Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Alexander Jules Fino 4/65: King Of Food Pairings

"Although it is indeed a rare pearl, the king of food pairings really exists, and it's fino sherry."
 --Taste Buds and Molecules: The Art and Science of Food With Wine by Francois Chartier (p.69)

As I previously explained, there are no absolute rules in wine and food pairing but there are scientific and logical reasons why some wines and foods pair better together than others. What is the most versatile wine for food pairings? In what I am sure will be a surprise to many, it appears to be Fino Sherry, a dry, fortified wine from Spain that is under-appreciated in the U.S., partially as most of the Sherry that Americans drink tends to be sweet rather than dry. It is time that Fino Sherry takes front stage in the U.S., that it ends up on more restaurant wine lists and shows up on the shelves of more wine stores.

Fino Sherry undergoes what is known as biological aging, where the wine sits in the barrel under a layer of yeast called flor. for the entire length of its aging. This flor feeds off oxygen, forming a barrier that prevents the wine from oxidation. It is an important element of Sherry production and the flor is generally unique to the Sherry region of Spain. This flor contributes to the dryness, texture and flavor of Fino and Manzanilla Sherry.

There are four basic strains of Saccharomyces yeast that create this flor, including beticus, montuliensis  cheresiensis, and rouxii. Beticus is the most common yeast, accounting for about 75% of all yeast found in the flor, especially in younger Sherries. Montuliensis is the next common, accounting for 15% of the yeast in flor, and it gets more prevalent in aged Sherries. In addition, it tends to lead to increased acetaldehyde, a volatile compound, which causes increased aromatics.  Acetaldehyde's are also present in foods including walnuts, green apples, and Spanish ham.

A key to food pairing is through these volatile compounds and there are approximately 307 volatile compounds found in the different types of sherry. food. Few, if any, other wines have as many volatile compounds. Because of all these volatile compounds, sherry thus has an affinity for many different foods, which share the same aromatic family. No other single wine has an affinity for as many different aromatic families. As some examples, Fino and Manzanilla have dominant volatile compounds such as acetaldehydes, acetoin (fatty, creamy & buttery flavors), lactones (apricot, peach, coconut), diacetyls (butter and cheese), solerone (dried figs), and terpenes (citrus fruits and flowers).

The main takeaway? Drink more Fino Sherry with your food. 

And let me give you one specific recommendation.

Alexander Russan, the founder of Alexander Jules, is similar in some respects to a negociant, visiting Sherry producers and cellar owners and carefully selecting some of their barrels to create a special Sherry. I previously reviewed the first three of his Sherries, as well as provided more info about his company and you should check out my article for additional background on Alexander Jules. Those three Sherries made my 2014 list of Top Ten Wines Over $15. Last year, I reviewed his  new Los Abandonados 6/8 Oloroso and it made my 2015 list of Top Wines Over $50. One of his newest Sherries is the Fino 4/65, of which I received a media sample, and I sampled it over the course of two days.

The Fino 4/65 (about $40/750ml) was bottled in May 2015, only 1000 bottles were produced. and it has a 15% ABV. The solera was started in 1940 by an almacenista named Angel Zambrano, who has also supplied Sherry to Bodegas Lustau. San Francisco Javier, the bodega which housed this solera, was constructed in 1910 and almost a hundred years later was bought by Juan Piñero. The 65-barrel solera is rarely used, despite the fact the grapes come from two of the best vineyards in Jerez, 70% from Pago Macharnudo and 30% from Pago Añina.

The average age of the Fino is about nine to ten years but which makes this Fino really special is Alexander's selection of the specific barrels. Though most of the solera contains flor from the beticus yeast, a small amount of the barrels are dominated instead by montulienses yeast and that is where Alexander concentrated his blend. He selected three barrels with montulienses and one of beticus. An intriguing blend for sure and it could be the first Sherry specifically selected for its flor.

In addition, when the wine was ready for bottling, he didn't add any sulfites and the Fino was not fined or cold stabilized, though it was moderately filtered. As such, this Fino could likely qualify as en rama, raw sherry, which is as close to sherry out of the cask as you will find.

Over the course of two days, I enjoyed a bottle of this Fino, drinking it on its own as well as pairing it with a number of different foods. I found this Fino to be aromatic, bone-dry, intense and briny. It is one of the most muscular Fino Sherries I have tasted, yet its power is still restrained and well balanced. There is some umami savoriness in its taste and it is intriguing on its own, though it might be even better when paired with food.

I started drinking some of the Fino with an Irish cheddar and salted cashews, and it went well together, especially the saltiness of the cashews. I moved onto some Thai food, from a fried chicken appetizer to a chicken, pork & garlic dish, and once again the pairing worked great. I even paired it with a spoon roast and spicy, roast potatoes, and it was strong enough to hold up to the beef and it also helped to mute some of the spicy heat in the potatoes. A white wine with beef? Yes, it can work with the right wine, such as a powerful Fino. With its dry, briny taste, this would also be a superb match for oysters.

Alexander Russan has created another winner, an intense Fino which showcases a different type of flor yeast. And with only 1000 bottles available, you better seek it out now before it is gone. Even if Russan bottles another Fino from this solera, it is unlikely he will use the same barrels as the fino changes so much all the time. So, if there is another Fino from this solera, it may taste very different from this bottling.

Americans need to understand the wonders of dry Sherry and must expand their palates beyond the sweet Sherries that too many people think is the norm. Sherry lovers are going to be enthralled with this Fino and hopefully it will also convince other wine lovers that Sherry is a fascinating wine deserving of their attention.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

OISA Ramen: Tonkotsu, the Specialty of Fukuoka

"Ramen is not one thing; there are many, many different types."
--Chef David Chang

After an evening of enjoying some Irish whiskey, why not enjoy some Ramen as well? That was my logic last week, as I attended a special Ramen pop-up hosted by Chef Youji Iwakura of Snappy Ramen. The event was held at Snappy Sushi on Newbury Street and featured Moe Kuroki of OISA Ramen, a pop-up ramen shop. OISA Ramen, which has been around for over a year, holds one or two events a month, at various locations in the Boston area. I'd hadn't been to any of their previous ramen events and this sounded like an intriguing dinner.

At this event, there were four different seatings, each for 20 people, and each seating included three different items, including Edamame, an Eel Bun, and Tonkotsu Ramen. The first three seatings were $30 per person while the final seating, which I attended, was $35, but the Ramen was a little different, with hand-made noodles and extra pork. It was a fun and delicious evening, and a real pleasure to meet in person both Youji Iwakura and Moe Kuroki.

Chef Youji Iwakura (pictured above) prepared the first two items for our dinner, the Edamame and Eel Bun. Youji, who loves Sake, is personable and passionate, a skilled chef who has been dedicating much of his current labors to creating ramen.

That wonderful Eel Bun! This wasn't some small bun, barely filled with food. Instead, you got an Eel bun stuffed with Unagi, mixed greens, cucumber, tempura bits, and a couple sauces. Chef Iwakura originally made this dish about two years ago at Snappy Ramen in Davis Square when they still served sushi. A great way to start the meal, the bun was soft and fluffy and each bite was a delightful melange of flavors and textures, with meaty eel, crunchy tempura, and a savory sauce. Even if you are not a big fan of eel, this bun might change your mind.

Ramen Bunny Ninja?

Moe Kuroki (pictured above) is serious about her ramen but she isn't a serious person, preferring to embrace fun and silliness. Just check out the OISA Ramen Facebook page and you'll get a sense of her infectious personality. She also is energetic and passionate, humble and talented. It isn't a surprise that she has a growing following in the Boston area, seeking out her ramen.

Moe grew up in the Fukuoka Prefecture of Japan, the home of Tonkostu Ramen, which is made from a pork-bone broth. In the Boston area, Moe had difficulty finding tonkostu ramen so decided to create her own, which entailed several years of trial and error, testing and experimenting. In November 2014, Moe and her husband, Mike Betts (a chef who once worked at Clio), started OISA Ramen, a series of pop-up ramen events.

I asked Moe a few questions about her process of making the ramen for this event, and her initial comments for both the noodles and soup were similar, "It is made with love." I would have to agree that it comes from her deep passion for ramen. Without such passion, it's doubtful she would invest as much time and effort in making her ramen as is necessary. Moe went into some details on the process, starting with the noodles.

First, as the noodles are hand-made, it's time intensive though she is getting more efficient with time. and practice. She uses a small, motorized pasta maker and notes that the dough is not soft and tender like pasta dough, having only just enough water to bind it together. In addition, she kneads the dough by hand, a laborious process. Moe also makes her own Kansui, an alkaline solution that affects the texture of the noodles. She knows it's working properly when her noodles suddenly turn a bright, light yellow color. She aims to make noodles that are thin enough to slurp but also have a proper texture with a crunchy chew.

As for the soup, it too is a lengthy process, starting wth preparing the pork bones, which must be boiled and clean to eliminate any impurities which might make the soup taste bitter. Then, the broth takes all day for simmering and skimming. Within the soup, there will be two different types of flavored oil, mayu (burnt garlic oil) and her own infusion oil, both oils made with lard and acting as the fat in her soup. The tare, the basic essence of the soup, is soy sauce based, and it is adjusted dependent on the saltiness of the toppings.

Her ultimate goal is to create a harmonious balance between the toppings, soup and noodles. She also notes that her soup is on the lighter side though that is due to the buttery pork belly, which has been cooked very slowly so that the fat renders out.

My verdict? A stellar bowl of Ramen. The plentiful pork belly melted in my mouth, like pork fat butter, and easily fell apart against the edge of the spoon. The broth was savory and complex, with an intense umami element, a salty edge and some heat from a peppery topping. The flavors were deep and balanced and it wasn't too salty in the least. It was like a bowl of liquid pig. The thin noodles had a nice bite to them, a good textural element. I could have devoured a second bowl of this compelling ramen, especially accompanied with an umami-rich Sake, like a Kimoto/Yamahai.

This was my first experience with OISA Ramen but it won't be the last. Moe's passion for ramen is more than evident in the quality of the finished product, a result of much time and hard work. I highly recommend you check out future OISA Ramen events. Chef Iawakura's culinary skills were also clearly evident in the Eel Bun and I need to get to Snappy Ramen in the near future to taste some of the ramen dishes that he has created, such as Tsukemen.


Monday, February 8, 2016

Rant: Fear Of Dining Out

Don't let fear prevent you from dining out in certain cities, towns and neighborhoods.

In a recent Boston Globe article, As Chelsea begins to bloom, struggles remain, a dark picture is painted of the city of Chelsea, noting significant drug use and crime. Though the article mentions some of the improvements and growth in Chelsea, it seems to revel in the more seedy aspects. I believe that one consequence of this article will be that some people won't want to travel to Chelsea, fearful of what might happen to them there. The same applies to other places which often seem to have a poor reputation in the media, including Roxbury, Dorchester and Lynn.

However, excellent restaurants exist in these cities, giving plenty of reason to visit these places. For example, Ciao Pizza & Pasta, located in Chelsea, has received my raves and was one of my Favorite New Restaurants of 2015. They make excellent house-made pasta and wood-fire pizzas and I frequently dine there. I have never once felt in danger while visiting this restaurant and I haven't seen anything in the neighborhood to give me concern. Yet I know people who won't dine at Ciao simply because they think Chelsea is too dangerous. How absurd!

Fear is preventing some people from checking out other excellent restaurants too, such as The Blue Ox in Lynn, the Ashmont Grill in Dorchester, and Merengue in Roxbury. Though I have not been there yet, but intend to visit in the near future, I have heard many good things about Chill On Park, a new ice cream shop, in Dorchester. Instead, those fearful people will seek out restaurants in areas which they consider to be "safer."

The truth is that no place is completely safe. Criminals exist in all towns and cities and pose a potential threat. Your car could be vandalized or you could be robbed in any city or town. There might be a greater chance in certain areas, but there are plenty of things you can do to lessen your chances. You need to be aware and smart wherever you travel and your chances of being a victim of crime will greatly diminish.

The potential threat in places like Chelsea, Lynn, Dorchester and Roxbury is lower than the media depicts and should not be sufficient to keep you from patronizing the excellent restaurants in those areas. Don't be a victim of fear. Take control of your life, be smart and don't miss out on any culinary experiences.

Does anyone have some other recommendations for excellent restaurants in Chelsea, Roxbury, DorchesterLynn or similar cities which are thought to be "dangerous?"

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Sake News

Kanpai! Here is another short list of some of the interesting Sake articles that have been published lately. It is great to see more and more coverage for Sake, though I recommend that anyone seeking to publish a Sake article check it at least a few times for accuracy. A few basic errors continue showing up in introductory Sake articles, and those errors would be easy to eliminate if you had a knowledgeable Sake person check your facts. Let us also hope that we see more than just introductory Sake articles in the future. Sake has many depths and all those varied facets make great material for articles.

1) Let's start off with some good news! The Business Standard reports that Japan's agricultural exports has increased for the third year in the row, increasing by almost 22% in 2015. More specially, Japanese Sake exports grew by 21.8%, up to 14 billion yen, which would be about $117 million US.  As the U.S. receives about one-third of those exports, it means about $40 million in Sake came into the country last year. Japan should continue increasing Sake experts, as the income could help their industry survive. There are no other details in this article, but it is relatively new and I'm sure that additional details will come out in the near future.

2) There is a growing Chinese demand for Sake! That is another partial explanation for the growth in Japanese exports, but some Chinese are going to the source for their Sake fix. Over at the Ejinsight on the Pulse, they report that there is growing tourism boom to Japan, from China and other Asian countries, with a goal of purchasing Sake. With cheap flights and a weak yen, Japan has become an attractive destination for other Asians. These tourists have been returning home with Sake bottles, and some have been visiting breweries as well as the Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum. This is also very good news, to see increased interest in Sake.

3) More details on the growing Chinese interest in Sake comes from the South China Morning Post,   noting how Hong Kong is starting to become a Sake mecca. As there is no tax on Sake, it makes it a more appealing beverage for restaurants and consumers. One Sake producer, Four Fox Sake, is bottling their Junmai Daiginjo in a special silver bottle, hoping it will be able to stand against high-end vodkas and other spirits at nightclubs and bars. The article even has a little info on Sake & food pairings, discussing its umami nature which makes it pair well with many different cuisines.

4) The increased interest in Sake in the U.S. is also resulting in a number of new Sake breweries starting up in the last few years and being planned for the near future. In CityArts, there is a fascinating article about the Cedar River Brewing Company, located in Seattle, Washington. In this article, owner/brewer Jeff James explains about Sake and their brewery. His flagship Sake is a Junmai and there is info on Jeff's brewing process, which he describes as "old school." Jeff has a full time day job so he works very hard, brewing Sake in his free time, slowly expanding his business, including recently hiring a business manager and marketing manager. Besides the Junmai, Jeff also makes a Nama, Nigori and a Taru Sake (which is aged for two weeks in local cedar). I haven't tasted any of his Sakes yet but it is great to see new breweries sprouting up and I wish Jeff the best of luck.

5) San Diego is getting on the Sake brewery trail as well. The San Diego Union-Tribune has an interesting article on two new Sake breweries in the San Diego area, including Kuracali Sake & Beer Brewery in San Marcos (which opened last year) and Setting Sun Sake Brewing Co. in Miramar (which is set to open in April). Much of the article is about Kuracali and its owner/brewer Chuck Perkins. He has started off small, with expansion plans in the works and notes that reviews of his Sake have been very positive. He believes craft beer aficionados will embrace locally brewed Sake and those thoughts are echoed by the owners of Setting Sun, Josh Hembree and Keldon Premuda. That is likely true, but I also feel that many wine lovers will embrace Sake too. Good luck to both breweries!

Friday, February 5, 2016

Boston Wine Expo: The Wines You Should Taste

Next weekend, the Boston Wine Expo is coming to town and you might be planning on attending this huge wine event. If you attend the Grand Tasting, you'll be confronted with over 1800 wines, an overwhelming amount of wine. As you can only sample a tiny fraction of those wines, which should you choose to taste?

Last month, I provided some Advice For Attending The Boston Wine Expo, twenty suggestions for making the most of your expo experience. My first suggestion was to make a plan of which wine regions and/or specific wineries tables you want to visit and taste. Rather than waste your time wandering around the hall, you should have an idea of what you want to taste. I suggested you check the list of participating exhibitors and spend some time deciding on where you want to go.

I'm also going to provide you with my own suggestions for which wines you should check out, partially based on another prior suggestion I gave to my readers: Take this opportunity to expand your palate and try different wines, hoping to find new wines to enjoy. With all the diversity of wines available, it makes little sense to spend your time drinking the same wines you drink at home all the time. Be willing to experiment and taste something different.

This list will include many of the tables where I will also sample wines as I too like to taste new wines, to expand my own vinous horizons. In addition, I may add to this list in the days up to the Expo, as additional exhibitors are added to their website.

Bodegas Hidalgo La Gitana (Table 515)
This is one of the best Sherry bodegas in Spain, and I was fortunate to visit the winery back in 2010. They will be showcasing their delicious La Gitana Manzanilla as well as a number of non-Sherry wines they produce. I haven't previously tasted these non-Sherry wines so am excited to sample them. I expect them to be quality wines based on my experience with their exquisite Sherries.

Portuguese Wines (Tables 261, 263, 265, 360, 362, 364, & 372)
As I've often said, Portugal produces some of the best value wines in the world and if you want inexpensive, but delicious, wines then you need to explore Portugal. Portugal has lots of intriguing, indigenous grapes, making their wines unique in a number of ways. Both their white and red wines are compelling. Portugal also makes fine, higher end wines as well, including amazing Ports. Take some time to explore what Portugal has to offer.

Moldovan Wines (Table 764)
Where is Moldova? You might not know anything about this Eastern European country, which was once part of the Soviet Union, but it has a lengthy history of wine production. They will be showcasing at least five wines, including a Sparkling, two Whites and two Reds, made from indigenous grapes of which you probably never have heard. I haven't had Moldova wines before so I definitely will be checking out this table. I don't know if the wines will be good or not, but I am compelled to explore these new wines.

Greek Wine (Table 720)
Greece is another country with a lengthy history of wine yet not enough consumers know about their fascinating wines. There are plenty of indigenous grapes in Greece, and they make a full gamut of wines, whites, reds, sparkling, dessert and more. I've found plenty of excellent Greek wine at prior Expos and recommend you check out what they have to offer this year.

Georgia Wines (Table 354)
The country not the state. Another country that once was part of the Soviet Union, Georgia might be the birthplace of wine production. It now produces some interesting wines, including some made in a very traditional manner in qvevri, earthenware vessels. I've enjoyed a number of Georgian wines before and continue to seek out new ones too. Why not try something different?

90+ Cellars (Table 437)
A Boston company, 90+ Cellars sources wines from all over the world, offering excellent bargains on a full array of wines. They will have plenty of good wines available for tasting at the Expo. This year,  keep an eye out for the 2012 L'Amis Barbaresco, which I reviewed at an Expo preview event. They also have a few newer wines, including the Magic Door Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa, CA), Magic Door Rosso Toscana IGT (Italy), and the 90+ Cellars Lot 121 Cuvee Royale (Cotes du Rhone, France).

Expand your palate and seek out wines new to you!