wines are laid out in a reasonably browsing-friendly fashion (though I found it could still be difficult to locate the stock of a selected item without just grabbing the display bottle). And their selection covers a fairly full spectrum of the international market. Like at Rosenthal, however, Chambers' strength was in Europe, most clearly in the Loire, Burgundy, Rhône and Piedmont. While far from being a single distributor shop, there is a particular focus on the French wines of importer Louis-Dressner. Happily, there is also one of the finer selections of Austrian wines I've found in the states, from quality producers such as Alzinger, Nikolaihof, Hirsch and Emrich Knoll.

After spending a nice chunk of time chatting with one of the shop owners and several of the staff, I buckled down to the business of picking out some interesting stuff. After finally culling the options down to a combination of some old favorites and a few new discoveries such as the wonderful Beaujolais of Terres Dorées, we settled up and headed for home. With mixed case in hand -- half for me and half for a good friend back in Wilmington -- we stepped out onto Chambers Street and practically right into a passing, available taxi. Luck seemed to be on our side that day, as the predicted rain had just started to fall....

Back at Pete's, we polished off some mighty tasty sandwiches from the previous night's leftover pork roast, packed up the car and hit the road for points South, bringing to an end a worthy and much enjoyed quick trip to New York.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

A Quick Trip to New York: Day One

A couple of weeks ago now, I took a much needed day off and jumped on the Northeastern Corridor train from 30th Street Station (Philly) to Penn Station (New York). Ostensibly, the mission was to hang out with my friends Peter and Sarah with whom I get to spend quality time far too infrequently. Not surprisingly, our itinerary for my Wednesday/Thursday visit was heavily laden with food and wine exploration, both on the home front and around town.

Destination number one, after a rest stop and a wonderful coffee Chez Pete, was the splurge of the trip -- lunch in the café at Aquavit (65 E. 55th Street, between Park & Madison). The walk from the East Village to Midtown got our appetites revving and gave us the time to work out a game plan for the meal, deciding to focus our first visit on the simple, traditional aspects of the menu. We figured this would give us solid insight into the quality and core of the restaurant... and give us a reason to go back again to check out the more creative side, perhaps in the main dining room.

Herring and gravlax seemed appropriate starting points. The herring sampler was a trio comprised of the traditional pickled herring; curry with apple and chives; and vodka lime with salmon roe and dill. The pickled version took the day for its clear focus on well selected fish and a perfectly balanced, penetrating brine. Though both were quite appealing in flavor, the curry version lacked textural snap and the vodka lime was a bit too heavily sauced. As for the gravlax, straight up, the dish gets kudos for just the right level of cure and dill influence. Here though, the accoutrements brought the dish to another level. Used sparingly, the espresso mustard dipping sauce added an intoxicating richness and spark without overwhelming or muddying the core flavors of the gravlax itself.

For mains, Peter opted for Swedish meatballs and I for the daily Swedish homecooking special, Kokt Torsk. Suffice it to say that the meatballs were deliciously addictive, accompanied nicely with a sprinkling of lingonberries and some of the creamiest, most buttery mashed potatoes either of us had come across. Kokt Torsk, quite simply, is poached cod with egg sauce. Definitely comfort food à la Sweden, the cod was tender and flavorful and the egg sauce rich, warming and redolent of dill. I'd love to try to replicate it at home. The dessert included with the Wednesday special, Vanilj Hjärta, may have been the biggest surprise of the meal. While the visual artistry of Aquavit's signature dessert, the Arctic Circle, was impressive, simplicity took the day again. Essentially a heart-shaped pastry filled with a light, subtle cream, the Vanilj Hjärta (vanilla heart) appealed immediately to the senses, emitting an intense aroma of vanilla. Its plain appearance belied its sublime depth of flavor and couldn't have been a more appropriate finale to a first venture into Aquavit's menu.

After lunch, we continued our walk uptown to Rosenthal Wine Merchant (318 E. 84th Street at 2nd Ave.). While I had a pretty solid idea of what to expect there, I was still a bit surprised at, well, the surprise with which we were greeted after buzzing in at the front door of their brownstone. Rosenthal is essentially a one-line shop, a retail outlet for the direct importing business of Neal Rosenthal. Though the ground floor is stacked high with deliveries and shipments waiting to go out to customers in NY and elsewhere, it quickly became clear that walk-in visitors, especially new faces, are a bit of a rarity. Will, who was working the office upstairs, announced our arrival to Hannah, who was tending the shop downstairs. Here again it was apparent that the shop makes few accommodations to the casual shopper or to the uninitiated. Though there's a respectable selection here, with particular depth in Burgundy and the Loire, the shop's wares are laid out in a fashion that makes browsing difficult and finding what you're seeking a wee bit challenging. Once over those hurdles, though, there are some treasures -- not necessarily much in the way of pure bargains but many clearly excellent wines, some of which do represent good value in terms of quality-to-price (QPR) ratio. After a bit of digging around and some consultation with Hannah, I left with a few promising bottles, including a Chinon blanc from Olek-Mery, a Chassagne-Montrachet rouge from Pillot and a Valle d'Aosta Fumin -- a wine I've never before encountered -- from Grosjean Frères. Needless to say, I'm looking forward to trying them all.

There were two quick stops remaining before heading home to prepare dinner. The first was Peter's favorite German market. Conveniently enough, Schaller & Weber (1654 2nd Avenue, just below 86th Street) is located just a couple of blocks up the road from Rosenthal's wine shop. Though I'm not sure it will vie for the title of one of New York's best all-round butchers, the quality of the german sausages alone is more than worth the visit. I took home a selection of some quite fabulous bauernwurst, weisswurst and pinkelwurst. Our last stop of the day is a perennial favorite and frequent stop of mine, Payard Pâtisserie (1032 Lexington Avenue, between 73rd and 74th Streets). Decision making is always tough at Payard but simplicity again took the day. Based on the plans for dinner and wine, we opted for four portions of tarte tâtin, perhaps the most straightforward offering of what was left in the pastry case by late afternoon. Good stuff all around.

Finally, back home for dinner. Sarah, who had worked all day and wasn't able to join us for lunch, came through with a nice array of snacks to get things started. Cheeses, pâté, cornichons and Serrano ham were all selected from her workplace -- Murray's Cheese (254 Bleecker Street between 6th & 7th Avenues). Not a bad start, especially when paired with a citrusy, refreshing bottle of Hirsch Kamptal Riesling "Zobing" 2005. Peter prepared one of his specialties next, a pork roast wrapped in bacon and finished with a Riesling cream sauce. Paired with Sarah's Brussels sprouts and a bottle of Nikolaihof Wachau Grüner Veltliner "Vinothek" 1991, which I'd brought back from a September trip to Vienna, it was pretty rockin'. Finishing touches were supplied by the tartes from Payard, accompanied by a bottle of Weingut Johann Peter Reinert Kanzemer Sonnenberg Riesling Auslese 1999.

Not a bad day, I must say. Details -- fewer, I promise -- of day two to come.

Related texts:

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Openings: Talula's Table in Kennett Square, PA

It's true. Aimee Olexy and Bryan Sikora, original proprietors of Philadelphia's beloved Django, have finally opened their new gourmet food shop in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. To clarify, it's not a restaurant. Rather, it is a gourmet food destination -- something all too lacking in the nether lands of Chester County -- specializing in seasonal, fresh, local prepared foods and a high quality selection of produce and packaged goods.

Before I go too much further, let's take a moment to clarify some spelling questions....
The shop: Talula's Table (not Tallulah, Tellulah, etc.)
The chef: Bryan (yes, with a y) Sikora
The shopkeeper: Aimee (one i, two e's, no y) Olexy

I took the drive out to Kennett this past Friday, March 2, to check out their first night of opening to the public as part of the town's First Friday Art Stroll. Talula's was definitely the main draw of the evening, with a solid crowd of local supporters and curious passersby stopping in to sample the wares and get a feel for the shop.

The doorway opens into a communal café seating area, visible from the store front, followed by a coffee/espresso bar and cashier area. Flanking the left and right walls of the long space are various display areas showcasing the current stock of provisions: on the left, shelves of artisinal dried pastas, coffee, teas, oils and canned goods; on the right, refrigerators and display cases of sweets, house-made fresh pastas, condiments and prepared meals, pastries, and local dairy and produce items. The real excitement, given Bryan's skills as a chef and Aimee's reputation as one of the areas foremost cheese mongers, lies dead ahead across the rear wall of the shop. There you'll find Aimee's currently modest but very well selected array of cheeses and olives as well as Bryan's entrées of the day and in-house cured and smoked meats.

To round out their efforts, the owners have brought in Claire Shears as full-time pâtissier and sweat-equity partner. Claire, who Bryan met while working at nearby Sovana Bistro, will be offering a full line of pastry, ranging from croissants and muffins tailored to the coffee bar crowd to a more elaborate array of desserts. All bread will also be baked in-house.

Already off to a promising start, as the shop's customer base grows and as its group of local purveyors matures and deepens, Talula's promises to be both a daily boon to the locals of Kennett as well as a destination for foodies from the entire southeastern Pennsylvania and northern Delaware region.

* * *

Related posts:
Dining at a Virgin Table (April 2007)
Harvest Tasting Menu at Talula's Table (October 2007)
Late Fall Tasting Menu at Talula's Table (December 2007)
Spring 2008 at Talula's Table (April 2008)

Talula's Table
102 West State Street
Kennett Square, PA 19348
Open every day.

Wine Dinner: Vini e Brasati at Toscana Kitchen + Bar

This Wednesday, March 7, 2007, I'll be hosting a dinner at Wilmington, Delaware's Toscana Kitchen + Bar. The event, Vini e Brasati, will focus on one of my favorite seasonal cooking techniques -- braising -- and a selection of wines from northern Italy, with a focus on Piedmont. Proprietor Dan Butler and his team of chefs at Toscana always kick the creativity up a notch for these events. And they keep the pricing very reasonable: $75 per person, all inclusive. For five courses, matched wines and tip, that's a sweet deal. The reception starts at 6:00 PM, followed by seating for dinner at 6:30. For a full description of the menu or to make a reservation, check out

As always, I've chosen the wines with an eye to regional affinity, a progression of style and intensity, and an instinct for flavor, texture and structure in the context of each wine's marriage with each dish. The focus of the event is not didactic. Presentations will be succinct and lively with discussions tailored to the spirit of the audience. Please do join me, and enjoy.
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