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!