30 March 2008

Benito vs. the Kiwano Melon

This Kiwano Melon retailed for $3. I'd always wondered what these weird spiky fruit tasted like, so I bought one and cracked it open. Inside you've got a mass of green snot filled with seeds. It tastes somewhere between a cucumber and a honeydew melon without the crisp structure of either. I've seen these things in grocery stores most of my life, and always wondered what they tasted like. Now I know that they're mostly decorative in use. I imagine that they're a real pain in the ass to harvest as well.

28 March 2008

Dinner in Cincinnati

While on a business trip to Cincinnati, I picked up a bottle of Paul Newman's Cab Sav at Kroger (the wine was not spectacular but definitely drinkable). When I do this, it's not just to have a relaxing beverage in the hotel after work, but I also experience this weird thrill when I walk into a grocery store and see bottles of wine for sale. I chose this for its novelty value and the fact that I genuinely like his balsamic vinaigrette salad dressing and his jars of spaghetti sauce. Yes, I'll admit that sometimes I don't have time to build a good tomato sauce from imported canned organic tomatoes and free-range basil harvested by vegan hippies in the moonlight.

Looking for a good place to eat on the north side of town, I discovered La Petite France. They've got a prix fixe option for three or four courses. Based on the fact that everything on the menu looked good and my server was actually from France, I closed the menu and told her to pick three things for me, either her choice or the chef's. She was a bit confused and tried to wheedle some more details from me, like, "What are you in the mood for tonight?"

"I'm in the mood for a surprise!" She didn't believe me, perhaps concerned that I would send back the dishes. I successfully assured her by saying, "C'est vrai, madame!"

They had a great wine list, but since I was alone I was restricted to their small by-the-glass options. So I got Crevettes Sauce Boursin, shrimp in a cream sauce with corn and sundried tomatoes. I had this with a basic white Burgundy. Next up was Magret de Canard Sauce Figues, duck breast with a Port/fig sauce served over rice and a little warm bacon salad on the side. Little house red Pinot Noir to go with that. Rounding things out, some amazing Mousse au Chocolat that was rich and earthy.

While this style of dining requires an adventurous palate and an accommodating restaurant, I highly recommend it. I got to sit back and read the paper between courses with honest curiosity about what would come out next.

26 March 2008

NV Biltmore Estate Chardonnay Sur Lies

I was intrigued to see a Southern wine at the store the other day. While nosing around the aisles of the shop next to Costco near Collierville, I found the NV Biltmore Estate Chardonnay Sur Lies, from the famous Vanderbilt manse in Asheville, North Carolina. $12, 13% abv. The name refers to aging on (sur: Fr., on top of) the wine sediments (lies: Fr., "lees" or "mud" in English, referring to the bits of yeast and grapes), though I'm sure that someone has felt that this wine "surely tells falsehoods" or that it's the plural of "surly".

The wine has a very mild, slightly fruity nose that belies a Chard with strong acidity and fun flavors of melon and pineapple. Completely dry and a total surprise given the area of origin. The amazing acidity really makes me want to try their sparkling wines.

I served it with some teriyaki-marinated salmon, steamed Asian vegetables, and white rice. I gave it all a good squirt of Sriracha sauce, and I found that the heat and spice paired perfectly with the acidity of the wine. (As always, I did try the wine before assaulting my palate with red peppers.) This hot sauce is deliciously hot and slightly sweet, and it's a staple item at Vietnamese restaurants throughout the country. I fell in love with it at Pho Saigon on Poplar, where I like to use it to boost the flavor of phở tái gầu.

Unlike most hot sauces it's as thick as ketchup, so you end up using it a little differently. I've thrown it on everything from fresh vegetables to eggs to steak with good results, though over in California it's a popular condiment for pizza. It's amazing that a processed, bottled product has such a fresh red jalapeño flavor.

24 March 2008

Pastis Henri Bardouin

The Beauty Shop is a restaurant in Cooper-Young built in a former hair salon. Much has been written about the creative accoutrements such as the old hairwashing sinks (still in use for more restaurant-appropriate purposes). I was there having a late brunch at the bar and reading the paper when I spied something interesting up on the wall. It was a bottle of Pastis Henri Bardouin, and although it was a bit early in the day I couldn't pass up the opportunity to try it.

As a big fan of the Peter Mayle books set in Provence, I always wondered what pastis tasted like. The characters in his memoirs and novels seem to go through gallons of the stuff. I just finished re-reading A Year in Provence and Toujours Provence for the dozenth time and the curiosity was fresh in my mind.

Golden yellow color, a bit strong at first but it warms you up and finishes smooth. The aroma is beautiful, full of fennel and aromatic spices. As with some other anise-flavored liqueurs out there, you really have to like licorice to be able to drink this. Here's some more info on the 50 ingredients that go into this pastis.

One website describes it in part as "...stimulating the palate without anesthetizing it". And while my palate was fine, my feet were starting to get numb and I didn't finish the rather generous portion. Developed as a legal alternative after absinthe was banned, it's normally diluted with water or ice to make a lighter, more refreshing beverage.

21 March 2008

Anchor Brewing Co. Liberty Ale

In 1873 there were 4,131 breweries in the U.S. By 1983, the number had dropped to 80, and those were controlled by only 50 companies. Now we're up to over 1,500 and more are being founded every day. For that we have two people to thank: Jimmy Carter, who signed the legislation allowing homebrewing in 1979 and Fritz Maytag, who resurrected the Anchor Brewing Company in 1965 and helped give birth to the microbrew phenomenon in the late 70s and early 80s. If you're interested in learning more about this craft brewing trend, I can recommend the 2004 documentary American Beer which features interviews with Maytag and many other small brewers throughout the nation. Please don't drink Coors or Budweiser while watching it.

The Anchor Brewing Co. Liberty Ale from San Francisco is based on a recipe first introduced in 1975 and meant to commemorate the bicentennial of Paul Revere's ride. It's a full flavored beer with a decent hoppiness. More bitter than you may be used to, but not close to an India Pale Ale. When I picked it up at Fresh Market, I happened to notice that the escargot had returned to the seafood case. A half dozen snails, a bit of crusty bread, and a great beer: perfect afternoon snack.

Maytag also runs the dairy that produces the acclaimed Maytag Blue cheese. This cow's milk cheese has a wonderful, creamy texture and a rich, sharp flavor that rivals many French bleus. It works well in salads, on top of steak, or simply on its own with Port after dinner. Although it's still an artisanal cheese, it's becoming a little easier to find in formats such as the little wedge pictured.

Fritz Maytag has also gotten involved in the wine business through York Creek Vineyards. I couldn't locate one of these wines, but his commitment to small-batch, high quality production means that I'm really looking forward to trying his wine in the future.

19 March 2008

Two Degrees of Beef

One of the best dishes over at River Oaks is their 3° of Kobe Beef: braised short ribs, roasted tenderloin, and smoked flank steak, along with some really incredible side dishes for each. If you decide to go there for dinner, I'd strongly recommend this along with skipping lunch in preparation.

When The Girlfriend requested an iron-rich meal, I initially considered a variation on the three degrees, something involving good steak, brisket, and oxtails. While I may try this in the future, I quickly realized that it would be a lot of cow for two people. I scaled it down a bit and while perusing the meat aisle found a small London Broil and two 6 oz. tenderloin steaks. Perfect.

I braised the London Broil in a savory broth for four hours at 200°, and the tenderloin was seared in a cast iron skillet and then finished in the oven. While that was going on, I made a reduction sauce with a bit of the juices from the London Broil and three blood oranges; this went on top of the tenderloin. I steamed white asparagus until tender and wrapped the stalks with prosciutto. Not pictured: steamed artichokes consumed scale-by-scale with homemade mayo. Gratuitously pictured: new elongated white rectangular plates.

This meal begged for a Claret and the 2004 Moon Mountain didn't disappoint. From Sonoma County, this wine is comprised of 77% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Franc, and 3% Petite Verdot. A steal at $17. It's got rich herbal and spice aromas, and those continue on the palate along with a bright cherry note that lasts for a while. Exceptionally well balanced and an ideal match for a good beef-based dinner.

17 March 2008

2004 Maddalena Cabernet Sauvignon

Take a look at the 2004 Maddalena Cabernet Sauvignon from Paso Robles, California. $14, 14% abv. Black cherry aromas with a hint of tea, full black cherry flavors and medium tannins. It's surprisingly balanced and enjoyable for a cab sav at its price point.

I served it with a meal of braised beef short ribs and pasta, which was a perfect winter meal a month ago when it still felt like winter here in Memphis. I love short ribs, particularly when they've been braising in wine and tomato sauce and garlic for several hours. Just skim off the fat to keep them from being overly greasy, and you're good to go. Some folks like to serve them with potatoes or gnocchi, but I like them with broad flat egg noodles.

I base the following opinion not on any direct experience, but rather indirectly from the wines I've tried: if nothing else mattered and I could just walk away today from all my existing commitments, I think I'd like to work in the wine industry in Paso Robles. Napa kind of scares me. High prices in real estate and high expectations with the wine, combined with the dominance of Burgundy grapes and strict rules seems a bit stressful. Paso Robles looks like the kind of place where you could say, "Hey, let's try a blend of Petite Sirah and Marsanne" and folks would say, "Cool, let's check it out!" Given my weird tastes and the 45 varietals grown in the area, it just seems the perfect home for an adventurous palate.

14 March 2008

2005 Big Guy Red Wine

John at Wolfchase Wine & Spirits carries a lot of the Bell wines and I'm slowly working my way through them. One that breaks the standard design is the 2005 Big Guy Red Wine from Bell Wine Cellars in California. The fruit here was sourced from Napa and the Sierra Foothills, and is made up of 35% Merlot, 31% Syrah, 17% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Cabernet Franc, 6% Malbec, and 4% Petite Verdot. $20, 14.6% abv, only 521 cases made. According to the fact sheet, the dog pictured on the label is Ty, a Soft-Coasted Wheaten Terrier whose nickname is Big Guy. I chose to photograph it next to Mac, The Roommate's Labrador. Mac recently recovered from a serious illness (note the shaved shoulder, where a bone marrow biopsy was taken), and while he has no interest in wine whatsoever, a dab of peanut butter on the back of a bottle can get him involved pretty quickly.

The wine's a good casual Claret with a big chunk of Syrah in it. It's got a nose of plum, with hints of tobacco and a little green bell pepper. On the tongue it's lush and rich, with strong tannins. Should age well for a couple more years, though when eaten with the recommended grilled meats it drinks well now. I decided to fire up the Weber for the first time this year and enjoy a little flame-kissed ribeye. A little chickpea salad on the side and I was set.

12 March 2008

Breakfast for Dinner

The Girlfriend requested breakfast for dinner, and I was all too happy to oblige. Specifically, she was looking for a sort of Greek omelet: spinach, lamb, and goat cheese, but she wanted something other than spinach. I love these kind of challenges, so here's the menu I created.

First off, let's look at spinach alternatives. While here in the South there are plenty of greens available, I generally substitute rapini (broccoli raab) or Swiss chard. I settled on the latter this time. Now, if you've never purchased this relative of the beet, it can look a little odd at the store. The stalks and veins are white, yellow, pink, and red, and the leaves are often wilted and droopy. I've never had problems in the past, but this time I decided to cut a half inch off the bottom of the stalks and allow capillary action to soak up some water while the leaves sat in a glass. The next morning the chard leaves were all standing at attention, but since the standard method of cooking involves getting rid of as much water as possible, I realized that I hadn't really accomplished anything.

When prepared as a side dish, I chop the stems, sautée them until soft, and then add the chopped leaves and cook those until wilted. Here I just used the leaves, wilted in a small bit of oil. A huge bunch of leaves condenses down to a very small final product--keep that in mind.

For a wine, I decided on an Italian Prosecco. The NV Cantine Maschio Prosecco Brut is a crisp, dry sparkling wine that has a nice touch of acidity but isn't overwhelming. The Girlfriend mixed hers with some orange juice for a little mimosa action. I demurred from the cocktail, but at $12 this wine would be great for brunch or bellinis or even fried chicken/BBQ: two of my favorite foods with sparkling wine. I find that generally if you can't figure out a good match for something, a sparkler or a rosé often works well.

Since I didn't have any leftover roast leg of lamb on hand, I instead chose to trim the bones off a rack of lamb and roast it. The bones and attached meat were roasted in the oven and then simmered with organic chicken stock for a few hours to create a little easy lamb stock, which after cooling went into the freezer for future use. The resulting log of meat looked much like a pork tenderloin. I dusted it with some sea salt and fresh ground pepper and then seared the little ribeye roast in a stainless steel skillet. After it was nicely browned, I threw it into a 350° oven until it reached a medium-rare internal temp of 135°. Then a rest period, followed by slicing the roast into little half-inch steaks. The end result combines the delicious flavor of lamb with the look and texture of prime rib.

Lamb ribeyes aren't an original idea; aside from having it at the Brooks recently, there's a good recipe on the Stags Leap website. On the side I made some sweet potato hash browns, and freshly sliced cantaloupe was also provided. As for the overall meal, it was a nice variation on the old steak and egg special at Waffle House. The lamb ribeyes were delicious and so easy that I can see using them for appetizers and other purposes. The omelet was one of the best I've ever had, and the sweet potatoes provided a nice touch of sweetness and less starch than your standard white potatoes.

10 March 2008

2006 Ortman Cuvée Eddy

I've somehow managed to go two weeks without a wine review. Don't know how that happened, but this week should be all wine-related.

I picked this up based on a recommendation from a friend. The 2006 Ortman Cuvée Eddy is from San Luis Obispo in California (the beloved Paso Robles area). $21, 14.7% abv. 44% Syrah, 30% Grenache, 9% Mourvedre, 15% Petite Sirah, 2% Viognier. Which means that this is something like a GSM/CDR/CDP/Cote Rotie hybrid. Let's just say it combines the best of Southern France with the experimental enthusiasm of Southern California. On the nose it's a blackberry explosion, jammy and full-bodied. On the mouth there are firm tannins, a bit of a chocolate flavor, and great deep berries. Overall this is an excellent wine, and went down well with a ribeye and some green beans.

The name comes from the eddies or swirls that form in a river, and are reflected in the spiral O in the name of the winery. Which leads me to...

Typography time at Benito's Wine Reviews! The winery logo is set in the font family Shelley, which uses the same lowercase letters among its three variants. Shelley is a notoriously popular wine label font and can be found on wines from all over the planet. The O in Ortman is set in Shelley Andante, while the F & V are set in Shelley Allegro. Tricky, but an acceptable design choice given the caps involved. Kudos to the bit of integration with the V and i in Vineyards. It's always nice to see that someone didn't just slap something together in Microsoft Word and send it off to the printer.

07 March 2008

Scottish Tea Towel

Someone e-mailed to ask about the beige rectangle on the wall behind some of my photos. It's a Scottish tea towel that a friend gave me over a decade ago. I've hung it up in the various kitchens I've used over the years. Here's the text and translations from the Scots dialect:


May the best you've ever seen
Be the worst you'll ever see;

Think about the best time of your life, and I hope that things in the future never get worse than that.

May the mouse ne'er leave your girnal
Wi' a tear drap in its e'e;

Literally "I don't want mice to leave your pantry sad because there's no food". Basically I hope your pantry is always full.

May your lum keep blithely reekin'
Till ye're old enough to dee;

I hope that your chimney keeps smoking for the rest of your life, or that you're always successful enough to heat your own home.

May you aye be just as happy
As I wish you now to be!

I hope you're always as happy as I want you to be right now.

05 March 2008


A bit of news: you'll notice the ads to the left. I was invited to become part of the Forbes Business and Financial Blog Network. It hasn't quite launched yet, but I went ahead and set it up on the site. I was never in this thing for the money, but whatever I do make will be funneled back into new and exciting wine and food to write about.

My friends and family have been quite supportive in reading this blog, and so it's time to share some of the love. So with a tumbler of Bourbon and Coke at hand, let me direct you to a few of their websites.

First I've got to send a quick merci across the pond. I'm quite honored to be #34 in the wine blog listing of Mlle. Estelle Platini. This lovely young woman is not only a sommelier in Marseille but has also come up with a mathematically delightful ranking method for wine blogs. Check out her blog, there's a lot of good stuff there, and she definitely breaks the stereotype of the old, grouchy French sommelier.

Moving away from the world of wine, let's look at family. My Dad's cousin Nancy designs children's clothes and writes musings about life in California. Due to the fact that she spent a large portion of her life in Germany and married a German man, you'll see posts in two languages. Fear not, the German parts mostly repeat the English sections. You're on your own with the comments, Außländer.

My cousin Kyle Jones works in the digital design realm, creating fonts, websites, and animation. I was particularly fond of his entry in the New Yorker cover contest, which solicited unique interpretations of mascot Eustace Tilley. Kyle's was created using only the Edwardian Script font, and I've been fortunate to see it in person. When I checked in with him, he suggested that you all might enjoy his parody ad for Raw: The Meat Flavored Energy Drink.

On to the friends... Sally and Terry are friends of mine who work in video production. Based out of Nashville, their video work takes them all over the country. In her spare time, Sally crochets and engages in other textile-based pursuits. They're the ones who hooked me up with tickets to the Tennessee Wine Festival a few years ago, and I'm always glad when they come to town.

And of course, my good friend and "brother from another mother" Paul Jones, who between his work as an internationally-renowned PHP programmer, taking care of four dogs, and getting engaged, still lets me use his house for dinner parties.

03 March 2008

Coffee Time

Saturday I popped in at Wild Oats on Poplar to attend the Slow Food Memphis presentation about coffee given by the guys from Ugly Mug Coffee Co. Lots of great info about organic and fair trade coffee, and the slower, better tasting processes that produce great coffee.

I don't drink coffee every day, but I do enjoy it especially when it's decent stuff. Ugly Mug produces many delicious brews and I'm anxious to try all of them.

I found out about the event from the Squirrels and was glad to see them there. Additionally I got to meet the writer behind the More Deliberate Every Day blog. I've been reading that for months and never got around to putting it in my blogroll. That has been rectified! I got to meet a few other readers of this blog, and was surprised to see it mentioned in the latest issue of Edible Memphis.

I'm glad that I finally got some business cards printed, as I got the opportunity to meet new and interesting people with a love of good food at this event. In my previous life as a graphic designer, I probably did layouts for two thousand different cards. Don't know why I waited so long to make some for myself: "The cobbler's children have no shoes", I suppose.

I pulled out my French press and tried Ugly Mug's Ethiopian coffee at home. The benefit of using a French Press or a gold filter instead of paper is that you get a colloidal suspension of the oils within the coffee and thus a richer flavor. This one is light and mild, while still having a great flavor to it. Nice little touch of acidity. The best part, and what distinguishes great coffee from a mere caffeine delivery system, is that an hour later you can still slightly taste the coffee but don't want to brush your teeth because it still tastes great. There's a creamier mouthfeel and more pleasant drinking experience when those oils are kept in the beverage.