Restaurant Reviews

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.

Unusual Pairings At Urban Union – Part 2

5 January 2013

We drank so many tasty and unusual things at our dinner at Urban Union, I couldn’t possibly fit them all into one post. To read about some fine unfiltered/unpasteurized sake, a bright wine from France’s Savoie and a truly odd selection from Macedonia, follow this link.

To venture yet further into the obscure, read on!

Mushrooms and Domaine FilliatreauWhen most people think of wines from France’s Loire Valley — if they think of them at all — they think of crisp, minerally whites like Sancerre. But the Loire produces robust reds as well, most notably from the Cabernet Franc variety. Ex-Sommelier Andrew Algren (he left Urban Union just days after our dinner) selected a wine from the Saumur-Champigny section of the Loire, which produces “one of Cabernet Franc’s most refreshing expressions,” according to The World Atlas to Wine. According to Algren, it’s “like grabbing a handful of French forest floor and chowing down.” I was intrigued.

To me, the 2010 Domaine Filliatreau “La Grande Vignolle” tasted eye-poppingly tight, especially after smelling its deep, enticing, meaty aroma. It was very acidic and tannic, with a finish of black pepper. It screamed for food. In keeping with the French forest floor theme, Chef de Cuisine Joshua Marrell presented a course of trumpet, chanterelle and maitake mushrooms foraged, reportedly, by a local comedian. This rather daringly simple dish smelled appealingly like mushroom-topped pizza. Its earthy flavors tamed the punchy acids in the wine, resulting in positively delightful combination.

Domaine RomyBucking convention, Algren moved from a red to pink, pouring a highly unusual Beaujolais rosé (not to be confused with Beaujolais Nouveau, that fruity but usually over-sweet red released around Thanksgiving). Made from Gamay, the variety used in all red Beaujolais wines, the orangey-pink 2010 Domaine Romy Beaujolais Rosé tasted of juicy strawberries, with a firm structure and ample minerals and acids. Delicious. Served with a wonderfully garlicky dish of tender charred octopus, confit of potatoes in beef fat and scallion purée, the wine’s flavor didn’t seem to change all that much. Instead, the wine enhanced the flavor of the food, bringing its savory richness to new heights.

Algren pouring UlaciaAnd then we were back, oddly enough, to a white. Poured theatrically from overhead, as is traditional in Spain’s Basque country, Algren presented a 2011 Ulacia Getariako Txakolina. This tart, apply, slightly fizzy wine comes from near the town of Getaria, a region of cool, rainy summers which The Oxford Companion to Wine calls “hardly ideal grape-growing country.” Nevertheless, the whites, mostly made from the Hondarribi Zuri variety, have “noticeably improved” in the last couple of decades. (Incidentally, there’s a nasty rumor going around that Hondarribi Zuri is a hybrid of a Vitis vinifera variety and some other species of Vitis. Scandal!)

Algren paired the Ulacia with a dish of prosciutto from black-skinned pigs, pickled mustard seeds and crunchy celery root, to marvelous effect. The tart wine cut right through the fat of the prosciutto and became a bit sweeter in the process. A hearty, zesty combination I wouldn’t hesitate to order again. (Marrell graciously credited the inspiration for this dish to Marco Pierre White’s cookbook “White Heat.”)

Good heavens, there’s yet more to come? Loosen your belts, ladies and gentlemen; we’ve got three courses left to go.

Up Next: A stellar cru Beaujolais, a Lagrein from Italy, and for dessert… vermouth. Hey, this is Odd Bacchus, folks. Were you expecting Port?

Unusual Pairings At Urban Union – Part 1

2 January 2013

Chef de Cuisine Joshua MarrellEvery now and then, an invitation to attend a special dinner will waft my way, and though I do my best to avoid overindulgence (ahem), I feel it is my bloggerly duty to accept whenever possible. And so,  immediately following my office’s Christmas party, at which much pasta and red wine was consumed, I headed to Chicago’s Little Italy neighborhood, home to cozy and stylish Urban Union.

A handful of other food/wine bloggers gathered at the communal Chef’s Table, “where diners are served customized and unique creations, along with expertly selected wine pairings by the two sommeliers on staff,” according to the invitation. I felt a bit apprehensive, hoping that the pairings would be unusual enough to suit this blog, but as soon as I walked in, I knew it would work out just fine. A large chalkboard listed the “Wines on Tap,” starting with a Greek Moschofilero and a Californian Arneis. Yeah!

We started with a relatively conventional but undeniably delicious pairing of sake and ahi tuna sashimi with ponzu, basil and almonds. The Narutotai Ginjo Namagenshu, an unpasturized, unfiltered sake that continues to condition in its can, tasted fruity and a bit yeasty before driving to a clean, spicy finish. Paired with the sashimi, it seemed surprisingly less spicy; it became smoother, duskier. (You can read more about sake here.)

Domaine GiachinoThings started to get more unusual and exciting when General Manager and Sommelier Andrew Algren brought out the next bottle, a 2009 Domaine Giachino Abymes “Monfarina”.Very little wine escapes from France’s Alpine Savoie region, so I always feel delighted when I have the chance to taste one. This wine comes from the Abymes cru, about 100 kilometers south of Geneva, Switzerland, and it’s made with Jacquère, a white variety obscure to us but relatively common in Savoie. The wine smelled of rich green apples, and it tasted light-bodied and rather tart. The acids cried out for food, and a delightful winter beet salad with pancetta chips mellowed them nicely.

Chef de Cuisine Joshua Marrell kept things seasonal with his next course, a lush sunchoke purée topped with roasted sunchokes and sunchoke chips. Its deeply satisfying flavor worked marvelously with Algren’s most daring pairing yet: A 2011 Tikveš Rkaciteli from theSunchokes pureed, roasted and in chip form Republic of Macedonia (not to be confused with the Greek region of the same name). If you’ve encountered the incredibly ancient Rkaciteli variety at all, it was probably spelled “Rkatsiteli” and it probably came from Georgia (the country) or perhaps New York. It’s the most widely planted variety in the ex-Soviet republics, which isn’t necessarily a ringing endorsement, but it can make some excellent wines.

Macedonia, for its part, has a climate “extremely favorable to vine cultivation,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, and I was excited to see what this little country would do with one of the world’s oldest wine varieties. The Tikveš Rkaciteli fascinated me with aromas of bright pear and a bit of tar. It proved to be very acidic, oily and minerally, which sounds terrible, but I found it oddly enticing. The rich sunchoke dish balanced out the acids, making the wine rounder and fuller.

Up Next: The meal continues with an unexpected rosé and a wine that tastes like “grabbing a handful of the French forest floor and chowing down.”

Urban Union on Urbanspoon

Drink the Brown – Part 2

26 September 2012

Madeira, a fortified wine produced on the tiny Atlantic island of the same name, ages in an equally odd fashion as sherry (see the previous post). The best madeiras end up ageing for years, usually decades, in the attics of lodges in Funchal, cooked by the warm Madeira sun. This method is called canteiro, as opposed to the less-time consuming estufagem process which involves artificially heating the wine.

Exposing wine to high heat and wide temperature swings for decades at a time is exactly the opposite of how I was taught to treat fine wine, but it seems to work quite well for madeira. In fact, after suffering through summer after summer in a semi-tropical attic, Madeira becomes quite resilient. After all, what else can you do to the stuff? It can last in the bottle for decades or even centuries.

You’ll see standard madeira blends classified by flavor profile (dry, medium sweet, etc.), but if you’re going to buy some madeira, spend a bit more and go for one with a more specific classification, such as Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malmsey, which indicate the predominant grape variety as well as the level of sweetness. Sercial is the driest, and Malmsey the sweetest (you can read more information about these styles here and here.) These categories are then further subdivided by age.

At Stella! in New Orleans, I had a Rare Wine Company “New York” Malmsey Special Reserve, produced by Vinhos Barbeito. “Malmsey” on a madeira label indicates that it’s made from Malvasia grapes, and the words “Special Reserve” guarantee that the youngest wine in the blend is at least 10 years old. Although this is among the sweetest styles of madeira, I didn’t have it with dessert. The creative sommelier, Marc J. Doiron, paired it with some crispy veal sweetbreads with andouille sausage, turnips and egg yolk.

Good heavens, what a marvelous pairing! The madeira smelled rich and woodsy, with some wheat toast in there as well. It tasted predictably sweet and caramelly, but amazing bright acids kicked in on the finish, ensuring that it would be food friendly. It complemented the delicate sweetbreads but stood up to the andouille and turnips as well. Quite the balancing act! I don’t often write “Wow!” in my notebook, but write it I did.

I don’t currently have any madeira at home, but you can bet it will be on my Christmas list. I could imagine it pairing well with some roast pork with sweet potatoes, or perhaps turkey with stuffing. Indeed, madeira was quite popular in colonial America, making it a thoroughly appropriate choice for Thanksgiving. Get a bottle now, give it a try, and if you can manage to avoid drinking the whole thing, you can serve the rest to the more adventurous palates at your Thanksgiving table, assuming you have a few.

If you don’t, then I say forget hosting dinner and head to Stella! instead. It’s not inexpensive, but my goodness, the food and wine is sheer delight.

Stella! on Urbanspoon

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