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Maison Lucien Le Moine Lunch

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Corton Bressandes Grand Cru Label

On Tuesday the 23rd, my colleague Alan and I had the pleasure of attending a special lunch at Rouge Tomate, hosted by co-founder of Maison Lucien Le Moine, Mounir Saouma. Lucien Le Moine is a boutique winemaking house in Beaune owned and operated by Mounir and his wife, Rotem Brakin. Relatively new to Burgundy (their first vintage was released in 1999) the couple’s reputation for exceptional wines has grown fast.  The winery is focused exclusively on producing grands and premiers crus from the very best growers in the region using traditional winemaking methods.

Le Moine is the epitome of artisanal craftsmanship in wine.  The couple does everything in the winemaking process by hand, from carefully timed battonage (hand-stirring of the lees) all the way through to bottling, which is also meticulously timed and always takes place after a full moon for the benefits of ideal atmospheric pressure.  From the beginning, Mounir and Rotem have selected grapes from only the best vineyards and growers, crafting their wine in precious small batches.  They produce only between one and three barrels per Cru (that’s a very limited 25 to 75 cases).  Keeping production this low means that the wines must be crafted with the utmost care throughout the entire winemaking process.

The small group attending the lunch had the pleasure and good fortune of tasting ten selections from Le Moine’s 2006 vintage while listening to Mounir’s passionate discourse.  The red and white Burgundies that we tasted displayed the greatness of Maison Lucien Le Moine, giving the category of négociant wine a whole new connotation.

We tasted the wines listed below in order of appearance, all of which hail from Burgundy’s challenging 2006 vintage.  The wines were opened at 9am, three hours prior to the lunch, and double decanted.  Mounir emphatically recommended double decanting all Lucien Le Moine wines.  Le Moine’s wines undergo a lengthy malolactic fermentation, the byproduct of which is carbon dioxide (CO2); the naturally occurring CO2 gives Mounir the option to use little sulphur dioxide (SO2), but the wines can end up with residual CO2 after bottling, hence the importance of double decanting.  Mounir compared SO2 to a veil of make-up, dressing the wine up to make it attractive early on, but altering the wine’s true character.  Mounir fervently opposes the popular credo in winemaking that SO2 is essential to making age-worthy wines and disagrees with its use for preventing oxidation.

The line-up…

Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru Morgeot

Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru Les Embrazees

Puligny Montrachet Les Enseigneres*

Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Champs Gain*

Pommard 1er Cru Rugiens*

Pommard 1er Cru Les Epenots

Corton Bressandes Grand Cru

Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru Combe Aux Moines*

Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru Estournelles-St-Jacques

Charmes Chambertin Grand Cru*

*Our Favorites

Before establishing Maison Lucien Le Moine, Mounir studied viticulture and oenology, and then went on to work in wineries in both Burgundy and California. Rotem comes from a family of cheese makers and studied Agriculture extensively, with a focus on wine. She had worked in both Burgundy and California before establishing Maison Lucien Le Moine with Mounir.  Mounir and Rotem were initially drawn to Burgundy by their infatuation with the native varietals, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but the couple soon fell in love with the unique and distinctive terroirs within the Côte d’Or.  Mounir expounded on the terroirs of each wine that we tasted and the character that is imparted by various soil types, such as the clay soils of Charmes and the resultant tannic concentration and minerality.

All of Maison Lucien Le Moine’s wines are aged in custom-made barrels, sourcing the fine oak from the Jupilles forest.  The barrels are customized for each vineyard, and even for the different vintages.  All of their wines, both reds and whites, are aged on 100% of their lees and are gently stirred three or four times per month.  The ageing on lees and stirring imparts the wines with impeccable balance and great complexity.  The wines are bottled without being fined or filtered, which preserves the extraordinary character and unique quality of these wines.

Mounir’s candor and insights surrounding the region of Burgundy, the winemaking process and the industry as a whole, were captivating.  As I mentioned earlier, Mounir was insistent on the importance of decanting Le Moine’s wines and recommended opening a bottle and enjoying that one bottle over the course of eight hours for the full tasting experience.  He excitedly explained how the wine changes and evolves as it is exposed to oxygen over longer periods and how fascinating this whole experience is for a wine lover.   Mounir emphasized the ultimate goal for wine consumers, which is the enjoyment of what is in your glass.  Finally, this memorable event was concluded with Mounir’s recommendation against trying to dig too deep and to look for an explanation for everything that is happening in the wine.  Just keep it simple and enjoy the wine!  An excellent piece of advice, albeit easier said than done for many of us.

The Name Lucien Le Moine stems from two references: “Mounir” means light in Lebanese and “Lucien” is the equivalent in French.  Mounir’s winemaking career began at a Trappist Monastery, where he learned about Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  “Le Moine” translates to “the monk”, and is a reference to Mounir’s experience at the monastery.

Steven Tanzer Reviews:

2006 Lucien Le Moine Chassagne-Montrachet Morgeot Reticent but very ripe, spicy nose. Rich, fat and exotic, with honey and spice flavors and a distinctly glyceral texture that called to mind a late-harvest wine featuring some noble rot. Finishes plump and long. 89-90 points

2006 Pommard 1er Cru Les Epenots Good deep red. Restrained, complex nose combines dark fruits, licorice, botanical herbs and subtle woodsmoke. Supple and broad but light on its feet, offering considerable early sex appeal to its flavors of dark cherry, minerals and oak spices. Has plenty of mid-palate fat to support its dusty tannins. Finishes with good grip and structure, and subtle lingering perfume. 90 points

2006 Lucien Le Moine Corton Bressandes Medium red. Musky, wild aromas of red fruits and smoked ham. Sweet, supple and meaty, with a slightly medicinal cast to its fruit but also a sensual texture given shape and lift by ripe acids. A classy Corton, not at all a brutal style. Finishes with slightly dry but fine tannins. 89-91 points

2006 Charmes Chambertin Grand Cru Good full red. Brooding aromas of dark berries, licorice and violet. Big, rich and sweet but a bit youthfully simple, with a wild aspect to the black raspberry and floral flavors. The saline, savory finish communicates a strong impression of soil. This needs a few years of aging to express its full personality. 91(+?) points

David Schildknecht, The Wine Advocate:

2006 Maison Lucien le Moine Pommard les Rugiens The Le Moine 2006 Pommard Rugiens is scented with lightly-cooked cherry and strawberry; comes to the palate quite broad, rich, and caressing in texture, with smoky pungency typically associated with this site and the ferrous soil for which it is named; and finishes with sweet, smoke-tinged fruit, though in a soft, slightly diffuse, low key manner. I would expect it to be at its best already within 3-4 years. 89 points

Lunch Venue Rouge Tomate, 10 East 60th Street, New York, NY
Emmanuel Verstraeten’s Michelin starred restaurant
Executive Chef Jeremy Bearman

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Dining with Domaine Drouhin

Upstairs at '21' Private Dining Room where our Drouhin Dinner took place

For those of you who were unable to attend our Domaine Joseph Drouhin wine dinner at the ‘21’ Club on June 26th, don’t worry, I am here to give you the scoop. I’ll take you through the journey of delicious courses created by executive chef John Greeley and a mouthwatering array of nine wines produced by Domaine Joseph Drouhin. Just a heads up, I highly recommend reading this with a glass of wine in hand.

Our Drouhin dinner took place in the private dining room on the second floor of the ‘21’ Club, strategically named Upstairs at ‘21’. As guests began to trickle in, the pleasantly chilled 2009 Drouhin Vaudon Chablis was offered, a delightful pair for the various passed hors d’oeuvres, including a fresh lobster salad in a beautiful cone cracker, delicate smoked salmon toasts, and mini burger bites.

As our final guests arrived, we were seated at our tables, each placement adorned with the proper fine dining utensils and an overwhelming set of eight wine glasses, begging to be filled.  Before our first course was served, we were greeted by our host, Laurent Drouhin, great grandson of the founder Joseph Drouhin, and one of four children at the helm of the estate. As the first wines were served, we had the privilege of receiving a mini lesson by Laurent on the Burgundy region, appellations, grape varieties, and of course, a little background on Domaine Joseph Drouhin. If only all classrooms were this way!

Our first two wines were the 2009 Meursault and 2009 Puligny-Montrachet, two delightful village Chardonnays which were paired perfectly with the fresh soft shell crab dish showcasing tender baby artichokes, cherry tomatoes and an herb-basil pesto. Both wines were crisp, with the Meursault expressing more yellow stone fruits, citrus and florals on the palate and the Puligny-Montrachet with slightly less sweetness and more spiced pear notes, lemon and minerality tones.

Next on the menu was lightly seared tuna with grilled prawns in a wasabi pea purée which accompanied the 2009 Chassagne-Montrachet Marquis de Laguiche and 2009 Beaune Clos des Mouches Blanc. At this point in the dinner, monsieur Drouhin stood up to explain the two wines and this routine ensued throughout the rest of the evening. The Marquis de Laguiche was packed with different rich and round flavors spanning hazelnuts, ripe fruit and creamy butter. Similarly, the Clos de Mouche Blanc portrayed a blend of flavors, but with a different flavor profile, revealing a swirl of stone fruits, and firm acid and minerality that danced on the palate.

The amusement of our taste buds continued with the third course, a scrumptious pork dish lying lazily on a bed of red rice drizzled in the pork’s jus. It was a comforting dish with a genial medley of flavors, but none too overwhelming or overpowering.  Along with the pork dish, we made the transition to Drouhin’s Pinot Noir selections and said farewell to our Chardonnay glasses, though many of us chose to keep them at our place settings to revisit as the wines continued to evolve. Our two picks for this dish were the 2009 Chambolle-Musigny and the 2008 Gevrey-Chambertin. This is where I found my personal piece de résistance, the Chambolle-Musigny. It was the perfect match with the pork, intertwining its balanced tannins, and subtle cherry and candied fruit flavors perfectly with the tender meat. The 2008 Gevrey-Chambertin was also dressed to impress, showcasing a velvety texture also with balanced tannins and more peppery and spicy flavors.

Despite my elation from the food and wine endorphins, a slight sadness settled over me as I realized that we were reaching the final course of the meal. The four selections of cheeses were accompanied by the last two Drouhin Pinot Noirs: the 2009 Volnay Clos des Chênes and the 2008 Beaune Clos des Mouches Rouge, each sporting red fruit aromas, but with the Volnay Clos des Chênes showcasing refined tannins with plums and floral fruity flavors that lingered on the finish, and the Clos des Mouches Rouge portraying an earthy and firm body with tart rhubarb, some spice, as well as sweet and silky fruit.

The amazing combination of exquisite wines and gourmet dishes in an atmosphere both informative and relaxing was utterly mind-blowing, and an experience to remember. Now if you’re feeling hungry, I apologize for exciting your salivary glands, but if I have portrayed the slightest notion of this delectable dinner to you, I am satisfied. If you feel that this is the kind of event and experience that you don’t want to miss out on, we host a number of events every year that you can choose from. We have several great dinners lined up in the fall, our next one on the list being the Chateau Palmer Dinner at Aureole in September. Stay posted for more events to come!

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An Evening with Mark Gaier & Clark Frasier

From Left: Clark Frasier & Mark Gaier showcasing one of their amazing culinary creations!

On December 7th 2011, I had the pleasure of meeting Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier, the Chef-Owners of renowned Arrows Restaurant and MC Perkins Cove in Ogunquit, Maine.  Mark and Clark demonstrated an unforgettable five-course menu for De Gustibus Cooking School’s Glorious American Cooking class.  The delightful menu included their Mushroom Pie and ethereal Cider Poached Salmon.  Trailblazers of the farm-to-table movement, their cooking styles showcase the pure, clean flavors of the ingredients that they use.  Each dish was delicious and sumptuous without feeling heavy, evidencing the true mastery of these great Chefs.

The featured wines were provided by importer Frederick Wildman & Sons and included NV Champagne Pol Roger Reserve, 2010 Pascal Jolivet Sancerre Les Caillottes and 2008 Potel Aviron Morgan Cote du Py.

After the class, I had the opportunity to sit down with Mark and Clark and ask them some questions about their culinary careers and wine preferences. The Wine Cellarage’s exclusive interview with Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier is below…

WC: Based on what I’ve read, you guys are trailblazers of sustainability and the farm-to-table movement.  What was the driving philosophy or inspiration behind the Arrows garden that you founded back in 1992?

Mark: The initial reason was necessity because we couldn’t find the produce that was good enough for our restaurant.  We had been in California before Maine and had access to nice fresh ingredients.  In New England, in the late 80s, it was still really difficult.  There were only a few local farmers and they were growing things and doing an okay business, some of them did a great business, but they couldn’t supply our restaurant with quite enough produce.  It was unreliable.  We felt that we needed to go with the spirit of the people that lived here 100 years ago and just grow what we needed. People used to be self sufficient in many ways and now of course most people aren’t.  We thought that with a restaurant like Arrows and five acres of land, we could have an incredible garden and it really worked out.

Clark: For most of the year, the garden sustains almost all of the produce for Arrows, about 90-95%, and about 20-30% of the produce for MC Perkins Cove.  It’s a lot. It’s the real deal and not just for show.  It is three quarters of an acre and one of the most intensely cultivated pieces of land you’ll ever find.

WC: Can you tell me a little bit about how you ended up opening a restaurant in Maine?

Clark: We were trying to open a restaurant in Carmel, California and it kept falling through.  We had a backer, but Carmel is really expensive.  One day, Mark’s friends called and asked if we would like to buy this restaurant.  Mark said, “Yeah, sure, but we don’t have any money”.  They really wanted to give us the option to buy and encouraged us to come check it out.  So we loaded up everything we owned, got in the car and drove across the country.  We said, “What the hell, we’ve really got nothing to lose.”

Mark: I knew the restaurant because I had lived in that area of Maine before, I frequented the restaurant, but never really thought I would buy it.

WC: Can you tell me about the wine list at Arrows?  What is the philosophy behind the wine selections?

Clark: The wine list is split to a large degree between French and Californian wines, with maybe 1/3 devoted to other international regions.  We have a particular depth in Bordeaux because Mark and I like Bordeaux and because we can’t keep enough Burgundies on hand, mostly due to demand.  The Burgundies fly out the door so fast.  We used to have about 700 selections on the list.  We paired that down during the recession and made the list leaner and cleaner.  We have two cellars with a lot of capacity. We’ve tried to make the list as accessible and interesting as possible. We try to have a lot of interesting, lesser known wineries and eclectic options.  We still love Bordeaux, so we keep collecting those and try to have a fair amount in that area.

WC: What was your biggest challenge in getting Arrows established in Ogunquit 23 years ago?

Mark: The location was challenging, because it is very seasonal in Southern Maine.  We’re not in a town, but in the countryside and in sort of a middle class resort area and Arrows evolved into a really upscale restaurant.

Clark: And if you will, the prejudice of Maine, that Maine is for lobster rolls, blueberry pies and down-home and it took people time to acclimate to the idea of a “Great Country Restaurant” which is what Arrows became.  Rattle people’s cage, and present a really interesting restaurant that’s not in New York or New Orleans or Chicago, not in the city.  This was a pretty wild concept and it still is.  In the Americas, people still don’t really look to the countryside for their restaurants.  I think that was a really interesting challenge.  And frankly, at that time Boston was a real backwater with just a couple of good restaurants.  There was Jasper’s and Aujourd’hui, and that was about it.  That’s why the Zagat guide kept having us as the most highly rated restaurant in New England.

WC: What experience(s) have had the biggest influence over your cooking style?

Mark: Working for Jeremiah Towers and Mark Franz at Stars [in San Francisco], had a strong influence on us.  We consider them mentors.

Clark: The story I told during class about living in Beijing and the seasons.  And Mark and I travel all the time.  That really not only influences our food, but for example, all of the uniforms at Arrows are hand made in Thailand.  All of the plates, a lot of the things at the restaurant are made for the restaurant from our travels.  The food and the whole sensibility are influenced by our travels.  We both really enjoy reading historical things, that’s really influenced us a lot.  For years we’ve done dinners that revolve around historical menus: Renaissance, Belle Époque etc.

Mark: Reading, research and travel are all elements that inform our cooking.

Clark: And then of course, the people who work with us have a big influence. Justin Walker has worked with us for 15 years and has had a real impact with ideas like foraging.  Mark and I don’t really forage, we’ll go out with him, but he’s the expert.

WC: Do you have a favorite wine region, if so, which is it and why?

Mark: I love Champagne.

Clark: We both love Champagne.

Mark: That would definitely be a favorite.  For me, Champagne and then Burgundy.  I like Burgundy more than Bordeaux. Clark prefers Bordeaux. I really love Burdundies…Drouhin is a favorite. For Champagne, I loved the Pol Roger earlier.

Clark: We love the Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill, which a friend brought for New Year’s one year, a huge Methuselah sized bottle.  We love rosé Champagnes too, especially Billecart-Salmon.

Mark: That’s probably my favorite producer, especially the rosé.

Clark: Gosset is another favorite Champagne producer. I love Bordeaux, old and young, but it really has to do with the food for me.  I like lighter wines now, as I get older, which is really odd.  I always liked big wines, and now I’m more into light, food-friendly wines.

WC: If you could drink one wine every day, what would it be?

Mark: Bubbly.

Clark: Yeah, I could drink Champagne every day.

WC: What is your current favorite ingredient to work with?

Mark: That’s a tough one. Probably the mushrooms that we’ve foraged lately.

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An Evening with Chef Mourad Lahlou

Chef Mourad Lahlou with his Date Leather

On November 7th 2011, I attended the De Gustibus Cooking School’s fascinating “Culinary Destinations” class taught by Mourad Lahlou, Executive Chef and Owner of Aziza, the highly acclaimed, modern Moroccan restaurant in San Francisco.  Mourad’s energy, passion and focus were apparent as he prepared a stunning seven-course menu.  This was all on the tails of guest starring on the Martha Stewart Show, that morning!

Mourad was born and raised in the ancient Medina of Marrakesh amongst his large extended family.  At 20 years old, he came to the United States to study economics at San Francisco State University. It was during this time that he began teaching himself how to recreate his favorite Moroccan dishes with local ingredients using his own creative techniques. This experimentation blossomed into his career as a trail blazing Moroccan-American chef.

Mourad’s talent has not gone unnoticed.  In 2008, he was named a Rising Star Chef by StarChefs, and in 2009, the Chronicle raised Aziza’s rating to three and a half stars. Also in 2009, Zagat named Aziza one of the top 10 Bay Area restaurants of the decade, and Mourad won Food Network’s Iron Chef America by a record-breaking margin. In 2010, Aziza became the first Moroccan restaurant to receive a Michelin Star.  Needless to say, I’ll definitely be making reservations at Aziza the next time I’m in San Francisco.

The bright, exotic flavors of Mourad’s menu were perfectly paired with three delicious wines from the New Zealand Complexity portfolio.  The citrus and apple flavors of our favorite New Zealand sparkling wine, the NV Quartz Reef Methode Traditionelle from Central Otago, were a sublime pairing for Mourad’s Lentil Soup with date balls and celery salad.  The fourth course, a Salt-Roasted Thai Snapper with lettuce puree, was beautifully paired with Complexity’s Spy Valley Envoy Riesling from Marlborough.  The third wine selection, Amisfield’s Pinot Noir from Central Otago was delightful with all three! Cous Cous preparations that Mourad demonstrated.  This incredibly versatile Pinot sailed us through the rest of Mourad’s menu, pairing with both his Basteeya recipe (Moroccan meat pie) and his Beghrir (Moroccan pancakes).

After this energy packed class, I had the opportunity to ask Mourad some questions about his background and culinary career.  The attention that he gave to my questions was impressive, especially considering the whirlwind day that he had. The Wine Cellarage’s exclusive interview with Mourad Lahlou is below…

WC: I’ve read that you studied economics at San Francisco State University before becoming a Chef.  At what point in your life did you decide to pursue a culinary career?

Mourad: Basically I just stumbled on it.  I never knew that I was able to cook, I never knew that I had a palate that was clean and sophisticated enough for me to even taste good food.  Initially, when I started cooking, it was as a student.  I always invited people over because I didn’t have any money and I would cook for people for their birthdays.  That was literally what I did.  Instead of going to a restaurant, I would bring my friends home and cook for them.  I would prep for a whole day, sometimes for two days, and then people would come and we’d get together and eat.  My friends would say, “This so good, this is the best food that I’ve had”.  I would think, “You’re just saying that because it’s free, of course you’re going to say that.” I never believed them to be honest with you.  It became more and more precise in terms of people telling me why they liked the food.  Little by little, I gained enough perspective on food that I felt that I could actually make food.  Not just repeating dishes made either by somebody here, or back home, but I started actually intellectually trying to dissect and deconstruct every single thing that I was doing.  Trying to understand the science, the physics and everything that happens in the dish, and once I get a grasp on that, I say, “Okay, this is what I could possibly do. It would be really cool if I take this out of it and introduce it back in a different form or texture.”

WC: What do you consider to be the worst clichés and misconceptions about Moroccan food?

Mourad: The worst thing that I could possibly think of is probably that it is a food that is only enjoyed in the cliché setting of the tent, sitting on the floor and eating with your fingers and having a half naked woman shake her ass in front of you before you enjoy Moroccan food.

WC: Aziza’s wine list is very unique and eclectic.  Can you explain the philosophy behind the list?

Mourad: The list originally was put together by Mark Ellenbogen.  He was doing my list for about 15 years.  He was interested in biodynamic, organic wines.  He hates wines from California, so we had no wines from California whatsoever, and people took offense to that.  People would come to Aziza and see the list and say, “How can you be in a place like San Francisco and claim to be local and sustainable.  Why are you bringing wines from across the world?” His argument to that was that he doesn’t believe that the wines and winegrowers and makers in Napa have the same depth and the same philosophy as winemakers in Europe.  When he first put the wine list together, he used to have it categorized as the “old world” and the “new world” and he really believed that the grapes that were grown in Italy and in Austria and Germany were far more superior than the grapes that were used in Napa.  He also believed that the alcohol level in the wines that are made in America is a lot higher, so basically wine was made to make you drunk in a way, because of the percentage of the alcohol in it.  He really believed that the lower alcohol levels in European wines made them more suitable for food, rather than just as a cocktail.  He was more inclined to use wines from Europe.  And he went with the Rieslings, because he felt that they paired really well with the spices of the cuisine and the sweetness.  So, that’s how he put it together.  About two years ago, Mark decided to open his own restaurant, so now he’s partnered up with a couple other people and opened Bar Agricole, and when that happened, a lady by the name of Farnoush Deylamian is the one who’s taken over the list and she’s been doing the list for a year and a half now.  The list is more popular now than it was before because she’s not so opposed to having wines from Napa but has picked them in a way that is so unique.  She has great talent and is the same lady that does all of the cocktails as well.

WC: What experience(s) have had the biggest influence over your cooking style?

Mourad: The friendships that I have.  My friendship with Daniel Patterson, the Chef-Owner of Coi, and David Kinch, the Chef-Owner of Manresa, those relationships have really been an inspiration.

WC: Is there a market in NYC that you would recommend for sourcing Moroccan ingredients?  Do you have a favorite NYC marketplace?

Mourad: Kalustyan’s Spices and Sweets on Lexington Avenue at 28th Street (123 Lexington Avenue).

WC: Do you have an all-time favorite ingredient to work with?

Mourad: That’s a tough question, but I’d have to say it’s time.  I don’t like to be rushed.  If you skip a step or leave an ingredient out, the dish is not going to be the same. When making a Vadouvan spice blend for example, which is a French version of curry, every step is really important.  I have to say that time is my favorite ingredient.

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An Evening with Chef Ben Pollinger

Chef Ben Pollinger with his Loup de Mer en Papillote

On October 17th 2011, I attended a riveting “Across the Seven Seas” cooking class at De Gustibus Cooking School, which was taught by Ben Pollinger, Executive Chef of Oceana, NYC’s Michelin-starred shrine to seafood.  Ben was joined by Oceana’s Executive Pastry Chef Jansen Chan, who concluded the class with an impressive demo of four ethereal custards.  Pollinger’s dedication to showcasing the pure flavors of the ocean through his innovative cooking techniques was palpable in every bite that the class enjoyed that evening. Pollinger’s informative demonstrations included boning and filleting a whole fish (a branzino) from start to finish.

A New Jersey native, Ben Pollinger graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, as class valedictorian.  Ben’s distinctive cooking style is heavily influenced by his work and travels in France, Italy and Spain.  In addition to sustaining Oceana’s Michelin star for five years in a row, Pollinger is a father of three, an avid gardener and also makes the time to contribute to various charitable organizations including City Harvest, Share Our Strength, Autism Speaks and the James Beard Foundation.

Pollinger’s five-course menu was magnificent, elevating the fresh seafood flavors with nuanced, expert preparations.  The featured dishes included Striped Bass Sashimi with peach chutney and macadamias, Loup de Mer en Papillote and Whole Roast Branzino stuffed with spinach, mushrooms and olives.  The menu was paired with three delightful Italian wines from the Banfi Vintners portfolio: Vigne Regali Pricipessa Perlante Gavi Sparkling, 2010 Vigne Regali Gavi Principessa Gavia and 2009 Vigne Regali Dolcetto d’Acqui L’Ardi.

The Wine Cellarage’s exclusive interview with Chef Ben Pollinger is below…

WC: I’ve read that you have a 500 square ft organic garden, where is it located?

Ben: It’s a home garden. I live in Oradell, New Jersey.  Just to be completely honest with you, when it was 500 square ft, I was living in Lodi, New Jersey.  It’s a little bit smaller now, probably 300 square ft.  I moved last year, last summer, and had to replant my garden and it’s still a very large garden.  Just because of my yard layout, I have another thirty pots with all different kinds of herbs, so besides my vegetables and such, I probably have about 30 different herbs.  This year, I  also planted a peach tree in my yard.

WC: What suggestions do you have for New Yorkers interested in urban gardening?

Ben: You need living soil for any kind of garden, but particularly for planters and potted plants.  You need good living soil, not just sterile topsoil that you find at the garden center.  You need living organisms in there.  If you can, this is probably exceptionally hard, but if you can get farm soil, I would do that. I would suggest going to a farmer’s market and asking a farmer, “hey, can you bring me a five gallon bucket of dirt and I’ll buy it off of you.” I would start with good Hudson Valley black dirt, North of NJ, old alluvial soils from ancient times and it’s rich, black and really great. Try to buy a bucket of black dirt off of a farmer.  If you can, amend your soil with compost. At the farmer’s markets in the city, you can buy organic compost with worm castings and stuff like that.  That’s going to give you living microbes and living microorganisms. That and some worms, and each season, I would continually refresh your soil with fresh compost and get your hands on a mix of leaves.  Keep your soil vibrant and alive.  I know this is hard to do in an urban setting.  In my garden, I add all of my leaves every fall.  I dig them into my garden and they break down.  Every summer, I take my grass clippings from the lawn and spread them like mulch in between the plants.  Continually amending the soil with living matter. If you’re ambitious, I would buy a composter for your sink with red worms in it.  They look like earthworms, but they’re small and red. If you can deal with worms in your place and you have enough room, get a composter.  The key is good living soil.

WC: As a father of three and Executive Chef, how do you find the time for your philanthropic endeavors?  How do you balance it all?

Ben: It’s time management and organization.  A balance of committing to what you can handle.  Unfortunately, you can’t fulfill every request.  Every cause that you’re asked to do is a great cause, but you can’t fulfill every request.  It’s a matter of supporting the causes that are closest to you and good time management.  It’s a challenge.  Long days.

WC: What experience(s) have had the biggest influence over your cooking style?

Ben: I would say, two main experiences. One is not a particular moment in time, but the general experience of having worked at Tabla for Floyd Cardoz, was the most significant experience that I’ve had for several reasons.  It opened up an entire new world of cuisine, a style of food, a cuisine and ingredients that I had never been exposed to before.  In terms of the whole Indian pantry and certain Indian techniques.  Things that I would not really have ever learned anywhere else, and those things affect me not only in the way of knowing how to work and use Indian spices in an Indian manner, but just the general sense of how to use these ingredients now, and also the flavor profiles.  Different kinds of flavor profiles that exist in that cuisine, things that I have been able to work into my cuisine now.  Whether it will be some dishes that are Indian inspired or will seem Indian, but there’s even a Greek dish on the menu tonight, incorporating dill and anise seeds, as well as adding fresh dill, gives another layer of flavor.  Taking spices that I understand how to work with from an Indian perspective and using them in a non-Indian way.

The other main thing is working under Floyd is really where I learned to be a Chef.  As opposed to being a cook or even a good Sous-Chef.  He really taught me how to manage the business side of running a restaurant.  Food is first, but you also need to hold the business side together.  He really taught me how to do that.  How to manage the labor and ingredient costs, how to manage scheduling and planning a menu.  How to maintain a restaurant.  He taught me how to run a restaurant.

The other main experience overall would have been the year that I lived in Monaco and worked for Alain Ducasse at Le Louis XV.  The life experience of living overseas and living in a different culture was just huge.  The general flavor profile and style of cooking and food that exists in the French Riviera and the South of France.  More in general, the Northern Mediterranean, South of France, North of Italy, Coastal Spain, there are a lot of similarities in those areas that really affect my cooking.  A lot of them are really driven by the same kind of lightness of flavor, clarity of ingredients.  This may sound like a cliché, but olive oil instead of butter.  It’s really a lighter, cleaner style of cooking that I think overall really defines what I do, defines my style of cooking.

WC: Where does your affinity for preparing seafood and fish stem from?

Ben: Most restaurants, particularly at our level, generally break down the cooking responsibilities.  They create stations based on either ingredient and/or the equipment that you’re cooking it on.  A lot of the restaurants that I worked in were very classic, where you have a cook who cooks fish, a cook who cooks meat, a cook who cooks vegetables, and as a cook, the fish station was my favorite station to work.  I love cooking meat, and I’m very good at cooking meat as well, but I really just like the fish because there are so many more different varieties out there than meat. I think that fish can require a little bit more finesse to cook and it’s a little less forgiving, so it’s a little trickier to cook and a little more challenging.  It’s kind of more reflective of how I like to eat these days, a little lighter.  I still eat plenty of meat, but I like how fish is generally a lot lighter than any given meat.  As well, from the perspective of being a Chef, from an artistic perspective, you can apply a broader palate of other ingredients and styles and flavors to fish that are a lot more challenging than what you can do with meat, you can do a lot more with fish.

WC: Do you have a favorite wine region, if so, which is it and why?

Ben: Champagne.  It’s so refreshing and crisp, there are so many different styles within Champagne as well.

WC: If there were a wine you could drink every day, what would it be?

Ben: Champagne. I don’t drink anymore, but when I did, I really enjoyed the bolder Champagnes.  A blanc de noir or even a full-bodied yeasty Champagne, like Bollinger, Ruinart, Krug. Bigger, fuller Champagnes would be my preference.

WC: Do you have an all-time favorite ingredient to work with?

Ben: Good question.  Olive oil.  I use a lot of olive oil and there are so many different styles of olive oil.

WC: What is your wish for the future of food and dining in the U.S.?

Ben: I hope we get to a point where people have a better understanding of where their food comes from.  And not that everybody has to be into everything, some people tonight were squeamish about when I was taking the guts out of the fish. That’s fair enough and you don’t have to be into that, but I think that people need to really understand that their food comes from a living animal that had to be killed to be put on their plate, and to respect that process, and that your produce comes from the land.  Your chicken doesn’t come from a Styrofoam package in the store, it comes from a chicken.  I think we need to have an understanding of where our food comes from because the next thing we need is to live our lives in a manner, and eat in a manner, that supports overall sustainability and good health of the planet.  I’m not against farmed protein or even farmed fish, but I think we need to have all of this stuff in a manner that’s sensible.  We need to have more of our food come from more natural sources and raised in a manner that is natural.  We need to raise our protein in a way so that we don’t need to jack them up with antibiotics to keep them from getting sick, or with hormones to get them to grow faster.

I wish we could get to a point where we treat food less as a commodity, and more as an actual ingredient that we’re going to eat.  There’s a quote from this book Tomatoland, a farmer is asked what he thinks about the way that his tomatoes taste.  He responds that he doesn’t get paid by the taste, he gets paid by the pound.  We need to grow foodstuffs that are for taste first, and support artisanal production.  We need less industrialization of the food process. We need to have an understanding that quality food costs money, quality food can’t be cheap.

In terms of food and dining, I think there’s room across the spectrum of restaurants, for everything from very casual street food and small Mom & Pop restaurants, all the way to ultra-luxe dining, there’s room for all of it, but I wish we got a little bit closer, particularly on my end of the spectrum, to cooking more from a natural perspective.  I don’t want to say that we should be stuck in the past and not move forward with new technology, but I want there to be a bit more emphasis on teaching folks how to cook, how to cook traditionally, and then move on to more modern things.  But you have to understand where you came from to go someplace.

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An Evening with Chef Nick Anderer

Nick Anderer with his octopus salad.

On October 6th, I had the pleasure of attending the De Gustibus Cooking School’s “Touring Italy” class taught by Nick Anderer, Executive Chef of Maialino, NYC’s own Roman-style trattoria in Gramercy Park.  Prior to opening Danny Meyer’s Maialino, Nick Anderer worked with Mario Batali at Babbo and spent six years at Meyer’s Gramercy Tavern, where he became Executive Sous-Chef.  As Executive Chef at Maialino, Nick draws on his time spent studying art history in Rome, an experience that inspires the warm, Roman-esque menu.  Nick sources his ingredients from the local Greenmarket, implementing a real farm-to-table philosophy in his cooking.

Nick’s passion and mastery of Italian cuisine were apparent as he whipped up a mouthwatering, five-course menu before our eyes.  Each dish incorporated the freshest possible ingredients, which were showcased through Nick’s skillful handling, creating an incredible dining and learning experience.  The courses were expertly paired with three delicious Italian wines from the Banfi Vintners portfolio.

The first course was an Octopus & Fingerling Potato Salad with celery and parsley (Polpo e Patate).  Delightfully fresh, the salad was simply dressed with lemon juice and olive oil and the octopus was cooked to perfection.  The polpo was paired with the Banfi Brut Metodo Traditionale Classico estate bottled sparkling wine; a Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc blend with citrus and apple notes, bright acidity and a crisp, refreshing finish.  The Banfi Brut couldn’t have been more complimentary to the dish.

Up next, Nick demonstrated the steps for making fresh pasta for his Pumpkin Ravioli with Aceto Tradizionale & Ricotta Salata (Agnolotti di Zucca).  The delectable freshness of the pasta and squash came together in these edible pillows of heaven.   The ravioli was finished with aged Acetaia Bellei Aceto Tradizionale Balsamic vinegar, aka Italian liquid gold, a real treat!  Again, this course was a perfect pairing for the Banfi Brut Metodo Traditionale Classico.

For the third course, Anderer demo’d another fresh pasta, this time he prepared fresh cavatelli for his Homemade Cavatelli, Pork Sausage & Rapini (Pici all Norcia).  Pasta with sausage and broccoli rabe is one of my favorites, so it was great to see and taste Nick’s take on the classic recipe.  Nick uses stewed tomatoes in the sauce for his Pici, which was something I hadn’t tried before and gives the dish added dimension.  Banfi’s 2009 Fontana Candida Luna Mater Frascati Superiore, a blend of Malvasia di Candia, Malvasia del Lazio, Greco and Bombino, was a wonderful companion for this pasta dish.  Frascati is Rome’s signature white wine, and the Fontana Candida Luna Mater’s robust character and refreshing quality made it the ideal partner for this robust, yet refined, Pici all Norcia.

The fourth course, a Slow Roasted Short Rib with Coco Beans alla parmiggiana and watercress (Costata di Manzo), was a show stopper.  So deliciously rich without being heavy, the short rib practically melted on your tongue.  Nick’s careful preparation steps, including marinating the short rib overnight with salt, sugar, chili and black pepper, enhanced the meat’s flavor to lofty heights.  The dish was incredible with the 2006 Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, an elegant estate bottled Sangiovese with aromas of violet and licorice, and opulent flavors of red cherry and spice.

For the grand finale, Nick prepared a decadent Chocolate Torte (Torta di Cioccolato), which paired wonderfully with the Banfi Brunello!

After his enlightening cooking class, I was able to sit down with Nick and ask him some questions.  Behind Nick’s laid-back persona, there is clearly a passionate and precise approach to his cuisine. The Wine Cellarage’s exclusive interview with Nick Anderer is below…

WC: Do you have a favorite Italian wine region, if so, which is it and why?

Nick: I love the wines in Tuscany and Umbria, I’m a big fan of Sagrantino and a big fan of Brunello.  My favorite wine to drink at Maialino is the Rosso di Montalcino Poggio di Sotto, so I have an affinity for that.  But then, who doesn’t love Nebbiolos you know, Piemonte.  It’s a toss up; I’d say one of those two…Southern Tuscany and Umbria, and then Piemonte.  You can’t compete with those regions.

WC: Is there a wine pairing rule of thumb that you go by?

Nick: Not really, I’m not a wine geek and not one of those guys that says “This has to be paired with this, that has to be paired with that.”  There are so many ways to go with so many dishes and I think it’s all about balance.  Acidity and sweetness. But, I think at the end of the day, my rule of thumb is that if you enjoy drinking it, and it’s not interfering with the food, then go for it. A lot of times I’ll taste a wine when we’re doing pairings at the restaurant and I’ll be like, “Well, this brings out this in the dish, and this brings out that” then I’ll taste again and think, “this is just so freakin amazing” and then I’ll taste the food and think, “and that’s freakin amazing”, and it’s not necessarily the textbook pairing, but it still works.  So, would I pair a really, really dry Sagrantino with a really delicate dish? No, because it would be killing the dish.  But so long as it isn’t interfering with the food and vice versa, if you like it, drink it.

WC: At what point in your life or career, did you become interested in Italian cuisine?

Nick: It had to be my junior year of college when I was studying art history in Rome.  That was 1997, and it was the whole experience of seeing the way that the people there treat ingredients with respect and seeing how Italian homes eat.  I was fortunate enough to always be brought up in a family that had big meals together.  There’s almost an obsessive way that Italians think about food and it met my obsessions.  I thought, “Wow, that’s really cool.  There’s a whole culture of people that share my same crazed notions of what you should be eating on a daily basis. Your whole life is revolving around what you’re going to eat next.”  That’s where it happened for me, in Rome in 1997.

WC:  Growing up, did your family cook a lot?

Nick: A lot. Every night.  And I think that my earliest Italian food memories are with my mom, she cooked Italian food.  One of my best friends in grammar school was an Italian kid named Miquelien from Bologna.  His mom was a cooking instructor and she gave my mom cooking lessons.  Through that, she started introducing a lot of Italian food into our regular family meals.  We cooked every night and that was definitely part of the reason that I became a Chef.  People become Chefs for different reasons; some people become Chefs because their parents were such bad cooks.  I became a Chef because my mother showed me what good food could actually be.

WC: What has been your greatest culinary achievement to date?

Nick: Creating Maialino has been my greatest culinary accomplishment because it’s the first restaurant that I got to create from scratch and I get to see it from the ground up.  All the way from the rubble and construction to the team that we put together.  It was really rag-tag to start and then it ended up being one of the greatest teams I’ve ever worked with.  There’s a lot of pride involved with creating something from the ground up, literally creating a restaurant.

WC: What is your biggest inspiration when creating a new dish for Maialino’s menu?

Nick: Mother Nature.  The market, farmers, food purveyors, they give me inspiration because they take so much care.  Without their care, my food wouldn’t be what it is.  Basically, I try to take the greatest hits of our favorite purveyors and do as little as possible to alter them.  I don’t want to mess them up.   Take them, respect them and put them on a plate.  That’s my inspiration, the people that prepare and grow and harvest all of the stuff that we use.

WC: If there’s a wine you could drink every day, what would it be?

Nick: Everyday… Man. There are so many that I’m going to have to leave out. Rosso di Montalcino, that’s the first one that comes to my head. It’s not even the high-end wine, Brunello. It’s the Rosso.

WC: What is your favorite ingredient this month?

Nick: I’d say this month, I would go with either the baby rapini or the turnips from Jeffrey Frank at Liberty Gardens.  He is a super star in my opinion, especially when talking about inspiration for dishes.  He’s the man.

WC: Where do you see food trends heading in the future?

Nick: This might be a boring answer, but hopefully where they are heading right now.  I think that people are taking the time to care about where their food is coming from and the more and more people do that, the more and more close America’s going to get to Europe in the way that we think about food.  And I think that what’s trendy now is the Farm-to-Chef experience and I think that’s cool.  It’s not cool when people use it as a catch phrase and it’s overdone, like bow down and kiss Alice Water’s bible, it shouldn’t be held up as a curse in anyway.  When people are actually caring, when people go out and shop and care about shopping somewhere other than Food Emporium, then something good is happening in America.  I think that getting good food to everyone is a really hard thing to accomplish in the United States of America.  Without being too political about it, I’m just hoping that people care about where their food is coming from.

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An Evening with Chef Angelo Sosa

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Chef Angelo Sosa at De Gustibus

On September 27th, I had the pleasure of attending the De Gustibus Cooking School’s “Asian Adventures” class with Angelo Sosa, Executive Chef and Owner of Social Eatz here in NYC.  Angelo is a protégé of Jean-Georges Vongerichten, having worked for a number of years at Restaurant Jean-Georges in Manhattan, Ocean Club at Dune restaurant in the Bahamas and opening Spice Market as Executive Sous Chef.   In 2009, Angelo went on to open his own restaurant, Xie Xie (shay-shay), a fast paced-casual establishment in Hell’s Kitchen.  Then, in 2010, Angelo was cast in Season 7 of Bravo’s hit reality series “Top Chef”.  His most recent endeavor is Social Eatz, a fun, creative American-Asian restaurant and bar in mid-town Manhattan.

Angelo’s energy and enthusiasm was palpable as he prepared a stunning five-course menu while telling entertaining anecdotes from earlier in his career as a Chef, and earlier in his life.  Each dish that Angelo demonstrated for the class was a sensational, playful surprise and paired beautifully with the wines of New Zealand Complexity.

The first course was a delightfully spicy Sweet Tomato Soup, made with whole peeled San Marzano tomatos, lemongrass and curry cream.  The soup was paired with one of our favorite sparklers from New Zealand, the NV Quartz Reef Sparkling Methode Traditionnelle ($28).

Next, Angelo whipped together his Tuna Pastrami with Asian Pickles and Rye.  In this tuna preparation, a riff on NYC’s classic sandwich, a center cut sushi grade tuna loin is cured overnight in an exotic spice mixture, including coriander, smoked paprika, mustard seed and allspice.  The tuna is sliced sashimi style and garnished with chili mayo, the homemade Asian pickles and a sprinkling of rye bread “bits”.  The result is incredibly refreshing and invigorating combination of textures and flavors, a dance party in your mouth, if you will.  The Tuna Pastrami paired wonderfully with both the NV Quartz Reef Sparkling Methode Traditionnelle ($28) and the 2008 Craggy Range Kidnapper’s Vineyard Chardonnay ($24) that were poured while Angelo prepared the dish.

The third course was Angelo’s modern take on “Pork & Apple Sauce”, which is spiced up with Pickled Japanese Ginger Sprout and Sake.   The Pork and Apple Sauce à la Angelo was paired with the 2008 Craggy Range Kidnapper’s Vineyard Chardonnay ($24), which really highlighted the apples and Asian pears in the dish.

For the fourth course, in a whirlwind of energy, right before our bemused eyes, Angelo created the most delicious Korean Beef Tacos with pickled veggies.  The freshness of the pickled veggies combined with the sweet-salty-spiciness of the marinated beef, all tucked into homemade tortillas, made for a real savory finale to the exquisite menu.  The Korean Beef Tacos paired marvelously with the 2008 Craggy Range Te Muna Road Pinot Noir ($40).

Angelo’s final demo of the evening was dessert, a Corn “Brulée” with bitter sugar, sake and blueberries.  This was the perfect end to the menu, a not-too-sweet spin on classic Crème Brulée.  I usually can’t finish a dessert course all by myself, but had no problem with this.

This was my first experience at the De Gustibus Cooking School and it was truly a treat.  Watching Angelo demo five courses, each distinct yet unified by Asian flavors, and learning from his methods and tips was an inspiring adventure!  Adding to the whole experience of the evening, I had the opportunity to interview Angelo after the class and learned even more about one of New York City’s great Chefs.  The Wine Cellarage’s exclusive interview with Angelo Sosa is below…

WC: The wine menu at Social Eatz is manageable, yet eclectic.  What was your philosophy behind choosing the wines?

Angelo:  A dining experience is not only formed by the greeting at the door, the presentation of the menus, the staff and the food, but it’s the whole experience of the wines that really accentuates the dining experience, along with the personality of the restaurant.  Social Eatz is more of a casual environment and we have a very affordable and very easy to drink wine menu; wines that are very diverse with different types of flavor, from Rieslings to Gewurztraminers and Sauvignon Blancs.  The wines we’ve chosen are very manageable and very easy to drink.

WC:  Is there a wine pairing rule of thumb that you go by?

Angelo:  Maybe it’s a little bit unorthodox, but personally I think any combination can work.  Flavors are subjective.  ‘Drink what you like’ is really the bottom line.  You eat what you like, so why shouldn’t you drink what you like?  Who’s to say what goes with what?  Maybe there’s a certain combination that you can extract an epiphany experience from, but in the end, you have to drink what you like and what you enjoy.

WC:  At what point in your life or career did you become Asian food devotee?

Angelo:  Working with Jean-Georges Vongerichten definitely was the first exposure to Asian flavors. But in retrospect, thinking back on my life, part of my Latin-Dominican side had an influence.  Very spicy foods with a plethora of flavors, from rice and beans, to ingredients such as bay leaf, vinegar, cumin and coriander.  That background is really the essence of my inspiration and affinity for Asian flavors.

WC:  What was the most valuable lesson or experience that you took from being a Top Chef contender?

Angelo:  Biggest lesson, other than ‘taste your food’, was to be 100% confident in what you put out.  Stand behind what you put out.  There shouldn’t be justification, it’s your vision, it’s what you feel and you have to stand behind it.  You can sell yourself on your passion and what you love to do and then people will love what you are doing.  When people are placed outside of their element they actually accomplish more.

WC:  What has been your greatest culinary achievement to date?

Angelo:  Competing back to back on Top Chef.  I created over 50 dishes, improv.  I think that’s a lot for one person under those extremes, the pressures of being on national camera, cooking for those judges, competing outside of your element.  It’s a big accomplishment.

WC:  As Executive Chef and Owner of Social Eatz, where does the inspiration for your menu and recipes come from?

Angelo:  Definitely from my travels.  I’m very keen and really push myself to travel.  It’s a very important process of linking and bridging the beginning phases of travel and discovery to the end product.

WC:  If there’s a wine you could drink every day, what would it be?

Angelo:  Definitely Icewine.  I think I would take a bath in it if I could.

WC:  Have you tried Icewines from Canada?

Angelo:  Yes, absolutely.  And I love the ones I’ve tried from Niagara too.  I love sweet things.

WC:  Finally, what is your favorite ingredient?

Angelo:  I go through phases and get very compulsive with ingredients.  I would say either Dill or Sriracha.

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