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.