Drinking Eating Experiences Food The Chef Travel Wine

To Go Cup

On a brisk March Saturday morning I touched down in NOLA, a break from some long hours and nights at Pata Negra, a much needed short respite of food, wine, and song.

New Orleans is my go to destination for therapy, and I try to go at least once a year.  Part of the fun is researching where to eat and drink and what band to see.  Eater NOLA is a good source for new openings, and my native friend Brett fills in the real gems.  Despite my best planning, there is never quite enough time to do everything, and it is hard not to rely on old standbys like Parkway Tavern.

This trip was full of new discoveries, as New Orleans is not just the French Quarter.  It is a series of neighborhoods strung together by subtleties, according to topography and class, all tied to some force that is most certainly NOLA.

Touched down in Louis Armstrong Airport by 9 am and headed straight to Café Beignet for a fix.  Lunched at the Green Goddess and had an unusual Bloody Mary with kimchi.  The Vietnamese po’boy of shrimp and pork belly hit the spot, as well as the eggs.  Checked out a few cocktail spots before check-in at the Dauphine Hotel.  Sobou (trendy), St. Lawrence (divey), and blanking on others.

After a siesta, drinks at French 75 bar at Arnaud’s (always classy and great) with oysters and gougeres, and off to dinner at Boucherie, way out by cab in Jefferson Parish, resto set up in a quaint house with a porch. A Proper Pimm’s Cupp while waiting, and then some solid, bright cooking accompanied by a reasonably priced ’97 Stefano Barolo.  Highlight was definitely lamb ribs and lamb falafel.  Hospitality extraordinaire.  Off to Frenchman Street to the Spotted Cat.  Jazz Vipers were rocking it.  Frenchman Street was kickin’.

Sunday brunch by Magazine Street at La Fin du Monde, more bloody marys (a little thin, but good) and shrimp and grits (very good).  Caught the end of the Bulls game at The Bulldog (Mimi is a big fan) and then headed over to Luke’s for shrimp and oysters happy hour.  Siesta, and off to ROOT, a new resto with people who know what they are doing, from the front door to the table.  Best charcuterie I have had in ages, from face bacon to beef tongue to longanisa sausage on down, accompanied by pickled kumquats and meyer lemon compote, then followed by delicious rendition of aloo gobi with no sauce, but all the spice.  Duck heart salad, deviled eggs and shrimp, cornmeal crusted oysters  – I wish I had two stomachs. Washed down with a rose bottle of Beck NV.  Took two to go cups (just because you can), and then it was back to Frenchman Street to hear a new band, Big Easy Brawlers.  Lead was doing a great Busta Rhymes interpretation, lots of guests stopped in to play.  Abita all night.

Monday morning meant the Bywater, a new nabe for us, and tough to get to.  Lots of low houses with wild colors of purple and yellow.  You get the feeling real people live there and you are not quite sure how it’s gonna be when night falls.

The destination was The Joint, home to heavenly barbecue and pies and such.  What a dream brisket, pork rib, pulled pork combo. People’s BBQ joint for all sorts of people.

In an attempt to walk off the carnage, made several attempts to find art galleries, but all seemed closed or unavailable, so back to Bacchanal for a great wine experience.  Shop as in a regular store, order some cheese, and then sit outside the backyard and soak in some sun.  No mark up for the wine (unheard of in NY), and a riesling and red burg later, we moved on upstairs for cocktails.  Our bartender named a drink after me.  I forget what’s in it, but I saw her scribble the recipe in her notebook.  Forgive me, because five cocktails later it was tough to remember anything really.  Walked over to Maurepas for a bite, bold flavors and nice drinks, especially the shrimp hotpot, then double dipped over at Booty’s, street food from around the world done up, but the doomsday daiquiri finally put us out of our misery.

Tuesday lunch at Cochon, and we over-ordered (of course).  After all it was to be our last taste of NOLA.  Falling off bone pork ribs, roasted oysters in my favorite spicy sauce, oozing mac and cheese, fried alligator tots, rabbit livers with red pepper jelly, and some fine gumbo, washed down by nice half bottle of gruner and a pinot noir from New Zealand, with room for dessert, my fave, a pineapple upside down cake and chocolate pie.  Spent the rest of the time at Best Records, just grooving to bands new and old, stocking up on vinyl and t-shirts.  Alas there was a plane delay, and had I known, I would have spent my last moments at Parkway Tavern, but it was not meant to be.  I held on to my to go cup from ROOT.  Part cause I wish NYC had this open policy, and part because I wanna take NOLA in that cup back home with me.  Looking at that cup sure makes me smile.



Drinking Eating Experiences Food The Chef Travel Wine

Oh Sherry,

Sherryfest is happening here in New York City this week, and before one can say that sherry has arrived, I might argue that it has always been here, albeit not commonly consumed or appreciated, but revered and sought increasingly by those who seek excellence in all their wines.

Sherryfest is an idea put into reality by Rosemary Grey and Peter Liem, two people who dared to dream that even if a select few drink sherry, they do so proudly, eschewing the common thought that sherry is cheap wine made in bulk, that a real renaissance is upon us, that sherry marries well with food, and can sit right up there with the most exquisite wines of the world.

Aside from putting together this Sherryfest, this gathering of great Spanish producers in the great international American city that is Gotham, Peter Liem, a Champagne aficionado and wine writer has inked Sherry, Manzanilla & Montilla, a comprehensive guide to the traditional wines of Andalusia, with Jesus Barquin, one of the dynamic duo that has brought us Equipo Navazos, flying winemakers who strike deals with bodegas to create special cuvees of top sherry, at the forefront that is currently the sherry revolution.

The Grand tasting was held at The Ace Hotel, coordinated by Carla Rzeszewski, whose passion for all things sherry is second to none, creating an electric atmosphere for tasting sherries from several top producers.  Present were twenty bodegas with a long tradition and history of winemaking who have persevered during a down time in Jerez, but continue to stay ahead of the curve and offer wines of purity and integrity.

Having spent a week back in late May this past year, I had the privilege of visiting several of these bodegas and producers, and it was so warm to see many old friends.  A cerebral gaze into the eyes of Lorenzo Garcia-Iglesias  A Californian high five with Steve Cook of Barbadillo, a gentleman’s handshake with Jan Petterson of Fernando de Castilla, topped only by a genuine hug from the lovely Ana Cabestrero of El Maestro Sierra.  I miss Dona Carmen too.

Absent were the wines from Equipo Navazos, who is in part responsible for raising the quality of sherry and garnering a tremendous amount of press of late.  It would have been nice to have seen Eduardo and Jesus, whose pride and knowledge of sherry is top notch.

The exhaustion of a long day of tasting was masked by the smiles of the winemakers and their representatives, such a large turnout for sherry overwhelming satisfying their efforts.

I would have stayed for the whole event, but had a few more errands to run at the Union Square farmer’s market to get the final ingredients for one of the scheduled Sherryfest producer dinners, one of which Pata Negra was hosting.  The reps from Barbadillo and Emilio Hidalgo arrived early, weary from the day thirsty for Mahou beer and Jamon.

Then the party kicked off at seven, sherry flowing, and pata negra glistening, magical, classic pairings anchoring a good old fashioned tapas fiesta.  Pimientos de Padron, Pata Negra bacon,  bacalao crudo, tortilla, morcilla, chorizo, gambas, croquetas, datiles, just to name a few dishes.  The Solear Manzanilla en Rama was my favorite, as well as the Villapanes Oloroso, La Panesa, and the Obispo Gascon Palo Cortado.

The night ended at The Beagle, a beacon for sherry selection often infused in their ingenious cocktail service, with event organizers, planners and staffers winding down with leftover bottles and delicious drinks.  Great hospitality from the new-look Beagle.  The East Village just gets yummier and yummier.

There are seminars scheduled for the next two days as well as other evening events.  There is still time to join on the fun and Get Flor’d.

What does this all mean?  For me Sherryfest is a good example of what happens when a group of people are passionate about something. Sitting outdoors at Gaspar Restaurant in Chipione on the beach, I recall a conversations with friends and industry people about bringing and promoting all the excitement of our trip to Jerez, Sanlucar, and Montilla back with us.  The night sky and moon in the background, the aroma of manzanilla in the air, bottle after bottle of Solear and shrimp and snails, pimientos and fried fish. I remember being pessimistic, speaking about advanced palates and educated consumers.  The truth is sherry is a wine to love, with pleasure on many levels from the quaffable to the profound.  The dream becomes a think tank, and forms collaborations and relationships to create awareness and celebrate it in a meaningful and fun way.  It shows that the preservation of tradition is paramount, and that by spreading the word to even a few, the seeds are planted and can grow without limits.  Just check out the number of restos offering sherry on wine lists now.

Get Flor’d.  Indeed.

Drinking Eating Experiences Food Travel Wine

Masters of Vermont

Each year I head over to Europe just before the tourist high season kicks in.  For me it is a great time to visit winemakers and the most agreeable time weather-wise before the heat becomes a factor.

This time when I returned from Italy/Ireland/Spain in early June, Pata Negra had been running on fumes.  My head waiter Gaspar had been ill from exhaustion, and the search for capable server staff had proven futile.  This was a blessing in disguise of course, as I was able to take the reins for nearly two months straight.  There is something to be said for getting back in the woodshop, as it were, and I enjoyed a fruitful, albeit swarthy reintroduction to my customers.  By the time the humidity cooled off in August I was gasping for some fresh air, peace and quiet.  The North Fork looked good on paper, but this late in the season, there were slim rental pickings.  I finally settled on Vermont, a haven I am familiar with from past ski trips, and an unexplored territory for summer jaunts.

I did my research through VRBO and HomeAway.  I found both sites full of options to my criteria.  About four hours drive, secluded, but near a Lake, State Park, and half hour drives to towns and points of interest.  Got a hit on HomeAway for a chalet in Ludlow, surrounded by trees and Okemo mountain range.

So with a rental car at Hertz, GPS, and old school maps, we (girlfriend Michelle and I) were Vermont bound.  We took Routes 684 to 84 to 91.  Save for two traffic construction delays we hit Putney in four hours.  Why Putney?  For Curtis BBQ of course.  Right off Exit 4 juxtaposed to the Mobil gas station is Curtis BBQ, two school buses painted blue and reconfigured to serve as kitchens.   Park the car, step up and order.  Then head over to the man-made BBQ pit and watch Curtis work his magic alongside his guardian pig C.J.  You can get ribs or chicken, slathered with Curtis’ special sauce.  When you chat with pit masters like Curtis I often get the sense that they have something figured out in this life, that time spent barbecuing is time spent thinking wisely.  Curtis is a master and an evolved soul.   When the grub is ready, you pick a park bench with the least amount of flies and critters and chow down.  Falling off the bone chicken with perfect degree of smoke, tender rubs slathered in that special finger lickin’ sauce.  Plenty of good sides like baked potato with all the trimmings, corn on the cob, or potato salad, all washed down with beer you bring or Vermont style root beer and sasparilla sodas.  Satisfaction Guaranteed.

The house was better than advertised with a huge porch and backyard facing Okemo.  During the day, the trees communicate by shaking in the wind.  At night it’s just you and the stars.

Now I had been to Ludlow before and knew of some staples, such as Singleton’s in Proctorsville where you can get all the meat you need for the grill.  The Hatchery is also a go to place for standard Vermont breakfast.  Goodman’s American Pie is still cranking out the best wood fired pizza pies.  The Wine and cheese shop still offer a great selection of both.  Got some cheese from Jasper Hill.  The wine selection was also varied and well chosen.  I even found some Poiré from Eric Bordelet.

We had a really nice lunch at Heritage Deli, perfect Reuben sandwich and feathery French toast, but we found ourselves returning to the Country Girls Diner in Chester, taken over last summer by you guessed who (country women), offering fabulous blueberry pancakes and pies to boot.  It’s the kind of place run by the ladies that you could see yourself going every day for breakfast or lunch.  I didn’t have the courage to try their monster (two grilled sandwiches between a burger or eggs), but enjoyed the regular sized food very much.

We dined at the Inn at Weathersfield, one of the quintessential farm to table restos Vermont is known for, and had a very balanced meal.  A half bottle of Bauer Gruner Veltliner and Begali Ripasso paired well with the New American cuisine of Chef  Jason Tostrup .  The trout was clean, crespelle plate cleaned out and short ribs succulent. Chef Jason is still on his game.

At Manchester, after an afternoon of outlet shopping, there is a new Mediterranean themed menu anchored by pizzas named Depot 62.  Sit down on the furniture (everything is for sale), order a glass of wine and browse, the pieces offered are artisanal and eclectic, albeit pricey.  The hummus is good, the tagines earthy, and the pizza tasty.  Depending on how much wine consumed, you might leave with a piece to put in the trunk.

Even found a legit place for lobster rolls at Bob’s Antique shop, another dual business model where you can peruse through a large house of great antique pieces and nosh on a meaty and well-seasoned lobster roll.  One night we ordered a couple of three pounders, took them home for a steam with some corn, and delighted in some succulent lobster meat with drawn butter.  Paired great with young Muscadet.

By far the most cherished discovery is The Downtown Grocery, across from the wine and cheese shop.  The team at this humble eatery is top-notch, from Chef Rogan Lechthaler to Matthew on cocktails, to Abby working the front of the house.  We were in Vermont a week and visited three times.  Had they been open Tuesdays or Wednesdays, make that five.  What is the formula for their success?  Real cooking, great hospitality and sincerity.  The menus changes slightly, nightly.  One night a porchetta, the next magret.  Start off with steamed pork buns, or a luxurious corn soup, or spicy mussels with a curry aioli.  Specials included Plew Farms chicken crostini and Long Island blowfish tails.  Finish with buttermilk bacon ice cream or ginger lemongrass sorbet.  There’s a value mind-blowing $25. Prixe-fixe.  Outstanding.  I don’t know how they do it.

One night at the bar, Matthew poured us some of his fishhouse summer punch, a great expression of his techniques and bartending skill.  We tried most of the cocktails on the menu.   They would stack up to any mixologist in New York.  Like I said, sad only in that they closed two days before we departed back for NYC.

Perseid painted the night sky dreamy for us one starry evening, trailing trains of wishes on those bright tails.  We sipped Croft Vintage port and wondered at the heavens, how small we all are in the grand scheme of things.

A week later, on our way back to the grind and the city of hustle, we stopped of at Curtis again for take out, along with the obligatory maple syrup and jams, so Vermont could linger just a bit longer with us when we got home.







Drinking The Chef Travel Wine


Cava can be very good.  As good as Champagne?  That is always the question that sneaks into the conversation.

Over at Corkbuzz Studio, Laura Maniec has launched a Champagne Campaign offering all Champagnes at half price after 10 pm nightly.  There are many other reasons to visit Corkbuzz, from the selective wine list to the knowledgeable service to the wine-friendly food.    I cannot often get my hands on Champagne at those great prices, and so turn to cava for my bubbly fix.

So many parts of Spain have made great leaps in terms of viniculture and producing great wines, but it has been my experience that in the production of cava, there has been a disconnect.  The U.S. marketplace is wrought with bulk cava that has not traveled well, tasting musky as if stored in the corner of a cobwebbed closet under summery conditions.  The cheap, bulk product that is so available at every corner wine shop is not indicative of the actual quality that can be produced when in the hands of serious winemakers.  Seventy percent of the cavas produced in the D.O. are released after nine months.

Just check any wine list at any restaurants in Barcelona, any you will find several cavas of quality, aged, and of vintage.  Many cuvees are without dosage, making for bone dry wines of distinction showcasing the xarel-lo characteristics.

Last week Ana Lidon, from Gramona winery in Penedes, presented on a vertical of Gramona cava ranging as far back as 1997 to the latest release of 2006. The tasting was hosted by Enrique Ibanez of IPO Wines, leaders in Spanish wine importing.   The results were extraordinary.

The winery dates back to 1881, becoming officially named Gramona in 1921.  Gramona ages cava a minimum of 18 months, and an average of four years.  The Gran Reserva Imperial and Lustros III were poured, blends of xarel-lo and macabeo, two of the principal grapes that comprise a basic cava.  I have had much experience in tasting and buying these wines for Pata Negra, but had not tasted them vertically.

The wines had a true champagne quality, exhibiting toasty aromas, bright acidity, and great structure.

Much of what Ana Lidon presented had to do with the winery’s efforts to be agro-biodynamic, a self-sufficient ecosystem that generates its own energy, creating an optimum environment with low carbon footprint whose goal is to create the best cava possible.

Then came the showstoppers, the Gran Reserva Celler Batlle, from 1997 to 2002, some of which have been aged nine years on the lees!  Featuring the great acidity and structure of the xarel-lo grape, these long aged wines undergo autolysis which produces cava of great quality, elegant, exuberant, focused wines of subtle texture and a celebratory spirit.  The ’98 vintage in particular was drinking exceptionally, and my favorite was the bright, racy 2002, lip-smacking, layered and creamy.

While there are other cavas I enjoy, Raventos, Avinyo, Recaredo (to name a few), Gramona is leading the way in crafting long aged, artisanal sparkling wine, that dare I say, is as good as champagne.  Slip in a bottle of Gramona Gran Reserva Celler Batlle 1998 with some French bubbly and see how it stacks up for yourself.


Drinking Eating Experiences Food The Chef Travel Wine

Europe in the very lovely month of May

May is a great month for travel to Europe.  There is a slipstream just before high season when the weather is peak to enjoy sunshine cooled by soft breezes..

It has been over twenty years since I have visited Italy, mainly because I tend to take annual trips to Spain, dabble in France, and vacation in Mexico or El Caribe.  I was handsomely rewarded this time around.

As with any great culinary city, my attack plan was simple.  Plan meals around the sights.  Research great wine bars (business interest), and long evenings al fresco (a fiori).  Eat local wine, salume and cheese.  Hit the sweets circuit.  Espresso down.

Rome provided an ideal venue for my game plan.  Roma is Eurocosmo, a neologism I like to use referring to a city with style, sophistication and tradition in food and wine, a culture who lives to eat.  Roma is built for long walks peppered by golden cups of espresso, lazy late afternoon lunches climaxing in the joy of artisanal gelato.

My own personal view on sightseeing is simple.  Be around structures and museums accidentally, enter if I must, but plan all the eating and drinking around the environs of said must see attraction.

On my last trip, the Vatican left a lasting impression, so before the weekend crowds made a visit unbearable, the Vatican was the first target.  As it turns out it is difficult to find any good eats around this tourist mecca, but I found great respite at a ham and wine bar called Passagui, where I sampled some great Pata Negra.  The resto features a tiled encased ham slicing room/station, featuring many legs which curiously held on to its own curly tails, and the signature black hooves, of course.  Despite the euro vs. the dollar, wine prices are about a third less than in New York.  For example, Falanghinas were listed between 16 and 22 euros per bottle, and Valtellina Superior from 28 to 35 euros.

Thank goodness for a solitary rec from my good friend Pete, an honorary Roman, at Giarrosto Toscano, where my gal and I lunched correctly. Toscano, a place popular among locals doing nothing special, but offering correct pastas and aged beef.  Cacio y pepe, bucatini alla amatricana followed by a nice t-bone.  All a fiori of course.  Nice waitstaff.  We returned for dinner later on in the trip and were treated as regulars.

A short walk from the Pyramide (truly an uninteresting structure), there is a gold mine of a diner called Volpetti where the business model is split in two.  Alimentari extraordinaire on the corner, adjacent to mom and pop prepared foods with inexpensive wine resto.  Sample it all, from the antipasto to the meatballs to the pizze.  Nourishment for the Roman soul.

Near the Trevi Fountain, a small trattoria named Piccolo Arancino offers classic roman fare.  The menu is vast and comprehensive.  The ravioli arancino is a specialty.  Then head over to the Pantheon to San Crispino for some artisanal gelato, a cut above the rest.

At Campo de Fiori you can get lost in all the noise and hullaballoo created by the raging youthful crowds, but a block therein lies a well established wine bar called L’Angolo Divino.  Skip the food, which is mediocre.  But do sit in the wee hours for a great selection of Ar.Pe.Pe and fabulous boutique wines from great producers.

A walk through the Greenwich Village of Rome, Traversere, is charming and leads to the Jewish quarter, a line up of Roman Jewish food where the stalwart Giggetto stands out from the rest.  Order the artichokes, zucchini flowers, and on to the roasted lamb.  A real treat down the road at one of the entrances to the quarter is a wine bar named Beppe, where the owner makes many of the cheeses.  Choose wine from the shelves and have a 20 euro tray of marvelous cheese.  Order salume if you have the room.  Real mortadella here folks. A nice ’04 Produttori di Barbaresco nebbiolo was drinking well and a steal at 35 euros.

Coming back to Traversere, a fine meal could be had in a romantic setting at Trattoria Teo’s, or a more expensive formal meal at L’Asincotto with the only drawback being indoor seating only.

A trip to the Pantheon can be treacherous for food, but a nice trattoria, Il Bacaro,  on a tiny side street, pretty and draped by flowery trees of held its own with a nice antipasto selection and solid pastas.

A quick jaunt to Napoli, the armpit of Italy, but worth it just for the best pizza in the world at Da Michele for a whopping five euros.  We also spent a few nights in Sorrento and Capri, where the food was nothing to write home about.  The seafood was incredibly overpriced compared to let’s say, Spain.

The highlight of the trip was getting a tip from a nice bartender at Ris Café, where a decent martini can be crafted.  We were directed to a true speakeasy, The Jerry Thomas Speakeasy on a piccolo street called Vicolo Cellini 30, complete with password and no sign.  Enter and find a civilized adult setting that could be in Williamsburg.  No stumping the bartenders here.  Professional and correct.  What an absolute treat to watch Romans discovering cocktails and its ingredients with wonder and enthusiasm.  I dare say a movement is on the way.

Next stop Jerez de la Frontera, Spain, for a look at the state of sherry and perhaps some of the best jamon in the world.