May 30, 2006

Yo quiero el filete del queso “Whiz wit,” por favor.

Cheez WhizAccording to an article in today's Philadelphia Inquirer, the neighborhood in which Geno’s Steaks sits has become home to thousands of Mexicans. But apparently Joe Vento, the owner of Geno’s, isn’t happy. So Joe is insisting that his customers order cheese steaks in English. As the pic in the article reveals, Joe conveys this message through two signs that, naturally, are only in English: one sign has a stereotypically pissed-off looking eagle in front of an American flag and declares “This is America. When Ordering, ‘Speak English’”; the other says “Management Reserves the Right to Refuse Service.”

This is going to be fun:

  • It is ironic that Geno’s has signs directing you to order in English given that, in reality, they make you order your cheese steak using magic code words that arguably don’t qualify as English. Remember: a cheese steak with Cheez Whiz and fried onions is a “Whiz wit.” Otherwise, you may be heading to the back of the line, or worse—branded a foreigner.

  • Best quote in the article: “If you can’t say the word cheese, how can I communicate with you . . . ?” I’m just gonna let that one sink in.

  • Joe spends his free time chastising local businesses for hiring illegal immigrants. According to Joe, he’s just saying “what everybody’s thinking but is afraid to say.” Except that Joe likes to say it through the P.A. system in his Hummer as he drives around the neighborhood. No wonder property’s still relatively cheap in South Philly.

  • Joe wants things to be like they were in 1921, when his Italian-born grandfather became a U.S. citizen. His proposal: “Go back to the 19th century and play by those rules.” Ouch . . . . Yeah, I cringed, too. He missed that 1921 was part of the 20th century. Apparently, his math isn’t as good as his English.

Joe may want to rethink his proposal, though:

  • First, Joe admits that even his grandfather had trouble with English. Uh, Joe? If you want things to be like they were when your grandfather came over, but even he couldn’t get the language down . . . ? Ya followin’ me here? Pot? Kettle? Black?

  • Second, according to the Inquirer, there were no meaningful immigration restrictions in the 19th century, except for a bar on Chinese enacted in 1882. I’m gonna go out on a limb here. And say that Joe’s the kinda guy who’d probably be in favor of a few more restrictions than they had in the 19th century. Just a guess.

  • Third, Cheez Whiz wasn’t even introduced until 1952. So if we went back to the 19th century, what would we order our steaks wit? Wait, I’ve got it! Hows about salsa?

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May 21, 2006

Michele Chiarlo Barbera D’Asti Superiore Le Orme 2003

Michele Chiarlo Barbera D'Asti 2003

On the nose: Although this is an amazingly drinkable wine, especially for the price, the nose it not very impressive. You can detect some red fruit, but the aroma is light.

On the palate: The Barbera grape, which hails from the Piedmont region in Northern Italy, is known to produce a wine with high acidity. Aging the wine in oak, though, (six to eight months in this case) helps to balance out some of the acidity. This light bodied red starts off with bright cherry and raspberry flavors. Although there’s a hint of vanilla from the oak, the wine displays a refreshingly tangy and zesty acidity. The finish is bone dry.

On the wallet: This wine is an incredible value. The PLCB offers a lot of inexpensive wines, but the gamble often doesn’t pay off. This time it did. The Michele Chiarlo goes for a mere $11.99. You are getting a lot for your money, and it will be hard to find a wine this good for the same price or less.

On the table: Typically, oak-aged Barberas are rich and should be paired with more fuller flavored meat dishes. There is not enough oak in this wine to take it to that level, but lighter style Barberas, such as this one, are more versatile and perfect with lighter fare. It's best slightly chilled.

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May 14, 2006

Vintage Wine Bar and Bistro

Vintage BannerNo one can dispute that the Philadelphia restaurant scene has come into its own. Yet, there are certain types of establishments that are ubiquitous in other cities but noticeably scarce in ours. The wine bar is one of them. The recent opening of Vintage Wine Bar and Bistro, however, goes a long way to filling this void.

At Vintage, the entrepreneurial spirit is flowing almost as much as the wine. Owners Jason and Delphine Evenchik are veterans of Philadelphia’s restaurant scene who decided to open a place of their own; Jason worked at Le Bec-Fin and Delphine was the Assistant Manager of Caribou Café. In addition to having the experience, energy and street cred for this venture, the Evenchiks also had the courage to use designers they found in a nontraditional forum—craigslist. And it paid off. One of their designers, Vin Marshall of T.E. Motorworks, Inc., fabricated an eye-catching, signature chandelier: a multi-tiered wrought iron frame with collage of empty wine bottles carefully arranged upside down around the edge of each tier. It may steal your attention when you enter the room, but ultimately it reminds you of what you’re there to do—drink wine.

Vintage chandelier

The meticulously crafted wine list is even more impressive than the chandelier. The owners have successfully managed to assemble a broad and diverse wine list without sacrificing any depth. There is something on the list for everyone and, at the same time, the wines are compelling enough to have been hand picked from someone’s private wine cellar. New wines are added frequently, guaranteeing fresh surprises on return visits. As if all of that wasn’t enough, the wines are remarkably affordable. Most glasses are between $5 and $8, and bottles, on average, run in the $30 range. Another small but incredibly valuable feature of the list is that each wine has tasting notes. Not only does this allow you to preview the wines before you drink them, it also educates you on how to identify what you’re tasting, giving you the tools you need to become your own wine critic. If you get stuck on what to choose, the wait staff is skillful at recommending something you’re bound to enjoy.

On my first visit to Vintage, this time with a friend of mine, I instinctively went for a glass of the elusive Mark West Pinot Noir 2004 ($8). The Mark West had a pleasant red fruit nose with ripe raspberry on the palate and a hint of chocolate on the finish. Our server recommended that I try a glass of the Michel Picard Cote-du-Rhone 2003 ($7), which I thoroughly enjoyed. This is a refreshing, light-bodied red, perfect for summer quaffing. The fruit in this wine is mostly on the nose, which has a soft blueberry aroma. Strong tannins grab you in the beginning, but then gently smooth out on the back and sides of your tongue for a warm, velvety finish. I enjoyed the Picard so much that I stubbornly stuck with it on my second visit to Vintage, this time with my wife. She had a glass of Ironstone Obsession Symphony 2004 ($8), which I sampled. The symphony grape is a cross between the Muscat of Alexandria and the Grenache Gris. The result is a semi-sweet white wine that has a powerful nose of peaches and tropical fruit and a light, crisp, non-oak finish.

The food menu consists mainly of small plates designed to accompany the wine. In the tradition of the authentic French bistro, daily specials are written on small chalkboards that the servers ceremoniously bring to your table. Over my two visits to Vintage, I have sampled many of their small plates (seven, to be exact), so given that I’ve already breached blogging etiquette with the length of this post, I may as well go for broke and give you all seven.

The “must have” dish on the menu has to be the Brie en Croute ($12)—baked brie wrapped in a light puff pastry served with caramelized pear and carambola (a/k/a/ star fruit). This filling, decadent delight is served with bread. The pear and star fruit are more than just garnishes. The star fruit, in particular, elevated the brie to a completely different level. Its tangy, succulent juices complemented the rich, savory brie in a unique way.

Brie en Croute

The North African Spiced Lamb kefta ($12) consists of ground lamb spiced with a variety of North African spices skewered and grilled and served with mint cilantro tzatziki. Despite its name, this dish is extremely safe. The North African spices used here are light, mild, and incredibly subtle (almost too subtle); adding, at most, a bit of sweetness to the juicy lamb. Cilantro has earned a reputation for being overwhelming at times. But that’s not the case here. The chef was careful to add just the right amount to give the cool tzatziki a light, delicate accent.

North African Spiced Lamb kefta

The Goat Cheese Plate ($15) was one of the daily specials. It came with three cheeses, going clockwise from one o'clock: Morbier, Capri and Cypress. The Morbier (a cow’s milk cheese that was a last minute replacement) was my favorite; sweet, creamy and deliciously nutty toward the middle and end. Coupling the Morbier with a slice of pear seemed to amplify the nutty flavor and to convince it to appear closer to the beginning. The Capri (which, if the spelling is correct, is an American goat cheese) was the least adventurous of the three, but still enjoyable; creamy with an earthy finish. The Cypress (a brand name, I believe) was earthy and tangy; pairing this with the sweet fig added some colorful balance.

Goat Cheese Plate Chacuterie Plate

The Chacuterie Plate ($14) contains thinly sliced Parma prosciutto, soprasetta and pate de campagne garnished with Cornichon and whole grain mustard. This pate is very accessible. It is a coarsely ground traditional French country pate that is light and mild with warm garlic flavor and a short, pleasant aftertaste.

The Caesar Salad ($7.50) was light and enjoyable. The house made croutons highlight this dish. The croutons appear to have been pan fried in olive oil, making them light, crispy and addictive. The salad had only a delicate whisper of anchovy, which was curious for a Caesar but not necessarily disappointing. The manchego cheese, however, was a puzzling choice. This cheese is mild and was difficult to isolate through the creamy Caesar dressing, so it didn’t appear to add anything to the dish.

For those with a heartier appetite, there’s the Vintage Burger ($11)—a certified angus burger topped with apple wood smoked bacon, roasted red pepper and shaved manchego served with Belgian fries and a truffle smoked tomato aioli. Based on the small taste I had, the burger was respectable and satisfying, especially the sweet, smoky bacon. The truffle smoked tomato aioli, however, unexpectedly stole the show. The distinctively rich and earthy truffle oil is explosive, but not overpowering, and pairs nicely with the garlic in the tomato aioli. Although the Belgian fries and aioli should continue to be paired with the burger, they also deserve separate billing on the menu.

That's a tasty burger The aioli's truffle-icious!

The Chocolate pot de crème ($8.00) was listed as one of the daily specials, but I’m hoping it becomes as much of a regular as I plan to be. The cream clearly is hand whipped. Beneath the cream is a sinful layer of rich, surprisingly creamy caramel. Normally, I prefer an unencumbered pot de crème, but because caramel itself was surprisingly creamy it blended seamlessly with the rich chocolate.

Chocolate pot de creme

Like its wine list, Vintage’s food menu strikes a good balance. It has plates that are safe enough to give the menu a wide appeal and yet it also has enough color and authenticity to satisfy even the most discriminating foodies and keep them coming back for more.

129 South 13th Street
(215) 922-3095

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May 04, 2006

Philadelphia Wine Festival 2006 Wrap-Up

Congratulations and thanks to the PLCB and Philadelphia Magazine for successfully organizing this event. The place was packed. It was challenging at times to make your way down the aisles and to the tasting tables. Even though I arrived early, some of the more popular wineries were already starting to run out of wine. Given the ground I was hoping to cover, I didn't have time for detailed note taking. So, for what it’s worth, here are a few quick, skeletal thoughts on the wines at the festival that made my Greatest Hits List:

  • Silver Oak Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 ($99.99). I had been looking forward to enjoying Silver Oak ever since I learned it was participating, and their wine delivered in a big way. Ponderous. The nose included light notes of cloves and oak. Rich caramel on the palate. Long finish.

  • Chateau Palmer 2003 (Margaux) ($147.99). Palmer is a Third Growth Bordeaux. For this reason alone it should have been on everybody’s dance card. Spicy nose. Medium body. Dark fruit. Firm tannins, but well balanced and smooth.

  • Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Fay Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 ($74.99). Lavender and violets on the nose. Dark berries on the palate. The warm tannins are the centerpiece of this wine—soft, silky and seductive.

  • Cakebread Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 ($53.99). This was a popular table, as I suspected it would be. Even though I managed to elbow my way to Cakebread’s table by 6:40, I watched them pour the last of the Cab right after I had my sample. Dark berry and chocolate flavors. Peppery accents.

  • Heitz Cabernet Sauvignon Martha’s Vineyard 2001 ($134.99). According to the program, this wine was reserved for the VIPs, so I feel fortunate to have sampled this gem. I was impressed that Kathleen Heitz Myers, the President of Heitz Wine Cellars, actually was onsite pouring the wine. Very floral nose with notes of cloves. Dark fruit and spice. Balanced tannins.

  • Joseph Phelps Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 ($50.29). Plum and dark berry. Finish is long and complex with a savory / umami taste.

  • Best Wine: Unquestionably, the Champagne Krug Grande Cuvee NV ($152.99). Stunning. Fresh, crisp and dry. Bold notes of roasted nuts with light buttery accents. Very complex and elegant. Worth the price of admission even if this would have been the only wine in the room.

Other Highlights:

  • PA Wines. The two Pennsylvania wines I sampled were impressive and surprisingly drinkable. I tried Chaddsford’s Merican 2001 ($29.09) and Blue Mountain’s Blue Heron Meritage 2003 ($22.49), both of which are American versions of Bordeaux. Head-to-head, Chaddsford edges-out the Blue Mountain on taste. But the price points for these wines are bafflingly high, especially since there are numerous true Bordeaux wines available that are cheaper and more refined.

  • Coolest Wine Name: Oculus. Part of the compelling “Wines of Canada” table. I know, oculus is Latin for eye and it’s the name of the opening in the dome of the Pantheon. But, come on, it’s got a heavy metal ring to it. Probably not the most polished wine in the room (a bit jammy, actually), but you felt like a bad ass drinking a wine named Oculus.

  • The Food. The cheese and fruit disappeared quickly and the lines for the hot hors d’oeuvres were too long. Toward the end of the evening, though, I wandered to the side patio where the line at the Canadian foie gras table was curiously short. I soon found out why. This pate was intense, overwhelming and unnaturally gamey, which would have been fine had the experience stopped there. It didn’t. The aftertaste, literally, was nauseating. And it only got worse and more intense the longer you went without rinsing your mouth. It may be a while before I can partake of anything Canadian. Except, of course, the Oculus.

Final Thoughts:

  • Next year, spend the extra coin for the early VIP Tasting. You’ll have more time to enjoy the more popular wines before they run out. Plus, you’ll be treated to special selections, like this year’s infamous Joseph Phelps Insignia 2002, that are not available to the regular attendees.

  • If you plan to buy anything at the on-site PLCB store next year, do it early. Apparently, there were a lot of impulse buyers at the festival. The Silver Oak, for example, sold out quickly.

  • Normally, it would cost $715.23 to experience the seven wines on my Greatest Hits List. I experienced all of them, plus many others, for only $95. Not too shabby.

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May 01, 2006

'Scuse Me While I Spit This Wine

The 2006 Philadelphia Wine Festival is tomorrow, so I thought it would be useful to write about the art of wine spitting. Since childhood we’ve been programmed not to spit at all; spitting is offensive, disgusting and messy. Not to mention how wasteful it is to spit out food or drink (there are starving people in Africa, after all). So, it’s sort of ironic that at an allegedly high-brow event such as a wine tasting spitting this expensive liquid is not only tolerated, it’s almost required.

Spitting wine at these events does make sense, though. The reason you spit instead of swallowing the wine is to remain sober. If you’re there to actually taste the various offerings, you want to keep your wits about you so you can appreciate (and remember) what you’re tasting. Otherwise, you just spent $95 to get drunk on about $10 worth of wine. Talk about a waste.

But even if you manage to reprogram yourself to get over the indignity of the act of spitting, the question remains: How do you do it without making a mess? The most practical advice I’ve read comes from a 2002 Slate article written by Michael Steinberger entitled “Cold Shower: How to Spit Wine Like the Pros.” Steinberger recounts his meeting with Daniel Johnnes, the wine director at Montrachet, who gave him the following step-by-step advice:

It is essential, he said, to put the right amount of wine in your mouth; he recommends between one-quarter and one-half ounce. Once you have tasted the wine and are ready to expel it, you pucker your lips, tighten your cheeks, and press your tongue up against your top teeth, broadening the tongue so that it extends past the molars on each side. This pools the wine between the top of your tongue and the roof of your mouth. The key, Johnnes says, is muscle control and force: You need to generate sufficient power to push the wine out while maintaining your form throughout the process.

Easier said than done. Clearly, this technique is something that should be practiced at home before debuting in public. And remember: if you can’t spit well at home, it’s probably best not to do it at all. Because, regardless of how much we like wine, nobody wants to be on the receiving end of a Chardonnay shower.

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