Restaurant Reviews

The Spirit Of The Moment: Mezcal

2 June 2016

The author in a Guanajuato cantina, consuming mezcal in as manly a fashion as possible

Just a couple of years ago, finding more than a handful of mezcals on a bar menu in the United States was rare indeed. Even Mexicans sometimes seem a bit scared of this spirit. I’ll never forget how, when I ordered a shot at a traditional cantina in Guanajuato (the kind with a urinal next to the bar), the bartender first offered me mezcal flavored with mango or coconut! He and my guide both raised an eyebrow when I requested the real stuff, though perhaps that says more about my distinctly gringo appearance and less about mezcal.

Gringos, however, have recently begun to take quite a liking to mezcal. In fact, as of March, Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood now has an official mezcal bar, Mezcaleria Las Flores, which has some 78 mezcals on its menu (including related spirits like sotol and raicilla). Those who find that selection too restricting should head instead to Leña Brava, Rick Bayless’s newest restaurant, which stocks a remarkable 112 different mezcals!

The rather sudden rise of mezcal may leave some readers wondering what the heck it is and what all the fuss is about. Mezcal is a sort of parent to tequila. But unlike that ubiquitous spirit, which can be made only from blue agave, mezcal can be made from just about any agave cactus variety. In addition, the piña, the heart of the agave plant from which mezcal is fermented and distilled, is roasted underground for about three days, whereas the piñas used for tequila are baked, not roasted. If tequila is like bourbon, mezcal is like scotch.

I love it. The flavor typically starts with something fruity, fresh and/or herbaceous before it moves to some warm, smokey spice reminiscent of Hungarian paprika. Sometimes it feels rustic, sometimes it feels refined, but it’s always exciting to drink.

A Monteromero (foreground) and a Leña Fire at Leña Brava

Monteromero (foreground) and Leña Fire cocktails at Leña Brava

I consume mezcal most often neat, but like scotch, it can also work beautifully in certain cocktails. Leña Brava’s cocktail list contains seven mezcal-based drinks, for example, and on a visit last week, I had the chance to try two of them. I ordered a Monteromero, composed of Montelobos mezcal, crème de cassis, fresh lime juice, black pepper and a sprig of rosemary. What a delight — the complex, well-balanced cocktail combined sweet, smokey, herbaceous and citrusy flavors to great effect.

My friend Scott ordered a Leña Fire, a powerful combination of Leña Wahaka mezcal (the restaurant’s house mezcal), Ocho Sientos sotol (see my post about sotol here), Ancho Reyes chile liqueur, Yellow Chartreuse, Gran Torres orange liqueur and fresh lime. This veritable parade of high-proof spirits tasted bright, spicy, citrusy and very, very strong. A couple of sips was enough for me, but Scott had no trouble polishing it off. (Also see this post about a mezcal-based Negroni I had in Vienna a couple of years ago.)

Chef Bayless’s daughter, Lanie, acts as the restaurant’s mezcal sommelier, and she offered to pair glasses of mezcal with the five courses we had ordered. Fortunately, she anticipated our desire to leave the restaurant in a semi-coherent state and gave us half-size pours. Lanie knows her mezcals. Her suggestions were excellent, contrasting or emphasizing flavors in various dishes, just as well-considered wine pairings do.

Tasting the mezcals in rapid succession highlighted their distinct characters. The Vago mezcal had a lovely freshness to it, with a sweet cucumber note balancing the ample paprika spice. But the Wahaka Reposado Con Gusano (aged six months in oak barrels) tasted richer and rounder, with something of a mocha note under the spicy heat. “Con Gusano,” incidentally, means that the bottle has a worm in it. Adding an agave worm is “…a proven, age-old method for clarifying the radicals of the barrel while balancing the spirit’s overall flavor with notes of earth and salt,” according to Wahaka’s website.

Words like “spicy heat” and “worm” may make mezcal sound intimidating. But if you give it a try, I suspect you’ll be pleasantly surprised. I find it much more interesting than tequila, and its quality-to-price ratio is very much in the consumer’s favor. More and more bars carry it — if you see it on a spirits list, I highly recommend ordering a shot to pair with a cool appetizer or with a creamy or chocolatey dessert. And if you already like scotch, mezcal is an ideal summer alternative.

Frank Cornelissen’s Volcanic Reds

20 November 2013

Munjebel 8MCAs I wrote in this post, “non-interventionist” winemaker Frank Cornelissen isn’t afraid to break a few rules. He refuses to add preservative sulfur to his wines, he refuses to filter them, and he even ferments the juice of white grapes with the skins, resulting in the startlingly tannic Munjebel 9. It is a wine I’ll never forget.

After tasting that incredible oddity, I couldn’t wait to wrap my palate around some of Cornelissen’s reds. All his grapes come from the slopes of Mount Etna, an active volcano in eastern Sicily. But “It’s a good volcano,” Cornelissen contended, and about as ancient as wine regions get. The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia notes that “this is the wine that Ulysses used to intoxicate the Cyclops,” in Homer’s Odyssey.

On the higher elevations, where The Oxford Companion to Wine says vineyards “show great promise,” Cornelissen asserted it’s not the stereotypical southern Italian landscape. “We’ve got lizards, we’ve got snow — it’s completely different from people’s idea of Sicily,” he explained. And he’s convinced it’s one of the world’s great wine regions. “To be honest, I think the greatest terroirs are in Italy,” Cornelissen confided, “but people don’t necessarily understand it.”

He certainly has worked to understand his terroir, altering the environment as little as possible as he tends to his vineyards, eschewing even organic additives and biodynamic preparations in all but the direst circumstances. And as noted above, his hands-off philosophy continues into the winery, resulting in unusual and controversial wines absolutely packed with flavor. In addition to the Munjebel 9, we tasted three of Cornelissen’s exciting reds at Autre Monde‘s Sicilian themed-dinner:

Pasta al FornoRosso del Contadino 10: This big, barely-in-control wine blends several white and red Sicilian varieties, including Nerello Mascalese and Carricante. It smelled of enticingly of violets and tight, dark-red fruit, and my goodness, what a slap in the face of flavor: big, red, aromatic fruit; big, tart, mouth-puckering acids; big tannins. Kabam! It made for a seriously gutsy pairing with some perfectly tender octopus with potatoes, olives and sun-dried tomatoes. The touch of brininess in the dish brought out a little something extra in the wine.

MUNJEBEL 8 MC: The “MC” stands for “Monte Colla,” the name of the recently acquired vineyard from which this wine comes. According to distributor Cream Wine, the steep, sandy-clay vineyard dates to 1946, and the vines produce very low yields of Nerello Mascalese (a centuries-old crossing of Sangiovese and an as-yet unknown variety). Vineyard sites are of paramount importance at Etna, according to Cornelissen, who likens the area to Burgundy. This single-vineyard Nerello Mascalese had a dark cherry aroma and appealing flavors of tight red fruit and smooth, dark chocolate, followed by a very tannic finish. We tried the Munjebel 8 MC with some savory pasta al forno (baked pasta, photo above) with tomato sauce enriched by various cheeses and mortadella. It became noticeably more powerful and intense. My dining companion remarked that “the dusty-musty Parmesan goes really well with the dusty-musty aspects of the wine.”

Caponata and pickled onionsMUNJEBEL 8 VA: Another 100% Nerello Mascalese, this wine comes from four different vineyards averaging 80 years in age, according to Cream Wine. Even more unusual is that approximately 90% of the vines are ungrafted, meaning that they grow on their own rootstocks. Almost all European vines were regrafted onto American rootstocks in the wake of the phylloxera epidemic, but because of the high altitude of these vineyards, regrafting was unnecessary. This expression of Nerello Mascalese had a more subtle aroma of dark fruit, and my dining companion noted a floral quality as well. It tasted less tannic than the MC, with dark fruit, notes of mocha and big, bold acids. First we sampled it with some delicious caponata and pickled onions (photo right). “This is just what the wine needed,” my dining companion remarked. “Pickled onions. It’s just so much more calm.” Paired with an exquisite dish of fork-tender braised lamb and pearl cous-cous, the wine became even bigger and spicier. A magnificent match.

Cornelissen’s wines can be difficult to find because of the small production. Restaurants are apparently your best bet. Those in Chicago should check with Autre Monde to see if they have any in stock (or just go to Autre Monde regardless, because the food was superb). Alternatively, pizzeria Spacca Napoli is a good bet, along with Spiaggia, Trencherman and Telegraph.

If you see one of his wines on a menu, it might be a pricey by-the-glass option, but don’t hesitate to order it. It’s sure to be worth every penny.

Autre Monde Cafe on Urbanspoon

Cool Cocktails At Taverna 750

9 November 2013
Taverna 750

Taverna 750

One problem with my closest neighborhood cocktail bar, Marty’s, is that their fishbowl-size martinis warm up well before I finish them. I don’t go to Marty’s because I never enjoy the second half of my drink (and because I once caught a bartender substituting Razzmatazz in my cocktail for the Chambord listed on the menu). Oversize cocktails just aren’t for me.

Or so I thought until my visit to Taverna 750 in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. Here they’ve devised a simple and elegant solution for keeping that last half of your martini ice-cold: storing it on ice in a little glass pitcher until you’re ready to drink it. Each cocktail comes with this sidecar, whether you order off the menu or not.

But I do recommend ordering off the cocktail menu — we tried three different cocktails over the course of our shared small-plate dinner, and each was thoroughly delicious. I started with a Blood & Sand, a concoction which dates at least as far back as Bill Boothby’s 1934 cocktail guide, World Drinks and How to Mix ‘Em, which calls for scotch, Cherry Heering and fresh-squeezed orange juice. Taverna 750 gooses up that simple recipe by mixing together Glenmorangie Single-Malt Scotch, sweet vermouth, Cherry Heering, housemade orangecello, lemon juice and simple syrup.

Blood & Sand

Blood & Sand

A waiter placed the drink in front of me, sidecar and all, and asked, “One Colonel Gaddafi?” I must have had a pained look on my face as I chuckled. “Too soon?” Well, at least it wasn’t a Syria joke. In any case, I loved the Blood & Sand. My dining companion had a taste of it, rolled his eyes with pleasure and ordered one of his own. It had a creamy bitter-orange aroma, a profile carried through on the palate: rich, sweet and bitter, undergirded by orangey acids. The sidecar kept the second half of my drink ice-cold, with no loss of integrity as I finished the first.

My dining companion’s second drink — a classic Aviation made with Nolet’s Silver Dry Gin, Crème Yvette (a violet-infused liqueur), Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur, fresh lemon juice and simple syrup — was just as good, if not as deeply complex. It looked pink and tasted purple, with an appealing floral/citrusy character.

I kept things on the bitter side of the spectrum with my Toronto, another classic (if unfamous) cocktail mixing whiskey, Fernet Branca (a very bitter amaro) and simple syrup. As with the Blood & Sand, Taverna 750 took this recipe up a notch by combining Old Overholt Straight Rye Whiskey, Fernet Branca, maple syrup and orange bitters. It smelled pleasantly green and bitter, and it presented a startling flavor profile of bitterness, then mint, and finally rich caramel. This Toronto packed a seriously boozey punch, but it felt remarkably smooth on the tongue. An excellent digestif.

We should have been finished at that point, but our personable waiter Chris asked if we would be interested in a complimentary shot of one of Taverna 750’s housemade ‘cellos. The most common of the ‘cellos is limoncello, made by steeping lemon zest in vodka and mixing in some sugar. I’ve also had ‘cellos made with the zest of other citrus fruits and even fennel, but never pistachio or espresso. Taverna 750’s unorthodox pistachiocello had a wonderful nutty thickness balanced out by some pointy citrusy notes, and the espressocello combined rich coffee flavor with the dense, sweet texture of a ‘cello. Both were delightful.

Marty’s and Taverna 750 both offer a stylish atmosphere, and they would ostensibly appeal to the same type of patron. But make no mistake: Taverna 750 is much better suited to cocktail connoisseurs. Marty’s, with its oversize and oversweet martinis, is for amateurs.

Taverna 750 on Urbanspoon

Galicia’s Answer To Sauvignon Blanc

2 March 2013

She crab soup with sherryUnadventurous wine lists at corporate parties and weddings tend to read something like this: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon. Sauvignon Blanc tops the list so often because it tends to be fruity and very food-friendly, with fun, juicy acids. But if you’re itching to get out of the Sauvignon Blanc rut — and if you’re reading this, I suspect you are — I’ve got just the white for you: Godello.

This variety indigenous to Spain’s northwestern Galicia region almost became extinct thanks to Phylloxera, and it languished in obscurity for years. It was only “recently re-discovered,” according to the 2001 edition of André Dominé’s Wine, and the Galician region best known for producing Godello, the rainy Valdeorras D.O., now “regularly hits the headlines of the Spanish trade press.”

All my wine books speak highly of Godello grown in Valdeorras. The World Atlas of Wine argues that it “can yield extremely fine wines worth ageing,” and The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia notes that “The best [Valdeorras] wineries have now been modernized and are even better than they used to be, particularly for white wines made from the Godello grape.”

Even so, it can be hard to find this “fine white grape variety” (The Oxford Companion to Wine), because Galician vineyards and wineries tend to be small, with necessarily limited production, and much of what is produced is consumed locally. The Galicians know a good thing when they taste it. I felt very lucky, therefore, when I spotted it on the wines-by-the-glass list at Carter’s Kitchen, a delightful casual restaurant tucked away in Mount Pleasant, a suburb of Charleston, South Carolina.

Carter’s Kitchen offered the 2011 Valdesil Montenovo Godello for $8 a glass, one of the least-expensive wines on the list. I needed something with some serious acids to compete with the decadent seafood I’d just ordered, and the Godello proved up to the challenge. It started with some sweet, apply fruit, but this was quickly overtaken by focused, limey acids which carried through to a white-peppery finish. The wine cut right through the richness of a creamy and thick she crab soup (pictured above), and it kept its laser focus against some beautifully fresh fried “doormat flounder” as well.

I wouldn’t hesitate to order it again with seafood, pork, chicken, pasta with cream sauce, risotto… Its juicy fruit and tight acids ensure that it can stand up to all sorts of rich foods, clearing the palate to prepare for the next bite. Keep an eye out for Godellos — if you like Sauvignon Blanc, a nervy Godello from Galicia will be right up your palate.

SUMMARY

2011 Valdesil Montenovo Godello: Fruity but focused, with tight acids that can shine right through a host of rich foods. An excellent escape from a Sauvignon Blanc rut. Chill well before serving.

Grade: B+

Find It: Williams-Sonoma sells this particular Godello for $15, but don’t worry if you can’t find this specific label. Binny’s, for example, lists nine different Godellos on its website ranging in price from $10 to $50 a bottle. Also check out my review of this Godello from Galicia’s Monterrei region.

 

Unusual Pairings at Urban Union – Part 3

9 January 2013

MorgonI must admit no small amount of surprise at this three-part post — I had no intention of rambling on so about the wine I had at Urban Union. If you’re just joining us, you here are the links to Part 1 and Part 2, both of which are pregnant with tales of odd wines such as Jacquère from Savoie, Rkaciteli from Macedonia and rosé from Beaujolais.

Speaking of Beaujolais, we returned to that southern section of the Burgundy region with a 2010 Jean Foillard “Cuvée Corcelette” Morgon, which sommelier Andrew Algren praised as “a mind-numbingly beautiful Beaujolais.”

Now this, of course, is not to be confused with the infamous Beaujolais Nouveau, that sweet, light, and generally overpriced red released around Thanksgiving. And Beaujolais can be confusing. Beyond the Nouveau, there is basic Beaujolais, Beaujolais-Villages which comes from the more desirable hills in the north, and finally cru Beaujolais.

This last category comes from one of ten different communes, each of which produces wine considered to be of such character that it deserves its own appellation. A cru Beaujolais likely won’t even say “Beaujolais” on the bottle (see above right); it will simply say Fleurie, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Juliénas, Brouilly, Côte de Brouilly, Chiroubles, St-Amour, Regnié, or Morgon. Don’t worry about trying to memorize these names (not that you were). In a wine shop of any size, they’ll all be grouped together in the Beaujolais section. And cru Beaujolais wines are worth the hunt.

Duck and ParsnipsThe Jean Foillard Morgon, imported by Kermit Lynch (a sign of quality), lived up to its cru designation. The nose had exciting dark fruit, black pepper and tobacco notes. The rich fruit continued through on the palate, where the wine exhibited significant but very controlled, focused power, like a semi-truck on a well-paved highway. Paired with a course of rich and tender duck breast with parsnip purée, crispy parsnip strips and cranberry gelée, the wine became even bigger, with black pepper and green peppercorn notes zinging to the fore.

While many start dinners with a glass of sparkling wine, Algren chose to finish this feast with one. He poured us each a glass of NV Bortolotti Lagrein, a brut rosé spumante from Valdobbiadene, that town in the Alpine foothills north of Venice famous for its Prosecco. Lagrein is the variety, which is grown on only about 750 acres nowadays, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. It produces “fragrant yet sturdy” sparkling rosé (or “rosato” in Italian), the Companion notes, and the Bortolotti certainly had an aroma. It reminded me of cherry Robitussin. But it tasted bright and fun, with lots of red fruit and zippy acids.

DessertPaired with a delectable dessert of apple cake with quince, cinnamon chips, cinnamon ice cream and a square of flourless mint-chocolate cake, the Bortolotti was “great.” Sorry. By this point, my writing had degenerated into the shaky scrawl my notebook has come to expect towards the end of these sorts of dinners: “Salty, min-t (sic), choc (sic) — geat (sic) w/Lagrein” is all I’ve got for you.

Algren also gave us a second dessert pairing, a small glass of Carpano Antica, a sweet vermouth with an almost cult-like following among many bartenders. You can drink this vermouth straight, certainly. It tasted “Sweet, biter (sic), warming — fun!” And with that, Algren wisely cut me off.

It’s a shame Algren has departed Urban Union, but I have no doubt that the restaurant’s adventurous wine program will remain intact. Chef de Cuisine Joshua Marrell continues, as of this posting, to helm the kitchen, and if this dinner was any indication, he’s a talent worth watching.

Note: The Urban Union staff was aware that my dining companions and I were food/wine bloggers, and we did not pay for our meal.

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