Sunday, February 21, 2010

Chew

A couple Friday nights ago, it rained. It was a wet, cold, dark, and dreadfully gloomy night, and anyone with even a lick of sense nested with their coziest blanket in the softest part of their couch, ordered a pepperoni pizza, and watched re-runs of their favorite reality TV shows into the wee hours.

Phil and I had other plans. You see, that weekend marked eight years together, and we weren’t going to let a few icy puddles keep us from celebrating in style.

So we went to Chew, and it was awesome. Before I get into our dinner at Chew, let me just say one thing. At this point you might think I’m incapable of forming a negative opinion, or unwilling to write a bad review about any Jax restaurant. Well I have, and I will. But there have just been so many positive dining experiences since moving here that I’d rather write about them for now and save the negativity for another cold, rainy day. For now, I’m just in too good a mood, so let’s get back to the fun stuff!

So! We went to Chew, and it was AWESOME!

Since we had tickets to see Taj Mahal at the Florida Theatre downtown, we wanted to do dinner somewhere nearby. Chew was the obvious choice. The restaurant has an undoubtedly urban, modern vibe – all clean and slick and minimalist – yet warm colors and organic elements like wallpaper whimsically decorated with images of birch trees and funky light fixtures lend approachability to the space. We felt very welcomed and snug when we stumbled in off the slippery street with our dripping umbrellas. Our waitress took good care of us and we met a number of other friendly and helpful staff throughout the evening who were all knowledgeable about the menu and made inspired recommendations.

We started the evening with an appetizer of plump mussels tucked into a roasted tomato fumet with house-made fresh chorizo and baguette toasts. It was a pleasure to compare this dish with a dish of clams and house-made chorizo I’d enjoyed the week before at a wine dinner at Orsay. Although the two dishes seemed similar on paper, they were very different in execution and each perfectly fit the menu and season in different ways. While Orsay’s version was light and thoughtfully paired with Emilio Moro’s Finca Resalso, I was happy to see that Chew’s interpretation was hearty and substantial, with the warm, subtle spiciness of cumin scenting the tomato sauce – a perfect starting point for a chilly winter evening meal. We scooped up as much of the tomato and chorizo sauce as we could with the baguette toasts, and found ourselves wishing we had more bread to capture every last bit left in the bowl. We also shared a starter of what the menu appealingly titled “Bacon:” tender braised pork belly with smoked leeks and roasted wild mushrooms resting on a soft bed of sage grits and surrounded by a honey gastrique. Do I even need to tell you how delicious this was? I also ordered a bowl of French onion soup for an appetizer. Why not?! The crouton maintained its integrity in the rich, densely-flavored, perfectly-seasoned beef broth. I personally adore any sort of melted cheese but wished the gruyere topping (or was it emmentaler?) had been broiled just a little longer to provide more caramelized brown goodness on the top of the bowl to complement all the caramelized brown goodness inside the bowl. Here, I pushed aside the cheese so you could admire the broth. Mmmmmm. Talk about a winter blues buster. For my main course, I ordered striped bass with roasted artichoke purée, brussels sprouts, and a sage beurre blanc. This dish was one of the best examples I have ever tasted of the chef considering each and every element of the plate, and how the flavors of each component work towards creating a cohesive whole. All together, it really was greater than the sum of its parts, even though each of the parts was impeccably executed. The fish was well-seared and juicy, the tiny Brussels sprouts were extra brown – just like I like! – and the artichoke puree was surprisingly tart and earthy. I made sure to get a bit of everything on each forkful. Phil went on… and on… and ON! JEEZ! I GET IT!... about the seared scallops over lobster risotto, one of the evening’s specials. Apparently it’s not easy to properly sear a scallop, judging from those I’ve recently eaten at other soon-to-be named local restaurants… but Chew accomplished the task effortlessly. And, apparently it’s not easy to make a properly creamy risotto, judging from risottos I’ve recently eaten at other soon-to-be named local restaurants…. but again, Chew absolutely delivered. Throw some lobster in the mix, and what can there possibly be to complain about? We accompanied our mains with a side of braised asparagus. WHOA! Unexpected delicacy! These were extra-fat asparagus, not the wimpy pencil-thin ones, so they really held up to braising in a buttery sauce. We found it absolutely essential to ask for a basket of bread to soak up the extra braising liquid.

We were so happy with our dinner at Chew that we returned for lunch on a windy afternoon the following week. I ordered the banh mi, a Vietnamese-inspired baguette sandwich loaded with nuggets of crispy pork, cucumbers, pickled carrots, cilantro, and slices of spicy chiles. The pork was moistened with what the menu is calling a chili-lime vinaigrette but I thought I detected notes of ginger and peanut in there, too. While the banh mi is a versatile sandwich that enjoys popularity in many U.S. cities, this was the first time I’d seen it in Jacksonville and I will be ordering it again. It came with a perfectly dressed salad. Phil ordered his old standby, a pastrami and corned beef sandwich. It was piled with Chew’s own pastrami and corned beef, cracked peppercorn aioli, brown mustard and smoked provolone on toasted marbled Jewish rye. Phil rated this among the best of all the corned beef and pastrami sandwiches he’s ever had, mostly because Chew’s version was all about the meat. While the cheese, aioli, and mustard were necessary and tasty additions, they didn’t take away from the high quality of the meat, which was smoky and had just the right amount of fat. This is the kind of sandwich we crave when we are living outside of the States, and it certainly hit the spot. (sorry for the terrible photo)We ordered shoestring potatoes to go along with our sandwiches. Really they were unnecessary, as the sandwiches were more than substantial for lunch and each came with a side salad. And, the full order of fries is enough for four people – if you’re just having lunch for two, you’d probably do well to share a half order. Phil thought the potatoes were seasoned with a heavy hand but I really liked the extra salt and pepper, so I guess it’s just a preference thing. Don’t let a little cold, rain, or wind stop you from lunching or dinnering at Chew. This place is stellar. Chew Restaurant
117 West Adams Street, Jacksonville, FL
904-355-3793
Chew Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Wine Dinner @ Orsay

Last week I was lucky to attend the second-only wine dinner hosted by Restaurant Orsay. It’s no secret that I love Orsay, and this well-planned, impeccably-executed, entertaining and tasty affair was further evidence of the restaurant’s thoughtful and classy approach to every dish, every meal, and every event they compose.

It may come as a surprise that this tempranillo wine dinner was only the second such event to take place at a restaurant with a demonstrated commitment to maintaining an interesting, informative, and lengthy wine list. Crystal Vessels, Managing Partner at Orsay, explains that she and Chef Brian Siebenschuh have extremely high standards when it comes to hosting a wine dinner. According to Crystal, “they have to be incredible wines, they have to provide the guest an amazing value and experience, and the guest speaker of the evening not only has to be someone with real impact from the winery, but also a great entertainer.” Crystal hopes that these components will provide for an unforgettable, fun, and very un-stuffy evening.

Orsay delivered on all of these elements. The guest speakers and ambassadors from the two Spanish wineries represented at the dinner were awfully entertaining. Before dinner was served I practiced my embarrassing Spanish on these three charming gentlemen while drinking a cava rosada and enjoying Kumamoto oysters accented by tiny gelée cubes of vinagre de Jeréz. Along with providing guests with a mini-Spanish lesson, Juan Carlos “JC” Marin gave a short introduction to the wines we were to enjoy and explained how his distributorship, Stacole Fine Wines, makes sure that each and every wine they represent is carefully handled and treated as a living, breathing entity on its often lengthy journey to our tables. Bodegas Muga in Spain’s Rioja region was represented by Juan Muga, and David Espinar attended on behalf of Bodegas Emilio Moro from Ribera del Duero. These two regions both produce Tempranillo and the event was intended to showcase their different styles and approaches.

The dinner started off with a genius pairing. Pan-roasted red snapper was perched atop a bed of pickled fennel, frisée, and blood orange segments and surrounded by a blood orange reduction. The dish was paired with Bodegas Muga 2008 White Rioja and 2008 Rose Rioja. While both wines worked well with the overall plate, I was very impressed with the way the tart blood oranges and reduction perfectly complemented the gently sweet rose. The rest of the meal also benefited from Chef Brian’s never-fail culinary aesthetic: clean flavors, solid techniques, and high quality ingredients. For this meal, the chef highlighted the local where appropriate but also took advantage of his ability to procure the best ingredients from around the country and indeed the world. Sometimes I think restaurants adhere a bit too strictly to an “only local” mentality, when a splash of exoticism or an external influence might be just the thing to elevate their flavors and menu to the next level. For this reason, I really appreciate Orsay’s “we’ll give you the best of what we can get” approach. In the case of this wine dinner, Chef Brian incorporated a number of Spanish or Spanish-influenced items into the menu, such as chorizo, saffron, manchego cheese, white anchovies, marcona almonds, and La Quercia “Rossa” Berkshire Jamón, the Americano version of the universally loved Spanish jamón ibérico.

Next up were littleneck clams scattered around housemade fresh chorizo and fingerling potatoes. We were given warm bread to soak up every last bit of the briny, delicately seasoned saffron consommé. This dish was paired with Bodegas Emilio Moro Finca Resalso 2007. Platters piled with La Quercia “Rossa” Berkshire Jamón Americano were then brought to our tables and served with a few classic accompaniments: queso manchego, cubes of melon, and arugula drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. The jamón was a big hit at my table – rich, beautifully marbled, and buttery. This was served with Bodegas Muga Reserva Rioja 2005 and Bodegas Emilio Moro Ribera del Duero 2005, which according to David is the most classic example of Emilio Moro’s wines.
We then moved on to a Strube Ranch Wagyu striploin with roasted potato, carrot, and onion. The meat itself was exquisite and only improved by the pat of white anchovy butter melting over it. The beef was well-paired with Bodegas Emilio Moro Malleolus Ribera del Duero 2006 and Bodegas Muga Torre Muga Rioja 2005. Up to this point, the wine I most enjoyed was the Emilio Moro 2006 Malleolus. That was before we were presented with an unexpected special treat: a taste of the 2004 Emilio Moro Malleolus de Sancho Martin. David explained how this elegant wine sets itself apart from the generally spicy, masculine reds typical of the Ribera del Duero or Rioja regions. He further noted that it is very successfully paired with chocolate; and wouldn’t you know, out came our final course of Marcona almond nougat covered in Valrhona chocolate and accented with caramel. This dessert was an excellent interpretation of a classic turrón, which I’d never before seen covered in chocolate. Thanks, Orsay, for organizing such a satisfying evening and for bringing to Jacksonville the provocative flavors and charismatic personalities of Spain.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Lagunitas Beer Dinner @ Kickbacks

Can you remember the last time you drank twenty-one beers?

Maybe it was the night of your twenty-first birthday? Maybe a raging kegger for last year’s Superbowl, or that case of Natty Ice you singlehandedly slugged the day you graduated from university?

I myself can vividly remember the last time I drank twenty-one beers, because it was Monday evening. I’m not talking about twenty-one yellowish, watery light beers, my friend. Kickbacks Gastropub in Riverside hosted Lagunitas, a microbrewery from Petaluma, CA, for a dinner of eight courses paired with their brews. If you haven’t visited Kickbacks, you’re missing out on a selection of 60 beers on tap along with over 400 bottled options and a lengthy menu of bar snacks, sandwiches, salads, pizzas, pastas, and more. Kickbacks has been hosting beer dinners showcasing breweries across the country every six weeks or so, and the Lagunitas event was the biggest and most ambitious to date. The restaurant was closed to regular patrons and owner Steve and Lagunitas “Head Beer Weasel” Ron Lindenbush organized twenty-one beers to pair with the meal! According to Lindenbush, the Jacksonville event set a Lagunitas record for the most people in attendance and the most beers available for tasting. Jacksonville is a city that likes its beer. As we were getting seated and settled we were served a reception offering of Lagunitas PILS, a Czech-style Pilsner using Czech hops and water specially filtered to resemble that used to brew pilsners in the Czech Republic. Very clean and refreshing with a bigger personality than I’ve come to expect from many lagers. (Image from lagunitas.com) The first course was a spring mix salad wrapped in cucumber and drizzled with a vinaigrette made using the beer paired with the dish: New Dogtown Pale Ale. I thought the sweet note provided by a garnish of figs matched a caramel note in the brew, and the slice of pineapple worked with the citrus aroma of the hops. The vinaigrette was very tasty and I found myself wishing there were more on the plate to moisten the mass of greens that expanded when I unwrapped them from their cucumber constraints. Next up was a Lagunitas IPA paired with “Tacos de Cachete,” braised Piedmontese beef cheeks with jalapeno lime relish and cilantro in corn tortillas, by guest chef Brian Siebenschuh of Orsay. When devising the pairing, Chef Brian transported himself to Lagunitas’ California home and was inspired by West Coast taquerias. According to the chef, braised beef cheeks are common in tacos there. He wasn’t afraid to make the relish spicy both with jalepenos and whole pink peppercorns, and the spicy kick really worked with this IPA. The taco was an appropriate portion size for an eight-course meal. That being said, I could have happily eaten five more of these tasty hand-held treats. The first intermezzo offering was the Censored Rich Copper Ale (aka The Kronik) (American Amber/Red Ale). This brew is aptly named – it’s a penny copper color and I found it very drinkable.

Lagunitas Lucky 13 Mondo Large Red Ale and Imperial Red Ale were both paired with the third course of seared Mahi filet and coconut crusted shrimp with a mango reduction atop a small bed of haricot verts. The Lucky 13 Red Ale was my favorite beer of the night – very balanced without an overwhelming aftertaste, and well-paired with the spice rub on the Mahi (which was moist and perfectly cooked, by the way). Another intermezzo, another brew, this time the hoppy 2009 Correction Ale (American IPA).

The fourth course is when things started getting crazy. In general, any pairing dinner should start with lighter beers or wines and progress to the richer heavyweights as the evening evolves. Here’s where the heavyweights really started kicking in. We were presented with a vertical tasting of 2007, 2008, and 2010 Olde GnarlyWine (American Barleywine). At 11% ABV, these brews are no joke. Big brews need something flavorful and rich to stand up to them, and guest chef Michelle Ugarte from Salt at Ritz-Carlton on Amelia Island really delivered with her pairing: Cajun cocoa-dusted braised oxtail over aged cheddar grits in a Gnarleywine, merlot, and chocolate stout mirepoix, finished with togarashi salt. Whew, a lot going on there! I could have eaten a vat of the cheddar grits, even at this stage in the game. The texture was perfect, and Chef Michelle didn’t skimp on the cheddar. I’m a big fan of oxtail and the chef thoughtfully removed the meat from the bones to make a more elegant presentation. A few of us at the table got a piece or two of gristly guys with our meat, but it didn’t distract me too much and really enjoyed the dish and the pairing. I especially liked the addition of togarashi – I tend to finish anything even pseudo-Asian I make at home with this Japanese spice blend and hadn’t thought to use it to add complexity to a rich meat dish. Awesome idea! The next intermezzo offering was Lagunitas Maximus (American Double/Imperial IPA, 7.5% ABV). Now here’s where my beer tasting notes lost their momentum and start getting a bit difficult to read... The fifth course paired three hoppy brews with cilantro soup. A Little Sumpin' Sumpin' Ale (American Pale Wheat Ale), A Little Sumpin’ Extra! Ale (American Double/Imperial IPA) and Hop Stoopid (American Double/Imperial IPA). The creamy, slightly garlicky cilantro soup reminded me of the substantial herby broth of sancocho, a vitamin-packed stew considered a cure for hangovers in Latin America. (Maybe we should have been given this soup in a to-go container for lunch the next day? I sure could have used a hangover cure. But I’m getting ahead of myself.) Course numero six: 2009 and 2010 Hairy Eyeball Ale (American Strong Ale) paired with Jamaican goat wraps. You’re not going to get much in the way of insightful gastronomic elucidations from this point on. Perhaps this beer really does cause you to temporarily sprout hair on your eyeballs, as everything is a bit fuzzy from here on out. The wraps consisted of pulled goat meat, Caribbean rice pilaf, spinach, mozzarella and tropical sauce with mounds of mashed plantains and handmade guacamole. Does this presentation kind of sort of remind you of a certain male body part? Okay. Now I’m just getting silly. Apparently the next intermezzo was a glass of Cruising with Ruben & The Jets (American Double/ Imperial Stout/ Pepper Stout). I can’t seem to remember.

My memory returns for the seventh course, although I forgot to snap a photo of it until we’d already dug in: 2008 and 2009 Cappuccino Stout (American Double/Imperial Stout) served with beef wellington, garlic mashed potatoes and a Cappuccino Stout jus. My beef was tough but after I finished my taters and gravy I found myself reaching over the table stealing Phil’s off his plate. At this point all propriety was out the window. I’ll spare you the photo of my half-eaten plate and instead post this one I stole from Flickr. And…. finally! The eighth and final course! 2008 and 2009 Brown Shugga' (American Strong Ale) with a blondie topped with Brown Sugga’ caramel drizzle. Ooooh blondie! This was good! Like a really thick, warm, slightly undercooked, gooey chocolate chip cookie with extra chocolate chips and therefore extra goo. I really commend and thank Steve for pulling together such a major organizational undertaking and making this dinner possible. However, the night wasn’t perfect; at six hours, even the most seasoned session eater and drinker (me) couldn’t help but fall off at the end, especially on a Monday (Phil had a great time at the dinner but wasn’t feeling so hot the next morning when he had to get up at 6 and spend the day at work). And as much as I’ve been committed to learning about beer lately, I couldn’t help but lose interest in the nuances of a two-year vertical tasting by the twelfth and thirteenth beers offered in the sixth course. My best attempt to jot down tasting notes turned into illegible chicken scratch and random, meaningless phrases by the end of the night (just what did I mean by “I could smell the malt Maillard,” I wonder?). I do think the whole event could have benefited from perhaps a wee bit of restraint (from myself AND the organizers). This was Kickbacks’ biggest beer dinner yet so I’m sure the kinks will get ironed out for the next big event. All in all, I appreciated the infectious enthusiasm put forth by Steve and Ron and definitely got my money’s worth ($50 plus tax and gratuity), drank some great beers, made some awesome new friends, and generally just had a blast. The next Kickbacks beer dinner is with Terrapin on March 15th. You don’t want to miss out. Follow Kickbacks on Facebook for info on upcoming beer dinners, new brews, menu specials, and more!

Kickbacks Gastropub
910 King Street, Jacksonville, FL
904-388-9551
Kickbacks Gastropub on Urbanspoon