March 10, 2009

Foie Gras Wars

The Foie Gras Wars by Mark Caro

“I like geese,” film critic Roger Ebert said, “but their livers seem to bring out the worst in people….”

Truer words were never spoken. And Philadelphia knows this all too well.

Ebert’s quote appears on the back jacket of the new book “Foie Gras Wars” by Chicago Tribune reporter Mark Caro. Chicago, Ebert and Caro’s town, was at the genesis of what Caro describes as “the world’s fiercest food fight.” And in this new book, Caro provides—for lack of a better phrase—a bird’s eye view of the entire deliciously sordid controversy.

No version of the story would be complete without including Philadelphia, of course. And two full chapters of Caro's book are dedicated exclusively to the drama that unfolded here in the City of Featherly Love.

There is much to appreciate about Caro’s telling of our little slice of the story. Caro spent some time in Philly as a student at Penn, so he knows the landscape. But he's also enough of an outsider that he brings a unique perspective to our saga. Moreover, even if you followed the issue closely as it was unfolding, Caro conducted sufficient independent research for the book (including new interviews and, apparently, reading court transcripts) to make the story fresh again.

But what I enjoyed most about the Philly chapters, even more than Caro’s playfully irreverent tone, was his ability to capture the characters at play, including David Ansill (chef and owner of Ansill), Nick Cooney (head of the Humane League, f/k/a/ Hugs for Puppies), City Councilman Jack Kelly, and Terry McNally (co-owner of London Grill). Regardless of whether you hold a fork or a picket sign in this debate, it won’t take long before you’re laughing out loud. Here’s an example:

Nick Cooney has a friendly face and a demeanor that says Polite Young Man. His brown hair is parted in the middle and has a bit of fluffiness to it. His almond-shaped hazel eyes draw you in with their earnest focus, while his small mouth rests in the position of a perpetual sigh. His nose is prominent but in harmony with a long, lean face that suggests a softer Adrien Brody. He wears button-down oxford shirts that tuck easily into his slim-cut jeans or khakis. He looks like the kind of guy you’d want your college-grad daughter to bring home, though that appeal isn’t limited to the twentysomething set.

“The first time I saw Nick Cooney, I wanted to fuck him,” said Terry McNally, the late-fortysomething co-owner of the London Grill.

Cooney is not legally allowed to come within 50 feet of her restaurant or house.
To find out exactly why Cooney was enjoined, you'll have to read the book. Or you can ask Caro yourself; I understand he'll be at the Penn Book Store on April 7 promoting his book.

But I will say this: I interviewed Nick Cooney in person for a piece I wrote for City Paper. And although Caro’s description of Cooney is accurate, I cannot say that I shared McNally’s sentiments.

No offense, Nick. My wings just don’t fold that way.

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December 11, 2008

The Inqy's Rick Nichols Writes About Food Blogger Potluck

In today’s Inquirer, the always poignant and eloquent Rick Nichols writes about the phenomenon that has become the Philadelphia Food Blogger Potluck.

In hindsight, the idea of the Philadelphia food blogger potluck almost seemed preordained—we all write about food and drink, so why not get together and share some food and drink? But it took the organizational skills of Taylor High (Mac & Cheese), Elizabeth Halen (Foodaphilia) and Marisa McClellan (Fork You; Slashfood) to get the idea off the ground. The inaugural potluck was held last year at Marisa’s apartment (Apartment 2024).

Rick attended the most recent installment of this culinary clatch last Friday at the abode of Albert Yee and Kate Donnelly (a/k/a/ Messy and Picky). It’s fitting that the potluck got press from the Inqy at a time when Albert and Kate hosted because Messy and Picky, I believe, is Philadelphia’s longest-surviving, if not the city’s first true, food blog.

But what I love most about Rick’s article is that he was able to appreciate and convey the fact that these potlucks are truly about sharing good times with close friends.

I was disappointed that I was unable to make it to this potluck; it’s been a long time since I broke bread with many of these folks. Too long, in fact. So you can imagine my surprise when I discovered that I was mentioned in the article—not once, but twice:

Blessedly, there were no name tags. But there was explaining to do: “I’m at Phoodie” -, which recently posted on the flavor of fermented black garlic at Zahav: Tastes like tamarind! - said Collin Flatt, “not PhilaFoodie,”

For the record, he’s not at Foodaphilia (, either. That would be Elizabeth Halen: “I’m Foodaphilia, not PhilaFoodie; I’d have to get shorter, manlier and balder for that. . . .”

Folks, I may have been in denial about it for a while, though I have noticed people staring from time to time. But since it’s out there in the open, I may as well just admit it: Yes, it is true—I am manly.

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December 06, 2008

Geeks Who Give Hosts Philabundance Food Drive & Tweetup

Geeks Who Give

Ever wonder what it’s like to be on a review with a restaurant critic? Geeks Who Give (GWG), a recently-formed community group, is offering you a chance to find out—and, more importantly, giving you an opportunity to do something good along the way.

The Philadelphia tech community is truly gifted in its ability to organize, collaborate and create, among other things. GWG mobilizes this community and channels that positive energy to people and causes that truly need it.

For its inaugural event, GWG is hosting a Food Drive & Tweetup to benefit Philabundance. The event will take place at National Mechanics in Old City from 6pm to 9pm. Admission is a minimum of 5 non-perishable food items. The food items must be packaged in boxes, cans or plastic bottles, and should not have to be refrigerated. In addition to drink specials, guests will receive 1 raffle ticket for the first 5 food items, and more tickets for additional food items. The current list of raffle prizes includes:

• Dinner for Two at Fork in Philadelphia;
• A Gift Certificate and T-shirt from Tattooed Mom’s;
• Treats courtesy of Open Source Cupcakes;
• A $75 gift certificate to the Wine School of Philadelphia; and
• More prizes are being added every day.

The prize I’ve contributed is a seat at my table while I’m out on a restaurant review for City Paper. Of course, I’ll pick up the tab. We’ll have to keep a low profile, obviously (e.g., no twittering the event). We don’t want the restaurant to know we’re on a review, for example, and we don’t want the world to know which restaurant will be the subject of an upcoming review in the City Paper. And, of course, it is important that you keep my identity secret. But you knew all of that; the whole cloak-and-dagger/behind-the-scenes experience, presumably, is part of the draw. That and a free meal, of course.

Be sure to show up at National Mechanics early. At 7pm, local food podcasters Fork You will be giving a cooking demo with non-perishable food items. Stick around afterwards for TechKaraoke at 9pm.

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November 24, 2008

Kites, Masks, Roots and Duck Tongues: A City Paper Restaurant Review Round-up

A number of friends have raised two issues to me: (1) content has been lacking on ye olde PhilaFoodie; and (2) they want a place they can go to find my City Paper reviews (it’s too hard to type, apparently).

To wit: here are links to my past thirteen (13) City Paper restaurant reviews:

Hostaria da Elio: Elio-ments of Style (8/14/08)

10Arts: Marble Giant (10/28/08)

Cantina dos Segundos: Dos Def (9/04/08)

Da Vinci Ristorante: Groan-a Lisa (9/11/08)

Distrito: Who Is That Masked Man? (9/18/08)

Kite & Key: Higher Ground (9/23/08)

Jovan’s Place: Love Slav (10/09/08)

Root: His Dark Materials (10/16/08)

Du Jour Symphony House: The Daily Show (10/23/08)

Minar Palace: On the Rebound (10/30/08)

Joe's Peking Duck Original 1984: The Lovin’ Poon-ful (11/06/08)

Q-Ba: Q-rious (11/13/08)

Wokano: Wokano Wild Side (11/20/08)

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November 04, 2008

Pie of the Tiger

In the November 15, 2008 issue of Wine Spectator, Sam Gugino comes to Philadelphia to profile Chef Daniel Stern. (See The Apple Pie of Mom’s Eye, subscription required.) Guigino falls in love with the apple pie Stern serves at Gayle and Rae, a recipe from his mother’s bakery that he tweaked:

The Gayle version I sampled was one of the best apple pies I’ve ever eaten. It was incredibly rich—although I should have expected that given the half-pound of butter, shortening, and two cups of sour cream in the recipe. Despite this richness, the crust was extremely tender and the taste of the apples came through nicely, even though I tasted the pie in August, before the flavorful local apples arrived. I also liked the fact that the flavors and textures of the pie—apples, brown sugar, cinnamon, butter, sour cream, and walnuts—were all in harmony. The gently herbal thyme ice cream provided the perfect foil.
Because Stern provides the recipe, you could make it at home. But if you did that, you’d miss out on the exciting wine pairings Rae’s sommelier, Ryan Davis, suggests: Leacock’s Bual Maderia 1966, Selaks Ice Wine 2005 or the Merryvale Muscat de Frontignan.

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August 13, 2008

PA Direct Wine Shipping Update

Chateau Mouton Rothschild 2003

In April, I wrote an article for City Paper about the status of direct wine shipping in PA. The article discussed the two bills pending in the state legislature—a bill by Rep. Paul Costa (D. Allegheny County) that would allow only wineries to ship wine into PA, and a bill by Sen. Jim Ferlo (D. Allegheny County) that would also allow retailers to do so.

Costa said he planned to hold hearings this summer on his bill. According to a recent article in The Morning Call, the hearings have started. The legislature may not get to vote on the bill, however, before the end of session. If that happens, Costa will have to reintroduce his bill next year.

That doesn’t bother me—based on The Morning Call article, it appears the legislature needs a little more time to get all of the issues into focus.

The first hearing—which was held at a vineyard in Chester County—seems to have been spent discussing how much money leveling the playing field will cost in-state wineries, which Costa admitted to me in April was one of his main concerns. According to the article, the 18% Johnstown Flood Tax historically has not been levied on wine bought directly from in-state wineries. PA wineries are complaining that the proposed law—which would impose this tax on their wine, the same tax that’s long been imposed on all out-of-state wines—will give out-of-state wineries an advantage.

Even setting aside the logical absurdity that leveling the playing field results in an “advantage” here, cutting in-state wineries a break is precisely why PA’s prior direct shipping laws were declared unconstitutional. Debating whether the field should be leveled doesn’t advance the ball because continuing to have an uneven playing field is no longer an option. The focus now is supposed to be on finding a way for wine to be shipped into PA from out-of-state while still preserving the state’s ability to collect the 18% Johnstown Flood Tax and prevent underage drinking. It’s not clear from the article whether this was discussed at the first hearing.

In addition, it doesn’t appear from the article that there has been any discussion of allowing retailers to ship wine into PA. Consumers often times are not able to buy wine directly from the winery, especially if the wine is made outside the U.S. Failing to discuss retailers at the hearings would reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of how the wine market works. Practically, if the new law does not include retailers, it will be of little use to most of the folks who would take advantage of it.

Even though Ferlo’s bill is by far the better piece of legislation (it allows retailers to ship directly to your door, requires an adult signature for delivery, and accounts for the collection of PA taxes), Costa was the one who had the connections to get the hearings moving. Back in April, though, Costa told me he was open to solutions other than the ones proposed in his bill. We’ll have to wait until the next hearing to see if that’s true.

William Penn once wrote, “Governments, like clocks, go from the motion men give them….” Much like an old clock, legislative progress sometimes is slow. In terms of ironing out the direct wine shipping laws, the lack of speed is frustrating, but it can be tolerated. That is, of course, assuming the time they spend will lead to them getting it right.

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August 06, 2008

Talula's Table

Talula's Table

For those who may not have heard, I got a gig at City Paper as a restaurant critic. I thought I'd start off with a bang by reviewing Talula’s Table. You can find the review here.

Because of how frequently the menu changes at Talula’s Table (not to mention how difficult it is to get in), it was not practical to send a photographer, so the pic that appears in the review is mine. You can find pics of other dishes I had there in my Talula’s Table set on Flickr.

Enjoy this last bit of food porn while you can, folks. I won’t be dragging the camera with me on restaurant reviews anymore. Leaving the camera at home, of course, will help me to remain anonymous. But, then again, I plan to be in disguise anyway—a fellow food writer warned me that I’ll gain 15 pounds, and in anticipation of this I ordered a dozen Hawaiian muu’muus. No one will recognize me in one of those.

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July 20, 2008

Crios de Susana Balbo Torrontes 2007

Crios de Susana Balbo Torrontes 2007

In the not too distant past, a bottle of Torrontes was relatively hard to find in this part of the world. These days, however, this exotic varietal is popping up everywhere, from Philadelphia restaurants’ wine lists to PLCB stores’ shelves. But, despite its increased availability, Torrontes still remains unfamiliar to many wine drinkers.

Though it is believed to have originated in Galacia in northwestern Spain, Torrontes has earned the reputation as being the characteristic white wine grape of Argentina. There are actually three separate varieties known as Torrontes in Argentina—Torrontes Riojano, Torrontes Sanjuanino and Torrontes Mendocino. Torrontes Riojano is not only the more common of the three (and the most superior in terms of quality), it is also the most-planted white wine grape in Argentina—roughly 20,000 acres according to 2001 figures.

One reason Torrontes may have struggled to find a spot on our collective palates, in addition to its prior lack of availability, is its rich, distinctive aroma. On the nose, Torrontes typically delivers an intense perfume of roses or jasmine—much like an Avon party attended by a room full of grandmas who were on their way home from church. The wine’s all-up-in-your-grill fragrance can be bold, sometimes to the point of being downright obnoxious. And for many folks, there is no middle ground; you either love it or you hate it. However, those willing to embrace its aroma will be rewarded with lush flavors of peaches, lychee nut and exotic fruits.

The mouthfeel of this wine is also noteworthy. Torrontes has the body of a Muscat or a Gewürtztraminer. Indeed, recent DNA profiling at the University of California at Davis has confirmed that there is a high degree of probability that Torrontes Riojano and Torrontes Sanjuanino are each the progeny of a cross between Muscat of Alexandria and Criolla Chica (also known as the Mission grape in the U.S.). Yet, Torrontes is also naturally high in acidity, higher than you'd expect given its medium body (normally, a wine’s acid and body are inversely proportional). The result is a dry, crisp white that can refresh in warm weather and still keep you cozy on cool nights.

The best Torrontes on the PLCB store shelves right now—or on any store shelf, for that matter—is the Crios de Susana Balbo Torrontes 2007 (PLCB No. 29293, $12.99). Susana Balbo is best known for her premium wines, particularly her Malbec. But Balbo’s more affordable Crios line consistently delivers outstanding quality for the price. Her Torrontes is a shining star in this collection.

Here, the grape’s distinctive aroma is present, but its elegant and not overbearing. White peach, honey and tropical fruit flavors fill your mouth followed by a hint of spice. The palate is softer and rounder than in past years (presumably from going through slightly more malo), but a refreshing seam of acidity keeps this wine completely in balance. An ideal match with Thai or Mexican cuisine or perfect on its own.

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July 07, 2008

Yabba-Dabba-Zoo! — Zot’s Flintstone Dinner


Food means different things to different people. To some, it is a way to express political, ethical or religious beliefs. To others, it is fuel that is consumed in precision to build an athletic machine. And, indeed, there are those who see food merely as sustenance, nothing more.

But to certain people, including me and the pack with which I hunt, food is adventure in its purest form—a means of exploring the world and testing the limits that define it. Those who subscribe to this philosophy wolf through the restaurant scene in search of the exotic and devour their finds with devilish bravado.

Zot Restaurant recently hosted a dinner that seemed to be designed specifically for this crowd—the Flintstone Dinner. Though somewhat of a misnomer (after all, there were no brontosaurus burgers or gravelberry pies), Zot’s Fintstone Dinner featured an array of exotic meats that you’d be more likely to find in a zoo than at your local butcher: snapping turtle, python, black bear, yak, antelope and—the real draw—African lion. The experience, however, turned out to be more tame than game.

Python Molurus Bivitatus & Foie Gras

To be fair, Zot did a lot of things right with this dinner. First, Zot deserves credit for hosting such a dinner in the first place. We sometimes forget that restaurants are businesses with narrow profit margins, and this is not the type of dinner you host with the expectation of raking in the coin. Second, with the exception of the python & foie gras course (a miss from conception to execution), each dish, individually, was well prepared. In terms of the progression, each plate that was put in front of you became your new favorite.

If this were any other tasting menu, that probably would be sufficient. But this menu, by design, was different.

African Lion Stew

Ultimately, if you showed up for this dinner, the one thing you wanted to be able to walk away with was a clear understanding of what each particular exotic meat tasted like. But that did not happen. Instead of leveraging the unique flavor of each meat, Zot, in most instances, chose to subdue them, mostly though seasonings. The lion, for example, was prepared as a stew with carrots, pearl onions and gnocchi. This dish was tasty. But the coriander-heavy spices drowned out the meat. As a result, I still have no idea what lion really tastes like. This was true of the yak and antelope as well. The python was deep fried and, hence, virtually indistinguishable from any other fried morsel.

Wild Snapping Turtle Soup

With the snapping turtle soup, Zot intentionally masked the flavor. Turtle has a distinctive taste (sort of a fishy chicken). Once you’ve had it, you won’t forget it. We were told this batch of turtle was particularly fishy and were reassured that the dish was prepared so as to tone down the fishiness. Indeed, the soup’s cilantro, lemongrass and sweet carrots held the fishiness in check. But, as a result, you couldn’t tell that what you were eating was turtle. Again, it begs the question: Why mask the turtle’s unique flavor if that’s what we’re here to taste?

Zot appears to have been torn between and constructing dishes that would allow the flavors of these exotic meats to roam wild and constructing dishes that would stand on their own. At a minimum, the dinner's theme called for the former. Zot chose the latter. But the truth is that the two are not mutually exclusive.

Black Bear in Greens

The wine pairings, however, revealed that some things are mutually exclusive. To pair wine and food successfully, you have to know what the food tastes like. There’s just no way around it. Here, the wine-industry person who paired the wines told us that they were a vegetarian. I respect that as a lifestyle choice. But when it comes to pairing wine with exotic meat dishes, being a vegetarian, unsurprisingly, is not exactly the best skill set. For example, the Black Bear Bacon in Greens course was paired with a Rosé. On its face, Rosé would appear to be a safe bet—it’s incredibly versatile and goes great with salads. But the black bear bacon (the one exotic meat you could actually taste unadulterated) was far too intense for Rosé. In fact, the dish screamed for a Cote-Rotie or, as someone else at our table brilliantly suggested, an Hermitage. A person in the wine industry who tasted the food would have known that.

Zot is one of the few restaurants around that has the mettle to host dinners like these. And it should continue to do so. Next time, though, Zot should allow itself to be a little more…wild.

For more pics, check out my Zot's Flintstone Dinner set on Flickr.

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June 18, 2008

Blais of Glory

Chef Richard Blais

If you’re into food, there’s a good chance you’re a fan of Bravo’s Top Chef. The Season Four finale aired last Thursday. It seemed as though Chef Richard Blais (pronounced “blaze”)—the faux-hawked chef from Atlanta known for his creative and whimsical dishes—was preordained to take the Top Chef prize.

That didn’t happen. The poised and talented Chef Stephanie Izzard won the title of Top Chef instead.

But the real surprise of the finale wasn’t that Chef Blais lost. It was that this normally unflappable chef confessed at the Judge's Table that he, in his words, "choked."

Chef Blais, who recently became a father for the first time, sat for a telephone interview with me the day after the finale aired to explain what happened.

Not sure if Chef Blais, or any of the other Season 4 cheftestants, will be in Philly for the Top Chef tour on July 9. However, Chef Blais revealed that he will be in Philly in September for a James Beard dinner at Tangerine.

Many thanks to my friend, Atlanta food stylist and food blogger, Tami Hardeman, for helping to set up the interview. Also thanks to Broderick Smylie for giving me permission to use his photo of Chef Blais. Photo copyright Broderick Smylie 2008.

The full interview after the jump.

PhilaFoodie: Chef Blais, thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. I really appreciate it.

Chef Richard Blais: Of course.

PF: So, I guess the first question is: which is tougher—competing on Top Chef or being a new father?

rB: Well, so far, being on Top Chef, I would say, is definitely tougher than being a new father. It’s been nothing but sheer joy so far. That’s a pretty easy question.

PF: Congratulations on the birth of your daughter.

rB: Thank you so much.

PF: Let’s talk a little bit about last night’s finale. Although Stephanie got to pick her sous-chef first, you picked Chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill, who is known for helping to pioneer the same farm-to-table model you’re applying at your new restaurant called HOME in Atlanta. Were you glad to get Chef Barber?

rB: Oh, yeah. I mean, honestly, you walk into that situation and you have three tables full of amazing ingredients and you have three unbelievable chefs. So, regardless of what chef you worked with, or what table of ingredients you got, you were going to be in pretty good shape. Certainly, I picked Chef Barber essentially because of the whole farm-to-table thing and because it’s something that I’m certainly behind. And also because I think it’s a good contrast to some of the creative things that I do.

PF: On the show, you mentioned that each contestant was allowed to bring one special ingredient to the finale, and you brought a tank of liquid nitrogen. How did you get the tank to Puerto Rico?

rB: Actually, the Top Chef production company managed to get the tank to Puerto Rico. I’m doing a demonstration in Jamaica in two weeks and I’ve brought it to some other far-away places as well. You know, it wasn’t a big enough tank, to be quite honest. It was a really tiny, little, small tank of liquid nitrogen. It was like a soup thermos of nitrogen. But yeah, somehow they managed, with me giving them some contacts, to make sure that there was a little bit of nitrogen in the kitchen.

PF: Why only one special ingredient this year?

rB: Actually, it was still the same set up from Chicago where you could bring other ingredients. This was one specific, very special ingredient that pretty much no one else could use. That was just specifically for that last episode, that last challenge. So, every contestant still had a small bag of other ingredients at their disposal as well.

PF: What special ingredients did Stephanie and Lisa bring?

rB: Stephanie brought, I believe, a ricotta cheese she used for her dessert, a specialty cheese. And Lisa, I want to say that Lisa brought some specialty Asian ingredient that, to be honest with you, I can’t remember.

PF: Some fans of the show are probably still in shock this morning about the finale. Many believed you were favored to win. You’ve had some time to reflect on the finale. Looking back, what happened?

rB: I think the best way to put it was that I kind of set the bar pretty high and wasn’t capable of getting to that bar on the last show. I think one of the things that I was strongest at during the contest was conceptualizing and working within each challenge. And, I think, quite honestly I had a hard time wrestling around “cook the best meal of your life.” It sounds simple enough but it’s something that, as you saw play out last night, it’s something that I don’t think I’ll ever serve a meal and walk away from it and say, you know, that was the best meal of my life. So, I mean I think it was a little bit of, you know, you’ll probably, or maybe not, be familiar with the concept of writer’s block as well. So, I think a little of it was certainly that, coming up with a game plan. Something that most artists have is, when and where does inspiration strike? Although, eventually, the theme of the dinner did strike, it just never came together certainly for the expectations of myself, most importantly.

PF: What would you have done differently, if anything?

rB: I guess in retrospect, if you really think about it long and hard, which, of course, I have other things going on, but I guess I really didn’t want to come into that last challenge and say, hey, here are the four or five things that I’m going to do if presented with just a last challenge that has no limitations. I guess it would be easy to say, like, probably some of the other contestants, I’m pretty sure that some of the things that were prepared on their end were practiced and were things that they were a bit more familiar with. Or certainly maybe their style plays more into, hey, I’m going to be doing this and I’m going to prepare for it in a certain way. And, you know, maybe, unfortunately for me, maybe it ends up coming off as bravado, but my style is really kind of wherever the wind blows. It’s very “of the moment.” It came together for, whatever it was, fifteen episodes and seven victories prior to that and just didn’t come together that day.

PF: The show made it seem as though the pork belly was to blame. Do you think it was any one dish? What are your thoughts?

rB: No, I mean, I think, quite honestly, I think one of the issues with the pork belly that is, and again I didn’t see every second of the episode yesterday, but one of the issues with the pork belly was the fact that the episode prior I did a pork belly that pretty much was the highlight of the night or definitely, as far as the show that aired, was the dish that won it. And I think that was one of the difficulties was that this was a different piece of meat. This was from a much larger, getting into the specifics of it, this was from a very, very large pig, this belly. The belly that I used the episode prior was very lean. The pork belly that I cook everyday in my restaurant is very, very lean. And it’s a different animal. So, you know, I’ll be honest and I’m not saying this in a defensive way, all of the food that I did was very, very tasty. There were no major, major errors. I think a lot of it was comparing to a standard that I set that I unfortunately couldn’t get to that day. So, the pork belly, in particular, well I just did it, literally, you’re watching on TV, I just did it [inaudible] for them and they loved it. It was a different piece of meat. It was a different preparation. Sometimes it’s great to sous-vide a short rib, sometimes it’s great to give it a traditional braise. This belly because of its size had to be treated differently. So it yielded a different effect than the belly that I cooked the day prior. Does that make sense?

PF: One of the dishes you’re famous for in Atlanta is a foie gras milkshake, I understand. Did you consider making one of those?

rB: Famous or infamous? As far as the foie gras milkshake, it’s something I did at my namesake restaurant [Blais] in 2004 and people had a hard time wrapping their heads around it. It’s a delicious milkshake and it works really well with a cheeseburger. So, I definitely wouldn’t have brought it out unless…. It would have been more likely to show up at Soldier Field in one of the earlier episodes than it would have been last night.

PF: After reading about it, I’m dying to try it.

rB: It’s tasty. It is quite delicious. But, again, you know, one of the things that, and maybe, I hate to say I wasn’t creative enough because I’m pretty sure that, I mean, I didn’t even have bacon as an ingredient, I had to engineer bacon for that ice cream yesterday. But maybe I should have pushed it a little bit. I don’t know if it came across in the episode, but I was very much trying to tell a story about my journey as a chef, from being there in Puerto Rico to my classic French training with the second course to kind of an homage to one of my mentors at the [inaudible] and then really bringing it back to Puerto Rico and then to the creative side of things with the last so, there you go.

PF: You cut out there just for a second, you said an homage to one of your mentors at where?

rB: Be the Bacon is something that you can find in a lot of Thomas Keller references. And it’s something that, having worked with him, even though it was an apprenticeship, having walked away from the French Laundry is when I said to myself, I’m a chef. So, anytime I can play off of a Kellerism—Be the Bacon or Sleep is Cheap—these are just things you might hear in one of Keller’s kitchens. Or whether it’s a specific dish, like Oysters and Pearls, which is a dish I play on in my restaurant right now and have for years. If there’s anything I’m disappointed about was what didn’t factor into the judgment enough was that there’s no one else who could tell a story like that. There’s no one else who was looking at food that way. And, you know, it’s kind of, that was the disappointing part, to have all of these great chefs there and then…. If you read Ted Allen’s blog this morning there’s a little more insight to it. But I wish that would have factored a little bit more into the decision.

PF: At the end of Judge’s Table, Stephanie and Lisa made their case for why they should be Top Chef. But when your turn came, you candidly confessed that you choked. Why? Do you have any regrets about that?

rB: I don’t remember the question that led up to it. Certainly, at Judge’s Table where there is a chance to defend yourself or a chance to present your philosophies or the type of person that you are, to talk about what happened, to talk about what just happened in the kitchen or what happened during that meal, represents the type of person that you are. Some people find it in their best interests to lie or try to deceive the judges and hide certain things. And others go up there and present themselves in a different way. I tend to be a very self-deprecating person. I’m very hard on myself. Like I said, the toughest thing for me was, I’ll never cook the best meal of my life. That just will never happen. There were a number of challenges, all of the challenges, where, up until they say, hey, you just won, I’m up there thinking about the hundred things that weren’t perfect with that specific dish. I think it comes off on the episode as me announcing my, you know, conceding the race, but in reality what I’m doing is communicating with the judges the fact that I’m self-aware that this probably wasn’t the best meal of my life, that it’s OK to say that, and it’s OK to talk about what some of the issues were.

PF: How long were you waiting for the decision after the judge’s table?

rB: It was always hours and hours and hours. That’s the toughest part of the whole competition because there’s nothing really left to do but sit there. Certainly, when there are more contestants in the race the conversation can be a bit, you know, you can find a little bit of a social atmosphere in it because different people deal with stress in different ways. I can’t tell you off the top of my head how many hours it was. But it was not uncommon for it to be three, four, five hours, the whole process of waiting to find out what happened.

PF: What did you, Stephanie and Lisa talk about during that time?

rB: Quite honestly, from what I remember, really, the whole time in Puerto Rico, and not even relative to the last challenge, even the one prior when Spike was still there, you get down to only three, four, five people left, everyone kind of understands what’s going on. There’s really not much left to talk about. When there are more contestants, sometimes there’s bickering about dishes. If it’s a team challenge, sometimes there are things that can happen in that sort of atmosphere. But they call it the Stew Room and there’s really nothing else to do there but stew and/or drink if that’s the route you want to go, which wasn’t the one I wanted to go ever because I have to be on camera. But I don’t remember any conversation that was really relevant, if there was anything. You’re talking about hours of just kind of basically sitting there. I think we all fell asleep to be quite honest, at one point.

PF: You clearly filled the role of the molecular gastronomy guy this season. But your application of these techniques didn’t seem to be as confrontational as, say, Marcel from Season Two.

rB: Right.

PF: They seemed, to me at least, to be a little more focused and integrated into the dishes. Was that Bravo’s editing, restraint on your part, plain old maturity on your part? Or am I totally off base?

rB: Well, I love the three options you gave me there. I think that it’s definitely, there was no editing involved. If anything, Bravo probably, and this is just me speculating, so, of course, it’s good TV when someone starts squirting liquid nitrogen around the kitchen. I think that’s one of the appeals to that factor. For me, I’d like to say that it was more. I think restraint and maturity kind of blend into themselves as being the answer, really. Molecular gastronomy is a word I don’t really like to use, although it came off as [inaudible] more than I ever said it because of sound bites [inaudible]. If you can use technology, if you can use science, if you can use a new technique to make food better in general, then that’s what it’s about. And it took me a while. There was a time when, yeah, I wanted to put everything in little capsules and have people swallowing gumballs that tasted like three-course meals and that’s what I wanted to do, not because it would be a great three-course meal in a gumball but because it would be really cool to say, hey, I just made a three-course meal in a gumball. And I think that’s where the practice kind of gets away from itself. You start saying, hey, look what I can do and start getting away from the reason why we’re all chefs—to cook great, beautiful food, to make people happy and to make it tasty and delicious. Hopefully, mostly maturity and probably a little restraint.

PF: Which contestants on the show will you stay in touch with, if any?

rB: There’s a few. Me and Dale communicate from time to time. Me and Ryan have talked from time to time. Spike and myself, Antonia. There’s no one from the show, quite honestly, I mean, even Lisa sent me well wishes when my baby was born. It is also a television show and it is a competition and I think people are a lot more friendly, I think you’ll see in the reunion show that everyone understands [inaudible] what happens and everyone gets along pretty well. I’d like to stay in touch with everyone.

PF: What lessons have you learned from Top Chef and the finale in particular?

rB: The biggest lesson just from the whole effort is just to always keep challenging yourself. Never really kind of settle for being a decent sized fish in a small little tank. Or, never really, I think it’s real easy, especially right now for being in, not the biggest market in the world, being in Atlanta, to just think that you’re better than you are sometimes and to always challenge yourself. I don’t regret taking that personal challenge. Some people thought it was a risk or crazy for me to go do it. But I learned so much, whether it was from contestants or from the travels that we made or whatever. So, just continuing that effort. You always say as a chef that you always learn every day and that you’re always trying to keep learning. But, you know, quite honestly, it’s real easy to stop cooking as much because you’re the executive and to slow things down and start living a better life and, expecially once you start getting some notoriety from being on television, to really start being more of a quasi-celebrity than being a chef. But what the show brought back to me was reigniting my drive as just a cook, not as just a chef or TV chef or a popular chef. And what did the finale teach me? I mean, the finale, more than anything else, probably taught me a little bit more about when it’s very important to [inaudible] restraint in what you’re doing because there were plenty of dishes I could have done just on the moment that I had done before. None of those dishes [were ones] I have ever done before. To me, playing the game was the joy of Top Chef. Actually going into a new situation every day and just cooking something like you’ve never cooked before. Also, great chefs do the same things. Thomas Keller’s got the same dish on his menu at both restaurants, at Per Se and the French Laundry, and he’s not taking it off. And if you look at the old school great chefs there are dishes like that never get removed from their menu. So, again, what I learned was probably, even though I may be over it, even though there might be a dish or a technique that I’m just done with I’m just tired of, the fact is that, most of the world, even like the liquid nitrogen. Eric Rippert had not seen that technique before. How unbelievable was that? To me, it’s old hat. And he’s one of the best chefs in the world. Sometimes go to your bread and butter.

PF: Last question, have you ever been to any Philadelphia restaurants or do you any plans to come to Philadelphia in the future?

rB: I actually am doing an event and it will be the first time, I’ve been to Philadelphia only once in my life and it was way before I knew much about food, so I’m excited to be there. I’ll be there in September. And I think it’s a James Beard dinner and I think it’s going to be at a restaurant called Tangerine. Is that correct? A Stephen Starr restaurant? And it will be, I think it’s called Celebrity Chefs on Tour or something ridiculous like that, and I only say that because I don’t think I’m a celebrity. But I’ll be looking forward to getting some recommendations from you.

PF: You bet. Those are all the questions I have. Thanks so much for your time.

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June 09, 2008

Gary Vaynerchuk Book Signing Event In Philly

Gary Vaynerchuk

There are few people in the recent past who have made more of an impact on the wine world than Gary Vaynerchuk, host of the video podcast Wine Library TV.

With his refreshingly unpretentious commentary and contagiously kinetic style, Vaynerchuk appears to have done something few wine critics, if any, have been able to do—make wine accessible to people who were convinced the wine world was out of their reach. His mastery of social networking sites, including Twitter, to reach out to the public has earned him legions of fans—and, importantly, created an entirely new demographic of wine drinkers called “Vayniacs.”

And the wine world has taken notice. The Washington Post recently said Gary may be the most influential wine critic in the United States outside of Robert Parker.

Somehow, in between his appearances on TV shows like Ellen and Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Gary found time to write a book—“Gary Vaynerchuk’s 101 Wines: Guaranteed to Inspire, Delight, and Bring Thunder to Your World.”

This Thursday, June 12, 2008, Gary will be hosting a meet and greet and signing his new book from 4:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. at The Wine School of Philadelphia, 2006 Fairmont Ave. It’s free and open to the public.

Photo courtesy of Stellargirl.

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June 02, 2008

Working the PLCB System

Antonelli Sagrantino di Montefalco 2003

It’s frustrating when you know that the PLCB has an interesting wine in its system but it’s not stocked on the shelves of your local store. However, one of the benefits of having a state-wide liquor control system is that the consumer has access to every wine on the shelves of every state store in the entire state.

In other words, if, for example, the bottle of 2003 Antonelli Sagrantino di Montefalco you want is stashed away in a PLCB store in Allegheny County, there’s a surprisingly efficient way for you to get it.

Here’s how to work the system:

1. Use the PLCB Product Search database to find out which store has the wine you’re looking for.

2. Go to your local store and ask them to contact the store that has the wine and have it transferred to your store for you to pick up.

3. This is the most important step, one that the PLCB clerks don’t always remember to tell you: Make sure to say that you want to pay the extra couple of bucks for UPS shipping. If you do, you’ll have the wine in days. If you don’t, there’s no telling when (or if) you’ll get the wine.

Does it suck that on top of the state’s 30% markup, 18% Johnstown Flood Tax and 7% sales tax you will have to pay even more money to get a wine the PLCB carries? You bet it does.

Would you do this for just any wine? Probably not.

But for certain wines—wines that can be tricky to find, like the Sagrantino di Monetefalco—it’s worth a couple additional bucks to drink something a little more interesting.

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June 01, 2008

Philly Wine Fest 2008 Wrap-Up

A Perfect Pour

Say what you want about Pennsylvania’s antiquated liquor laws; the PLCB throws one hell of a party.

The PLCB and Philadelphia Magazine teamed up again to host the Seventh Annual Philadelphia Wine Festival on May 10. By successfully addressing a few key issues that have dogged past festivals, the PLCB delivered an event this year that will be hard to beat.

In the past, tight quarters and narrow aisles turned even the most polite, well-dressed group of sophisticates into a selfish, inconsiderate, elbow-throwing mob. But this year the PLCB finally chose a space large enough to accommodate Philadelphia’s dedicated mass of wine lovers—the expansive Ballroom at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Sure, at times it felt like you were backstage at The Price is Right with the gaggle of lanky models in little black dresses attempting to cat-walk inconspicuously around the SUVs and Jaeger-le Coultre display cases in the center of the Ballroom. And yes, this spectacle would be easy to mock. But, presumably, lining up these sponsors made it possible for the PLCB to secure this venue, which is a decision that clearly paid off.

Also, at prior festivals the food always seemed to be an issue—there just never seemed to be enough to go around. This year, however, there was an endless supply of pastas. They were not the most refined dishes, with the exception of Penne Restaurant’s wonderful Mushroom Cavatelli with Goat Cheese. But they were just what you needed to soak up the high-octane Cabs you were [ahem] “tasting” for the past two hours.

Then, of course, there were the wines. This year there seemed to be a larger selection of higher-end, artisinal wines—the type of wine you expect at a wine festival.

However, having this level of depth at the festival was—you’ll pardon the expression—a bit of a cork-tease. Although all of the wines at the festival technically are available through the PLCB, many of the stand-out bottles are difficult to obtain. Some of them are available at the local PLCB specialty stores only in very limited quantities (see e.g., the Tuderi, below), while others can be purchased only through the PLCB’s Special Liquor Order (or “SLO”) process, which is pricey because it requires consumers to buy at least six bottles at a time.

Moreover, in stark contrast to the festival’s bounty, the PLCB specialty stores, in case you haven’t noticed, clearly are stocking less wine these days. Rumor has it that the wine inventory has been cut by 40%. And although the Chairman’s Selection program is not dead, as I predicted it has become a thin shadow of what it once was.

After the jump, I’ll talk about my three favorite wines at the festival. And tomorrow I’ll share my secret on how to work the PLCB system to get your hands on these and other hard to find wines.

Remoissenet Bienvenues Batard-Montrachet Grand Cru 2005

Best Wine: Remoissenet Bienvenues Batard-Montrachet Grand Cru 2005 (PLCB No. 21214, $239.99).

Most of the folks attending the festival knew there were certain wines you had to hit, like the First Growth Bordeaux. But judging by the amount of eavesdropping my friends and I witnessed as we talked about this Grand Cru white Burgundy, not everyone, it seemed, had it on their radar.

This Batard was over the top. Subtle aromas of wildflower blossoms. Minerals, fresh citrus and stone fruits, all of which were delicate and focused. Underneath, this princess cradled a deep, layered core of secrets she was only willing to whisper to you, slowly, one at a time. Seductively complex. You could spend the rest of your life courting this wine and not a minute of your patient adoration would be wasted.

There are 12 bottles of this wine at the 12th and Chestnut store. But at $240 a bottle, I'm still waiting for my financial aid application to be approved.

Tenute Dettori Tuderi 2003

Most Exciting Wine: Tenute Dettori Tuderi 2003 (PLCB No. 23590, $45.99).

Alessandro Dettori is one of the most provocative wine makers in Italy today. The reason: he kicks it old school. Aside from temperature control after bottling, Dettori uses virtually no wine making technology. His wines are natural and unmanipulated—no filtration, no clarification and no stabilization. Maceration and fermentation for most of his wines, including the Tuderi, all take place in small cement tanks. Plus, his grapes are hand-picked and the wines are hand-bottled. For Dettori, it’s clearly a labor of love. A defiant respect for tradition. And it’s as close as you can get to true Old World Italian wine making without a time machine. The result is a true wine geek’s wine.

Tenute Dettori Tuderi 2003

The Tuderi is a brilliant example of this philosophy. The wine is made with 100% Cannonau (Italy’s name for Grenache). Because there’s no filtration, the pour looks as bright and as dense as a glass of V8. The sight may be a bit jarring to some, but the palate convinces you never to doubt the genius that is Alessandro Dettori: Bitter cherry, wild herbs, leather and spices tempered with refreshing, vibrant acidity. History and tradition never tasted so good.

The only problem with the wine is its availability. There are only 15 bottles in Philadelphia County, 9 of which are in Center City. The fact that that the distributor’s rep had almost as many bottles at the festival that the PLCB has for sale in the entire county is deeply disappointing.

Antonelli Sagrantino di Montefalco 2003

The Grape You Should Get To Know: Antonelli’s Sagrantino di Montefalco 2003 (PLCB No. 24668, $31.99) and its Sagrantino di Montefalco Passito 2004 (PLCB No. 10057, $36.99).

Sagrantino is one of the greatest grapes you’ve probably never heard of. The reason: it’s rare. Indigenous to Umbria, there are only about 250 acres of Sagrantino vines in existence and only about a dozen producers that work with it. And it’s unlike any other Italian wine. Dense, big red brambly fruits, rich savory aromas, exotic spices and pronounced but well-integrated tannins make this wine fun to drink young.

Antonelli Sagrantino di Montefalco Passito 2004

Sagrantino’s often made passito style—drying the grapes after they’re picked to concentrate the flavors—for a lovely and unique dessert wine. It’s exciting that these two wines are available through the PLCB. Unfortunately, there are only 4 bottles of the Sagrantino di Montefalco in Philadelphia County (Germantown) and none of the passito.

Tomorrow, I’ll share my secret on how to work the PLCB system to get your hands on these and other hard to find wines.

For more pics of the festival, check out my Philly Wine Fest 2008 set on Flickr.

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May 29, 2008

Local Bites

Osteria's Pizza Margherita

• Wine Spectator listed Philly’s own Tacconelli’s (you know, the place that recommends that you call ahead to reserve your dough) as one of the leading pizza venues in the United States. Wine Spectator identified only 22 destination pizza spots, almost all of which were in California or New York. Glad Philly’s on the map. But, come on Wine Spectator, no Osteria?!

Teikoku Restaurant in Newtown Square is hosting a winemakers dinner with Abruzzi-born Gino Razzi from Penn’s Woods Winery on Tuesday June 3, 2008 at 6:30 p.m. Click here for details. Razzi’s wines have been turning heads as of late; check out Philadelphia Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan’s recent write-up. Price is $95 per person (not including tax and gratuity). Razzi will be doing some interesting pours, such as a white Cabernet, a white Merlot and a 50 year old balsamic vinegar from Modena, Italy.

• Stuck at Philadelphia International Airport? Want to relax with a glass of wine? You’re in luck. Vino Volo—the stylish and highly-acclaimed wine lounge and tasting bar—just opened up a spot in the B/C Connector, the heart of the airport’s Philadelphia Marketplace Food & Shops.

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May 15, 2008

What Does Chicago's Repeal of the Foie Gras Ban Mean for Philly?

Zinc's Poached Foie Gras

Yesterday, by an overwhelming vote of 37-6, the Chicago City Council repealed its ban on the sale of foie gras. The ban has been a source of embarrassment for the city since it was passed in April 2006.

Philadelphia City Councilman Jack Kelly proposed a similar ban shortly after the now-repealed Chicago ban was passed. Kelly’s bill never made it out of the Committee for Licenses and Inspections. After narrowly wining re-election last fall, Kelly promised to lobby the newly-elected councilmen in January to support his bill. However, it is now halfway through May, Kelly’s bill has officially lapsed and we haven’t heard so much as a peep from Kelly.

The lack of legislative progress has not deterred Hugs for Puppies, the local activist group that has been spearheading protests in front of restaurants that serve foie gras. The group’s questionable protesting tactics essentially have resulted in a de facto foie gras ban in Philly. With the exception of Le Bec-Fin’s Georges Perrier, the Philly restaurant scene’s more vocal supporters, like Ansill's Chef David Ansill, have taken foie gras off the menu for business reasons. Even London Grill’s Terry McNally, Philly’s foie gras poster woman, appears to have caved (a recent visit revealed that only the hanger steak with foie gras butter remains).

Chicago’s repeal is important for Philly because, among other things, it undercuts an argument on which activists have strongly relied to make their case for banning foie gras: Because other legislative bodies have banned foie gras, Philly should ban it, too.

This follow-the-crowd argument has always been flawed. The implication that one need only get in line and follow what others have done without independent scrutiny is inherently troubling. The argument also assumes, of course, that none of the bans were the product of activists’ bullying. [Ironically, the activist group Farm Sanctuary is claiming that Chicago’s repeal was caused by “pressure from political bullies and special interests.”] Plus, there’s never any mention of the fact that the numerous legislative bans proposed in the U.S. since Chicago’s ban was passed have either failed (e.g., Maryland) or have been buried somewhere in the legislative process to die a slow, quiet death.

But now the follow-the-crowd argument has lost its teeth. Chicago was critically important to the activists—it was the first and only U.S. city to ban foie gras and, they maintained, it legitimized a path for other cities to follow. However, after enduring two years of ridicule and now repealing the ban in a loud, lopsided, public display, Chicago now stands for something completely different—the foie gras ban was a mistake. California passed a ban four years ago that doesn't become effective until 2012. However, after the more recent brouhaha in Chicago it’s unlikely that any U.S. city will ban foie gras now. More broadly, Chicago’s repeal also renews the debate as to whether it’s appropriate for local government to legislate what we put on our plate, at least in cases where there is no legitimate public interest to protect.

Chicago’s repeal should be the death knell for any proposed foie gras ban in Philly. Time will tell. But the real question isn’t whether Philly’s proposed ban (now lapsed) will officially be declared dead. The real question is: If it is declared dead, will the activists gracefully walk off the field and let us eat in peace?

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