Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Can do CLYDE's of Chevy Chase

Last night we tried the newly reopened CLYDE's of Chevy Chase, which is very much in the vein of most Clyde's. The menu is large and varied with some decent wines as well. The decor is, well, deco-Clydes, and if Samuel had joined us he would have adored the little train running around the place as well as the giant ship models, especially the huge BREMEN all lit up!

We tried a bottle of BRANCOTT Sauvignon Blanc 2004 from Marlborough which we have always enjoyed. This vintage is a bit more perfumey, but still crisp with a big citrus acidity loaded with grapefruit. It was great with our CRAB TOWER, which I liked more than Will did (he didn't like the warm and cold combo). The warm rice cake on the bottom is topped with a huge portion of jumbo lump crab salad, tobiko, avocado, coconut curry and a wasabi sweet chili mayo. I think this is a great combination of flavors and works great.

Our server recommended the PAN SEARED SCALLOPS with Roasted Sweet Potatoes, Apples, Portobello & Shitake Mushrooms, Cider & Butter Sauce. This was like a thick stew or potato, mushroom & apple with the delicious scallops on top. Will chose the HEARTY LAMB STEW over Mashed Potatoes which wasn't as enjoyable. The stew sorely needed more lamb, although the sauce was quite tasty.

Our guest had the PORK LOIN which she specifically ordered without cabbage, although it still came with a huge mound of the vegetable! Our server rushed in, quickly removed the dish and came back with a clean plate and extra (if I may add, superb) crunchy huge potato puffs with
their creamy inside.

The BREAD PUDDING was uneventful and big enough for four people. Too bad it wasn't that delicious. The only real problem we had was our request for a cocktail refill THREE times before it finally arrived.

In a nutshell, CLYDEs can be fun and enjoyable, just be sensible when ordering and DO listen to your server's recommendations!

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Here's where the ladies do brunch (Azucar in NY City)

You all know I have raved for years about my little Italian spot TERRA in New York City. Just less than a year ago TERRA became AZUCAR and went Cuban. Last weekend, while in New York, I returned there (939 Eighth Ave @56th St; www.azucarnyc.com) for Sunday brunch and couldn't believe my eyes. When I got there at about 1230pm, the place was about 20% full, in 10 minutes it was heaving, and I was only one man out of four (other than the waiters) in the entire place. I thought it had to be pre-theater ladies groups or something, but it turned out there is a weekly nutrition meeting in the area, and these nutrition freaks think its the best and healthiest food around. How's that for a recommendation?

There is a brunch menu loaded with egg options and other Cuban brunch specialties, and the regular menu also has lots of options from tapas to sandwiches to entrees. I started with my old favorite, the Salad of PALMA REAL, heaps of artichoke hearts, avocado and parmesan in a luscious mixture with a light vinaigrette. Don't miss the refreshingly addictive WHITE SANGRIA made with apples and oranges that have soaked up the yummy wine and made it perfectly tart.

My entree was the POLLO GAUJIRA which was a huge breast of chicken with red & green peppers, onions, mushrooms, zucchini, and the must wonderful plantains coated with melted manchego cheese. It was more than I could handle that early in the day, but I persevered. Don't forget that every entree comes with a big bowl of rice and those yummy black beans.

Dessert was simply out of the question, and as I wandered to the theater, all the ladies headed back hurriedly to their meetings!

Friday, March 24, 2006

NY nosh:Journey's Lounge at the new Jumeirah Essex House

The recent takeover of the historic ESSEX House Hotel in NY City at 160 Central Park West (between 6th & 7th Avenues) can only be a welcome takeover. Gourmets can still enjoy the elegant, if expensive, makings of ALAIN DUCASSE, while there are more reasonable prices available at the Cafe Botanice (their "Quick Choice" Luncheon allows the choice of two a la carte items from a soup, salad and sandwich menu for $19.00 (not incl tax and tip) daily between Noon-230PM, not to mention a view of Central Park from many of the tables.

Last night, I found myself in JOURNEY's LOUNGE, a cozy warm bar and lounge (no smoking allowed in NYC!) in the middle of the hotel where the drink prices might be high, but the drinks are huge, and truly great. My FRENCH KISS at $17.00 was a monster martini glass with Grey Goose Vodka and a splash of Champagne which cut the intensity of the alcohol and gave it a slight winey flavor; I liked it. The munchie bowl includes mild crunchy wasabi peas, some crunchy grain-like wafers that did have a spicy bite and the traditional mixed nuts.

After a while, we decided to stay for "dinner" and order some plates. The plates were huge, and table was barely big enough for three of them. The SHRIMP COCKTAIL was traditional, but they offered up five or six or more huge Tiger Shrimp. I decided to try the GRILLED SUGAR CANE SKEWER which was several skewers of several of the same huge shrimp, but here grilled with a fabulous spicy remoulade underneath and served with a medium size salad of micro and field greens. DELISH! I also had the TRIO OF BURGERS, combining three mini burgers on buns of salmon, chicken and sirloin. The first two, each with a mild sauce) were super, and the only fault with the sirloin was that it came a bit past medium. This plate came with a lattice of eight or so gigantic french fries and another salad!

I headed off to THE COLOR PURPLE, which I enjoyed very much, very sated and ready to head back to a new bar and lounge scene at the new JUMEIRAH ESSEX HOUSE very soon.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The RAMMY nominations are in and the nominees for 2006 are...

t was an exciting evening tonight at INDEBLEU with lots of good food from many of the nominees and lots of good drink, but the excitement is in the names of the nominees for this year's restaurant awards in Washington to be decided on June 25th at the annual gala.

2006 Rammys Nominations

Chef of the Year

Cathal Armstrong - Restaurant Eve
Jonathan Krinn - 2941
Jose Andres - Jaleo, Café Atlantico, Oyamel, Zaytinya
Robert Wiedmaier - Marcel's
Todd Gray - Equinox

Employee of the Year

Abdessam (Sam) Ammani - Café Milano
Anthony Hessilius - The Melting Pot DC
Chris Kelley - Mie N Yu
Michael Finnerty - Old Ebbitt Grill
Santos Fuentes - Chef Geoff's

Fine Dining Restaurant

Colvin Run Tavern
Restaurant Eve

Hottest Bar Scene

Clyde's Gallery Place
Degrees - Ritz Carlton Georgetown
Sonoma Restaurant & Wine Bar
Tabaq Bistro

Informal Dining

Bangkok 54
Circle Bistro
Kaz Sushi Bistro

Manager of the Year

Christine de Clerfay - The Oceanaire Seafood Room
Danny Boylen - Notti Bianche
Emily Jarmuth - Mie N Yu
Stefanie Cove - Red Sage
Troy Bock - Sonoma Restaurant & Wine Bar

Neighborhood Gathering Place

Billy Martin's Tavern
Bus Boys & Poets
Cashion's Eat Place
Chef Geoff's - New Mexico Ave
Evening Star Café

New Restaurant of the Year

Black Salt
Hank's Oyster Bar
Inde Bleu
Willow Restaurant

Pastry Chef of the Year

Heather Chittum - Michel Richard Citronelle
Huw Griffiths - The Tabard Inn
Rita Garruba - Butterfield 9
Steve Klc - Café Atlantico, Jaleo, Oyamel, Zaytinya
Zoe Behrens - 1789

Power Spot

Bistro Bis
Capital Grille
Charlie Palmer Steak
The Caucus Room
The Prime Rib

Rising Culinary Star of the Year

Anthony Chittum - Notti Bianche & Dish
Brendan Cox - Circle Bistro
Johnny Monis - Komi
Nathan Beauchamp - 1789
Santi Zabaleta - Taberna del Alabardero

Wine & Beverage Program of the Year

Charlie Palmer Steak
Michel Richard Citronelle
Restaurant Eve
Taberna del Alabardero

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

formidable FELICE wines at lovely LA MICHE

Last night four of you joined Will and me at Bethesda's LA MICHE (www.lamiche.com 7905 Norfolk Ave-Tel: (301) 986-0707) for a superb wine tasting featuring some excellent new finds. The excellent passed canapes of Brie with Apricots, Pate de Foie Gras and Garlic Sauteed Shrimp were accompanied by 2004 NEW Z LAND Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough. This intense citrus and melon wine is crisp and fun and works with so many different foods. It comes from SACRED HILL, but is bottled as New Z Land label.

We sat down to 2002 CHATEAU FELICE ESTATE RESERVE CHARDONNAY from Chalk Hill, California. This wine made by a French winemaker is aged in new French oak for 8 months and is a revelation. The style is Burgundian, with the slightest of oak influence, yet an intense vanilla flavor that just fills your mouth with excitement. I already ordered a case! There were many choices on the tasting menu, and I opted for the traditional ESCARGOTS BOURGUINONNE which were garlicky and great for mopping up with the warm bread. The chardonnay's acidity easily stood up to the garlic, making this such a great wine with so many different foods.

Next came CUISSE de CANARD GRANDE MERE for me which was a Duck Confit with Mushrooms and Potatoes done like a casserole. We had two red wines from CHATEAU FELICE (Chalk Hill) with our entrees: a not too intense 2002 ESTATE RESERVE ZINFANDEL that I felt needed a bit more punch, and a truly magnificent 2001 ESTATE RESERVE CABERNET SAUVIGNON that was another revelation. Cabs can often invade your palate, but this subtle wine was smooth and full of perfume and flavors of chocolate and berries with a huge silky finish.

We kept enjoying the Cab through our dessert of RASPBERRY CREME BRULEE!

Tonight: The RAMMY (Restaurant Awards of Washington) nominations will be announced at this website and the awards will be made at the annual gala, held this year on Sunday June 25th. We always invite you to join us at our table should you wish to do so (I believe the tickets are $200 this year). It's a truly super foodie event with almost every chef in town attending!

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Cool Cuisine at CIRCLE BISTRO

In the meantime, we were at CIRCLE BISTRO last night for the first time in several years and Chef BRENDAN COX has truly turned around the location. It is a warm and welcoming spot at One Washington Circle (http://www.thecirclehotel.com/circle_bistro.htm, Tel. 202-293-5390) with the entrance on New Hampshire Avenue. We were attending a performance at Lisner Auditorium and the $35 pre-theater dinner is a great deal for you theater folk, and it is reasonably close to the Kennedy Center as well!

We were six, and we started just before 6PM, and had little trouble departing at 740PM for our curtain. We started with a crisp BRUNDLMAYER 2003 Gruner Veltliner from Austria that worked well with both of my courses; Will switched to a Red Cotes du Rhone for his entree. My CRISPY VEAL SWEETBREADS "General Tso" with Baby Spinach & Sauce Piquant was a wonderful blend of the Asian style cooking and this truly Western dish. The tneder meat was cooked to perfection and wrapped in a light crispy fried batter then lightly sauced with the sweet and sour sauce.

Will's CLASSIC TARTARE of HEREFORD BEEF with Pommes Frites was indeed classic and tasty. It could have used a bit more pepper or spice for my taste, as I always like my tartare to bite back at me, as if it were still alive! He did say his HERB CRUSTED YOUNG CHICKEN "a diable" was not that exciting. On the other hand my SLOW COOKED WILD ALASKAN HALIBUT with Glazed Beets, Baby Carrots & Port-Shallot Coulis was a perfect entree before the theater. Not too heavy or rich, but an excellent combination of tastes, especially the flecks of large sea or kosher salt that topped the fish and added just the right amount of
extra zing.

We did have time for dessert, and we tried the BANANA TART TATIN with Candied Ginger Ice Cream & Pink Peppercorn Caramel Sauce that was a sinfully delicious treat from Pastry Chef Leigh Weinfeld. The GRANNY SMITH APPLE CHAROLOTTE with Creme Fraiche and Cardamom Apple Ice Cream also got bravos.

Circle Bistro can easily hold its own against the fine dining spots in the city and isn't JUST for pre-theater. It would be nice to return again soon for a longer and more leisurely dining experience. Another note, in that one of us had been quite ill before the meal and couldn't eat very much. The kitchen was truly accommodating in preparing a simple huge baked potato and not even charging for it!

Sunday, March 12, 2006

lots to like but not LOVE at LUIGINO

Chef Carmine Marzano of Luigino (1100 New York Ave, NW, corner of 12th & H Streets, NW-tel 202-371-0595, www.luigino.com) has created a wonderful corner chest-to-ceiling windowed Italian bistro that can be a bit busy and noisy, but seems to fit the bill pretty well. The decor is simple, and I actually liked the Renaissance scene on the wall to the toilets with burnt orange and magenta colors. We had a nice quiet table to the rear and decent service, although our
server gave me stare when I got to pouring the wine myself regularly (not MY fault, we drink fast!). Overall, the menu is varied and reasonable, but some of the very pricey items might not be at the level of other fine dining Italian establishments in town (although the price tags are).

We started with a superb "LANGHE" Chardonnay 2004 from Marchesi Gresy that will always work with the varied appetizers. Since Thursday was "DINING OUT FOR LIFE" and evening which benefits Food & Friends, we decided to order extra food and beneift the charity even more (Kudos to Luigino for agreeing to give even more at the 50% level!). We split the large-sized INSALATA DI MARE with marinated shrimp, scallops and squid along with tasty cannellini beans. Sadly, the bland bread was not even worth the bite, and it was shamed by the quality olive oil. When dining Italian, one must have a pasta course, so we took our server's recommendation and split the PAPPARDELLE con RAGU di CONIGLIO, these fast pasta ribbons with a rich sauce of rabbit ragu always being one of
our favorites. The pasta was excellent and the sauce more tomato-ey than I prefer, but it was a superb dish overall and luckily we avoided the clicheed grated cheese.

We ordered a bottle of 1998 Barbaresco, and after a huddle were told by the server they were out, but offered a similar wine at the same price. We actually were thinking of this wine, but opted for the older Barbaresco. It was a 2001 FUNARO Pile della Ciaula Sicilian combination of Cabernet and Merlot. It had the slightest of tannins and was a big wine that worked so well with our entrees; thanks to the Sicilian manager for his proposal!).

Will's COSTOLETTA di VITELLO al TARTUFO was a 14 ounce veal chop (that's nearly a pound!) with Black Truffle Sauce, Asparagus Tips and a very good Saffron Risotto. I almost plotzed when my plate of FEGATO CIPOLLE came with over 5 slices of magnificent calve's liver. The meat was tender and perfectly sauteed with piles of onions in a Balsamic Vinegar Sauce. I managed to eat half, and hope to finish the rest at home some point soon! It would be a dreadful waste if I couldn't. Thinking in the vein of the traditional American Liver, Onions & Bacon, I only wished the dish had some sprinkling of that Italian wonder meat,

I tasted Will's TIRAMISU which was quite nice, but I was just too full to enjoy any more.

chowing down at CHARLESTON in Baltimore

Last night before the opera, Will and I decided to dine at Baltimore top rated (Zagat gives its food a 28) CHARLESTON located on the harbor at 1000 Lancaster St (Tel 410-332-7373 www.charlestonrestaurant.com) where Chef Cindy Wolf has been reigning for over 10 years (after opening Georgia Brown's in DC). It was our first trip to the beautiful, if a bit dark, temple of multi-course dining where the bar and front rooms face the harbor and water. We arrived right on the button for our 530pm reservation, but were told the "dining room was not ready." We started to panic at 5:40pm, knowing we had to leave at 740pm to get to the opera, did not want to rush through dinner. We finally got seated a little over 15 minutes late, but luckily had perused the menu at the bar and were ready to take off.

Our delightful, charming and informative server Leslie told us that the menu offers 3, 4, or 5 course options, but that since dessert was mandatory, the prices were for 3, 4 or 5 courses PLUS a dessert course (or cheese).

We settled into our waterside table among the dark wood decor and fabric ceilings with rust accents(even the wine lists are bound in rust velvet!), as the mostly female servers in their handsome gray suits tried to get everyone organized. There are many wines by the glass and both 3 and 6 ounce options make it a great place to try wines, although the extensive and exciting wine list is award winning in itself. I started with a large glass of PINOT GRIS ZIND-HUMBRECHT 2004 which was loaded with apple flavors and I knew would pair with my appetizer of foie gras, Will chose (upon Leslie's recommendation) the excellent and smooth JOSEPH SWAN Pinot Noir "Cuvee de Trois" 2003 which must be a blend from 3 vineyards in Russian River. An adorable young man delivered an amuse bouche of HOT CREAM OF ASPARAGUS SOUP and the bread arrived (sweet cornbread, raisin semolina and French roll). The cornbread was irresistible, but I managed to stop at one piece (it was large!).

As I mentioned I started with the PAN SEARED FOIE GRAS, Polenta, Serrano Ham & Pomegranate Molasses. The sauce was thick and gooey and acidic and sweet like it should be, the foie gras superb; just firm and tender. The Pinot Gris was not too sweet as anything sweeter would have had to fight the pomegranate--GENIUS!

Will had the BEEF & CHEVRE EMPANADAS which were the most boring thing we had all night. First of all, we both assumed the empanada would be combined, not two separate. We later told Leslie that combining the meat and cheese might make it more exciting, althought the pastry was superb.

The next course for Will was the WILD ROCKFISH CEVICHE with Lemon & Chilis. Our joint conjecture on this dish was that it was not Chef Wolf's forte. In trying to experiment, the fish was beautiful and raw and presented simply with a ribbon of chiles over it. The peppers were too strong and crunchy and the combination just seemed to be wrong, and the portion was way too small.

Will had moved on to a small glass of ALBARINO Pazo Senorans 2003 from Rias Baixas which was good, but slightly too close to room temperature.

I fared much better (as I somehow always seem to) with the DIVER SEA SCALLOP with GRANNY SMITH APPLE & MANGO. The scallop was presented on a bed of thick mango sauce with apples dancing around the sides and was a wonderful combination, and while not huge, quite filling. My small glass of wine was a nice COTES du RHONE "Les Clos de Caillou" 2004 from Bouquet des Garrigues, which was tasty, but I should have followed my instincts and had a chardonnay (I specifically opted not to, since I had tasted both of the ones on the menu).

When we first ordered our meals, Leslie suggested we make some changes to balance out the sizes and portions. She was correct, but this caused us to drop the FRIED GREEN TOMATO SANDWICH with LOBSTER & CRAB HASH. She could see we were disappointed, so at this point, she proffered a 1/2 portion to each of us along with a complimentary 3 oz. portion of the POMMERY BRUT ROYAL N/V Champagne. This was one of the highlights of the meal. A brilliantly fried tomato served as the "bread" with the chunks of lobster in between and small diced tender potatoes mixed with shredded crab for the hash. WOW! The bubbly was the icing on this cake!

I could not decide on the entree and when I mentioned the PORK CONFIT with Fried Green Tomato and Carolina Gold Rice, Leslie's eyes lit up and said I must have it, and so I did. A brilliant dish with the rice actually being cooked in a risotto-style low-country way. The pork was as tender as could be and the portion size just right. The BAROLO "Gattera" 1997 from Bovio was silky smooth and made this a truly successful plate. We now understood the strengths (and alas, the few weaknesses) of the chef. Will did just as well with the ROASTED CAROLINA PHEASANT BREAST with APPLEWOOD SMOKED BACON and ROOT Vegetables. His wine, also superb, was a very low tannin GIGONDAS, 2003 from Domaine de la Bouissiere in the Rhone.

We had some spare time (they got the timing perfect down to the second) and Will opted for a cheese tray which I had small tastes of: TOMME de ma GRAND-MERE was a semi-aged intense goat from the Loire BRILLAT SAVARIN, that famous rich triple-creme from Normandy DODDINGTON, a delightful sharp English cow from Northumberland which is made by Maggie Maxwell and has a production of only 400 wheels annually. one I must have missed and the ABBAYE de BELLOC a smoky Pyrenees sheep that was described on the menu as "semi-hard" a phrase one must be careful with when dining out!

The desserts were excellent as well. Will had a WARM GRANNY SMITH APPLE TART with APPLE CIDER ICE CREAM and my ROASTED PINEAPPLE NAPOLEON with BUTTERMILK PANNA COTTA was a presentation of pure artwork with three layers of thin pastry and 4 dollops of pineapple cream in between and on top. Atop all this lay an adorable edible silver coil. Opposite was a cone of custard that was more akin to frozen panna cotta, than the wobbly normal version, but tasty nonetheless.

A small plate of nut brittles and two decadent chocolates (a milk and a white each filled with runny caramel) accompanied our coffee as we ran off to the opera: DEAD MAN WALKING! (which incidentally is a stupendous work at the Baltimore Opera through next Sunday).

We look forward to returning to CHARLESTON again, but with more time and less rush!

Saturday, March 11, 2006

catching up with the culinary coups of KAZ at KAZ SUSHI BISTRO

We always forget how great the genius of Chef KAZ Okochi is until we start enjoying all the wonderful ideas he has fused together at KAZ SUSHI BISTRO (1915 I St, NW www.kazsushi.com Tel 202-530-5500). First of all, while the sushi is supreme, don't let the name fool you, just read on to see what our $75 tasting included. There is a sushi menu, a regular menu, and a choice of $60 and $75 tastings as well. Three of us also ordered many of the sake as pairings with each dish (Will opted for the Sapporo Reserve Beer).

We started with "sake-tinis" made from Hakuskika Sake. There were many choices and we had the Cosmo, the Mango and the Plum Wine, which I liked the best because it was so different.

An amazing amuse of ANKIMU (smoked MONKFISH Liver) came first, part wrapped in a paper thin radish wrap, the rest atop a mound of delicious JALAPENO JELLY. Our friend Peter called this "fish gras" as it resembled foie gras so much! We relaxed and enjoyed the serene and comfortable, but informal setting. The twig shadowboxes on the wall wonderfully lit with orange,red and yellow sunset glow effects were actually created by Chef Kaz himself! Our first sake was ONIKOROSHI (Shizuoka-Junmai Daiginjo) was very fragrant and had an intense licorice flavor (making it my least favorite) but followed with a big warm inside feel. The second sake was a MASUMI (Nagano-Junmai Ginjo) which had more of an alcohol content, but was came from the "Light & Smooth" category.

Our next course was a gorgeous FLOUNDER CARPACCIO with SEAWEED and YUZU Sauce with Radish & Scallion. The peppery spiced sesame seeds were a delightful touch to this work of art. Next came the SALMON with TOMATO CONFIT and Basil Sauce another work of beauty with its orange salmon on the bottom, the red tomato in the middle and a strip of bright green basil on top. A refreshing course as well, with such tasty tomatoes, a real treat when tomatoes are so sorely misused in our winter. We saw the EDAMAME going by, so we asked for a small bowl of the salty edibles and downed more sake: URAKASUMI (Miyaki-Junmai) was one of my favorites since it was VERY smooooth. The presentation of the next dish drew stares from all over the restaurant, as Chef Kaz delivered a huge square tray. In the center was a giant sea urchin robbed of its meat, surrounded by four smaller square-plated portions. The UNI (urchin) was embedded in the center of BABY CALAMRI in a ball and served over a TRUFFLE-SOY SAUCE with a QUAIL EGG on top and Diced Seaweed. If you thought the arrangement looked magnificent, all you needed to do was taste this sublime combination to be in heaven.

We graduated to NANBURYU Sake (Inate-Junmai) which was very rich and has a taste of pickled melons hiding somewhere it seemed. Then came the excellent NIGORI-type unfiltered "OHYAMA" (Yamagata-unfiltered Junmai) which was lighter in taste than its predecessors, despite the "unfiltering."

SAKE STEAMED ASARI CLAMS came next in small paper bowls of clam broth over small sternos (think Pupu Platter). The tiny tender clams were delish (similar to Manila clams), the broth a bit salty, although Pete gulped most of everyone's down.

A long rectangular plate with four separate items came next. The winner was the MISO-MARINATED SABLEFISH which was sublime. The GINGER FLAVORED CALAMARI CAKE was intense (so the ginger lovers were happy), the SQUID was cooked and wrapped in a SHISHO leaf which was very herbal and had a dot of Wasabi on top. The DUCK WRAPPED in BUCKWHEAT CREPE with RADISH Sprouts was also superb.

A move in sake was called for to KHINOKURA :TARU" (miyagi-aged in cedar barrel) which went well with the "main" course, a GUINEA FOWL with LIME and SANSYO PEPPERS that Will devoured despite the bones!!

Sushi is served after the meal in a proper Japanese establishment and we received a nice selection of SEARED SALMON BELLY, Raw SWEET SHRIMP, YELLOWTAIL, TORO Tuna, FLOUNDER with KONBU Seaweed, and a LOBSTER SALAD wrapped in seaweed (which would make a superb hor's d'oevre at any event). YUKI-WATARI (Junmai Nigori) premium unfiltered sake was our last. It is aged at a low temperature and has a milky appearance. Peter & Maria deemed this the top sake choice of the evening.

Dessert was a creamy rich and cleansing LYCHEE PANNA COTTA with MANGO SORBET and cup of GENMAICHA Tea (made from green tea and roasted rice). Of course, we could not leave without a small glass of PLUM WINE. Like I said, this isn't JUST SUSHI!! It's supreme!

Sunday, March 05, 2006

EVEREST reaches many heights

It was a very difficult decision where to dine for my free night in Chicago yesterday. Should I attempt Charlie Trotter again, return to my favorite TRU, experiment with many of the new up and coming places? I finally decided to return to EVEREST, the Relais et Chateaux gastronomic temple located on the 40th (top) floor of One Financial Plaza (at 440 S. La Salle; Tel. 312-663-8802) where Alsatian superchef Jean Joho is the Chef/Owner (a not so easy place to find as there are no signs on or in this giant skyscraper). It's been about ten years since my first and last visit to Everest, and little has changed there.
The wall of windows looking to the west offers magnificent sunset and twinkly light views of the suburbs, as well as some up-close views of the few skyscrapers in the immediate area and to the northwest. The "leopard-skin" carpet might be in need of replacement and the miniature large-crystal chandeliers (think Dame Edna's earrings) are looking a bit outdated. This aside, the crisp linens, comfortable chairs and perfection in service easily make one forget these few faults, besides, you is always staring out the windows anyway, if not at the food!

I opted for the nine course tasting menu (about $90) and its accompanying wines for about the same price. I decided to start with a glass of LORENTZ 2001 Tokai Pinot Gris ALTENBERG de BERGHEIM from Alsace. It's ever so slight sweetness and complex flavors made it perfect with the three amuses. Was it a specific type of apple (I really am not good at differentiating Granny Smith & Delicious) or a specific type of melon in the mouth; I really needed help on this. The amuses or "Les Overtures de la Soiree) arrived in the signature back to back "J's" china for Chef Joho, who apparently had left by my second or
third course. There was an EMULSION of BRANDADE of COD in a china spoon; the rich mousse-like blend was whipped to a wonderful lightness. In the middle was a miniature copper pot with COCO BEAN SOUP. At first, I couldn't understand why they would serve cocoa bean soup, but it turned out the yummy "coco" is an heirloom navy bean! Finally came a Rillette of Crispy Venison, ground meat in a patty, deep fried and served over sauteed vegetables;;YUM YUM.

My excellent server came with the first wine for the pairing and said that if I needed extra pours, to please ask; I liked that. Indeed, she and the other waiter, and the entire staff were so affable, kind and caring, that I truly felt the service was at the level of a three-star Michelin establishment. The wine was a 1999 JULIEN MEYER Riesling, Muenchberg Alsace Grand Cru that was bone dry and superb, despite its age. Served with an amazing MOSAIC of SEAFOOD & SHELLFISH with SEA BEANS and AIGRELETTE SAUCE, this amazing "pate-like" combination was a new treat in each mouthful. There was a bit of aspic gelee to bind, but it was so minimal it was truly a mosaic of seafood and vegetables. The Sea Beans were long skinny asparagus-like vegetables that had a salty seaweed flavor to them, a real novelty for me. This was a true blend of flavors that continued throughout the evening making each dish a new treat.

Next came a POTAGE of SUNCHOKE & BLACK TRUMPET MUSHROOMS with the mushrooms as a small disc of gelee in the base of the creamy (but not bisque-like) soup with small bits of crispy lardons and mushrooms throughout for extra flavor. The 2004 LES DAMES BLANCHES du SUD Coteaux de Tricastin from the Rhone was a blend of Viognier, Marsanne & Rousanne that was excellent with the soup, served only a bit too cold (but it warmed up in my hands in plenty of time before the soup came). Indeed each wine was timely served about 3-5 minutes prior to the food, so I could taste and consider it before each course and then enjoy it
WITH the food. Only the plain white wine crystal glasses were not right for the bigger red wines.

I am a Pinot Noir snob, and the 2003 COSTA de ORO ESTATE Pinot from Santa Maria Valley in California was more acidic than fruit-filled and had a slight bite. It was a mild Pinot and I really yearned for something like that smooth silky Lemelson from the previous week! The wine did pair perfectly with the FILLET of WILD STURGEON wrapped and Roasted in CURED HAM & CABBAGE. The cabbage was served on the side as well, in a gnocchi-like spiral form which made me think they were potato or pasta. I have no idea how they did this, but it was WILD! The fish was a perfect thin medallion of the sturgeon (think, swordfish with less fishy taste) and the Pinot Sauce was where the wine met with the dish in perfection of pairing.

TRADITIONAL SLOW BRAISED BEEF CHUCK EYE with WINTER VEGETABLES and Crispy Polenta was the meat entree and suffered only from a lack of seasoning. I discovered the adorable white duet ceramic salt and pepper cellars on the table with their just crushed sea salt and fresh pepper. An addition of the spices made the dish bloom, although I must say the vegetables were the best I have ever had in a combination like this: Beets, Turnips, Peas, Snow Pea Pods, Brussels Sprout Leaves, etc. The 2002 CHATEAU LAFFITTE-TESTON from Madiran was 70% Merlot and 30% Cabernet and was smooth and warm and a nice red, but I couldn't help laughing at the name's attempt to fake the famous Bordeaux (we couldn't pinpoint the exact location of the winery in the south).

Another nice touch was the silver-plate water bottle holders that one often sees in European restaurants. By placing this on the table, the water-server knows you are drinking bottled water, not tap, and doesn't refill your glass with the wrong stuff. It's only fault, is that the water does eventually get to room temperature if not chilled in the ice. There was a selection of seven types of bread, the olive being a bit bland, but the mini-baguettes were crispy and tasty. Finally, every time I sat down, I had a fresh napkin (I needed it after getting Pinot Noir Sauce on it from the sturgeon!), and someone was there to hold my chair for me; what service!

The Assortment of Small Midwestern Farmer's Cheese was a revelation. Served with a big spicy 1998 EASTON ESTATE ZINFANDEL that really worked with the three bigger cheeses:

CAMEMBERT from St Joseph, Michigan was a nice milder start, but revelations began with the SOPHIA Goat from Indiana--WOW! A boring ST JOSEPH, Michigan cow ensued (I would have placed this BEFORE the huge goat I adored).

PLEASANT RIDGE Wisconsin Cow was a big aged cheese that resembled cheddar and had giant flavor (a big winner with the Zin), and finally the BLUE TERRINE of Wisconsin cow was an amazing idea. The mild blue was combined in a terrine style with walnuts and white raisins which had been soaked in Sauternes and Gewurtztraminer...OMIGOD!! Again, brilliant with the Red Zinfandel. There were several mixed greens on the plate with a plum compote and mixed fruit compote on either side.

Since I started my cholesterol drug, I am forbidden grapefruit so instead of the Composition of Grapefruit, I got the COMPOSTION of PINEAPPLE. The strong cheese and wine really DID demand a refreshing palate cleanser at this point before the dessert, and the small pineapple salad with a scoop of superb sorbet on top was just right.

Dessert was the MILK CHOCOLATE & BANANA PARFAIT which was a Cold Banana Souffle dusted with Milk Chocolate Powder and a center of soft chocolate served with Brown Butter Ice Cream, Not only was it a beautiful preparation, but a truly wonderful blend of flavors (I adore banana and milk chocolate) in the mouth. I asked for a substitution on the dessert wine from the standard LillyPilly Noble (you've heard that before lots of times) to the rare 1989 JOSMEYER SELECTION de GRIANS NOBLES Tokai Pinot Gris Grand Cru Alsace that had a big nose of burnt sugar and tasted like Creme Brulee on Ice. I learned about these magnificent Grains Nobles in Alsace and have been in love with these intense dessert wines ever since. To have a 1989 in such amazing condition is a rare treat (and I was not charged an extra cent!).

Before I left I was offered a tray of seven choices of mignardises. I chose four (two had anise): A marshmallow puff, an orange macaroon, a chocolate financier (like a small slice of light chocolate cake) and a Crusted Sugar Jelly of Passion Fruit.

After about 3-3/4 hours I rolled back down 40 floors and back to my hotel. I hope the snow which is due any minute won't keep me from getting home in several hours!

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Bravo BLACKBIRD (Chicago cuisine at its best)

Last night after seeing a magnificent new production of Gluck's ORPHEO ed EURYDICE at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, I had the pleasure of taking my client to dinner around the corner at BLACKBIRD, 619 West Randolph (Tel 312-715-0708; www.blackbirdrestaurant.com). This was my fourth or fifth visit to Chef PAUL KAHANE's gastronomic temple of trend. We sat at the bar for a while awaiting our table (we were 25 mins early and all the operagoers had the same idea to eat after the shorter than usual 90 minute performance!). I tried a glass of the innocuous MARGARET BONNERAVE BRUT ROSE N/V Champagne, but the fireworks of food
and wine started soon after we were seated. For the first time at Blackbird, I felt the music was a little too loud and sometimes to much bass and disco-like. It faded to soft jazz and back and forth which did not make for the best of dining ambiance. Despite this minor fault, and the amuse I never saw at the table, our meal was a truly exquisite experience.

The sommelier/manager, Eduard Seitan, who had helped me with many wonderful wine selections in previous visits decided to surprise us with a special bottle of wine. He disappeared and returned with two Syrah/blend style quality glasses and a decanter from which he proffered tastes. I immediately guessed it was a blend, but was slightly off geographically with my California guess. The CHERRY CREEK CELLARS 2003 MONTAGE was a thick earthy wine with lots of flavor and a
blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chancellor Noir (a varietal I had heard of but hadn't had in years). If I tell you this quality wine comes from Michigan, you might plotz, but it was a perfect wine for our food choices, and kudos to Eduard for his allowing us to be introduced to this new wine (at a cost of $30-something!).

David started with the SEARED HUDSON VALLEY FOIE GRAS, DUCK CONFIT CREPE with Sweet Potato & Currants. The dish was sheer perfection, with the foie gras simply seared and seasoned and served plain atop the crepe. The garnish was on the bottom of the "tower," with a slash of balsamic across the opposite side of the plate, just to add a bit of taste for the foie gras if you felt it needed it. The toasted mini-marshmallow was a bit of an odd garnish.

My HOUSE SMOKED MAINE DIVER SCALLOPS with MELTED LEEKS, Local Beets, Marcona Almonds, Black Truffles and Meyer Lemon was a combination of sheer genius. The creamy sauce and leeks were exquisite, but the pink scallops and those intense tasty truffles were heavenly.

For an entree I chose the BRAISED KOBE BEEF SHORT RIBS with CANDIED KUMQUATS, Confit of Baby Turnips, Yukon Golds and Red Wine. The "Yukon Golds" appeared as mashed potatoes underneath and irresistible homemade chips on top. The sweet chutney-like kumquats were an ideal foil to the soft as could be, Mom-can't-make-better, pot roast-like ribs, and the wine as well. David chose the excellent SEARED LOIN of VENISON with DATE MOLASSES, TOASTED BARLEY, Snug Haven Farm Spinach, Maitake Mushrooms and Water Chestnuts, another brilliant interpretation and combination.

Once can not skip Blackbird's cheese tray with five selections for $14. We decided to split this, which is just perfect for two. Each cheese is paired with a condiment and a tasty flatbread accompanies the beautiful presentation. At this point we noticed the silly little white vase on the table with two boring yellow daisies that may have added some color, but was quite drab. Back to the cheese:

MIDNIGHT MOON CYPRESS GROVE goat from California was a crumbly, intensely nutty cheese served with (oddly) pickled beets.

MUNSTER GEROME a French cow with Quince Paste was a wonderful Munster from Alsace that had less intensity than the goat, but more depth. FIUMORBU BREBIS was a hugely intense sheep cheese from France served with Caperberries, and I felt it would have been better coming after the next cheese, due to its monstrous flavor (David didn't like it at all!).

OSSAU-IRATY a harder raw sheep cheese from France was served with Medjool Dates and was exciting for its difference alone.

Finally, the ROARING 40's KING ISLAND DAIRY cow cheese from TAZMANIA looked like a blue cheese and was, while not a blue, aged to an intense flavor that made it the perfect final cheese (served with Smoked almonds in honey).

Dessert--of course! We split the one we saw at the next table earlier in the evening, and it was the perfect choice: GINGERBREAD BLINIS with Spiced Anglaise, BRANDIED CHERRIES and Buttermilk Ice Cream offered up so many different flavors it was a true treat. The warm mini-pancakes piled silver-dollar like shamed IHOP and the Brandied Cherries were something I'd love to package and take home to eat nightly. A glass of ANDREW RICH 2002 "les Vingneaux" Late Harvest Gewurtztraminer ended my day of blissful music and food in perfection.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Lucious Lemelson Dinner at the magnificent Mandarin Oriental

Our evening started on the lower level of the Mandarin Oriental with all the wonderful passed canapes. The fresh, fruit forward and low oaked chardonnay was a welcome treat and worked with almost everything from the exciting and various sushis to the delicate trout mousse served between two thin sweet potato phyllo-like chips. While the BLOOD SAUSAGE TART was magnificent, the big mistake was the FOIE GRAS RAVIOLI which may have been decadent and tasty, oozed way too much oil from the deep frying and subsequently decorated my lapels with several nasty stains!

We moved upstairs for the seated dinner to a beautifully decorated private dining room with wondrous art and a great display of the Lemelson wines. This was my first experience with these top-notch Oregon Pinot Noirs, and I can't say enough of how impressive they were, not to mention the descriptions and engaging anecdotes from their owner, Eric Lemelson. He bought the land in 1990, planted vines five years later and built the winery in '99 in the North Willamette Valley. It is amazing how quickly he has mastered the production of such quality wines.

The crunchy baby pig was a wondrous starter made brilliant by the caraway beet jam and cherry-beer glace. The first Pinot was the non-designated blend called "Thea's" named for Mr. Lemelson's mother. The wine was lush and intense in the nose and totally full of massive fruit flavors. Thea must be very proud! It had a huge explosion in the mouth, and this 2003 will work wonderfully as an intense sip-alone red, or paired with almost any food.

The CHESTNUT SOUP was rich and creamy and we all asked why it was not served first. The ultimate reason was to pair it with the first single vineyard Pinot. The STERMER Pinot Noir is silky and smooth and oh so subtle, just like the soup itself. We all decided it was an extraordinary pairing and ultimately, did not mind the soup after the pork!

The skate wing was a delicate dish, yet the lobster cannelloni had a big enough flavor and bang to match up to the MEYER Pinot with its big cherry taste from the intense volcanic soil.

The Roast Lamb Barbier was a treat with its many different aspects. The Meat had a magnificent crusty coating (called a farcie, meaning stuffing) made of veal sweetbreads and caulfat (what is that?). The high elevation CHESTNUT HILL Vineyard Pinot came off as truly elegant and as before, was a masterful pairing from Sommelier Christopher Hile.

The dessert was the only let down of the evening. I adore Floating Islands (aka Oeufs a la Neige) and really did not enjoy this pineapple-coconut version very much. The RIESLING was a nice wine, but I couldn't help wishing for a sweeter dessert wine, so I simply finished my meal off with another glass of that ecstatically elegant Chestnut Hill Pinot along with some of the tasty post-dessert munchies.

I can't WAIT for the PAUL HOBBS dinner in APRIL! I'm flying to Chicago right now as I write where I will report on BLACKBIRD and EVEREST this weekend!

Passed Canapés served with LEMELSON Chardonnay 2003

Warm Chipollini, Apple and Blood Sausage Tart

Crispy Apricot and Goose Foie Gras Raviolis

Escargot, Prosciutto, Rosemary and Fennel Jam

Chef Juan, Banquet Sous Chef

Chilled Sweet Potato and Smoked Trout-Caper Rilette

Sushi Fantasies

Chef Erwin, Gardemanger Sous Chef and Chef Ogawa, Sushi Master

First Course

Crackling Kurobuta Baby Pig, Caraway Beet Jam, Cherry-Beer Glace, Semolina Roll

Chef Michael, Banquet Sous Chef

Lemelson 2003 Pinot Noir Thea's Selection

Second Course

White Asparagus Truffle Mousse, Chestnut Soup

Chef Jason, Executive Sous Chef

Lemelson Pinot Noir 2003 Stermer Vineyard

Third Course

Olive Oil Poached Skate Wing, Lobster Cannelloni, Caramelized Turnip Puree, Roasted Root Vegetables, Carrot Lobster Emulsion

Chef Rannae, Main Kitchen

Lemelson Pinot Noir Meyer Vineyard

Fourth Course

Roast Lamb Barbier, Crisp Lamb Confit, Goat Cheese Flan, Wilted Baby Spinach, Garlic-Mint Chutney

Chef David, Chef de Cuisine Café MoZu

Lemelson Pinot Noir 2003 Chestnut Hill Vineyard

Fifth Course

Pina Colada Floating Island

Chef James, Executive Pastry Chef

Lemelson Riesling 2004


Culinary Coordinator

Christian W. Schmidt, Executive Chef

Sommelier, Christopher Hile

Last night was a revelation, as I had never enjoyed the wines of Eric Lemelson from the North Willamette Valley in Oregon ever before. Starting with the delicious crisp fruit forward Chardonnay to the superb Pinot Noirs I was totally impressed. Mr. Lemelson spoke at length about how he bought his first vineyard in 1990, planted it in 1995, built the winery in 1999 and has been making totally organic and extraordinary wines for less than a decade!
We started the evening with lots of fantastic passed hor's d'oevres in the grand foyer on the lower level, then proceeded upstairs to an intimate private room with beautiful artwork and a wonderful display of all the wines. While the various sushis were exquisite, my favorite was a salmon roll with a dab of mustard on top. The adorable smoked trout mousse was presented between two small square sweet potato chips and was irresistible. Sadly, the deep fried foie gras ravioli oozed tons of oil all over my suit as I bit into it. I did not look pretty for the remainder of the evening!

Upstairs, we sat down to a long evening of wonderful conversation, wine talk, food and THOSE PINOT NOIRS! Thea's Selection is named for Eric Lemelson's mother and is a blend of all the various vineyards. It has an intense nose and huge flavor with a big explosion in the mouth. This wine will work wonderfully as an intense sipping red just alone, or paired with many different types of food. The slice of crackling pig was indeed a perfect pairing, crunchy and tasty with some dried cherries and that superb, yet non-invasive cherry-beer glace. The caraway beet jam on the side was to die for! Perhaps the only change I would have made in the meal would have been to reverse the two courses (and, of course, eliminate the grease from the ravioli), but the logic here from the chefs was clearly to work with the WINES FIRST. The second Pinot from the STERMER VINEYARD, thus was a silky, smooth and subtle wine, easily discerned from the soils it grows in. We were all mightily impressed with this perfect Pinot, and its pairing was ingenious in the rich, silky, smooth Chestnut Soup. So,
if we had started with the soup and gone on to the baby pig, the food might have progressed logically, but the wines would have not. A dilemma, no doubt.

The MEYER Pinot exhibited huge cherry flavor from its intense volcanic soil and was perhaps just slightly too big for the oh so delicate skate wing and lobster canneloni. The dish was superb, one of the highlights of the evening and an ingenious combination of so many wonderful parts to make the whole. Even the individually sculpted mushrooms showed such intricate work from the kitchen.

The meat course was virtually impossible to finish, and again exhibited a masterful combination of elements. The Roasted Lamb had a "hood" of farcie (stuffing) made up of veal sweetbread and caulfat (I never heard of that) that was simply ideal with the "elegant" CHESTNUT HILL VINEYARD Pinot Noir. It was hard to choose which part of the dish was the best.

By dessert I was so full I had only one bite of the unexciting Pina Colada Floating Islands. I adore floating islands and truly wish it was a simpler, more traditional concoction of the egg whites on creme anglaise. This was just too much at the end of such a big meal. The Riesling was also an odd pairing, as I would have easily preferred a late-harvest of the same wine! Mr. Lemelson said that they had tried to produce some sweet wines, but the vines had, alas, just rotted, rather than sweetened. So, my dessert was a little bite of the Mignardise and some more of that superbly "elegant" Chestnut Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir,
before heading home totally enlightened by this newfound vineyard and the chefs of the Mandarin Oriental!