Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Cayman Islands come to N.Y.C.

This week, I was fortunate enough to be transported to the Cayman Islands without ever leaving the comforts of my beloved New York City. It was quite an evening, surrounded by the sounds and sights of the Cayman Islands, along with a sample of their local Seven Fathoms Rum and the culinary talents of Chef Niven Patel, the executive Chef at The Brasserie.

Now, I have to admit that throughout most of my life, I have preferred to take my vacations up north. However, the draw of warm sunny beaches, with water so clear you can see to the bottom, has started to look more and more inviting. This is something that I’ve been thinking about for over a year, and this timely event has just helped me make up my mind. So what was the big selling point? Food, of course.

Obviously I love food, or I wouldn’t be in the business I’m in. The Cayman Islands prides itself in its restaurants, and Chef Patel was happy to show us why. At The Brasserie, the menu changes every day, according to the ingredients that are brought in, whether it’s tomatoes or tat soi from their own gardens or fish coming off their own boats (that’s right, they have their own boats that go out throughout the day, bringing in fresh catch). As a past Chef in NYC, I can’t imagine it. What’s more, The Brasserie strives to keep all of the menu items completely fresh and local, even down to a Mojito that is made entirely from ingredients grown or made by the restaurant. It’s a noble idea, and it’s one that few restaurants are able to maintain.

To showcase their culinary skill, Chef Patel chose to source all of the ingredients from local sources in the city. Meaning, he wasn’t cooking a Cayman themed menu, but instead a Cayman inspired menu. It was amazing, as you’ll see from the photos and descriptions below.

What it all comes down to is that I now know where my next vacation will take me. I’ll be strolling down 7-mile beach, watching the sunset, fondly reflecting on my day and eagerly anticipating my dinner on the Cayman Islands.

On to the dishes:

Fluke Crudo with crispy chickpeas, and a dressing of Seasoning Pepper Escabeche, coconut vinegar and olive oil: The dressing stole the show and complemented the fresh delicate fluke. This was fresh, tangy and bursting with flavor.

Fresh Clams BLT, smoked bacon, heirloom tomato, grilled Romaine and charred ciabatta over an old grandma-style tomato sauce: This dish was heavenly. Imagine the best tomato soup you ever had with crispy smoked bacon and tinge of heat at the close.

Farmer’s salad with organic beets, goat cheese, red spinach, mint yogurt and Cayman citrus vinaigrette: This was fresh yet satisfying, as the goat cheese added depth to the perfectly-cooked sweetness of the beet and the mint yogurt adding a minty, herbal twang. Then imagine this dish paired with a Cerasuolo di Vittoria from Planeta, which is a red Sicilian wine, and I kid you not, this was a perfect pairing.

Day boat Striped Bass with gnocchi, tat soi, roasted Romano beans, and Caribbean stone crab butter sauce: This dish was easily my second favorite of the night. The Striped Bass was perfect, but it was the gnocchi covered in the Crab butter sauce that blew my mind. This dish was rich, yet fresh and full of flavor. Between this and the Clams BLT, I’m forever a fan of Chef Patel.

Dry-aged Strip Steak with pumpkin puree, wild greens, and mushrooms, scotch bonnet pepper jelly, and a sprinkling of smoked sea salt: Just looking at this photo speaks volumes to how perfect this dish was. The best part was circling the different items on the plate and then combining them one after the other to experience all the flavors presented. It was a perfect steak dish in that the steak was upfront, but the sum of all it’s parts made for an even greater whole. Amazing.

Jonagold apple tart with almond strudel, coconut ice cream and a drizzle of honey: I am admittedly not a dessert fan, but after the five courses preceding this dish, I had to take a taste. It was an amazing combination of flavors as the apple lent a bit of tartness, the strudel provided nutty crunch, and the coconut ice cream lent sweet, fresh and creamy flavors that enveloped the palate. I may not be a dessert fan, but this I would eat any day.

** For an amazing experience in the Cayman Islands, for both food and the local flavor, make sure to check out the Cayman Cookout (January 17th through the 20th). An Annual event that includes Chefs Eric Ripert, Anthony Bourdain, Niven Patel and many more. Who knows, I may be visiting there myself.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Amarone Families: Embracing A Legacy

Autumn is here, and what better way to welcome it in than with a tasting of Amarone. Not just any Amarone either; this tasting included the top names in the industry, and each provided two bottles to showcase their new releases, as well as a library wine that would show how well Amarone ages. You heard me right; Amarone can age, and the results can be a truly beautiful thing.

The problem with aged Amarone is that it’s so hard to keep yourself from enjoying them in their youth. Only a few people ever put them away in the cellar for future exploration. I’ve had but a few in my time, and each experience was memorable to say the least. So imagine my delight when I was told that this tasting would include Amarone going back to 1988.

The hosts behind this tasting were a group of Amarone producers calling themselves “Amarone Families” or “Famiglie Dell’Amarone d’Arte.” Their mission is to show the differences in quality between an artisanal Amarone and one that is made in a mass-produced style. The fact is that the process for creating Amarone is being copied around the globe, as well as being done in mass throughout the Veneto. I remember when I first started getting into Italian wine, and a trusted retailer explained that you should expect a good Amarone to cost no less than $35 (that was eight years ago), the reason being the process that it takes to make this amazing wine. Imagine making wine from grapes that have been dried to the point of almost being raisins. Imagine the amount of grapes you need to make one bottle of wine. The numbers add up. I found this to be even more humorous as I received an e-mail today for a $24 Amarone.

So how did the wines perform? They were excellent. Most of the wines showed remarkable balance, plush textures, and freshness that was almost impossible to believe (like the 1988 Speri). As for the new releases, I found the ‘08s to be smaller in scale without the rich backbone that I usually associate with Amarone. These wines would actually do well with food, where an average Amarone might overwhelm it. The ‘07s, on the other hand, are big and rich with amazing textures and detailed fruit and spice.

On to the wines:

1988 - 2006 Amarone della Valpolicella

2007 Amarone della Valpolicella

2008 Amarone della Valpolicella