Monday, May 30, 2011

Thai Square - Arlington 5/29/2011

Thai Square has renovated recently and now has a clean, spare dining room with a red color palate. Luckily, the kitchen is still the same and they still deliver good, authentic Thai food.

I went there with a Thai friend who ordered for us. Generally, all the dishes were good. The green papaya salad with pickled crab was fantastic. My friend had the foresight to order it less spicy than normal because even toned down, I found it incredibly fiery. Nonetheless, paired with the coolness of shredded papaya and the tartness of the dressing and pickled crab, it was a wonderfully refreshing starter for our meal. If you want to get it with the pickled crab, you have to ask for it specifically. But, I should warn the squeamish: it's raw, so don't get it if you have an aversion to raw shellfish.

The other entrees were nearly as good. My friend ordered a beef hotpot soup with meatballs, shredded beef, and greens, which were liberally seasoned with cilantro. Since I'm a cilantro junkie, I thought it was very good. Another dish we ordered was the crispy pork with Chinese broccoli: generally a solid dish anywhere, but the crispy pork skin that came with it imparted an interesting texture to the dish. Sort of like a side of pork rinds with your greens, which I heartily approve of.

Probably my favorite entree was the softshell crabs with chili-tamarind sauce. The softshell crabs were pan-fried and you have the option to pour the chili sauce over it. What you get is the inimitable crunchy texture of softshell crab and the fiery and subtle sweetness of the chili sauce. My one criticism would be that the sauce is so pungent that it can drown out the flavor of the softshell crab, but the sauce is so good that it makes up for that one shortfall. This entree is a special, and will be taken off the menu once the softshell crab season is over, so get it while you can.

One of the house signature dishes, the crispy honey roasted duck with basil, was quite good. Each small nugget of duck was covered in batter and smother in a sweet, piquant sauce that was not too spicy. My one issue with this dish is that you get a mouthful of batter every time you took a bite and couldn't taste the duck. It was still a good dish, but I wish the duck flavor was a little bit more pronounced.

All in all, a very good Thai meal. As my friend told me, this is probably the best (and only place) to get authentic Thai in NoVa. Just be forewarned: it gets extremely crowded on weekends and there is limited parking.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Great Wall Szechuan House - Mid City

Great Wall Szechuan House is the other Sichuan place in the District, and while it doesn't have the same breadth of dishes that Sichuan Pavilion has, it still manages to punch far above its weight class. This place, for all intents and purposes, is a carryout. From what I heard, it was only about three or four years ago that they removed the bulletproof plexiglass from their counter. And, it is still very much a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. When you look at the menu, the fast majority of it covers the typical carryout standards: General Tso's, Egg Foo Young, Lo Mein, and fried chicken wings. However, in a little corner of the menu is a box labeled "Ma-La," and these dishes are why people come here.

For those who don't know, "ma-la" refers to the numbing sensation one gets when eating dishes spiced with Sichuan peppercorn. Sichuan cuisine is indeed spicy, but the numbness one feels is what truly sets this particular cuisine apart from all other Chinese culinary traditions. And you get ma-la in spades when you order the Mapo Dofu, a tofu dishes that is smothered in ground pork, an oily hot sauce, and enough Sichuan peppercorn to numb your mouth, you can get a root canal afterwards without taking any Novocaine. A milder dish, the twice-cooked pork, is also excellent. It is essentially sliced pork belly seasoned with peppery spices (but be sure to order it off the ma-la menu and not the version in the Americanized portion of the menu). I also have heard rumors that you can order off-the-menu entrees, (like the Sichuan hot pot) if you call in advance.

In sum, Great Wall is great place to go if you need a ma-la fix without wanting to travel to hinterlands of Virginia and Maryland. It is unfussy, simple food, but sometimes that is a good thing.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Piola - Rosslyn 5/26/2011

Piola is an Italian pizzeria chain, which is to say that it is a pizza chain based in Italy, though most of its branches are located in South America. Initially, I was a little leery about going here, but in the end, I have to say I was won over. I ate outside on the patio, which was lovely, but managed to get a peek inside: high ceilings, self-consciously trendy decor, and a weird red toned color palette. But, I've seen worse.

The pizza itself was actually pretty good. The thin crust had a nice bite...not too chewy, but not too soft. Moreover, unlike many other pizzerias, they held back on the cheese and sauce. The Piola pies had just enough of the creamy mozzarella and the tomato sauce to prevent the crust from being too dry, yet also avoided being too gummy with excess cheese or being soupy with excess sauce. Unfortunately, I ordered a pie that came with smoked salmon and ricotta on top of the mozzarella and tomato sauce, and while the salmon was actually good, the ricotta was piled on too thick. I had to scrape the excess off. But, having tasted the underlying pie, I would imagine that ordering a more traditional pie from Piola would provide a rather satisfying gustatory experience, especially for a restaurant located in Rosslyn.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Pete's Apizza - Columbia Heights

I usually try to stop by here whenever I'm shopping at either the Best Buy and the Target across the street. It is one of the few places that serves individual slices of pizza without feeling the need to jumbo-size them, which I certainly appreciate. The crust is crispy, but also has an interesting, chewy texture once you bite through it. I do find the tomato sauce a bit problematic: it can taste a little tinny and bright for my taste. But, then again, I usually order the white clam pizza anyway, which is delicious. While Pete's claims that it slings New Haven pies, it doesn't. And you know what? That's a good thing. They are quite content to be themselves without trying to blindly copy Sally's or Frank Pepe's. Sure, they put some clams on their pie, but they don't obsess about all of the details and they just focus on producing as good of a pie as they know how. It's quite refreshing to see that. And if they are going to aspire to serve a New whatever product, I'm glad they chose New Haven rather than New York. (Seriously, serving Boars Head turkey on a kaiser roll does not make you a New York deli and anything Jumbo Sized automatically disqualifies you as a New York pizza.)

Unfortunately, I have not tried the pastas, sandwiches, or salads, though I hear they are well made. I do like that their fountain dispenses Boylan Soda, rather than the de rigueur choice of either Coca Cola or Pepsi products, just another little detail to distinguish themselves from the crowd.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Pacific Dover Sole with Brown Butter Sauce

I was in the market today and I saw some Pacific Dover Sole for sale and decided to buy some. Pacific Dover Sole tends to be less firm (and a bit less flavorful) than Atlantic Dover Sole, but otherwise has similar properties.

I first dredged these fillets in flour before pan-frying them in olive oil. Because they are so thin, it takes only about 5 minutes (3 minutes on one side, two on the other) for them to become crispy, yet still moist in the middle. I pulled them out of the pan and re-seasoned with a little bit more sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

I then put about two or three tablespoons of butter in the still hot pan, and when it began to bubble and brown, I squeezed a little bit of honey and stirred. After about two minutes, I put in a generous spoonful of capers and little it cook for about 30 seconds. I then finished the sauce with the juice of one lemon, stirred, and then spooned the sauce on my fish.

This was pretty perfect. The fish had a nice crunch, yet was still moist. The brown butter sauce had a hint of sweetness to it, but was balanced by the acidity of the lemon juice, with the capers imparting a pleasant brininess to the dish. This took about twenty minutes to make. A great weekday dinner!

Tachibana - McLean

Located in the middle of NoVa strip mall hell, Tachibana looks like your typical suburban Japanese restaurant. The clientele is a mix of McLean locals and Japanese expats. A highlight is the broiled salmon collarbone, embedded with succulent pockets of crispy salmon flesh. The raw fish dishes were also consistent and fresh. The various maki rolls we ordered were all well made and filling. But, for me, the standout dish was the $11 Chirashi bowl, filled with several generous slices of sashimi. An absolute steal of a deal (and only available during lunch).

A great place to get sushi, especially for those in the McLean area. That its menu also has several off-beat Japanese dishes only makes it that much more appealing.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Sichuan Pavilion - K Street Corridor 3/27/2011

[Not related to the Sichuan Pavilion in Rockville]

On first glance, Sichuan Pavilion looks like your typical Americanized Chinese restaurant. However, closer examination of the menu belies this. Interspersed between the Chow Fun and various iteration of General Tso's entrees are some authentic Sichuan dishes. However, you have to know what to order.

If you are interested in something authentic, you can't go wrong with the Steamed Pork Bacon (with preserved vegetables). In reality, it is uncured pork belly marinated in a earthy sauce that isn't overwhelming spicy at all. If you see a group of Chinese people eating at this restaurant, you will see this dish on their table. It's basically this restaurant's signature.

Another good dish is the dan dan noodles, a noodle dish drenched in a spicy sauce seasoned with Sichuan peppercorn. Sichuan peppercorn isn't necessarily spicy, per se. What it does is creates a "ma la" (i.e., numbing) sensation, which is quite frankly an inimitable hallmark of Sichuan cuisine. Similarly, the mapo dofu (a tofu dish smothered in a similar Sichuan peppercorn sauce) is another classic Sichuan dish this restaurant makes a faithful rendition of.

The dry hot pepper chicken, which is basically small chunks of fried chicken sauteed with dried red peppers. The chicken is crispy with just a hint of spiciness to it. Really simple, but really good. I also like the tea smoke duck, but it basically just fried duck with hoisin and pancakes. It wasn't a crowd favorite with my group, so YMMV.

There are some landmines on the menu. For example, the lamb stew was watery and only had a few scraps of lamb in it. And, as mentioned earlier, the Americanized dishes are no better than what you can get at your neighborhood carryout, so don't bother ordering them. But, if you order carefully and conscientiously, you can get a fairly authentic meal without having to leave the borders of the District.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Bojangles - Union Station

The first time I heard of Bojangles was when I was working on a case where a bunch of individuals decided to stop by this restaurant and grab some fried chicken before going out on the town to conduct a drive by shooting. Ever since then, Bojangles has piqued my curiosity; obviously, it must sling some superlative chicken if this is the place you choose to go to before going out on a shooting spree.

Having my curiosity morbidly piqued for several years, it was not until Bojangles opened at Union Station this past spring that I had the opportunity to try it for the time. Having finally gone there, I would say my main takeaway from all this is that would be murderers should not be ones culinary lodestar. The chicken was fairly good...moist and flavorful. But, the crust on the skin hadn't adhered itself properly and would slide off the flesh; it also lacked the crispiness I find essential in good fried chicken. While the biscuits were flaky and tasty, the sides were fairly forgettable. I will go again to give it another shot, but I probably built this place up in my head far too much for far too long.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Temari Japanese Cafe - Rockville 4/30/2011

Temari Japanese Cafe is located in a small storefront in a strip mall on Rockville Pike, typically jam packed with Japanese people. Although it serves sushi, this place seems to cater to those looking for home cooked, Japanese comfort food, like ramen, curry, miso soup, and various broiled fish dishes. Generally, I found the food to be well that is probably as well prepared as you can find in your typical Japanese household. The stars, for me, were the broiled fish dishes. The broiled mackeral was fantastic...a slightly charred and crispy skin covering moist, mildly salted flesh. The broiled salmon looked great as well. The ramen was solid, if nothing to feel rapture about, but the fish was truly memorable.

Dashi and Japanese Soups

I have been experimenting with Japanese soups the past couple of weeks and I feel as if I have finally have gotten the hang of it. The major breakthrough has been my ability to make a decent dashi from scratch. Dashi is the mother broth for most Japanese soups and is basically composed of two ingredients: kombu and katsuoboshi. Kombu is a thick, dried stalk of seaweed, which you place in a pot of water slowly brought to a simmer. After the kombu steeps in the water for about 15-20 minutes, you remove the kombu, take the pot off the heat, and then put in a handful of katsuoboshi. Katsuoboshi, also known as bonito flakes, is dried, fermented skipjack tuna, which is essential for a good dashi. You leave it in the hot, kombu-flavored water for about 10-15 minutes, and then strain. You now have dashi, an acrid, smoky, fishy, and to me, unappetizing liquid. However, you essentially end up with a pot full of pure, liquid umami that, with the addition of just a couple of ingredients, is the foundation of some delicious soups.

The simplest one is probably miso soup. All you have to do is put in about a tablespoon of miso for 4 cups of dashi, bring it to a boil, and then you're done. Add some finely chopped scallions, tofu, and a little wakamane (dried seaweed) and the result is something indistinguishable from a restaurant.

Another great dish is Udon Noodle Soup. Here, you get your four cups of dashi, add two tablespoons of dark soy sauce, and one tablespoon of mirin (a sweet Japanese rice alcohol). Bring the liquid to a boil and then put in some udon noodles, and you get a classic noodle soup. I gussied it up with chopped scallions and sliced kamaboko (Japanese fish cakes), maybe throw in some wakamane and an egg, and you get a classic Japanese dish. A subtle dish that has hints of sweet, salty, and umami interacting with each other in a comforting, homey soup.

Considering how easy dashi is to make from scratch, I don't think I can go back to granulated dashi bouillon anymore.

FYI: If you need to buy kombu, bonito flakes, or instant dashi, and you don't want to leave the District, you should go to Hana Market on 17th and U St NW (across the street from the police station). They have all the ingredients there.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Red Rocks Pizzeria - Columbia Heights 2/20/2011

Red Rocks Pizzeria is a local pizzeria chain that sells pizzas cooked in a wood fired oven. The Columbia Heights location was the first, housed in a renovated townhouse that is tight, but comfortable. Waits can be long, and uncomfortable since the front of the house is cramped and the bar is usually packed.

When we got seated, I ordered the margherita (buffalo mozzarella, basil, tomato sauce) while my friend ordered the Sunrise pizza (fried egg, breakfast potatoes, and a dusting of parmesan). The crusts were correct: they had some chew with just enough char to lend some pleasing bitterness to the pizza without being ashy. The toppings were also solid...the sauce tasted fresh and wasn't tinny, which is a problem I run across quite frequently in DC. But...for whatever reason, it just really didn't come together for me. Everything was correct, but kind of uninteresting. For example, a pizza from New York, New Haven, or even Chicago or California (bastardized forms as the latter two may be) are distinctive and instantly recognizable. Red Rocks, on the other hand, just seemed to be imitating what they thought a Neopolitan pizza should be without attempting to leave their own particular stamp on their interpretation. It was like there was no "there" there. Maybe I should give them another try, but this place definitely did not inspire me to go out of my way to dine here again in the future. But, if I'm in the neighborhood, I wouldn't object to eating here again.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Faccio Luna - Clarendon 3/4/2011

Faccio Luna is a pizza parlor which self-proclaims that it serves the best pizza in Virginia. While I wouldn't go that far, it isn't bad. If it weren't for the inexplicably long waits, it would be a nice place to pop into if I was in the neighborhood to grab a cheap meal with friends.

As noted, the place primarily serves pizza, but I also shared a salad that was pretty flavorful and some meatballs, which were a lot more forgettable. The pie we ordered had sausage and pepperoni, and the toppings and sauce were generally enjoyable. However, texturally, the pizza wasn't interesting and it lacked the hint of bitterness a nice, charred crust imparts on a pie. Indeed, the dense crust somehow managed to pull off the hat trick of being simultaneously bready, friable, and dry. While this may sound unappetizing, I actually enjoyed reminded me of the pizzeria in Connecticut that my family used to get take out from. memories, though whether being comparable to a suburban pizzeria is a compliment, I leave that up to you to judge.

In sum, Faccio Luna is a nice neighborhood spot that serves an eminently serviceable pizza (and if you think that is damning with faint praise, well, you might be right).

Shake Shack Right Now Is a Shit Show

Lines for Shake Shack right now go out the door and down the block towards the Nando's. Probably at least a 45 minute wait before you get to the counter. I'll try again next week.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Fast Gourmet - Columbia Heights 3/25/2011

Fast Gourmet is located in the Lowest Price Gas Station on 14th St. and W St. NW. The interior has been redone and is actually fairly spacious and comfortable. The staff is also very friendly, especially considering we are in a gas station, and were fairly prompt. While the place is called Fast Gourmet, this is not a fast food restaurant (I waited a good 10-15 minutes). But, it was worth the wait to get a freshly made sandwich rather than one sitting underneath a heating lamp.

I ordered the Chivitos, a Uruguayan sandwich that has beef tenderloin, ham, melted mozzarella, bacon, a hard boiled egg, tomato, lettuce, pickled red bell peppers, and chopped green olives. While the ingredients as a whole were fresh and delicious, it was the green olives which elevated the sandwich, bringing much needed brightness and lift with their acidity, tempering the heaviness of the other ingredients.

It was a legitimately great sandwich. Probably one of the better sandwiches I've had in DC (though that isn't necessarily saying much). But, it also cost $13, which, while a fair price considering the quality of ingredients, is not inexpensive. But, definitely worth at least one visit.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Nando's Peri Peri - Gallery Place 5/13/11

I went to Nando's on Friday with several friends who I found out have never been before. The Nando's in Gallery Place can get raucous and loud during dinner (and for that reason I prefer the Dupont location for its quieter ambiance), but luckily we manage to get a table quickly for our party of five. As noted elsewhere, they have an unusual system where you order at the counter, pick up your own flatware and drinks, but have your entrees delivered to you. I'm used to it, but it can be bewildering for first timers.

I ordered the half chicken with hot sauce, which has pronounced, but tolerable heat, with a side of fries. While the fries are solid, the chicken is where it is at: juicy and flavorful. To be honest, I generally prefer Nando's to the Peruvian chicken places like El Pollo Rico. I just find the breast meat dry at those places while Nando's manages to deliver consistently moist white meat, which is quite a feat considering how many orders they must churn out daily. Also, I would go with a half chicken...while I generally prefer dark meat, the quarter chicken is literally just a leg and a thigh, which I find a little small. Not to mention you miss the contrast between the white and dark meat when you get only a quarter chicken.

The sides are good, if a bit meh. The mash potatoes are solid and someone ordered pea mash with mint, which I found a little weird texturally. The chicken livers are actually very good, smothered in a hot sauce, but the richness and intensity of the liver is not for those who feel fainthearted with respect to offal.

In sum, Nando's is a reliable stand-by I go to whenever I feel like an inexpensive, but flavorful meal. Although it is a chain, like Chipotle, they understand where their strengths lie, and they always execute their limited menu with great consistency.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Huong Viet - Falls Church 5/15/11

The Eden Center can be overwhelming when you go there for the first time. It is rather huge strip mall filled with stores, restaurants, and bars that cater to the local Vietnamese community. While most of these restaurants are known for particular entrees (the noodle place, the soup place, the fried tofu place), Huong Viet is generally considered to have one of the more consistently good menus.

When we got there, it was fairly crowded, and while the crowd did ebb and flow, it stayed consistently busy throughout the day, with people waiting to get a seat. Now, consider that they did this when there must be at least 15 other Vietnamese restaurants within a 2 minute radius of the place (literally...if anything, this may be an understatement).

I've been here before and can say that the "bun" dish (basically a vermicelli noodle dish smothered in fresh vegetables with grilled pork on top) is something that everyone should try once. The grilled pork is extremely flavorful, and slight bitterness from the grilling interacts well with the refreshing acidic lift of the sauce on top of the noodles.

Today, I went family style with my group of friends and we got several dishes. We accidently ordered fried spring rolls (we were trying to get the fresh, unfried rolls, but it got lost in translation) which were crisp and not greasy. Delicious with nuroc cham, a sweet and sour Vietnamese fish sauce. We also had a beef salad that was really refreshing and filled with fresh herbs like cilantro. Our three entrees were a yellow curry with catfish, caramelized pork with black pepper, and grilled lemongrass chicken. All three were good, though the lemongrass chicken was something you could have gotten in a pan-Asian restaurant and probably isn't worth the trip (but you won't have any regrets if you order was very well prepared). But, you can't go wrong with the caramelized pork which was absolutely delicious. I enjoyed the fish curry, though my friend wished the curry was stronger.

On your first trip to the Eden Center, go to Huong Viet. It is consistently tasty and you won't go wrong ordering blindly on that menu.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Miso Soup with Soba Noodles

I decided to make miso soup for lunch today. But, rather than use instant dashi, I decided to make dashi from scrath. Basically, you steep "kombu," which is a thick, dried seaweed, in a pot of water and gently heat it. Right before it starts to boil, pull it off the heat and then put in a handful of bonito flakes and stir. Let that steep for several minutes and taste. Once the smokiness of the bonito has seeped into the stock, strain. You now have dashi, the foundation for most Japanese soups.

In order to make miso soup, put the dashi back in a pot, add a generous spoonful of miso (I used Japanese white miso, which is the lightest), and simmer. I also put in wakamane, which is a thin, tender seaweed and some finely chopped green onions. After boiling the soba noodles in a separate pot, I threw it in the miso. Not very authentic, but hey, it's a Saturday afternoon and it is better than Cup O' Noodle.

Dino - Cleveland Park 5/11/11

Dino is a cozy, neighborhood Italian restaurant located near the Cleveland Park metro. The food, generally, is well-prepared, if straightforward, fare. I find the pasta generally quite good and the entrees well done as long as you get the simplest preparations. The wine list is exceptional and has a comprehensive selection ranging from wallet-friendly Soaves and Montepuliciano d'Abruzzos to budget-busting Barolos and Brunellos. They also have a nice wine by the glass program, offering full pours and smaller 3 oz. tastes, which is a nice opportunity to try a wide selection of what they have. On Sundays and Mondays, they have 33% on all wines over $50 and Mondays through Wednesday, they have free corkage. This is basically my go-to place if I want to taste some aged wines with friends from our cellars.

On Wednesday, I got a prosciutto plate, soft-shell crabs, and a nutella-cappuccino mousse. It was all delicious, though in fairness, my starter only required knowing how to slice and my soft-shell crabs were simply brushed on olive oil and then grilled. But, it says a lot that they didn't mess it up, either. The mousse was very good, with an amaretto whipped cream on top and bourbon soaked cherries buried inside. I also tried a bread pudding with cinnamon gelato, which was also very good.

Vissoux Beaujolais Wine Tasting

I went to Weygandt Wines Friday evening in order to taste the 2009 Beaujolais lineup for Domaine du Vissoux (Weygandt also reps them as their national importer). Domaine du Vissoux, unlike most artisinal, natural wine Beaujolais producers, has a large lineup of wines ranging across several "crus" (that is villages or communes) throughout the Beaujolais region. But, unlike Georges DuBoeuf, the big negociant Beaujolais producer who is responsible for 95% of the Beaujolais Nouveau you drink in mid-November, Pierre Chermette, the owner of Domaine du Vissoux, has far lower yields and uses only natural, ambient yeasts. Thus, in these wines, you get greater intensity of flavor and you don't get those oft-putting banana aromas you find in most Beaujolais (caused by the use of 71B, an industrial yeast used to initiate fermentation.

2009 is considered one of the best Beaujolais in the past thirty years, at least by the wine press. I haven't tasted extensively, but what I have had tends to be deeply fruited, with good acidity and powerful aromatics. However, they can come off as a little simple right now without the traces of minerality and weightless elegance I more commonly associated with well made Beaujolais. Some people think these wines are shutting down and probably should be held for five years before trying again (if not longer). But, for the uninitiated, 2009 might be a good vintage to give Beaujolais a try, and if you were, I would recommend Vissoux. All of the wines seemed ready to go and were all uniformly enjoyable, while some were much better than others.

2009 Domaine du Vissoux Beaujolais Horizontal

'09 Beaujolais
: This is Pierre Chermette's basic bottling. I found this wine to have decent aromatics and was generally fruit forward and fresh on the palate. Darker fruited than I am used to, but that's the vintage. A little clipped and short on the finish however, with a slightly funky aftertaste.

'09 Beaujolais-Village Cuvee Traditionelle VV: One of my favorite non-cru Beaujolais, year in, year out. Much more powerful aromatics that are charged with a hint of freshly ground spices and ripe stems. On the palate, the fruit is restrained by a mineral edge, but nonetheless feels deeper and more complex than the more overtly fruited Beaujolais. Lithe and light on the palate, this wine is the highest toned in this lineup, its red fruit marked by a chalky minerality and earthy spiciness. The wine also gave my chest and throat a slightly warming sensation which, while normally considered a flaw, was actually pleasant.

'09 Beaujolais Coeur de Vendanges: This is a new cuvee from Vissoux that is made from grapes grown on 100 year old vines throughout the Beaujolais region. The densest wine in the lineup (more so than even the Cru wines), it is extremely dark fruited and bruising. You can feel the weight as you drink it, which to me is a bit atypical since Beaujolais, for me, is at its best when it is light on its feet and elegant. Good wine, but a bit strange.

'09 Fleurie Poncie: Lighter than the Coeur de Vendanges, but definitely has the weight and "seriousness" of a cru Beaujolais. Again, dark fruited, but definitely lean and focused with a refreshing acid spine. But, it doesn't have the pronounced mineral edge that I like in cru Beaujolais and just seems a little too overtly fruited. It isn't flabby or jammy in any sense of the word, and has good energy, bu perhaps it is just a little too facile for me. Utterly correct wine, I think most people would enjoy it.

'09 Moulin a Vent Les Trois Roches: Moulin a Vent is considered the cru which produces the longest lived, most serious wines in Beaujolais. Vissoux's '09 Moulin a Vent is very slick and polished. Apparently some of this wine is aged in smaller oak barrels which explains why it seemed so silky on the palate (oak allows the wine to breathe, and with smaller barrels, more of the wine can get exposed to oxygen than in larger vessels). Nonetheless, despite this, the wine was very well balanced and, while having pronounced dark fruit, still had restraint and elegance.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Wines at Dino 5/11/11

[originally posted on Wine Disorder with some additional edits...had to repost because of the Blogger crash]

A group organized by Bob Semon (including Maureen N., Cole K., Cristian D., Jonathan L., Gail G., and others) met at Dino in order to try out some aged Vajra, '96 Barolos, and a smattering of rieslings...including an '01 Donnhoff we all hoped could age. I didn't take notes, so I'm hoping others who attended will chime in. My palate got struck down by the hammer of Bacchus midway through the night (and by some pickled green beans), and wines began to blur a little.


'01 Von Schubert Maximin Grunhaus Abtsberg Spatlese: Not bad, but it had this rather pervasive tart green apple note on the finish that I didn't care for. I brought this bottle home and the next day the apple note disappeared and the wine became rounder, with a smooth, honeyed texture. In hindsight, I think I preferred this on day one since the acidity was more pronounced. Decent value...can get these wines around $25-$35 today.

Actually got better on Day 3. A little more cidery, which is what I like (the honeyed texture and sweetness settling down), but still fresh and zippy fun.

'01 Donnhoff Oberhauser Brucke Spatlese: Beautiful and elegant. A lot more focused than the von Schubert. Everything was in the right place. My favortie white. Seems to be aging well. Definitely forward and fruity, but bracing with a fresh acidity that kept everything balanced. Much better than an '05 Donnhoff Norheimer Kirscheck Spatlese I had several years ago, though I detected a similar peachy/apple flavor profile, which I assume must be a producer signature. Donnhoff makes great wines, but out of my price range now, unfortunately. Wish I knew about this producer when they were $25 (only ten years ago) rather than in the $50-$70 range now.

'00 Vajra Langhe Bianco: A riesling made in an "Austrian" style, it was a little stark upon opening, especially after the Spatleses. Dry, mineral goodness. But, at the end of the night, opened up and a pronounced fruit flavor (peaches and apple...something I always pick up in good riesling) helped buffer some of the stark dryness. $35-$45 for recent vintages.

Token Red Jura:

'08 Gahier Trousseau Grand Vergers: Funky, weird, and interesting. Seemed almost screechingly acidic to me, but I don't have the most disorderly of palates. I liked, but didn't have a lot. Needs food. $25-$30.

Vajra Lineup:

G.D. Vajra is a Piedmontese producer that makes a wide variety of wines from native grapes. Their entry level wine, their Langhe Rosso, is a blend of several Piedmontese grape varieties, including nebbiolo, barbera, and dolcetto, with a little bit of pinot noir and freisa (around $15). They also make a Langhe Nebbiolo, 100% nebbiolo, that can be had in the $20 range and an entry level Barolo Albe that can be bought between $30-$40. All of these wines I had Wednesday night from Vajra (that weren't corked) were marked by elegance and balance. Nothing overtly fruity or jammy about any of these wines...great with food and a pleasure to drink on their own.

'00 Dolcetto d'Alba Coste & Fossati: Tasty. Well worth the tariff. ($20-$25 today).

'00 Barbera d'Asti Superiore: Showed very well. Elegant. Seemed like WOTN for
most people (not me, though I liked it a lot). Others claimed it declined by the end of the night, which isn't too surprising because of its age.

'07 Barbera d'Asti Superiore: I actually preferred the younger Barbera. I was in the minority, I think. Good structure and not as resolved as the '00 Barbera. I guess I must like my barbera on the younger side. These wines are $30 plus today.

'96 Kye: Corked. Bummer.

'06 Kye: Tannic and rustic. I liked this a lot. Reminded me of nebbiolo, which isn't surprising since freisa (the grape variety used in this wine) is a cousin of nebbiolo (the grape variety used for Barolo and Barbaresco). Too bad the '96 was corked. It would have been interesting to taste firsthand whether freisa nebbiolizes (that is pick up characteristics usually associated with nebbiolo). Expensive ($40-$50 today).

Token Red Burgundy:

'99 R. Chevillon Nuits-St. Georges Les Cailles: Seemed a little off. People were debating whether this wine was corked (we decided it was not). A little clipped on the finish. Maybe just awkward and young? It opened up later in the night. Probably needs to slumber. Chevillon Les Cailles now costs around $80-$120, depending on the vintage.

'96 Barolos:

Barolo wines, made out of nebbiolo, a grape variety that produces light colored, aromatic wines high in acid and tannins, is considered the "king" of Italian wines. "Barolos" can be made in several villages in the Piedmont, the five most important being (from northwest to southeast) La Morra, Barolo, Castiglione Falleto, Monforte d'Alba, and Serralunga d'Alba. Generally speaking, the further west and north you go, the more forward, lighter, and "feminine" the wines become. Thus, Barolos from Barolo and La Morra tend to be silky, high-toned, red fruited wines with the least amount of tannins and acids among the five major Barolo-producing villages. On the other hand, the further east and south you go, the more structured, tannic, acidic, and "masculine" the wines become. Thus, wines from Monforte d'Alba and Serralunga d'Alba tend to be darker fruited, bitterer, tarter, heavier, and more brooding. Castiglione Falleto, a village in between these two areas, are wines that are said to share both traits.

A consideration that is as important as the location where the grapes are grown (i.e., the terroir), is whether the producer is a "traditionalist" or a "modernist." Traditionalists macerate the juice from the crushed grapes on the skins during fermentation for a longer period of time than modernists (generally from 20-30 days if not longer) while modernists have shorter maceration times (7-15 days). The longer the juice macerate on the skins, the more tannin and acids leach into the juice, creating a bitterer and tarter wine that can age longer. Modernists are also more likely to use temperature controls when fermenting, and oftentimes intentionally start malolactic fermentation, which converts sharp malic acids (acids found in apples) into softer, lactic acids (the acid found in milk), making the wines creamier and less tart. Another consideration is whether the producer uses additional "modernist" techniques, such as a roto-fermentors (that is a fermentation vessel that rotates, which speeds up the maceration process, but arguably produces facile, fruitier wines that are less interesting), micro-oxygenation (a process that introduces oxygen to the wine in small doses to make them softer and fruitier), and reverse osmosis (a process to reduce alcohol content, necessary to balance overripe grapes that have too much sugar). The final consideration is the "elevage" vessels used to age the fermented wine before bottling. Traditionalists age their wines in large "botti," ranging from 3000-5000 liters in size made out of neutral, used oak (either Slavonian or French oak, though Slavonian is considered more traditional). Modernists tend to use smaller "barriques," that are around 225 liters in size, made out of new French oak (the same barrels used in Burgundy and Bordeaux). When wine is stored in these "barriques," they tend to age faster, become softer, less tannic, less acidic, and fruitier because the pores in the oak allows oxygen to come into contact with the wine. Also, new French oak tends to confer "woody" and "toasty" aroma to the wines and sometimes even a "vanilla" or "toast" flavor. Generally, even modernists are moving away from barrique, using larger vessels (500-1500 liters) and using fewer new oak barrels during elevage.

Basically, a traditionalist wine is considered a vin de garde, that is a wine meant to be cellared for years if not decades. Traditionalist wines tend to be structured, tannic, acidic, and fruity. Modernist wines, which can be and should be drunk much younger, are fruitier and less bitter and tart, but arguably less distinctive as well. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. I've actually enjoyed a modernist Barolo recently from a recent vintage. But, as a friend of mine told me recently after tasting several modernist wines, he thought he was drinking "red wine" and not "Barolo," with none of them conveying the distinctive terroir stamp and varietal characteristics one would expect from wines from Barolo.

The wines below are all traditionalist wines from the 1996 vintage. 1996 is considered one of the best vintages in the Piedmont in the past 30 years. With global warming, Piedmontese wines have become generally fruitier and less tannic and acidic in the past 15 years, making them more accessible, but less cerebral. 1996 is considered the last truly "classic" Piedmontese vintage, characterized by good fruit and aromatics balanced with pronounced acidity and tannins (i.e., structure). However, because of its structure, these wines need a lot of time so the tannins can resolve (i.e., become less bitter) and acidity less pronounced. Right now, these wines all showed young, and in my opinion, a little shut down. I would check back in 2016.

'96 Brezza Barolo Castellero. The most forward of the Barolos with this interesting ashy component. But still plenty tannic. Obviously very young. No need to hurry. Castellero is a vineyard located in the village of Barolo, which probably explains why the wine was as forward as it was. Brezza range from $30-$50, which is a good value for Barolo.

'96 Cappellano Barolo Gabutti Otin Fiorin Franco: Tannins, tannins everywhere, and all the boreds did shrink. Tannins, tannins everywhere, nor any drop to drink. Kidding. I actually liked this quite a bit even if it is a mouthful of drying tannins. But nothing that a little T-I-M-E won't cure. Gabutti is a vineyard located in Serralunga d'Alba, which accounts for the dense tannin content in this wine. This wine will be a monster when it finally resolves. I just wish I had some in my cellar. The Gabutti "Franco" is around $120 for recent vintages. The grafted vines version probably $70+.

Another interesting factor is that Gabutti is a sandy vineyard. This is important because this particular wine comes from grapes grown on ungrafted vines. 99% of the grapes in the world are grown on vines grafted on rootstuck from grape species that evolved in North America. This is because a louse known as phylloxera, indigenous to the Americas, devours rootstock from grapevines native to Europe (that is all grape vines that produces wine). During the 19th Century, phylloxera destroyed most of the vineyards in Europe, and these were later replanted with vines grafted onto phylloxera resistant, American rootstocks. While this solved the phylloxera problem, it also arguably changed the flavors of the grapes. The Cappellano grapes from this particular wine, because it is grown on soils that are inhospitable to phylloxera, are from ungrafted vines. Cappellano also makes a wine from grafted wines from this vineyard as well, which I am now eager to one day try out.

'96 Vajra Barolo Bricco delle Viole: Elegant (noticing this to be a typical Vajra characteristic). Obviously, still young and could use more time. But still, lovely. Bricco delle Viole is from the village of Barolo and is located at an altitude of 450 meters, which is considered high. The high altitude (and thus cooler climate that is nonetheless well exposed to sunlight) probably accounts for the wines elegance and focus. This wine is around $70-$90 for recent vintages.

Dessert Wines:

'06 Vajra Moscato d'Asti: Bright, fresh, and vibrant (to me). Effervescent and refreshing. Probably around $18-$20.

'89 Roberto Anselmi Recioto di Soave I Capitelli: Unctuous and syrupy. Someone compared it to butterscotch. Not cloying or saccharine at all and it was interesting. BUT, I don't think I'm much of a dessert wine person, so I can't really judge it on its merits.

Arneis Dessert Wine (Forgot the vintage and producer): Similar to the Soave (unctuous, sweet, and intense). Well made. Not cloying, but the texture got to me. But, like I said, I'm not a dessert wine guy usually, so I can't judge. $40 for a half bottle, not available in the U.S. (Hand imported, as we say).

In Sum:

Great wines. Even better company. '96 Barolos need more time (surprise, surprise). Vajra ages well except when corked. Donnhoff seems to handle age (at least up to age 10). And softshell crabs are tops.