3 lovely bubblies from Gloria Ferrer

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Champagne makers and bubbly makers everywhere are really happy that many of us Americans have begun picking up on the French and European practice of drinking bubbles for every day pleasure instead of reserving those delightful champagnes and sparkling wines just for special occasions. Today we’re featuring three expressions from the caves of Gloria Ferrer priced in the $20-$30 range, any one of which will make you and your guests beam with pleasure as you pair the wine with some of your favorite foods.

Ferrer Sonoma Brut bubbly
Ferrer Sonoma Brut bubbly

Gloria Ferrer, for 600 years a world renowned maker of sparkling and still wines with a history of female leadership, makes multiple expressions of bubblies that combine Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes in quite different proportions. Gloria Ferrer’s Sonoma Brut, for example, is made with 86.5% Pinot Noir and 13.5% Chardonnay. The finished wine shows off delicate pear and floral notes backed by toasty almond. On your tongue, you’ll find lively citrus, toast and apple flavors along with a persistent effervescence, a creamy mid-palate and a toasty finish. Pair this lovely bubbly with shellfish, crab, roast chicken or sushi. Seasoning affinities include lemongrass, fennel and white pepper. Serve with hard aged and triple-cream cheeses, maybe with some Meyer lemon compote to round out the cheese course. Alc 12.5% SRP $22.

Gloria Ferrer’s Blanc de Noirs is 91.6% Pinot Noir and 8.4% Chardonnay. It serves up bright strawberry and black cherry aromas with subtle vanilla highlights. Creamy cherry, lemon and cola flavors combined come with a lush palate, lively bubbles and a persistent finish. This wine is outstanding with crab, Thai cuisine, roast pork, quail, foie gras and with semi-sweet desserts. Seasoning affinities include star anise, plum sauce and tarragon. Try pairing it with your cheese course with a triple aged Gouda or other hard aged cheeses with persimmons and hazelnuts. Alc 12.5% SRP $22.

Perfect cheese wine - Ferrer Brut Rose
Perfect cheese wine – Ferrer Brut Rose

Gloria Ferrer’s Brut Rosé is an especially lovely rendition of bubbly. Made with 60% Pinot noir and 40% Chardonnay, it has bright strawberry and Ridge aromas followed by notes of crème brûlée, Meyer lemon and green apple. It feels like a creamy mousse and keeps giving you fruit all the way to the finish where you get a touch of mineral. Pair this lovely wine with anything spicy,  Asian inspired dishes, barbecue pork ribs or grilled seafood. This rosé is outstanding with many varieties of goat cheese served with olives and herbed nuts. Only 2000 cases produced. Alc 12.5% SRP $29. We really love this delicate and delicious bubbly!

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Champagne Maison Henriot glorious with pasta!

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Maison Champagne Henriot has been making beautiful champagnes for generations. The family is still running the winery and making the precious wines with the same care and attention they have always lavished on their creations. Recently the lovely Katie Parker, Regional Sales Director for Henriot Maison in central U.S., brought several expressions of this line of fine champagnes for wine dinner guests to try in combination with chef-paired pasta dishes specially created by the experts at Spiaggia, 980 N. Michigan. Truly a memorable way to enjoy these luscious champagnes and the creative genius of Spiaggia’s culinary team, Chefs Tony Mantuano and Joe Flamm, along with Rachel Lowe, one of only 5 female Master Sommeliers in the world, who manages the restaurant’s extensive wine collection.

Maison Henriot invited the chefs to taste the wines and invent pasta dishes that would showcase how perfectly the various expressions pair with the right pasta. The point is, said Maison Henriot rep Katie Parker, glorious champagnes don’t have to be relegated to only haute cuisine or special occasions. They are equally appropriate with simple, beautifully prepared dishes.

The chefs at Spiaggia, of course, don’t stint on their creativity when designing pasta dishes. Seeing that Spiaggia bills itself a “modern Italian” restaurant, it’s not surprising that some of these items were extraordinary in themselves – and truly magnificent with the paired champagne. A favorite was the Aglio e Olio Agnolotti, a magical creation from the Spiaggia kitchen that fairly dripped creamy richness, both from the filling in the hand-made pasta and the richly aromatic olive oil drizzle, paired with Henriot’s Brut Souverain. This champagne is a classic, elegant expression that’s a mix of 50% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot noir and 5% Pinot Meunier. Aged a minimum of four years, it shows a nice minerality along with wonderfully lively with notes of white flowers and citrus on the nose. On the palate, brioche and white fruit notes lead to a clean and fresh finish. We so had to close our eyes on this combination!

The Brut Blanc de Blancs is non-vintage but is blended with up to 40% of reserve wine from other excellent years. The mix of 50% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Noir and 5% Pinot Meunier is aged a minimum of four years and results in good minerality and fresh bouquet, yet shows full body and power on the palate. Notes of brioche intermingle with quince jelly and acacia honey along with a fresh and wonderfully long finish.

Other expressions include the Brut Rosé, Cuvee 38, and theirt wo vintage 2008 Millésimé champagnes, Brut and Rosé. Champagne Henriot Cellar Master Laurent Fresnet uses no oak in the house’s pure Chardonnay expressions, so if you’re of the no-oak-thank-you persuasion, you’ll find these champagnes highlight all the other wondrous qualities of the grapes. Maison Champagne Henriot continues to do justice to the long revered art of producing fine champagnes. Special occasion or simple pasta, you and your guests will feel rewarded no matter which expression you choose.

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Super cool no-stick MasterPan has kickstarted

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A company called Masterpan is out to change your cooking habits. Their live Kickstarter campaign for the new MasterPan collection began on August 31. And after using the samples we received  for a couple of weeks, we admit to being impressed.

The pans are heavier than you expect for a non-stick pan. Each pan has a large heavy steel disk on the bottom which, when preheated for two minutes, actually distributes the heat across the entire area of the giant square pan. It minimizes cold corners and edges. The nonstick coating seems thicker and sturdier than others we’ve used. And the lid fits all of the pans, so you can steam something for a little bit and then brown it on both the flat surfaces and the grill surfaces.

Masterpan grilled potato wedges
Masterpan grilled potato wedges

One night I decided to challenge the pan to produce some crispy potato wedges. I was delighted to find that five minutes in the microwave for a couple of very large red potatoes got them just soft enough to slice into thick wedges. Then, using an absolute minimum of oil – we use a pump mister for our olive oil – I distributed the wedges around the three sections of the pan. Then I noticed they weren’t quite cooked through, so I put the lid on the pan for five minutes and got them just tender enough. The soft-rubber-edged seal makes the lid fits closely and thus creates a good head of steam to hurry the cooking along.

Took the lid off and continued cooking to end up with crispy potato wedges with those appetizingly brown grill marks on them. Sprinkled half of them with chipotle chili pepper and garlic salt, the other half with just garlic salt, and applied the oil mister a couple more times. Really delicious and crispy and not oily in the least. And I didn’t have to turn the big oven on – a problem in our small kitchen, which heats up outrageously when the oven is on. We are always looking for good ways to avoid that, especially in the summer.

MasterPan breakfast
MasterPan breakfast

Made a beautiful breakfast the last two mornings. Four minutes for a potato in the microwave. Meanwhile, steam as much fresh baby spinach as you can fit into the grill side of the 3-section pan. Throw a few drops of water or olive oil in first, then put the leaves in and cover it. After the potato is squeezably soft, grate it (thin slice the peels, too). Open the skillet lid, remove the spinach to your plate. Mist the 3 sections with olive oil, throw the grated potato in the grill section and one of the flat ones. Cook a few minutes – it will brown delicately – and then break an egg into the third section. You can cover to steam the egg a bit, or you can flip it over. Voila. You have fresh steamed spinach, hash browns and an easy-over egg, all from one pan, in under 10 minutes. This is simplified cooking, people.

Masterpan grilled chicken n veg - more challenging than breakfast
Masterpan grilled chicken n veg – more challenging than breakfast

We love the heaviness, the close-fitting multi-pan lid, the multiple cooking options (grill, flat) and, for a single person living alone, the small divided sections do actually help control portion sizes – as long as you stick to that much. Get yours now during the MasterPan Kickstarter campaign. And, just for fun, here’s their cute promotional video.

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Homewood Suites by Hilton amenities beckon foodies

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It was a stroke of genius for Homewood Suites by Hilton40 E. Grand, to invite Kevin Curry to show Chicago media how to cook his unique dishes easily with their food-friendly amenities, including the full complement of pans and other kitchen utensils available in every Homewood suite in all of their three downtown Chicago locations.

Curry is really fit. You notice immediately upon meeting him how his nicely cut shirt strains over his nicely cut muscles. He operates FitMenCook and part of his mission, since he himself travels  a great deal, is to make up delicious recipes for low calorie, low-cost dishes that you can make with minimal ingredients.

The family-friendly, all-suite Homewood Suites by Hilton are designed for people who want to stay for several days in the city, whether for business or pleasure. The Grand Ave. location has undergone a dramatic re-design in the last few years. It used to be more of the old-fashioned dark green and maroon colors, cozy with lots of walls. Now they have opened up the spaces, removing walls and installing light, modern furnishings along with a wall of glass, so guests can see some of the most iconic buildings in downtown Chicago while relaxing with a glass of wine or a snack at cocktail hour.

And Homewood Suites by Hilton make cooking in your suite, pardon the pun, a piece of cake. One of the most amazing services they offer is the free shopping service. Seriously. You heard right. You make out the list. You give them the list. You relax or work while they go shopping for you. Then, they deliver your items to your suite. Or hold them at the desk if you’re not back yet. How cool is that?

*Consider putting a package of Miracle Noodles (see pic above) on that shopping list. Eating Curry’s recipe for shrimp in avocado -coconut sauce served atop of these almost-no-calorie gems is as close to guilt-free, rich pasta eating as you can get.

All of the rooms have been newly conceived: clean, crisp, and nicely designed. A very pleasant place to come home to when you’re staying in our busy city for several days. Certainly, on the really hot day of the cooking demos, the air conditioning was struggling a bit with 25 observers in a single room. But obviously that shouldn’t be a problem when you book a room with a normal number of occupants!

All of the people who were involved with the event seemed passionately committed to helping guests enjoy their experience in this lovely reimagined 23-story building in the heart of Chicago’s downtown. Consider it for your home-away-home when you’re in town for business or just want to take a break from ordinary life for a few days.

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Riedel wine glasses show size really does matter

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Maximillian Riedel
Maximillian Riedel

Maximillian Riedel, owner of Riedel Glassware in Austria, came to Chicago recently as part of his six-US-cities tour and staged an impressive demonstration of how the size – and shape – of your glass matter immensely to how your wine will taste.

We’ve all heard that wine glass characteristics are critical to gaining the maximum pleasure from each type of wine, but until you’ve actually experienced the difference, you might be skeptical. Attendees at West Loop’s City Winery were eager to see what this master of wineglass making would have to say.

Riedel spoke at length about the purpose of a wineglass, chief among which is to be “the loudspeaker for the wine.” Every group varietal has its own DNA, he said, and only the proper glass will showcase it to its best advantage. He also said Riedel is commissioned by wineries all around the world to create glasses for their particular grape varietal. They’ve fulfilled some heady assignments: Dom Perignon asked Riedel to create a single type of glass for all their wines. Joseph Krug asked for a glass other than a flute for his champagnes. The flute shape promotes the smell of yeast rather than fruit, and thus all champagnes tend to smell the same when served in a flute.

Riedel large wineglasses from 3 lines
Riedel large wineglasses from 3 lines

In regards to global warming, a critical question for winemakers these days, the wine glass makers said they have had to continue to enlarge their  glasses in order to manage the increased intensity of the fruit and the higher alcohol that warmer temperatures are promoting. He said even Norway is beginning to plant grape vines. “As to whether this is a good thing,” he said, “time will tell.”

His company responded when the spirits industry first begin to honor tequila, and then sake, and now the trend is toward brown spirits, mainly in crafted cocktails – honoring the drink with everything from the size of the ice cube to the weight and configuration of the glass. Riedel has created an entire new series of glasses specifically made for various types of spirits and mixed drinks.

Riedel defended the thinness of the company’s glasses by saying this contributes to keeping the beverage longer at the proper serving temperature. When you put a cool or cold liquid into a glass that’s at room temperature, the thicker the glass the more quickly the liquid begins to warm up.

Maximillian decanting onstage
Maximillian decanting onstage

Maximillian is tall, slender, aristocratic and, especially with his delightful Austrian accent, a compelling speaker. He commanded the attention of the audience from the moment he came onstage. He spoke about how his great grandfather invented the first Riedel glasses that changed the way wine makers felt about their beloved beverage. He spoke of how his grandfather, his father and he himself have honored the tradition by continually testing and crafting new and better shapes and configurations to improve the experience of drinking quality wine and other alcoholic beverages.

Riedel wineglass appreciation workshop
Riedel wineglass appreciation workshop

We certainly expected to notice a difference in this demo, but perhaps not as much as we actually did, especially on the white wine. He started the demonstration with wine poured into plastic cups – the type you usually get at outdoor events or crappy bars. Then he reminded everyone to remember that you experience wine in four different ways: 1. The texture. 2. The temperature. 3. The taste. And, 4. The aftertaste [which includes the finish, or how long the flavors stay on the palate ~BP} before instructing us to pour the white wine into the first three glasses to begin.

A few of the tasting tips this master of wineglass architecture shared with attendees:

  • Decant every bottle of wine, even champagne, and for Pinot Noir, it is a must. Aerating wine makes it absorb oxygen which helps it mature – and aging will always improve a wine. For mature wines (10-plus years), decant slowly to avoid sediment.
  • Swirl your wine gently in the glass to continue aerating as you enjoy. The new optic finish (read: ever-so-slightly rippled) inside the new Riedel Performance series increases the surface area inside the glass which further helps aerate the wine.
  • Do not rinse your glass with water between wines. Tap water has its own taste and aroma that can interfere.
  • To properly experience a wine’s aroma, place your nose into the glass and breathe in. On this first sniff you should notice the fruit in the wine, but keep your nose in the glass as you breathe out then in again. The second time you should notice more of the minerality.
  • Throw out your old traditional white wine tulip glasses (and your plastic). I noticed the greatest difference here. White wine in the small traditional-shape glass gave off very little aroma except alcohol. Virtually nothing at all in a plastic cup. Once you pour and swirl it in the much wider and more rounded bowl of the balloon-shaped Riedel Restaurant Oaked Chardonnay glass – designed in 1973 for Italian sommeliers (and in Europe, Riedel said, they use this glass for gin & tonics) – you get the full effect of all aromas: fruit, yeast and oak. He said you end up sort of sucking your wine out of this shape, so that it hits your tongue higher up, thus avoiding the tip of the tongue (see **tip below). But at least as impressive to me was the transformation of the texture, compared to drinking from the original glass. In the new glass the wine comes into its silky and creamy natural state. A real eye-opener.
  • White chocolate goes best with a quality Pinot Noir. He had us chew a piece of it, then sip the wine with the chocolate still melting in our mouths. Nice. [And how we love dark chocolate with Cabernet!]
  • Some of the words Riedel used to describe the way wines can taste/feel – good or bad: thin/heavy/viscose/jammy, rough/smooth/creamy/silky, salty/dry/green/bitter, heavy/light and so on. If you think about it, you’ve probably experienced all of those reactions to a wine at some point, but perhaps, like many of us, were not always quite able to name them. [The magic word for good wine is “balanced” so that no one of these qualities overpowers the others. ~BP]

In case you need additional expert testimony, Robert Parker, the famed wine critic, uses Riedel glassware for his taste testing. And most of Riedel’s business is from home eonophiles rather than restaurants. Only a guess – restaurants are businesses and the cost and relative fragility of these fine Riedel glasses may be a deterrent.

**Riedel said the tip of your tongue is an “acidity bumper” and that this is desirable when you want the acidity to counterbalance the fruit – which is why the unusually shaped Performance Pinot Noir glass is designed specifically to make the wine touch the tip of your tongue immediately. Works beautifully.

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Mason, newest star on the Chicago upscale chophouse scene

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There’s a new contender in town on the Chicago upscale chophouse restaurant scene. Mason, 613 N. Wells St., located at street level in the Found Hotel in River North, has put a lot of effort into getting it right, right from the start. Having just opened last Thursday, they’ve been conducting a massive introduction to the city by holding a series of invitation-only evenings for industry observers and others in the business this week.

The ambiance is first class: dark walls, handsome oil paintings, many subtly lit by individual accent lights, and a different type of beautiful lighting in each part of the room. Each table holds its own shaded lamp, too. Despite a few minor timing issues, the service was very successful. – friendly and helpful – on an evening when all tables were full.

Our server recommended a wine, Balancing Act, a Cabernet that opened up beautifully after decanting, and that turned out to be the perfect pairing with our meal. Even though we ordered some seafood appetizers, the dishes had enough power that the wine worked well.

The menu apears to contain a carefully orchestrated selection of at least one item among apps, soups, salads and entrees designed to appeal to lovers of almost any type of meat, poultry, seafood or vegetarian fare.

In terms of appetizers, you almost couldn’t beat the Spiced Shrimp with parsley and Filipino-Cajun spice ($22). The sauce – wonderfully subtly, spicy, complex, and very lightly thickened – bathed a generous helping of large, whole shrimp, heads on, that were perfectly cooked and absolutely delectable. A couple of slices of deeply grilled crustless but substantial white bread on the side made a perfect way to get every drop of that sauce.

The crabcake – single because it’s really big ($21) – came out nestled in a pool of lobster bouillon and covered in tiny, crispy shreds of sweet potato. My companion, who orders crab cakes everywhere she goes, would have liked the cake to have a bit more crab. The potato crispies were fun, if a tiny bit salty. The kale salad ($12) was exceptionally good. We loved the fact that they mixed different types of greens with the kale – the combination kept the kale from being overwhelming – and the salad was served with just the right amount of a delicious anchovy-mustard vinaigrette dressing.

Mason lamb chops
Mason lamb chops

The lamb chops ($48) were delicious and presented beautifully on the plate. The 25-ounce ribeye steak ($65) had a char on it that was, frankly, amazing, given we’d ordered it – and it was delivered perfectly as ordered – medium rare. The bordelaise sauce option we chose was rich, deep and red-winey. The serving of meat was quite generous, so we ended up taking home a good chunk.

Mason dessert menu
Mason dessert menu

Desserts were creative, from the Creme Brûlée with popcorn custard, peanut biscotti and Cracker Jack dust, to the Banana Toffee Pudding and the truly unique flavors of sorbet. The after-dinner drink menu was a nicely curated selection: two port wines, a Sauternes, and a few other tempting desert wines. Delicious and reasonably priced. Service was a bit slow at times, but in truth, it gave us time to enjoy and digest each course. In the end, our dinner was unusually relaxed.

Many hours of preparation and planning went into this new place. The lighting is exquisite, the dark walls comforting, the beautifully framed antique-style paintings, soothing. All of it together makes a perfect environment in this white tablecloth restaurant which, if the opening nights are any indication, is going to make a serious mark on the scene.

And in case you’re in the mood for more entertainment after dinner, the owners John Terzian and Brian Toll have also introduced the Chicago iteration of their cool LA karaoke bar called Blind Dragon in the basement of the Found Hotel (another location in Scottsdale). What an idea – after a marvelous dinner to continue your evening down the stairs with some Asian-inspired cocktails and some passionate singing!

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