Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Beef: It's What's for Farm Dinner

I won't bother much with preamble here: Spring, my trench coat, yada yada yada, steak!

Farm Dinner 03.08.10
Course 1: Heirloom red corn polenta with black trumpet mushroom agridolce, stinging nettles, fromage blanc, and ash-baked fennel

Preliminary Pairings: 2007 Prager Gruner Veltliner Federspiel, 2006 D'Antiche Terre Greco di Tufo

Vegetarians, get ready: at last, something other than a salad to whet your appetites before the mains. Jason and Mike are consciously trying to provide at least one non-meat appetizer for our herbivorous diners, and this premiere offering is nothing short of inspired. The polenta took center stage on the plate and was courtesy of Anson Mills (out of South Carolina) a producer of organic heirloom corn varietals that are ground on site on a Civil War era stone mill. Buttery and bolstered with parmesan cheese, the red corn polenta was baked and then pan fried to order. Accompanied by a black trumpet mushroom agrodolce and sauteed stinging nettles (the first of the season, from the West Coast), the polenta was topped with mustard greens interspersed with our own line cook Nathan Whittaker's home made fromage blanc, which, texturally, was a cross between cream cheese and chevre and possessed a tangy, creme fraiche quality that provided a perfect foil to the brightness of the agrodolce and the savory, crispy polenta. Finally, to add a bit of earthiness and depth to the plate, fennel was cooked low and slow in ashes from the smoker, which lent a campfire-y flavor and brought out all the fennel's low notes.

My preliminary picks, both white wine, worked for disparate reasons but both were enjoyable. As a side note, I would also recommend drinking a light, fruity, juicy red wine with the polenta dish. Old staff fave 2007 Prager GV, of the clean, austere citrus flavors and steely minerality, was a lovely counterpart to the smoky fennel and creamy cheese. D'Antiche Terre G di Tufo, whose near-effervescence makes it a shoo-in for food pairings, brightly complemented the agrodolce and cut through the richness of the crispy polenta.

Favorites: Both! And any juicy, fruity red. Try our 2006 Protos Roble!

Course 2: Dietzler Farm Ribeye with beets and celery root, rosemary, and a caramelized onion-sweetbreads tart

Preliminary Pairings: 2006 Tierra Divina Old Vine Malbec, 2008 Crios Cabernet

Dietzler Farms: 100 % grass fed. Yowza. Amazing what happens when the focus is not longer on fat content and tenderness but on flavor: a much more interesting, complex, and interactive steak experience, at least in my book. The ribeyes were cooked sous vide with red wine and aromatic herbs and then pan roasted to order, and sat atop rosemary aioli dressed roasted beets and celery root, which were adorned with watercress lightly sprinkled with a white anchovy vinaigrette. The little surprise on the plate was a tartlett of caramelized onions and sweetbreads accompanied with juuuuuust the right helping of taleggio, that stinky ole Italian cow's milk cheese. The sweet onions, funky cheese, and tender sweet breads, inside a piping hot puff pastry shell. The trick here, ladies and germs, is that half the butter in the tart shells was replaced with . . . (drum roll pleeeeease) . . . BONE MARROW. As Jorge (illustrious PM server) would say, "Oh f*ck yeah." Delicious.

As is quite often the case, one of the wines provided a complement and one provided a counterpart. In the situation of Course 2, '06 Tierra Divina Malbec's jammy, stewed fruit, integrated tannin, and baking spice-tinged oak acted almost as a cushion for the amalgam of flavors on the ribeye dish, particularly with the onion and taleggio combo in the tart and the earthiness of the steak. '08 Crios, on the other hand, is actually quite light for a single-varietal cabernet and possesses bright fruit and soft tannin, both of which were evident, even in tandem with all the aspects of Course 2. Again, both wines worked for their own mysterious and seductive reasons, which is always cool for us here at Lula because we just get more stuff to talk about.

Favorites: Both (again!)

Course 3: Apple, Calvados, and raspberry ice creams with ginger cake and crabapple broth

Preliminary Pairings: Maculan Dindarello, Chambers Muscat

Apple sorbet, Calvados ice cream, and Klug Farm raspberry ice cream atop a ginger cake (like a molasses-free gingersnap cookie) and steeped in crabapple-raspberry broth. Sounds like a dream confection, and it was truly delicious--light in the right places, rich where it counts, with spicy ginger and tart crabapple providing moments of interest. Calvados poached dehydrated apples and candied ginger floated in the broth. Maculan's sweet citrus and honey flavors stood back and allowed the ginger to shine, and acted as a supplemental aspect for the broth, while Chambers took the ginger flavors by the hand and did a nice little two-step, complete with twirls and dips. This was a great combo. Chambers' nutty, caramely aspects also did nice things for the apple and raspberry flavors respectively.

Favorites: Both!

Well, there wasn't a loser in the bunch (score for Miriam) and we're serving them by the glass all week, so come in and see what I'm talking about!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Chicago Needs Sustainence: Lula Cooks Whole Boar, Feeds Entire City

As winter’s chill settles into our bones, Chicagoans seek out rich and hearty foods to sustain our bodies and feed our souls. Just as we would swath ourselves from balaklava to Sorel boots in MicroFleece and goosedown, so do we seek to pad our persons with a thick coating of nutrient-driven insulation. Catch my drift? Just a few days ago I sauntered into Lula’s prep kitchen hoping to be the lucky recipient of a scrap of something or other delicious before banishment to the dustbin when I found myself staring into the cold, unfeeling eyes of a deftly beheaded porcine creature. Startling, yes, but intriguing nonetheless, as I suspected the unfortunate animal’s presence indicated Farm Dinner menu experimentation and finalization. Indeed, LouisJohn Slagel (meat farmer extraordinaire and, incidentally, bearer of probably the most epic name this side of the Mississip’) had dropped off an entire boar for Lula’s disposal—a wily, wascally guy who had escaped castration but eventually met his end in the name of nose-to-tail cooking.

Course 1: Crackling salad with frisee, poached egg, pickled beets, housemade testa, and beet vinaigrette

Preliminary Pairings: NV Joseph Perrier Brut, 2006 D’Antiche Terre Greco di Tufo

Some of you may think that my absence from the blogosphere would have given me some time to formulate new favorite wine pairings. Not the case—I still like the bubbly. Sorry, but how could I not bust out our old buddy J-Pee-Pee for a first-course salad based around fried boar’s skins (read: pork rinds)? I mean, it’s almost as classic as the Champs and Popeye’s Chicken combo . . . not to mention the addition of a poached Genesis Farm egg, malt vinegar pickled Nichols Farm beets, and crunchy Swan Creek goat ricotta cheese curds? Duh. The whole thing screams for the crisp, toasty mouthfeel and juicy citrus flavors of NV-JP. Perfection. As a still alternative we tried Greco di Tufo, known by the staff as an almost-effervescent, high acid still wine—a terrific alternative to sparkling if a guest is wary of the bubbly stuff. The clean citrus mingled beautifully with the pickled beets and poached egg, while the slightly petrol-tinged, briny minerality provided a nice counterpart to the malt vinaigrette and, of course, the testa.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the main event of Course 1: Boar’s Head Cheese.

“Pray tell,” I hear you say. “What, may I ask, is head cheese?”

“Well ladies, you’re listening to coffee talk. ‘Head cheese’ is neither ‘head’ nor ‘cheese.’ Discuss.”

If you must know, head cheese is the amalgam of some less glamorous pork parts* braised, tenderized, picked off of bone, and packed in a terrine under gelatinized, cooled braising stock flavored with (in this case) apple cider vinegar. The whole thing is served room temperature and is easy to slice, like a block of cheese. I suppose the name “head cheese” is derived from the presence of pork cheek and the dish’s sliceability.

Honestly, Chef Mike’s is delicious, delicate, and flavorful, with a pleasant texture and a beautifully marbled appearance, and it’s addition to the salad of Course 1 was delightful.

*Cheek, tongue, trotters, tail; someone get my mother a drink

Course 2: Milk poached pork loin and boudin blanc with chard, butter braised radishes, marcona almonds, pink lady apples, and parmesan croquette

Preliminary Pairings: 2007 Prager Gruner Veltliner Federspiel, 2007 Saint Gregory Pinot Meunier

For LouisJohn’s boar’s second act, Jason Hammel poached the loin in milk and used the shoulders for boudin blanc, an emulsified sausage. Course 2 was a study in pink, with the milk-poached loin, butter braised radishes, swiss chard stems, and caramelized pink lady apples taking on various hues of rose, white the boudin blanc, marcona almonds, and a parmesan “grit fritter” (made from white cornmeal) added creamy notes. The poaching milk and boar’s stock comprised a lovely dark sauce on the plate.

For such richness I needed the standard high acid and clean fruit flavors, and I considered carrying the Greco di Tufo through from Course 1 to Course 2. In the end, however, I wanted a more substantial body than perhaps possessed by Greco, so I selected elegant Prager GV with its austere fruit, zesty minerality, and juicy acid. Prager didn’t disappoint with Course 2, standing up to the fatty meats and buttery vegetables, not to mention the crispy croquette. Pretty much a no-brainer.

More of a sleeper hit was the red wine choice for Course 2—2007 Saint Gregory Pinot Meunier. Often refered to (by me) as the “Goth Sister” of pinot noir, or as the “Sith Lord” to pinot noir’s “Jedi Knight” (by Dave Thompson, resident Star Wars nerd), Saint Gregory possesses similar weight, delicate earth, and fruit to pinot noir but with a slightly darker, more rustic edge. I thought that the substantial flavor of Saint Gregs coupled with its lightness of body and integrated tannin would provide a challenging and engaging pairing, and the staff and I were delighted with the results. The earthy, vegetal chard and radishes, the bright, tangy, marconas, sweet and smoky apples, and creamy boudin blanc and boar’s loin all brought out Saint Greg’s earthy notes, juicy acid, dark, brooding red fruit, and refreshing tannin respectively. Truly an enjoyable experience.

Course 3: Rosemary crème caramel with Klug Farm pear and peppercorn brittle

Preliminary Pairings: Chambers Muscat, Maculan Dindarello

I had quite a time deciding what dessert wines to try with Melissa’s rosemary-tinged crème caramel. A dessert light in color and airy in texture, with substantial echoes of fragrant rosemary and tingly black pepper, not to mention the natural sweet-fruit characteristics of poached pear adding a bright, juicy counterpoint. Mostly I was stymied by the rosemary angle—it’s simple to find wines to pear with honey, or chocolate, vanilla, or brown sugar . . . The perfumed pungency of rosemary threw me for a loop. I decided to sniff a sprig of rosemary and systematically sniff certain wines and see what I found most pleasurable, and the short-listed contenders ended up being quite delicious. Chambers Muscat, with its caramelly brown sugariness, proved to be a bit overpowering, but Maculan Dindarello, a slightly honeyed Muscat with clean minerality and (as I discovered through my sniff-test) a touch of herbaceousness, turned out to be a beautiful complement to the crème caramel, especially when tasted with a bit of the black-peppery brittle!

So come on in, grab a glass of wine and indulge in a bit of the best way to warm up this winter!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Lula Cleans House

Getting ready for winter means clearing out space in one's pantry for all the winter staples that must keep through the leaner months. Lucky for us Chicagoans in the know, at Lula it means playing around with extra pork bits and fall harvest leftovers.

Monday 11.09.09
Course 1: Pork consomme with crispy pork belly and smoked trout dumplings

Preliminary Pairings: NV Joseph Perrier Brut Royale, 2007 Prager Gruner Veltliner Fiederspiel

Naturally, as soon as I heard the word consomme the "wine pairings" section of my cerebral cortex zoomed into overdrive. French, surely, with clean flavors and balanced acid. The inclusion of smoked trout dumplings in the garnish, however, threw a bit of a curveball into the proceedings. It's been awhile since I broke out the bubbly at Farm Dinner, and smoked fish and sparkling wine are a classic combo, so I figured we'd test drive old Joseph P (or J-Pee-Pee, as one Lula staffer once dubbed him) to make sure he's still up to snuff. Also, keeping in mind that a table full of Lula line cooks and their favorite bartender would be joining us, I figured it was as good a night as any to get a little celebratory. Having since dispensed with my go-to consomme pairing (the Domaine de la Folie Rully Blanc), I turned to my clutch "pristine flavors" wine--Prager GV Federspiel--as a still alternative.

It's always nice to have extra pork scraps lying around. Hints of apple and maple flavored the consomme, and maple cured pork belly was crisped to order and layed in the bottom of the empty bowl (you know, Lula Soup-style). Finally, the twist: rather than smoking the belly to add that "bacon-y" flavor, the strips were left unsmoked and the "bacon-y" flavor was lent by the smoked trout, which was made into a mousse and blanched like little gnocchis. A salad of radicchio, chive, and chervil was lightly interspersed as an additional garnish, and paprika salt added a bit of earth and bite.

J-Pee-Pee was a no brainer--super toasty and dry flavored on the palate, with a contrasting juicy mouthfeel to cut through the fat of the pork stock and belly and the pungency of the trout. The slight fruit allowed for a bit of floral spice to come out when interacting with the paprika. Prager was also delightful and perhaps a bit more challenging with slightly more pronounced citrus fruit to add an extra element of flavor. Also, a wine with such crisp, balanced acid provides such a necessary complement to the heartiness of a pork based soup with additional fatty aspects.

Favorites: J-Pee-Pee AND Prager GV

Course 2: Grilled arctic char with peeky-toe crab-celery root fritters, apple, and turnip

Preliminary Pairings: 2007 Domaine Merlin Cherrier Sancerre, 2007 Bertrand Ambroise Bourgogne Rouge

An interesting fact: arctic char is a sustainable choice. Cool. About the dish: The char was grilled on one side while basting on the other in a yummy butter-celery-onion-herb mixture, so one side retained a "grill-y" flavor while the other, a more "poached-y" one. Green Acres turnips were cooked sous vide and laid willy-nilly (in an arty way) on Puy lentils cooked in chicken stock and studded with mirepoix for flavor, texture, and color. Peeky-toe crab and yukon potatoes were rolled with horseradish, cayenne, a bit of bay leaf, and beer-battered and fried to a golden crispness and rested atop an onion-soubise style aioli (are you getting this?Lula does crab cakes!) Finally, a chopped salad of Grannysmith apples and celery root was dressed in verjus, horseradish, honey, and mustard and lent mellow acid and tang, not to mention fresh-fruit texture and sweetness.

Domaine Merlin Cherrier Sancerre is Loire Valley all the way with its honeyed green apple and slightly sulfuric chalky minerality. All the lovely acid in Cherrier truly complemented Course 2, especially the aioli-fritters part, and the flavors didn't do any harm either, as green apple was a major component in the salad and a major player in the palate of the wine. Interestingly, old Bert Ambriose was a leeeeeeeeeeetle bit too tannic for the char dish, (usually BA's soft, soft tannins don't become too pronounced) but the flavors were right on--light juicy fruit corresponding well with the meatier char and mellower crab. (Incidentally, BA was absolutely perfect with the consomme, further proving my assertion that all you need with clarified broth is a wine from Burgundy).

Favorite: Sancerre

Course 3: Klug Farm Cortland apple strudel with preserved cherry ice cream and Calvados

Preliminary Pairings: Innocent Bystander Muscat, NV Vin du Bugey-Cerdon

Baklava-style strudel, with as many sweet-pack preserved cherries as Melissa could muster into a single plate. Preserved cherries everywhere!: in the filling, the gastrique, in the compote! All delicious. Apple spice cake crumbs bolstered up the strudel-filling and calvados added a bit of heat and tang. What better wine with cherries than . . . . you guessed it! Bugs! Haven't seen him since we killed the wabbit this summer. Well, Bugs didn't disappoint; just have it sometime with cherries and you'll see what I mean--the same flavors. Innocent Bystander Muscat was also delicious--a little lighter, sliiiiiiiiiiightly less sweet version of Vin du Bugey that essentially covers the same bases. Deeelish.

Favorites: Both!

Do me a favor and come in with friends, order a bottle of Sancerre and eat the Char. It's somthing special.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Yodel-Ay-Hee-Holladays Are Approaching!

Seems like just yesterday I was waxing on about autumn in Logan Square, and the hot days and cool nights. Well, post-Halloween everything seems a bit more wintery, including our culinary proclivities. Despite my certainty that 97.9, Chicago's favorite Lite FM station would already be broadcasting its "All Christmas All the Time" programming (as if on November 1st little magical elves take over the radio, burn all the Belinda Carlisle, and replace the albums with Bing Crosby and Burl Ives) it seems that our little town isn't quite ready for the sparkly white canopy of Yuletide frost that I'm already eagerly anticipating.

Of course November brings its own brand of holiday cheer with that controversial little number we alternately like to call Thanksgiving, The Harvest Celebration, or Let's Ignore the Fact that Early American Settlers Pretty Much Committed Genocide. Either way, when a pork chop makes an appearance, you know dinner's going to be good.

And naturally (as I did in September) I'm getting ahead of myself by already gearing up for the holidays. It's just that there was an undeniable air of things to come on Monday night and I couldn't help but imagine us all gathered around the hearth, warming our nip-bitten hands by the fire, and generally enjoying the warmth of friendship, good food, and good booze.

Monday 11.02.09
Course 1: Risotto with romanesco cauliflower, guanciale, farmstead cream, and arugula from Green Acres Farm

Preliminary Pairing: 2007 Jean-Luc Colombo Cotes du Rhone Blanc La Redonne

Did you know that there are more kinds of risotto rice than simply arborio? Jason used the "sleeper hit" vialone nano rice for this risotto--a more refined, delicate grain. Housemade cultured butter and Green Acres arugula, folded into the risotto, provided richness and a little bite. Romanesco cauliflower looks like "broccoflower" or "cauliccoli" (which doesn't sound so good) and aesthetically recalls the spikes on a Triceratops (yes? anyone?). Again, a very delicate mouthfeel and flavor without all the bitterness of broccoli or the dryness of cauliflower. Crispy guanciale added texture and savory aspects while parmesan and cultured cream again upped the richness factor. Juuuuuust a touch of lemon juice lent the necessary balancing acid and tang.

So I was sure that Colombo (everybody's favorite loveable curmudgeonly private detective roussane/viognier . . . sigh. Just kidding.) would totally work here. Wrong! Too much honeysuckle and petro, and tart, tart citrus fruit, and not enough juicy fruit to back it up. Bummer. It was just a little too bitter, a little too sour, and a little too tart for the delicate and savory amalgam of flavors in the risotto. Moving on. The Chinon (originally meant as a contender for Course 2) saved the day here, with it's gigantic juicy mouth of stone fruit and slately minerality stealing the show. Absolutely a lovely match for the slight lemon aspects of the dish, and truly clean and palate-cleansing when tasted with the salty, heady guanciale and parmesan cheese.

Interestingly, I thought that Colombo would pair better with the lemons, after all, citrus is part of his flavor profile. Perhaps a more pronounced lemon flavor in the dish would have served Colombo better, because his citrus components overpowered those of Course 1. Live and learn. Arugula is very difficult to pair with red wine (again, a bitterness issue) and both of our red contenders possess slightly too much tannin and spice to allow arugula to shine.

Favorite: 2007 CD Chinon

Course 2: Slagel Farm pork chop with mutsu apple and swiss chard baked in house-made phyllo, celery root puree, and pork jus

Preliminary Pairings: 2007 Couly-Dutheil Chinon Blanc Les Chanteaux, 2007 Saint Gregory Pinot Meunier, 2007 Stoller Family Pinot Noir

Ye Olde Porke Choppe. Tricky, because ordinarily my go-to would be a riesling, especially given the apple-swiss chard-celery root combo, but I was truly curious to see what Chinon would do. First, about the dish: the chops were brined in brown sugar and allspice, sugar, and thyme, and then roasted, and sat atop a lovely salad of swiss chard stems and celery root which were dressed in a horseradish vinaigrette to add a bit of balancing bite. On the side, a strudel-esque invention of phyllo dough (made in-house) wrapped mutsu apples, swiss chard, and raclette cheese, and underneath, an olive-oil celery root puree. I mean, swaddle me in cashmere and sleigh-ride me through Rhineland. Are you kidding? It's like Sound of Music meets Heidi (Klum, that is) if her costumes were commissioned by Juicy Couture. Wait, what? You just had to be there.

So CD (which is quickly gaining status as another Chameleon fave) was all green apple and juicy honey with the pork chop, doing wonders with the sugary brininess of the chops and balancing the earthy-grassy aspects of the celery root puree and bitterness of the chard. Pinot meunier (as we all know) is like the goth cousin of pinot noir and the Saint Greg's brooding dark fruit and zippy spice was quite challenging and lively with Course 2, standing up to the chard and tempering the salt and fat in the pork chops. Stoller Pinot Noir, which I pulled in case we sold out of Saint G, ended up as the dark horse of the night, with the savory-soy sauce characteristics in the palate adding a non-fruity counterpoint to the apple strudel and the light, curranty fruit lending a complementary flavor profile.

Favorites: CDChinon, Stoller

Course 3: Pinenut tart with white cornmeal, meyer lemon, and olive oil ice cream

Preliminary Pairings: 2007 Pacific Rim Vin de Glaciere, 2006 Kracher Berenauslese Cuvee

It's widely known about Lula that Jason Hammel eschews olive oil ice cream. "It's so . . . 2002." Well, lucky for all of us, Melissa used some Ligurian stuff that possesses slightly less grassy aspects than your usual, so what comes through in the ice cream are the lovely green, vegetal characteristics of the oil. When combined with Meyer lemon, eggs, and cream, the result is (again) delicate, refined, yet complex in flavor while deft-handed in texture. Really lovely. It accompanied a 3 Sisters Organics' cornmeal crusted meyer lemon tart studded with whole pinenuts, and light but confident use of that crazy mugolio (the nectar extracted from pine cones) lent just enough zippy herbaceousness. Meyer lemon curd and mugolio dotted the plate as well.

Kracher Berenauslese was simply too honey-fied for this dessert and really rather drab. Not enough citrus, in my opinion, to stand up to all the Meyer lemon. Pac Rim, with all of it's fancy flav-r-ice citrus-ness stepped in and did the trick, adding the requisite amount of sugary balance and tangy counterpoint.

Favorite: Pac Rim

Sadly I think this was a one-off, but stay tuned . . . Winter season promises to bring us hitherto unforseen ways to eat well at Lula while the rest of the world dines on canned soup and green bean casserole. We've got the wines open, so come on in and taste!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Better Late than Never

Faithful Readers (hi, Mom . . . I know it's been a few days . . . well, I've been busy! Ach, lemme write this thing! . . . )

Anyway, I apologize over the lack of punctual blog-posting after Monday. I've been up to my eyeballs in wieners (and if you want to know what I'm talking about, stop by Not Doug's, ahem, Lula Cafe on Halloween, starting at 6pm. I'll say no more). 

I don't have time this week to write a full-on debriefing of Farm Dinner and the corresponding wines. Here's a rundown of the courses and our pairings / favorites, in case you decide to come on in and taste some. All three Farm Courses are on the specials menu now and will be for a few weeks.

Monday 10.26.09
Course 1: Green Acres Farm beets with baked ricotta, pistachio, white anchovy, and meyer lemon vinaigrette

Preliminary Pairings: 2006 D'Antiche Terre Greco di Tufo, 2007 Couly-Dutheil Chinon Blanc Les Chanteaux

Favorite: CD Chinon Blanc

Course 2: Slagel Farm lamb with grilled loin and smoked leg, crispy potatoes, quince, baby leeks, and smoked pepper

Preliminary Pairings: 2007 Ladairo Mencia, 2007 La Posta del Vinatero Bonarda

Favorites: Ahh!  I wish I could talk about 'em. Let's just say that the Mencia was so regionally perfect, in terms of flavor profile, that it won by a millimeter. The Bonarda, a really special Argentinian Zin-like jam-bomb, is a lovely, lovely wine that deserves a blog all on its own. It was delicious, if sliiiiiightly overpowering, with the lamb.

Course 3: Brown butter cranberry, caramel, and praline pecan ice creams

Preliminary Pairings: Warre's Tawny, Alvear Solera

Favorite: Alvear

That's it! It's like "micromachines" blog. Anyway, I'll be back in full swing next Tuesday, my hot dog costume safely tucked away in my closet, ready to tackle Farm Dinner pairings anew.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Lula Gets Wierd but We Like It

Sometimes Chefs just want to play with cool ingredients and have fun with cooking. I think Farm Dinner last night exemplified what makes Lula's brand of cuisine so enticing: esoteric (Mom, I know you're cringing) centerpieces made accessible when coupled with farm-to-table sensibilities and artistic expression.

Monday 10.19.09
Course 1: Grilled baby octopus with spaghetti squash, bordeaux spinach, house cured lardo, capers, and cranberry vinaigrette

Preliminary Pairings: 2008 Domaine du Tariquet Sauvignon Blanc, 2007 75 Wine Co. Sauvignon Blanc, 2007 Tenuta Garetto Barbera d'Asti In Pectore

Baby octopus is, in the main, fairly straightforward--slightly mouthy in texture, with a definite seafood flavor. Lemon and octopus are constant companions, as with many other fish--high acid and slight astringency cuts through the fishy flavor and texture. Last night, lemon took the form of a neat-o puree as the base for the accompaniment to the octopus--a mosaic (thanks, Mike) of local raw cranberries, spaghetti squash, pinenuts, and fines herb sat underneath the baby octopus interspersed with Werp Farm Bordeaux spinach (dressed in a warm cranberry vinaigrette), cranberries, plumped raisins, and tangy capers. Finally, house cured lardo dotted the dish, adding salty richness and depth of flavor (it is a testament to Lula Cafe's popularity and Jason Hammel's pied piper-esque abilities for folks to follow him blindly into the world of dry cured pork fatback. I'm just sayin'.).

So anyway, with lemons on the brain, I pulled Lula Farm Dinner fave 75 SB to pair with the octopus dish, counting on its (all together n0w) high acid and lovely citrus flavors to complement the lemon puree, cranberries, and lardo, and the refreshing qualities of 75 to stand up to the seafoodiness of the octopus. I also wanted to try Tariquet, which we always serve BTG at Lula and which I thought might be a fall-back in case we sold out of 75. Tariquet possesses many similar qualities to 75 but with a less refined air (a younger wine, and less expensive)--the citrus not as mellow, the acid more effervescent (which isn't always a bad thing, but in the case of Tariquet speaks to a case of unbalance). Finally, we've loved TG Barbera with capers before and I couldn't resist test-driving in again with the capers on Course 1.

All the acid and lemon stuff worked as predicted with both SB's, but with a small twist: 75, which I was sure would remain as crisp and refreshing as usual, changed in the mouth and took on a creamy consistency, almost like a malo-chardonnay. Why? Perhaps the lemon puree or the lardo muted the high-acid qualities a bit and the fat in the dish overpowered 75's ability to cut through. Tariquet, whose flavors appeared a tad unbalanced in comparison with 75, suddenly became a more elegant, clean-tasting wine when drunk with Course 1. Hm. The harsh citrus tasted softer, and the acid seemed less over-the-top. Awesome. Finally, the TG Barbera made it all come together, with its delicate red fruits and integrated tannin, plus violet-y spice, tasting delicious with the amalgam of flavors in the octopus dish. I would be remiss not to urge each and every one of you to try TG with a caper. Perfect harmony.

Favorites: Tariquet for white, TG for red

Course 2: House made cavatelli with black mission figs, black olive, braised pork cheek, feta, and cipollini agridolce

Preliminary Pairings: 2007 Tenuta Garetto Barbera d'Asti, 2006 D Cubed Napa Valley Primitivo

Ah, braised pork face. I mean cheek. What earthy, gamey flavors you lend, yet what richness, what comfort? Truly lovely here, with the sweetness of the figs providing a counterpoint to the earthiness of the Slagel Farm pork cheek, black olive and cipollini agridolce (with lemon vinegar and cardamom) adding tang, zip, and savory, sheep's feta adding fat and depth, and handmade yogurt in the cavatelli rounding out the dish with grassy, slightly sour components.

TG Barbera, with all of its elegance and austerity, was simply too prim and proper to hang with the cavatelli. Not enough gusto, not rustic enough. D Cubed Primitivo, however, brought the rock with a heady combo of dark plummy fruits, sexy spice, leather, and tobacco, not to mention a knock-your-socks off structure of juicy fruit backed by eye-opening tannin. The cavatelli dish was deceptively rich, I think, light in color with tiny dots of black (olives and figs) and pure white (feta) but the pork cheek hiding inside added so much powerful flavor that the Primitivo stood up with flair.

Favorite: D Cubed

Course 3: Bitter chocolate meringue tart with mocha ice cream and espresso bark

Preliminary Pairings: 2004 Novaia Recioto della Valpolicella Le Novaje, 2006 Clos la Chance Late Harvest Zinfandel

Shortbread crust, dark chocolate ganache, Italian meringue, and mocha ice cream. Simple as that, yet an exercise in both power and delicacy, with the dark, bitter chocolate acting as the perfect foil for light-as-air meringue.

I was nervous about how the fruitiness of both late-harvest reds would taste with the mocha and espresso aspects of Course 3, but the staff and I were pleasantly surprised, as the bitter chocolate took center stage and both Novaia and Clos la Chance were able to perform to their best advantages. We liked Clos la Chance just a titch more, as the Novaia shows so much juicy red fruit but not as many deeper smoky qualities, it didn't quite "get there" with the meringue tart, while Clos la Chance's layered dark aspects provided a bit of a better match with the chocolate.

Favorite: Clos la Chance

Until next week, thanks for reading!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Falling Into a Bowl of Squash Soup: Splash, it's October!

Jason Hammel suggested that I call this week's blog "Falling into Fall," but the majority of the staff vetoed the title, deeming it a bit trite. Jason amused himself with the idea of me inventing a scenario involving myself tripping while wearing pair of 6-inch stilettos and sprawling onto the pavement--"Splat! It's fall!"--but I thought to soften the impact (both linguistically and emotionally) by landing on a pile of leaves (a much more autumnal image and definitely more cushioning for the extremities).

Anyway, passing over cranium-cracking asphalt or pillowy foliage, Lula continued its foray into harvest season with a beautifully rendered, completely vegetarian Farm Dinner last night. As bartender Dave remarked at the pre-shift meeting, the whole thing tasted like fall--all three courses served as a reminder of the bounty of the season.

Monday 10.12.09
Course 1: Spicy winter squash and white ale soup with pecan, cabot cheddar, pear, and maple gastrique

Preliminary Pairings: 2007 Prager Gruner Veltliner Federspiel, 2007 Stoller Pinot Noir

Jason / Lula Sous' soups are always little works of art, and if you've never experienced one, you should. I say "experienced" because getting a special soup is always truly interactive, from the presentation of a bowl devoid of actual broth but housing a tiny installation of carefully arranged delicacies, to the moment when the soup itself is poured, tableside, and the miniature diorama floats and swirls outward and to the top, integrating and dancing, morphing and melting, and creating a whole new dish before one's very eyes. It's almost like watching a flower open in high-speed video (remember those, on Sesame Street?).

Anyway, last night's squash soup was no different than usual, and a treat to behold and taste.The soup proper was comprised of pureed Green Acres winter squash (a French heirloom varietal), leeks, Belgian wittbier, and a dash of ancho chile (which added a substantial amount of mellow spice). Several slices of Cabot cheddar from Vermont nestled at the bottom of the bowl atop a maple syrup gastrique (thickened with pureed pumpkin, yum) and next to a pretty cool bit of culinary hocus-pocus: a maple-pecan "soil." Wha? Jason toasted pecans in maple syrup, then ground them with tapioca (a natural binding agent). Because of the saturation of the syrup into the pecans and the innate moisture of the tapioca, the crumbled pecans took on a soil-like consistency. Cool, right? And then, when swirled into the hot soup, the "soil" dissolved slightly to add another element of texture to the dish. Amazing.

As per usual, with Course 1 we look for high acid wines with slight minerality and clean fruit to complement the typical lightness of the dishes. The squash soup was particularly airy in texture, with the garnishes adding most of the weight and depth. Prager GV is such a good food wine and we liked its austere palate and juicy mouthfeel as a counterpoint and complement to the soup. The slight citrus component was delightful with the vegetal squash and tang of the maple gastrique, and the balanced acid cut through the fat of the cheddar cheese and pecans, as well as standing up to the mouthy quality of the squash puree. Prager had a bit of a wintry feel--sometimes whites with hearty food reminds me of Christmastime, like drinking riesling with pork loin or something.

Stoller PN was delicious as well and a bit out of left field--a dark horse, if you will. I chose it imagining that its many savory qualities (tamari, nuttiness, and a slight mushroomy earth) w0uld react nicely with the amalgam of flavors in the squash soup, and I was quite right. Stoller possesses just the perfect amount of tart fruit to balance its secondary characteristics and the duality of the wine delighted when tasted with the duality of the squash soup--the sweetness of the maple and the fat and saltiness of the cheese were interesting and complex partners with Stoller.

Favorites: Both! (I love it when that happens)

Course 2: Chestnut and potato "arancini" with olive oil poached black futsu squash, parsnips, frisee, and bitter apple

Preliminary Pairings: 2005 Avignonesi Rosso d'Montepulciano

Arancini are actually rice balls, but Sous Chef Mike did a bit of a bait-and-switch and used potato instead, resulting in super-tasty fried bits of starchy chestnut with parmesan and mascarpone cheeses for binding with a nice dose of paprika thrown in. Fabulous, and utterly original. Green Acres Black Futsu squash was poached sous-vide with olive oil and dusted with wintry baking spices, sliced, and placed artistically around the plate. Pan fried parsnips provided complementary flavor, and crispy parsnip chips lent crunch and texture. A small salad of frisee studded with pickled local crabapples added the necessary balancing tang, and a swoosh of a chestnut, honey, creme fraiche, rosemary, and espresso (of all things, you clever chefs) deepened the flavors and acted as a complex, earthy background to the clean flavors of the rest of the dish.

We were all very excited to taste the Avignonesi Rosso, which has been on Lula's list since forever but isn't a big seller these days. I've been dying to open it on a farm dinner for ages, but never felt the moment was right until the debut of the fried chestnut-potato balls and that brilliant chestnut-espresso business. The Avignonesi has a powerful but refined nose of black pepper, leather, and cedar, with slight notes of dark fruit, and I felt that those aspects would bring out the best in the chestnut-espresso swoosh and I was right! Layered, multifaceted and truly challenging, yet absolutely enjoyable. The Avignonesi is lighter on the palate than you might imagine given its heady bouquet, and the juicy fruit aspects complemented the vegetal characteristics of the squash in Course 2.

Favorite: Avignonesi

Course 3: Klug Farm apple spice cake with maple ice cream

Preliminary Pairings: Busnel Calvados, Vinhos Barbeito Madeira Boston Boal

A thick, dense apple cake, spiced with clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger, with a buttery brown sugary maple glaze atop a layer of just-right fall apples? Perfect. Melissa's maple ice cream is nothing to sneeze at, and the best part of the dish? A teeny-tiny crabapple, encased in house-made maple candy: mini candy crabapples?? What will she think of next? My suspicions were that madeira would provide just the right amount of caramely-nutty flavors to complement the baking spices and maple aspects, and still be sweet and fruity enough to partner well with the apples, and it didn't disappoint. Dave and Kendal tasted Calvados and the consensus was that the brandy cut through the dish and was slightly more palate-cleansing and the madeira buddied up to the cake and provided that wonderful mouth-coating dessert wine feeling. Mmmmm.

Favorite: Madeira, but we liked Calvados too.

Well, I'm off to enjoy the weather and maybe get a bike ride in before it snows. If you see a gigantic leaf pile on Kedzie Blvd that appears to be moving of its own accord, that'll be me trying to fish out the earring that I lost in there or my cell phone that fell out of my pocket or something.