Thursday, January 30, 2014

Weekly Wine Review - Southern Rhone Red - 2009 Maison Arnoux & Fils Vacqueyras Seigneur de Lauris

As a big fan of Syrah and Grenache based wines, Rhone wines are some of my favorite French wines.  Complex and expensive wines like Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Cote Rotie are complex, full of interesting aromas... but do not fall into the category of an everyday drinking wine.  One of the tricks I've learned in finding value European wines is to look for a region that is located very near a high roller region like Châteauneuf-du-Pape. 

<+>

It's not a guarantee of success, but you will find similar grapes, grown in similar soil with a similar climate. In this case the region is Vacqueyras, which is located just east of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  This logic also led me to some great everyday wines from Gigondas, also right the neighborhood.  But today's wine is from Vacqueyras (pronounced VACK-a-rahs), so let's see how we do!



Wine: 2009 Maison Arnoux & Fils Vacqueyras Seigneur de Lauris
Region: Vacqueyras, France
Grape Varieties: Grenache (70%), Syrah (30%)
Obtained from: Purchased online at Ultimate Wine Shop
Price: $19.00
Wino4Life Category: Everyday Wine
Aeration before tasting: Just a swirl or two, no special aeration.


Cork Condition: Natural Cork - no defects or issues.
Appearance: Wine is clear, purple in color at the core/center with a water white rim.
Aroma: Great aromas of dark fruit like black cherries, licorice, spices.
Taste: Deeply flavorful and quite fruit forward for a French wine. Definitley a nice long finish. A good amount of tannins, it would have benefited from a couple hours in a decanter - or a while aging in the bottle.

The Grade: I give this one an A.  This wine strikes a great balance between old and new world for my tastes.  Pure lovers of old world, less fruity French wines may not enjoy this as much, but if you are looking to experiment with some French wine - I would start here.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Don't Forget the Wine on Super Bowl Sunday

Super Bowl Sunday  (or will it be Monday this year???) is a day more associated with beer koozies that wine glasses, but for your Super Bowl get together this year - give wine a chance!!!  You don't have to worry about breaking out your best stemware for the party - regular glasses or (gasp) plastic cups are fine, and may entice more of the beer drinking crowd to try something new.

<+>

Here are a few ideas for refreshments to serve on game day:

Spanish Cava.   Cava is a great all around sparkling wine for beer drinkers. There may be too much testosterone in the air for Super Bowl fans to embrace Champagne or sparkling wine, but don't worry about serving the Cava up in flutes, just pour some in a glass and see their eyes light up!  Cava is made with the same classic method as Champagne, but without the hefty price tag that goes along with Champagne.

<+>
Wine with Burgers. Firing up the grill? Beer and burgers is a classic match - but for something different serve up a Malbec - a versatile red to serve that may help you convert beer drinkers and white wine drinkers to the wonderful world of red wine.  
<+>

Plus with great bottles of Malbec available in the $10 - $15 range, you'll still have plenty of cash to bet on the opening coin toss (c'mon tails!) or whatever you like!  Malbec's versatility means that toppings like blue cheese, fried eggs, french fries, Sriracha, etc won't impact the great pairing.

Wine with Pizza. Your best bets with tomato sauced based pizza is to stick to Italian wine.  Chianti is a good option, but to try something new - go with a Barbera. You may never drink any other wine with pizza!
<+>

For pizza's without tomato sauces (e.g. white pizza's) a Gavi is a great Italian white wine option. Gavi is a dry crisp wine, more interesting to me than the standby Pinot Grigio. Also a   Cava would pair very nicely.

Wine with Buffalo Wings. The best pairing here is an off dry riesling (not a sweet wine, but one that does have a touch of sweetness), or if you don't think white wine will go over with your crowd, try a fruity, lower alcohol Red Zinfandel.  
<+>

Remember - with hotter dishes putting some extra chill on the beverage can help - it's probably mostly psychological, but it does seems to make a difference.  Alcohol levels that are too high can magnify the spiciness of a dish - so stay away from those super high alcohol Zins for spicy wings.

Wine with BBQ Ribs. If your Super Bowl crowd likes to get messy - you may oblige with a mess o' BBQ ribs (OK it's official I am getting very hungry!).  To pair with BBQ sauce that tends to have a good amount of sweetness, stick with a fruity red like Zinfandel or Syrah.  Syrah is also an excellent match for smoked ribs - as Syrah does tend to have a bit of a smokey characteristic.  
<+>

Wine with Hot Dogs.  Rosé would be a great match for the myriad of flavors that can make their way into a bite of a hot dog.  If your crowd may struggle with quaffing a pink wine,  go with an off dry riesling, especially if there will be any of those wonderful sport peppers used in a Chicago style hot dog (don't forget the neon green relish!). 
<+>

Wine with Chili.  Stick with a food friendly red - Malbec, a Tempranillo like a Spanish Rioja, an Italian Dolcetto, a fruity Syrah or Red Zinfandel.  You need something that will strike a good balance - a nice bit of acidity, with some tannins to stand up to a hearty dish, but not too big and tannic as to overpower the flavor of your great chili.
<+>

Wine with Nachos. One of my favorite game day spreads is a do-it-yourself nacho bar - chips, beef, chicken, jalapeños, onions, green chills, beans, olives, lots of cheese, and lots of guacamole and crema mexicana.   To pair with this myriad of flavors - stick with a Cava for a white wine option and Malbec for a red wine option.
<+>

Prefer beer with any or all of these party dishes?  Absolutely nothing wrong with that - but consider giving your guests a choice of beverages and you may be surprised how many converts to the grape juice you may have!  Don't stress out too much about finding the best pairing or if someone is drinking a red with a dish you had planned to serve with a white - just enjoy the time with family and friends, and don't forget the great commercials!!! (However, if they aren't swirling their wine properly, consider rescinding their invitation for next year!).

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Weekly Wine Review - Spanish Red - 2007 Bodegas Estefanía Bierzo Tilenus Envejecido en Roble

I am not able to find many Bierzo wines at the spots where I typically shop, so for one I turned to my friends at Ultimate Wine Shop who have a tremendous selection.  I do not have any business relationship with this place - I have just shopped there even before I started blogging, and they have never let me down!


Wine: 2007 Bodegas Estefanía Bierzo Tilenus Envejecido en Roble
Region: Bierzo, Spain
Grape Varieties: Mencia
Obtained from: Purchased online at Ultimate Wine Shop
Price: $14.00
Wino4Life Category: Everyday Wine
Aeration before tasting: Just a swirl or two, no special aeration.

Cork Condition: Natural Cork - no defects or issues.
Appearance: The wine is clear, dark red in color with a water white rim.
Aroma: Red fruit like cherries, but more toward a dried cherry or even a bit of dried plum (yeah OK - prune, there I said it!). Also some toasted oak and baking spices.
Taste: Lots of tart fruit flavors, just a hint of tannins. Long finish of dried fruit flavor

The Grade: I give this one a B.  I do like this wine, but for a few bucks more I have had better examples of Mencia (like this one). The dried or even cooked fruit flavor is not my favorite, but still a very nice everyday wine for the money.  I do recommend you try a Mencia wine if you see them - something a bit different, and something I think we'll all see more of in the future!

Monday, January 20, 2014

Wine Tip of the Week - Wine and Food Pairing, Let one be the Star

The quest for awesome food and wine pairings is one that I enjoy and plan to continue the search for as long as I live. Sometimes in this noble quest, you will be dealing with either a complicated dish - full of many flavors carefully crafted to please the palate, or you have a a super special wine, one of those once in a lifetime bottles.  In these cases it is OK to let either the food or the wine be the shining star of the show.

With an intricate, complex dish - serve a simple wine that will complement, but not compete with the dish. When you are lucky enough to enjoy a stellar bottle of wine,  you don't want a complex dish to compete with the flavors of the wine. Just keep it simple, like a great steak and a potato puree with a great bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Weekly Wine Review - Italian Chianti - 2009 Il Grigio Chianti Classico Riserva

At my first ever Italian wine tasting many, many years ago, our host with a wonderful Italian accent advised us - "When you eat the Italian food, you drink the Italian wine."  I used this wisdom on a night when I was making Scott Conant's spaghetti recipe (he gets $24 for the stuff, and some day I want to compare mine to his!). 


Wine: 2009 Il Grigio Chianti Classico Riserva
Region: Tuscany, Italy
Grape Varieties: Sangiovese
Obtained from: Purchased Online at Ultimate Wine Shop
Price: $18.00
Wino4Life Category: Everyday Wine
Aeration before tasting: Just a swirl or two, no special aeration.


Cork Condition: Natural cork - no defects or issues.
Appearance: The wine is clear, light red in color with a water white rim.
Aroma: Lots of cherry and strawberry fruit, and bit of forest floor/underbrush note.
Taste: Nicely balance, with a good dose of acidity to stand up to a tomato based spaghetti sauce.

The Grade: I give this one an A.  In my experience it is not easy to find a really good Chianti for less than $25, and this is one I really like for a bit less coin than that. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Chillin' in Chicago with the Next Restaurant Bocuse d'Or Menu

As the number of candles on my birthday cake continues to rise, I often find myself in a mental quandary that I suppose is just part of getting older.  I want to try new things - to see out new wines, new foods, new restaurants - because you never know when you're next favorite bottle, dish, or meal may be found.  On the other hand, there is a sense of security in sticking with those tried and true wines, dishes, restaurants that you've enjoyed in the past - so the risk of disappointment is low.   Plus, the thought of shelling out the big bucks for a good meal or tasting menu, with a nice bottle (or two) of wine... and not getting sufficient value - not feeling you received enough enjoyment for the money, is not a pleasant thought.
<+>

It is this mental battle that I have regularly that I believe has led me to be a HUGE, HUGE fan of Next Restaurant in Chicago.  Next is literally the "next" restaurant by Grant Achatz.  The Chef's first restaurant is called Alinea (the word for the punctuation symbol for a new paragraph: ¶), also in Chicago.  As Chef Achatz and his business partner Nick Kokonas were contemplating opening another restaurant, one of the things they wanted to address was diners who made reservations, but ended up being no-shows.  All the quality product - meat, produce, and whatnot had to be purchased for the reservation, but the cost then gets eaten when there is no revenue from the diners.  In a place like Alinea where people call months ahead for reservations, there are no buzzing pagers handed out to diners who wait in the lobby for a seat.  The brilliant concept at Next was to treat the dining more like a sporting event or a concert. You don't make a reservation, you buy a ticket. You buy and pay for a ticket that includes the set tasting menu dinner, your beverage pairings, gratuity, everything. When your day is here to cash in that ticket, you show up, are treated to fantastic service, creative & delicious food, excellent wine, and a night to remember.   The cost impact of no-shows addressed, because like a concert, if you buy a ticket and don't show... it's your loss - the meal is less expensive than most tasting menus.

But back to my mental battle - the other great element of Next Restaurant, is the tasting menu completely changes three times a year.  So for me, there is a sense of comfort in knowing the level of service, the skill and creativity in the kitchen, the quality and care in picking the beverage pairings - while still offering something brand new each time you visit (Unless you go more than once to a specific menu... which I know people do often!).
<+>


I tell you all this before I dive in to talking about our experience at Next Restaurant's Bocuse d'Or menu because what you will read about below is no longer available. This menu was only available through December, 2013. However, if you like what you see - give the restaurant a try - you can bet the same level of creativity will be applied to every menu they produce.   Getting tickets is not easy as the demand is high. It involves waiting for an announcement from Next Restaurant on their Facebook account, and then frantically trying to secure a seat from their website (the only way to get tickets).  If you live in the Chicago area, they also hold some same night tables that they also make available by announcing on Facebook.

Allright then, on with our meal.

The restaurant is in the Meat Packing district of Chicago - home to more and more restaurants and bars. We first went to this area to dine at Moto - another fantastic spot for molecular gastronomy (although I think this term underestimates what they do at Moto) - our taxi driver seemed to think we were crazy for going to this area at night. The same thing happened when we went to Next for The Hunt menu in March, 2013. This time though, after I gave the address to our taxi driver he asked "Oh, have you been to Next Restaurant before?"  I guess the word is getting out.  

We were promptly seated, and waiting at our table was a pamphlet that talked a bit about the Bocuse d'Or:

Since 1987, the Bocuse d'Or has developed into the premier cooking competition in the world. Each year, in Lyon, France these true "top chefs" compete in a raucous stadium filled with spectators. 
...
For the past two seasons, chef Grant Achatz has been a coach and Culinary Council member for the Bocuse d'Or USA Foundation. He joins culinary icons chef Thomas Keller and chef Daniel Boulud in developing the U.S. team to compete on this world class level.
...
Our Bocuse menu is not only about the intricate platters so closely associated with it. We are giving a nod to the cuisine of esteemed chef Paul Bocuse, the content's namesake.  Within the context of the competition rules, each team is also asked to show elements of their representative countries. We are showcasing ingredients of our Midwest American Bounty.
<+>

If that introduction was not enough to get you in the spirit of culinary competition, there were also big screen TVs showing the last Bocuse d'Or.  From the sounds you may think it was a world cup soccer game - this competition is not at all like a nice, quiet episode of Iron Chef!

Next came three plus hours of amazing artistry - both in vision and in taste.  Some beverage pairing were for multiple courses, some for just one course.

Bonjour

Dish: Terrine of Veal with Frisee salad and Cipollini Marmalade
Beverage Pairing: Sazerac

Tasting menus typically start off with some lighter dishes, and build from there.   The tone was set for our meal - and light would not be the order of the day!  Already waiting on our table was a terrine - super rich and delicious, with the welcome freshness of Frisee to help cut the richness a bit.   The pairing was an old school Sazerac cocktail, made with Whisky, simple syrup and Peychaud bitters. The final step was the perfume atomizer - which contained Absinthe.  A spray or two on the cocktail provided that wonderful anise aroma and a great way to start the meal.


Hors D'oeuvres

Dish: Oestra Caviar with Whipped Beurre Blanc and Pine Nut
Beverage Pairing: Sazerac

I have had and enjoyed caviar in the past, but honestly have never understood the big deal about it.   This dish is the first time that I really tasted a complexity of flavor and pleasant saltiness. The acidity of the whipped beurre blanc elevated the taste nicely.  Also, I have normally had the classic pairing of sparkling wine with caviar.  I was surprised that the Sazerac from our first course was also paired with the caviar.  However, the depth of flavor of the cocktail was a nice contrast and made for a very interesting pair.


Dish: Mousse of Darden Ham and Madeira Aspic (a chef Paul Bocuse dish)
Beverage Pairing: 2011 Domaine Maestracci E. Prove, Corsica

Time for an old school ode to Paul Bocuse. I don't think I've ever actually had an aspic before (basically meat flavored jello), and I haven't really understood why the world needs this type of thing.  For the wine pairing for this dish was a wine from Corsica - a French Island off the west coast of Italy.  I enjoy the reserve wine pairings at Next because it is as much or more about very unique wines and it is about just serving more expensive wines.  I know a bit about French wine, but have never seen or heard of Corsican wines... and in fact there will end up being two Corsican wines as part of this meal!  The varietal is Vermentino, a grape also used in Italian wine. A very nice pairing, as the wine nicely accentuated the saltiness and smokiness of the ham.


Dish: Souffle of Prawns
Beverage Pairing: 2011 Domaine Maestracci E. Prove, Corsica

One of my favorites of the evening. First, I had no idea you could make such a small soufflé - and pack it with so much flavor. Very classic looking, but the flavor was pure crab boil. The Corsican wine from the last course was also the pairing for this course, and was versatile enough to complement the intense flavors of this dish.


Dish: Custard of Cauliflower with Verjus Rouge, Rose, and Foie Gras
Beverage Pairing: 2009 Dopff Au Moulin Gewürztraminer, Alsace

So far the meal had focused on classic techniques with some surprises with the taste. You can count on some molecular gastronomy in any of Next's menu - and for tonight it was this course.  The server took the fresh rose that was our centerpiece, and dipped it into liquid nitrogen. He then crushed the frozen petals into a bowl, and used them garnished our dishes.  The remaining part of the rose was put back in the centerpiece vase - minus part of the petals, but still looking fresh.  The wine pairing was a Gewürztraminer from Alsace, France. The perfume aspects of the Gewürztraminer paired perfectly with the rose, and the hint of acidity in the wine help cut the richness of the overall dish.









Dish: Charred Lettuce, Bottarga, Bonito, and Peanut
Beverage Pairing: 2009 Dopff Au Moulin Gewürztraminer, Alsace

This course was a nice break from the rich terrine, mousse, soufflé, and custard that we'd enjoyed so far. I personally love the taste of charred or grilled romaine lettuce.  I would not have thought the Gewürztraminer from the prior course would have the level of acid needed to pair with this dish (acid dishes need acidic wines), but the pairing was very nice, and the contrast between the fruit flavor of the wine and the bitterness of the charred lettuce made it work.


Poissons

Dish: Ivory Char with Coddled Eggs, Celeriac, and Cranberry
Beverage Pairing: 2012 Domaine de Marquiliani Rosé de Sciaccarellu, Corsica

Another common aspect of Next menus will be a dish made to resemble another dish - as in the case of this dish that was made to resemble a broken egg - including a clever piece of edible "egg shell".  The pairing for this course was our second Corsican wine of the night. A rosé that came off a little bitter for my tastes when I drank it alone, but that element was actually a benefit when enjoyed with the food.



Dish: Quinault River Salmon with Beets, Browned Butter, and Parsley
Beverage Pairing: 2012 Domaine de Marquiliani Rosé de Sciaccarellu, Corsica

Another of my favorites of the night - the elements of the dish were also underneath the glass along with hot stones in order to accentuate the aromas of the dish. The piece of salmon looked just like a carrot, and was delicate and delicious. I once again doubted the pairing with a bitter-ish rosé, but the bitter elements of the greens made the pairing work once again.


At this point, a small cow bell (more cow bell please) was brought to our table without explanation.  In a few minutes we knew what it was for... as the video below shows (apologies for the quality, it was difficult to shoot from where I was sitting) displays representing those from a Bocuse d'Or competion were carried through the dining room, and we were encouraged to cheer just as spectators would at the actual competition.


Potage

Dish: Consommé of Roasted Mushrooms (a chef Paul Bocuse dish)
Beverage Pairing: 2011 Matin Calme Mano a Mano Roussillon


At this point about halfway through the meal I started to gauge how stuffed I was going to be by the end. Seeing this dish - looking like a super fancy pot pie, shook my confidence in my ability to pack away the groceries.  Luckily under the crust was only about two tablespoons of delicious broth, and the crust dropped down in the dish to soak it up...nice!  The wine pairing was a Grenache blend from Southern France. It had a nice earthy element that went very well with the mushroom flavor of the dish.

Volaille & Viande 

Dish:  Pheasant Smoked in Hay with Grilled Baby Leek, Caramelized Onion, and Sauce Blanquette
Beverage Pairing: 2011 Matin Calme Mano a Mano Roussillon

This dish was a bevy of flavors presented to resemble a spilled flour pot.  The slight gaminess from the Pheasant matched nicely with the Grenache from the prior course.



Dish: Ribeye of Beef with Boudin Vert, Roasted Carrot, Sauce Bernaise, and Potato Marrow.
Beverage Pairing: 2003 Chateau Fourcas Hosten, Listrac

With a French themed menu, what am I waiting for? Beef and Bordeaux...and here it is! Add a side of potato puree mixed with bone marrow and served in the marrow bone.  The Cabernet Sauvignon based wine was very delicious, and this course and pairing was my absolute favorite of the night.


Fromage

Dish: Tete de Moine with Cashews, Pear, and Milk Skin
Beverage Pairing: Jean-Luc Pasquet Pineau des Charentes

It is very classic French to have a cheese course prior to dessert.  At Next, the cheese was delivered by my new favorite kitchen gadget. A few twists of this wonder machine (designed by quantum physicist I'm sure) and we were provided a beautiful Chrysanthemum of slightly but wonderfully stinky cheese.  Then, the pairing...another of those rarities that you may never see again. I had to do some research just to find out about this wine, since most of the wine produced is either consumed in France or exported to Belgium.  This wine is made in the same region in France that brings us Cognac, and is a fortified wine where the spirits are added before the grape juice ferments.  This approach in nothing like either the port or the sherry method of making fortified wine, where the spirit is added after some amount of fermentation of the grape juice.  It should be considered more of a liqueur, but whatever you call it, the pairing with cheese was a knockout.




Desserts

Dish: Ice Creame Bombe in the Style of Apple Pie
Beverage Pairing: 2006 Chateau Cantegril, Sauternes

Any other night I would have skipped dessert, as this was one hearty meal, but desserts end up in a different stomach, so let's go for it!  Apple pie flavors with Sauternes - amazing!


Dish: A Cube of Squash with Huckleberry, Butter Pecan Ice Cream, and Pecan Oatmeal Cookie
Beverage Pairing: 2006 Chateau Cantegril, Sauternes

A healthy dessert? More like a take on pumpkin or sweet potato pie... I guess. Very nice, and thankfully not super heavy for our final dessert. Did I mention I was really digging the Sauternes?!?


Mignardises

Dish: Truffle of Chocolate and Hazelnut, Champagne Macaron, Bitter Chocolate Taffy
Beverage Pairing: 2006 Chateau Cantegril, Sauternes

For those of you who are Monty Pythons fans, at this point in the night these beautiful treats definitely represented the "wafer thin mints", but I pushed through and especially liked the taffy, which was referred to by our server as "house made Tootsie Rolls."


Another fantastic meal at Next. So much so that even though we live thousands of miles away, Wino4life wife and I are now proud season ticket holders, so will be enjoying all three menus next year... so stay tuned! We can't wait!

  • February – Chicago Steakhouse Menu
  • August – Chinese Modern Menu
  • December – Trio: 2004 Menu (Grant’s first chef job in Chicago was at Trio restaurant).

Monday, January 13, 2014

Wine Tip of the Week - Food and Wine Pairing - Stay Regional

When you are looking for a great food and wine pairing, consider staying regional.  Find a dish from a certain region, like pasta bolognese, and match it with a wine from the same region - a Tuscan Chianti or a Montepulciano.  When a certain wine has been made in a region for hundreds of years, you can bet the regional dishes are made to be served with the wines.  Not very high on the creative meter, but sometimes it is good to go with the tried and true method!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Weekly Wine Review - Australian Shiraz - 2012 Red Knot Signature Shiraz

I had read about this wine being a great value - so when I saw it at my local Total Wine & More store I wanted to give it a try.

 
Wine: 2012 Red Knot Signature Shiraz
Region: McLaren Vale, Australia
Grape Varieties: Shiraz (Syrah)
Obtained from: Purchased at Total Wine & More
Price: $13.00
Wino4Life Category: Everyday Wine
Aeration before tasting: Just a swirl or two, no special aeration.



Cork Condition: Uhhh... very interesting. The bottle looked to have some type of wax seal, but it as actually a plastic stopper. I have never seen one of these before! I took a few extra pictures because I don't know if I explained it very well! No defects or issues with the stopper.
Appearance: The wine is clear - not cloudy.  Dark purple in the center with a water white rim.
Aroma: Lots of blackberry, some licorice, and a bit of an herbal note.
Taste: Big fruit as expected from the nose.  Not a complex wine by any means but just damn tasty! A fairly long, very pleasant finish.

The Grade: I give this one an A.  A really awesome wine for the price, I will be buying more of this one.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Chicago – Is My Kind of (Food) Town

Early in my first career in Information Technology, I moved away from Arizona where I had been born, raised and schooled all the way through a bachelor’s degree at Arizona State University (Fork ‘em Devils!) – to the big big city of Chicago.  OK, well not the city exactly, since my job required nearly constant travel, and to ease myself into the shock of my first big move to a big city, I opted to live in the suburbs of Chicago, a little place called Countryside (close to La Grange for those of you familiar with the Chicagoland area).  

Back then I was not at all a foodie, oh I ate – and my jogging and membership to Bally’s are the only things that kept me from weighing 500 pounds from all the hot dogs and great pizza. However, I didn’t get to take advantage of any of the other food opportunities in Chicago.  Although when I wasn’t traveling I would go into an office in the Loop of downtown Chicago, I didn’t end up doing much in the way of leisure activities in the downtown area.
I ended up moving back to the west, first with a stop in Denver, Colorado for a couple of years, and then back to Arizona where I’ve been ever since.  My move back to Arizona set up the situation where I met Wino4Life wife, so it all worked out perfectly for me… but Chicago is one place that I have always missed.  Luckily, my wife also fell in love with Chicago and we go back usually once a year at least.  You will think we’re crazy, but typically we visit in the heart of winter. 

A little taste of bitter cold helps remind us that suffering through our Arizona summers may not be all that bad.  Our trips are usually planned around what restaurants we’ll eat at, supplemented by time at the Art Institute of Chicago – which I absolutely love.  We stay somewhere on Michigan Avenue, which is a great location to access most of the great restaurants in the area.
Throughout our trips to Chicago, we’ve been lucky enough to dine at great spots like these:
  • Gibson’s Steakhouse (many, many times – amazing steaks).
  • Moto (our first dose of molecular gastronomy).
  • Alinea (a stellar birthday meal for me – thank you Grant Achatz!).
  • Graham Elliott (our first gastro-pub).
  • Café Iberico (very authentic Spanish food, many, many visits here as well).
  • Quartinos (great small plates and thin crust pizza, open late for weary travelers).
  • Lou Malnati’s Pizza (my favorite in the thick pizza category, sorry to Gino’s and Giordano’s).
  • Portillo’s (hot dogs, Italian beef sandwiches, not every meal needs to be gourmet to be delicious).
  • Garrett’s Popcorn (yes, I know it’s not a restaurant, only a popcorn stand…but have some and you’ll see why it made the list!).
  • Next Restaurant (Grant Achatz’s excellent restaurant with three theme/menu changes per year – back in March we thoroughly enjoyed The Hunt menu).
As the year wound down, we really didn’t have any holiday plans, so my wife and I both closely monitored Next Restaurant’s Facebook page, as they were winding down their menu theme of Bocuse d’Or, based on the French culinary competition.  One night the final tickets (yes, the restaurant has tickets like a concert instead of reservations) for December, and a table for four was available to us on the Sunday between Christmas and New Year’s – so we struck!  Having no idea who would accompany us, we figured worst case we would have a great meal, with lots of room at the table – although it would be pretty expensive!  I’m not sure if we would have been served food and drink for four, but luckily we didn’t have to find out, as one of our friends from Chicago and a neighbor friend of hers were available and wanted to try out Next Restaurant for the first time. 
As usual, our plans revolved around our dining – and we would be arriving Thursday night in time for a late dinner, so that left Friday and Saturday nights open for some serious Chicago dining!
So here is what our plans turned out to be:
Thursday Night. We arrived at the Omni on Michigan Avenue at about 9:30p, so off to Quartinos for a late dinner.  Overall we had an excellent meal, with a nice Italian Valpolicella Ripasso wine for only about $40.  Only one disappointment, we opted for a pasta with bolognese sauce dish, and something was up with the pasta – fresh made, but doughy and maybe undercooked?  But a stellar duck prosciutto, radicchio, and balsamic pizza more than made up for pasta.  Another disappointment…not with the food, but our annual pilgrimage to the cold of Chicago and it was mid 30s at night… what’s up with that???
Avec Pork Shoulder - Amazing!
Friday Night.  A few weeks back I ran into a buddy that I used to work with at lunchtime, and knowing that I was pursuing my second career in wine mentioned that his college roommate was none other than Chicago Chef and restaurateur extraordinaire Paul Kahan.  If names such as Blackbird, Avec, Publican, Publican Quality Meats, and Big Star ring a bell… it’s that dude!  My buddy offered to send a message to Paul on our behalf… so now seemed like the perfect opportunity.  We opted to visit Avec, a small, casual, no reservation, wait in a big long line type establishment located next to the more formal Blackbird restaurant.  Our hookup netted us the Chef’s table seats, on the counter in the main dining area, but right in front of the action of the Chef’s cranking out the food.  I did not know what to expect from a hook up like this, as it was my first one… but my expectations were exceeded.  Fantastic food and a great wine list with almost everything under $50.  The dish I had read most about - the bacon wrapped dates stuffed with chorizo - were good, but probably my least favorite of the night.  A stellar pork shoulder and a delicious brandade - we will be back!

Saturday Night. My wife and I pledged to start trying new spots in Chicago, and although our goal was met the previous night at Avec, originally I was looking for something new to try on Saturday night as well.  My go to website for restaurant information about Chicago is eater.com, and while perusing the restaurant information I noticed that one of our favorite Chicago spots was going to be closing at the end of December… Graham Elliott’s!  I was surprised as he had just one a second Michelin Star, and with the whole Master Chef TV gig… but it turns out he is looking for a new location, and to go a bit more upscale. Graham Elliott’s was our first gastro-pub, a very casual spot with tunes cranked, servers in jeans and t-shirts, and gourmet food and wine.  We had been three times before, including one “Tour” tasting menu that had us tasting everything on the menu.  We decided that we wanted to dine at this spot one last time, so ended up going to something familiar after all.  The transformation of the Graham’s concept was already evident, as the service was much more formal than our previous visits .
Some of the Highlights of Our Goodbye for Now Meal at Graham Elliott’s:
  • Truffled Popcorn.  One of the signatures of the Graham Elliott gastropub was a basket of truffled popcorn that greeted you as you sat down to your meal. To say this stuff was addicting was an understatement. No surprise then, the first dish on the tasting menu was truffled popcorn…but not what we were expecting.  First of all – a complete reimagining of the dish, with buttered popcorn ice cream topped with a nice slice of black truffle, and a single stand of fresh chive. All the flavors we expected, just in a totally new way. Graham’s move to more upscale was evident from the start!
  • Orange wine pairing. I am very enthralled by orange wines right now. These are white wines made more like red by leaving the grapes in contact with the skins and seeds.  I was very happy to see a 2008 Movia Lunar Brda paired with a sweetbread and a salmon course. Delicious, complex... I need to find somewhere I can buy some!
  • Venison and a Cool Wine. The sole red meat course was a great venison dish, paired with a very interesting wine - a 2011 Scholium Project "Gardens of Babylon".  Not released from a traditional winery, this wine (a blend of Petite Sirah, old vine Zinfandel, Syrah and Cinsault) is made from grapes selected from various vineyards selected to make the most interesting wine possible...delicious!
Sunday Night.  Finally, the big night that brought us to Chicago in the first place was here.  Temperatures had dropped significantly, so if finally felt like a day in Chicago.  As anticipated, our experience at Next for the Bocuse d’Or menu did not disappoint, stay tuned next week and I’ll be posting in more detail about the dinner.  
Just a Little "Tease" from the Bocuse d'Or Menu
At this point I’ll just say that we are such big fans of Next, that we ended up buying season tickets (yes, they also sell seasons tickets so you can try each of the three menus!). So 2014 will have us travelling to Chicago three times… 
  • February – Chicago Steakhouse Menu
  • August – Chinese Modern Menu
  • December – Trio: 2004 Menu (Grant’s first chef job in Chicago was at Trio restaurant).
Season tickets to a restaurant thousands of miles away from home… sounds excellent to me.  As my Wino4Life blog moves into 2014, I plan to start providing more food and wine pairing information.  My experience at restaurants like Next is about enjoying the meal, but also about learning more about how to pair great wine and great food to end up with something greater than the sum of the parts.  I know, my sacrifices for my blog are immense, but that’s just the kind of guy I am!