Monday, August 30, 2010

Family Dining: Aviation, New Deal, Casamaro, Pesto and Shrimp

It was a somewhat larger than usual, multi-generational family meal, and my wife had decided to make it a bit grander than usual since her parents had traveled up from southern Oregon to visit us.

My father-in-law is something of a connoisseur of the cocktail and a budding wine geek, so I pondered on the beverages that would accompany our end-of-summer feast, and settled in with Oregonian spirits and Spanish wine.

Oregon, and specifically Portland, is a hotbed for artisanal distilling these days, and we are blessed with any number of exceptional producers.

Two of the best are House Spirits  and New Deal Distillery, conveniently located close to each other in Portland's near eastside, in the area now called Distillery Row PDX.

NOTE:  If you visit the website DistilleryRowPDX you'll get all the information you need for a fascinating tour and tasting of these distilleries and more.  It's a great short outing to see artisanal distilling up close and very personal, and to meet the people that are driving it.  And they are open on weekends!

Aviation Gin, from House Spirits Distillery, has become one of my favorites, and I always have a bottle on hand in my home bar.  Not as heavy and bombastic as some gins, yet not in any way deficient in aroma and flavor, Aviation has a superb balance of aromas from its botanicals for a clean, crisp, fresh profile; the juniper is there, and evident, but it doesn't dominate the other flavors, allowing the herbal, floral, citrus, and yes, a little bit of spice, to come through.  For casual sipping its just fine; but it makes a great cocktail gin too, as it is very flexible and adaptable.  For a summery-light gin and tonic, it's perfect; so that's what I made with it.  I'm also a lover of lime, so I deviated a bit in my g & t by muddling up the lime slice thoroughly, adding rocks, a sizable pour of Aviation, and a bit of tonic.  Then another lime slice for garnishment (and for squeezing in about halfway through the drink---like I said, I'm a lime lover.)

But I was the only gin drinker this evening.  All the others were vodka fans---with the exception of my mother-in-law, who was a singularly devoted scotch drinker with a lifelong devotion to it; for her I popped out a bottle of Dalmore 12 and she was happy---so staying with the local spirits theme I furnished a fresh bottle of New Deal Vodka.

New Deal Vodka.  Add a little Martini & Rossi Dry Vermouth, rocks, two pimiento stuffed olives (three for my wife) on the fancy bejeweled cocktail sticks we got from New Orleans---and there you have it, a simple and classic light cocktail.

New Deal Vodka is exceptionally clean, crisp, medium-bodied, and makes a  flavorful cocktail---which is exactly what we look for in our house and home bar.  And more importantly, it got the father-in-law seal of approval.  (Helps to have fresh vermouth available too; one of the greatest cocktail faux pas is stale vermouth, so that should be avoided at all costs.  Even if it requires pouring out a partial bottle; yes, it's that important.)

Properly primed, with the rough edges of the day bevelled and buffed, we sat down to the dinner my wife had labored on:  thick, chewy, meaty bucatini with fresh-made pesto (thank you, New Seasons, for some wonderful fresh basil!), char-grilled marinated shrimp, an heirloom tomato-fennel 'salad', grill-roasted red and green peppers, chunks of onions, and grilled portobello mushrooms.

The wine?  I knew that the one wine everyone could agree on would be Sauvignon Blanc.  I also wanted something a little different.  So I compromised with a Garciarevalo Casamaro Rueda 2009.  Perfect!  My sister-in-law, one of the Sauvignon Blanc lovers, took one sip and nodded enthusiastically with the comment, "This is great.  Sauvignon Blanc, but it has a nice lively taste."

I explained she was right...but not right.  That the center of Spain produces some white wines that are often understandably mistaken for Sauvignon Blanc, but are instead from the Verdejo grape---in this case mixed in with 10% Viura, another local grape in the Rueda region.

Rueda whites usually have the herbal and high acid nature of Sauvignon Blanc, but with a lean toward fruitiness.  And some think it a bit more 'food friendly' than some of the more austere Sauvignon Blancs.

I'd heard about the Garciarevallo Casamaro, but had never tasted it, so when I saw it on a local shelf--and noticed the 12% alcohol statement, hubba hubba---and the modest price of just over $10, I snatched it up.

Crisp and fruity, relatively low alcohol, and made from free-run juice with no oak treatment, the Casamaro pleased everyone.

It stood up easily to the high acid meal, handled the herbal lavishness of the basil pesto, had no trouble with the grilled sweet shrimp, and nestled right up to the roasted garlic we used in lieu of butter for our bread.

The Casamaro is a good little wine, pleasant for summer-sipping or with a meal, crisp and fruity, and in that accessible price zone (An important factor with folks who like wine but can't bring themselves to spend more than modest amounts for it.  And there's more call for that modesty now than ever before if the wine trends are to be kept in the positive direction.)

Going back to the local bounty theme for dessert, we kept it simple:  fresh-baked brownies and heaping mounds of tasty Tillamook Vanilla Bean Ice Cream.  Simple and tasty; that's all we needed to finish off a lovely meal with family.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Paella/Profligacy 3: Marechal Foch, Fab Four. Rodney, Pucho, & Luna Beberide

The paella was ready.  The guests were primed.  It was time to start opening the red wines.  The profligacy began.

What do you match with a Paella?  I'm sure there are any number of 'expert authorities' who can chime in on this subject, and I'm equally sure each one of them would be correct.

I have no doubt that somewhere on the interweb is a site that has sampled and calibrated every possible wine pairing with paella, and documented them on a digital scale of reference within an algorithm that will infallibly pick the correct wine---depending, of course, on the variables of heat, humidity, prevailing winds, the ph levels of the soft palate, and the oceanic source regions of the shellfish in question.

We decided to use the other time-honored wine and food matching principal of putting the food on the table and surrounding it with as many bottles of wine as possible, then checking the fill levels at the end of the dinner.

The paella was delicious.  The pan filled the center of the table, overflowing with mounds of yellow saffron rice and studded with copious amounts of chicken, shrimp, clams and mussels.  The smell was tantalizing and, even with eight people around a large table, everyone was close enough to shovel up mounds and mounds on their plates, still leaving huge amounts in the pan (Leftovers, I was thinking; very good leftovers!).

The wines

We began by sampling the previously mentioned white wines with the paella.  The Windy Point and the Can Feixes did a fine job there as well---but I'd give the nod to the Can Feixes.  Then it was time for the reds.

There was a Rodney Strong Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2008.  While it didn't bowl anybody over or pull out in front of the field, it was perfectly serviceable (which, okay, sounds like a bad thing in this day of gobstopper ParkerPoints 100, but isn't really).  Candied cherries, with a bit of a fire-roasted tomato thing going on, plump fruit almost going to raisin but stopping short, sanitized earth (this is California, after all): a warm-weather, ripe-fruit, squeaky-clean and correct bottle of Pinot Noir to satisfy the polling numbers and fit safely in the middle-of-the-pack.  Not bad, but no yellow jersey for Rodney this year.

In another surprise, up popped two wines from Vitis Ridge, a small outfit in Silverton, OR---and for those of you who are wondering where the hell Silverton, OR, is, it's in the Willamette Valley, only way over on the eastern edge, not the more popular and more vinously populated center and western edge of the Valley.

It's warmer over there in the east though, and seemingly better suited to the continental and warm-climate varieties...although it appears much of their warm-weather varieties are actually sourced from the Wahluke Slope in Eastern Washington.  It's all very confusing at this point.  We'll all know within a few years what might work well, but for now it's a hodgepodge of varieties.  Vitis Ridge has developed the challenging "business model" of cultivating a wide array of varieties, and with only about 2800 cases, making up to 19 different wines.  We had two of those wines on the table.

Unfortunately, that's about all the background I can provide on the Vitis Ridge Winery because when I attempted to google information, I twice was given warnings most dire to not access the site because there was reportedly some serious malware lurking therein.

Hope they get that fixed so other folks can access it; hard to be without a website in this day of digital reliance.  And there's sparse info out there in other places, although enough to know there are winery visits available, the partners are nice folks, and they grow a hell of a lot of different varieties (which sorta leads me to believe they haven't found any focus yet.)  Oh, horrors: we'll have to rely on the wines themselves to speak to us!

And they speak fairly well.  The Vitis Ridge Marechal Foch 2008, a French-American hybrid sometimes seen on the east coast but only rarely out west, was actually a light-bodied, restrained and gentle red wine with good fruit and little in the way of rough edges.  With surprisingly good balance and soft berry fruit, this was quite a pleasant wine, and ready to drink.

The other, labeled "Fab Four" [NOTE:  All really bad Beatles puns, of which there were several, were successfully redacted at this point for the protection of our readers.  Sincerely, Google, Inc.] was apparently an 'almost-Meritage' but somehow less than because it contained only four of the five approved varieties.  I didn't get the opportunity to read the fine print of the back label, however, so can only assume Petite Verdot was the missing grape.

I don't believe the Meritage Society insists that all five varieties be in the blend to make it a Meritage, just that only those varieties are approved for use in a Meritage.    Cute name, huh?  Which I despise, by the way.  And now if they do get Petite Verdot in there, they're stuck with calling that version the Fab Five, which will be worse. [NOTE:  All really bad Dave Clark Five puns, of which there were fewer because they don't have nearly the songbook the Beatles have, were redacted at this point for the protection of our readers.  Sincerely, Google, Inc.]

In any case, this Fab Four 2007 hadn't melded together as a group yet, and didn't come across in perfect harmony. Bit rough around the edges  Dissonant.  Decent enough fruit, mind you, but came across as muddy and indistinct at center with some scratchy, woody bits on the outside edges.  Perhaps it will integrate better with a little time.  And I'd be interested in seeing more in this vein from this producer.  I liked the Marechal Foch more though, at least on this one night. [NOTE:  Corny, but we let this pass under the metaphor rule.  We're still watching though.  Sincerely, Google, Inc.]

Veering back to the Spanish theme, we had two distinctive, and distinctly different, Spanish reds.

First there was Pucho Bierzo 2005, from the Mencia grape.  Bierzo is a small, narrow and steeply terraced valley east of the Rias Baixas/Albarinho area and north of the Ribera del Duero/Tempranillo area, and the Mencia grape has become all the trendy rage of late with its quasi-Loire-ish Cabernet Franc similarities.

And of course, what with the vinous changes sweeping across Spain now, amidst this sweeping change an essential dichotomy of styles began to emerge, with one side championing a clean, bright, light, almost crisp and freshly fruity stainless steel version, and the other holding forth for creamy, ripe and lavishly fruited wood-aged versions laden with vanilla and spice.

Pucho is clearly, and without question or doubt in the first camp.  And it is an altogether lovely wine.

It's not a blockbuster, and doesn't pretend to be.  It is a wine to be put on the table with food, not to impress or overwhelm or conquer, but to enhance the food and the meal.  It is that most precious of things: an accommodating wine, a wine that doesn't need to impose its own ego but is content with being pleasant and companionable.  I'd be happy to serve the Pucho any number of times, to any number of people, with any number of foods.  It's what wine bibbers call a "go to red," a dependable house wine, an old reliable standby you can always count on.

What it isn't?  It isn't a Loire replacement.  It's not that assertively edgy or pushy and it lacks that hard minerality that some of the better Loire Cabernet Francs have.  So don't expect it to be Loire-ish. It isn't.  And don't expect it to be Cabernet Franc either.  It's Mencia, and it's from Bierzo, and it's pretty damned good at being what it is.

And, as if we were purposely contrasting the stylistic range of Spanish reds, and of Mencia, and of Bierzo, when it was only the coincidence of two different wine guys bringing two Spanish wines to a Spanish dinner, the other entry was the famed Luna Beberide 1999, billed as a VdT Castilla y Leon tinto, but in actuality from Bierzo!

The Beberide was made by Mariano Garcia when he was at Vega Sicilia---while he was working the Unico, for all you Vega fans out there--- and is a blend of 40% Cabernet, 30% Merlot...and 30% Mencia!

So we ended up with one Mencia, and one partial Mencia side by side.  But these wines were entirely different.  Frankly, I had no idea when drinking it that there was Mencia in the blend---I suspected it was Tempranillo and Merlot.

Where the Pucho was light and fresh and edgy and berry fruit driven, the Luna Beberide was closer to a Bordeaux in style, weightier, with darker cassis fruit, mingled with tobacco and dried flowers and herbs, all wrapped up in silky vanilla-laden oak.  I was not surprised afterwards when I discovered the Luna oak regimen was a combination of 80% French/20% American, mostly new, and laid down for 26 months!

So if you're into the older style of Bordeaux or the great California Cabs of the 70s, this is a wine to look for.  It's pricey, yes; but not as pricey as Vega Sicilia Unico would be.

However, a wine is only as good as its time, place, and occasion---and for this occasion, with the paella, the humble Pucho was my preferred wine.  The Pucho accommodated itself to the sweetness of the shellfish and the spice of the rice, and seemed without effort or artifice; the Luna Beberide, while lovely and silky, was too oaky/vanilla shake for me, and insisted on standing separately, apart from the dish.

By this time we were edging into a green salad with toasted hazelnuts and white raisins, and then a triple selection of Spanish cheeses and a tasty cake of dried apricot, for which the Pucho and Luna Beberide served handsomely...along with the leavings of the Vitis Ridge reds and the Pinot Noir.

Once again, the Vitis Ridge Marechal Foch proved a pleasant surprise, durable and persistent, standing up to the aged Manchego nicely.  And once again the Pucho took honors with me.  What can I say?  By this time I realized I was infatuated with the fresh liveliness and inherent likeability of the Pucho.

After the brobdingnagian feast, none of were interested in extending it to the planned elaborate dessert, so we opted for a chocolate truffle comparison---a friend had gone to two different chocolatiers and bought the same type of champagne truffle, so we were content with having them with our coffee to close out the evening.  (And yes, the two truffles were different from each other, one being richer and fuller in flavor, the other being lighter, more delicate.)

Thus ended our night of paella and wine profligacy.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Paella/Profligacy, Part 2: Gazpacho, Can Feixes, and Windy Point

After a thorough study of the three sherries of Lustau---the Fino, the Manzanilla Papirusa, and the estimable Rare Amontillado Escuadrilla (which everyone should immediately go out and get a bottle), and properly stoking ourselves with piquillo and pimiento and such, we adjourned to the dining room, where our hostess delighted us by serving up the very prettiest of yellow gazpachos ever seen.

Quite a simple recipe---and I firmly believe all the best gazpachos are basically simple and reliant on freshness above all---with direct, immediate and singularly intense flavors, the gazpacho was a blend of Yellow Heirloom tomatoes at their perfect point of ripeness, finely minced crisp and crunchy yellow peppers, yellow onion, a sizable amount of cucumber (crunch, crunch, crunch), white wine vinegar, olive oil, and just the tiniest bit of garlic.  Each spoonful was a burst of yellow flavor in the mouth.  Our hostess blushed modestly when praised, and said she had gotten the recipe from a local favorite restaurant, Szmania, owned by Chef Ludger Szmania.  So we praised them both, him for design and her for execution!

And against this I bravely put a handy little blanco from Catalunya, the Can Feixes Blanco Seleccio' 2009, from the highest elevation vineyards in the region, a surprising blend of familiar cava grapes of the region, and some not so familiar---Parellada (40%), Maccabeo (34%), Chardonnay (20%) and Malvasia (6%).  It was beautiful in its poise and balance, with just the right amount of acidity, just the right amount of countering richness and body, and just the right light touch of floral and spice fragrance.  Nicely done indeed, with each grape proportionately filling out the wine to a full roundness.

Worthy of note is the 12.5% alcohol (!!!!!) of the wine, another sign of restraint and balance, and proof positive that a wine need not be overladen with ethanol to be pleasing.  Thank you, Huguet Family, for reminding us of that.

Lemon citrus, touch of zest; soft, ripe green melon; more citrus; yellow plums (mirabelle); bit of peach right in the middle; and the jasmine spice of Malvasia at the end.  Nary a whisper of oak or vanillin, because it's from stainless steel.  And although simple, intense dishes, such as this gazpacho, are the very devil to match with wine because they provide that challenge of simplicity, this complex little white, with all its charm, stepped up to to the occasion without faltering or fading, either in fruit or acid.

Also paired up with the Yellow Gazpacho, and [Warning: out of place sports metaphor] coming in hard and high from outer left field (with this crowd, you always have to stay alert and expect the unexpected) was an unknown-to-me Gewurztraminer from an unknown-to-me little winery called Windy Point.

The Windy Point Dry Gewurztraminer 2009 is that marvel of west coast Gewurz---dry (!), balanced, restrained exuberance of spice, and (glory) high acidity!.  I'll forgive them for claiming it is Alsatian---I understand why they say it; I just don't agree with it, because this is little more than a nod and a wink to Alsace---and why should it be more, because it's a proud little grape from the western end of the Yakima Valley, and therefore a damned fine and absolutely surprising little gem of a Gewurztraminer in its own right.

But as I said, I understand the urge, because this Gewurz clearly stands out from the area, and harkens to a bit of the Alsace touch: viscosity and body without heaviness or clumsiness, ripe fragrance without dime-store perfume, and a clear acid snap at the finish (unusual for Gewurz).  Not an Alsacian, then---bit too much of the west coast baby fat and talcum powder for that---but a damned fine wine.  Neat trick, avoiding the blowsiness common to this grape/region combination, while also avoiding that often disconcerting bitterness on the finish these wines can have.

Since this is the only wine I've had from this vineyard, can't speak of a track record, but I can say that if these folks can repeat this performance, they have a winner on their hands.  And I'm hoping for that.

Next Up:  the Paella finally makes its long delayed entrance, and the profligacy of wine continues unabated, with a Bierzo, a west coast Marechal Foch, and others...

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Paella and a Profligacy of Wine on Queen Anne Hill, Chapter One

The paella beckoned, and we responded.

Girding our loins---and trust me, that's every bit as uncomfortable as it sounds, especially when you're of a certain age---and packing our various and sundries, we began the largely tedious trip up the severely overcrowded and in constant state of repair and improvement  (without ever actually repairing anything and with never a noticeable bit of improvement) I-5 corridor from Portland to Seattle.

To Queen Anne Hill, to be precise, where our old friends  live in genteel splendor, above it all, as it were, on a period-piece hillock in the middle of the metroplex that Seattle has become.

Having stopped at the midway point on our journey to refresh ourselves at the obligatory Burgerville, the Northwest's quirky answer to California's In 'n' Out Burger---how many burger stands do you know that offer not one but two veggie burgers, the second being a Yukon Gold and White Bean grilled patty?  Huh?  Huh?  I thought so!---and indulging in the seasonal and not-to-be-missed Northwest Blackberry Shake in the company of what seemed like most of Centralia and Chehalis on a warm but not hot and blissfully cloud free Sunday

Interruption:  What does it say about the Northwest when Burgerville has about ten advertisements for BLACKBERRY SHAKES AND SMOOTHIES all over the joint, yet when you get the said blackberry shake, the bill says underneath the total, "Our Blackberry shakes are made from 100% Marionberries exclusively from Oregon" with a combination of precision and pride?  I don't know either; but I like it.
And what does it say about me that when I see the word 'marionberries' I think of hundreds of tiny little black Washington DC Mayors with cocaine-encrusted noses?   Something disturbing, I have no doubt.

Where was I....  Oh, yes, we arrived on Queen Anne only to find the party had already begun.  With our friends, no one ever waits to open a bottle of wine, and a quorum is more than one.  Sometimes not even that.  Fortunately, the festivities had progressed only to aperitif wines, and we had been told that sherry would be suitable since the theme was putatively Spanish (keeping in mind that this group is as good at staying on any theme to the same degree that they are at waiting until the guests had arrived to start drinking), and we had sherry.

Another interruption:  What does it say about sherry when people are told that sherry would be appropriate and three different bottles of sherry are produced....and all three are Lustau?  I know it says we have passing good taste, sure, but it must say that the average well turned connoisseur either knows how good Lustau is, or Lustau must be the only choice available.  Sure enough, there were three Lustau--a Puerto Fino, a Manzanillo 'Papirusa', and the Rare Amontillado 'Escuadrilla'.

The Fino was delicate, light and charming; the Manzanilla was more vigorous and assertive and had that iodine-y/seabreeze character that sounds like another marketing ploy, and may be, but makes the bells chime every time; and the Escuadrilla was a particular delight---this should be the Amontillado that everyone who has ever suffered the disappointment of dull, placid, inert, bad Amontillado (most of it out there, it sometimes seems) should be served, so they can revive their flagging interest in really good amontillado, the way amontillado is supposed to be, with its wonderful roasted nut and suspiciously Syrian-Lebanese spicy aromas and flavors on a sharp tight frame.  (All that means I really like it.)

All this wonderful sherry was consumed with roasted garlic, jamon iberico-wrapped blanched asparagus, wood roasted piquillo peppers stuffed with herbed goat cheese, almonds (duh!), mixed olives, and fat green olives marinated with thyme and citrus zest.  And although it didn't say it anywhere, with this group of Northwest yuppie liberal aesthete types (moi included), I'm sure everything was co-oped, sustainably farmed, organic, biodynamic, fair traded, free ranged, and locally sourced whenever and wherever possible, with fully biodegradable wrappers.  I mean, we don't even think about it anymore, y'know.

In subsequent chapters, the paella finally appears, and is worth the wait; copious amounts of wines are produced, some actually Spanish for those who stayed on theme, some very much not Spanish from those with ADD; and the appearance of angels.  Or if not the angels, the purported angel's share, although they lost quite a bit of their share that night.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Toricino Greco di Tufo 2008 at the nel Centro

A long time friend and former co-worker happened to be in town for the day and was available for lunch, so we met up at nel Centro, an Italian restaurant in downtown Portland we'd both been wanting to try.

Nel Centro is a bright, open, airy space with a lively lunchtime vibe.  For all its popularity, though, it's easy on the ears and even when packed allows sufficient quiet for reminiscing conversations at a moderate tone.

The food was delicious too.  We shared a mussels appetizer, with big, fat, juicy mussels steamed in a cream and Pastis-scented sauce.  Lovely fresh flavor to the mussels, and the sauce was good enough to be mopped up assiduously with the slabs of char-singed fresh bread.

For mains we ordered risotto and pasta; for my friend a gorgeous risotto frutti di mare with fat, glossy, sauteed scallops leading the frutti parade.  Since the bowl was squeaky clean and polished when he finished, I'm assuming he enjoyed it.

My dish was a Piedmontese-style ragu on tagliatelle.  The tagliatielle was perfectly al dente (I hate soggy pasta) and loaded with a rich, meaty abundance of veal ragu, with more focus on the meat than the tomato sauce.  A hearty dish for a hot day, but I managed to devour it without any difficulty.

We did have a problem, however, with the wine I selected.   I'd not had this particular producer before, but had heard good things about it (it's a Vaynerchuck rave wine, apparently).  The trouble was, the 2008 version of the Tericino Greco di Tufo from Campania was so totally shrill and shrieking with acidity as to be almost undrinkable.

Side Note and Minor Rant:  When the bottle arrived our young waitress, obviously not handy or familiar with a cork, managed to commit the trivial sin of trying to leverage the cork out at an angle, and broke it about halfway through.  She had to leave, get someone else to extricate the remainder of the cork, and return to serve the wine.   Restaurant Managers, it's not that difficult or time-consuming to teach your servers how to pull a cork out of a bottle!  Makes you look bad, and it's something that can be fixed with a little good management and a bit of training.

Right now, there's no balance whatsoever to the wine---it's totally closed, and only reluctantly yields the smallest grudge of floral/nutty aromatics, which should be a characteristic of this grape from this region.  The acidity pretty much obliterates everything.

My friend and I toyed with our glasses for a long time, hoping that something would emerge.  The wine simply wasn't very enjoyable because of its dominating one-note shrieking cider apple hardness.

Fortunately, the food softened it up just enough to be palatable, and brought out those begrudged almond aromas at last.  If ever a wine needed a food, this one did.

With a little research I discovered the Toricino family is enormously proud of their old gnarled ancient vines on the Greco and Lapio slopes of Vesuvius, and that they are highly regarded for the quality and intensity of what they grow.  That may be, and this particular wine may eventually grow into a lovely representative of its terroir and variety---but it isn't now, and won't be for a good while.  It was only at the very end of our two hour lunch that it gave up any hint of pleasure.

So, if you have any....put it away for a while.  Don't be in a rush to tackle it.  Unless you like hard apple cider or want to use it as a vinaigrette.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Miscellany: Clos La Coutale Cahors, Shrimp & Grits, Cucumber Refresher and Deschutes Ale

Cafe Nell,  Cucumber Refresher and Shrimp and Grits

Decided to have lunch with my son this week, and so went to his place in Portland's Northwest/Alphabet District then strolled to Cafe Nell around the corner.  It promised to be a hot day but at late morning was still pleasant in the shade so we opted for a dappled table on the sidewalk under the trees.

It was 'summer cooler' drinking weather for sure, so my son opted for one that was, essentially, an Arnold Palmer with alcohol, a tea and lemonade laced with whiskey.  Quite good actually.

My choice was a Cucumber Refresher, with Hendrick's Gin, lots of diced cucumber, a touch of rose flower water, lime, muddled mint and soda.  It was rather pleasant, sitting in the shade, watching people and life stroll by in slow Portland casual style, sipping away at a cool drink.

Since it was a brunchish sort of day, he opted for baked ham and eggs and I followed my standing rule of always ordering Shrimp and Grits when I see it on a menu.

Mind you, this rule has as often resulted in mediocre to poor food as good, for it is in the nature of Shrimp and Grits to be as variable as the weather, with sometimes great and sometimes strange manifestations of what Shrimp and Grits is supposed to be.

In the instance of Cafe Nell, Shrimp and Grits is a hefty serving of very thick, creamy, but slightly grainy/mealy grits topped by two eggs with sauteed shrimp in garlic and herbs arrayed on the side.

It made for a pretty picture, as you can see.  Alas, the picture did not live up to its promise (and I doubt this epistle will make it to one thousand words either).

The dish was certainly enjoyable, but not really outstanding in that it was just a bit too bland for me---I admit I like the shrimp in the shrimp and grits to be more in the classic New Orleans style of what they call "barbecued shrimp": zesty and robust and full of piquant heat and spice on top of the sweet shrimp.

This dish was served lukewarm---not a good sign there, signifying it had waited on the staging area until the waitperson got around to it---and was cautiously bland.  It was a version of a southern classic from thousands of miles away, as if the tang of the dish had lessened with the increasing distance.

Mind you, I could have---and should have--- made liberal use of salt and pepper, and perhaps even some hot sauce, to make it more to my taste and liven it up.  But none of these condiments were offered at table, and I did not wish to wait for the waitperson to make the rounds again (one of the potential problems with an al fresco table being out of "line of sight"), and let my grits go colder.  Few things less appetizing than cold grits; trust me on this.

So I did what I usually don't, and settled for okay when it could have been better.  Still and all, the company was good, the day was fine, the refresher refreshed, so all in all I liked Cafe Nell.  I just won't order the Shrimp and Grits again.

Deschutes Brewery Pub in the Pearl

Jake Parrot and his wife, Christina, were in town briefly, laying over on their way to a wedding in the Seattle area, and making the most of their time by whirlwinding through Portland and visiting their many friends and acquaintances.

We met up for some brewski at the Deschutes Pub in the Pearl District.  I'm a big fan of Deschutes, and the classy Mirror Pond Pale Ale as my usual drink and standard go-to favorite in the area for its impeccable balance, but on this day I was intrigued by the Green Lake Organic Ale, an amber ale with a slightly more restrained hops profile and a bit more maltiness.

All that good beer taste, and it's certified Salmon-Safe too!  Makes you feel good while you're feeling good.

Jake and Christina enjoyed the pub so much they circled back around the next evening for the Deschutes Street Fair (although truth be told the fascination had as much to do with the array of food carts along the street as the beer offered----they had both immediately and irreversibly fallen in love with Portland's foodcart culture and were trying to sample as many as they could, which every Portlander knows is a physically impossible challenge, but worthwhile nonetheless.)

Clos la Coutale Cahors 2008

Having just recently campaigned my way through the black wines of Cahors, in Cahors, during the May Journees Internationales du Malbec (hey, you try sampling hundreds of Cahors wines in three days without feeling you're on campaign),  I was both delighted and surprised to see the Coutale half bottles on display in my local New Seasons grocery store---delighted because half-bottles of Coutale make for a perfect evening with meats right  off the grill in the summertime; surprised that the 2008 was already available, for most Malbecs benefit from a bit of bottle aging.  Still, I suppose it's a sign that the Coutale is selling well, so that's all for the good.

The 2008 version, perhaps because of the half bottle format, perhaps because of the vintage, or perhaps a combination of the two, was delightful:  very much Coutale in the classic style, with the impressively rich, dense, compact Malbec softened by the addition of 20% Merlot.  Coutale: reliable as ever!

And this is a good time to halt and say, with great fervor, and even with the accent of Yaacov Smirnoff:  Cahors Malbec half-bottles on the shelves of my local grocery store in a suburb of Portland, Oregon.  IS THIS A GREAT COUNTRY, OR WHAT???

I Don't Think Sebastien Would Appreciate This...

I'm sure it was a hasty transcribing error in keeping the stock properly annotated for sale, but I suppose it's possible a sign-maker was making an editorial comment on one of the French wines on Trader Joe's shelves.

Nah, let's say it's either transcription error or illiteracy.  The "Burgondy" might be the clue here.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Italian Nights: i Clivi Galea, Monchiero Barolo and a Bicycle Thief at Tabla

Tabla is one of those 'tone perfect' restaurants, where every detail is precise and appropriate.  The food is splendid, the wine list is remarkable, and the cocktail program, while small, is right on the mark as well.

Tabla wisely doesn't try to overdo the cocktails by putting too many selections out there.  Mind you, they have a handsomely stocked bar, and the bartenders can whip up anything you ask for, but they keep their featured cocktails focused---just as they do with every other aspect of the restaurant.

One of the more intriguing offerings currently is The Bicycle Thief, a blend of basil-infused gin, Campari, and Carpano Antica Formulae Vermouth.  The name of the cocktail obviously hearkens back to its Italian roots, recalling that eternal classic of Italian cinema by Vittorio di Sica, The Bicycle Thieves (I suspect someone at Tabla is a buff of old Italian cinecitta.)

Campari is that wonderfully bitter and visually striking bright reddish-purple liqueur (you may have had it in a Negroni) the Italians are crazy about.  Carpano Antica Formulae Vermouth is the original recipe of the classic vermouth from the 1800s, made in the old style so it's rich in botanicals, drier than most red vermouths today, and adds a pungent note to any cocktail.

But put these two classics together with the intense basil-infused gin and all its lovely botanicals, and you have one very assertive and highly aromatic cocktail in the European mode.

There's a clear presence of bitter orange in the entry, but the lovely herbal notes suffuse the flavor with intriguing complexity.  The basil is clearly, undeniably there, with a whiff of juniper, of course, from the gin, and the Campari adds not only bitterness but sweetness as well to balance the drink out nicely.

It was a perfect cocktail before the meal, with bright, tangy, lip-stinging and mouth-puckering flavors that perked up the palate, and it did what a cocktail is supposed to do: prepare the palate and stimulate the appetite!

Once prepared, the lucky diner gets to wander through the three part menu of appetizers, pastas, and main dishes.  The three part meal, with a choice from each category, is hands down one of the best bargains in town at $24.

The pastas sounded so good on this night, though, I couldn’t get past them, so ordered a delicious Spanish-influenced salad and doubled up on the pastas with the famous Tabla Ravioli first, followed by the fettucine with albacore tuna and capers.

The Tabla wine list, a creation of general manager Michael Garofola, is a wine lover’s delight, and clearly shows Garofola’s intense focus on distinctive and striking wines. Speak with Michael for more than about thirty seconds, as we did, and you’ll understand his shining passion for wines; he lights up like a beacon.

As complete and compelling and meticulously constructed as the wine list was, one immediately leaped out; when I saw it, all others fell out of contention.  

The i Clivi Galea Tocai Friulano, Colli Orientali del Friuli, 2004, is one of my favorite varieties, from one of my favorite producers, from one of my favorite regions.  A small, select, and almost cult level producing family, the Zannussi’s of i Clivi produce tiny amounts of regional wines under the organic/biodynamic philosophy.  They also insist on making their wines in the old fashion with long term aging---unusual for a white wine---and the results are strikingly individual. 

Galea 2004 and lagniappe from the Chef---a shrimp croquette, crunchy outside, creamy inside

The Galea in this vintage (although perhaps not in others) is 100% Tocai Friulano---a grape name now not permitted since it was disallowed by the authorities resulting from a conflict with Hungary’s Tokaji (don’t ask; it’s one of those weird wine things that doesn’t necessarily make sense), and now must be designated with the altogether bland “Friulano Bianco”.  Since the most current release of Galea, however, is the 2004, and predates that ruling it can still technically be called Tocai Friulano.

No matter the name, Tocai Friulano (also known as Sauvignon Vert or Sauvignonasse, is not usually distinctive---which is an utter shame because Friuli has proven it most certainly has the potential for greatness.  And the I Clivi once again affirms that.  Well aged, firm and tight, with the strange and enticing odors of apple cider, honey, toasted nuts and white flowers, the Galea is austere and lavish at one and the same time (How?  I have no idea!  Taste it and you'll see). 

The Galea is a golden mouthful of brilliant wine, at times like biting into a winter apple from the root cellar (for those who have been able to enjoy that particular experience), and at others showing a soft, viscous, honey and malt richness.  And it becomes amazingly complex with foods, especially with the Tabla Ravioli, a devastating simple ravioli with a poached egg, fresh ricotta, and swiss chard oozing out in golden splendor on the plate when broken with the fork.

Ever notice how most wine marketers spend a lot of time and words trying to convince you they make “food wines”---when it’s the Italians that actually do just that, without much talk or blather?

Staying with the Italian theme, but going to an entirely different wine from an entirely different region---Piedmont---I spotted another unbelievable value, waggling at my eye like a semaphore from the page:  a traditional old-school Monchiero Roere Barolo 2005.  That vintage, a trouble for some and totally dependent on whether the grapes were picked before or after the rains, was excellent for the Monchiero.

The tarry blackness of Monchiero and albacore fettucine 

Splendidly aromatic with that glorious perfume of Nebbiolo that, when described, sounds like anything but grape wine but immediately seizes the palate and the imagination when inhaled (and, yes, I did inhale), the Monchiero was love at first smell:  Dried roses and violets, road tar, shriveled raisins, pungent dried herbs, fresh-turned damp earth, mushrooms, dense, dark concentrate of blackfruit preserves, and, once again but at a different level, deeper, deeper, more road tar… does that sound enticing?  Well, believe it: it is.

The wood was a bit evident, and since I’m being critical the middle palate was a bit thin and dried out, but that’s a quibble of imperfection when considering how much sheer, intense pleasure this wine provided.  And despite my having a seemingly incompatible dish of albacore tuna and fettucine and capers and olives, the wine was gracious and amenable and adaptive (and especially so with the capers and black olives).

In the anti-climactic aftermath of that splendid Barolo, we properly opted for a simple Italianate dolce and a cup of my favorite coffee, Illy Cafe of Trieste (and yet another grace note for Tabla!) to taper off the evening.

Seriously: what more could one ask for?