Wednesday, November 5, 2008

JT Baker's Beer Pairing Dinner

Thank goodness the election is over! Now I can move on to obsessing about some other question - like “Who will be the next Top Chef?” 7 days to the season premiere!

We had a quite fabulous dinner at JT Baker’s a couple weekends ago, when some family was visiting from out of town, and one of our dinner guests said it reminded her of ‘Top Chef.’ As expected, it was totally worth the long drive to Greenwich for Jason and Suzanne Baker’s food: a molecular gastronomy-tinged beer tasting dinner, in 5 courses. For just the pics go here, or read my recap below.

After a little cup of miso-tarragon consomme to whet our appetites, the first course delivered a salty punch in the form of “Fish and Chips” made with juicy escolar and topped with malt vinegar jam and jalapeno salt. (Don't worry, the serving of escolar was small, not enough to cause, um, problems) The malt vinegar and the spicy-saltiness of the dish complemented the beer pairing, a malty, hoppy White Hawk IPA.

The second course was listed on the menu as “Burgundy Escargot” with the subtitle, Snyder Pretzel consomme, dunnhill gel, sous vide rutabaga. We were puzzled about what a ‘dunnhill’ was until we asked, and found out that the tiny cubes of gel were in fact infused with the smoky essence of Dunnhill cigars.

Unlike the first course, these flavors played much more subtly, for example, the pretzel flavor (we expected yeasty or buttery) was very light, not a really significant note in the dish, and the various textures brought most of the interest to the dish, which was complemented by a smooth, dark Warsteiner Dunkel:

This play in textures came followed by a palate cleanser that made us giggle: caramel corn in the form of a cold drink.

I can’t say I wanted any more after that one little glass, which was more watery than starchy, but it was enjoyably interesting anyway.

The third course was beer and cheese soup, made with local cheese (Dancing Ewe’s Caciotta) and Ommegang Witte, and garnished with tempura zest.

The soup was smooth, creamy and delicious, with no ‘sheepy’ flavors, and the zest tied it together with the glass of refreshing Witte, which is brewed with orange peel, among other flavorings.

The fourth course was a Tamworth pork tenderloin, prepared sous vide and served with salted beer nut emulsion and pumpernickel pudding.

This was the table’s favorite dish of the night, because it had the best overall appeal in flavor, texture, and balance. The pork was extremely tender and tasty, though lean and mild, and the savory pumpernickel bread pudding is something I’d definitely try making at home. The emulsion was not too salty, and the richness from the nuts tied the dish to its beer pairing: Anchor Porter.

The dessert course was the weirdest sounding dish on the tasting menu, but it just blew us away: “Pumpkin capsule” with maple crumble, vanilla cake puree, allspice cream, paired with Ommegang’s Three Philosophers.

The capsule was a frozen hollow cylinder, partially filled with a sweet cold allspice cream and pumpkin seeds:

Everyone loved the play on textures and the flavors, which were autumnal yet somehow also light and breezy on the palate. We love 3 Philosophers at home as a dessert on its own or with a Green and Black’s Hazelnut-Currant Chocolate Bar, but the cherry notes in the beer were somehow not absolutely perfect for me with this dish, so I drank the beer and ate the dessert separately. It was a terrific end to the meal.

Tasting menus at JT Bakers run on the pricey side for most people, but they’re running a “Recession Special” dinner for two, which is great at only $50. Greenwich is a cute little town, and with the price of gas coming down, the deal looks even more attractive. Of course, once you get there, you may be tempted to order a longer tasting menu. So, just go prepared with an excuse, such as something to celebrate (like a new political era!)

Thursday, October 2, 2008

We are NOT ready for the Eat Local Challenge.

The month of October has come, and lots of food bloggers seem to be signing up for the Eat Local Challenge to eat entirely within your local foodshed for 1 month. I totally respect the 100-mile diet philosophy, even though I live in a climate where harsh winters make it a little different from the same diet on the west coast. The autumn bounties available in the Schoharie, Mohawk, and Hudson valleys are actually pretty impressive. It really easy to find local farms and dairies, and the cost is not nearly what you might pay in areas where the cost of living and land-owning is much higher (i.e. California). We recently moved out of the city to a rural area, and now we have neighbors who are farmers - it's such a peaceful pleasure to watch the herds of cattle grazing in the pasture in the morning when I walk my dog. I've been going out of my way to find the retailers for the family farms that seem so plentiful, and so far I've been pretty lucky. 
I love-love-love the milk from Meadowbrook Farms in Clarksville, which I've been buying in a reusable glass jug. It tastes fresher, cleaner, and sweeter than milk from the supermarket. Their heavy cream makes the richest, creamiest homemade ice cream that I've ever had. 
Schoharie Valley Farms is only a 6-minute drive from our home, although I never make it there before 6pm on the weekdays, so I calways end up mixing with the weekend crowds. Besides the  Carrot Barn carrots, I get lovely local fruit from SVF, not to mention fresh hot cider donuts (mmmm, donuts). King's Roaming Angus farm, in Cobleskill, sells great cage-free eggs, whose yolks stand right up in the frying pan, and their beef is tasty and not as expensive as you'd expect for pasture-raised Angus beef. We've also had bok choy, scallions and tomatoes from Wintergreen farm in Sharon Springs, whose owner is always super-friendly and cheerful at the Saturday farmer's market.
Why aren't we ready for the Eat Local Challenge? One big reason is that we just haven't done enough research to find good replacements for most of our staples. Just thinking about the Eat Local Challenge has made me realize how we take for granted so many trucked-in dry goods, like corn chips, raisins and pancake mix. So, instead of taking the a leap into the locavore pond, we've decided to dangle our toes. Our goal this month, rather than eating 100% locally, is simply to eat at least one local product per day. It's going to take some planning to make sure we don't forget to shop locally regularly, but who knows, it might be good for us, and it might just become a pleasurable habit. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Cella Bistro Pig Roast/Wine Dinner

Since we have had only good experiences at Cella Bistro, we jumped at the chance for a wine-paired tasting dinner there a few weeks ago. What a great meal! The diners numbered only 35 or so, and many seemed to have some personal or professional connection to the Cella family, making for a convivial atmosphere. If I were Italian, I imagine this is what family gatherings would be like. At the table, my eyes got a little bit bigger when met with the shining array of wine glasses standing at attention in preparation for the meal to come.

Chef Michael Cella collaborated with Banfi Vintners to create a menu of dishes matched to each specific wine, which was introduced by Janine Stowell, the rep from Banfi. We were welcomed to the dining room with a festive, simple and surprisingly dry glass of Maschi Prosecco Brut, Non-Vintage .
The first course soon arrived: Gramma Cella’s Swiss Chard Torte: made with a hint of cream cheese, in a firm, somewhat rustic pastry crust.
I don't claim to be an expert on wine and food pairings, but I suppose the freshness of the chard, perhaps even a little sweetness, was more evident because of the dry wine. The careful plating of the dish, with its garnishes of green olives, shaved cheese, basil and oil, showed that the chef had really put a lot of care into what he had in store for us.
The second course was a seafood speidini of spice-rubbed grilled lobster and shrimp, on melted herb butter, garnished with cute little sprouts (green pea, I think?), accompanied by a 2007 Natura Organic Sauvignon Blanc from Chile’s Casablanca Valley. This wise was a nice, fresh citrusy match to the seafood, which was spiced in a warm garlicky way rather than a 3-alarm habanero way. I’ll take a quart of that melted herb butter, though, if you don’t mind.
The third course was handmade mushroom ravioli with parmagiano-reggiano and a porcini-truffle tomato sauce, served with a 2006 L’Ardi Dolcetto d’Acqui. I probably don’t need to tell you that the ravioli was awesomely earthy and fragrant. The chef really let the ingredients shine.

As for the wine, Nebbiolo and Barbera are perhaps the more well-known grapes from the Piedmont region, while Dolcetto was a varietal I'd never had. It was light bodied and fruity, with a little spice and earthiness, and good length to match nicely with the food.

The fourth course was a salad that would please even reluctant salad-eaters. Perched above slices of hearty bread, homemade mozzarella and summer tomato, the greens gazed enviously (get it, green with envy, ha) at several mouthwatering chunks of applewood-smoked bacon, which had been smoked on-site.

How about a close-up of that bacon?

Oh yeah, there was a wine too (2006 Cecchi Bonizio Sangiovese di Maremma.) Honestly, by the this time of the evening, I was having a pretty good time, and my wine-tasting acuity started to lag. The body of the wine was still somewhat light like the Dolcetto, which I suppose makes it appropriate to a green salad, but with more of a black cherry and earth flavor.
The pinnacle of the dinner was the fourth course. This was the one we had all been waiting for: Toasted Fennel Spice-Rubbed Pork Roasted Whole in a Caja China, with porchetta stuffing.

Accompanied by a 2004 Sartori Montegradella Valpolicella Classico Superiore, a significantly more robust and dry wine than those that preceded. Having been aged in oak for 24 months, it's dryness and smoky flavor really stood up to the richness of the pork . The roast pork was tender, moist, and flavorful, and garnished with tasty crisped skin and cooked red onions. The chef had to borrow a caja china, a specialized roasting box, and start roasting the pork low and slow in the morning in order to have it ready for tonight. The stuffing was delicious, but I can’t figure out what “porchetta stuffing” means. If porchetta is roast pork, then I guess we had roast pork stuffed with roast pork. Awesome.
Lastly came dessert. To ice cream, I never say no, but I was a bit stuffed like that pig and not a little tipsy from the generously poured "tastes" of wine. As I read the dish description again today, my mouth still waters: Butter-roasted peaches with almond-biscotti crumble, frozen vanilla bean custard, marsala caramel.

As an avid homemade-ice-creamist, I will dare to say that the frozen custard maybe needed a few more egg yolks to attain perfect creaminess. That didn't stop me from helping out my dining partner finish to his dessert. On the other hand, the non-vintage Florio Dolce Marsala Ambra was a little too much sweetness to drink straight up. I'm admittedly a very infrequent drinker of sweet wines, but I definitely recommend it as a dessert component, like Chef Cella’s marsala caramel sauce.
The chef reluctantly made an appearance with his kitchen staff in the dining room after this splendid meal, to a round of applause. He described how, on a trip to Italy, he was excited by a simple porchetta sandwich from a market, at 9 o’clock in the morning. I guess that was some good breakfast sandwich! This meal was the most Italian-inspired one that I’ve ever had a Cella’s, and ranks among some of my best dining experiences ever.
It does seem like the chef really put heart and soul into the cooking, not that it was just part of some marketing scheme sponsored by Banfi. Although we weren’t entranced by any of the wines, they all seemed decently well-made. According to their rep, you can find them at many wine stores in the area, and online prices were all in the $11-$18 range, which make them pretty accessible dinner wines.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Spring Break: Keuka Lake Wine Trail

We had perfect weather last weekend for our first ever visit to the Finger Lakes wineries. The ‘World Tour of Food and Wine’ event at Keuka Lake seemed like a good place to start, since it included the most well-respected Finger Lakes winery, Dr. Konstantin Frank. Besides the wine and food, the scenery made for a beautiful drive. Under gorgeous clear skies, every single winery had spectacular views of the lake and the vineyards shone bright white thanks to a recent snowfall.. There were plenty of people in the tasting rooms, but none of the tour buses or huge groups that can lead to long waits during the height of the tourism season. For dinner, and for beer drinkers, we recommend the Village Tavern in Hammondsport for its warm and convivial atmosphere, good food ranging from burgers all the way to seafood and steaks, and imported beers on tap (Chimay Tripel, Lindeman’s Framboise, Boddington’s, many more). If you're planning a trip, the event is being repeated April 19-20. Before you go, check out some tips on vineyard tours by Kathleen Lisson.

Each winery offered a small plate of food, a small glass of wine to accompany it, and your choice of 4 or 5 other wines to taste from their collections. The food was not, ahem, a fount of epicurean delight, but it's difficult to expect more when you know that the budget is limited and the food had to be held for as long as 5 hours each day. It was also, for the most part, a tour of Western Europe, with several continents left out. We were there for the wines anyway, and we spread our visit out over two days – one day on each side of the lake. There are other wineries and tasting rooms on Keuka lake which were not part of the wine trail event, but we didn’t make it to any of them.

East Shore Wineries:

Keuka Spring Vineyards

Poland: Pierogi, Kielbasa with dried fruit compote and Rye bread.
Wine Pairing: Off-dry Reisling.
The most satisfying wine we tasted here was the ‘Crooked Lake Red’, an off-dry blend based on the French-American hybrid Rougeon grape, but at the $20 price point, we couldn’t see ourselves choosing it over most $20 reds from the west coast.

Rooster Hill Vineyards
Italy: Involtini (Grilled Eggplant slice wrapped around goat cheese, with tomato sauce), Gnocchi with Vodka sauce, Chocolate Biscotti
Wine Pairing: Merlot
The Merlot was okay, but they raved about their Chardonnay which had garnered an 85-point rating from Wine Enthusiast. It’s fairly rich in flavor, has some oak, and is generally well-balanced, so we did buy a bottle for $13.99. The other interesting wine here was the Lemberger, a red varietal that smelled so pungently of a musty barn that we weren’t too sure we wanted to drink it! Yes, it’s earthy and fruity in flavor, but a bit too reminiscent of barnyard refuse for us.

Barrington Crest Cellars
Paraguay: Tallarin (spicy chicken with pasta – according to Wikipedia, ‘tallarin’ is Spanish for tagliatelle), Arroz con Leche (rice pudding)
Wine Pairing: Dry Riesling
The choice of Paraguay was a nice surprise – the owners have family connections there. Their Raptor’s Red, a blend of Pinot Noir and the hybrid Baco Noir, was good, and their fruit and ice wines are nice, if you like sweet wines. We preferred the Buzzard’s Blackberry with our Arroz con Leche.

Ravines Wine Cellars
Switzerland: Quiche with swiss cheese and bacon.
Paired with your choice of a Dry Riesling or the Cayuga Table White.
I was looking forward to the Cayuga White after reading a nice review of it at Lenndevours, but the wines were too cold and just came off as crisp and non-aromatic. Plus, there was an extra charge for tasting their other wines. Poor form! We declined.

McGregor Vineyard
Greece: Dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), chickpea salad, pita chips with reamy parmesan pesto spread, baklava.
Wine Pairing: Cayuga White.
McGregor is quite some distance off the road that rings the lake, but it’s a really nice place for a tasting. The food was the best we had at any winery, and, for once, we got to sit down while we tasted the wine leisurely. Our overall impression here was that all their wines had a lot of finesse, but came with higher price tags than the other wineries. We bought a bottle of their 2006 Pinot Noir, for $27.99, which had more grip and flavor than any other wine we tasted. The $39.99 Meritage-style Rob Roy Red is decent, too, with strong cedar notes, and I even can see why the Black Russian Red, even at $59.99, is a popular bottle. The Black Russian is made from Ukrainian vinifera grapes, Saperavi and Sereksiya Charni, whose rootstocks were brought by Konstantin Frank in the 1950’s and given as a gift to the vineyard owner. These vines are so rare and prized that their location on the vineyard is a secret even to many of the employees. The goal of the winemaker in using these grapes is to make a wine that will age well, even up to 50 years. Although we tasted mostly fruit in the latest bottling, it would indeed be interesting to see what happens to this wine over the next ten years of cellaring.

Next week I'll wrap up with the Keuka Lake west side: Heron Hill, Dr. Konstantin Frank, Stever Hill, and Hunt Country.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Return to Blogging

This blog had to take a long hiatus from publishing, thanks to pesky job responsibilities, but we were still eating, and now we're back and hungrier than ever.

Recap of Maple Tour Dinner at JT Baker’s in Greenwich

Signs of spring:
All those dirty piles of snow at the curb have melted away.
Raking yard debris and uncovering tulip bulbs sending up green shoots!
The end of the winter term.
Birthday barbecue of
filet mignon and tender asparagus
Sap running from maple trees and, mmm, maple sugaring weekends

There’s nothing like plate of pancakes to serve as a vehicle for consuming unhealthy quantities of maple syrup, and we thought about diving into the usual plates of the pancakes and maple sausage, but, on second thought and a glance at a blog, we decided drove over to Greenwich. That’s where culinary experimentalist Jason Baker has created a special menu to celebrate maple sugaring weekends. The regular menu at JT Baker’s New Cuisine is still available, and while several of the special Maple Tour Menu items are available a la carte, we were enticed by the maple-themed 4-course tasting menu comes with a special price and optional wine pairings.

The menu starts out with a slice of hearty house-made bread, accompanied by whipped butter and flaked sea salt and pepper, served just ahead of the amuse-bouche: an espresso-sized cup of delicately flavored cauliflower and truffle consomme.

The first course is a parsnip, maple and parmesan bisque. These simple ingredients could easily be overwhelmed by the sweetness of the maple syrup, but the maple flavor was pleasantly well-integrated in the bisque, which was creamy and smooth but not too heavy or filling. The nutty saltiness of the parmesan was a welcome counterpoint to the sweetness. A dry unoaked Oregon Chardonnay was the wine pairing.

The second course was a mutton crepinette served over a maple emulsion, with a swoosh of smoked paprika sauce on the side. The mutton was from Elihu Farm, and the casing of the meatball was caul fat, which is the thin membrane that covers the organs of the animal's abdominal cavity. The caul fat casing is nearly imperceptible (no snap like a regular sausage), except for small streaks of fat. The plating was very attractive, although we had to admit we weren’t stunned by the quantity of food being served. What it lacked in quantity was more than compensated by the quality of ingredients and preparation. As with the bisque, the maple emulsion played a well-proportioned role in the overall flavor. The wine paired with the second course was a delicious California Cabernet Sauvignon from Two Tone Farms. The dry and robustly tannic characteristics we look for in Cabernet were very present, but the wine still had balanced fruit and acidity and good length.

Before the third course, we were served a palate cleanser of cold grape and lavender consomme, served in a tall shot glass. Our palates were refreshed, but neither of us is terribly enamored of lavender or rose-flavored food and drink. When the floral aroma and flavor plays a strong role, it just reminds us a little of Grandma’s perfumed bath salts.

The third course was a seared, maple-glazed, yellowfin tuna filet accompanied by edamame puree, beet pudding, and a bit of baby bok choy. Again, the maple flavor gracefully entered the picture on the back of the meaty tuna, without the overwhelming caramelization we expected based on our experiences of maple glazed salmon. The beet pudding was like soft and smooth puree, but firm enough to slice into several bites - delicious flavor and pleasant, interesting texture we weren't expecting from beets. The accompanying wine for this course was a 2003 Chateau Lagarosse Bordeaux. The strong meatiness of the tuna stood up well to the wine, which had hints of stoniness and must, with a pleasant finish.

Overall, we weren’t completely blown away by the extravagance of any of these dishes, but we were impressed by the perfect execution of every detail -- the artful and elegant hand of the chef in highlighting maple flavors without letting them steal the whole show.

Desserts at JT Baker’s are made by Suzanne Baker, and this night we were served maple cheesecake on a brownie crust, with garnishes of maple cream and candied peanuts, and sliced pear, as well as a broad streak of dark chocolate sauce on the plate, and a crumbly chocolate topping. At home, we’ve made cheesecake on top of a brownie before, by baking the brownie and letting it cool, then baking the cheesecake on top of that, but often the brownie becomes soggy from the moisture that seeps from the cheesecake. By incorporating a slightly more dry, crunchy brownie crust, the dessert we had at JT Baker’s maintained good textural contrast between the creamy cheesecake and the crust. The maple cream and candied nuts formed opposing sweet and salty points on the maple dessert that were rich and delicious. The dessert course was less elegant and restrained than the first three courses, but we didn’t mind at all. We loved this dessert (I mean, how can you go wrong with brownie and cheesecake?), and the accompanying wine, a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc whose bouquet reminded one of us of litchi fruits and the other of us (who had never had fresh litchi) of a blend of pink grapefruit juice and fruit cocktail syrup. The wine itself was more dry than we expected from the nose – nicely refreshing during the dessert course.

JT Baker’s New American Cuisine doesn’t look impressive from the outside, or from the inside for that matter, but the food is the star here and what you get is pure, impeccably executed modern cuisine. We appreciated that the Maple Weekend-inspired menu was just that, inspired, rather than gimmicky and over-the-top. Maple syrup is as truly North American as flavors come, and this was true American food on the same level of many great chefs now reinterpreting the classic elements of European cuisine. JT Baker’s is a gem of a restaurant and we hope that it stays around for a long time, because we’d like to take advantage of their longer tasting menus and other regular dishes, as some of the other diners did that night at the restaurant. The Maple Tour menu is also available the last weekend in March, but there aren’t many tables, so reservations are advisable. Phone: (518)-531-2000