Category Archives: appetizers

Bordeaux wines galore – and at RPM wine dinner

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Last week was a great time for Bordeaux in Chicago. Dozens of winemakers and representatives from dozens of appellations in the Bordeaux, France wine region converged in one of the ballrooms at the elegant historic Drake Hotel to introduce their mainly 2014 vintages to press, trade and the public. Visitors walked around tasting while, behind the tables, reps from members of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux gave out pour after pour of mostly red blends, plus a few whites and Sauternes for good measure. As you read my recommendations, keep in mind I’m partial to big, dry, complex reds.

A few of my favorites came from a region I hadn’t previously been very familiar with, Saint-Estephe, and included all four of the wineries present from there (check links for wine notes and prices): Château Ormes de Pez 2014, Château Cos Labory 2014, Château Phelan Segur 2014, and especially Château Lafon-Rochet 2014.

Others that I gave highest marks to were from among the Grand Crus de St. Emilion and included Château Beau-Séjour Bécot 2014, Château Canon-La-Gaffelière 2014, Château Grand Mayne 2014, and Château Villemaurine 2014. Really beautiful wines.

I was also impressed with some from the Pomerol appellation of Bordeaux. Check out Château Beauregard 2014, Château Clinet 2014 and Château La Cabanne 2014. Two notables from the Pessac-Leognan appellation were Chateau Olivier and Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, each of which presented both a white and a red.

And later that evening, a fine wine dinner at RPM Steak House featured 5 lovely wines from the Pouillac appellation in Bordeaux – food and drink to set the imagination afire. Amuse bouches were tiny and flavorful, including oysters with mignonette. The appetizer course was a generous-sized disk of Hamachi, studded with caviar and surrounded by a warm, slightly sweet yuzu emulsion. First course was an outstanding Pepper-Crusted Tuna Belly – one piece of which was prepared confit (NUM!) and the other ahi-style, both served with a spoonful of sturdy mushroom Bearnaise. Utterly succulent and delicious and perfect with a Bordeaux blend, Les Tourelle de Longueville, Pauillac 2011.

Next came Prime Dry Aged Beef – two small pieces of beef aged 90 days and two aged for 9 days. Both were spectacular and were served with two vintages of Chateau Pichon Longueville Baron Pauillac, one from 1990 and one from 2009. Lovely, rich reds.

Then came, not one but two desserts, both outstanding. One, poached apricots served in a warm almond custard that was to die for (I am wild about anything custard), and then a Sticky Toffee Pudding with rum raisin ice cream, both served with Chateau de Suduiraut Sauternes, one from 2004 and the other from 1975. Beautiful, beautiful. Thank you, RPM and thank you, makers of Bordeaux wines par excellence. (And thanks to Elizabeth for some nice shots!)
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Book reviews: 3 health-smart and delicious cookbooks

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I love to cook. I love to eat good food. As age has begun creeping up, my granddaughter’s growing older, and I keep learning more, I find myself thinking more and more about the nutrition in the things we eat. I happen to be lucky enough to love vegetables, which many people don’t – including most kids – so it’s not hard for me to get my big doses of vitamins with pure vegetables like tomatoes (according to my Fitbit food tracker, they are the #1 food I consume across all meals every day of the week), orange squashes, romaine, kale and spinach, to name a few. But that just doesn’t work for a lot of folks – some of whom may also have physical conditions that require special consideration in their meal planning.
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Below are three books I’ve recently been asked to review, and I gotta tell you, these are all three excellent books for eating delicious and nutritious foods every day of your life – one addresses stomach issues, another diabetes, and the third is about just plain wonderful recipes that also give you tons of extra nutrients. Five stars for all three.
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    1. pH Balance for GI difficulties
      pH Balance for GI difficulties

      The pH Balance Health & Diet Guide for GERD, IBS & IBD: Practical Solutions, Diet Management and 175 Recipes, by Dr. Fraser Smith BA, ND, Susan Hannah BA, BScH, and Dr. Daniel Richardson BS, MSc, PhD, DAANC, CNC. This is a carefully researched guide to helping people with certain disruptive gastrointestinal (GI) disorders. It gives the science behind the digestive system and detailed explanations about how highly processed foods acidify your system, as does a diet high in meat, dairy and sugar. Here are a few of the questions the book answers: Why acidity can contribute to illness in most body systems; why the Western diet is so poorly balanced for pH; and what you can do about it.

      For some people, the initial explanatory section and the many boxes giving more science may be too much information. But if you are suffering from a GI disorder, you want relief. And the suggestions for balancing your system make sense; the recipes are clear and uncomplicated. Plus, we think you’re going to just plain like the food. Check out the recipe for Crispy Coated Veggie Snacks (p. 195) that has you dip zucchini, sweet potatoes, etc. in yogurt, then breadcrumbs and bake. You can make your own Multi-Seed Energy Bars (p 194) with quinoa, sunflower and sesame seeds and puffed rice or millet with sweeteners like natural cane sugar or brown sugar and pure maple syrup or brown rice syrup. Orange French Toast (p. 179) uses orange juice and optional orange liqueur in the soak mix plus an Orange Marmalade Sauce with honey and orange liqueur (or not). Mmm. Don’t you want a piece right now?  Paperback on Amazon ~$21.
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    2. Whole Cooking for diabetics and other food lovers
      Whole Cooking for diabetics and other food lovers

      Whole Cooking and Nutrition: An Everyday Superfoods Approach to Planning, Cooking and Eating with Diabetes by Katie Cavuto. Thorough, user-friendly science and recipes for diabetics and anybody else who appreciates delicious foods that happen to be healthy, too. The author’s Italian, so there are some wonderful recipes that feature those full-flavor ethnic secrets. She offers a whole section on how to make your own way-healthier versions of pantry staples like tomato sauces, applesauce, nut milks, spice blends and other special dressings and spice-up-your-dishes condiments. Think: Everyday Roasted Garlic (p. 64) which she says you can spread on crackers, whisk into dressings, sauces and dips and swap out for fresh garlic in soups and baked dishes. You simply bake it with olive oil, squeeze out the cooked cloves, cover with a bit of oil and keep in the fridge for two weeks. You’ll feel virtuous for the nutrition and happy with the taste. Plus she gives a great recipe for using it: Garlicky Grilled Pork Chops with Navy Beans (p. 214) that also includes fresh lemon juice, lemon and orange zest, her Herb Oil (p. 60), parsley, canned navy beans and her Olive Tapenade (p. 113).

      The Sweet Potato Oats (p. 96) breakfast dish amps up the nutrition of a bowl of oatmeal with the addition of almond milk and sweet potato puree (you can use canned) and is seasoned with vanilla, cinnamon and maple syrup. The Chicken Sausage and Lentil Soup (p. 184) with Swiss chard, seasoned with thyme and fennel seeds, is her Italian family’s lower-fat version of a classic.

      Cavuto’s vegetable sides and mains offer some unique ways to put life into potatoes, red pappers, spaghetti squash (with walnut arugula pesto!) and more. Think about Roasted Cabbage “Steaks” with Vinaigrette (p. 150) – thick center cuts basted with vinaigrette and baked. The recipe for Roasted Green Beans with Smoked Paprika (p. 137) introduces a brilliantly easy way of seasoning and then cooking them in a very hot oven and dressing with a bit of fresh orange juice. All simple and delicious. Each recipe also gives full nutrition info plus the diabetic exchanges. Kindle $8, paperback $13 on Amazon.

    3. Get more nutrition and flavor in your food
      Get more nutrition and flavor in your food

      Sneaky Blends: Supercharge Your Health with more than 100 Recipes Using the Power of Purees, by Missy Chase Lapine, The New York Times Bestselling Author of The Sneaky Chef: Simple Strategies for Hiding Healthy Foods in Kids’ Favorite Meals. This and her other books are based on a brilliant idea: that you can add bales of nutrition – and serious extra flavor – to almost any recipe by using a super-nutritious puree of vegetables and/or fruits as one of the ingredients in a recipe. And she proves it with recipes for everything from appetizers, dips, salads and soups to entrees and desserts.

      I gave up eating pancakes a couple of decades ago when I discovered they left me starving an hour after I’d eat them. But my 9-year-old granddaughter loves pancakes – and generally eats the usual ones that are nothing but a load of empty calories and carbs. Lapine puts her Cinnamon Oat Protein Pancakes recipe (p. 123) on nutritional steroids by including 1/4 cup of Carrot-Sweet Potato “Base Blend,” (p. 86) some oatmeal and a couple of scoops of vanilla protein powder into the batter that’s also made with ricotta cheese, cinnamon, vanilla, and a tablespoon of maple syrup (yes, in the batter). I’m telling you, I can’t wait to make these even for myself.

      Lest you freak out about the whole “base blend” concept – which seems to imply a bunch of extra work – Lapine gives ideas to substitute in a pinch (for example, baby food), though she points out that the original purees (most of which sound fairly simple to make like spinach-blueberry) are superior in nutrition and flavor. The idea is to combine a vegetable and fruit (2 veggies in the case of sweet-potato/carrot) and puree them together. She recommends using time-saving frozen versions of many veggies like sweet potatoes, carrots and butternut squash (for this last, she also gives a smart and easy new way to prepare). Adding purees to original salad dressing recipes, she says, ups the nutrition sufficiently that you “don’t have to eat your weight in greens to get your daily allowance.” {smile!} Check out her All Hail Eggless Caesar Dressing (p. 182, uses her Cauliflower Base Blend) on raw kale with grated hard-boiled eggs. Or her Raspberry-Beet Vinaigrette (p. 187) on arugula with goat cheese. Kindle $15, paperback $13 on Amazon.

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Cook book review: Churrasco

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Churrasco cookbook - recipes for gaucho cooking
Churrasco cookbook – recipes for gaucho cooking

When you think of churrasco, what comes to mind is a vision of huge slabs of skewered meat dripping fat and juice. And the technique of grilling that produces those slabs is, indeed, the very definition of churrasco. In this new cookbook, called simply Churrasco by Evandro Caregnato, the culinary director of the Texas de Brazil restaurant chain. In it he tells you how he got started as a kid in Brazil and shares lots of stories about being a gaucho there and then his journey to Texas to join the cowboys as master churrasco chef and consultant to the then-new Texas de Brazil restaurant.

You will definitely learn all about how to cut, skewer and cook the way meat-loving Brazilians do to coax the most flavor out of every cut of meat with their special methods. And how they get maximum results out of so many different sections of the various animals, be it pork, beef, lamb or chicken. Recently experienced for the first time this meat-lover’s parade of grilled muscle and flesh at Fogo de Chao (review here).
In this book you may also be pleasantly surprised at the richness and variety of other dishes from Brazil. Imagine a book about grilled meats giving you a recipe for a Cold Savory Torte made of white bread layered with chicken, cheese, and tuna and seasoned with mustard, cornichons, carrots, smoked paprika, lemon and parsley. Mmm.
Think about this one: Spinach Cannelloni, made with homemade crepes and a filling of sauteed spinach and garlic mixed with heavy cream, parmesan and cream cheese. Oh, my! And you’ll find that Squash Ravioli is no longer strictly in the hands of Italy – this Brazilian version is served with a brandy-sage-cream sauce with shallots and porcini mushrooms. How about caramelized cinnamon-and-clove-scented squash served with a spoonful of sour cream? The recipe for beef-bone stock sounds great – like chicken soup with steak instead of chicken. Nutritious, comforting and a great way to use up bones after you’ve grilled some meat.
The recipes don’t stop there but include desserts, sides and potatoes. The book is an inspiration, meat lover or not. Nice gift for both aspiring and experienced cooks.
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Chez Moi – a remarkable French restaurant in Chicago

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Country French with be-feathered crystal chandeliers
Country French with be-feathered crystal chandeliers

Okay, I have not tried every French restaurant in Chicago yet. But people have been asking me for years what’s my favorite restaurant in Chicago and, up ’til, now I’ve not been able to name a specific place. Have had many, many pleasant experiences, some exceptional (hello, Chef Lee Wolen and Boka). But last Saturday my friend and I were both overawed with the food, the ambiance and the service at Chez Moi, 2100 N. Halsted.

If this meal was indicative, Chef Dominique Tougne is doing an extraordinary job of bringing authentic French cuisine to our city. Friend and I both felt we might easily have been in a small bistro in or outside Paris, soaking in the candlelit warmth, the darkly dramatic artwork on the walls, and the feather-encrusted crystal-drop chandeliers. The dark-and-thick-crusted bread with butter was good – and hard not to eat more of. But we knew we were truly in the presence of French food artistry when we tasted the first dish – Black Truffle Quiche.

Quiche. Okay, you’re probably thinking heavy egg-cream concoction baked atop a heavy pastry crust with maybe some bacon and cheese in it. But that is decidedly not what you get from Chef Dominique. This dish is an ethereally light custard, kissed with seared foie gras and set snugly in a feather-light pastry crust that almost melts into and becomes part of the custard. Topped with a tiny nest of greens, and surrounded by a puddle of rich port wine reduction, this quiche will take you into a realm quite beyond the ordinary. And it was rich enough for us to share and feel content.

The Qualidou, said to be “either a larger appetizer or a smaller entree” size, combined half a confit quail, thinly sliced seared duck breast and foie gras, accompanied by thinly sliced sauteed mushrooms, all in a generous pool of concentrated wine sauce. With all these intense flavors, we had no trouble splitting this and feeling satisfied. And I love the fact that they give you a spoon with every dish that has a sauce. Let us respect – and savor – the sauce!!

When the onion tart appetizer arrived, we were surprised at its size – generous enough for 3 people. And, oh the pastry crust! Flaky and layered richly with butter, it made a fabulous base for a nice combination of onion, bacon and creme fraiche.

Our server explained that the Gateau Breton de Solidou is a shortbread cake. Well, who knew? This incredible dessert had tender crustiness and richness in equal measure. The butter flavor was extravagant. The sauce was heavenly, and the vanilla ice cream (house made) made the combination exquisite.  Could eat this for breakfast, lunch or dinner and need nothing else.

Chez Moi offers a small but obviously carefully curated list of beers, cocktails, liqueurs, and French wines. The by-the-bottle listings yielded several options under $50. We selected the French Malbec and, after it breathed for a few minutes, it made a nice pairing with our meal.

Chef offers a prix fixe menu selection all week, Sunday through Thursday – three courses include a salad, then your choice of entree (hanger steak, roast chicken, seared salmon or roasted vegetables) and tiramisu for dessert. Check out the rest of the menus here. We cannot wait to come back again. In fact, this place is tempting me to eat out much more often than I usually do. Exceptional experience. Will let you know if next visits measure up.

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GOING ON NOW – a la Carte Chicago

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You have until October 30 to take advantage of the deals during a la Carte Chicago, an 11-day food festival that celebrates contemporary French food. Participating restaurants, bakeries and more might be French or simply French-inspired – Shaw’s Crab House is in on it. The important thing is they’re all offering specials during the festival, including prix fixe menus. The fest also includes cooking workshops, tastings, cultural events, and activities for food lovers of all ages.

This is a great opportunity to get out and experience some of the many French-food-loving chefs and restaurants in Chicago. At a preview, guests tasted delicious tuna salad sandwiches on rich tasting French white buns from Chez Moi, 2100 N. Halsted – sandwiches that made us feel like heading over there ASAP. Ridiculously good chocolate hazelnut bars from Chef Martial Noguier at Bistronomic, 840 N. Wabash. Others include Cafe des Architectes, 20 E. Chestnut, Circle City Sweets from Indianapolis for heavens’ sake, and dozens more.

Also, consider attending the screening of “Kings of Pastry” at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St. at 4:45 on Sunday, October 30. Chef Jacquy Pfeiffer will be there in person, and after the movie there’ll be a free tasting of specialties from the French Pastry School. Go here for the complete list and check out the sweepstakes for a trip to Lyon, France.
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Rabbit Hole bar and restaurant – a new Old Town hangout

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It’s officially open: The Rabbit Hole bar and restaurant, 1208 N. Wells St., right off Division St. in Old Town. It’s a small storefront with a roomy interior and a stage for live music. The walls, painted to make you feel like you’re following the White Rabbit down the hole in Alice in Wonderland, and the many craft and draft beers, whimsical cocktails and wines are an invitation for you to go ahead and fall in.
Hot Karaoke live band
Hot Karaoke live band

On opening night they had a live band for karaoke. Seriously. If you are a wannabe singer, singing with real musicians behind you and the words in front of you has to be – as the saying goes – the most fun you can have with your clothes on. And on top of that, they serve elevated bar food that includes sharable appetizers, hearty salads, “grabbers” (otherwise known as meat-heavy platters), and an assortment of sides. Chicken Wings come with your choice of house buffalo, shogun sweet chili, Chef Diablo’s habanero or pomegranate BBQ, served with tri-colored carrots, jicama, house made ranch or bleu cheese. Other items: marinated Steakhouse Minis, The 1951 Burger, Queen of Hearts salad, and Jabberwock Angus Sliders. Try starting with Candied Slab Bacon – thick cut, Applewood smoked slab bacon, grilled and glazed with maple syrup. rabbit-hole-chicken-wings

And what fun that they have games – like large-scale Pictionary – you can play with your friends any and every night of the week. The Rabbit Hole has set a goal to become the new favorite go-to spot for everyone in the ‘hood. It’s certainly off to a grand start.
Craft and draft beers include 24 beer taps and a host of canned and bottled brews. Cocktails by beverage director Carlos Guerra have memorable monikers like the smoky White Rabbit on a Dirty Mule with Mezcal, ginger beer, lime juice, Jägermeister, and grapefruit juice, or the delicate yet complex Tweedle Rum with rum, rye, coffee vermouth, coconut, Fernet Dogma and cinnamon, to name just two.

A sports-friendly bar, with ten large screen TVs, it also serves as a distinctive backdrop for the viewing of any game. Live Band Karaoke on Wednesday evenings beginning at 9pm.

Open 4pm to 2am weekdays and 11am to 2am Fridays & Sundays, and Saturday from 11 to 3am. Happy Hour 4 to 6 weekdays, and brunch on weekends. Visit therabbitholechicago.com or follow @rabbitholechi.
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Knife Chicago brings food and cocktails to an exciting new edge

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Knife's deeply rich lobster bisque
Knife’s deeply rich lobster bisque

At the new Knife restaurant, 4343 N. Lincoln Ave., Chef Tim Cottini is bringing the Chicago steakhouse concept to a new edge with totally re-imagined dishes that incorporate farm-to-table freshness in meats, seafood and vegetables. Love their Lobster Bisque! Read more details and preview the menu here.

But Knife doesn’t stop at the food. Also not to be missed are the ethereally creative cocktails designed and named by Knife mixologist Anthony Muenger and served with flair, along with a generous supply of his entertaining personal stories and light-hearted humor. So, first, come in for a visit and sit at the bar. Revel in the feel of a unique, sensually rounded-on-all-edges marble bar top, shaped like a giant italicized “L” and set an an angle to the handsome bar wall. Let your eyes wander from the blood-red accent wall to the details of the smoothly swirled wall adjoining it. Makes you feel bathed in color and texture.

Looking to create a downtown feel in Chicago’s Northcenter neighborhood, Knife will offer many Wine Enthusiast-recommended wines as well as a collection of unique and fantastically named cocktails (derived, says Mixologist Muenger, from terms in the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows). Ask him to show you how he uses a port hole infuser to soak various fruits in a lavender-infused German rye whiskey. The resulting cocktail, called Enouement, matures and changes as you pour from the infuser throughout your dinner, eventually transforming itself towards the end of the meal into an amari-type digestif.

Muenger says Chef Cottini accepted the offer of the whiskey people’s barrels to age Knife’s own steak sauce in – so look for that unique treat with your bone-in ribeye. Another of his unique cocktails is his sour-style version of Clover Club, served with a bit of raspberry and Roobios tea. The Ellipism cocktail has tiny house-made spheres of Remy Martin VSOP cognac floating in a delicious mix of house-made orange liqueur, lemon and bitters. $13.

In short, Knife is a hot new contemporary seafood and steakhouse where you can celebrate with unique food and drink in Chicago. Whether it’s a special occasion – or just Wednesday night – you’re bound to find something to delight your tastebuds.
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Everest celebrates Shakespeare with prix fixe pre-theatre menu

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Chicago’s beloved Joffrey Ballet is putting on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet at The Auditorium Theatre, October 13 through October 23. So Chef/Proprietor J. Joho (bio) of Everest Chicago, 440 S. LaSalle St., has imagined a Shakespeare-inspired pre-theatre menu worthy of Julius Caesar and reflecting the cooking trends popular in Rome in the time of Apicius. And you will love the views!

Prepare to be charmed and delighted first by Everest’s regular amuse bouche – a trio of delicious bites that on opening night consisted of a tiny pewter cauldron of artichoke soup with basil oil, a refreshing emulsion of yellow pepper with cucumber gelee served in a spoon, and a small marinated scallop topped with a dab of American roe. Especially flavorful, all.

Next, a server – many servers played a role in making the evening as pleasant as possible – brought a tray of breads around, and we were invited to pick slices of the types we liked. Given that in our house, bread is a treat reserved for eating out, we picked more than one to try. And were delighted to see the silver salver brought to the table with a sizable and seriously thick slab of cold butter – oh, the joy. It looked like there was room underneath to put ice chips to keep the butter cold. We could not have been happier, until we put some on and bit into the bread. The weight and texture and flavor were so satisfying that we could easily have made that into a full meal at some other time. Absolutely delicious. Hard to stop eating.

But we had to stop with the bread eventually so we could enjoy the rest of the Shakespeare Menu. First course, Great Lakes wild whitefish, braised in garum and lovage, was a creamy yet flaky fish, cooked just right and served on a bed of tender, meat-broth-infused lentils. An unusual combination that worked well.
Second came an au naturel capon fricassée with Roman herb seasoning, served with chickpea panisse and sautéed romaine. The chicken was intensely flavored and the sauce had a slight hint of what we thought might be vinegar and/or pickling spices. Light and tasty poured over the chicken and the romaine. The panisse was creamy inside and very slightly crisp on the outside and made a nice neutral accompaniment to the richly flavored capon.

Fromage Blanc Bamboloni “Roman Beignet” served with a compote of dried fall fruit and pistachio and a touch of honey. The deep-fried spheres of dough were crispy outside and tender inside, and the delicate cream on the side had barely a hint of sweetness.

Optional wine pairings ($29) coordinated nicely with each dish. The sommelier chose the following for the fish, Château Villa Bel-Air, Sauvignon Blanc, Graves  2014 ~ Bordeaux, France; 2) Lemelson “Six Vineyards” and for the capon, Pinot Noir  2013 ~ Willamette Valley, Oregon.
Make your reservation between 5 and 5:30 p.m. and enjoy the unique prix fixe three-course menu with complimentary parking for the evening. Your server will make sure you are on time for the performance! Call 312-663-8920 or visit www.everestrestaurant.com for more information.
 
  • What: Shakespeare 400 Chicago: Culinary Complete Works – Pre-Theatre Menu
  • Where: Everest, 440 S. LaSalle St.
  • When: October 13-23, 2016
  • Who: You and Chef/proprietor J. Joho and members of the professional staff at Everest
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Boka hosts and enhances Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Tour

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Chef Paul Liebrandt and Chef Lee Wolen
Chef Paul Liebrandt and Chef Lee Wolen (Photo credit: Jack Daniel’s and Getty Images)

It was a night to remember when Chef Paul Liebrandt and Chef Lee Wolen teamed up with Jack Daniel’s to create a totally off-the-charts evening of food and spirits at Boka Chicago . If you think that spirits don’t go with fine cuisine, Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Collection came together with these culinary stars to show you otherwise. (Yes, the photos below are dark – the layers of light were quite subtle at Boka – but we loved the ambiance.)

“Single barrel” means the spirits come from only one barrel and are not blended with any other. Perhaps you already know that 100% of the color and 65% of the flavor in a whiskey comes from the barrel it’s aged in. But did you know that Jack Daniel’s makes its own barrels? That’s what you call making sure of your quality control.

This collection of premium spirits is being introduced to the world with a series of special events across the country. The chefs and the locations are selected on the basis of their having the same passion for using only premium ingredients and applying extreme creativity to making the food and drink items stand far out from the ordinary. Boka Chicago Restaurant was a natural choice.

The evening started with oysters on the half shell with apple and celery, and a creamy, smoked something-or-other on a super thin and crispy black chip, adorned with a flower petal and a carved bit of radish – layers of delicious flavor. Served with these was a delectable drink consisting of white grape, lemon and Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Select topped with a splash of sparkling Chenin blanc.

The drink, served in flutes, had even those who admitted having previously only a tepid appreciation of whiskey, expressing surprise that it tasted so good. Plus, the atmosphere on the handsome, subtly lit patio just outside Boka’s main dining area, the soft almost-summer night, and the warmly professional service by the bartender who created the recipe, made the reception a lovely prelude to an extraordinary meal.

Once seated, guests found their places adorned with small crystal clear glasses of Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Select, designed to be drunk neat or treated delicately with tiny dropper bottles of water in case one’s palate required tempering the pure spirit slightly. The food feast began with softened butter and warm rolls – guaranteed to warm the heart of any Chicago steak house fan. But there any resemblance ceased. First course a single, perfectly seared Diver scallop, shiny with a Jack Daniel’s-infused glaze, was surrounded by a super-smooth puree of potato and smoked haddock, and accented with quince and with green mango chutney.

Second came the beef tartare: raw beef was served minced rather than finely sliced, seasoned with black garlic and sorrel, mixed with crunchy bits of puffed buckwheat, and topped with black caviar – a truly memorable combination. The cocktail accompaniment combined Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Select, nebbiolo grape, pu-erh fermented tea and bitters – a perfect complement to the rich, oily meat.

Next, a unique fish that was unusually firm – somewhat rubbery to the fork but melting in the mouth – called Kindai Kanpachi. The small triangle of fish was surrounded by a smooth puree of charcoal grilled beetroot (delicious!) and dotted with small circles of yogurt and licorice-laced bits. The presentation was gorgeous, the combination of flavors excellent, and the accompanying Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Rye combined with yuzu (Japanese citrus), raspberry and orange blossom, a delightful melange.

OMG - foie gras sausage and whipped foie gras with Jack Daniel's gelle
OMG – foie gras sausage and whipped foie gras with Jack Daniel’s gelle

A little slice of juicy foie gras sausage came alongside slices of rare breast meat from a whole roast duck, and was served with a small pot of sinfully delicious whipped foie gras frosted with a gelee that included a Jack Daniel’s  reduction – OMG. The whole plate was out of this world. Dessert (raw milk ice cream with beautiful accompaniments) and its paired Jack Daniel’s’ Single Barrel Select amaro-style cocktail were equally impressive.

In short, the evening was full of gorgeous flavors in the food and drink, each option paired beautifully and served creatively in a lively, friendly atmosphere by knowledgeable professionals – every server knew the answer to any question about the food. The end result: everyone came away with a heightened respect for the talents of the chefs and mixologists and the versatility of Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel whiskies.

Tasting notes:

  • Single Barrel Barrel Proof – aromatic & smooth with notes of sweet brown sugar giving way to rich toasted oak and hints of dark spice. Drink neat or with a couple of cubes.
  • Single Barrel Rye – 94 proof makes this rye big and bold without overpowering. Ripe fruit flavors mingle with light toasted oak notes so the rye grain shines through with a rich peppery spice and pleasant lingering finish.
  • Single Barrel Select – Only 1 in 100 bottles reaches this elevation. Rich toffee and caramel notes touched with cinnamon. Significant body with layers of orange peel, cloves and gentle dusty lumber notes. Finely balanced among many integrated flavors with a moderately long finish and a soothing blend of sweet and spice.
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Indulge and learn – thanks to Villa Maria NZ wines

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Villa Maria wines evoke visions of New Zealand’s North Island – rolling hillsides, misty mountain tops, lush fields and clear, easy-flowing rivers. These are beautiful wines from a beautiful country. And what a great idea to compare NZ wines with like types from California and France. A good way for Americans to really feel/taste/experience the differences and similarities.
Luxury white wine comparison
Luxury white wine comparison

Villa Maria winemakers recently invited trade and press to do just that at Chicago’s Tavern on Rush; they organized a comparative tasting of six elegant white wines, only two of which were their own, one French and the rest top-selling American Chardonnays. Just sitting at the table with professional sommeliers and the owner/original winemaker himself, Sir George Fistonich, and listening to Nick Picone, Villa Maria’s current head winemaker, was an educational adventure as well as a tasting treasure.

The six wines were set out in pairs to be tasted parallel with each other. Notes on the first pair:
  1. Cakebread Cellars Chardonnay 2014 (Napa Valley). Grown in clay soils and aged 1/3 in new oak, this wine shows many layers of flavor and gives taste sensations all around the mouth. California chardonnays are generally heavier than French versions, Nick said. Adjectives for this wine included low-oak, semi-dry, slightly dusty with lots of minerality. He said California wines tend to stay in the 13 plus-or-minus percent alcohol range.
  2. Rombauer Vineyards Chardonnay 2014 (Carneros). A best-selling wine in this price category. Light, almost translucent with toffee, butterscotch and vanilla notes. It’s aged one-third in American oak, which is rich in lactone, the compound that gives vanilla hints and a slight sweetness, according to the winemaker. This, he said, makes this wine very popular in the U.S. where it’s often served as an aperitif and not with food. Alc 14.5%
The second pair were both Villa Maria Chardonnays, which Nick says are more comparable to white burgundies than to American chardonnays:
  1. Villa Maria Keltern Vineyard Chardonnay 2014 (Hawkes Bay). They started making this wine in 2002, when it used to be a bigger wine with more oak made of 100% Chardonnay grapes grown in red clay soils in their flagship vineyard. Mature wines now are all fermented with 100% wild yeast. Nine months in French oak barrels; the wine has a hazelnut sweetness from the lees. They make only 500 cases of this for the entire world. You may not be able to buy a bottle of this at your local retailer, but it gives you an idea of the superb quality being produced at Villa Maria. Loved this one – top rating.
  2. Villa Maria Taylors Pass Vineyards Chardonnay 2011 (Marlborough). This wine is completely different but has a similar fruit ripeness and freshness and acidity like a white burgundy. It’s grown from Malbec vineyard in an area with a big diurnal swing (day to night temperature range) and known for its Sauvignon Blanc. All that gives the wine “a touch of green fruit, a bit of brininess, even a hint of grapefruit. The wild yeasts give it a smoky sulfide taste – like striking a match,” said Nick. “We like that in a burgundy,”  Again, only 500 cases of this are made for the world. Ditto on finding this at Binny’s.
The third pair made an interesting contrast, one a California Chardonnay and the other a French white:
  1. Far Niente Chardonnay 2014 (Napa Valley). This pair is the most expensive of the six wines. Napa has a warmer climate than Carneros, which greatly affects the wines grown in each region. This wine is aged 60% in new French oak, so has a nutty, toasty, buttery flavor, much more subtle and very Burgundian in style. Especially high quality – top rating.
  2. Joseph Drouhin Meursault 2013 (Burgundy). This one comes from a cooler climate and is grown in slate soils with more minerals. It’s not as rich as some of the others; rather it has high acidity and great freshness with a slightly briny taste of oyster shells. Delicate, slightly lighter, drier, very good for pairing with foods.
Villa Maria gorgeous Reserve Cabernet
Villa Maria gorgeous Reserve Cabernet

These are luxury category wines; suggested retail prices run between $35 and $60.  And look for more premium and luxury wines from Villa Maria – like their fabulous Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2009. And in case you fall in love with one or more of their wines and want to learn more, pick up a copy of the book, The Winemaker: George Fistonich and the Villa Maria storyIt’s an extraordinary tale of how one visionaory man built a worldwide business that parallelled the growth of the New Zealand wine industry. He’s dedicated all of his energies to the pursuit of excellence in winemaking. And you’re sure to enjoy experiencing the end results with a Villa Maria wine in your glass.

The story of George Fistonich and Villa Maria
The story of George Fistonich and Villa Maria
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