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.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

And Another Tankard for My Horses!

I spear my first piece of rabbit sausage with my blood-stained dagger that I've just removed from the garter around my bulging, sweaty calf, and curse the Visigoths while wearing my horned battle helmet and brandishing a flagon of mead. Or, I'm a barmaid servicing hundreds of heroic Knights Templar just returned from delivering justice to another defector, thirsty and starving for food and attention from a fair lady. . . . (I never said I was a history buff, but I've seen Monty Python, ok?).

Huh? Well, let's just say that Monday's Farm Dinner was transporting in flavor and time, hearkening back to a bygone era of small mammalian foodstuffs and fowl as a centerpiece for the meal.

Monday 10.05.o9
Course 1: Rabbit mortadella with dried fruit mostarda, cultured butter, and traditional garnishes

Preliminary Pairings: NV Bele Casel Prosecco, 2008 Rudolph Muller Riesling Pfalz Shine, Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold Organic Lager

As we all know, mortadella is simply the fancy term for bologna, and traditional mortadella is always studded with some kind of nuts, usually pistachios. In this case, Gunthorp Farm rabbit loin and cinnamon accents comprised most of the mortadella, and Sous Chef Mike made cultured butter with a beautiful apricot tinted salt as an accompaniment (remember, cultured butter is the same fancy French stuff that rich people and foodies keep in their fridges to spread on their toast points). Plums, cherries, and raisins, a little dash of Patrick's magical mustard oil (which acts like wasabi on the sinuses), and Unibroue's Maudite Ale made up the yummy fruit mostarda, which Mike and Jason chose to present membrillo-style (fruit paste) instead of the usual spreadable jam-style. Finally, a lovely light salad of fines herbs and cornichons added the necessary acid and crunch to the plate and warm slices of hearty Fox and Obel pumpernickel and rye bread lent depth of flavor and herbal notes.

It's been awhile since we tasted bubbly with Farm Dinner and I always like doing a touch of sparkling with charcuterie--all that lively acid cuts through the fat so nicely, and usually complements the tartness, sweetness, and lightness of most accompaniments. Since mortadella is Italian in origin I thought demure little Bele Casel would be lovely and I was quite correct. Just the right amount of juicy fruit and crisp bubbles to match the fat and tang of the meat and cornichons, with a slight sweetness to pair up to the mostarda. Rudolph Muller Shine was a truly interesting pairing. A riesling from Pfalz, Shine tasted very fruity and off-dry when drank solo but with food showed much more pronounced minerality and complex flavors. Hmm. Muller was a bit of a wild card, but I was very curious and in the end found it engaging with Course 1. Finally, at Mike's suggestion we tasted Dortmunder Gold Lager and enjoyed it immensely--really, Dortmunder served Course 1 in the same manner as Bele Casel, with a crisp mouthfeel and bitter hops cutting through the mortadella and complementing the garnishes.

Favorites: All!

Course 2: Pan roasted duck breast with Jerusalem artichoke, Jayden winter squash, dates, and duck liver-leek roulade

Preliminary Pairings: 2007 Corvidae Wine Company Cabernet Franc The Keeper, 2006 Chateau Saint Andre Corbin St Georges-St Emilion

For me, the standout of this dish was the duck liver-leek roulade, simply for the creativity behind it. With an inkling to create a bone-marrow-esque piece as the visual focus of the dish, Jason made a deliciously decadent mousseline with the Gunthorp duck livers and calvados, cream, and onions. Braised leeks were rolled around a dollop of the pate, and the whole thing was crisped and placed upright at the center of a bowl and finished with date honey to truly imitate a bone bursting with rich, glistening marrow (can you see why my imagination zoomed where it did?). Anyway, the rest of the dish was no slouch, with the beautiful duck breast seared and sliced over caramelized Green Acres sunchokes and Jayden squash, and dates lightly spiced with red pepper. All of the vegetables were braised in calvados and licorice root and the liquid was used for a consomme, poured tableside, over the whole dish.

The Keeper was, as they say, a keeper. Heh, heh. Truly, a wonderful match. The Keeper is smoky, earthy, and velvety, with silky, integrated tannin and lush, dark fruit. Really, not much else to say, other than this pairing should not be missed. The Bordeaux, while absolutely fantastic, with a hint of violet and mint, crisp tannin and leathery earth, had a bit too much bite with the duck and lacked The Keeper's slight jamminess. All in all, slightly too dry and light-bodied. Ah well, it'll have its day.

Favorite: The Keeper

Course 3: Pumpkin oatmeal beignets with toasted oat ice cream

Preliminary Pairing: NV Chambers Muscat

Fried to order! Yes! Lovely Three Sisters Organic's oats served as a binding agent in the cake-style donuts and in the ice cream, and local pumpkins were cooked and pureed with cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cracked pepper and provided the filling for the beignets. A lliberal application of pumpkin-butterscotch sauce garnished the plate. Chambers, a caramelly, slightly orange-spicy muscat from Australia looooooved this dish, from the butterscotch sauce to the pumpkin filling. Just the right amount of dark, brooding raisinated flavors complemented the oaty aspects of the beignets dish.

Favorite: Chambers

Until next week, my brethren!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Luxe Fall Layers

Maybe I'm obsessed with shopping, but to me, Farm Dinner was the gastronomic equivalent of this year's must-have early fall fashion staples: 3.1 Phillip Lim's gauzy, lightweight slub-style boyfriend t-shirt layered under a luscious, rich, chunky-knit Chloe sweater coat with Brian Atwood's gorgeous cognac-leather platform ankle booties. Sounds delicious, doesn't it?

Monday 09.28.09
Course 1: September market salad with chicories, apple, turnip, marcona almonds, fiore sardo, and goat milk yogurt dressing

Preliminary Pairings: 2008 Domaine du Salvard Cheverny Blanc, 2007 Couly-Dutheil Chinon Blanc Les Chanteaux, 2006 Monticello Vineyards Pinot Noir

So this salad was rare for Lula because of its (non) composition: a plate of greens, dressed, with fruit, nuts, and other ingredients interspersed. Generally, Lula's chefs like architectural or deconstructed salads (2007's potted confit beets, anyone?) but new Sous Mike continues to push the envelope and keep us on our toes by challenging our ideas of what we do.

The salad was light-as-air in texture and color with crunchy escarole, curly endive, and arugula, and raw shaved Nichols Farm apples and Werp's turnips; deceptively hearty, filling, and earthy, however, as the Swan Creek goat's milk lend heady, tangy grassy notes to the house-made creamy yogurt dressing. Marcona almonds, deliciously spiced with autumn-in-a-mouthfull cinnamon and ginger lent tooth and bite, while golden raisins (pickled in another fall-spice favorite combo of cinnamon, star anise, and green coriander) added acid and sweetness. Finally, in an inspired move, Fiore Sardo (Sardinian goat's cheese) was delicately shaved throughout. This brilliant addition of the smoky, rustic aspects of Fiore Sardo truly achieved balance and depth in the dish.

Unexpected happenings, wine-wise. I was fairly certain that C-D Chinon, known for its honeysuckle, stone fruit flavors and balanced slatey minerality (from the Loire, after all) would echo and complement the raisins and vinaigrette (which, in addition to the yogurt, was comprised of a fair amount of local honey for body) while balancing and tempering the earthiness of the goat flavors. Also, chenin blancs are nice with smoked cheeses due to the slight petrol notes on both nose and palate. Well, I was right, although the actual taste of C-D with the salad wasn't as mellow as I had predicted--both wine and food flavors changed a bit when tasted together, but in an altogether pleasurable way. It seemed that C-D enhanced the grassiness in the salad, which was nice, while fruit flavors in the wine seemed to slightly eclipse the minerality.

Domaine du Salvard was a wild card for me that did not pay off. I wanted to counterbalance the very flavorful, large-scale smells and flavors of the Chinon Blanc with a slightly cleaner, more austere option. I had originally pulled a pinot blanc but decided against it in the end, fearing that I hadn't gone too far opposite C-D. Salvard is still from the Loire so I figured simply a regional similarity would keep us from straying too far off the mark. A sauvignon blanc / chardonnay blend, Salvard is all citrus fruit and brine with the typical Loire wet stone. Very fruity and round in the nose, Salvard tends to be bright and tart on the palate--too much so for the earthiness of the salad. We actually tried Salvard first, and while quite nicely balanced at the start of a bite, the Salvard finished bitter and we vetoed it on the spot.

Finally, the dark horse of the three preliminaries of Course 1: Monticello PN. We loooooooved it. First of all, Monticello is new to Lula's list and already offered as a glass pour alternative to O'Reilly's Pinot Noir (which is younger, and more inexpensive). The staff and I are super-excited to sell Monticello, which is from Napa but feels refined like a Burgundy, with subtle dark fruit, savory herbs, and integrated tannin, while maintaining a juicy, food-friendly mouthfeel and balanced acid. I think the gorgeous velvety fruit-herb flavors truly balanced the goat yogurt's barnyard funkiness while matching the Fiore Sardo and complementing the spices in the almonds and raisins. YUM.

Favorites: C-D Chinon, Monticello

Course 2: Pan roasted Lake Superior trout with sweet potato pommes anna, caramelized broccoli, chorizo, and px sherry vinaigrette

Preliminary Pairings: 2004 Bodegas y Vinedos Conde de San Cristobal Tempranillo / Cabernet Sauvignon / Merlot

First we pulled on our gauzy t-shirt and now we need to dress for the weather with our toasty sweater coat. Folks, say hello to pan roasted lake trout with apples. A study in reds, Course 2 was beautifully presented and the flavors matched the artistry of the dish bite-for-bite. This trout had a pretty pinkish hue and a meaty texture (so much that some might have mistaken in for salmon) but a delicate, mild flavor that no salmon could ever hope to achieve. Basted in butter, chorizo, and garlic clove, the trout had the requisite crispy skin and sat atop local caramelized broccoli. On the side, the piece de resistance of pommes anna: sweet and wax potatoes layered lovingly with celery root and pear butter (red wine poached pears served as the base) took the place of a cheese in a gratin. Finally, a small but substantial-in-flavor salad of beauty heart radishes, purslane, caperberries, and dry cured chorizo, dressed in px sherry-pear vinaigrette, added acid, sweetness, crisp bursts of flavor and visual interest. I should say here that Course 2 really was a sight to behold, with colors and textures truly delighting the eye. Even in the salad, the patterns in the shaved radishes mimicked the striations and marbling in the chorizo. Cool.

It was the chorizo, in fact, that inspired my wine selection for the trout--Spanish cured meat as a theme throughout the dish? OK, let's try a Spanish wine. The San Cristobal is another Lula newbie and one of the best wines I feel I've tasted this year: Again, a little older vintage means mellow fruit and subtle, velvety tannin, and delicious tempranillo lends its spice and slightly darker fruit with mineral and herbal earth. Sweater coat, indeed. Let's wrap ourselves up in this one and sit by the fire drinking it, right? Anyway, San Cristobal's fruit did wonders with the pommes anna, the perfect-food-wine medium body (the Spanish are truly adept at producing food-friendly juice) balanced the fish, and the spice and mineral complemented the chorizo wonderfully. Deelish.

Favorite: San Cristobal

Course 3: Klug Farm poached pear with autumn ice creams

Preliminary Pairings: Warre's 10yr Tawny Porto, Alvear Solera Cream Sherry

Autumn ice creams: sweet potato lightly spiced with black pepper, ginger, and cinnamon, brown-sugar brandy ice cream studded with brown sugar-macerated raisins, and pear sorbet. Atop all of these, a brandy, cinnamon, ginger, root, and black peppercorn poached pear, with sweet potato and raisin compote and a brandy gastrique (more sweet than sour with just the slightest hint of vinegar for balance) around the plate. As if the dish needed more amazingly complementary flavors and textures, a brandy soaked semolina cake added a mouthy component. Writing about this dessert cannot in any way do it justice, but just imagine the luxurious, fabulous, sexy shoe-fetishistic pleasure of those color-so-deep-you-could-swim-in-it Brain Atwood cognac-leather booties and you can begin to get the idea. (Plus, cognac=brandy which is what Melissa used in the dessert . . . am I pushing the metaphor?)

But no cognac for pairing. Dave and Tracey tried Calvados but my suspicions were confirmed when they both agreed it was overpowering. I really wanted the Warre's to work this time, but no dice: too strong, again. Alvear proved itself again to be the most versatile dessert wine we seem to have on the list at Lula, which its lovely nutty, slightly caramely bright raisin flavors providing a perfectly balanced sweetness with the ice creams and semolina cake.

Favorite: Alvear (I swear, next week we won't even try it)

I'm fairly certain all these dishes will make an appearance in the next week. You must try Monticello, and please do yourselves a favor and if you miss San Cristobal by the glass, come in and order a bottle--really, it is the perfect autumn wine.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Girl Who Cried Houndstooth Finally Puts on Her Coat

Ok, so I know I've been going on and on about autumn coming early to Logan Square and me being ready to bust out my cozy scarves and sweaters and stuff, and then it was totally hot and summery for like a month . . . Well, autumn came to Logan Square yesterday, officially (according to the calendar) and unofficially, as Farm Dinner ushered in fall with a culinary tour-de-force of the changing seasons' bounty. It is really quite challenging to do summer-into-fall with class, trust me. How does one gracefully segue (sartorially in any case) from a 50-degree, golden honey-crisp morning into a blazing 80-degree afternoon and then back again to a chilly sunset? By knowing your own closet, ladies. It's all about the right layering. Well, last night the Lula sous brought-it with intimate understanding of a just-right juxtoposition of early autumn's offerings with late summer accents.

Monday 09.21.09
Course 1: Grilled Spanish mackerel with porcini mushrooms, raw autumn vegetables, and white miso

Preliminary Pairings: 2007 Prager Gruner Veltliner, 2007 Jean-Luc Colombo Cotes du Rhone La Redonne Blanc, 2007 Sattler Family Zweigelt

Mackerel is an oily fish, grilled to perfection here and tempered, texturally, with bright, raw vegetables. Porcini mushrooms were pureed with white miso to add earth and a little bit of that elusive umami to serve as a bridge between the fishy mackerel and the clean flavors of local butternut squash, chioggia beets, celery root, and shaved pear. Mustard oil (an amazing product--not mustard infused olive oil, but the actual oil of mustard seeds) added subtle heat.

I needed wines that wouldn't overpower the delicacy of raw vegetables but could stand up to the rather pungent mackerel and support the earthiness of the porcinis. Luckily, Prager GV has all the right components: a pristine, mineral driven palate with hints of austere citrus fruit and the necessary acid backed by crisp bursts of near-effervescence. Perfectly tart with the uncooked vegetables and possessing just the right amount of unctuousness in the mouth, Prager GV was a dream come true with the mackerel dish. Jean-Luc Colombo, whose Cotes-du-Rhone Blanc is a Lula staff fave, has just a tad too much honeyed-fruit not to clash with the mackerel, although it was lovely with the squash and beets and truly allowed the spicy mustard oil to shine. Finally, Sattler Zweigelt (another pairing stand-by) showed off its versatility yet again by mellowing out next to the mackerel and mustard (while still providing delicate, yet prevalent flavor) and matching up brilliantly to the juicy, refreshing vegetable salad.

Favorite: 2007 Prager GV

Course 2: Slow roasted Gunthorp Farm pork shoulder with brussels sprouts and shell beans, hazelnut butter, pancetta, and ground cherry 'choucroute'

Preliminary Pairings: 2007 Sattler Family Zweigelt, 2004 Patrick Lesec Selections Chateauneuf du Pape Pierres Dorees

When sous-chef Mike told me that a prevalent flavor idea behind the pork shoulder was
"forest floor" I immediately thought of Chateauneuf du Pape, especially considering the herbs-du-provence triumph of this summer's 3-D bacon moment. Like Costello Tagliapietra's elegently draped silks and velvets of Fall 2009 in the most gorgeous hues of muted slates, aubergines, and mustards as a direct response to their flashes of brightly colored taffetas for the season before, the forest floor characteristics of garrigue (that ever-controversial description for the terroir of the Southern Rhone and Provence) are autumn's darker, headier answer to the golden, late-summer-afternoon-sun-soaked qualities of its herbs-du-provence counterpart (remember: lavender, thyme, rosemary, etc).

First, a bit about the dish: Gunthorp Farm pork shoulders were cured in caraway, garlic, and thyme, and roasted and rolled around a farce (which is basically a stuffing) of braised red cabbage, dried cherries, and hazelnuts (it's like you can feel the leaves falling and that autumn afternoon chill already, eh?). Brussels sprouts and cranberry beans were cooked in a hazelnut butter and lent lovely textural layers and pops of green, vegetal flavors, while the ground cherry choucroute added tang and acid. "What is ground cherry choucroute?" do I hear you say? Choucroute is a traditional Anglo-Germanic (Um, I made that up: just think Alsace) accompaniment to many meats, especially sausages, and is, in layman's terms (the only terms I use, incidentally, when it comes to cooking) a hot sauerkraut cooked in FAT (this time, pork fat, of course) and seasoned with all sorts (in this case, caraway, juniper, Hendrix gin, amongst other things), and ground cherries are little bursts of flavor that look like caperberries but are most likely a cross between a tomatillo and a gooseberry. Finally, crispy pancetta and pork cracklins provided more textural interest and depth of flavor.

So due to Course 2's Bavarian origins, the Sattler Zweigelt seemed a natural contender and an interesting foil to the Lesec Chateauneuf du Pape. The thing about Sattler is that he's just so darn food-friendly, and his juicy acid did wonders with the tangy choucroute. Dark cherry fruit echoed the dried cherries in the farce and soft tannins mingled well with the crispy pancetta and cracklins. Sounds great, right? It was, but Lesec was better, if you can believe it. Simply the presence of garrige, in my opinion, rounded out the flavors and gave CdP its edge as the true winner. It is difficult to explain the magic that happens in the mouth with the right wine-food match. Some wines are simply made for some foods, as was the case with Lesec and Course 2. I will say that perhaps the age difference between Lesec and Sattler could've lent an advantage--after all, Lesec has had time for the tannic qualities to mellow and integrate, the fruit to become silkier, and the garrigue to take center stage.

Favorite: 2004 Lesec CdP

Course 3: Dark chocolate gianduja torte with salted caramel buttercream and Frangelico ice cream

Preliminary Pairings: Frangelico, Warres 10yr Tawny Porto, Alvear Solera Cream Sherry

Gianduja is not fancy nutella (ok, it is). Seriously. The torte was dense and rich, with an almost flourless chocolate cake consistency. Pulverized hazelnuts were studded throughout the cake and it laid atop a swoosh of chocolate-caramel sauce. Salted caramel buttercream lightened up the plate a bit, as did Frangelico ice cream, and a yummy hazelnut touille added crunch and echoed the hazelnutty flavors in the gianduja.

Frangelico was a no-brainer, but some people don't like liqueurs and I was curiuos to know which of our dessert wines would be best. The staff was divided (again) between Warre's and Alvear, but it seemed that in the end, Alvear showed himself to a slightly better advantage. After all the sherry has those nutty qualities that perfectly echoed the hazelnuts in the dish, as well as a slightly less raisinated flavor profile as compared to Warre's.

Favorite: Alvear Sherry

So there you have it: Fall's first offical Farm Dinner. Harvest season is upon us and it's only gonna get more hearty, rich, and comforting. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to stare into my closet for the next 45 minutes so I can figure out what to wear that won't be too hot for the next 2 hours until the sun goes down and the temperature plummets. Love it!

Monday, September 14, 2009

What's Up, Doc?

Lot's of changes here at the LC. With the departure of Nicole Pedersen, much-missed sous-chef, the staff and I were on tenterhooks to see what Mike, brand new Lula Sous in Nicole's place (and would-be winner of Sweetest 'Stache Ever Award) would debut for his first-ever Farm Dinner. Duncan took Course 1 (as evidenced by another play-on-a-classic--tuna melt and tomato soup), and Mike took Course 2 and boldly went straight for the gusto. Melissa, naturally, hit another one out of the park with a much-anticipated cheese course.

Monday, 09.14.09
Course 1: Late summer heirloom tomato bisque with smoked trout, green beens, and brioche

Preliminary Pairings: 2008 Big Fire Pinot Gris, 2005 d'Antiche Terre Greco di Tufo, 2006 Buglioni Valpolicella

As we've been hearing in increasingly exasperated tones from anyone who cares all summer, this year's tomato crop has been disappointing. The lack of hot weather and heavy rainfall has resulted in slightly watery, slightly bland fruit. What better way to play up the positive qualities in this season's unfortunate offering than to turn those tommies into smoky, tangy, earthy, slightly peppery soup? City Farm tomatoes were roasted and pureed with cream--some of the tomatoes were smoked, as well. The inspired addition of house-smoked Rushing Waters trout lent another dimension to the aforementioned smoky aspects of the dish, as the fish was folded with Neal's Yard Ogleshield ractlette-style cheese and spread on little toasts to be dunked into the soup. Pickled Nichols Farm green beans added the usual zip and tang, and Sweet Earth parsley, plus City Farm celery and ramps added explosions of bright green flavors in each mouthful.

We liked both Big Fire and Greco, but for different reasons. Big Fire, with all of its peachy fruit and stony minerality, not to mention high, food-friendly acid, stole the show and stood out as a tasty counterpart to the soup. Greco di Tufo is all about almost-effervescent acidity, briny minerality, and light, citrus fruit. The staff and I were of two minds again, some of us enjoying the fruit-forwardness of Big Fire while others (myself included) thought Greco's subtle elegance was a better match.

We all agreed, however, that good old Buglioni truly did itself proud, with its juicy fruit qualities and slightly chewy mouthfeel nicely complementing the flavors and textures of the bisque.

Favorites: Big Fire, Greco, and Bugs!

Course 2: Handmade orecchiette with Gunthorp Farm rabbit, black kale, braised olives, pumpkin seed oil, and rosemary

Preliminary Pairings: 2006 Buglioni Valpolicella, 2007 Tenuta Garetto Barbera d'Asti

Mmmmm, rabbit. Greg Gunthorp's tenderly raised bunnies were braised in Belgian beer and picholine olives, and the braising jus served as the base for the sauce on the hand-made orecchiette. Pan roasted chanterelle mushrooms and pumpkin seed gremolata lent depth of flavor, spice, and a little sweetness, while City Farm black kale balanced with acid and earthiness. Reduced sherry vinegar throughout supported the sweetness and acid.

I wanted to go Italian, so I kept Buglioni as a contender and brought out Tenuta Garetto, one of our favorite pairing wines and an all around awesome barbera. TG exhibits uper subtle, fragrant dark fruit and spice, which I thought would pair nicely with the rabbit and pumpkin seeds, and velvety tannins and a background of earth and funk which would stand up to the richness of the orrechiette and the earthiness of the kale. As TG is a more complex wine than Buglioni, it seemed to contain the X-Factor for Course 2, but Buglioni didn't go down without a fight. A truly enjoyable wine, Bugs (the wine, not the bunny) still tasted delicious, if a little simple, with the wabbit dish.

Favorite: TG Barbera, but Bugs is always a favorite (the wine, not the bunny, but he's great, too)

Course 3: Prairie Fruits Farm Roxanne with financier, Klug Farm grape sorbet, and candied almonds

Preliminary Pairings: Vinhos Barbeito Madeira Boston Bual, Warre's 10 Year Tawny Porto

Oh, finally a cheese course! Having never tasted Barbeito Madeira with a Farm Dinner, I was excited to have a chance to test it out (especially because the staff and I started comparing dessert wines during some of our preshift meetings). What can I say? Super nutty and light with slight hints of caramel, the Barbeito was perfect with Prairie Fruit's raw sheep's Roxanne and Melissa's innovative uses of Klug Farm jupiter grapes (sorbet, financier filling, and a little salad), not to mention candied marcona almonds. The delicate sweetness of the Madeira matched up to the Swan Creek Farm honey dressing on the grape and almond salad. Deeeelish. Warre's Tawny, a staff favorite, was a bit too big and powerful for Course 3 and we were all proud to say Barbeito finally made an appearance for a suggested pairing.

Favorite: Barbeito

Th-th-th-that's all, folks, until next Monday. Tune in and see what those loony sous do next!

Monday, August 31, 2009

Groggy Bloggy

Having been doped up with fairly heavy anesthesia during yet another cortizone shot for my herniated L4 and L5 discs this morning, I'm still feeling a bit out-of-it. Forgive me for the lateness of the posting as well as if I start rambling into oblivion. No surprises last night--all of the wines we tasted are oldie-but-goodie Farm Dinner faves. That's ok, right? After all, if it ain't broke (or herniated) don't fix it.

Monday, 08.31.09
Course 1: Fingerling potatoes and heirloom Italian braising greens with sunny side quail egg, bottarga, and baby leeks

Preliminary Pairings: NV Joseph Perrier Brut Royale, 2007 75 Wine Co. Sauvignon Blanc

Duncan's haute potato salad was tangy and rich, with a hint of earthiness and a pleasing texture . . . pretty much like regular ol' potato salad, but better ingredients. The Green Acres Farm fingerlings were dressed in dijon and olive oil and tossed with Windy Knoll baby leeks, Living Waters red dandelion greens, and Kinnickinnick Farms minestra nera (an heirloom Italian brassica (broccoli) family green), all with lemon juice and lemon vinaigrette. A sunny side up Swan Creek Farm quail egg (and Mom and Dad, I know you bemoan the recent proliferation of quail eggs on all your favorite dishes, but you've gotta jump on the bandwagon here, they are delicious) provided fat once sliced and interspersed, and shaved bottarga (dried tuna roe) added crunch.

A "fancy" dish needs a fancy wine, right? Hence my old reliable Joseph Perrier Brut. Like I've said before, beautiful golden bubbles with toasty oak and zippy acid. Perfect foil for the richness of the egg and the starch in the potatoes, not to mention the subtle fruit lent lovely balance to the earthy greens. Part of me wonders if we like Champagne with fatty foods for the same reason we like Coke with burgers and fries--for the way the carbonation diminishes and cuts through the fat. Anyone? 75 Wine SB is all lemon and lemon peel, with a slight salinity, fresh herbs, and beautifully proportioned acid. Absolutely a must with the lemony vinaigrette and the tangy dijon. We seem to be enjoying a nice equilibrium lately with our Farm Dinner wines--some we like as a counterpart to the dish, and some we like as a complement.

Favorites: JP as a counterpart, 75 as a complement

Course 2: Rose poached Coho salmon with Israeli cous cous, fennel, black olive, saffron, and Michigan grapes

Preliminary Pairings: 2007 75 Wine Co. Sauvignon Blanc, 2008 Triennes Rose, 2007 Saint Gregory Pinot Meunier

Jason asked me to recommend a rose for his salmon poaching (ah, poaching the filets, not, like, going out to illegally fish for salmon . . . but you guys knew that . . . ) Anyway, my first thought was the grapefruit citrusy and lightly spiced Triennes, but I asked JH for a bit more info and was delighted to hear that we were both barking up the same tree. I asked him where he felt Course 2 originated (as in California, or Morocco, or Bora-Bora) and he said Provence! Brilliant, for Triennes, too, hails from Provence. So, wild-caught Cohos were poached sous-vide with the Triennes, vegetable stock, tarragon, and some other herbs-du-you-know-where. Underneath the filets, a bed of Israeli cous cous thickened with pureed white beans. On the side, a salad of Kinnickinnick spigarello (another heirloom Italian brassica), Klug Farm jupiter grapes (gigantic, juicy, purple numbers), lemon confit, and fennel. Finally, two different purees swooshed up the sides of the plate: saffron-orange and black olive. A very light and well balanced dish, with fennel and black olive layering the flavors and adding depth.

75 and Triennes were pretty much no-brainers, with the citrus aspects of both complementing the lemon confit and saffron puree, and providing tartness and crispness to balance the salmon and cous cous. Saint Gregory, as we all know, is a smart little alternative to pinot noir and a favorite of mine with richer fish and earthier flavors. Saint Gregs is light in body but substantial of flavor and juicy fruit, as well as possessing a slight brooding funkiness and zippy spice. We could truly taste Gregs with the salmon dish, not just sense it, and in this way it became not only the most challenging pairing with Course 2, but also a way to showcase a truly special wine. (And it showed--we practically sold out of it!)

Favorites: All three, but Saint Gregory was the special favorite

Course 3: Roasted plum and frangiapane tart with almond-plum ice cream

Preliminary Pairings: NV Patrick Bottex Vin du Bugey-Cerdon, 2005 Oremus Late-Harvest Tokaji

Frangiapane isn't for everybody, but die-hards are obsessed with it. Frangiapane is basically the cake form of almond paste (controversial marzipan is the candy form). I think frangiapane is deeeeeelish, and absolutely wonderful with fruit. Course 3 was fairly straightforward, with Klug Farm plums as the main component in the tart with a light-as-air shortdough crust. Melissa swirled plum sorbet into almond brittle ice cream to create the dreamiest dreamsicle. Bugey, oh Bugey, will you ever disappoint us? Probably not. If any of you out there have not been to Lula to experience the Bug, shame on you. Two recent converts (ladies at the bar with the bundt cake, can I get a what-what) can attest to Bugey's power as an aphrodisiac. The juicy sweet red fruit notes enhanced the sugar-plum-fairy tart while standing up to the rich and buttery crust and ice cream components. Tojaki was just good--definitely not bad, but didn't complete the package as well as Bug. I think that the citrus notes in Oremus were slightly overwhelming and didn't quite mesh with the almond flavors as I had hoped.

Favorite: Bugey, natch. And Frangelico, which Kendal and Dave were kind enough to sample for us.

I should be up and running (or, at least, making the rounds in my low-healed pumps) by tomorrow, and hopefully I'll see many of you sampling the goods. E-kisses!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Old Favorites, New Twists

Everything that's old is new again, right? The eighties are back in fashion this fall, with power-shouldered jackets and leather pants waltzing down the runways. Singer-songwriters the Avett Brothers sound, at times, suspiciously like the Everly Brothers, and even seventies-style wallpaper is suddenly chic. Last night, Lula Cafe decided to jump on the "retro" bandwagon with some old-timey culinary standbys receiving shiny new treatment.

Course 1: Pumpernickel and black truffle panade with Klug Farm nectarines, pistachio, pickled red shallot, and banyuls vinaigrette

Preliminary Pairings: 2008 Hopler Gruner Veltliner, 2007 Rudolph Muller Riesling Spatlese

Ah, pumpernickel. The word brings back memories of various incarnations of the heartly black bread in my youth. Pumpernickel loaf, pumpernickel bagels, tiny pumpernickel toasts with cheese spread and smoked salmon . . . growing up, pumpernickel often made an appearance at breakfast, or better, at cocktail hour (more commonly known as "post-time" on my mother's side of the family), usually in the toast-and-lox form. Last night, pumpernickel arrived at dinnertime and served as the bread in "savory bread pudding," (aka "strada" or "panade) and was layered with tasty black truffle and Prairie Fruit's Farm sheep's milk ricotta. Keeping with tradition, Nicole (in her last-ever Lula Monday Night Farm Dinner . . . sniff) added cocoa nibs and espresso to the batter (remember, bread pudding is egg-yolk soaked) as is often done to American pumpernickel (Germans (and Jews) usually just stick with the rye).

So the panade was baked in a pan, and then sliced and seared to-order, resulting in a satisfyingly toasty texture. Next to it, a lovely salad of Werp Farm mustard greens and red oak lettuce, Green Acres Farm pickled shallots, Klug nectarines, and toasted pistachios (bathed before toasting in the same egg batter as the panade and echoing the flavors of cocoa and pistachio), all dressed in nectarine vinaigrette, added tangy acid and sweetness (especially delightful next to the earthy truffles). Truffles chopped with cocoa nibs and espresso dotted the plate.

Interestingly (at least to me), my wine selections were decidedly Bavarian, even though nothing on Course 1 (besides the pumpernickel) particularly reflected such roots. I chose both the gruner and the riesling due to their high-acid contents (with the fatty bread-pudding in mind) and the mutability of both varietals. 2008 Hopler, from Burgenland, Austria is new to Lula and I was itching to test-drive it as a lower-priced alternative to spendy staff-fave Prager GV. Hopler is a fruit-bomb, with juicy apricot and peach flavors and a briny minerality. 2007 Muller hails from Germany's Mosel River and is Lula's first-ever spatlese (late-harvest) riesling. Muller has sugary components, to be sure, but is backed by balanced acid and spice. Muller won out, as the sweetness proved to be an asset. Absolutely fabulous with the nectarines, and nicely subtle with the panade, Muller was the clearly the best.

Favorite: Muller Spatlese

Course 2: Swan Creek Farm skirt steak with sweet corn and lobster aioli, lobster mushroom, parsnip, and seared market peppers

Preliminary Pairings: 2007 Stoller Pinot Noir Dundee Hills, 2007 Mackenzie Merlot

Folks, you never thought you'd see the day, but Lula Cafe offered up a Surf-and-Turf with a side of creamed corn. Huh? Turf: skirt steak (without all the usual toughness, Bravo!). Surf: lobster meat, delicately interspersed throughout a serving of this summer's MVP, Nichol's Farm sweet corn (off the cob). How was the corn "creamed"? A dollop of lobster aioli on top. Clever. Cheeky (Duncan), but clever indeed. Underneath the steak, as if the dish wasn't rich enough, a silky puree of parsnips and yukon gold potatos, and on the side (Dad, you'll like this): grilled local peppers of all kinds: melrose, hungarian wax beans, and more. (Incidentally, the same peppers, charred and pureed, served as the marinade for the steak. Yummy). Lula Cafe also offered up "Chef's Humor" last night, adding lobster mushrooms (milk cap mushrooms, mutated due to some beneficial bacteria, to take on a creamy, lobster-like flavor and the appearance of the pinkish-red crustaceans) on the same dish as real lobster. Hilarious. Dorky (Duncan), but hilarious . . . or, at least, mildly amusing.

It may seem odd to have chosen pinot noir to pair with steak, but in my experience at Lula, even dishes that sound like they might be heavy will still err on the lighter side. Considering all of the nice summery additions of corn and beans, not to mention the Surf aspect, I decided not to go too heavy-handed on the wines. I like to call the 2007 Stoller (from Willamette Valley, making its first appearance here on the blog) a "savory wine" because many of its flavors do not reflect fruit, but rather soy sauce, iron, leather, and spice. Just the right amount of confected cherry sweetens the palate, and the tannins are integrated and unobtrusive. I have been dying to break out Mackenzie for awhile--really a dynamite Merlot, and very reasonably priced. Truly a layered wine, with vanilla-oak, aromatic berries, and nice acid, and a little fuller-bodied in case pinot noir was overpowerd by steak.

I think Stoller prevailed due to its complexity, and it was an inspired pairing--both food and wine showed off their best assets. Also, my staff got a chance to revisit Stoller and decide they might actually like it, because some of them have been riding the fence on it for ages.

Favorite: Stoller

Course 3: Roasted corn and blueberry ice creams with johnny cakes and blueberry syrup

Preliminary Pairings: 2007 M. Chapoutier Banyuls, Alvear Solera Cream Sherry

Johnny cakes, readers, are delectable little cornmeal pancakes with absolutely no leavening that, when fried, are tiny little crispy circles of golden delicousness. Pair them with blueberries and repeating sweet corn flavors and you've got an absolutely slam-dunk dessert. Melissa's sweet corn ice cream should be placed in the annals of decadence and excess along with Louis XIV's Palace at Versailles and Celine Dion's wedding gown (although to be honest, much more tasteful than the latter). Last night's incarnation was creamy and almost savory, and a delicious foil to tangy blueberry and sweet corn sherbet (made with buttermilk) and refreshing bluberry sorbet. The warmth of the just-fried johnny cakes melted the ice creams just slightly, in a good way, and home-made candied corn added crunch.

Last time Melissa made a blueberry dessert, Alvear Sherry tasted deelish. Not the case here--too light and too nutty in flavor. Banyuls was all jammy berriness and couldn't have been more perfect. Perfect texture, perfect flavor, perfect body. You must experience this.

Favorite: Chapoutier Banyuls

Skirt steak may not make an appearance on the dinner specials menu for a few weeks, but it'll be there eventually. I'm not sure about the panade, either, but my suspicions are that it's too good not to keep around for awhile.

All the wines mentioned tonight will be open Wednesday and Thursday. Come on in!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Port in a Storm

The Chicagoans who braved the maelstrom last night were rewarded with a smorgasbord of delights from those crafty Lula chefs once again. Jason, Nicole, Duncan, and Melissa hit another one out of the park with no particular aim in mind other than to present beautifully prepared farm-to-table cooking, and so they did. Utilizing more of this summer's bounty, Farm Dinner was an exercise in classic dishes with slight tweaks to keep us all up-to-date and on-our-toes.

Course 1: 60-minute egg with tomato-leek fonduta, guanciale, and parsley pastina

Preliminary Pairings: NV Joseph Perrier Champagne, 2007 Rudolph Muller Riesling Kabinett

Here's an SAT-style analogy for you: Champagne::poached egg as riesling::BLANK? Tomatoes. Course 1 had both, and I wanted to show each off to its best advantage. Here's another SAT-style analogy: Champagne::Miriam's Farm Dinner Pairings as riesling::What Miriam Could Be Pairing Each Week With Farm Dinner If She Didn't Like Champagne So Much. Get the picture? So choosing between Champagne and riesling as the favorite for Course 1 is like choosing between my Chanel Rouge Allure lipstick in Lover and my Nars Allover Bronzer Duo in South Beach--each is equally flattering but for very different reasons.

Cherry tomatoes were slowly cooked with leeks, resulting in a melty (is that a word?), brothy concoction. Parsley pastina (house-made baby pasta) added mouthy texture while a balsamic vinegar-olive oil sous vide Living Temple Farm egg and guanciale (jowl bacon, yo!) lent fat and smoky flavors. Nice. As indicated above, if I'm eating a poached egg I like Champagne, and riesling with tomatoes is usually a fool-proof combo (acid loves acid). As usual, my staff were divided about favorites, although with none of the zealousness of last Monday. JP Champagne, with all of its clean mineral and citrus cut through the fat of the egg and bacon, and stood up to the juicy acid in the tomato-leek combo. Muller Kabinett (off-dry) riesling provided a complement to the tomatoes with its slightly juicier mouthfeel, and stony minerality melded nicely with the smokier aspects of the dish.

Some of you out there might think I'm reaching here, but I might say that the Nars South Beach bronzer::JP Champagne as Chanel Lover Rouge Allure::Muller Riesling . . . the first pair are glittery and luminous, designed to complement the warm, sultry tones in both face and dish, while the second pair bring out the juicier, just-bitten aspects (not kidding. Ladies, if you don't own Lover go buy it immediately--your lips instantly achieve that "I just bit into a strawberry" pout we all desire). Anyway, I'm digressing . . .

Favorites: Both!

Course 2: Summer bean cassoulet with duck confit, meatballs, and potato chips

Preliminary Pairings: 2007 Merlin Cherrier Sancerre, 2007 Jean-Luc Colombo Cotes du Rhone Blanc, 2006 Domaine d'Aupilhac Coteaux du Languedoc

Nichols Farm romano and yellow beans and haricot verts were the stars of the dish, replacing white beans in a traditional cassoulet. A rich, yet delicate broth of chicken stock and cavolo nero supported the beans, duck confit and lightly spiced pork meatballs dotted throughout, and all was bread-crumb topped and served in a bowl with a side of a lightly-Champagne vinaigrette dressed salad studded with to-order potato chips. Yowza. In a way, Course 2 was easier to pair, with so many flavors and textures amalgamated together I just pulled some French faves (cassoulet, after all) and had a go. One item of note: the Aupilhac Coteaux du Languedoc comes from the Southern Rhone, where wines are imbued with that always-evasive yet ever-present flavor profile aspect of (Lula Staff: all-together, now) GARRIGUE. And what is garrigue? The word for the earthy notes in the Southern Rhone and Provence reflecting the brambly, shrubby, herbal terroir of those areas. Naturally, Duncan had used at least one of the herbs du Provence in his cassoulet, so the dark-fruited-yet-lightly-herbaceous-and-velvety-tannined D'Aupilhac was the clear winner.

Cherrier Sancerre, with its pristine mineral and light citrus fruit, came in second and provided a reasonable counterpart to cassoulet without being intrusive, and Colombo was too fruity, so:

Favorite: Coteaux du Languedoc

Course 3: White peach tart tatin with creamy caramel and white peach and creme fraiche ice cream

Preliminary Pairings: 2008 Saracco Moscato, Maculan Dinarello, Alvear Solera Cream Sherry

Peaches, caramel, puff pastry: a trifecta of happy flavors, and each dessert wine brought its own game. Saracco was a natural, with the bubbles cutting through fat as they are supposed to do and fruit and acid complementing as usual. Maculan Dinarello did the same as the Saracco but was a still alternative, and Solera Cream Sherry (you all know how I feel about it) brought out the dark, buttery nature of the caramel.

Favorites: Maculan, Alvear

Ok, I love you all, but it is late and (in honor of having just seen Julie and Julia, which everyone must do) Andrew made Lyonnaise salad and pan-seared pork chops, and I've (naturally) got Provencal Rose chilling, so I truly must dash . . .

but come in and taste the amazing wines we've opened. You know the drill.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Taste 'em and lemme know.

Pre-shift meeting Monday afternoon was a little bit like "Wine Hour with Miriam." The stars aligned and we had quite a few to taste; our Vinos de Terrunos Tempranillo is now 2008 instead of '07, we have a new Vacqueyras on the list . . . also, I pulled out some obscure wines from Lula's list to taste with Farm Dinner, which presented an opportunity to reintroduce those wines to the staff and and shake them from their "dog days of summer" ruts, when the only booze they seem to sell is Sangria, the occasional malbec, and Sangria. And did I mention they sell an awful lot of Sangria?

We certainly had a time of it, especially given the intensity of our discussion and the fact that we had some new faces at the table (or, some old faces doing new things). Brent, our trusty foodrunner, will start training as a bartender and actually has to start paying attention at the meetings and adding his own opinions at wine tastings. Jonathan (hipster heartthrob and Lula brunch server) will replace Aaron on Monday evenings, and at his first Farm Dinner shift found himself thrust into a heated argument about whether or not the earthiness of the Woollaston Pinot combated or complemented the delicacy of the quail (but more on that later). Miguel, our new foodrunner trainee, had to sit back and laugh at the impassioned assertions flying around the table (after all, it's only wine. Giavanna.).

Monday, 08.10.09

Course 1: Heirloom cucumber and smoked sablefish with spicy watermelon, fennel, radish, and basil

Preliminary Pairings: 2008 Palmina Pinot Grigio

I knew I had it made when, in describing this dish, Jason mentioned he added quite a bit of lemon juice. Strange, I know, but I had chosen the Palmina Pinot Grigio which goes best with one thing: citrus. '08 Palmina is middle-of-the-road all the way: soft fruit, slight mineral, food-friendly acid, and crisp, but not tart. We don't sell a lot of it, probably because (like rose) pinot grigio has a little bit of a bad rap. Palmina hails from Santa Barbara, California, and is a very well-made wine, best in summer (in my opinion) on a patio. Easy, easy drinking, not sweet, not oaked, not super-challenging. My staff tends to like their wines (at least the ones that they sell) to be a little on the unusual side (which creates talking points with guests--totally understandable).

I just couldn't shake the notion that we should give Palmina another chance, especially with a dish as light and refreshing as the sablefish. The black cod (one and the same as sablefish) was smoked over applewood and served with Green Acres and Nichols farm peppers, fennel, pickled watermelon rind, and diced watermelon soaked in arbol chile honey. Fennel aioli added fat to the plate. Deeelish. And Palmina was right-on . . . some said it was "boring." (Bartender Dave adamantly felt that Sattler Zweigelt was the best pairing for Course 1, contending that the smokiness of the fish needed a red to stand up to it. My opinion was that white wine would be a more balanced pairing). I thought Palmina was light, refreshing, and delicate. Delightful. The salty minerality brought out the smoky fish notes, while the citrus aspects matched nicely with all the fruit and acid in the dish.

(My) Favorite: Palmina PG (Dave's Favorite: Sattler)

Course 2: Quail with summer corn and bacon stuffing, caramelized broccoli, white grits, and scallion 'sauce soubise'

Preliminary Pairings: 2006 Sattler Zweigelt, 2006 Woollaston Nelson Pinot Noir

So Course 2 is where it got real interesting. First of all, these quails (from Georgia) are no teenie-tiny little birds but their flavor is delicate and subtle. Perfect for pan roasting (as grilling would overwhelm them) they become inbued with the flavors of their partners in any dish and picked up lovely bright notes from Nichols Farm scallions and sweet, earthy aspects from Three Sisters' corn. Local melrose peppers (long Italian frying peppers) added a bit of bite. A fresh salad of Nichols Farm sungold cherry tomatoes, Werp Farm pea shoots, summer herbs, and fennel rested atop creamy Three Sisters' white grits and next to caramelized Sweet Earth Organic's caramelized broccoli. Lots of flavors and textures competing to take center stage, but all totally balanced by the quails' tenderness and mutability.

I knew Sattler Zweigelt would be a no-brainer (pretty much anywhere tomatoes make an appearance, Sattler should also come to the party). Zweigelt is a most curious little grape. Grown in Burgenland, Austria, and distantly related to pinot noir, zweigelt loooooves food, and like the quails on Course 2 takes on the characteristics of whatever it accompanies. I like to call the Sattler a "chameleon wine" due to its ability to change appearance based on what's around. If the flavors of a dish are bold, Sattler tastes bold. If the food is juicy, Sattler is juicy, and if delicacy and subtlety are the orders of the day, Sattler follows suit. (You just have to taste it to believe, and you'll understand. In fact, a couple who had never drank zweigelt before last night took home an extra bottle for themselves--we had to uncork it at Lula to make the whole thing legal). And yes, Sattler loved the tomatoes, sweetened up to the corn stuffing, stood back and let the quail strut its stuff, and cut through the polenta. Plus, Sattler is seductively round and supple, with perfectly ripe cherry fruit and a slight hint of pepper and spice. (Can you tell I adore this wine?)

Woollaston Pinot Noir proved to be the most contraversial pick of the night (and possibly in the history of Farm Dinner tastings). First of all, Woollaston is a difficult wine to begin with. New Zealand pinots are always peculiar, with "band-aid" being the most unanimous description of its flavor profile (huh?). (Brettanomyces (beneficial yeasts) are often added to New Zealand pinots during fermentation to enhance the secondary characteristics of the wines. Often, these yeasts produce earthy scents that take on notes of . . . well . . . band-aids. Smell one, and get back to me). Anyway, Woollaston is a big pinot noir. BIG. It is a fantastic, complex, totally intelligent wine with tarry dark fruit, peppery earth, integrated tannin, and a long, spicy finish. But elegant and refined, with none of the unrestrained New Zealand-y new worldiness at all, except for its defining flavorfulness. A little French oak adds a slight woodiness to the background flavors. I mean, this is layered juice. And what better dish to pair it with than the quail, with its harmonious and mosaic juxtoposition of smokiness, juicy creaminess, and heady richness? Some of my staff (Giavanna) refused, point blank, to accept Woollaston as a worthwhile pairing, claiming it was simply overwhelming. I, on the otherhand, championed how multifaceted both the wine and food became when tasted together. Various aspects of each came in and out of focus, as deeper into glass and dish we all went. I could only vehemently insist that if any guest wanted to be truly engaged in his or her meal, Woollaston was the way to go.

Favorite: Undecided. Sattler, I guess, but undecided.

Course 3: Cream cheese terrine with watermelon and cucumber granita

Preliminary Pairings: NV Innocent Bystander Muscat, Limoncello

Bystander. Pink (adult) soda pop! Like I said before, Bystander is one of those fun, totally summery drinks that can only enhance flavors. The terrine was basically cheesecake, but earthy and flavorful, and completely balanced by the crunchy flav-r-ice-ish watermelon and cucumber granitas. Fresh versions of both added depth to the plate, and lemon balm provided needed acid. Melissa had used a dash of limoncello during cooking, so I thought the staff and I could try it (especially because we so rarely taste liqueurs). Um . . . nobody liked it, except me (of course, because I always see the good in everyone and everything . . . or maybe I'm just a sucker). For those readers out there who like limoncello, I think you'll find it nice with the terrine, for those of you who haven't tried it . . . stick with the Innocent Bystander, mkay?

Favorite: Innocent Bystander


Monday, August 3, 2009

No, it's not autumn (yet).

Over the past few months, Chicagoans have experienced quite possibly the strangest weather in recent memory. Cool, crisp mornings, followed by hazy intermittent sunshine, tons of rain, warm afternoons and almost chilly breezes at night? Such lovely fall days we've had this summer. Boutiques around town are debuting their autumn collections and I am dying to get myself into Nanette Lepore's bias-cut tweed blazer with scalloped lapels. As if channeling September already, Farm Dinner last night took on an almost faux-harvest feeling, with carrots, zucchini, apples, and the like. Might as well pull out my cozy turtlenecks and fuzzy scarves, drink some cider and declare summer officially O-V-E-R.

Course 1: Mortadella with pickled vegetables and housemade cultured butter on baguette

Preliminary Pairings: Joseph Perrier Champagne

Italian people (and French people, and Portugese people, and . . . well, pretty much all people except Americans) are lucky, because they can say the foulest things in their native languages and sound like they are reciting the most beautiful words of poetry. Mortadella, in Italian, means baloney. Well, not really. It actually is just another word for bologna, as in "Oscar Mayer." Mortadella / bologna is an Italian emulsified meat-product (usually pork, but sometimes beef as well) originally from the town of Bologna. In America, Mortadella became known for the town from whence it comes, hence, baloney. Leave it to us rednecks to bastardize mortadella (rolls off the tongue so musically) into baloney (kind of makes you think of an old car horn). Mortadella, in its truest incarnation, should be encased in beef intestine, can be studded with bits of fat or pistachios, and is spiced with nutmeg, cinnamon, coriander, and cayenne. Mmmmm. Jason and Nicole chose to wrap the blended Gunthorp pork in plastic (fresh out of beef intestine, unfortunately) in order to poach it sous-vide.

I love a challenge, and I grappled with the wine-pairing for Course 1 quite a bit. With earthy pork-based pates I do love a Rhone red, but to blow my wad like that so early in the game seemed unwise this time, especially considering the accompaniment of so many tangy pickled Nichols Farm summer squash and haricot verts, Werp Farm thumbelina carrots, and Green Acres zucchini and radishes, and the bright crispness of fresh cilantro. Also tricky was the head-scratching addition of a baguette slice smeared with housemade cultured butter. (All you need to know about cultured butter--and believe me, to make it Nicole went through quite the process--is that it is basically Plugra . . . you know, the really super-fancy European butter you find at gourmet grocery stores and in rich people's refrigerators).

As usual when I don't know what to do, I grabbed Champagne. (And this is true in life as well, folks, so don't present me with a difficult decision or next time you see me I'll have a hangover). This is what I figured: the zippy pickled vegetable salad provided the necessary acid to cut through the fatty mortadella, so I needed a wine that would simply complement both aspects of the dish. Joseph Perrier is Champagne in its truest sense: crisp, dry, and citrus fruit-driven, with a slight background of toasty oak vanilla, and cinnamon. Really lovely, with delicate bubbles and a gorgeous golden color. The baking spices complemented the spices in the mortadella beautifully, and as promised, the acid mellowed the fat and stood up to the pickles.

Favorite: JP

Course 2: Lake Superior whitefish with market carrots, almonds, braised pork, cipollini, and leek-summer apple mustard

Preliminary Pairings: 2006 Domaine La Folie Rully Blanc Clos de la Folie, 2007 Dopff au Moulin Pinot Blanc, 2008 Verdad Rose, 2007 Bertrand Ambroise Bourgogne Rouge

Fish with braised pork? Another challenge. Actually, though, it makes sense: fatty and salty to provide a counterpart to the crispy lightness of pan roasted fish (adhering to the summer-into-fall theme, kind of like this vintage light grey Calvin Klein jacket I own that I can pretty much wear with anything from shorts and heels to a chunky sweater and jeans tucked into boots). Definitely a white wine necessary here, although I decided to see if my go-to Bourgogne Rouge would again surprise me with its versatility (kind of like this vintage light grey Calvin Klein jacket . . .) First, a breakdown of the dish: The whitefish sat atop a layer of the braised pork interspersed with Werp Farm red, yellow, and purple carrots, roasted cipollini onions, and cooked almonds, under which laid a swoosh of Nichols Farm summer apple-coriander puree (whose flavor echoed the cilantro in Course 1--after all, coriander and cilantro are of the same plant). Around all of this: a City Farm baby leek and summer apple mostarda, which again reflected the cilantro flavors with its green coriander and fresh coriander seed.

So I pulled the Rully, whose juicy light fruit is balanced by its creamy malo-body, and who I thought would provide a complement to the summery-fish-cilantro aspects of Course 2, and the Dopff, whose stone fruit and clean mineral, not to mention high-acid, would pair well with the autumnal braised pork, carrots, and apples. Well, I was right. Rully won out simply due to its mellowness--the same feeling as last week's Gruner and celery happened here, with the Rully showcasing the food. Dopff tasted a little sweet and obtrusive. Verdad didn't do much--it was a little bitter--and we didn't have enough time at the meeting to taste Ambroise, but the red drinkers of the night seemed to enjoy it, and I felt satisfied that B.A. redeemed himself after last week's fiasco.

Favorite: Rully

Course 3: Chambord and milk chocolate mousse torte with blackberry buttermilk sherbet

Preliminary Pairings: Patrick Bottex Vin du Bugey-Cerdon Rose, 2004 Novaia Late-Harvest Valpolicella

Bugey, Bugey, how do I love thee . . . ? Surprise! We liked Novaia best! Here's why: this dessert is SERIOUS. Not for the faint of heart, with lots and lots of layers, different notes of earthiness in the mousses (thanks to Melissa's use of heavy creamery cream) and many shades of chocolate in various forms. Buttermilk in the sherbet lent tang, and a milk-chocolate and Chambord glaze added texture. Novaia, for all of its body and weight, stood up perfectly to this dessert. Nothing can compare to the right chocolate and wine pairing, and this one should not be missed.

Favorite: Novaia (finally)!

It's still summer, don't worry, but I think the fall preview might get us all excited for the change of season while still appreciating the days left in August to swim at the pool, barbeque, ride bikes, and drink wine on the patio . . . which reminds me, I'm starving after writing about all this food, and Andrew has made brandade, I've got a Bandol Rose chilling . . . E-toodles!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Mom Visits: Farm Dinner Pronounced "Delicious."

My mother, whom I've mentioned several times in this blog, happens to be visiting and was delighted to experience her first ever Lula Cafe Monday Night Farm Dinner. Before arriving in Chicago, however, she expressed the dietary guidelines she would like Jason, Duncan, and Nicole to follow for her meal:

"No beef cheeks. No halibut cheeks. No cheeks. No urchin, roe, or raw fish. No pork. No Wagyu." (She thinks it tastes "gamey.") "No game. No rabbit. No butter or cream."

"Oh-kay . . . . Sure, Mom." Loathe to admit it, Sharon is what you would call a "picky eater" (sorry, but it's true). I feared asking what the chefs had planned for the coinciding FD and was relieved to discover it would be vegetarian (at least I could eliminate the unfortunate prospect of having to tell my mother she would be eating confit boar's neck). Nervously I anticipated whether or not the liberal dollop of whipped farm cream placed ostentatiously in the middle of the soup garnish would send her into conniptions, but she was on her best behavior and smacked her lips after finishing every last bite.

Delectable Farm Fresh Cooking: 1 point
Calorie Counting: Zero

Score one for the Hedonists! What a night last night--here it is, Wednesday, and I sit bleary-eyed at my desk recounting Tuesday evening's antics. Let's just say Sharon and MJ's rendition of "Fever" at Alice's Karaoke Lounge will go down in history as one of the worst of all time. I did promise to deliver the deets on the Monday FD tasting, so here goes, although perhaps with slightly less gusto. After a nice detox this week, by next Tuesday morning my brain will be nice and limber once again.

Monday, 07.27.09
Course 1: Summer corn bisque with smoked tomato, red onion confit, pinenuts, farmstead cream, and pine bud nectar

Preliminary Pairings: 2007 Domaine Couly-Dutheil Les Chanteaux Chinon Blanc, 2007 Prager Wachau Federspiel Hinter der Burg, 2008 Triennes Rose

What is summer without sweet corn? Just a few weeks ago I had my first corn-on-the-cob of the season and it was amazing. Didn't even need butter--that's how sweet the sweet corn is this year. So this incarnation is brilliant, with the fresh natural sugariness of the Nichols Farm corn and confit onions perfectly complementing the smokiness of the local Juliet tomatoes and pinenuts fried with parmesan cheese and crumbled. Mugolio (Italian pine cone bud syrup) added a vegetal note and whipped Kilgus Farmstead cream lent tang, earth, and body. The Kilgus story is interesting: Duncan informed us that the Farmstead has the only Midwestern dairy bottling license. It is so fresh and pure that it remains slightly green in color due to the grass that feeds the cattle producing the milk. Wow.

Bisque is tricky, wine-pairing-wise. Bisques definitely call for high acid wines, but thoughts diverge on whether a crisper or more unctuous texture is best. In my opinion it depends on the flavors in the soup. Seafood bisques are salty, so malolactic chardonnays (which contain muted fruit but clean secondary characteristics and feel creamy in the mouth) taste best, while vegetable biques are sweeter and pair nicely with fruity, refreshing wines like Alsatians. 2007 Couly-Dutheil Chinon Blanc, a chenin blanc from Loire Valley, has lovely aromatics of honeysuckle and peach in the nose and a flavorful, fruity palate packed with loads of Loire minerals. 2007 Prager Gruner Veltliner might be my favorite white wine on the Lula list--a clean, bright food-lover balanced by notes of light citrus and mineral. Finally, 2008 Triennes is a staff-favorite with refreshing tart berry fruit.

The staff and I are working on our 3-part breakdown of wine flavors, so I'll do it here with the pairings:

CD: pronounced vegetable flavors, full body, overpowering
GV: mellow, mineral, fruity
Triennes: fruit and vegetable complementing, fun, refreshing

It seems that the Couly overpowered the soup slightly, but did have an interesting vegetal flavor when paired with the bisque that is usually not evident in the wine. A challenging choice. Gruner did what Gruner does best, which was to let the bisque take center stage and the flavors truly complemented. Finally, Triennes just tasted good, a nice burst of all types of flavors balancing and swirling together.

Favorites: All! But the true favorite was Triennes.

Course 2: Braised celery heart with burrata, calasparra rice, fresh shell beans, grilled peaches, and watercress

Preliminary Pairings: All of the above, Bertrand Ambroise Bourgogne Rouge

A unique take on "beans and rice," Course 2's standout was the grilled Klug Farm peaches. Texturally, the dish was fantastic, with the meaty braised celery, soft peaches, and crunchy bread crumbs atop the paella-inspired calasparra rice and Green Acres borlotti beans. Cayenne added kick to the peaches while Greek olive oil lent earthy notes to the plate.

High acid wasn't necessarily a priority here, but I figured my Course 1 whites would do just fine here and I was right. Couly wasn't nearly as vegetable-y and the honeysuckle notes paired beautifully with the peaches. Gruner, ever the strong, silent type, was a pristine counterpart to the amalgam of flavors and textures, and the Triennes' refreshing crispness balanced its fruitiness and allowed the dish to shine.

I did need a red and went for trusty Bertrand Ambroise, whose quiet, dark fruit, crushed violets, unobtrusive earthiness, and light body I thought would match nicely. Well, that crashed and burned! It must've been Ambroise's strong character and substantial flavor that did him in, although those characteristics have always been qualities, rather than faults. Truly, I don't think that this week's FD was a red wine one, because if Ambroise tastes dirty and brackish (which he did) then no red wine is going to be good.

We did end up liking our by-the-glass Cotes du Rhone, a very light, fruity sipper that is slightly insubstantial by itself but stands up well to food.

Favorite: Both whites again, Triennes, NOT Ambroise (try the Andre Brunel Cotes du Rhone instead)

Course 3: Mascarpone stuffed crepes with Klug Farm plum jam, sweet corn ice cream, and poached apricot

Preliminary Pairings: 2006 Saracco Moscato d'Asti, Chambers Rutherglen Muscat

I have 3 words for you: sweet corn ice cream (technically 4 words, but you get the idea). Crepes, stuffed with mascarpone studded with candied corn and poached apricots, Klug Farm plum jam, and perhaps the largest apricot (Klug as well) half you ever did see. Simple, elegant, so fresh. Delightful. How could I not try yummy peaches-and-honey in a glass Saracco? It didn't disappoint. Chambers Muscat was a little more challenging, slightly stronger than necessary with the lightness of the dessert but the smoked citrusy, deep candied flavors proved an interesting counterpoint and I urge you to try it.

Favorite: Saracco

See you this week! E-smooch. Now, a nap.