Thursday, September 26, 2013

Wicked Tuna Throwdown- Alchemy Restaurant vs Union Bar and Grill

Tuna... you've come so far.  From being that child hood lunch staple in sandwiches (often dreaded throughout cafeterias for their odor), and that dreaded addition to the "noodle casserole" that used to make my stomach flip at the dinner table, you've become one of my very favorite proteins.  Chock full of nutrients and healthy fats, tuna fish is one fish I can enjoy in so many ways- grilled, raw, yes even canned.  So when I was invited last week to head on up to Gloucester to hang with some tuna fishermen and witness a throw down of the tuna variety between current Union Bar and Grill chef Steve Morlino, and former Union Bar and Grill chef
and current chef at Alchemy Restaurant in Gloucester Scott Jensen- I was on the next train out!

Bluefin Tuna have been fished off the coast of Gloucester for decades.  Every year men from the area have risked life and limb to reel in their catch in those waters. The movie "The Perfect Storm" was actually based on these fishermen.  And now, the hit National Geographic show-"Wicked Tuna" will be filmed in these very waters, with rumors
simmering that the show will be focusing on the team from the ship "Hot Tuna", showcasing the trials and triumphs of our local catch.  Incredibly exciting stuff.

The Throw down that I was able to attend was an incredible celebration both of the fish itself and the kick off of the filming for the show.  The dinner was open to the public, and let me say- I love the pride that Massachusetts shows for its fellow residents.  Every person in attendance was there to cheer on their men, and to enjoy some incredible tuna bites.

The competing dishes were a take on the
ever classic "Tuna Melt" twisted with inspiration from the East and West from Alchemy and Grilled Moroccan Spiced Tuna from Union.I started with the Inspired Tuna Melt which layered coriander crusted Tataki Style Ahi Tuna over melted American Cheese on top of a toasted slice of Portuguese Sweet Bread.  Enhanced with Bread and Butter pickled celery, crisp cucumber, Sriracha Garlic Aioli, and a little wasabi this was the best tuna melt I've ever had.  The bright flavors from the pickled vegetables with the spice of the Sriracha and wasabi and then blended with the classic saltiness of melted American Cheese made this a really unique taste on a pretty stereotypical food.  I did find it to be a bit overly salty at times, but overall the concept was fantastic.

I turned my attention to the Grill Moroccan Spiced Tuna next.  This had the Ahi Tuna coated in Moroccan spices and then grilled up.  It was gently layered over a fava bean hummus and served with a summer bean salad, and heirloom tomatoes.  As I devoured each bite of this dish from the hands of chef Morlino, I kept coming back to one word- clean.  The spice surrounding the fish was full of flavor, but not overpowering to the tuna which was allowed to shine on its own.   The fava bean hummus had simple natural flavors to it, but also added a bit of decadence to the dish in its creamy quality.  I loved every bite of this dish it was rich and filling while being light and incredibly clean.  

In the end, Alchemy won the throw down, but the margin was undoubtedly close.  No matter who won the actual contest though, the star of the show here was that fresh local tuna.  This is the same tuna that will be featured again on Wicked Tuna this season and which so many of us enjoy in our homes and restaurants.  I can't end this without an incredible nod of appreciation to our local fisherman.  The life of a commercial fisherman is not an easy one, battling beyond inclement weather, facing known and unknown dangers daily all while following their catch as they follow their prey.  I know that now, after hanging with the guys of Hot Tuna I'll appreciate every bite of our local tuna that much more. 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Alden & Harlow, Harvard Square, Cambridge- SNEAK PREVIEW DINNER

I'll be perfectly frank- I'm not sure that there has ever been so much anticipation for a restaurant to open.  Beloved Michael Scelfo (formerly of Russel House Tavern) has taken over the old Casablanca space in Harvard Square and is utilizing it to bring the city of Cambridge his own vision- named Alden & Harlow.
We can start at the beginning- with the space which as Club Casablanca opened its doors in its prime spot in Harvard Square in 1955.  This was a special spot- a place where the diverse and often eclectic inhabitants of Harvard Square would meet for a meal, for a pint, for a stiff drink and immerse themselves in a deep discussion or in an equally deep book.  Its dark, almost cozy atmosphere seemed to breed intermingling of is clientele, each who brought their own unique story to tell.  Students and professors co mingled here, visiting celebrities and the occasional dignitary.  Casablanca was a home away from home.
It is only fitting that this place, which only closed its doors in December, 2012,

would be the place for Scelfo to transform into his place.  The thing with Chef Scelfo is that his food spills on to your plates like your Italian grandmothers meatballs.  Saying things like "he cooks from the heart", or "love is the primary ingredient" is beyond contrite- the food enjoyed from his kitchen has all of that at its surface and then plunges layers below to the true joy of food.  Alden & Harlow will encapsulate all of this , offering dishes straight from Scelfo's home kitchen and serve them in a "hey, can you pass the..." kind of way.  Welcome to Scelfo's table.
I had the joy of attending a preview dinner for Alden & Harlow recently and with as much anticipation as I had walking through the doors, I wasn't disappointed.
We began our evening with a selection of "snacks"- grilled Cauliflower with a sesame caponata, grilled Romano Beans wit plums, basil and Cotija Cheese, and smoked Cashews with currants and rosemary.  These are not delicate foods.  These are not foods to pick at and decipher- these are dig in and fill your tummy foods. The grilled cauliflower brought out the beauty of the classic vegetable pairing it with gentle sweetness of golden raisins, the twinge of sesame seeds and a gentle spice providing the suggestion of heat to the dish.  The Romano Beans, which I consider to be warriors on their own- strong and hearty by nature, were softened with the sweet plums, a unique pairing for sure.  I loved the addition of the fresh basil and the saltiness of the Cotija cheese, which to me made this a roundly flavored dish appealing to salty, savory and sweet.
The star of this round however, we all agreed as our spoons fought in the bowl
for second and third helpings, were the cashews.  Never before had cashews been brought to such a special level for me.  Smoked in Scelfo's own smoker, tossed with just a little oil, sweet dried currants, hearty rosemary and a bit of salt- their flavor profile was incredible.  Every bite provided the wondrous tastes of rich nut, earthy rosemary, and sweetness and all perfectly married together with the beauty of salt.  Basically- these were like eating salty peanuts on extreme crack.  I just have no other way to describe their heaven.  They will be on the menu with A&H opens, go, order, devour.
After we had had our fill of the snacks, our first course was served- grilled local carrots over a buttermilk yogurt, spicy honey and pistachio granola.  Have you ever had a grilled carrot?  If not- I suggest you do so soon.  The beauty of carrots is that they are incredibly sturdy, but have a bit of natural sugar to them, so when you put them on the grill they become beautifully smoky and have a sweet caramelizing.  Paired with the creamy and tangy buttermilk yogurt the contrast was spot on- delicate paired with sturdy, sweet to the tang.  Furthering Scelfo's impeccable sense of appealing to all flavor senses, the spicy honey played a background role offering sweet heat in sporadic fashion, while the pistachio granola, gave a breakfast feel and a perfect about of crunchy texture.
Our second course combined smoked mussels with grilled squash, parsley
flavored croutons and a bit of tarragon.  Two notes here- I love tarragon for its fresh flavor, and I adore mussels.  This offering combined them both and made mussels a much more exciting dish than they normally are.  Here instead of it being mussels and broth, the grilled squash lent a satisfying "umph" to the light shellfish.  The contrasting flavors were really the highlight here- fresh herbs of parsley and tarragon with the smoke of the mussels and the squash played together well.
We ended our meal with an overnight roasted beef bacon served with creamed corn and vinegar glazed radishes.  What could be wrong with anything named "beef bacon"? Impossibly tender chunks of beef roasted to perfection with that perfectly wonderful smoky bacon flavor and just a hint of sweetness.  Oddly enough though, as incredible as that beef was, I came very close to licking my plate to finish off the creamed corn.  Unlike anything you've had before this creamed corn had the right amount of textural kernels, creaminess, natural sweetness and a little saltiness which always draws to mind the idea of popcorn for me.
We enjoyed what will be just a small part of what will make Alden & Harlow great.  Every dish will be expertly crafted as these, with flavor profiles to showcase and enhance fresh, local ingredients and house made accompaniments where possible.  They will welcome you into their home with plates made for passing and sharing, and, if you ask me, fighting over the end of.
Alden & Harlow hasn't yet announced their firm opening date, though we anticipate it later this fall. Keep your eyes peeled my friends- this will be one that you will want to pull up your chair, settle in with a glass of wine or an expertly crafted cocktail and stay for a while...

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Urban Grape- Go Geek Out with them, South End, Boston

I was out to dinner a few nights ago with a friend and as we considered the menu, the all important discussion of the wine list came up.  The discussion of wine is always a subject in itself.  It seems most of us wend our way through wine lists slightly blind.  Even if we have an elementary understanding of wine, it never seems enough to know if that 2009 Pinot Noir will be better or if the 2011 Chardonnay is the way to go.  So you do a dance with the menu, looking at the list, reviewing regions, narrowing by price...often choosing a wine can be a stressful task, and that's just with a limited wine list in a restaurant.  Let's consider wine stores, with their aisles of wines, their labels promising perfection, and yet no real understanding of what their bottles hold.  

The Urban Grape, with locations in Chestnut Hill and the South End changes all of that.  Proprietors TJ and Hadley Douglas opened their first location in Chestnut Hill just about three years ago with an eye to changing how we buy wine. Instead of organizing their space by region or varietal, they have sorted their bottles by the viscosity of the wine itself.  Their model is known as Progressive Shelving, meaning that their white wines are arranged from lightest on the palate to heaviest, and their reds are organized in the same way.  Now you might be wondering what "light on the
palate" refers to.  It's literally crazy idea of mouth feel that we talk about.  Its the idea of how skim milk feels on your tongue as compared to how heavy cream feels.  One is much heavier, it coats your mouth with its property and the other flows similar to water.  One leaves a lingering flavor, while the other washes away. 

I love this concept.  It means that as opposed to finding a wine that you like and sticking with it, where it's organized on their wall will lead you to other wines you'll enjoy based on their similar weight and properties.  Perhaps they are both Malbec's, perhaps not.  It also means that, especially with the help of TJ, Hadley and their staff, you can find the perfect wine to pair with that killer dinner you've been preparing.  It means that when you serve roast that you've been preparing all day, and the wine you serve with it is its perfect compliment, and then when you uncork that after dinner bottle to relax with, it will be that comforting feel that you want to spend the rest of the evening with.  The system and the staff at Urban Grape means that you will be the hero of pairings.  
The Urban Grape is constantly finding new ways to help their customers wend through the world of wine.  They keep track of your purchases and your preferences to find recommendations for you.  During those busy weeks where every little bit helps- they can create a case for you based on those preferences so all you need to do is pick it up. Both locations also offer a host of tasting events at both locations which will help give you that further edge as they delve into different varietals and walk through their properties. Finally, The Urban Grape is also offering a full selection of beers, sake's, name it.  

If you are one of those persons who "fakes" it during wine selecting- get on over to The Urban Grape- a quick trip in will arm you with information and some fantastic bottles.


Monday, September 16, 2013

Jordan Winery Visit, Sonoma, California

I was afforded an incredible opportunity when I was in San Francisco with Nespresso.  I had the incredible good fortune to be invited to visit the Jordan Winery located in Healdsburg, California, a short hour and a half drive north from San Francisco.  This was my very first trip to wine country, and as I drove my little ZipCar over the Golden Gate Bridge, I could feel the excitement build to unbelievable levels. The drive from San Francisco to Sonoma Valley is incredibly easy, keeping you on one main road the whole time, and making it so simple that even I, who drives so rarely was able to make it up and enjoy the scenery as I drove past.  I realized, as I neared my destination, that if I lived anywhere near San Francisco, I would spend far too much time in Sonoma Valley.

Of course, this realization only exemplified as I drove on to the Jordan Winery
estate.  As I followed the winding drive way up to the its pinnacle, I was afforded views of the land, its lush fields and gorgeous landscaping, and then at the very top there sat the most gorgeous mansion.  It seemed to appear out of no where, a mirage of beauty pulled straight from the French countryside.  The beautiful home was the main structure for the Winery business, housing their hospitality office, the location from where their tours kicked off, a kitchen stocked with a world class chef to create fresh bites to savor with wine, as well as their full wine making operations.  The chateau (there is just no other way to describe it), sits overlooking their acres of vineyards and the rest of their land.  

Jordan Winery began its operations in 1972, bottling their first vintage in 1976.  They were founded with the principles of French wines- the idea was that their wines would invoke the ideals of century old French vineyards with their tried and true practices.  This is an ideal that they have successfully brought forward throughout their operations since.  Certainly, they have updated their techniques, and opened their doors to sourcing their grapes from around their area in the Russian River Valley and the Alexander Valley, but what has stood out, from their very first vintage is their consistency in quality.

Not surprisingly, their consistently exemplary wines are a source of great pride
for the vineyard, but that doesn't mean they are resting on their laurels.  Today the team at Jordan are continuing push their limits and break through new ground to not only maintain their long terms clients, but to continue to appeal to the younger wine explorers.  

Just a few weeks ago, the Jordan Winery launched a brand new take on the traditional vineyard tasting.  In addition to the standard tasting room discussions, the Jordan Vineyard will host small groups (no more than 12 in a party) and usher them throughout their land in a three hour tour.  The itinerary includes a first stop in the grounds garden within which they grow a vast variety of fruits and vegetables, herbs and flowers.  Here a light breakfast is served, and then the tour, all done from a gorgeous custom Mercedes Sprinter, moves on throughout the vineyard, stopping at different vantage points with incredible views of the grape vines, olive trees as well as the numerous lakes and incredible views contained with the 1,200 acres.  Stops include tastings and food pairings and and unbelievable inside look at the operations of the vineyard.

After touring the grounds and speaking with just some of the incredibly passionate staff it was so clear that there is a very good reason that the Jordan Winery has maintained their incredible reputation for quality over the years.  They know their land.  They know what will grow well.  They know their grapes.  They know their area, their neighbors, their staff.  They know what they need to do every year to produce the wines that we've all come to love.  They have extreme confidence in their product, and it shows.

I would urge you to indulge in Jordan wines.  I urge you to travel to Sonoma Valley and visit the winery.  To sit in their tasting room, or tour their chateau, or spend a morning with them exploring their incredible land. I urge you to join their rewards program and build points as you might be lucky enough to even stay in their chateau, an incredible experience.  Jordan wines will provide a consistent experience with highly drinkable yet sophisticated wines.  Both the Chardonnay and the Cabernet Sauvignon are complex, yet easy to pair and a perfect wine to enjoy during a leisurely evening, or to present as a thank you to a host.   

Restaurant Reviews: A dead art?

Last December I declared 2023 the year I would return to food writing.  It was a bold statement (even now as I look at my last published dat...