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.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

La Dolce Vita

SCENE: A hot, July afternoon, Sardinia. You've just spent another day cavorting in the sparkling emerald waters of the Mediterranean, and the sun is about to begin its westward trek across the clear sky. After one last dip in the sea, you lay down on the warm coastal rocks to dry off. Your stomach rumbles--it must be nearly 5:00, almost dinner time. You gaze over your shoulder at the expanse of your villa, up the rambling, stony staircase from the beach. Paolo, your hot Italian boyfriend, must be back from the market by now . . .

Indeed, smells drift pleasantly toward you: the heady, ripe scents of tomato and eggplant, a briny whiff of the catch of the day, the sizzling of garlic on the stove . . . Paolo's outline appears against the blazing sky, tanned muscles rippling in the sunset, two glasses of Prosecco in his hands . . .

Wait, where am I? Um, Farm Dinner. Wine blog. Ok.

Forgive the cringe-worthy Harlequin-esqe preamble, folks, but you'd have the same scenario on the brain after last night's Farm Dinner. A week ago we learned a bit about the finer things from the French, and today we dive headfirst into La Decadent Dolce Vita.

Monday, 07.20.09

Course 1: Braised Littleneck clams, Laughing Bird shrimp, and baby octopus with fennel, tropea onions, cauliflower, and grilled bread

Preliminary Pairings: 2008 Cortijo Rose, 2006 Protos Roble Joven

Fish stew, but using red wine instead of white. Interesting. Actually a two-part process, with the Littleneck braising juice as one half of the soup-base and red wine broth as the other. The shrimp (from an organic hatchery in Belize) were marinated in parsley, lemon, and olive oil. The same marinade was used as the base if the clam sautee, with the addition of fennel and tropeas. Protos, tomatoes, marjoram, and mirepoix formed a broth. Can you see this taking shape? Picholine olives lent a note of zip and tang, a small salad of cauliflower, fennel, and purslane added crunch, and crusty grilled bread smeared liberally with aioli completed the dish.

Jason asked me to recommend a juicy, light red for the base of the stew, almost a rose. Our Italians seemed too robust for the job, our pinot noirs too insignificant (excluding pricey Ambroise). The Protos tempranillo falls perfectly in the middle, possessing substantial flavor, lively spice, and juicy fruit (I often lean towards Spanish wines when Italian is my first inkling but I can't quite find a suitable one).

Not surprisingly, the Protos paired exceedingly well. First, however, we tasted the 2008 Cortijo Rioja Rose--another Spaniard. Cortijo is delightful, fruity, juicy, brilliantly magenta-colored and refreshing. I felt confident that it would be delicious with the fish stew and my staff and I were disappointed upon tasting the two together. Giavanna claimed that the raspberry notes of the Cortijo became too pronounced. Aaron decided the result was "bitter." Truthfully, I don't think the Cortijo is high-acid enough to match the tanginess of the stew. Also, the Cortijo's mellow mineral component may not have been present enough to stand up to the brininess of the seafood. But the Protos! Naturally Protos and the steww went together like rama-lama-lama-di-dingee-di-dingee-dong. Darker fruit thatn the rose meant more balanced flavors, and the unobtrusive structure added dimension. Really, the Protos is just a great food wine, very malleable, and takes on the characteristics needed to provide an excellent counterpart to any dish.

Favorite: 2006 Protos

Course 2: Garganelli with housemade goat sausage, sungold tomato, romano beans, eggplant, and Fiore Sardo

Preliminary Pairings: 2007 Tenuta Garetto Barbera d'Asti

Like buttah . . . Well, actually, like olive oil and buttah. Fabulous, simple, fresh . . . exactly what you'd want to eat after sun soaking on the Med, and exactly how it sounds. Saffron, garlic. Nichols Farm romanos (flat, broad beans, Italian in origin) and cherry tomatoes, Iron Creek sungolds, local eggplant, and crumbly, hearty Slagel goat sausage we (I say "we" like I helped--I wish) made in-house and stuffed with fennel and the like. Fiore Sardo, a smoky, firm Sardinian sheep's cheese, melted lovingly on top.

Tenuta Garetto, bambini. Sometimes refered to as "baby Barolo," barbera is a Piemontese varietal, easier to cultivate than nebbiolo but with slightly less predominant structure and long ago was used either in blends to add acid and color, or as a table wine. Now, however, barbera is harvested to make juicy, easy-drinking reds that require less aging than nebbiolo and Barolos. TG '07 is a best-of-both-worlds choice, with lovely dried violet and dark berry flavors and velvety, soft tannin. The spiciness of the sausage and the earthiness of the eggplant were my favorite pairing components here, and the best part was that although the TG has a bite to it, the juicy fruit balanced all the herbal / spice elements in the pasta and muted whatever ferociousness the barbera might be harboring.

Favorite: 2007 TG

Course 3: Yellow plum, ricotta, and praline sorbet and ice cream with almond rum cake

Preliminary Pairings: 2006 Maculan Dinarello, Alvear Solera Cream Sherry

Melissa often places sorbet alongside ice cream on a dish and I think it is a brilliant move--a dreamsicle on a plate. Yellow plum sorbet can only be described as heavenly, and if you haven't tasted Melissa's ricotta ice cream, well . . .

Rum flavors, toasty almond, crunchy praline, and a light-as-air tea cake. A white peachy, honeyed, late-harvest moscato from the Veneto, Maculan Dinarello is an unsung hero at Lula--always a go-to, yet under the radar. Last night, MD was truly the stand-out pick, eclipsing the Solera Cream Sherry for once (which was just a little too powerful).

Favorite: 2006 Maculan

Delicious, Decadent, La Dolce Vita. E-ciao!

Monday, July 13, 2009

L'ecole Francais

French people got it right, man. I pretty much live and breath by all things culinary, oenophilic, and sartorial, and the French pretty much invented all. Last night's farm dinner wasn't entirely French inspired (Duncan said the salad reminded him of his high school days) but all of our favorite wine pairings ended up coming from the land of croissants and confit. So, as such, I called this installment of Your Week in Wine "The French School" because I feel like we should all take a leaf out of the books of the folks who decided that eating and drinking could actually be entertainment as well as sustenance.

Monday, 07.13.09

Course 1: Shooting Star little gem salad with Maytag Blue Cheese dressing, house made pancetta, pickled shallot, and brioche

Preliminary Pairings: 2006 Couly-Dutheil Les Chanteaux Chinon Blanc, 2008 Triennes Rose

Romaine with blue cheese and bacon: a fancy wedge salad? Kind of, but the greens were leafy and the bacon house-made. Pickled shallots added zest and brioche croutons were, well, delicious. Wines? Easy-peasy. I needed high acid to stand up to the richness of blue cheese, fruit to balance pickled shallots, and some secondary components to interact with pancetta. Couly-Dutheil is a chenin blanc from our favorite rose producers, with all the typically Loire honey-aromatics in the nose but a very clean, mineral-driven palate. We've enjoyed tasting different wines from the Loire lately, and Chinon is proving to be a very interesting region with all the fascinating particularities associated with cabernet franc for reds and roses (lots of black pepper) and chenin blancs for whites (honeysuckle, stone fruit, and slate) The nice creamy texture of the C-D proved a lovely match with the salad dressing and the juicy fruit a solid partner to pickled shallots. I (along with Kendal and Tracey) enjoyed Triennes (a cinsault dominated rose from Provence) quite a bit, but in the end the decision was that Triennes was too fruity and the minerality of the chenin blanc allowed the flavors of the food to shine.

Favorite: C-D Chinon Blanc

Course 2: Slow roasted Gunthorp Farm pork belly with haricot verts and chanterelles, summer potatoes, white anchovy, and cucumber-red currant relish

Preliminary Pairings: 2008 Mas de Gourgonnier Les Baux de Provence Rose, 2008 Sainte Eugenie Corbieres La Reserve, 2005 Jerome Gradassi Chateauneuf du Pape

The phrase "pork belly" brings about tears of joy in some people and strikes fear into the hearts of others. Industry types and foodies tend to regard pork belly with the kind of reverence I might hold for Christian Louboutin's classic nude peep-toe platforms (you can wear them with anything in your closet) or my dad might reserve for an original, sealed vinyl copy of the White Album. Other folks (particularly those squeamish about eating most organ meat that hasn't been fried to the point of being unrecognizeable) might not understand that when prepared, ahem, correctly, (as it was last night) p.belly can actually be spectacularly tender, flavorful, and delicate. I like to describe p.b. to novices as "3-D bacon," which I think sounds kind of cute and might cushion the unpleasant reality that one may be about to eat a 5oz square of pork fat.

Personally, I fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. Belly is not my favorite; it does tend to be very fatty and I prefer to ingest my calories in the form of buttercream icing (or something equally as sweet and sugary) but I can appreciate well-prepared offal, especially when the accoutrements are as scrumptious as the ones on Farm Dinner last night. Also, we are talking about piggies from Greg Gunthorp's organic farm, and meat of such high quality is an entirely different (pardon the pun) animal.

So I'll get to the point. The bellies were cooked sous vide, which is a fancy method of braising. The sous vide method allows temperatures to be strictly controlled so as not to over or undercook. Also, food prepared sous vide retains much of its nutrients and flavor because such precious qualities are not lost in the cooking process. Before braising, the p.bellies were marinated in mustard, fennel, salt, and sugar, and Hammel poached Green Acres summer potatoes in that braising liquid / marinade juice and nestled them under the bellies. The final rendering was a masterpiece of layering, with the bellies cradled over the potatoes and surrounded by Nichols Farm haricot verts, West Coast chanterelles, and topped with a tangy salad of sherry vinegar-soaked cucumbers and red currants (a truly inspiring and refreshing addition, perfectly balancing the richness of the dish). Living Waters hothouse tomatoes that Jason had marinated in olive oil and herbs du provence and dried overnight dappled the plate. Finally, JH poured some of the belly braising liquid over the whole shaboodle.

Love the belly or hate the belly, this was one tasty version. And the wines, ohhhh, the wines. OMG. Ok, where to begin? . . . I knew I was going to go Rhone because of the use of herbs du provence in the pork belly dish. What are herbs du provence, you say? Thyme, basil, summer savory (sort of a soft rosemary), and sometimes lavender. And why would those herbs indicate Rhone wines? Because the wines from the Southern Rhone Valley and parts of Provence are imbued with an essence that the French call garrigue, which refers to specific quality of the terroir found in the arid, brambly, shrubby soil of those very locales.


Well, ok, so thyme, basil, summer savory, and lavender grow wild in Provence, hence the name herbs du provence, as well as brambly, brackish shrubs. Similar growing conditions exist in the Southern Rhone. In any winemaking, the natural vegetation of an area affects the properties of the soil in which grapes are planted, which in turn indicates their characteristics and eventually defines the wine made there. So, wines made from grapes grown in areas where herbs du provence also grow contain elements reminscent of that same flora (don't ask me how it works). Mas de Gourgonnier, from Provence, is a knock-your-socks off rose that drinks like a red (in terms of the body and slight tannic bite) but still exhibits the softness, delicacy, and food-friendliness we like about rose. MdG is high in acid, cutting through the fat of the pork belly, while still showing backbone to stand up to the starch of potatoes and crunchiness of haricot verts. Yum.

Now here is something interesting: Gradassi CdP is all light herb and velvet with a hint of dark cherries and currants, very soft and unassuming. Corbieres is more powerful, with juicy dark fruit and spice, leather and tobacco. I suspected that the CdP, though tasting well, would disappear behind the belly while the Corbieres would remain strong and flavorful. But look out for that garrigue! Unbelievably (and happily) the CdP couldn't have been more perfect. Slightly more complex and older than the Corbieres, Gradassi took on a whole new level when paired with all the elements in the pork belly dish. The herbs in the wine complemented the herbs in the food, and the fruit aspects actually became more pronounced when tasted with the juicy cucumber-currant relish. Corbieres fell a little flat. It is still a wonderful wine, but I think the layers of the Gradassi were a better fit for Jason Hammel's intricately constructed invention.

Favorites: MdG, Gradassi CdP

Course 3: Klug Farm bing cherry clafoutis with black pepper touille, PX sherry, and cherry ice cream

Preliminary Pairings: M. Chapoutier Banyuls, NV Vin du Bugey-Cerdon Rose

Clafoutis are traditional French pastries that are basically individual-sized custard tarts with a soft crust. Melissa added semolina to the custard to thicken the texture and surrounded it with melt-in-your-mouth shortdough. Klug Farm bing cherries, halved and pitted, studded throughout. A compote of yellow cherries, fresh laurel leaves, whole peppercorns, and sherry gastrique snuggled up to the clafoutis and cherry ice cream and a black pepper touille topped off the plate. Oh my good gardenias. Banyuls: Done, son. Bugey: Done, son. Seriously, sometimes I choose dessert wines simply based on the color. I go "Hm, cherries are red, and the Banyuls is dark red, and Bugey always tastes good with red things." And 90% of the time it totally works. Both of these pairings were rad and it is simply personal taste as to weather you want a dark and ripe berry fruity port or a light and tart berry fruity sparkler.

Favorites: Both! Banyuls and Bugey, mon amis!

Do I have to say it? C'mon in and have a taste! Belly will definitely be on, and I'm pretty sure the clafoutis is here to stay. Not sure about the salad, but I think it may stick around while supplies (little gem romaine, that is) last. Au Revoir!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Lula Pret-a-Manger 2009

Last night's Farm Dinner was kind of like Prada's Spring 2008 Collection. Lush and voluminous, with watercolor splashes of dark greens, purples, and pinks, Farm Dinner was a three-course otherworldly landscape of swirls, dots, and doodles, textures and flavors, and like Prada in 2008, remained firmly rooted in elegance and tradition. (And England. In the '70's. Kind of.)

Monday 07.06.09

Course 1: Prairie Fruits farmstead goat cheese tart with roasted summer vegetables

Preliminary Pairings: NV Joseph Perrier Champagne, 2007 Dopff au Moulin Pinot Blanc

Tarts always seem kind of brunch-y to me (maybe because I spent almost every weekend for 2 years managing brunch at Lula and I saw a lot of tarts come and go . . .) and in my, ahem, humble opinion, nothing goes better with brunch (and fried chicken. and french fries. and pate. and sushi. and salads with egg yolk. and . . . Readers, my love of Champagne is deep and undying and utterly enmeshed with a fierce passion for high fashion and celebrity gossip. In my younger days, a $6 bottle of Charles du Fere from John's Grocery, Sex and the City Season 3, and an US Weekly were enough to render me incandescently happy) than a very dry Champagne.

Of course, Farm Dinner isn't brunch but I trusted my insticts. Prairie Fruit's Farm is our latest favorite cheese maker and their fresh goat cheese is light and tangy and was a perfect foil last night to smoky sauteed Green Acres kale. Remember the Prada-like watercolors? A salad of Nichols Farm broccoli, Green Acres radish and caramelized onion, pickled Klug cherries, purslane, and frisee sprawled ravishingly across the plate. Banyuls vinaigrette added acid and a little sweetness.

Some folks don't want bubbles (not sure why, but to each his or her own) so I needed a still option with acid and a touch of fruit (to stand up to the flavors of all the vegetables). Alsatian whites are known for their aromatic bouquets and clean, light, food-friendly palates. 2007 Dopff is a really wonderful wine, great with food (it tends to hang in the background and let the dishes do their stuff) and also nice and interesting on its own. Refreshing in summer, and lovely in winter, too, owing to its fairly substantial body. Anyway, we used to sell Dopff by the glass at Lula but do not anymore, so last night was an opportunity to open it back up!

I didn't grab any reds (or even roses) this time around (at least for Course 1) because I just couldn't shake the notion that the tart dish was slightly breakfast-y and called for super light wines ( and just for the record, I have absolutly no problem with breakfast for dinner!). So the JP Champagne was a total no-brainer (at least for me) and we all loved the Dopff. Here's where personal taste enters in, because (as I'm sure everyone is well aware by now) I love Champagne and would pour it over my Rice Krispies if I was allowed, but certain members of my staff opined that the Dopff was more flavorful and a better match over all. I think the upshot was this: JP cut through the fat of the goat cheese and interacted nicely with all the grilled flavors, the acid of the pickled cherries, and the crunchiness of the frisee. Dopff is a fruitier wine and brought out the natural flavors (can vegetables be fruity?) of the vegetables, and was a little more mouth-coating and viscous, which is pleasurable with food.

Favorites: JP, Dopff

Course 2: Grilled Swan Creek Farm hanger steak with summer squash gratin, roasted baby beets, and chicory butter

Preliminary Pairings: 2007 Owen Roe Ex Umbris Syrah, 2005 Dara Ode Red, 2007 Ladairo Mencia

Didn't I tell you I'd bring back the Mencia? This time, it was our clear favorite, and that's saying something considering the competition. Alright. So first of all, George's hangers were marinated in tons of herbs, lemon, anchovy, and olive oil, and grilled to medium rare perfection. Duncan took Nichols zucchini and summer squash and layered it in a pan with parsley and shallot (diced and mixed in duck fat and butter) and a parmesan-style cheese from Wisconsin. He baked it and called it a "gratin" (I said this Farm Dinner was rooted in tradition), as squares were cut from the pan and individually seared. Yum. Finally, roasted City Farm baby beets nestled up to each slice of gratin, a chicory (radicchio, mostly) butter sauce surrounded all, and hard-cooked egg yolk and sea salt was sprinkled on top of the hanger. Dude!

I was so psyched to see steak on the menu; after weeks of lighter entrees (halibut, sformato, olive-oily pastas, trout, etc) we all needed something manly. (Thanks, Duncs. Get awesome). Plus, my full-bodied reds have been languishing on the shelves, waiting for their moment in the spotlight. Perhaps I went a little overboard in choosing wines to pair with the hangers, but I was so thrilled to be able to open up some inky, smoky, bold little numbers. I think in the back of my mind I knew we would love a medium-to-full bodied, spicy, food-friendly red (hello, Ladairo) but I also wanted the staff and customers to be able to taste some hidden gems.

Ex Umbris syrah has a certain mythology amongst Lula staff members; it's been on the list for years under different vintages and remains mysteriously alluring: deep, dark, and expensive. I'm longing for rabbit or venison or something soon so we can revisit Ex Umbris with a more suitable dish. It was actually quite nice with the hanger--a little too full bodied, but tasting lighter than expected and a terrific choice for a larger group to share with Course 2.
Dara, with its tiny bit of petit sirah, is even bigger than the Owen Roe, but also a little fruitier, too. None of us were quite sure what to make of this pairing. Tasty, to be sure, but a favorite? Nothing magical happened. I think the Dara, like the Owen Roe, would taste better with gamier meat. Ladairo, on the other hand, was a study in subtle elegance. Juicy cherry fruit, pepper and clove spice, and that perfectly food-loving Spanish medium body was simple and delicious with the hanger. Parmesan cheesy seared summer squash, the chicories in the butter, and the tanginess of the beets complimented the fruitiness and acid, the spiciness and Spanish zip. Yay!

Favorite: Ladairo

Course 3: A bowl of Mick's amazing blueberries with shortbread and zabaglione

Preliminary Pairings: Alvear Solera Cream Sherry, Novaia Late Harvest Valpolicella

Best. Summer. Dessert. Ever. Last night Jason informed us that 2009 has yielded the best blueberries in recent history (thanks, Mick Klug!) and in order to celebrate them properly we need to eat them practically naked. (Um, the blueberries, that is, unadorned . . . not, like, sitting around wearing nothing but socks). So a bowl of blueberries, with a dollop of zabaglione, a couple shortbread cookies (think Pepperidge Farm chessmen) and a nice reduction of Novaia sweet valpolicella and Chapoutier Banyuls. I was a little stumped about the pairing, I mean, how do you not overpower the delicacy of fresh fruit? And (for once) I didn't want to pair a sparkler (just to give the other wines a chance, you know?) . . . tough. I do love that cream sherry and it goes with practically everything, including the vanilla-ness of zabaglione, and since blueberries are a darker fruit, it seemed worth a try. Jason had made the reduction using the Novaia, which is fantastic but really quite strong, but we brought it to the meeting for a try as well.

As it turns out, the sherry was terrific and totally unobtrusive, which sometimes is nice for dessert because you're already dealing with so much sugar and flavor. Again, I thought Novaia was too big, but the flavors were really great.

Favorite: Alvear Sherry

Come in and try 'em! And wear your Prada. E-kiss noises.