Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A Truffle and a Bottle of Allegrini Palazzo della Torre 1997

Stephanie and I were doing our normal weekend shopping at Treasure Island, Chicago's best grocery store, when I spied a half dozen truffles in the display case in the deli. After much debate, Stephanie convinced me to take one of the little tubers home. It was about the size of nutmeg (or is it a nut of meg?) and cost $10. We agreed that we had to prepare a special meal for it and choose some large lamb chops. I pan roasted the lamb and created a decadent red wine sauce from the fond. I also made risotto finished with a healthy dollop of whipped cream and shavings from about a third of the truffle. The truffle was dry as a rock and difficult to grate, but it added its characteristic aroma to the meal. Was it worth the $10? At that point I wasn't convinced, but after Stephanie grated some into scrambled eggs the next morning, it most certainly was.

Stephanie also convinced me to open a bottle of wine from the cellar for the occasion. I chose one of my two remaining bottles of Allegrini's "Super Veneto" wine. As in much of Europe, the grapes that go into wines from the Veneto are regulated by law. In order to call a wine Valpolicella or Amarone, winemakers can only use certain specified varietals. The folks at Allegrini don't like being told what to do. They add a small percentage of sangiovese, a Tuscan grape, to this blend and are forced to label it "IGT" (Indicazione Geografica Tipica). In a nod to regional tradition, however, thirty percent of the grapes are allowed to dry on mats for months before being fermented (this is why Amarone tastes the way it does).

I loved this wine when it was released and decided to put a few bottles in the cellar. Recent vintages have gotten equally lavish praise, but I have found them increasingly ripe and unbalanced. Accordingly, I was anticipating trying this wine to see what had changed, the wine or my palate. As it turns out, my palate was in excellent shape. Coincidentally, the wine gave off opulent truffle aromas upon being opened and decanted. It was medium bodied and dry, showing some expected fading in color. At nine years old, the original fruit flavors had all but vanished to be replaced by mature, dried berry notes. My inclination with the last bottle is to give it a few more years to hope these mature flavors develop further. It was certainly no worse for wear, and I'm interested to see what may yet happen. Wines like these prove that you don't have to spend a lot of money for age-worthy wines. This one only costs $17.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Our trip to Bouchon

Jonathan says: In celebration of many things, including our own recent engagement, our friend's impending wedding, and the general gloriousness of early fall in Napa Valley, we decided to head for lunch to Thomas Keller's bistro Bouchon, located just down the street in Yountville from his more famous French Laundry. The Michelin Guide to Northern California had just awarded Bouchon a star despite being rather parsimonious in its distribution of awards to other San Francisco-area restaurants, and so we were especially eager to see what at Bouchon had warranted this treatment.

Seeb says: Up until the night before, I had thought of our lunch as a special advance celebration of Jonathan's birthday. Apparently, he had a larger plan in mind the whole time.

J: The restaurant itself is gorgeous, and decorated in classic French brasserie style: brass rails, mirrors on the walls, tiled floors, nouveau French paintings on the walls, and even a large potted plant in the middle. All told, very authentic. From the moment we sat down, the food was superb to match. The mini-baguette placed on our table was delicious, and the butter that accompanied it was superbly creamy and just a little bit sweet.

S: Loved the huge floor-to-ceiling potted plant in the middle of the seating area. I don't remember the tile exactly, but I get the feeling I didn't like it. The seat (velour or velvet, I think. red?) was comfortable, but the tables were lined up pretty close so that sliding in and out of the seat was tricky. And I was not the only woman who found this a challenge.

J: After much haggling, we initially decided to order a half carafe of a pinot grigio from a nearby (!) winery. When the waiter arrived, however, he strongly recommended the 2004 Domaine Vacheron Sancerre from the Loire Valley, and since I had been considering the Sancerre in the first place I fairly quickly agreed. Seebany, however, protested, arguing (quite correctly, as I readily admitted) that it was somewhat ridiculous to be ordering French wines while *sitting in Napa.* Nonetheless, in the end we opted for the Sancerre and were very happy that we did. The wine was light and crisp with hints of fruit and a finish reminiscent of black pepper, and it was delicious by itself and a wonderful complement to the seafood dishes that we decided to order.

S: To be precise, we were haggling over the amount of wine, not over the type. One of us would have to drive us back, after all.

My first course was not seafood, though. It would have come as a surprise to nearly anyone who knows me. I'm not the biggest fan of eggs, and I don't know much about the various types of cheese. But if there's anyone who could convert me with a quiche, it'd be Thomas Keller. The mushroom and roquefort quiche was just the right savory start. Not sulfury in smell or taste, but earthy from the mushrooms and the pungent cheese. But it was really the texture that made it different from just about any other quiche I've tried. Served in a small ramekin, the quiche was extremely custard-like. Fantastic, and all that *without* an overbearing egg taste. [Sadly, I don't remember the crust exactly, although I know it was not a typical flaky pie crust.] The richness actually made me wish for an instant for colder weather (!) that would do this warm comfort food justice. In fact it brought to mind exactly another dining moment in which French food was the ultimate comfort food - the coq au vin in the chocolately thick sauce we had last winter at Fringale. There's something about discovering comfort foods even though you never ate them as a child.

J: I ordered the rillettes aux deux saumons, essentially a spread of smoked and raw salmon preserved in a glass jar and covered with a layer of clarified butter (which the waiters skillfully removed). It was delicious in all of the ways that good salmon usually is, and moreover there was quite a bit of it. Seeb and I were both able to eat our fill before it had disappeared. The only minor slip-up in the service was that we were required to ask more than once before the waiters brought more bread for the rillettes. All told, not somehow as spectacular as Seeb’s quiche, but still very good.

As a main course I ordered the dish I had been eyeing (on the internet) for months, the moules au safran—basically moules frites (mussels and French fries) in a saffron and mustard sauce with hints of black and red pepper. The mussels were perfectly done, the sauce was deliciously spicy and more than a bit tangy, and the powerful aroma of saffron was a perfect complement to the mussels’ natural flavor. The pot in which the mussels were served was also impressively conceived; one corner of the pot was literally fenced off from the remainder in order to provide a space for dipping the mussels (and the fries) that wasn’t crowded by shells. And what fries—probably the best French fries I have ever eaten, better even than the duck fat fries at Hot Doug’s in Chicago (which are a favorite of many of this site’s bloggers). Perfectly salty, incredibly crispy, and not even terribly oily or greasy. The problem was that despite being the best fries I have ever tasted they were the least interesting thing on the table to eat, so we didn’t finish them.

S: So, here it is December 15th, and wouldn’t you know, I’ve taken so long to write now that I had to ask Jonathan to remind me what my main course was. Scallops with parsnip puree. Of course, once he said it I instantly remembered the texture of the parsnips and the scallops. The dish was very mild flavored, the scallops just a little buttery sweet and the parsnips as I imagine parsnips must usually be, (not having them often), a nice background flavor, really meant to let the scallops be the stars.

And then on to the dessert. Jonathan and I shared a lemon tart. Normally I would prefer something richer and, except in summertime, less fruity. But with the weather and the heft of the rest of the meal (lunch, i.e. lighter) it was a good choice. Chris had told Jonathan that Keller considered this lemon tart to be the apotheosis of this dessert; he believed that he had perfected the recipe and would never change it. This may well be, but I don’t think that we’re huge fans of lemon tart. Or perhaps we were just too stuffed from previous courses.

But one thing worth mentioning that is not about Bouchon, per se, ;) is that after lunch we walked a little ways up the road back to where we’d passed by the French Laundry. Took a look around at their little patio area and the iconic blue door, of course. Across the street was a small garden of three sets of four rows of vegetables (all labeled) that they grow and use at the restaurants. To view them all you have to step off the sidewalk and into the dirt, so don’t wear your absolute best pair of shoes to French Laundry or Bouchon.

I hadn’t heard of such specific varieties and strains. The garden certainly wasn’t large enough to supply the restaurant night after night, so I don’t know if it was a showcase garden, or if they only use these items as garnish. There were some really beautiful little “jingle bell peppers” ripe on the stalks that were very picturesque. I imagine a little goes a long way with those. All in all, a fun way to spend the afternoon.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Dinner with Friends

The weather in Chicago was almost as cold as Reggie Ball's performance in the ACC Championship game, but it was nothing that couldn't be warmed up by a some good food and wine. Dinner with John and Jonathan proved to be the bright spot between dreadful performances by my favorite teams.

We began the night with an amuse of Fried Oysters with two sauces - chive aioli and roasted red pepper. Stephanie has prepared these oysters in the past, and they were just as good as usual. Next, we made good use of a recent house-warming gift from Charlie and Lauren by serving escargots in their traditional bowls. The snails were topped with an equally-traditional garlic butter and proved rather tender and tasty. For the main course, I braised rabbit in white wine and rabbit jus and served it with buttered egg noodle "tagliatelle." The rabbit was moist and tender, and the noodles, from Del Cecco, proved more satisfying than the standard egg noodles. We concluded with delightful treats provided by John - including goose supreme, fromage d'affinois, Humboldt Fog, and Bleu d'Agur - and some excellent foie gras secretly imported into Chicago by some to-remain-nameless friends. I would mention that the blue cheese was particularly stunning, but then it would be even harder to get than it already is (because, of course, as soon as something is approved by Cask 79 its sales jump).

Wines for the evening were provided by our guests. We began with a 2004 Domaine Vacheron Sancerre that readers of this blog would already know of if Seebany had finished her post about Bouchon. The wine, which Jonathan and Seebany had shared at Bouchon, was both racy and rich, allowing it serve as both complement and foil for the buttery snails. Next we enjoyed the accidentally overchilled (my bad) Domaine Saint-Martin Marsannay Les Grands Vignes 2004 imported by Patrick Lesec. Lesec is a well-respected negociant known more for his Rhones than his Burgundies, and this bottle, as it warmed, showed both the grace of a pinot noir and the earthy core of a syrah. It was really excellent both with the rabbit and alone. The cheese course was accompanied by a wine sourced from John's personal cellar, the 2003 Chateau de Myrat Sauternes. I had tasted this wine without food previously, and it seemed even more profound when paired with the goose supreme and blue cheese. Full of botrytis yet perfectly balanced, it was quintessential Sauternes. We ended the night with some post-prandial YouTubing and a bottle of Chateau Henye Tokaji Furmint 2000. While it didn't have the botrytis of the Myrat (it probably should have been served first), it did offer an excellent purity of tree fruit that was refreshing after an evening of such almost but not quite gluttony.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Country Style Cream of Leek Soup

We finally imported some photos from our camera, and I wanted to post a photo of the Country Style Cream of Leek Soup that I blogged about a few weeks ago. Click on the title to link to that post.

This is a cream-based sausage and leek soup, and it turned out better than I expected. The perfect soup for a cold Saturday night.