Friday, May 28, 2010

Food and wine in May

My new article "Flavors of the Mediterranean" was posted to today along with the recipe and wine pairings. This is a very easy recipe that will easily convince your guests that you spent hours in the kitchen preparing it. If memory serves, it was about 45 minutes from start to finish. I urge anyone looking for a new spin on chicken or just a lover of olives in general, to give it a try.

Also, with the end of May at hand, I thought back to a number of wonderful wines that I tried throughout the month. Each one represents a great value compared to its cost. The tasting notes can be found below.

Lastly, look forward to my travels to Cape may, NJ in June. I'll be hitting one of the best vacation spots in the north-east and reporting back on the best places to stay and eat. I know I'm looking forward to it and so should you.

On to the notes...
  • 2003 Trespass Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Grown - USA, California, Napa Valley, St. Helena (5/26/2010)
    The nose showed sour berry, wild blueberry, powdery cinnamon and a tiny bit of nail polish remover. On the palate, it was full bodied and caressing with creme de cassis, dark chocolate covered cherry and a hint of sour clotted cream. Big long dark fruit finish that kept me wanting more. What a treat, the only bad thing about this bottle was that it was my last one. (93 pts.)

  • 2004 Robert Mondavi Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville - USA, California, Napa Valley, Oakville (5/8/2010)
    No detailed notes but second time with this bottle and once again I'm very impressed. Once of the best values in cali cabernet. Very classy, black currants and floral perfume. The palate was elegant and smooth with a long finish. I wish I had more or at least the time to have really sat with this to get a better tasting note. (93 pts.)

  • 2007 Domaine du Grapillon d'Or Gigondas - France, Rhône, Southern Rhône, Gigondas (5/22/2010)
    The color is red verging on purple. The nose shows toasty wild berries with spice cookie but no undergrowth as my last tasting showed. The palate is full and silky smooth with blue, black fruit and cinnamon. A bit of perceptible heat yet very fresh. The finish shows lavender and dark fruits.

    A highly enjoyable glass of wine. (92 pts.)

Friday, May 21, 2010

Eating Italian in NYC? Pass on Little Italy, "i Trulli" is where you want to be.

The most common question I'm asked during my travels is: “What's your favorite Italian restaurant in New York City?” Obviously this question has been answered in a number of ways. However, I find myself recommending one place in particular recently, and I thought it would be a good idea to revisit it and make sure it was worth all the hype I've been giving it. You know what? It is worth the hype and not only that; it's even better than I remember. My current favorite Italian restaurant in New York City is… i Trulli.

Located at 122 E. 27th Street between Park and Lexington Avenue, i Trulli was opened in 1994 by Nicola Marzovilla. The idea was to create a fine dining Italian restaurant with a foundation built around the foods of his native region, Apulia. The master behind these culinary creations is Chef Patti Jackson. I must say that my hat is off to her, as I don't remember the last time I have seen an entire table of guests so enamored with each and every course served to them.

i Trulli offers dinner and lunch menus as well as a third menu in their enoteca-styled dining room, which includes a wood-burning oven and a station where the items from this menu are prepared in view of their customers. A second room serves as the perfect backdrop of fine dining done in all hard wood, with elegant table settings and a glass-encased wine cellar in view. Lastly, there’s a spacious out-door garden area, which succeeds in helping you forget you’re sitting in the middle of New York City. The garden transports your imagination to an Italian villa done in earth tones with painted murals, hanging plants and a small waterfall.

The wine list represents a wonderful selection of wines from all over Italy with spotlights on a number of iconic producers. It ranges from daily quaffers to big Baroli with pedigree and age. Not to mention, whether you're looking for a bargain wine or a trophy, there are deals to be found as you peruse the list. On the high end, one of my favorite all-time bottles – the 1996 Vietti Rocche at $240 – may seem expensive to some, but it is a great price for a bottle that's often impossible to come by these days at retail. On this occasion, I decided to go with the 2001 San Leonardo IGT, a bottle that averages between $55 - $65 dollars at retail, yet is listed at $110 on their list. Consider the typical mark-up on wine at a restaurant, and you can do the math.

To get the full experience, my party opted to go with i Trulli's “A Taste of Puglia” 15th anniversary menu. This consisted of a five-course tasting experience that cost $48 a person. While looking through the menu, we also found another dish that tempted our palates – the Malloreddus – and so we decided to have that served family-style with our meal.

“A Taste of Puglia” Celebrating i Trulli’s 15th Anniversary

Panzerotti – A mix of Pugliese baby calzones. One was filled with tomato and mozzarella, and the other with olives and scallions. They were perfectly crisp and rich as we bit through the dough to find a mix of tantalizing flavors. My favorite of the two was the olive and scallion, which was very unique and showed intense earthy flavors against the backdrop of the rich, crispy dough.

Burrata – An Apulian cheese with Puntarelle salad. The cheese was creamy and earthy with a semi-sharp bite that was tempered by the bitterness of the greens, simple yet perfect in its simplicity.

Orecchietti – Ear-shaped pasta in a rabbit ragu. This is a dish that I've had at i Trulli before, and I had to come back to sample again. You can taste the freshness of the Orecchietti pasta. As for the ragu, there’s no shortage of meat, which is succulent and full of character, along with spicy ripe tomato flavors and fresh herbs. This is a dish that makes me long for simpler days, long ago, when my own grandmother would prepare feasts at our Sunday dinner table.

Malloreddus – Sardinian saffron dumplings with sausage and tomato was the show-stealing plate of the night. The potato dumplings were like velvet pillows on your tongue as they melted away against the rich, spicy sausage and saffron flavors of the sauce. Honestly, this dish alone is worth the visit to i Trulli. It's unique, it's thought provoking… I would go as far as saying that it's sexy. (Let me remind you that this is not part of the 15th anniversary menu. I added this to our meal when I was seduced by it's description on the menu)

Agnello – Roasted lamb chops, fave e cicoria, potato tiella. These were perfectly cooked, seasoned and juicy lamb chops. Does it really need anything else? You would think not, until you bit into the cheesy potato tiella, which set off the gamey flavors of the meat and made for a great palate cleanser that kept the lamb interesting. One repeating theme I find at i Trulli is their ability to pair adverse flavors that keep you wanting more.

Pulpo (An alternative to the Agnello) – Grilled octopus, black chickpeas and scarola salad. This was so fresh that it practically melted in my mouth and it was grilled to perfection with a light smokiness and crisp to the skin. The Scarola salad was a perfect match with its bold earthy, savory flavors.

Cartellatte – Traditional honey dipped cookies with melon parfait. This consisted of rich and creamy vanilla bean custard with shaved pieces of iced honeydew, which gave it a refreshing, light feel and topped with a crisp, light, honey dipped cookie. Need I say more?

As dinner came to a close I looked around the table and saw nothing but happy faces. I don’t remember the last time I have been so satisfied with a meal, and I was unable to think of a single thing that I could list as a negative. At $48, the 15th anniversary tasting menu is an amazing value in fine dining. The wine list leaves nothing to be desired, and if you must bring your own bottle, $25 corkage fee will cover you.

Lastly, I would be remiss not to mention that i Trulli also owns a wine store, Vino, located across the street from the restaurant, which specializes in Italian wines, but has also recently started carrying wines from all around the world. A stop at i Trulli would not be complete without browsing these shelves for some Italian gems. What’s more is that any bottle purchased from Vino can be brought to the restaurant to enjoy with lunch (between 12:00 – 3:00 pm) on Saturdays and Sundays without having to pay any corkage. I can’t think of a better deal in wine and food.

The cold hard facts
Service: Impeccable. Knowledgeable staff that is attentive yet never in the way.
The Food: Southern Italian. Outstanding, perfection in simplicity, great attention to details, excellent pairing of items on each plate, aggressive yet refreshing to the palate and quite unique.
My Cost: $48 for a five-course menu that left me completely satisfied. Excellent value.
Corkage: $25
Location: 122 E. 27th Street between Park and Lexington Avenue
Website: i Trulli

My picks from the wine list:
By the glass: Orsolani, Caluso Spumante Cuvee Tradizione 2004 $14
Value bottle: Schola Sarmenti, Negroamaro Roccamora 2006 $38
Mid range bottle: De Conciliis,Paestum Aglianico Naima 2004 $120 (0r) San Leonardo IGT 2001 $110
High end bottle: Vietti, Barolo Rocche 1996 $240

If I could change one thing, I would ask that the sommelier add an upgrade option to their tasting menu that would add a wine pairing to each course.

The 2001 San Leonardo IGT, showed black cherries with chestnut, undergrowth, animal musk, and a bit of greenness, which did not detract but instead added an earthy element to the aromatics. One the palate, it presented a medium bodied wine with perfect balance as more cherries, cranberries and cocoa showed through. The finish was finessed with red fruit and left the palate refreshed.

To find this wine on Wine-Searcher, click here!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

I’m out of pesto… SO… MAKE PESTO!

I often tell people that culinary school can teach you preparations, but actually working in a restaurant is the only way you really learn to cook. After nearly a year of school and a lifetime of practice, I found myself working an internship at a NYC restaurant. Eager to please and show my skills, but trapped doing prep work and completely mundane yet necessary tasks (such as defatting a 20-gallon tub of brown sauce) these are the times that teach you humility. Then the day came when I was given the opportunity to work the line and, through time, dinner service. This was when I learned the true differences between what school could teach you and, the real world.

One important lesson to learn: you are only as strong as the prep cook who prepared your station. When you’re a novice, it’s easy to forget this. If you don’t check the walk-in and lowboy for every protein, sauce, and ingredient you may need (don’t forget salt and pepper) then you are doomed to fail.

Is the pasta water seasoned? Check.
Do you have enough clean sauté pans? Check.
Is your oven on and at the right temp? Check.

You get the picture. Thinking along these lines made me remember the day I truly learned this lesson. It was a busy Saturday night about two hours into service when I had five tables lined up on the horizon and was firing three sauces over two burners. I reached down to my lowboy for the pesto when I realized the container was done and… there wasn’t another container to be had.

I looked over to the sous chef, who was garnishing plates at breakneck pace, and yelled “We’re out of Pesto!”

Without even skipping a beat, hands continuing to work as his head turns to me with a look in his eyes like death itself, he growls “SO… MAKE PESTO… NOW!”

Granted, I’ve made pesto many times in my life, at home and in school. But the idea of stopping what I was doing and making pesto in enough time to get my food to the pass at the same time as the rest of the Chefs in the kitchen seemed impossible. The next 60 seconds was a blur: run to get the basil and Parmigiano Reggiano from the walk-in. Run back to the kitchen, grabbing the pine nuts, garlic and olive oil from dry storage. And, finally, setting up the immersion blender on my station.

Next I heard the poissonnier (fish cook) yell, “scallops almost up!” This was a main ingredient in my dish.

I was almost out of time as I placed a few cloves of peeled garlic and pine nuts into the blender on high. I then rough chopped the basil before also adding it to the blender. Next came the olive oil. There I was, grating cheese as quickly as possible while watching the consistency of the pesto. As soon as it looked smooth, I added the cheese with a pinch of salt and pepper, and gave it another whirl. Taste, season, a little more cheese, taste and season again. DONE.

Was it the best pesto I’ve ever made? I doubt it. But it was good and my plate made it to the pass. What I don’t understand, as I think back on that moment, is why so few people make pesto at home. The fact is that it’s one of the easiest sauces to make in a hurry, especially now with spring in the air and fresh basil popping up at local markets.

I guess this post is my testament to everyone out there: MAKE PESTO! Heck, you should even grow your own basil. All you need is a windowsill with good sun and you’ll find yourself with enough basil to garnish, season with, and still make pesto. Toss it with pasta, gnocchi, seafood… the sky’s the limit.

Lastly, I’ve even given you a quick pesto recipe to get you started. But don’t stop here: you can substitute the pine nuts for all manner of nuts. You can experiment by adding a bit of other fresh herbs or even different grating cheeses. It’s all about your palate but, no matter what you do, I guarantee you’ll be amazed by how easy it is to make great pesto.

Basil Pesto

This preparation happens very quickly and it’s important not to let the pesto get too warm in the food processor so be careful not to over use.

3 cups chopped basil
½ cup pine nuts
½ cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano (Gran Padano is a good affordable alternative)
3 cloves minced garlic
1 cup E.V. Olive Oil (have more on the side in case you prefer a looser consistency)

In a food processor, place the garlic and pine nuts and pulse until finely chopped. Add two tablespoons of olive oil and the basil, and turn the food processor to low or medium speed. Gradually add more oil and, lastly, the Parmigiano cheese. Once the mix looks consistent, turn off the processor and taste. Season with salt and pepper, pulse a few times, and taste again. If you’re happy, then you’re done.

Chill for later use or use immediately.

The dish, in the photo above, was a pumpkin tortellini with pesto and toasted pine nuts. A really great combination and paired perfectly with a Hofstätter, Pinot Bianco.

2008 J. Hofstätter Pinot Bianco - Aromas of pear, pineapple and mint rise from the glass. A crisp, cool white with peach, honey dew melon and a bit of cut grass. Balanced and refreshing with melon lingering on the finish.

To find this wine on Wine-Searcher, click here!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Great friends, wine, cigars and… food; ah well, you can’t win them all.

The best and the worst of times, the best being a night of great friends, wine and even some cigars; the worst being a restaurant that didn’t quite make the cut.

As I mentioned a few days ago, I was off to the Blue Grotto for a tasting and dinner with friends on Saturday night. Without going into much explanation, the food was… okay. With a beautiful interior and great view of Atwells Ave from my seat, everything seemed fine. The appetizers were great, as was the wine, which I’ll get into shortly, but the entrée’s fell flat.

With lobster ravioli that was undercooked and under-stuffed, a risotto with a mealy texture that reeked of being left too long on the pass, and a pasta dish that was simply unremarkable, I have to unfortunately give a thumbs down to this Federal Hill stalwart. Honestly, I had my fears, since a number of locals referred to the establishment as outdated or tired. Going against their recommendation was a mistake.

But that is where the bad ends and the good begins.

The wines that night were amazing, I sat their happily, gazing at a lineup of bottles which contained four famous names from Italy with a Brunello di Montalcino, a Super Tuscan, a Tuscan syrah, and a Barolo.

We started with the 1997 Antinori, Tignanello, which was gorgeous with dark raspberries, flowery herbal tea, and road tar showing on the nose. The palate was luscious and rich, yet finessed with blackberry jam and plum with citrus sprits and a hint of wood showing through. The finish was long, as red fruits began to show. This bottle was one of my favorites but shut down after being opened for about five hours.

The 1997 Poggio di Sotto, Brunello di Montalcino had a lovely and elegant floral nose with red fruit and woodsy herbs. On the palate, it showed round cherry fruit and charred wood on a well-balanced frame, but the finish closed down hard as my palate was coated with tannin. I’d give this bottle a few more years, at least, and can’t wait to taste it down the road.

Next, the 1999 Isole e Olena, Syrah Collezione de Marchi Toscana showed a deep purple color in the glass. Its dark brooding nose was smoky with musk, plums, and spice cookies. On the palate, it was velvety smooth with more plum and a bit of grapiness, but, came across as one-dimensional with an unremarkable finish. This may have passed over the hill or at least been in a disjointed stage of its life.

Lastly, the 2000 Aldo Conterno, Barolo Granbussia, showed candied red fruit with cedar, leather, crushed fall leaves and a seductive Christmas spice on the nose. On the palate, it was full-bodied and juicy with ripe strawberry, tobacco, licorice and spice. The finish was long, with red fruit, yet clean, showing silky tannin. This is an approachable bottle now, but it still shows a balance that promises many years of good drinking and, with all this ripe fruit, might one day be a truly classic Barolo.

With that it was back to the city, to a cigar lounge I had stumbled upon a few nights ago called Cigar Masters. With four bottles tucked in my bag and camera in hand, I walked from Federal hill across I95 and back toward the Rhode Island Convention center. Providence was alive and buzzing with activity this Saturday night. Put that together with the sights and clean streets and it beats the hell out of my hometown, at least until 2:00 am (when EVERYTHING closes).

Cigar Masters is an unpretentious cigar lounge that walks a tight rope between relaxed cocktail / wine bar and old world-styled private club. It’s basically the best of both worlds since you can walk in for a drink and smoke, find a cozy corner to lose yourself, or find some new friends. This is not just a room full of smokers; instead imagine multiple rooms done in wood and earth tones with mood lighting, art, books, and wide screen TVs, along with all manner of cigar smoking paraphernalia.

You pick the room that fits your mood and the rest is easy. The best part is that, for the non-smoker, this is still an option, since the ventilation system works wonders pulling the smoke from the rooms before it can become obnoxious.

What’s more, the walk-in humidor provides a vast selection of cigars and is under the careful supervision of its own cigar master, who is happy to point you toward the cigar that fits you best, educate you on your purchase, storage, smoking; you name it. Being something of a cigar novice myself, I felt perfectly comfortable and enjoyed the cigars recommended to me.

Cigar Masters also touts a balanced wine and spirits list with the cigar smoker in mind. Big, juicy reds fill out the bulk of their list with a number of fine bottles for the serious drinker. However, I found myself gravitating to their list of ports, or to be more specific, vintage ports.

The 1991 Dow’s, Vintage Port was a beast on the nose with vibrant black cherry, chocolate and boysenberry. The palate was rich and silky with cherry fruit, cinnamon and black strap molasses with some tangy acidity showing through. The finish was fresh yet layered with cherry and dark chocolate.

Lastly, the 1977 Dow’s, Vintage Port showed serious class and breed with cherry, spice, caramel and burnt sugar on its nose. The palate showed cherry cough syrup, roasted dark espresso beans and dark, dry cocoa, but remained juicy and smooth. The finish went on and on with sour cherry and espresso notes.

What an evening, I thought, sitting there with a cigar and a glass of port while chatting it up with a group of locals I found myself hanging with. If I had to describe Providence in one word, it would be… inviting. Whether it’s the stores or restaurants, people in bars or on the streets, it’s an amazing city, populated with warm, friendly people and something new to do or explore around every corner.

To check out Cigar Master's website, click here!

I must give an honorable mention to Flemings Steak House, touted as the best steak in Providence, Rhode Island. Unfortunately I didn't have the time to formally sit for diner but their cozy bar and wonderful staff provided me with the perfect atmosphere to complete a lot of my work. I guarantee they are on my list for the next visit.

To find the Antinori, Tignanello 1997 on Wine-Searcher, click here!
To find Aldo Conterno's 2000 Granbussia on Wine-Searcher,
click here!
To find Dow's Vintage Port on Wine-Searcher,
click here!