Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Sweets and Savories on Fullerton

This is not a current review of a restaurant we recently visited, but we dined at Sweets and Savories for Natalie's birthday earlier this year. It was an amazing Iron Chef-style restaurant. I ran across the menu I had jotted down and wanted to save it for posterity. We had the chef's tasting menu for $60 with no corkage fee. We brought a bottle of Montes Alpha Syrah.

I asked the server if I could have dishes without shellfish, so I had alternates on several courses, which explains why there are two listed below.

First course:
Foie gras mousse with pomegranate coulis and brioche

Second course:
Five mushroom soup with truffle oil
Mussels in lobster broth

Third course:
Seared butternut squash on ravioli filled with English peas and mint
Seared scallops

Fourth course:
Bluberry risotto with duck confit and pan sauce

Fifth course:
Organic beef tenderloin on yellow fingerling potatoes with maderia wine pan sauce, finished with truffle oil and shaved white truffles

Sixth course:
Baby arugula salad with shaved Grana Padano cheese and lemon-olive oil vinegarette

Seventh course:
White truffle ice cream

Eight course:
Dark chocolate terrine with fresh raspberries and raspberry coulis

Chocolate truffles served with the bill

Bread from Red Hen Bakery: white raisin/fennel and ciabatta

Everything was very good. My only criticism at the time was that the blueberries for the risotto should have been run through a food mill to remove the seeds as this upset the texture of the dish. Otherwise, it was great. I hope we can go back at some point.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Duck Ragu, Castello di Monastero Sangiovese and McManis Merlot

We had a great dinner of imported Italian Latini farro linguini from Gustiamo.com with a duck ragu made from Maple Leaf Farm's duck.

For the ragu, I browned two duck leg/thigh quarters that were seasoned with a little kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. I used about a quarter cup or less of olive oil in the All-Clad Tagine. After browning the duck over medium-high heat, I removed the duck to a plate and added a diced Vidalia onion, two diced large carrots and three diced celery stalks (deveined). After about 10 minutes at medium heat, until softened, I added a few cloves of finely chopped garlic and sauteed until the garlicky smell started to rise. Then, I added the duck back to the tagine and added two cups of 2004 McManis Family Vineyards Merlot, a cup of chicken stock and two cans of diced tomatoes. I also added several healthy pinches of sage, which I rubbed together in my fingers to "wake up" the herbs, and smaller amounts of basil, oregano, thyme, and marjoram. I covered and simmered for about an hour and half (until almost all the liquid has reduced). I then removed the duck and set aside to cool a bit. I blended the remaining sauce with a stick blender, directly in the pan. After the duck cooled, I removed the duck from the bone and chopped with a cleaver until it was completely pulverized. I added the duck back to the sauce and mixed the cooked linguini with the sauce. We served with freshly grated parmigano reggiano (from Caputo's cheese market in Melrose or Stone Park) and a 2002 Sangiovese Toscano from Castello di Monastero. For our accompanying bread, we broiled slices of a baguette with a drizzle of Castello di Brolio estate olive oil, which we got on our honeymoon to Italy. The oil is from Tuscany. It is a very green olive oil with rich, buttery notes that blows out of the water any olive oil found in American grocery stores. This oil is best saved for applications where it can be appreciated on its own.

This Merlot came to Natalie as a gift at the Las Vegas Gourmet Housewares show from Cynmark Designs that make the Bottleneckless, a drip catcher for wine bottles. It retails for less than $10 but has a fairly good complexity for the price. It was smooth, very drinkable. I think it had the bouquet of cherry pie and was not overly tannic or acidic. The finish was slightly berry-like. I'd give it a 84.

This wine was a nice surprise. It's been in our "wine closet" for a long time — so long that I don't remember where we got it. I think it may have been one that we brought back from Italy, or maybe my folks got it for us, because the bottle was all in Italian and did not have the required sulfites for importing. It was another smooth wine that paired well with the sauce. It was slightly tannic, but it rounded out the duck fat of the sauce (which was not overly pronounced). The bottle description of "fruti di bosco" bouquet was accurate. Natalie also thought that it has dark cherry notes and a slight sweetness on the finish. Mmm, mmm good. I'd give it a 91.

Friday, May 12, 2006

2004 Tait The Ball Buster (Barossa Valley)

If I didn't want to draw an association between this wine and a group of male strippers, I wouldn't call this the "Thunder from Down Under." What the hell. With a name like The Ball Buster, they have to expect some genital-based humor. All jokes aside, this is a serious wine. Seriously fun. It's big right out of the bottle (screwcap and all). It's crazy fruit on the nose that carry over to the palate. Dark cherry, blackberry, even a little blueberry. This is about $15, but it's a great wine to spring on your friends, for the name and the palate-pleasing effect it will have. I'd give it a 92.

Natalie's Note: Stupid name, good wine. I requested we buy a second bottle of this, and will look for it again.

Jeff's Note: Great name, great wine.

2004 Mount Riley (Marlborough) Sauvignon Blanc

This Sauvignon Blanc purchase from Binny's was an impulse buy to try another Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand other than the excellent Villa Maria. In the same price range of $12-14, this was not in the same league. It was overly acidic with mineral notes that took over. It was fine with a great salmon dish Natalie made in a smoker bag (try it!), but not what I expected. It was decent on the nose with the predictable citrus and tropical notes, but didn't deliver on the palate. A somewhat disappointing 83.

Side note: The Savu Smoker Bag for smoking in a kitchen oven can be purchased at Williams-Sonoma in Chicago under a private label from what I understand. But I think there are better, cheaper places to get it online. The bag is made of foil, is disposable, and smokes the food using wood chips that are in an in-between layer of the foil pouch. It's great for cooking fish and vegetables without using oil, and takes hardly any time in the oven.

2003 Coltibuono Cetamura Chianti

This wine holds special meaning for us as we brought it back from our Italian honeymoon. Badia a Coltibuono is a beautiful abbey up in the mountains of Chianti that also happens to produce some great Chianti wines. It also has a world-famous restaurant that has never been open when I've been there, but it's a truly spectacular Chianti estate.

This wine can be found in the states for less than $10 and it is generally not very well respected as its more up-market cousins. This is not a Chianti Classico, so that accounts for some of the difference. It is generally a wine that you would want to drink sooner than we did, but the right occasion never seemed to come up. On a recent Friday night, Natalie made steaks and an amazing triple-cream goat cheese pasta sauce (made with Coach Dairy Farm triple cream) with pasta from Italy (thanks Gustiamo!). That seemed special enough for me.

The wine itself was much better than I expected. The little bit of aging helped round off some of sharper corners of young Chianti wines and I don't think that it was nostalgia that made me think of Rosso di Montalcino. The wine had some nice currant and blackberry notes but with a smoky-tobacco-tar undertone that paired really well with the cast-iron seared steak. I'd give this an 88.

Side note: The Coach Dairy Triple-Cream Cheese is made in the Hudson River Valley by small artisanal producers who founded and once owned Coach Leathergoods Co. (Yes, the one that makes expensive purses.) The cheese is an extreme experience, and contains 75% butterfat. Also, many Italian imports, including the pasta I prepared, can be found at Gustiamo.com. Gustiamo also sells another sentimental item from our honeymoon, Sant' Eustachio coffee, which is one of the world's finest. It comes from a small roaster and cafe that is located near the Pantheon in Rome. The coffee has a natural caramel flavor to it that is just sublime. For anyone who visits Rome, the cafe is a must. And now, for the first time, the coffee is available for purchase in the U.S. You won't have the charm of the tucked-away Roman cafe, but you can get the robust, luscious flavor of a truly unique coffee in your robe on the couch at home.

2001 Rioja Sierra Cantabria Crianza

This was a weeknight wine that we got from Binny's for about $10. At that price it's a good substitute for an Italian-style red wine. Spanish wine doesn't have the reputation of Italy, rightfully so, but there are some very good values out there and if you're willing to spend a little more, some bigger wines too. This was fairly peppery with dark fruit (black cherry and currant?). This would probably be about an 85.

2002 Castano Solanera Vinas Viejas Yecla

This wine was another Binny's purchase. It came recommended and cost in the $12-$15 range. It paired well with the steak dinner we had the night we tried this wine. It was peppery with dark cherry notes and a relatively smooth finish. I'd give it a 87 (which seems to be mainly what I end up drinking. Good, not great). It's a solid middle class wine.

2003 Rondo Pinot Grigio

There's not a lot to say about this wine. It was a "value" buy at Cabernet and Company on Main St. in Glen Ellyn, Ill. This is super cute shop next to a great restaurant, Cabs, that used to be under the same ownership. This shop has a relatively small selection of wines, but it is well-balanced in terms of price, geographic coverage and types of grape. For $5, it's hard to critique this wine too much, but it tasted like a $5 wine.

The main characteristic was acid. It was very acidic and somewhat mineral-laden, although overall not a very drinkable wine. It worked OK as a weeknight wine. I'd give it a 78.

Natalie's Note: Jeff says he likes this better than a Three Buck Chuck, but I might disagree. I was disappointed because the woman at the wine store made me more hopeful that this was a real find.

2004 Antinori Santa Cristina

Antinori Santa Cristina is billed as an "everyday" wine, but has both stood the test of time in terms of keeping a consistent high-quality taste and also remained a low-price value, despite the consistently positive reviews that would normally nudge up the cost. I first discovered Santa Cristina in the late '90s while studying in Rome. This was a good time to drink "table wine" from Tuscany as 1997 was an amazing year in Chianti, which is home to Santa Cristina.

The wine shares many qualities with a young Chianti, as it's a Sangiovese. It's a dry wine. But it has some nice subtle complexities of tannins and dark, dark fruit. It doesn't need to open up too much, which is to be expected. At under $10, it's a steal with pastas, pizza or a good party red, although it does better with food. I'd give it a 87-89 depending on the vintage. Drink it now as this wine doesn't need to be cellared.