Sunday, April 30, 2006

SPIRE aspires to great heights and reaches them

Only one night in Boston led us to SPIRE, a truly superb restaurant in the Hotel Nine Zero, located at 90 Tremont Street ( in the heart of downtown. The six of us mosied past the Boston Common to dinner after a wonderful performance of Lucrezia Borgia at the Opera. Our conundrum was that my clients were vegetarians, but we needed a place with quality food and options for all. The staff was superb in accommodating our requests, and the "Vegetarian entrees" which four of us ordered were actually each four different plates for EACH person, so varied and exciting that Chef Mayumi had to come out and explain each dish. She was gracious and sweet, and answered every question and really had her staff working hard for us.

The restaurant is subdued and pale with hints of blue and recessed ceiling lights in circular areas. The curtains are pale blue gauze. We wove our way through the noisy bar to a luckily quiet and serene dining area. Our server Stephanie was very helpful with suggestions, but when it came to the wine list, I was completely confused. The first Bethel Heights Pinot Noir I ordered was not the single vineyard or vintage on the wine list, and she said that it was still the same price (although I knew the wine was a less pricey option). So I tried a Panther Creek Shea Vineyard Pinot, which actually came out as the Freedom Hill Vineyard, which I don't like as much as the Shea. Finally, Steven, the sommelier/manager came over and sorted things out. The management of the hotel and therefore the restaurant is actually changing today, so the wine lilst is in flux. As a concession he gave us a much more expensive 2001 DOMAINE SERENE "Evenstad Reserve" Pinot Noir at the lower price comparable to the Bethel or Panther! It was yummy, and we were on our way.

An amuse of BOCCHERONE (fresh marinated anchovies) over Romesco Sauce with Mizuna and Celery was presented as a Bruschetta, and it easily piqued our palates for more. I opted for the CHATHAM HALIBUT & LOCAL BEET TARTARE with Red Onion, Fried Brioche, Ossetra Caviar, SLiced Chive in a Dashi (seaweed) Broth which was a revelation. The ceviche style dish was excellent and the flavors melded beautifully. I also enjoyed a superb glass of MARCEL DIESS 2001 Pinot Blanc from Alsace with its super-terroir driven minerality. I tasted the excellent (and large) GNOCCHI which everyone raved about. It seemed we were all very happy.

A special course came out as a treat and mine was the SPIRE CALM BAKE which has a Sweet Corn Puree with Poached Maine Lobster (plenty of it, too), Pat's (a local purveyor) Clams and Fried Potato Slices. It really was rich and filling.

I mentioned the excellent Vegetable entrees, but I went with the ORGANIC VEAL PORTERHOUSE with Artisanal Bacon, Red Spaetzle, Pearl Onions and Whole Grain Mustard that was a perfection of a chop. We moved to a much bigger wine that was another real treat called ROCKET SCIENCE from Caldwell Vineyard in Napa. The 2002 blend is Cabernet, Syrah & Merlot and packs a punch but is as smooth and tasty as any big red can be. It will easily satisfy any discriminating palate for red wine!

Needless to say, we were all so full we could manage another bite at the end of this glorious journey. On the way out, it was great to see TRICIA KOMINSKY from Washington's Poste who just moved to Boston to manage SPIRE under the new Kimpton regime that is taking over the hotel. We wished her all the best of luck, but could not feel bad that Washington is losing one if its truly great restaurant mangers! I am sure she will make SPIRE soar!

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Kudos to COMPASS, the West Side winner in NYC

IF you have the time and are on the Upper West Side, take a walk several blocks north of Lincoln Center to 208 West 70th (at Amsterdam & Broadway) ( where Chef..... has opened COMPASS, but be sure to have a reservation, as this is one of the hottest spots in the area.

Chef John Fraser has brought the ingenuity of his time at the French Laundry in Napa to the East Coast, but the menu is not geared for extensive dining as New Yorkers seem to be rushing in and out. A tasting menu can be arranged (I found it) in advance, but many folks seem to go for the three course prix fixe. I opted to order a la carte as I had over two hours and was alone.

A truly one bite amuse came of house cured salmon with apple mustard that made me want more.... The breads were delish, but I have never have SPOONBREAD CORNBREAD so yummy, crunchy and moist.

I started with the first of the season SOFT SHELL CRAB TEMPURA with fried OKRA and Tomato Salsa and Avocado Puree. It was a treat to have them so early (well, May IS this week!) and the preparation was simple with fresh tomato salsa that just accented the crab.

A glass of GRUNER VELTLINER HIELDLER "Loess" Kamptal 2004 from Austria with hints of citrus and lots of apple was just perfect.

I'm not sure what it is that makes me get such a great reception in many restaurants where I don't even know anyone. Perhaps its the pen and paper I take out and start scribbling with the second I sit down? Compass has a very gray atmosphere in that the comfortable chairs are shades of gray, the columns are slate covered, the glass walls are smoked (one of them is the wine cooler!), and the staff seem to be mostly in shades of gray and black. Splashes of color are welcome such as the huge spray of apple blossoms in a monster vase and the small orchid on the table in an opaque vase with matching votive candle.

My server, Robert, who was ever so helpful warned me not to over order as a special plate was coming from the kitchen. This was more than special as I received a bowl of RISOTTO with ROAST SUCKLING PIG (small shreds) and PORCINI Mushrooms as well as an accompanying 1/2 glass of MARSANNE 2004 LES GRANDES VIGNES du ROY which was a delightful Marsanne/Roussane blend from the Rhone. I adored the hidden BABY LEEKS in the Risotto as well as the entire dish, but needed to ask for a little break before my entree of SEARED BREAST of LONG ISLAND DUCK with a BRAISED LEG in PASTILLE (a small triangle of pastry stuffed with the
confit), BOK CHOY, TOKYO TURNIPS, PINE N UTS and DRIED APRICOT VINAIGRETTE. The dish was heavenly, and the meat came just as I requested between rare and medium-rare. The bok choy was sauteed with a slight caramelization and there were also some cooked apricots and a dash of coarse salt as well. I loved the way Chef Fraser uses his coarse salt as a simple sprinkle on many of the dishes for an accent of flavor. Robert suggested the least expensive red by the glass and was spot on with the smokiness of the CANNONAU di SARDEGNA 2002 Sella & Mosca, akin to a Grenache, but with lots of flavor and body that worked so well with all the ingredients inn the duck. This was one dish where a Pinot Noir could have failed if it was not huge.

I rested again before considering desserts and found the ONLY fault with Compass was the omission of the dessert wines from the dessert menu. The sommelier, who was also most helpful, said that would be rectified very soon! I chose a superb PILLATERRI 2003 VIDAL ICEWINE that oozed apricot heaven in an amber color that one rarely sees except in the finest of dessert wines. I finally settled after much trepidation (the pastries from Vera Tong were so varied) on the MILK CHOCOLATE PEANUT BUTTER BAR with Frozen Milk and Smoked Paprika Potato Chips (and a dab of Sour Cherry Gelee). I didn't much care for the chips, but the bar was supreme. A Twix-size creation filled with creamy smooth homemade peanut butter that was Reese's times one hundred in its excellence. The icy milk was perfect to cut the richness in every several bites.

Moments later Robert brought out a portion of the VANILLA TRIFLE, as he knew I was so indecisive. This treat had superb pound cake with vanilla creme anglaise layered below macerated strawberries and a small scoop of strawberry sorbet; anyone would have loved this!

I sat and sipped my cappuccino as I thought of returning to the opera house (I had sat through 5 hours of Wagner at the matinee and still had Tosca in the evening!). Robert returned with a beautiful slate slab and three pairs of "petit fours": Pistachio biscotti which were fine, a chocolate cup with chocolate mousse and mango on tp and the most amazing mignardise ever-PORK CRACKLING covered with White Chocolate and Salt & Pepper. TIME OUT Magazine gave Compass an award for having the final thing on each diner's plate being pork! Well, this treat was akin to chocolate covered pretzels in that it had the saltiness as well, and truly was a fun treat to say farewell with. BUT SURELY, I will return to COMPASS SOON!

Friday, April 28, 2006

really rosy at ROSA MEXICANA in NYC

Going to New York City is often a challenge when I am landing at Laguardia at 5pm or later, have to meet someone for dinner, then catch an 8pm curtain at Lincoln Center. The closest restaurant (not on property) to Lincoln Center is ROSA MEXICANA (which recently opened a DC branch) right across the street on Columbus Avenue at 62nd Street.

On Friday, I actually landed about 30 minutes late, and still met my family at 6pm by taking a fast taxi (albeit a $40 bill!), when I often take the bus and subway which takes about 50 minutes for $2.00.

I still think the $10 margaritas are way overpriced and too small for the price. So I opted for the FUNDACION de MENDOZA Cabernet from Argentina which is a nice medium body wine that will go great with salsas, chicken or meat! ROSA offers some of the best chips and salsa around, with two options on the latter brought to every table. A smokey barbecue style red sauce and a spicy tomatillo green that tingles afterwards for a while.

We shared the EMPANADAS de JAIBA which are corn empanadas stuffed with jumbo lump crab and served with again two salsa options: Pico de Gallo with fresh fruit that really packs a punch from the peppers, and an avocado-tomatillo salsa that's milder and creamy. They work well to complement each other, offering fire and ice, so to speak.

The entrees are hefty portions and many are under $20, making them good bargains. I tried the BUDIN AZTECA which looks like pancakes with green sauce, but is a tortilla pie layered with chicken and Chihuahua Cheese in a Chile Poblano Sauce (that's the light green). It's a large platter and everything also comes with rice and those yummy black beans which are great on the chips as well! The other entrees were the ENCHILADAS de JAIBA, Crab Enchiladas in a rich creamy Tomatillo Sauce with Pumpkin
Seeds and the excellent ENSALADA de ATUN, an avocado and leaf salad with crusted rare tuna on top of a tostada with black bean paste. Added in is jicama, mango and cabbage slaw in a papaya-habanero sauce which has the slightest spiciness and is perfect on a hot day if you don't want one of the heftier dishes.

After all that dessert was an afterthought, although we looked on in amazement as someone at the next table had a huge bowl of ice reams, sauces and more that was piled high with whipped cream!

We were not even too overstuffed to enjoy the wonderful DON PASQUALE at the Met afterwards!

Thursday, April 27, 2006

RASIKA is right on! The flavors of INDIA are the best!

Rasika ( opened at 633 D Street, NW in the Penn Quarter last fall and has been garnering plenty of acclaim. We finally made it in the other night and can only rave and rave, although there is one small problem: the noise level.

We arrived about 10 minutes late for our 845pm reservation and were told the wait was about 10 minutes. We scurried over to the long and elegant bar are with its low red lacquer tables, banquettes and crowds. After some time we were able to order a bottle of KIM CRAWFORD PINOT GRIS 2004 from Marlborough in New Zealand. The wine was poured in one huge splash and when I grabbed the glass away to taste it, I had not realized the server was going to keep pouring. He looked at me like, "Oh, you want to taste the wine first?" The wine WAS fine, but then he poured the other three glasses and didn't offer to fill mine up anymore. So much for that waiter, we left a very small tip.

We moved to our table soon enough, and were happy as the bar noise was really unbearable. The floors are beautiful stone, there are many etched glass walls and the restaurant and bar are only separated by a wall of crystal beads with big red drop crystals at the bottom of each strand. The dining room has a wooden floor, and carpeting would easily calm the din, but our rear table in the small dining room was much quieter than anything else in the entire place. We were grateful. We were even more grateful for our server, Roger, who offered up plenty of suggestions and described everything to a tee. His recommendations were excellent and we were thrilled with every plate and every bite.

We started with three appetizers: GINGER SCALLOPS with Fresh Ginger, Honey, Burnt Garlic and Pepper Sauce were mild and cooked just past rare, almost sushi style and so delicate. SPICY RESHMI KEBAB with minced chicken, mint, coriander and green chilis were excellent kebabs of ground meat (think the Middle Eastern kefta kebab) and had a big punch from the chilis and coriander. The highlight of the entire meal was the novel PALAK CHAAT, Crispy Baby Spinach deep fried with Sweet Yogurt, Tamarind and Date Chutney. The small bowl was filled with pieces of tasty flash fried spinach and the other ingredients were chopped up and subltely mixed in making this such a wonderful blend and fun thing to eat as well.

We wanted to try a bottle of a wine called LIFE FROM STONE, but sommelier Sebastian apologized that they were out of it and offered up a less expensive 2004 CENDRILLON (French for "Cinderella") from Domaine de la Garreliere in the Loire. It was a 90% Sauvignon Blanc with some Chenin Blanc and a dash of Chardonnay, a beautiful wine with lots of mineral taste, yet perfect for the intense spice in many of the dishes.

Our entrees were just as varied and exciting: BLACK COD with Fresh Dill, Honey, Star Anise and Red Wine Vinegar was again an almost sushi-like presentation, with the fish just barely cooked so tender and elegant with just a hint of the anise (which I don't care for, but it was so mild, it didn't matter) and a dash of coriander for a slight spicy finish. LAMB BIRYANI is a stew-like preparation (with a thick sauce) of Basmati Rice, Saffron and Raita (cucumber-yogurt relish) on the side, It comes in an adorable pot with a cap of pastry puff over it, a great dish to share and quite hefty as well. The CHICKEN GREEN MASALA was a super spicy and delicious dish with a hint of mind and lots of coriander and spices. This one needed the rice which was always there and offered to be refilled as well.

Roger suggested we try the excellent vegetables and breads as well; he was right! The GARLIC NAAN with Herbs was excellent, but don't miss the ONION, SAGE & GOAT CHEESE KULCHA, a true novelty in itself, very filling and soooo tasty. Even one of us who doesn't like cauliflower liked the JEERA GOBI MUTTAR, a small pot of cauliflower, green peas and cumin cooked in a way that makes these vegetables have totally new meaning and magnificent taste. The PANEER MAKHANI was also novel in that this dish has Cottage Cheese, Tomato and Fenugreek in like a tofu form with a gorgeous creamy sauce. The DAL MAKHANI is lentils,
caramelized onions, tomato and garlic in a thick preparation that would fill anyone up, the perfect choice if you like lentils.

By this time, I had ordered an extra glass of MUELLER 2004 RIESLING from Germany. It is a slightly sweet wine and worked wonderfully with the spices as well, and lasted into my dessert, serving dual purposes.

One might avoid desserts at an Indian restaurant. DON'T! The BREAD & BUTTER PUDDING is served like a creme brulle creamy and rich, but full of chunks of bread that are delish. The BIG hit, however, was the ANJEER (Figs) & WALNUT KULFI. This phallic looking preparation has a Amaretto-marinated figs and the tower of kulfi that is akin to semifreddo, but perhaps a bit harder and less creamy. I could have eaten TWO!

We talked to the staff about the general noise problem and they said it had only recently started. Even the cushioned wall on the side didn't seem to help much. We will return, but for pre-theater next time and we hope it will be a bit quieter; we know the food will be terrific!

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Perfection with PAUL HOBBS wines and magnificent munching at the Mandarin

Last night's Paul Hobbs wine dinner at the Mandarin Oriental was a magnificent treat in many ways. The wonderful melange of guests that all seemed to enjoy every bite and every sip, the expert commentary on the superb wines by Paul's brother Matt Hobbs, the superb service and just everything else, made this a really terrific dining experience.

Matt spoke extensively about the means and methods of the winery and its mission and explained that the wines are fermented with wild yeast and are totally natural with no filtration. He told us how 12 of the 17 wines produced are vineyard specificand terroir driven, which can easily be tasted in the wines we enjoyed. His truly entertaining mien made this an even more wonderful evening. He commented on how he and his brother were separated by 17 years saying that "Paul was number 2, and I was number 10; and all of us came from the same mother and father, or so we were told!" They grew up on a 500acre apple farm in
Lockport, NY near Buffalo and it was a bottle of 1959 Chateau d'Yquem that their father brought home one day (which they drank from stryrofoam cups) that got Paul to make their dad rip out some of the apples and plant grapes for wine.

My comments are interspersed with the menu below:

Passed Hor's d'oevres:
Smoked trout and white asparagus stew
Cured tuna carpaccio, pine nuts and sun-dried cherry relish, pastry crisp
Roasted monkfish, baby spinach, pepper confit, savory brioche
Serrano ham, pickled mustard melon canapƩ
2004 Chardonnay Russian River Valley

The first wine was released less than two weeks ago and will undoubtedly be a winner on the 2004 California Chardonnay tastings! It had wonderful, yet subtle hints of apple which worked amazingly with the green apple in the Tuna Carpaccio and complemented the monkfish as well. We never got the stew, and the serrano ham was simply a canape version of prosciutto and melon.

first course:
Cherry wood smoked frog legs jalapeƱo-coriander sauce, queso blanco grits
2003 Cuvee Augustina, Richard Dinner Vineyard, Sonoma Mountain Chardonnay

This course was magnificent and the wine was sheer perfection. Grown at 800 feet in volcanic soil it is a BIG winner and indeed was so big it worked great with the mild jalapeno and the rich grits.

second course:
Confit of sea scallops, tapenade, tomato marmalade, warm couscous salad
2004 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley

Another brilliant dish and it also had a fried anchovy on top for another flavor blast. The wine was a new release as well, and actually one of the bottles used at out table was a bit fizzy. We all were tasting from each other's glasses and finally asked Matt to come over and help us. We did discover that this one bottle had somehow gotten a bit of CO2 in it and was clearly not as smooth and enjoyable, so we all traded ours in for a new one! Matt told us that in 2005 this Pinot will be vineyard designated as well and is looking like it will be a truly elegant wine; look for it next year.

third course:
Duet of steak and crispy muscovy duck, champagne choucroute, boudine noir potato smash
2003 Pinot Noir Hyde Vineyard Carneros, Napa

While this course was another "smash" hit (sorry for the pun), we really enjoyed the construction of the various elements. The champagne choucroute was a variation on the Alsatian cabbage dish that is eaten there regularly with various sausages and wurst, but worked here perfectly with the duck. The smash itself was mostly potato, but the introduction of the boudin noir was a real and exciting novelty. The wine was simply the best we had all night, I could drink the Hyde Pinot forever and be very happy.

fourth course:
Roast loin of veal, infused with sika deer, braised veal cheeks, pomegranate demi, vidalia onion jam
2003 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
2003 Cabernet Sauvignon, Bramare, Mendoza, Argentina

The veal loin was not really "infused" with deer, like an injection, but simply wrapped around it like a roulade, the veal cheeks were in a pastry puff like a small stew and were excellent and a dash of sea salt on the side gave a dash of flavor to this already wonderfully flavored plate.

The Napa Cab was smooth and superb, being a blend of several vineyards, but I must admit I was not aware that Paul Hobbs was producing wines from vineyards he has developed in Argentina. The Bramare Mendoza Cab was quite brash for me and I simply did not enjoy it, especially next to the more refined Napa.

fifth course:
Milk chocolate parfait with cherry salad mignardises
2003 Malbec, Marchiori Vineyard, Bramare, Mendoza, Argentina

The dessert was spectacular as well, a visual and taste delight, with those cherries getting us in the seasonal cherry blossom mood. The milk chocolate logs on the mignardises plate were superb creamy rich chocolate; some of the best ever. My only regret was the Malbec was just too much for the dish. I was shocked to find out the cost is only several $10 shy of the $100 zone; definitely a bit too rich for my pocket, and not nearly exciting enough at that price range. No matter, it was a spectacular evening and a totally thrilling experience.

Monday, April 03, 2006

POSTE is positively palate-pleasing

It's been over a week since we dined at Poste Brasserie ( located at the Hotel Monaco at 555 Eighth St, NW.

I have been so busy with computer outages, preparing for Passover seder and running around, I just haven't been able to get my thoughts down in print.

POSTE is named for the Post Office Building that it originally was and has a wonderful view of the surrounding courtyard of the actual hotel itself. The dining room has quiet tables on the outside section with courtyard views or the main room looks over a huge open kitchen where you can watch all the action going on.

Chef Robert Weland has been at Poste for sometime now and has settled in quite well. He was not there last week, and his managers had all left by our 730pm arrival as well (Monday is, after all, the off night in the restaurant biz), but our service and food were at a level of excellence they should be proud of.

We decided to head right into red wines and opted for a DOMAINE LUCIEN MUZARD Santenay 1er Cru 2003 which was simply a pucker vintage. As you know many of the 2003s were superb, many not. I have always enjoyed the Muzard Santenay, and have even purchased it for my cellar, however, the 2003 needs a bit of aging and isn't quite ready for drinking to my mind. It did, oddly enough, work splendidly with my BEEF TARTARE, presented in a modern presentation, but traditional preparation; I loved the sea salt! The TOMATO BRUSCHETTA was simply one of the best ever, and we aren't even yet in tomato season!

A CHARCUTERIE PLATE was shared and had everything you could imagine from Speck, Duck Ham, Prosciutto and a Foie Gras Pate with a superb mustard that tingled.

Our second wine was the MAZZOCO MATRIX 1999, which at $79 may be a bit pricey, but it is a spectacular Sonoma blend that works with almost any food of lightness or intense depth. The BEEF BOURGUINONE was tasty, but suffered from bitter Brussels sprouts (where were those delish caramelized ones we have had elsewhere?); the ELYSIAN FARMS Lamb with Spinach Shepherd's Pie and Braised Lamb Shoulder was delish' the ALASKAN HALIBUT with BRAISED CHEEKS, Pan Seared Brandade, Garlic Pesto was another big hit, and my RED WINE BRAISED RABBIT with Poppy Seed Tagliatelle was just as yummy as the others. Each dish paired to
perfection in its own way with the Mazzoco!

A Cheese Plate was shared and had Cranberry Quince Jam with a wide variety of cheeses: Shropshire Blue, Duress Irish (cow), Pipe Dreams Goat, and St. Maure from Brittany. This is no half baked (excuse the pun) bistro cheese plate, it's the REAL thing!

The desserts are as varied as the cheeses and all the other courses, so we chose different ones and all excelled:
RHUBARB BUTTERMILK PARFAIT with Strawberries and Aged Balsamic
LOCAL APPLE TARTE TATIN with Creme Fraiche Ice Cream & Pecan Caramel Sauce
and my exquisite WARM MEDJOOL PUDDING CAKE with Prune & Armagnac Ice Cream

All I can say is that the combinations were superb, and people need to use ARMAGNAC more often in dessert (I remember how Jean Louis Palladin used to cook pears in Armagnac and serve them in pastry!). One of the most fun desserts was the simple LEMONGRASS & CHOCOLATE Sorbets that came in mini cones with a selection of sprinkles, nuts and chopped Oreos on the side!

We tried several dessert wines which were all varied and nice: a dark MUSCAT BURLER from Austria, a BOUTEILLE CALL from Bonny Doon (that I thought was wimpy) and a SAUTERNES RESERVES Maison Wieldas 2002 (spelling?).

Needless to say, the four of us rolled home happily!