In Pursuit of Barolo and Barbaresco: Visiting Piemonte, Italy

 

People go to Florence for the Duomo; Rome, the Colosseum; and Tuscany, the art. As the home to Alba white truffles and world-class wine, most people go to Piemonte for food and wine.

Italy’s most treasured red wines are found in the regions of Barolo and Barbaresco, located south of Alba in Piemonte. Made entirely from the Nebbiolo grape, it is natural to compare Barolo and Barbaresco to single-varietal Burgundy. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the primary grapes in Burgundy, grow all over the world. By contrast, Nebbiolo only really thrives in cooler-climate Northern Italy, and is harvested after a long, nail-biting growing season when any manner of things can go wrong and kill a crop. To hedge against the possibility of disaster, Nebbiolo producers also make wine made from less temperamental and more humble grapes like Dolcetto, Barbera, Arneis, Favorita, Freisa and Grignolino.

At first glance, the light, almost transparent, red hue of Barolo and Barbaresco is deceiving, and masks their powerful, complex characteristics of licorice, leather, hazelnuts, roses, violets, white truffle, high acidity and strong tannins. Many wines need to develop for at least 15 years. They are very reliable investments, though, as both regions have fortunately experienced multiple, consecutive high-rated vintages over the last decade.

A visit to Piemonte presents the opportunity to learn close-up about these exceptional, family-run wineries. Without any must-see tourist temples to distract, it’s easy to fall into a relaxed routine of scheduling winery visits around sightseeing and two-hour lunches in distinct, medieval towns. Though Michelin-starred restaurants are ample, it’s better to eat at the abundant local trattorie serving impeccable traditional dishes and housing extensive wine collections.

Sketching An Itinerary

The wines vary tremendously so it helps to understand a little about them before creating an itinerary full of winery visits. I scheduled visits based not just on favorite producers, but their use of different winemaking techniques and crus. I also veered toward smaller-scale producers.

My trip started in Serralunga d’Alba in the Barolo region. Serralunga is an ideal homebase for visiting the wineries of Cavallotto, Paolo Scavino and Vietti in nearby Castiglione Falletto. Later on in the week, I moved to La Morra, on the other side of Barolo, as a launchpad for visiting Barbaresco and La Morra producers.

By staying in two different places, it was easier for me to experience the various communes and restaurants that dot the region. Perched at the top of a steep hill, Serralunga is a sleepy pedestrian-only town with cobbled medieval streets and a castle. It is worth a brief stop for the castle, as well as a 12-table restaurant called Vinoteca Centro Storico, which is on the bucket lists of every visiting restaurant professional. (I’ll tell you why later.) The relatively more chaotic La Morra has a mix of modern and medieval buildings, and teems with mopeds, cars, tourists, shops and enotecas.

What Matters (or Not) About Barolo and Barbaresco

Differences between Barolo and Barbaresco

The soil. The climate. Barbaresco produces more approachable wines than Barolo because it benefits from a milder climate and shorter ripening season. The limestone soils of Barbaresco make more feminine, less tannic wines that require less aging. On the whole, Barolo is bigger, more tannic and acidic, and requires more aging to develop. Within Barolo, there are significant differences depending upon where the wine is grown. Calcareous marl soils in La Morra and Barolo commune produce lighter-hued, softer and more floral wines, whereas in Serralunga, sandstone yields grapes that produce more muscular, structured wines that need more aging. Castiglione Falletto wines are somewhere in the middle.

Blending v. Single Vineyards

Historically, Barolo, in particular, was made from blending wine from various sites throughout the area. The idea of producing a bottle that came from one cru, or designated site, is a relatively modern idea dating back to the swinging 1970s. Even so, placing the name of the cru on bottles did not happen until about the 1980s, and then it was viewed with suspicion. And even more so, the crus were not officially demarcated until 2007 and 2009 for Barbaresco and Barolo, respectively.

I do not intend to make these wine regions sound like the Wild West, though it does demonstrate how they are constantly evolving. By today’s standards, Maria Teresa Mascarello’s dogged adherence to the tradition bestowed by her father, Bartolo, to produce only blended Barolo, seems downright renegade. The vast majority of other producers make wine from specific crus and label them accordingly. Opponents claim that single-vineyard wines are marketing-drivel and pander to international consumer demands. They point to marketing abuses by certain larger producers in taking liberties with labeling crus on the bottles, thus rendering some crus undefinable and meaningless (as is arguably Bussia, which covers more terrain than it should and may be a dubious indicator of quality).

But, it’s hard to deny that many single vineyard wines are great examples of terroir. They are not going anywhere soon, so anyone who really wants to appreciate Barolo should not take a side about blending versus single vineyard wines. Both types are outstanding.

The Controversial “Modern” Techniques

People have strong opinions about this subject. What I’m referring to is the so-called modernization of winemaking in Barolo and Barbaresco, beginning in the 1960s.

Traditionally, Barolo was made using time-worn techniques constrained by harsh realities such as a lack of water and the devastation of war. Wines were aged in huge botti casks, passed down from generation to generation, that leaked and were rarely cleaned. When the younger generation took over winemaking in the 1960s, they, quite understandably, wanted to do things differently than their predecessors. Some of them did away with the big bottis in favor of aging wine in small barrels, known as barriques. Many of the resulting wines were bigger and consequently more palatable to Americans accustomed to big California cabernet sauvignons. It worked for awhile as critics like Robert Parker awarded them high scores.

Time cures all, and winemakers started to wonder if these new techniques really showed Nebbiolo in the best light. The new(er) practice of aging Nebbiolo in barriques can bring too many “foreign” flavors to the wine, like toast, vanilla and espresso. So bottis have reappeared (although they are cleaned, scraped and replaced more often). As fermentation and aging are now a combination of the old and new techniques, classifying a winery as “modern” versus “traditional” is misleading.

The Crus

Understanding the crus is the key to unlocking the varieties and complexities of Barolo and Barbaresco. Generally speaking, certain vineyards within Barolo and Barbaresco are regarded as producing more intriguing wines. It helps to schedule visits to winemakers, such as Scavino, Vietti, and Produttori del Barbaresco, who produce wine from a variety of crus. Just as important as where the grapes are grown are the farming practices employed in the vineyard. Canopy management, pruning, pest control and even planting grass between the rows, all impact the final product.

The Producers

By and large, wineries in Barolo and Barbaresco are proudly family-run. In this day and age, where wine is so often produced by corporate-owned estates, it is remarkable that major wineries are still passed down through the generations. As the wineries are inherited, they are occasionally passed down to daughters, so Barolo and Barbaresco possess an unusually high number of female winemakers.

These small(er)-production wineries are completely transparent about their winemaking, and will take visitors through their production facilities (or, in the case of Cavallotto, out to their vineyard) even on days when they are buzzing with activity. (When I was there in September, Vietti was harvesting Barbera right outside the door to our tasting room.) The families are welcoming, willing to talk in great detail about their wine, and will pour you an extensive tasting. Most of the time, they charge sweet little for this incredible experience or wave off any offer of payment. They are hardworking, smart and hospitable people, which is the primary reason why a wine visit to Piemonte is so rewarding and educational.

Next: My visits to winemakers in Barolo and Barbaresco, the international treasure that is Vinoteca Centro Storico, and why they consume so much Champagne in Barolo.

Advertisements

Hidden in Plain Sight: Italian Village’s Wine Cellar (Chicago)

This year marks my 20th year in Chicago, when I arrived in August, 1995 to begin graduate school. It goes without saying (although I will anyway) that the city has changed a lot since then, but it really has. Although Marche and Vivo were thriving in the mid-90s, Randolph Street as we know it today did not exist. The West Loop was a crime-ridden wasteland of abandoned buildings, many of which were bulldozed or rehabbed into lofts largely in preparation for the 1996 Democratic Convention at the United Center. Wicker Park and Bucktown still retained some of their grunge vibe, and the legendary Busy Bee was still slinging pierogies.

Twenty years later, a lot is gone but some things still exist. One of the first restaurants I went to after moving here was Italian Village. It was only a few blocks from my law school, and was cheap enough for a student’s budget. We cared less about the quality of the food, and more about guzzling cheap chianti by the glass and devouring huge plates of food for about $10 apiece.

It has been easily over a decade since my last visit to Italian Village. At first glance, I was struck by how much it looked the same. The room is still decorated with sculptures of questionable taste and artistry, like the life-size Roman goddess hovering above the diners, and the nude nymph flexing backwards in what I can only assume is ecstasy. There are still blinking lights to mimic stars on the wall. The back of the bar has a four-columned rotunda (this is where the nymph lives) and a trompe d’oeil effect makes it appear twice its size. Far from being sophisticated and classy by 2015 standards, it is strangely awesome in that it is proudly frozen in time. Italian Village seems completely aware that it is out-of-date but doesn’t give a fig, because it knows that everything old becomes new again. And with the opening of Formento’s, which attempts to re-create on a classier level what places like Italian Village have always been, I think they’re right.

What brought me back to Italian Village not as a student on a budget but as a professional with a 401(k) was Italian Village’s 30,000+ bottle wine cellar. Easily one of the largest collections of wine in the city, it seems largely overlooked or even forgotten. There is almost nothing about the wine list or the restaurant that contains the modern indications of culinary legitimacy: there’s no hipster somm, widely-acclaimed chef or the backing of a hip restaurant group. It is old world at its heart and old school in its execution. The list of Barolo and Barbaresco alone, though, should be enough to draw serious oenophiles from far and wide. The bottle prices, while not cheap, are certainly not expensive either given the quality and early vintages of the wine offered. As New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov lamented late last year, Barolo is a cellaring wine, yet so few restaurants are willing to invest in wine that takes twenty years (or more) to mature. Which is why Italian Village, stodgy as it is, is a municipal treasure.

You have to speak a few passwords, though, to find your way to this wine “speakeasy,” if you will. First, you have to know it exists. (Now you know, although the website announces it as well.) And when you arrive, you can’t be deterred by the hordes of tourists and pre-theatergoers who are there for the food, or the loud, after-work crowd sipping Buds from the bottle and munching on free pizza (a happy hour snack). When you sit down, you have to ask for the wine list – the reserve one – not the by-the-glass list that comes with the menu. And once you show that you’re ordering the good stuff, the door figuratively opens. You are visited by the “captain,” who sets down towering Barolo glasses, not the small Libby cups. (Ryan Wichmann is listed as the wine director, but various “captains” do wine service duty.) Your wine is strained and decanted, and carefully poured in small increments into your glass. When we were there, we had a 1999 Ceretto Bricco Rocche “Prapò” Barolo for about $115/bottle. At 26 years old, it could have cellared longer but with decanting, it was hitting its stride with softer tannins, good acidity, minerality, menthol, leather, and most pleasingly, ground hazelnuts at the finish.

Beyond the wine itself, though, what makes this whole experience great — and quintessentially Chicago — is the crush of humanity in this establishment. Restaurants these days seem demarcated down to age, haircuts and political persuasions. Some cocktail bars seem to cater only to young men, and certain Logan Square restaurants seem to require a dress code. But at Italian Village, it’s come one, come all: young, energetic administrative assistants drink Jack-and-cokes after a day at the office; handsome financial traders splurge on $500 bottles of Italian wine while sharing the bar with tourist families in town to see Book of Mormon. I don’t doubt that New York has its own version of a place like this, but everywhere in this country, this sort of a melting-pot restaurant is a dying breed. Go now, splurge on an excellent bottle of Barolo, and take it all in while you can.

Taking the Simple And Complicating It (Formento’s, Chicago)

My server at Formento’s began the night with reciting rapid-fire recommendations for dishes I should order off the menu. Had I listened, it would have resulted in enough food for an Italian-American army. When I asked him for guidance on how I should order off a menu divided into snacks, antipasti, soups and salads, macaroni, fish, meat and contorni, I received two incoherent spiels that devolved into a who’s-on-first back and forth that would have been amusing if Formento’s was going for cinematic comedic value:

Me: Is this to share or for one person?

Server: This is for one person or maybe two people. For two people, you want to order 1-2 appetizers, maybe you want to share a pasta, wait, you can share anything on the menu. I suggest the calamari, it is excellent (kisses his hand).

Me: So all of these plates are meant for sharing then?

Server: No, they’re individual, but I would share the crab dip, and maybe this calamari, but if you want the Caesar salad, which is excellent, that’s okay, it’s not too big, and if you want the Sunday Gravy, that’s okay too.

Me: So the pastas are entree-sized, for one person?

Server: No, if you don’t have an antipasti, then have the pasta and an entree, wait, maybe have a salad too. Yeah, that would be okay.

And on and on. We settled on a starter (eggplant parmagiana) and two pastas that we ended up sharing (the orecchiette and the Sunday gravy) with the caveat that we might order an entree depending on whether these dishes ending up being too big or too small.

Ordering wine proved no less complicated. The wine list is about four inches thick and weighs about ten pounds. The development of this varied, interesting, well-written list is an accomplishment in a city where restaurants seem to have pared down wine service to a minimum. But, I was left alone to navigate this list while the server disappeared and the sommelier breezed by my table three times, even made eye contact with me, but never actually stopped to assist me in making a selection. (Bewilderingly, we were the only table seated in our section at the time.) By the time the server came back, he began anxiously pressuring us for our food order (after spending ten minutes deciding on a wine, I can understand why he started to feel like the restaurant needed to turn our table as quickly as possible). So, I gambled and ordered a less common varietal from lesser known region; I say gamble because it was a bottle that I had never had, a vintage I was skeptical about, and it cost about $90–an expensive mistake if I didn’t love it.

As a side note, indifferent wine service in a restaurant that aspires to provide it can rapidly send a meal in the wrong direction. Terrible wine service at Blue Hill at Stone Barns–in which the sommelier disappeared to schmooze high roller tables and I ate 50% of my tasting menu without any wine–forever colored my experience even though the food was stellar. I can’t tell you how many sommeliers point me immediately to a California Chardonnay regardless of how inappropriate it is with the food, as if we are all Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Getting back to Formento’s, it’s a disservice to wine–which can be very intimidating to begin with– to curate a list the size of a Russian novel, and then not have the proper support to every table that wants to order wine. I hear many wine professionals complain that too many customers order certain rote wines by the glass (California Chardonnays or Cabernet Sauvignons), and do not delve deeper into the more interesting, nuanced bottle lists they worked hard to put together. But if the wine service professionals leave customers to navigate a huge list, then the customers will likely default to ordering cocktails or less interesting wines-by-the-glass (which are accordingly marked up).

My experience with the less-than-welcoming service, unfortunately, didn’t improve with the food. The eggplant parmagiana was bland but was the least offensive dish of the night. The Sunday gravy came with overcooked canestri that was in a pretty-good pork neck “gravy” but served with spongy meatballs and mealy sausages. It seemed like the romance of the idea of Sunday Gravy got in the way of the reality. The orecchiette with broccoli rabe and sausage was a total misfire–the ears of pasta were gummy and congealed to each other, it was oversauced with a salty, overly acidic liquid that didn’t marry the flavor of the fennel sausage with the bitterness of the rabe. A couple of bites and I was done.

I hesitated to post this because Formento’s opened recently and has had its share of opening hiccups, including a halt in Friday-night service due to a fire suppression system going off. But, on the other hand, since its opening and friends-and-family meals, the accolades have steadily rolled in (especially from people who attended the latter). I wish Formento’s the best, but I think the relatively simple, ubiquitous concept of Italian-American is proving too difficult to grasp. People eat at Italian-American restaurants, even mediocre ones, because they are simple, uncomplicated, warm, and welcoming. At least Carbone’s in New York–which is wildly expensive–understands the underlying nostalgic, comforting aspect of this genre of restaurants. Formento’s, which seems to shoot for the stars but misses the underlying premise, hopefully can settle down and make the necessary improvements to keep this ambitious operation going.

Oak + Char (Chicago)

Oak + Char is one of the few new restaurants that is getting consistent word-of-mouth praise. And after reading the review by Redeye’s Michael Nagrant — with whom I normally agree about restaurants — I knew I had to go. I’ve never had Chef Joseph Heppe’s food at Untitled so I had no preconceived notions walking in Oak + Char other than that the menu on-line looked interesting.

As for the pantaloon lights, aesthetics aside, I suspect they are there for one main reason — to help absorb the deafening noise in the restaurant. I could barely hear my server above the roar of the crowd and the loud club music, who despite telling him  I couldn’t hear him — never bothered to raise his voice. Just one of many service gaffes that took away from what would have been a much better meal.

In a way, my experience at Oak + Char exemplifies what is wrong with a lot of Chicago’s more ambitious restaurants — the front of the house is way out of step with the back. There is some talent here in the kitchen, and I can see why Nagrant classifies this chef as one to watch. I didn’t spring for the $100 32-ounce ribeye, but instead ordered the highly-touted rye-cured duck and cider-brined pork collar from the “large plates” menu. The proteins themselves were perfectly done — the rye flavors complemented an otherwise simply treated, perfectly prepared medium-rare duck with crispy, rendered skin. The cider-brined pork collar, while a tad over-salted, was explosively rich and tender. However, both proteins were marred by several messy garnishes on the plate that were overly sweet and complicated, and further, dated the dishes into the mid-00’s. (In fact, I went back and looked at the picture of Nagrant’s duck in Redeye, and that dish’s accompaniments were significantly simpler, so I don’t know if the kitchen has since changed the dish.) I think some deletions of the garnishes — or maybe reconstructing the plating — would give the well-prepared proteins their due.

We got the spiel in the beginning (or what I could hear of it) about shared plates. Unfortunately, I am so schooled in this spiel, common across Chicago, that I understood exactly was the server was saying about it, even if I could only hear his every third word. It boils down to whatever you order is shareable, and the kitchen will “try” to course it, but really everything comes out at once. And, yes, that’s mostly what happened.

Since the entrees were so generously portioned, we ordered a couple of snacks to complement the meal. (The highly-regarded ravioli was sold out for the night.) Almost as soon as we enunciated the order, they came out to the table, so I can only assume that the snacks are being held, pre-prepared, in the kitchen. The pecorino arancini was structurally unsound and broke apart with the slightest prodding; it was also missing the textural contrast of the chewy rice and soft cheese. The charred burrata was fine, but the portion was too small compared to the abundant portion of thick, toasted naan bread that was served with it. Both appetizers, though, were barely warm, and in the case of the arancini, poorly constructed.

Like a lot of Chicago restaurants, the wine list is an afterthought, and the brief by-the-glass list doesn’t label which wines are red, white, rose or sparkling, and arranges the reds at the top, and the sparkling wines at the bottom. Why confuse diners by setting up the BTG list this way?

The service, though, was indifferent to hostile, rushed and overall inexperienced. They seemed easily confused by questions, and not ready to recommend wines. When the food and wine came out, it was loudly and quickly thrown on the table, haphazardly (a wine glass placed square in front of my chest, another off to the far end of the table).  No matter how good the food may be, this level of service will always delete from the experience. Having said that, I think that Oak + Char is appealing to a younger crowd that is not as concerned with things like wine, plating and service–and I suspect, would be just as happy eating casual food from Hub 51 as they would the more finessed food of Chef Heppe.

Places I like in West Michigan 2014 (Saugatuck-Douglas-Fennville edition)

I have been a part-time resident of this area for 8 years, mostly during the summer and fall months. Saugatuck, Douglas and Fennville is the tri-town resort area located on the Eastern shore of Lake Michigan. Saugatuck, with its New England-esque seaside town architecture, attracts the most tourists and has the worst restaurants of the three towns. Adjacent Douglas looks like a Midwestern Americana movie set,  and it’s less congested and has better food and drink options.

Fennville (where my house is) is the rural component of the three — its long agricultural history is apparent with miles of rolling farmland, orchards and vineyards. “Main Street” has become an ubiquitous cliché, but here, the main street literally bisects the sleepy downtown and a working freight train route cross-cuts it perpendicularly. It has only one restaurant of note — and a damn good one at that. When you approach downtown Fennville and see the cars lining the streets — they’re there for one thing and one thing only — Salt of the Earth, the farm-to-table restaurant that spawned from its brilliant progenitor, Journeyman Café, itself a farm-to-table restaurant, albeit more along the lines of Blue Hill in Westchester County, New York. It was the vision of Chef Matt Millar and served fine, ambitious food, and was even reviewed by the Chicago Tribune’s Phil Vettel. Alas, it was too ahead of its time to make a go of it. Its replacement, Salt of the Earth, is more casual and serves food that is more budget-friendly, standard-portioned, and the omnipresent pizza on the menu ensures that kids will do fine there, too. Voilà, it just celebrated its 5th birthday.

Some things to keep in mind when you visit the area:

  • You will not find Chicago-caliber restaurants here. Just as you wouldn’t expect to find great Southern BBQ in Thailand, why would you expect the same caliber of trend-setting, high-level dining in an area with a population of less than 10,000? In other words, it’s best to leave the city mindset at home.
  • Having said that, there are a lot of restaurants that are unspeakably — unnecessarily — bad. As in, you could make a better sandwich at home than the one they’re selling on their menu. Or the quality of ingredients is barely human-grade due to sourcing the cheapest stuff from Big Food Supplier. Some small improvements by lots of these restaurants would go a long way toward improving the food offerings.
  • If you like wine, there are several places that have excellent bottles on their wine lists without the mark-up of Chicago restaurants. Drink up.

where to go in Saugatuck

Phil’s Bar & Grille — the locals’ bar is still solid, especially if you stick with their broasted chicken. The secret here is the above-average wine list, which is reasonably-priced, and doesn’t gouge you on the by-the-glass prices.

Uncommon Grounds — go here for coffee and breakfast. They roast their own coffee, do a mean pourover, and their baked goods are fresh and genuinely homemade.

Marro’s *pizza only* Marro’s pizza is in style of Chicago Italian tavern, and it’s quite good. Italian entrees are hit and miss. It closes off-season, so go soon.

Clearbrook Grill *wine only* Go here only to have a good bottle or three from their respectable wine cellar and skip eating. The restaurant with its Colonial-inspired decor might invoke nostalgia in a good sense, and the view out to the golf course is beautiful on a nice day. Clearbrook once had a formal dining space with decent food along with a Wine Spectator-blessed wine cellar, but they were understandably the victims of economic-downturn retrenching. Clearbrook needs to overhaul its menu and charge more for its food and source better ingredients. (If you must eat, order a steak.) The wine cellar remains, the wine is still reasonably priced, and it’s a civilized place to watch a game on TV.

Where to go in Douglas

Everyday People Cafe  — Though the menu hasn’t changed much over the years, I still think this is the place to go for a “night out” in the area. The menu mostly plays it safe, but the food is generally well-executed by Chef Michael Bild, who oversees a kitchen that often puts out banquet-level covers on summer weekends. More than that, the vibe is fun, there is a verdant outdoor patio in the back, and it’s always crowded, so be prepared to wait for a table. Their burger is fantastic – intensely beefy and appropriately juicy, served simply with pickles and frizzled onions — it’s one of my favorites anywhere. On weekend afternoons, their Bubbles & Bites lunch — including champagne, raw bar and build-your-own-bloody marys —  is one of your best options for a leisurely lunch.

Pizza Mambo — The best pizza in the area — thin-ish crust, tavern cut, and high-quality ingredients. The antipasto salad is an embarrassment of riches with salami, prosciutto, grilled sausage, hunks of parmigiano-reggiano and provolone cheese, giardiniera and a variety of olives.

Farmhouse Deli — Caterer/chef Christine Ferris’ deli is doing a lot of great things in-house, including roasting meats, making soups and carry-out salads, and creating a global assortment of refined sandwiches. This is the area’s more modern version of the Hampton’s infamous Barefoot Contessa. Farmhouse Deli also stocks epicurean groceries, cheeses, and charcuterie. It’s great for lunch or for supplementing dinner. Also, it’s one of two places for decent coffee in Douglas (Equal Exchange). (Don’t say I didn’t warn you not to go to Respite, where the default coffee is “flavored.” Last I checked “Cookies on Call” in Douglas was serving Intelligentsia, if you consider that to be decent.)

WayPoint Restaurant — located behind M&M Blue Star cafe, it is a decent option for a classic, diner-style fry-up breakfast in Douglas. Order carefully (don’t do eggs benedict or anything that strays too far from short-order diner fare), and you’ll do fine. I would get coffee elsewhere first and bring it with you to the restaurant lest you’d prefer to drink Gordon Food Service’s finest. No ambiance to speak of, unless you think eating in the waiting room of your dentist in the 1980s counts as adequate restaurant ambiance.

Petter Wine Gallery — go here to drink wine. Unlike most places that reserve their best bottles for their bottle lists, PWG opens bottles that retail between $18- $50 to taste or drink by the glass. The wine bar is located in an interesting art gallery–a unique setting for a glass of wine or two. The wine shop also offers some of the best retail bottles in the area — including a great selection of European and California bottles — if you want to splurge for a barbeque or picnic.

Where to go in Fennville

Salt of the Earth — pretty much the only game in town. Committed to responsible, quality, and local sourcing. Chef Matthew Pietsch — who has comparatively elevated kitchen experience for the area — is genuinely talented. Unfortunately, the pizza, which was once stellar years ago, has undergone so many changes that the most recent incarnation is not worth ordering (the crust is now too doughy). Lately, the best thing Salt of the Earth is doing is brunch — housemade sausage, farm-fresh eggs, and house-baked bread and jam made from local fruit ensure that breakfast will be a winner. Again, bring coffee with you — or better yet — have a breakfast cocktail, as the coffee served here by Contreras Coffee is bitter beyond drinkability. (The terrible coffee here is a serious deficiency that I wish the restaurant would correct.) Concerts on Tuesdays in summer and Sundays in the off-season attract some of the area’s best folk, country and bluegrass acts, and are well-worth attending even if you’re not sold on that type of music. Don’t forget to visit the garden off of Main Street that supplies the restaurant with some of their food.

Crane’s Pie Pantry & Bakery— Skip the restaurant in Crane’s Orchards and head straight for the adjacent bakery. Go here for their homey, decidedly non-fussy pie and ice cream (the apple butter version is particularly good), and freshly made and ridiculously cheap apple cider donuts (sixty cents apiece). I also recommend their Apple Butter bread (do you sense a theme here?). The orchards or Gary Crane’s farm across the street are both great places to pick tree fruits like peaches and more apples varieties than you can imagine.

Earl’s Farm Market — go here for U-pick or We-pick berries and South Haven’s popular Sherman’s ice cream. The on-site bakery carries good, unpretentious pies and cookies. These are the type of baked goods your grandmother would make (assuming your grandmother doesn’t give a hoot about the fat content of the butter and likes the flakiness given of shortening to a crust).

The Tasting Room at Evergreen Lane Farm & Creamery — La Mancha, Nubian and Saanen goats are raised here, milked at nearby Windshadow Farm, and between the two farms, they create some of the most fantastic goat cheese you’ll taste. Sample the varieties here on the farm.

Local Products Worth Picking Up

Palazzolo’s Gelato — once served in one form or another at the ultra-snooty former bakery Pasticceria Natalina in Chicago. The gelato is made in Fennville and can be found in grocery stores in the area, including Fernwood 1891, a general store/art studio in downtown Fennville that carries the most varieties. (You can also buy Evergreen Lane cheese here too.)

SeedySalt bread — One of the farmers/bakers at Kismet Bakery was purportedly the inventor of local cult favorite bread, SeedySalt, back when it was served at the Journeyman Café. It’s a sourdough bread topped with, as the name suggests, a variety of seeds and coarse French sea salt and baked in a wood-fired oven. It’s really good. Available at Kismet Farm or Summertime Market on Blue Star Highway in Douglas. You can find the facsimile of SeedySalt made by Salt of the Earth at various grocery stores in the area or at the restaurant. The two are virtually indistinguishable, flavor-wise, but I think the superior bread-making skills at Kismet give it the edge.

Earl’s Farm Market 5-pepper hot sauce — Available at Summertime Market in Douglas and Earl’s Farm Market in Fennville. Medium-hot and a little sweet, the variety of peppers suggest a Hungarian-style hot sauce rather than a Southern barrel-aged Tabasco.

Evergreen Lane Creamery cheese — Available retail throughout the area, including Farmhouse Deli, Fernwood 1891 and Summertime Market.

American Spoon Foods — Available lots of places, I know, but the shop in downtown Saugatuck carries some staples that should make it to your cottage or on to your picnic table: Whole-Seed Mustard is made with Michigan Sparkling wine, which sweetens the intense bite of the mustard seeds and causes them to burst on your tongue as you eat it; the concentrated, complex Dried Chile Salsa is a great accompaniment to eggs, meat and almost anything savory; and the Leelanau Apricot Preserves, made with Leelanau Peninsula apricots (the best I’ve ever had in Michigan) is more pleasantly tart than the cloying apricot jam made with California apricots.

BBQ wines at Fenn Valley Winery — It seems strange recommending reds from a Michigan winery, but a consistently reliable, non-vintage fruity red called “Capriccio” made by Fenn Valley (it is even sold by the liter box, it’s so unpretentious) will be a thousand times more enjoyable with your smoked barbeque meats than the high-alcohol, raisin-y, oft-recommended California Zinfandels. For something more substantial, I like the Meritage, a dry red blend of locally-grown Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.

 

 

2013 in Review

My Most Impressionable 2013 Eating and Drinking Experiences

The whole point of blogging is to create a written record of what you did/didn’t do and liked/didn’t like, because as you age, it’s tough to remember anything without writing it down. To that end, here’s my year-end wrap-up of dining and traveling in 2013, the places that made the strongest impression on me, for good or for bad:

The Good

Cinco Jotas at EL Ideas, Chicago

During the NRA show, exhibitor Cinco Jotas teamed up with EL Ideas for an entirely Iberico ham-themed dinner. It was a wild orgy of culinary excess that involved an entire leg and a professional carver from Spain at our disposal, several ham-focused courses by Phillip Foss and his team, and lots of BYO wine. You haven’t seen people go crazy unless you’ve seen them with unfettered access to a leg of Cinco Jotas jamón. Seriously, though, eating (and eating) a heritage product like acorn-fed Iberico ham never gets old, even if you’re sweating ham the next day.

Tanta Chicago

I wrote about my experience at Tanta during previews. At the time, I wasn’t sure how Tanta would fit in to the patchwork of tourist-centric restaurants in River North. Judging by the crowds, it seems like it’s a hit. Although the food certainly is delicious and the menu approachable, I still find Tanta’s popularity intriguing. Maybe Tanta’s success is a commentary on the type of food, price point and atmosphere that is in demand in River North more than anything else, but its success might have the extra effect of opening up Chicago to other similar imports or attention by international chefs. I think that would be a good thing.

Pujol and Quintonil, Mexico City

These restaurants are the real deal. As Mexico City dining continues to gain greater attention, these two restaurants stand above a very dense pack of excellent chef-driven restaurants.

Raku, Las Vegas

I finally made it to this beloved Japanese restaurant in Chinatown after hearing, again and again, how great it is. It is. I still dream of the sweet smoke that emanated from everything they grilled. The housemade tofu with the texture of fresh ricotta. The green tea salt. The pork rib. Food that was bold–and confident–with great service to boot.

Gramercy Tavern, NYC

I’ve been going here for years. Maybe it was the multiple visits on my last trip (I stayed only a few blocks from there), but, boy, I’ve been really missing this place lately. I visited during early September, when seasonal produce was at its height. A simple crudité plate was a study in vegetables — 3 types of beautifully executed, intensely-flavored sauces were paired with raw, tempura, blanched or roasted vegetables. A place that well understands seasonality and its ingredients, and is uniquely warm and comfortable as well, never goes out of style.

Yakitori Totto, NYC

I finally–and I mean, finally!–made it to Yakitori Totto, a popular mid-town restaurant located on the second floor of a non-descript building. It was about 85 degrees outside that late June night, and about 99 degrees inside Yakitori Totto, but somehow, that made it more appropriate. Not a dud here, food-wise. Pork neck was, by far, the standout, but egg dishes, rice dishes, they were all solid as well. At the end of the dinner, after ordering what seemed like enough dishes for an army, it was pleasant to see a relatively reasonable price charged for a meal in Midtown Manhattan.

Bemelman’s, NYC

A Bourdain favorite, I visited for the first time this past June. A New York must. It’s not just that Bemelman’s seems to represent so perfectly the Upper East side given that it’s part of a luxury art deco historic hotel, which is ornate and well-appointed beyond your wildest dreams. It’s that, to reach Bemelman’s, you have to go through the lobby and down a far remote corridor to a windowless, back room bar, itself a window into another time. Where else has murals by a famous artist (painted in exchange for room and board), or a truly talented piano player who plays compellingly during the afternoon, as if anyone could possibly have anything else to do during the afternoon than while away at Bemelman’s? Although the drinks are definitely reflective of the atmosphere (and clientele), the bartenders know somehow, magically, to make a proper classic cocktail even though they don’t have handlebar mustaches, speakeasy garb, or ironic facial hair.

Bar Ingles, Lima Peru

The Peruvian version of Bemelman’s (kind of) is Bar Ingles, in the Country Club Hotel in Lima. There’s something about this hotel–perhaps it’s the obvious colonial theme–that embodies South American dictator culture at its finest. Though I jest, the traditional European decor and finely-trained servers may simply be the hallmarks of high-end hospitality the world over, but, let’s get down to business, make a mean Pisco Sour. The meanest. This is a plush safe haven to kill time when, say, you’re waiting for your 2 am flight back to the States.

New York City, generally

Everyone who is interested in food and eating should go to NYC at least once a year, if they can. I love Chicago, but there is too much going on here to miss.

Husk Bar, Charleston, S.C.

Even more so than Husk The Restaurant, I cherished my time at Husk Bar. An adjacent building (I’m guessing it was the old kitchen and slaves’ quarters for the great house now occupied by Husk The Restaurant), this is the place to cool your heels and drink bourbon. If you’re hungry, have some country ham.

McCrady’s, Charleston, S.C.

I thought McCrady’s really showed off Sean Brock’s culinary chops. The high-end versions of Southern classics were serious, intellectual, inspired and truly delicious. One of the most refined tasting menus I had this year, and at a fraction of the price. I have to admit that I enjoyed my meal here far more than the bland one I had at Husk.

The 2013 Chicago Standbys

Vera

I need to have a small plates and wine-focused place to go to when I don’t know where else I’d want to go. Vera is my go-to place to relax, stop by to kill time on my way somewhere else, or to just “eat.” Meaning, I just want a delicious, satisfying plate of food and good wine. Vera answers that call every time and has solidified its place as the “go-to” in my life.

Telegraph

I have long followed Sommelier Jeremy Quinn’s unusual wine selections for years (too many to admit) at Webster’s Wine Bar. I’m thrilled that his wine selections are now seriously paired with seriously good food. The monthly wine tastings curated by Quinn that are paired with wine-appropriate food by Chef Anderes is one of the best bargains in town.

Rootstock

Rootstock hasn’t budged from prior years as my late night, early evening, whenever-I-just-want-to-drink-and-have-a-bite, or when I just want one-more-drink-before-going-home place. It’s about as perfect a wine bar as you can get. The food is good, too.

Davanti Enoteca (Taylor St.)/Three Aces

I go to the movies a lot during the winter. Before or after, and sometimes both, you can find me at either of these two fine places. Davanti is a really solid restaurant that, for whatever reason, doesn’t seem to be taken as seriously as it should. The pastas are almost always beautifully done and the wine is wonderful. What more do you need?

People complain about the service at Three Aces, but I always sit at the bar, and I’ve always had great service. Though the Italian food here is more creative and loosely translated than at Davanti, it seems to be the only bar food I actually crave, even if their bolognese is a tad salty at times. The pizza isn’t my favorite, but is $5 at times, which makes it a great bargain. I tend to stick with entrees (like the buckwheat gnocchi) or their delicious burger and bolognese fries and I’m happy.

Grace

I don’t eat top tier meals in Chicago all that often (who does, really?). I don’t subscribe to Next, so I’m not committed to any one place for high-end meals. For me, the place to have a splurge meal is Grace. In just one year, Chef Duffy has honed his food into something distinct, fresh, innovative, seasonal, bright, unique, and challenging in a way that doesn’t scare diners or shackle them to their chair for six hours. The pacing is perfect; my last meal lasted no more than three hours, and I left feeling full without hating myself. The service is personable, knowledgeable and confident. The room is pleasantly buzzing. This is what all splurge meals should be like.

Fat Rice

After going to Fat Rice on opening night, I was scared off by later talk of lines and crowds. Chef/owners Abe and Adrienne have responded to the waits with a customer-friendly option: the next-door salon, where you can comfortably wait with a drink and order snacks. During recent visit there, I waited 10 minutes for my table, but would have been comfortable waiting there for twice that time. As for the food, the explosive, dynamic flavors of their version of Portuguese-Macanese food is worth every national accolade they got. I’ll be back more during 2014.

The Disappointments

Show over Substance (Central, Lima, Peru; é by José Andrés, Las Vegas; Cook It Raw, Charleston)

Lima is more than willing to set its cuisine on a world stage. The problem is that, what happens when the world comes to judge? Central, the flagship restaurant by Virgilio Martinez, is second only to Gaston Acurio’s Astrid y Gaston in Lima. Judging it by international standards, the service is amaterish, and the plating is at once highly stylized (two swaths of food down plates) and terribly ugly (brown food sauced by brown food). There appears to be a lot of intellect behind the food that doesn’t really translate coherently on the plate.

é by José Andrés is an 8-seat restaurant behind Jaleo in The Cosmopolitan that stages two, very expensive culinary shows every night. It’s a Vegas-style schtick that takes the poof and magic of modernist cuisine, and puts it front and center. I’ll accept that I’m jaded, but this is a show for people who are totally unfamiliar with this style of cuisine. If you are familiar with this food, you’d expect the food on the plate to taste better. The culmination of the magic tricks were wan, tasteless, science experiments. Skip the Vegas show, and eat this style of food in more serious venues.

Cook It Raw! is an unfortunately named, week-long seminar of sorts for some of the world’s elite chefs (not all are world-class) that culminated, for the first time, with a BBQ that was open to the public. This made sense given the theme (Southern foodways). However, several chefs who were represented to be in attendance (Andre Chiang, Dan Barber, Ben Shewry, among others) were no-shows at the BBQ. The theme was loosely interpreted (tacos by “The Mexicans”, i.e., Javier Tellez, Enrique Olvera, and Alex Stupak), ignored entirely (Canadian food) or just badly executed (Albert Adrià’s dish was one but not the only one). A disappointment on the whole, but an excuse to go to Charleston and eat well elsewhere.

Las Vegas Strip in General

This is hardly a revelation, but I can’t seem to get my mind around how, for all the investment per square foot in restaurants on the Las Vegas Strip, the food only seems to be getting worse. Even finding a solid drink is tough, too, among all the Blue Hawaiians and faux-tinis. A strange place, culinarily, that seems to have perfected the synthesis of suburban chain restaurants and urban celebrity chefs.

Blue Hill at Stone Barns

I saved this for last, as it was the biggest heartbreaker. I’ve long been a fan of Dan Barber, his seasonal philosophy and his fearlessness in serving food that he raises or grows. The food was knock-your-socks-off delicious. The wine service was among the worst I’ve ever experienced, and tempered the rest of the meal. It was a terrible service experience that I don’t intend to repeat anytime soon, food notwithstanding.

DANNY BROWN WINE BAR, OR THE BEST CASE OF ANTI-CHICAGO BIAS BY MICHELIN

On a recent business trip, I detoured from LaGuardia to Danny Brown Wine Bar & Kitchen in New York City, which has the distinction of being the borough of Queens’ only Michelin-starred restaurant. It also happened to be the day that Michelin announced its star designations for NYC restaurants, so they had received the good news (that they retained their star), and many regulars came in to congratulate them.

I liked Danny Brown Wine Bar, more for the vibe than the food or wine. For a place that calls itself a wine bar the wine list was ho-hum. The food, while a dated parade of mid-90s standards (duck confit, roasted chicken with rosemary potatoes, hangar steak), was satisfying in a comforting weekday sort of a way. As I enjoyed my well-paced meal (service was great), I settled in, sipped a middling glass of red wine as dusk descended, and watched as more patrons arrived in casual, post-work dress. They were greeting Danny and the staff with cheek-kisses and chit-chat, inquiring after family, and contributing to a mellow, friendly vibe, helped along by the soft-jazz playing, I thought, oh, this is such a classic New York neighborhood restaurant, exactly what you’d expect —

RECORD SCRATCHED.

No, it wasn’t. Or maybe it was, but that was not what formed my frame of reference. DBWB reminded me of CHICAGO neighborhood restaurants. West Town Tavern (RIP) was the first, most prominent comparison that came to mind. Not to sound boosterish, but Chicago — the city of neighborhoods — has perfected the neighborhood restaurant. What is more, there are many versions of DBWB in Chicago, except that I can name several off of the top of my head that have more ambitious menus and better executed food, cocktails, and wine programs than that at DBWB. Yet, few of them are Bib Gourmands, let alone Michelin stars.

How can Michelin possibly explain this disparity? Maybe Michelin isn’t going deep into Chicago’s restaurant landscape, but that’s inconsistent with its awarding Bib Gourmands to little-discussed restaurants like Yolo or De Colores. Frankly, I don’t think there is an explanation, except that Michelin wanted to reward the borough of Queens with a Michelin-starred restaurant. But this sort of relaxing of standards for NYC and not Chicago would indicate a bias, because Michelin doesn’t seem so concerned with equitably distributing its stars throughout Chicago neighborhoods. The popular, dining-rich neighborhoods of Andersonville and Wicker Park, for instance, have zero Michelin-starred restaurants.

So, to prove my point (if only to myself), here are 10 great neighborhood restaurants in Chicago that are similar to but better than Danny Brown Wine Bar:

Restaurants that do not have a Michelin star but are Bib Gourmands:

1)  Balena

2)  Avec

3)  The Bristol

4)  Nightwood

5)  The Storefront Company

(Note that I could have also included places like Maude’s, Ada Street, Gilt Bar, Au Cheval, Spacca Napoli, etc., but in fairness, I think they’re going for something different than DBWB.)

Restaurants that do not have a Michelin star or a Bib Gourmand:

1)  Vera

2)  Telegraph

3)  Yusho

4)  Ruxbin

5)  A Tavola

Any of these restaurants are easily more worthy of accolades than DBWB, either because their food is more finessed, their wine and beverage programs are more honed (or ambitious), or they exceed DBWB’s idea of an exceptional neighborhood restaurant.

Depending on the next announcement, Michelin is teetering on a genuine perception problem in Chicago. Talk to any frequent Chicago diner, and they’ll most likely grumble about Michelin. (In contrast, here is one example of how Michelin is viewed differently in NYC.) DBWB is just one argument (in my opinion) for a colorable claim of bias. If Chicago restaurants are subjected to the yearly dog-and-pony announcement show put on by Michelin only to feel shorted by the process, well, the major accomplishment by Michelin will be to create a large group of Michelin Nihilists in the country’s third-largest city. Does Michelin’s US arm benefit from having a holdout city that loudly discredits the guide as a joke? Depending upon what happens in November, we’ll see.