Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Desserts & Wine Makes Tasty City Food Tours Offering

It’s no secret that travel writers receive more than their fare share of offers. They vary from meals to 10 day all-inclusive tours.  It all sounds great, but there’s just no way anyone can do it all and have time to write.  I pick and choose carefully.  Sometimes, however, it is a no-brainer. That was the case when I was approached to take a Chocolate, Desserts and Wine Tour in New York City.

Joyce Weinberg, a former professional foodie and always a native New Yorker, is the owner of City Food Tours. Though she employees a staff of well-trained tour guides, I was lucky enough to have her in charge on this warm and muggy Sunday. The tour begins at Verdi Park on the Upper Westside with Joyce’s very descriptive explanation of the neighborhood’s resemblance to Paris. Within a few minutes she has the group of 15 almost believing we are in the City of Light as we head off on a gastronomical trek.

The first stop on the tour is Acker Merrall & Condit, the oldest wine store in the United States. This place has been around so long they sold wine to the Titanic. The wine we tasted is definitely not that old, but it was a nice selection of Pinot Grigios from Italy, France and Oregon. Tour participants receive 10% off in the store and a number of people took one for the road (in sealed bottles, of course).

From Acker Merrall it was off to the streets of Manhattan where we stopped in front of Grand Daisy Bakery. The place is too small for all of us to go inside, but we didn’t mind standing in the heat when we got a taste of Pizza Cavolfiore. That’s cauliflower pizza with gruyere cheese (not too much) on a thin crust. It was absolutely delicious. I would have lingered for another slice, but Joyce filled us in on our next stop and I didn’t want to miss it.

Bombolini had three desserts waiting for us to taste. The Bombolini Creme Brulee tasted like the best zeppole/doughnut I ever had filled with an incredible custard (they are available in many other flavors, including pistachio, apple and, of course, chocolate). We also got to sample the chocolate gelato and watermelon sorbet at Bombolini, though there wasn’t enough to go around for each individual.  Both tasted very good, considering the Bombolini was such a tough act to follow.

It was time for more wine and Joyce had another interesting tasting place in mind. Bacchus is a wine store that specializes in tasting and you don’t need to worry about getting there at certain times. There’s always tasting available here and you can even buy a tasting ticket and do it on your own. We sampled a too sweet Kingsridge Riesling from Oregon, a great Spanish Rose Cava and then finished with an excellent Vino Verde from Portugal from Broadbent.

With all our wine tastings, Joyce presented us with a bit of dark chocolate and gave us some interesting information about cocoa beans, cocoa butter and what to look for in chocolate. This was all put to the test when we entered Jacques Torres and – literally – felt like kids in a candy store. I had visited this chocolate maker during my Traverse City trip and was all too happy to pick up a few treats to take home to Mom after we were done with our ganache sampling. With chocolate still on the brain, we made our final stop at Levain Bakery for what was probably the best chocolate chip walnut cookie I have ever had. It was moist and gooey with enough chocolate to satisfy even me, the chocoholic.

City Food Tours offers the two and a half hour Chocolate, Desserts and Wine Tours on Sundays. They also have a Beer, Cheese and Chocolate Tour as well as other culinary treks through the streets of New York City. Visit their website if you are interesting in booking a group or private tour, or contact joyce@cityfoodtours.com

New York City Tour and Attraction Discount Tickets

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Ciao to Distilleria Bottega

I’m a few months away from a trip to Italy, for an array of wine and spirits (not to mention pasta). Distilleria Bottega gave me a taste of Italia this past week in the form of grappa and liquors. While I didn’t get to enjoy the landscape of Northern Italy where the spirits are made, the drinks went down smoothly.

There was also an unusual surprise in this box of liquor – Grappa sprays. The sprays were too unique to let sit in the wrapper for long. They look like spray perfume bottles, but Alexander’s Spray Grappa is a flavoring, best used for food and coffee. I tried the plain grappa on chips, fruit and a cookie. It added a unique taste – definitely clear on the 38% alcohol content. The red pepper was especially tasty on tortilla chips. It was even suggested to use the spray on cigars and, though I’m not a smoker, I could see the appeal.

After the sprays came the bottles (which are quite beautiful, by the way) to pour. Grappa Alexander is a blend of Italian grapes. It bears some resemblance to nuts, fruits and even vanilla, but there is no mistaking the alcohol (40%) in this. I could have used a bit more flavor, however, I had a few true grappa drinkers taste it and most liked it. One said it’s the best he’s had.

Grappa - Italy BottledLimonicino Bottega is a mix of Sicilian lemons and grappa. The citrus allergy kept me from tasting. I happen to have had a few Lemoncello drinkers nearby so I got a good comparison in. The consensus was that Limonicino is sweeter, tasting like candy. It was a bit too sweet on its own, but deliciously mixed in a martini and with soda.

I’m happy to say I didn’t have any reason to avoid Bottega Gianduia. The bottle of this chocolate hazelnut liqueur emptied quickly! I would put Gianduia up against Godiva and Bailey’s. It’s thick and creamy, with the right amount of sweetness as a dessert beverage or mixed in drinks or coffee. (Or, maybe blended with some ice cream if you want a true spirited shake!)

The final bottle I tasted from Distilleria Bottega was Sambuca. I was all too familiar with the licorice-flavored liqueur having had an Italian grandfather who wouldn’t dream of having an evening espresso without it. I sampled it myself on quite a few occasions in a number of different brands. This was the smoothest Sambuca I’ve ever had. There was hardly a hint of the 40% alcohol in the distilled anise seeds.

Distilleria Bottega is a family business located just outside of Venice (a perfect place for a trip). All of the liqueurs mentioned are in the $30 and under price range. In addition to the spirits, Distilleria Bottega also produces wine, food products and even glassware. Their vineyard and distillery are environmentally friendly, using renewable energy that is generated through waste products, and natural fertilizers for true organic wine, olive oil, balsamic vinegar and more.

Monday, June 14, 2010

What’s Mixing in Chicago

The Modern Mixologist: Contemporary Classic CocktailsThe word “bartender” has taken on a new meaning this century. The bartenders are the ones spending their days mixing gin and tonics and serving beers in local restaurants and corner bars.  The creative ones, who go that extra step in creating drinks, are the mixologists.

I’ve only been living in the Midwest for a year and a half. I wouldn’t begin to call myself an expert on bars in Chicago, having only visited the Windy City a half dozen times. I needed to call for some help and I got it from one of the city’s experts. My friend Theresa Carter (a.k.a. The Local Tourist) took me around Chicago to check out some of the city’s most known mixologists in different neighborhoods.

Our first stop was in the Bucktown-Wicker Park area. This was my first experience going to a hidden bar. Like a Speakeasy during prohibition, The Violet Hour has no fancy door or sign posted outside. It is dark, but cozy – a perfect date spot, or a place for two gals to chat and enjoy the drinks.

Robert is one of The Violet Hour's mixologists extraordinaire. He feels the secret is as much in the ice as it is in the liquor. Each drink is a creation. The first we had was Juliet & Romeo, chosen by GQ as one of the 20 Best Cocktails in America. We certainly enjoyed the mix of gin, mint, cucumber, rose water and lemon. Another treat was the Blue Ridge Manhattan with rye, Carpano Antica, Laphroig and peach bitters.

After a cheese platter for some energy, we were off to the River North section of Chicago to Nacional 27. This Latin restaurant is as known for mixologist Adam Seeger as it is for its Tapas. He wasn’t there when we were, but the drink menu (full of herbs he grows) echoed his influence. In keeping with the Latin theme, we sampled some tasty creations. I loved the Passion Colada Mojito (Skyy Pineapple, coconut, passion fruit, mint, sage and pineapple) and Theresa enjoyed the Look Better Naked Margarita. This drink was made up of Partida Reposado, acai, agave, rosemary and egg white, a recurring theme with mixologists lately.

The froth from the egg white makes a nice presentation, but I’m still not sure I enjoy it.  It certainly wasn’t going to keep the stomach filled, so we just had to try some of Nacional 27’s famous tapas. The Chicken Empanadas were incredible.  I also found the Boniato and Sweet Plantain Croquetas to be quite good. The food here washes down best with the homemade sangrias, including Guava-Passion Ginger and Hibiscus.

Just a few blocks away, in the heart of downtown Chicago, is another place famous for its drinks.  Sable Kitchen & Bar is highlighted by master mixologists Jacques Bezuidenhout, but no one goes behind the bar here without a palate for creativity. This is another place where the ice and egg whites help mix to perfection, but they don’t ignore the beer, with a selection from around the world to around the corner.

Mike put together some specialties for us, including Versailles with Woodford Reserve Bourbon, black cherry jam, organic apple cider and lemon juice, and a version of a Yellow Jacket with Partida Resposado Tequila, St. Germain, Yellow Chartreuse and Orange Bitters. Sable also has a unique menu filled with an assortment of hors d’oeuvres, meals and brick oven flatbreads. We tried the Soft Pretzels with smoked cheese cheddar dip, Bacon Wrapped Dates with Blue Cheese and Veal Meatballs with Spicy Ketchup Glaze, all of which were delicious.

It may be awhile before I head back to check out Chicago’s bars, but you can always find something to do – or drink – in the Windy City through The Local Tourist.

Chicago Tour and Attraction Tickets

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Navigating the Wines at Vintage Indiana

It was my first Vintage Indiana, but it certainly won’t be my last as I got to experience more wineries than I could possibly taste at Indianapolis' Military Park.

The weather was certainly not cooperating for the 11th Vintage Indiana.  It actually started to downpour as I made the (scenic when there isn’t showers) short walk from the Hilton Downtown Indianapolis where I was staying.  The day continued to be an odd mix of pouring rain and sun-filled humidity, but that didn’t deter thousands from checking out the wine tents filled with more choices than anyone could make.

I’ve wanted to make a trip to French Lick Winery--which I hear is a quaint area full of accommodations-- before and now I’m even more sold after tasting a few of their offerings.  Though the Cayuga White was a bit too sweet for even my sweet tooth, the Norton was a tasty semi-sweet blend of black currant and cherry flavors.  Wildcat Creek Winery is fairly new, but they seem to have gotten it right with an excellent Riesling, strong in grapefruit tones.  I had not heard of Winzerwald Winery before, but I will definitely remember their Lieblich, a German wine with a tropical flair.  I could even taste banana in this one,

Huber Orchard & Winery is another large winery that I had wanted to taste and they have a big selection.  I found a Sparking White Starlight here that was just right in sweetness and perfectly light for summer.  Madison Vineyards and B&B offered a very flavorful Black Dog Table Wine.  Satek wine wins my prize for most unique – Mango Mia, made from 100% Florida mangos, which went down easy on this hot and humid day.  And I was impressed with the statement of Easley, a winery in downtown Indiana that 90% of the grapes they use come from within 200 miles of their location.  Their gold medal winning Traminette was excellent.

 At Vintage Indiana I also discovered Grape Inspirations.  Not only does this Carmel, Indiana, winery have some unusual stuff (orange wine?), but they actually have a set up that lets you make your own wine.  The fact is, Vintage Indiana was a learning experience to me on just how much the variety there is available in the state. There were just too many wines to taste and too many to go into detail on.  I plan to cover more in future stories.

This is was the first wine festival I had been to that had food that was all for purchase as most were filled with tables sampling their dishes, however, the price tag on Vintage Indiana (only $22 in advance) made it worth paying for the reasonably priced food.    I enjoyed a delicious barbecue beef brisket sandwich from the American Culinary Federation for only $5 and finished my day with Italian Ices (one of the few things I’ve missed from New York) from Little Jimmy’s Italian Ice.   The pina colada was tasty, but I really craved chocolate – the staple of Italian Ice in NY.  Some of the wineries also sold cheese plates and there was more barbecue, as well as pizza and turkey.

One place that was giving lots of free samples was Heavenly Dips.  I have to confess to spending quite a bit of time there going through the samples.  I didn’t think the oil dips were anything special, but I would highly recommend the Sweet Pepper Tomato and Spinach Artichoke for appetizers and the Cheesecake and Cinnabon for dessert.  There were also some food demonstrations that included samples of cheese, fruit and Red Gold Tomato dishes.

My day finished in a great suite at the Hilton, where the first goal was to dry off.  I enjoyed their breakfast buffet in the morning before heading home and thinking about all the many more wineries I now want to visit.
With so much to see (or should I say drink?) I skipped some of the participating wineries that I had been to recently.  Check out my previous stories on these wineries: Oliver, Best, Turtle Run, Indian Creek and Scout Mountain.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Latest Spirits on my Doorstop

One of the perks of my job is that I’m often getting “presents” delivered in the form of wine and spirits. The FedEx delivery guy thought I was a closet alcoholic until I led him to my blog. Everything that does arrive gets tasted, though sometimes it takes awhile if I've been traveling.  Here’s the latest from the wine and spirits world that I’ve had a chance to try….

The bottle of Smirnoff Pineapple Vodka arrived broken for my Vodka Tasting Party and the Smirnoff clan was kind enough to send another.  It was well worth the wait.  The flavor is clear and great.  I could think of a lot of things to do with this, but the first thing that comes to mind is a Pi┼ła Colada Martini with Ciroc Coconut Vodka and maybe a splash of pineapple juice.  And it’s a safe mix since Diageo owns both Smirnoff and Ciroc.

Vermont Spirits also sent me some vodka and these two definitely win the most unusual award.  The first is Vermont White, made from 100% milk (yes, the stuff that comes from cows) sugar.  The other is Vermont Gold, derived from the state’s most famous substance – maple sap.  I had to call in some reinforcements for these two unique flavors and we were all in agreement. The White just didn’t do it for us.  It’s powerful stuff at 40% and there isn’t enough flavor to do it straight. The Gold, on the other hand, was delicious and we just had to spend the evening mixing tasting it and mixing it (cranberry juice worked especially well).  I definitely recommend it.

I fell in love with Chateau Chantel in Traverse City.  The property is just beautiful and they have quite the selection of award-winning wines (I just included their Proprietor’s Reserve Pinot Noir in a Rum Bum story on the best wine from the most unexpected places).  When I heard about Entice, I wanted to give it a try and they were happy to oblige.  I can’t say, though, that I enjoyed this as much as their others.  This wine is unlike any other I’ve heard of.  It’s a riesling Ice Wine, a dessert specialty in this area of Michigan, blended with an Asbach brandy.  The mix of aged oak and sweetness didn’t work for me.  There was just too much going on for me to enjoy it.

Also on the wine front, my friends at Lynfred Winery gave me some of their new releases that are perfect for summer.  Both the Cherry Sparkling Wine and the Kiwi Rose are delicious by themselves, but are also great starts to punch or Sangria.  Add a little fruit and you’ve got some great poolside treats.

That's all for now, but I do hear a knock on the door....
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