Archive for the Wine Dinners Category

CALIFORNIA DINNER #1 – RUE LEPIC (SAN FRANCISCO)

Posted in California Restaurants, Rue Lepic (San Francisco), Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , on October 17, 2010 by ballymote

Our first night in California and we are going to Rue Lepic for dinner. I found this French bistro on Trip Advisor and it had great reviews and was located just a block from our Nob Hill hotel. It was an easy walk downhill to the restaurant and a much tougher walk back up the hill after dinner. Rue Lepic doesn’t get a lot of talk on food boards but it had some excellent reviews and I had a hunch we were going to enjoy eating here. We had an early 6:00 P.M. reservation as we were all suffering from jet lag after our long flight from Philly and a five hour tour of the city.

We ordered two French wines to go with our meal, the 2008 Ortas, Cotes du Rhone and the 2003 Domaine Barville, Chateauneuf du Pape. Both these wines were drinking nicely and complimented our food. The Chateauneuf du Pape getting a slight edge over the Cotes du Rhone for sheer drinkability.

The menu at Rue Lepic, while not extensive, still contained some interesting choices. All of us made the decision to go with the Chefs Tasting Menu which included five courses for $45.95. We all started with the Mushroom soup which was excellent even for a non-mushroom person like myself. A Caesar Salad followed the soup and the lettuce was nice and fresh and the dressing had just the right flavor.

It’s been two weeks since we had this meal and I still have fond thoughts of our next dish, the Seafood Pasta. Shrimp and scallops tossed in a fantastic blush sauce over Angel Hair pasta. I could have made a meal out of this item. Everyone seemed to feel the same way as none of us left the tiniest scrap remaining on our plates. When it came to the main course we were split among three different selections.

Two of us, myself included ordered the Grilled Chicken Breast with Rosemary sauce. It was served, as were all of the entrees with scalloped potatoes, asparagus spears and baby carrots. The chicken was done perfectly and the light sauce was just the right flavor for the tender fowl. I was delighted with my meal.

The remaining four were split on their choices with two choosing the Roasted Veal with a truffle and mushroom sauce and the other two going to the seafood side with Scallops in a creamy white sauce. Everyone was very pleased with their meal and we topped it off with a trio of excellent desserts.

Some of us were hoping to get the Fresh Peach Sorbet but it was off the menu on this evening. We settled for the Creme Brulee with berries, the light cheesecake with berry sauce and the final offering which almost looked too good to spoil the presentation.

This one not only tastes delicious its fun to say…..it’s the La Ganache au Chocolat d’ Une Creme Anglaise Parfumee aux Fraises et Kiwis. Let’s not spoil it with a translation. It looked beautiful and tasted much like it looked. Just a terrific presentation.. Our first dinner in California set the bar for the others to come. Rue Lepic was a great find.

ARUGULA – BYOB

Posted in Arugula Restaurant, South Jersey BYOB Reviews, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , , , on October 16, 2010 by ballymote

It’s always nice to discover a new BYOB in the area. It’s even nicer when the place is within walking distance. Arugula opened recently in the same location once occupied by San Miguel, a Mexican eatery which we all liked a lot prior to it moving to Voorhees and eventually closing. Six of us converged on the neighborhood’s newest dining spot last night to give it a try. First impression on entering was that the room looks nice. Bright green walls, lots of wall decor and an open, uncluttered look to the room and it’s approximately 50-60 seats. The service was friendly and Andrea, our server, was enthusiastic and helpful (I am excluding her photo because I took a picture of her that wasn’t one of my best). A first glance at the menu revealed some interesting choices in both the appetizer and entree sections. There were lots of tempting Italian dishes and even a few specials.  We had our wines with us and a lot to talk about as four of us had just returned from Napa and the other two were just back from a vacation in Germany.

Joe and Carol were drinking a 2009 Folie a Deux, Menage a Trois, a red blend that I often tell my kid’s to buy when they can’t think of anything else (knowing they are smart enough to remember a Menage a Trois). I had the 2006 Stefania, Eaglepoint Ranch Syrah and although I have enjoyed this same wine in the past I think this was the best I have seen it showing. It was delicious and my wife, Kathy, agreed. Jerry and Sue quite fittingly had a German wine, a Dornfelder, Rheinhessen, low alcohol content and much on the sweet side of the wine universe.

Let me start with the only two flaws we found in the meal, both minor, so that I can concentrate on the multitude of good points. We all ordered the Harvest Soup, a pumpkin, squash brew that sounded enticing. It must have sounded just as good to many others because we were informed that they were all out of the soup. The only other “quibble” was that Carol’s pork was too salty. Now for the good stuff.

left to right…my Crab Crusted Diver Scallops, pan blackened, sweet roasted pepper sauce, arugula, grilled corn and bacon. Scallops were perfect, the blackening added great flavor and who doesn’t like bacon? Joe’s Prosciutto Wrapped Mozzarella, pan seared with smoked tomato, baby arugula and a balsamic fig reduction. He loved it. Jerry and Sue split the Antipasto di Arugula, an assortment of cured meats, cheese, olives, fruits and vegetables. The plate was fresh with an interesting variety of items that they both enjoyed.

Although the picture on the left does not do it justice, Carol’s Eggplant Parmigiano, crispy white eggplant, sheep’s milk ricotta, tomato puree, basil pesto cream, freshly shaved prosciutto and parmigiano reggiano, was deemed delicious. Jerry had the Pear Salad in the middle and Kathy went with her usual Prince Edward Island Mussels, braised fennel, pancetta in a spicy tomato sauce with grilled bread. She thought the sauce had a nice tangy bite to it and the mussels were properly prepared. We were off to a good start and it was now time for our entrees.

I went back and forth on a couple of tempting items until I finally, with prompting from Andrea, chose the Capellini e Granchio, Colossal Crab Meat in a blush wine sauce with basil, garlic, and imported plum tomatoes over house made capellini. I loved the sauce, it had a slight sweetness and the dish was very good. I might point out, and I trust I am not being picky, but the dish was incorrectly named as the pasta was definitely NOT Capellini. If this was “angel hair” pasta then the angel’s have put on some weight recently.

On the left, Joe and Sue went with one of the “Specials” the Orange Roughy, pan seared served over pumpkin risotto with baby spinach and a hazelnut brown butter sauce. Jerry ordered the other “special”, the Chestnut Floured Papardelle with braised rabbit ragu, shitake mushrooms and butter nut squash.

On the left Kathy’s 14 oz. New York Strip with broccoli rabe, purple and sweet potato hash with bacon and caramelized onions in a chianti syrup. It looked good and tasted better. Carol had the Pork Tenderloin Medallions, pan-seared with a dried-cherry-red wine sauce, mushroom bacon risotto, spinach and baby carrots. She liked the dish minus the over salted pork.

When we had finished our dinner we were informed that our desserts would be comped as an apology for running out of the Harvest Soup. It’s gestures like this that separate the people who know how to run a restaurant from the pretenders. It made a great first impression and, along with the quality of the food, assured a return visit.

Carol had the Chocolate, Banana, Peanut Butter Cake, a tasty little low cal item (cough). Two of the group had the Raspberry Cheese Cake, which I snuck a bite of and give my seal of approval.

Sue topped off her meal with the inappropriately named Chocolate-Chip Cannoli which was totally devoid of chocolate chips. It could be that they are hiding somewhere in the kitchen with the capellini. I had the Pumpkin Tiramisu. It was nice and light but I think, given the choice, I’d stick with the original Tiramisu.

Overall, it was a very nice experience at Arugula. They feature a menu with so many tempting entrees it can be difficult to settle on just one. My guess would be, with the large local population here in Washington Township, it will quickly become difficult to secure weekend reservations once the word gets out. That is why I hope that Chefs Nicholas Tomasetto and Stefan Gervasi remember all the nice things I just wrote about their new venture and keep that table for six reserved with our name on it!

AUGUST RESTAURANT – BYOB

Posted in August Restaurant, BYOB Restaurant Reviews, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 25, 2010 by ballymote

The first good thing I can say about August is that for some reason, unbeknownst to me, you can always find a fairly convenient parking spot despite its location in the 1200 block of South 13th Street in the Bella Vista section of South Philadelphia. It also helps that the food is pretty damn good. This cash-only BYOB isn’t fancy but there is an atmosphere of congeniality and care that owners, MaryAnn Brancaccio and Maria Vanni have managed to create.

Our server, Adrienne, was both patient and attentive, especially in light of the fact that half of our party of 6 were nearly 30 minutes late in arriving. She opened our wines and when we were finally settled, recited the evening specials. I would describe the offerings at August as Italian with a twist. There are always a few items that seem to stray from the heart of Italian cooking yet they receive an infusion of the country just the same. We had a bevy of nice wines for the evening and much to discuss over our meal as we went over our itinerary for our San Francisco/Napa trip which is now less than seven days away. I brought with me a 2007 Ancient Peaks, Cabernet Sauvignon, Paso Robles, CA. I had read a lot about this wine mostly from e-mails sent from a west coast wine shop. I had been looking for it here on the East Coast for over a year and I stumbled across it at Wine Works in Marlton, NJ. It has all the full flavors of a fruit-filled cab without those big Napa Cab prices. Joe had stopped at Salina Liquors and picked up a 2006 Bodega Renacer Punta Final, Riserva Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina. This one offered great value with full Malbec flavors and a smooth finish. Gerry had two wines. His first was a 2006 Perrin et Fils, Vacqueyras Les Christins. I loved the sweet nose on this one with strawberries and roses coming through. On the palate there was plenty of red fruit in a silky smooth package. His other wine was another California Cab. This one was the 2007 Rush Vineyards, Napa Valley Cabernet. Once again, a nice dark cherry and chocolate nose and the taste pleasant enough but with all of the really good Napa Cabs that Gerry drinks this one falls a little short of the others.

Left to right are Carol B.’s “August rolls”, two vegetarian spring rolls with a tangy dipping sauce, JoAnn B’s Spinach Salad and Gerry B.’s Shrimp sauteed with garlic and chili oil. All of the choices are just the right portion to serve as a nice prelude to the main course.

My wife, Kathy, ordered the raviolis with mushrooms and brown truffle butter sauce and I was happy with my choice of the angel hair pasta aioli with capers; made even better when Gerry poured his left over sauce on top of the remainder of my dish adding a potent garlic flavor to the pasta.

Adrienne was nice enough to write down the “specials” for me as one of the difficulties of writing a food blog is trying to remember what went into the specials. It’s easy enough to go to the restaurants web site for entrees from their regular memo but those specials always create a special problem. Hey, maybe that’s why they are called “specials”!!

Kathy and Carol both had the Pan Seared Pork Chop with maple mashed sweet potatoes and broccoli rabe. The chop looked to be cooked perfectly and seasoned well and I think both of them enjoyed their selection.

Gerry was thinking “Steak” all the way as there was a pepper-crusted filet as one of the “specials”. He changed his mind at the last-minute, most likely because it was a filet rather than a sirloin or T-bone, and went with my 2nd choice, and Joe B’s first choice, the Pan seared striped bass with a chipotle buerre blanc with shrimp and chorizo risotto. It sounded delicious and would have most certainly been on a plate in front of me had they not tempted me into selecting the Meatloaf  served on a bed of creamy mashed potatoes and sauteed zuccini. I’m a sucker for meatloaf on any menu. It’s just something about the good old American comfort food of meat and potatoes. I realize it’s not very adventurous but it’s something that when done well, makes for a great dinner. This one was done well and I was totally happy with my choice

JoAnn had the Penne pasta with jumbo shrimp sauteed with garlic, white beans and asparagus in extra virgin olive oil with a touch of tangy marinara sauce. Yikes, I take back what I said about this not being a true Italian cuisine. She thought the dish was full of flavor and well prepared.

We spent a lot of time discussing our trip and what we would be doing each day. We have some great winery visits and some spectacular dinners planned and I will be posting the final update here on my blog in the next day or two. Meanwhile, as we chatted, Maria Vanni was out front making sure everything was good with our meal. That’s the kind of personal touch that so many places forget and it’s one of the things that builds loyal and repeat customers.

We topped off our meal with most of our group sharing a couple of pieces of the house signature dessert, Aunt Leena’s Cheesecake, a very light cream cheese cake dusted with a cinnamon. I was the lone wolf who opted for the Affogato, vanilla ice cream served in a shot of espresso and topped with a sambuca whipped cream. I’m not sure if I ordered this because I thought it would taste good or I just liked saying “AFFFFogatttoooo”. Whatever the reason, I was pleased with my choice. It was delicious and unique; great flavors and the perfect ending to a good meal.

There are many choices for dining in South Philly. August can certainly be recommended as an excellent pick for fine food and service.

BECCA’S RESTAURANT – BYOB

Posted in Becca's Restaurant, BYOB Restaurant Reviews, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , , on September 23, 2010 by ballymote

It was back to Phoenixville, PA last night for a spur of the moment dinner at one of the many fine BYOB’s that have sprung up throughout the gentrified town. Gerry B. and myself were disappointed that our friend, John G. would not be joining us but we were determined to make the best of it without him.

Becca’s occupies the site long-held by Twin Bays Restaurant, a local fixture for many years. Gerry, and his wife, JoAnn, have been here many times. He even claims to have his own “secret” parking spot in the lot outside and I must confess, he just may be onto something.

As usual, we had a couple of nice wines with us to compliment our meal. I brought the 2001 Coudoulet de Beaucastle, Cotes du Rhone. I had read a review on this wine from 2005 and it ended with the words, “good now, should be terrific in four or five years”. Well, that would be now and it was, terrific, I mean. It certainly needed some time in the glass as it appeared soft pink on the rim when first poured. Thirty minutes later a sweet nose of lilac and dirt intermingled with black cherry made each sniff a pleasure. This wine was creamy soft on the palate with nice fruit and tobacco and a super smooth lingering finish. Gerry’s contribution was equally appealing. He brought the 2008 Ty Caton, Caton Vineyard “Tytanium”, Sonoma Valley, Red Wine. This one had a lot going for it; a powerful nose of ripe fruit. Checking in with almost 15% alcohol it still manages to maintain an elegance with hints of dark chocolate and herbs. A nice blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Syrah, Syrah and Malbec. It was a nice contrast to the French wine.

Our server, Ray, has been here quite some time as Gerry remembered him from the Twin Bay days. Ray was very professional and made sure we were taken care of all-night without being intrusive. He sold Gerry on one of the evening “specials” and we will talk about that in just a bit. We both found appetizers that we thought we would enjoy and I went with the Lobster Bisque.

light, creamy bisque of lobster with sourdough croutons. The tiny croutons were a nice, crunchy touch. The soup was tasty with nice pieces of lobster.  It was served at the proper temperature and provided a nice start to the meal especially with the warm raisin rolls dipped in olive oil.

Gerry selected the Jumbo Lump Crabmeat “Martini”, tossed in a vodka infused green olive vinaigrette. This was another tasty starter that had nice pieces of crab meat in a tangy mix of greens. He gave me a taste of his and although it was good I was glad I chose the bisque.

When it came time to select our entrees it was a difficult choice. The menu at Becca’s has lots of tempting fish dishes and Gerry couldn’t resist the steak that was the “special for the evening .

His steak came with Yukon Gold mashed potatoes and some nice baby carrots. It was smothered in mushrooms and onions and the sauce added to the flavor of this  Grade A steak flown in that day from Oregon, I believe. The full-bodied Ty Caton Tytanium was a perfect wine for the hearty red meat.

I was definitely in the mood for seafood and was torn between the Atlantic salmon, the Japanese sea bass, the diver scallops and the Halibut steak. I finally settled on the halibut, with a summer truffle risotto and a chive nage. The halibut steak had a beautiful char, was cooked perfectly and the flaky white fish was only enhanced by the creamy truffle risotto which was excellent. The subtle creamy feel of the Beaucastle wine topped off the dish and made the meal a total pleasure.

We took out time and discussed our upcoming trip to Napa and Sonoma which is now less than 10 days away. We skipped dessert and headed back to Gerry’s where John G. was waiting for us with some great cigars.

Becca’s was quite busy for a Wednesday evening and with such good food and fine service, it’s no wonder the place does well even on weeknights.

CASONA – BYOB (2nd Review)

Posted in BYOB Restaurant Reviews, Casona (2nd Review), Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 6, 2010 by ballymote

There is something about Casona that appeals to me. Certainly, part of it is the uniqueness of the spicy Cuban influenced menu. It’s also the enticing wrap-around porch that on a balmy, breezy summer evening can be the perfect setting for a meal. Another part of the draw is the building itself; an imposing Cape May style Victorian that stands alone and seems to serve as a guardian for the many other Collingswood eateries further along Haddon Ave. Some, or all of this, brought us to Casona on a gorgeous Saturday night of Labor Day Weekend. Unfortunately, scores of others had the same idea and we were unable to secure seating at an outside table. We did have the next best thing though, a nice table by the open doorway where the soft breezes were still evident.

Our server, Ivan, was both personable and enthusiastic. He chatted while opening our wines and told us of the lone special for the evening. The regular menu at Casona is chock full of interesting offerings and I don’t think they really need to have many “specials”. These were the wines that the six of us would share with our spicy food.

Joe B. had the 2007 Marchesi De Frescobaldi, Tenuta di Castiglioni, a Super Tuscan. We all liked this wine a lot. It was very food friendly with hints of blackberries and minerals and a velvety finish. It deserves the 93 point rating it received from Wine Spectator. I brought with me one of my wife, Kathy’s favorite wines. The 2007 Angel’s Landing, Stag’s Leap District,  Napa Cab. We had this a few months ago at Sonata in Northern Liberties and she had been wanting to try another bottle since then. Everyone seemed to enjoy it and the smooth taste of red and black berries and ripe cherries with a hint of licorice and chocolate make this a tremendous value at under $20.00. Jerry C. always has something a bit unusual and tonight was no different with a 2007 Chateau Morrisette, The Black Dog, Red Blend. If you guessed that Chateau Morrisette was in Bordeaux you’d be off a little as it is located in Floyd, Virginia. The Black Dog is a blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Chambourcin and is light with smooth tannins. One of the problems with the fare served at Casona is that the spices tend to overpower the wines and if the food wasn’t so good that would be a very big problem.

Kathy and I each chose as our appetizer, the Cuban Pizza, – Chicken, Creole  tomato sauce, chorizo & cheese 6.95. Kathy thought it was very good, I felt that very good didn’t go far enough in defining just how REALLY good this was. I could have gone with a 2nd one as an entree. The flavors were awesome.

What Kathy thought was even better than her Cuban Pizza was Carol B.’s Empanadas de Carne, – Ground beef with
peppers  & onion  6.95
Carol wasn’t terribly phased that she had actually ordered Empanados De Pollo because the beef was tasting great. Her dish came with guacamole and sour cream for dipping.

Jerry and Joe were persuaded by Ivan to try the  Tomato Soup, served with toasted bread and parmesan cheese $6.50. They both thought it was good but I saw them eyeing our other appetizers and felt they might wait for Ivan outside and end his career as an Appetizer Suggester.

Sue C. went with the Pico di Gallo, Tomato, red onion, cilantro, roasted jalapeno, lime juice & olive oil served with corn tortillas or mariquita $5.95. I didn’t take a picture because it was only chips and salza but the salza was spicy hot and required keeping your water glass within reach. Speaking of which, not to nitpick but, with food as spicy as that served at Casona, it becomes very important that the servers and busboys keep an eye on water glasses. On this night, they were not attentive to this chore. On a previous visit we were told that there would be a $1.00 charge for additional chips. They have since, thankfully, done away with this infuriating charge.

For their entrees, both Kathy and Carol selected the Lechon Asado Citrus-marinated pork, slow
roasted Cuban-style with white rice
& maduros 20.95
I think I had ordered this on our last visit. I didn’t hear any complaints on this choice but, by the same token, I did not hear either of them gushing ecstatic over their choice.
Sue stayed in the pork family and ordered the Chuletoe de Cerdo Pork Chop with mashed sweet potato,
guava sauce & asparagus 21.50. Her chop was nicely done and she enjoyed her dish. It looked like a very nice presentation; colorful and appealing.
I stayed with chicken after enjoying the pizza and went with the Chicken Moluteno Grilled chicken breast marinated in
mole sauce with chilaquiles queso fresco topping with cilantro, cherry tomato
& red onion sauce 20.95
There was a nice blend of flavors in this semi-spicy dish and it didn’t disappoint. I wouldn’t rank it up there with the great chicken dishes of all time but it was fine.Jerry and Joe put their heads together and decided they were in the mood for a little bit of everything. The perfect choice for them was the Paella, Casona Signature Dish
Saffron rice, bay scallops, clams,
mussels, shrimp, chorizo &
 chicken breast, calamari,
green peas, lobster
for one   28.95
for two  52.95
They both worked diligently at the huge dish and did their best to finish as much as they could. They still had some to take home. Joe put a little on my bread dish and I think I shared their view that, although it was good, it could have been better with an addition of flavor. For as many things in the entree, it was lacking in bright flavors and slightly bland.

Overall, it was  a nice experience at Casona. A beautiful night, good wines, good food, good conversation in a nice setting. Nothing wrong with that.
 

CHRISTOPHER – BYOB

Posted in BYOB Restaurant Reviews, Christopher, South Jersey BYOB Reviews, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 4, 2010 by ballymote

Open only three weeks, Christopher, on Kresson Rd (just off Brace) in Cherry Hill, had already drawn some nice reviews. Our little group of six hungry diners were anxious to see for ourselves what it was all about and that is what brought us there last evening. Nicely designed on the inside, Christopher features an alcove in the center that is unique and provides a more roomy feel to the room. With Sinatra-type music playing softly in the background, our server, Michaelangelo, painted us a picture of the evening’s lone “special” (sorry, couldn’t resist). It was a stuffed flounder with a three cheese sauce. It sounded pretty good. As our wines were opened, Michaelangelo suggested some appetizers and you could tell he took pride in being a part of this new culinary adventure. In fact, the entire staff seemed to work as a team in re-filling water glasses, removing dishes, stopping by to see if everything was OK.

As usual we had a few bottles of wine to go with our food. I had the 2007 Cameron Hughes, Lot 125, Pinot Noir, Carneros. I found this at Monster Beverage in Glassboro a few months back and I was pleasantly surprise how well this showed for a $20.00 Pinot Noir. Excellent notes of cherry and strawberries with a soft, smoky nuance. Joe B. has a very interesting wine, the 2007 O. Fournier, Centauri, Maule Valley, Chile. I have to confess, I have never been a big fan of Chilean wines but this one could convert me. It had loads of red and black berries with hints of tobacco and chocolate. It was exceptionally smooth and had a nice lingering finish. Jerry and Sue B.’s daughter, Katie, had just returned from a summer holiday in Greece and they had a .375 bottle she had brought home with her. The only word I could read on the label was Kastelli. The rest of the words were all Greek to me (I know…I know…I’ll stop). Anyway, it was from Santorini, on the island of Crete and it was light and, as stated on the label, dry and red.

One of the signature dishes at Christopher is the appropriately named, Christopher’s Signature New England Clam Chowder (cup 4.95…bowl 5.95). Five of the six of us opted for this as our appetizer. I was glad to see Carol B. show some individuality and order what would have been my choice had I not felt like I had to choose the soup. Carol ordered the Pot Stickers. Wontons filled with pork, garlic and ginger, served with a honey-soy dipping sauce. She shared one with me and they were very tasty and a good value for $6.95. The soup was excellent. It was served at the perfect temperature and was chock full of nice pieces of clam, potato and veggies in a yummy broth with a couple of secret ingredients that Michaelangelo made me take a blood oath not to reveal, so I won’t. I have had some really good soups and chowders during the past year and although Christopher’s was not the absolute best it certainly does not have to make any apologies.

Joe B. and Jerry C. both ordered the Christopher Jumbo Lump Crab Cake with Portabello, a portabello musroom, basted and grilled then topped with a jumbo lump crab cake (actually TWO), melted provolone and served over spring mix and drizzled with a vinaigrette dressing. Carol had the Crab Cakes without the Portabello and it was like a Tale of Two Cities. Jerry and Joe enjoyed theirs very much. Carol found her crab cake to be mushy with a distinct absence of crab and a preponderance of filler. It could have been she just had a bad batch. I actually tasted both and the addition of the portabello definitely was an added plus for the dish (and this from an avowed mushroom hater). Bottom line recommendation, for three more bucks get the Portabello!

I was totally pleased with my choice, the Spicy Crab. Linguine with jumbo lump crab meat in a homemade spicy marinara sauce. The sauce was good and the amount of crab meat was generous. I was able to take half home for another meal and I am looking forward to it.

My wife, Kathy, chose the Scallops & Shrimp, served over a bed of linguine with mushrooms, scallions, garlic and sun-dried tomatoes. She enjoyed the shrimp and scallops but felt the linguine was over-cooked. I might add that most entrees are served with either a baked potato or a serving of summer veggies. They had run out of baked potatoes and so we settled for the vegetables.

Sue C. can’t eat a lot of seafood so she searched the menu and found an 8 ounce Angus beef filet which is normally served with shrimp or crab meat (add $1.00). Sue passed on both of the seafood items and thought the steak was good.

Michaelangelo came by to tempt us with his dessert tray and although we tried to be strong we were simply unable to utter the words “No Thanks” and consequently sampled the Chocolate Cake (light and luscious) the Carrott Cake  (sweet and creamy goodness) and his personal favorite, the Key Lime Pie (excellent thanks to the addition of Meyer Lemon). We did pass on the Double Chocolate Strawberries so it’s not like we had NO willpower.

Overall, I’d have to say that Christopher is off to a good start and that it shows lots of potential. Certainly, it merits another visit in the future.

BLACKFISH – BYOB

Posted in Blackfish, BYOB Restaurant Reviews, South Jersey BYOB Reviews, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 31, 2010 by ballymote

Not too long ago, as I was working on a post about the Top FIVE Restaurants I had been to in the first year of my blog, I ran into a problem. Two of my favorites did not live up to expectations on a second visit. That’s what prompted me to change the title of the post to the top FIVE Restaurant Experiences of the past year. It’s difficult to be consistently great and lots of really good restaurants struggle with this challenge. There are a few who manage to meet and exceed expectations time after time. These restaurants are usually mentioned by many in any list of BEST restaurants. I have not been to all of them, or even most of them. From my own experience, a few notables come immediately to mind; Talula’s Table in Kennett Square, Gilmore’s in West Chester, and Shanahan’s on the Green in Dublin, Ireland (pre-blog days). All three of these places stood out from the culinary crowd by creating an ambiance that radiated confidence. It wasn’t just the presence of a great chef, it was a pride reflected in the entire staff. From the busboys to the Maitre’d, everyone involved was intent on making sure your dining experience was first class. On Sunday evening, following a wonderful afternoon of art at the Barnes Foundation in Merion, our friends Gerry and JoAnn B. joined my wife, Kathy, and I at Blackfish in Conshohocken. I knew it was a highly regarded dining spot but I went without expecting to be overly impressed. They surpassed my expectations.

The exterior of the Fayette Street restaurant is totally inauspicious and belies the elegant black and white motif on the inside. We were the first patrons at 5:30 P.M. and our server, Emily, seated us in the back room and opened our wines. Naturally, the stemware at Blackfish is excellent and extra glasses were readily provided to accommodate our three different wines.

Good wines are a given when Gerry and I meet for dinner and this evening was no exception. Gerry delivered with two interesting reds from the current Chairman’s Selection list at the PA State Store. The first was the 2004 Erba Mountainside Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. A great example of a Napa Cab at a great price. Gerry was so impressed with it from an earlier tasting that he tried to get in touch with the winery to see if we could visit in October. I could tell from my research that the distinct possibility exists that this winery is no longer in business because the 2004 vintage seems to be the only one I can find available on the web. Also, after a week he has had no reply to his e-mail. Nevertheless, the wine was excellent with smoky berry flavors mingling with tobacco and chocolate. Wine Enthusiast Magazine bestowed a 94 rating on this once $40.00 cab and they weren’t far off. He also brought with him the 2007 Quinta Do Vallado, Touriga Nacional, Douro. This spicy red fruit-filled bottle from Portugal was a perfect blend for the food we were enjoying. Another 94 pointer, this varietal is used in the famous Port wines and was a welcome addition to the meal. I chipped in with a 2004 Chalk Hill, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma, CA. This one also deserved its 92 rating and delivered lots of blackberry flavors with plum and lavender. Three very nice wines to go with a bevy of lovely dishes.

Emily informed us that there were no specials this evening and that was probably just as well as the menu made it difficult in itself to make final selections. Amazingly, all four of us chose different appetizers and four different entrees. In retrospect, it’s hard to say who made the best choices and the nice part is that we may each feel that our meal was the best.

 I started off with the sexy concoction on the right, Carnaroli Risotto with this morning’s sweet corn. Carnaroli is the very best of the Italian rices, very white in color and it blended so well with the sweet corn. I lingered over this dish savoring each salty, sweet kernel of its melt in your mouth goodness. Others were raving about their own choices and they were as adamant as I was but, nothing could have been better than this.

Kathy had what would have been my second choice from the menu, Agnolotti, ricotta salata, brown butter and sage. Agnoloti is a distant pasta relative of ravioli and the cheese filling, I believe, also had a hint of pancetta. Whatever it was, Kathy was delighted with it and she truly felt that she had made the best choice of all of the starters

Silly me, in my rush to get to the appetizers and mains, I neglected to mention that our meal started off with an Amuse Bouche, tonight’s offering was a Curried Squash Soup with some Smoked Salmon with scallions. It was a tasty beginning to our feast.

All of our appetizers were chosen from the second course offerings. Our only selection from the first course, which we passed around amongst the four of us, was the Montgomery County Tomatoes, burrata alla panna, basil, xeres. Fresh tomatoes topped with a close cousin of mozzarella and finished off with xeres, an 80 year old vinegar. Mmmmmmm.

You could have bet the farm that Gerry saw nothing else on the second course portion of the menu outside of the Foie Gras. In this case, a Liquid Center Foie Gras Terrine, sour cherries and pistachios, brioche. It was an interesting concoction and he found it absolutely delicious. My sample that he offered me seemed to confirm his evaluation.

Nobody can make more satisfied noises when she is pleased with something than JoAnn and she was making plenty of those noises while enjoying her Buffalo Ricotta Cavatelli, zucchini, summer truffles. It looked and tasted equal to her enthusiastic exaltations. All four of us were impressed and we still hadn’t seen our entrees.

The attentive service continued unabated throughout the meal as hands appeared out of nowhere at the appropriate time to refill water glasses, remove empty wine glasses and assure that our meal was proceeding at the right pace.

Once again, I have to correct a statement that I made earlier. I had stated that all four of us chose separate entrees. That was incorrect. Kathy and I both selected the Scottish Salmon, young beets, charred romaine, sorrel and creme fraiche. Kathy had hers done medium while I opted for a less pink medium-well. Half-way thru I noticed that the plates had been reversed but it wasn’t a big deal and we made the switch at that point. The dish was beautifully presented and was very good. In my estimation, though, it took a back seat to the sweet corn risotto. Kathy enjoyed hers but I did not hear “the best salmon I have ever eaten” which she stated during a previous meal.

Gerry decided he would have the Magret Duck Breast, compressed endive, bing cherries and chantrelle mushrooms. This is a special “cut” of duck with “magret” meaning literally, “breast of a fat duck”. It is referred to by many as “duck steak” as it is the most savory and flavorful portion of duck. It’s no wonder Gerry felt it tasted not unlike beef. Another creative presentation and we could safely add Gerry to the “happy diner” category.

JoAnn was equally pleased with her Lancaster County Poulard, ratatouille, fairy tale eggplant and thai basil. It may have been a “young chicken” but it didn’t die in vain as the intense flavors had JoAnn raving about her entree. Her thumbs up made it four for four and our expectations had been exceeded.

Because Blackfish had performed so well on the appetizers and entrees, we couldn’t leave without trying one or two of their desserts. We chose the Cinnamon-Sugar Beignets, spiced anglaise. These tasty pastries were every bit as good as you’d find at Brennan’s in New Orleans. The nice part was that with four of them we were each able to enjoy our own. Our other delectable post-dinner treat was the Warm Chocolate Cake, Coffee Gelato and Malt Powder. Four quick-moving forks made speedy work of this yummy concoction and our meal was complete. Kathy had asked me in the car on the way to Blackfish if we would still be hungry when the meal was over. Quite honestly, I wasn’t sure. Suffice to say, our hunger was abated and we left totally impressed with the ambiance, the food, the presentation and the service. It’s easy to see why Blackfish is one of those places that makes a lot of people’s “Best of Philly” lists. Congratulations to Chef Chip Roman and his entire staff.

SWEET LULA’S – BYOB

Posted in BYOB Restaurant Reviews, South Jersey BYOB Reviews, Sweet Lula's, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 30, 2010 by ballymote

For years, our friends had always lamented the dearth of restaurants in Pitman, NJ. A quaint little town that featured a theatre that booked some good acts and some interesting plays; it was like a miniature Collingswood, without the eateries. In the past couple of years, there have been  two notable dining spots that have opened to fill the needs of theatre goers. Our group of eight had been to Barcelona in the past and last night it was time to check out Sweet Lula’s. Located almost directly across the street from the theatre, Sweet Lula’s is owned by Anthony Asbury, a local puppeteer with film credits to his name. The unique dining spot shows old-time silent movies continuously on it’s back wall. Eight of us had  7:30 theatre reservations and were not about watching movies on a wall.

Our wines for the evening were the 2002 Thorn-Clarke Barossa Shiraz Having spent a few years in my cellar I thought this one had lost a little of that intense peppery shiraz note but Kathy still felt it was too sweet and much preferred drinking Gerry C.’s wine the 2005 Cantina Zaccagnini, Montepulciano d’ Abruzzo Riserva, a medium bodied dry wine with bright cherry flavors mingled with cracked pepper. It was a very food-friendly wine. While Katie, our capable server, described a couple of specials, we carefully studied the menu.

Probably the most unusual item selected was Tom T.’s choice of the Spaghetti Squash which consisted of summer squash, baked, the meat removed and shredded, the core basted with butter, garlic, paprika and nutmeg and then refilled and baked once again before being topped with fontina cheese. It was certainly an interesting treatment. The rest of us settled for more run of the mill choices like the  Caprese Salad with fresh Jersey tomatoes and mozzarella topped with a balsamic dressing.

Jerry C. had the Spinach Salad with bacon and mushrooms and a creamy peppercorn dressing.

I went with the Soup du Jour which on this night was a Chicken and Sausage Gumbo that had some nice seasonings and that distinct Cajun treatment. I though it was quite tasty and would have been improved by being served slightly hotter. My soup was warm, at best.

It looked like a decent crowd and it was apparent that most of them were headed to the theatre, also. The bright interior of Sweet Lula’s features a preponderance of round tables which seem to be at a premium in most restaurants and provide a much better seating arrangement when we have six or eight friends gathered for a meal. Kudos to them for that.

Joe B. ordered the Basa Florentine. The menu doesn’t offer much description but the Basa is a Vietnamese or Thai catfish and how it found its way to Pitman, NJ, I have no idea. Joe’s dish, as was true for the majority of our entrees, came with mashed potatoes, green beans and carrots.

Pictured from left to right are my Pork Fillets with Candied Apples, Tom’s Prime Rib and Carol B.’s Shrimp and Scallops (hold the Scallops and give me extra shrimp). I thought mine was good. It was very reminiscent of a home cooked meal.

 Barbara T. had mixed feelings about her Lobster Ravioli. She very much liked the fact that each ravioli was full of real lobster pieces rather than a compressed mousse of lobster. She was not quite as thrilled with the bacon flavored sauce that she felt overpowered the entire dish. It was a case where she felt there would have been an addition of flavor by a subtraction of sauce.

My wife, Kathy’s dish, the Mushroom Ravioli looked very similar to Barbara’s. Kathy was not quite as concerned with the amount of sauce. She kinda liked the bacony flavor but she thought the mushroom filling was a bit bland. Overall, there were some hits and some misses. There also seemed to be a shortage of ice at Sweet Lula’s. I neglected to mention earlier that Joe B. had brought a Rodney Strong Chardonnay which spent the evening basking in a small pool of water and maybe three ice cubes in what looked like an ice bucket. Our water glasses were also noticeably devoid of those little frozen cubes. My guess would be that Sweet Lula’s gets a future visit from our group although it may be more result of their proximity to the theatre than any culinary magic performed during our initial visit.

BLACK SEA RESTAURANT – BYOB

Posted in Black Sea Restaurant, BYOB Restaurant Reviews, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , on August 25, 2010 by ballymote

Our final dinner during our week in Avalon ended up being in a place where it was not supposed to be, and that was OK. Here is what happened. Four of us had made reservations for a 5:30 P.M. table at The Diving Horse at 21st and Dune. The Diving Horse is the new “IN” spot BYOB at the Jersey shore and draws great reviews and large crowds nightly. My friend, Gerry and I, screwed up during the afternoon while our wives were visiting the Rt. 9 antique shops. We had a Chicken Panini and a few beers at Harbor’s Bizarre (I love that name!) in Stone Harbor. Fearful that we had ruined our appetite for an early dinner, our wives insisted we move our reservations back to 7 or 7:30. At the same time, my wife’s sister, Pat, and her husband Bob decided to join us for dinner. When I called the Diving Horse to change the time I was informed the only time available for a party of 6 was 10:00 P.M. They informed us we were welcome to take our chances at an outside table earlier than that, but without a reservation. We certainly didn’t want a midnight snack and didn’t want to risk being shut out at the few outside tables so we cancelled and called the place next door to the Diving Horse, another BYOB named the Black Sea. I knew nothing about this restaurant but they happily took our 7:30 reservations. We parked on 21st. Street and walked past the throng of diners both inside and outside of the thriving Diving Horse. Upon entering the Black Sea we tried to be quiet so as not to disturb the ONLY other occupied table in the place. During our two-hour stay one other couple entered and, the truth is, that’s a shame because the Black Sea serves very good food at very reasonable prices.

While our capable server, Ted, opened our wines, the six of us studied the interesting choices on the menu. There were some nice seafood items and a limited number of chicken and steak offerings.

We even had a white wine with us this evening as Bob and Pat G. brought a 2008 Peter Mertes, Platinum, Spatlese, Rheinhausen, Germany. A little sweeter than the basic Kabinett it was still pleasant along with the fish selections. I dug into my cellar stash and came up with an Aussie version of the French Chateauneuf du Pape’s with a 1999 Grant Burge, “The Holy Trinity”, Barossa Valley, Australia. This 11-year-old beauty started out a bit dull in the glass before quickly opening up in both color and flavor, revealing a minty tang to the dark fruits. A combination of 46% Grenache, 27% Shiraz and 26% Mourvedre gave off great aromatics with licorice and lilac scents. It was drinking very well and gave no indication of heaviness despite its almost 15% alochol content. Gerry B., who is always content with a good California Cab had the 2005 Merryvale, Beckstoffer Vineyard, Vineyard X, Oakville, Ca. There are few vineyards in California better than Beckstoffer and this deep, dark, inky concoction which spent 24 months in French barrels prior to bottling did not disappoint. Tons of rick blackberry flavors with tones of leather and anise made this a great dinner companion.

Lest I forget, there was food involved. My wife, Kathy, had the Prince Edward Island Mussels, in a light garlic, tomato and fennel broth. She thought they were very good and used some of her bread to gather up the tangy juice leftover after the shellfish had been consumed.

I had little trouble deciding on my appetizer once I spotted the intriguing Crab Meat and White Asparagus Soup, jumbo lump crab meat and tender white asparagus in a light cream made for a super marriage of tasty ingredients and provided my dinner with a great start. This was a really nice soup.

Gerry B. chose the Tomato Caprese and was quick to acknowledge that this one was leaps and bounds over the one he had the night before at Cafe Loren. Three nice large slices of room temperature Jersey tomatoes topped with tender mozzarella in a light balsamic vinaigrette quickly disappeared from his plate amid a few satisfying sounds of gratification.

Those who zeroed in on the Arugula Salad had no complaints either as the fresh, baby arugula provided a delicious resting place for the blue cheese crumbs, pine nuts and raspberry vinaigrette.

After two nights of fish selections, both of which I totally enjoyed, it was time to head in another direction. Kathy and I both selected the Chicken Embassa as our entree. For some unknown reason, I neglected to take a picture of the dish but you’ll just have to trust me that the pan sauteed chicken breast, topped with baby spinach, tomatoes and fontina cheese looked every bit as good as it tasted and Kathy totally agreed with my evaluation.

Pat G. felt comfortable in ordering the tuna after Ted assured her it didn’t absolutely have to be rare. She had it cooked a little more than usual and her Grilled Tuna Steak with Asian slaw, sweet red chili sauce and wasabi was spicy and delicious. I don’t think I have ever ordered tuna for an entree so I was glad when Pat let me sample hers and it really was tasty.

 Gerry, JoAnn and Bob all went with the Shrimp & Bulgarian Feta, pan sauteed shrimp with house-made marinara sauce over angel hair pasta, topped with Bulgarian feta. The shrimp were cooked to perfection and the sauce was reportedly right on target and all three of them had rave reviews for their entree.

I think we ordered a couple of desserts and six spoons not so much because we were still hungry but rather we were enjoying the wines and the good conversation and were trying to prolong the dinner. Although we were now the lone table in the Black Sea, Ted was putting no pressure on us to depart. We all liked the Tiramisu but it was the other dessert that drew the ooohs and ahhhs and smiles of pleasure.

The Avalon Swan was not only artistically pleasing but the flavors of white and dark chocolate, the ice cream torso of the swan and the yummy sauce on which the entire presentation rested made this one a sweet culinary masterpiece.

The Diving Horse may be an excellent restaurant; certainly most of the reviews seem to indicate that diners are pleased. I can’t say because I haven’t been there. I do know the menu items are quite high and the few negatives that I have read all seem to mention the prices. I will say this, The Black Sea deserves better than the three tables they had on this night. It’s an excellent choice for dinner in Avalon. Let the crowds fight it out next door. Go and enjoy a really good meal in an appealing setting. I know six of us did just that.

CAFE LOREN – BYOB

Posted in BYOB Restaurant Reviews, Cafe Loren, South Jersey BYOB Reviews, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , , on August 24, 2010 by ballymote

By Sunday evening our group of ten had been reduced to six as Val and Patty S. and Ange and Arlene C. had previous commitments. Fortunately, the remaining sextet were more than capable of combining fine food and good wine at another nice BYOB at the Jersey shore.

Tonight’s choice was Cafe Loren in the heart of Avalon 23rd Street and Dune Ave. The place has been an Avalon institution for 33 years but this was my first visit. The two room dining spot is decorated in calming shades of blue and it’s a perfect beach decor.

We had three nice wines for the evening and our server, Brad, opened them for us as he recited the evening “specials”. Joe B., our Malbec fan, brought with him a 2008 Gascon, Malbec, Reserva, Mendoza, Argentina. This is another in a long line of deep, dark, fruit-driven wines from South America. I went with a 2006 Phillips Hill, Touluse Vineyards, Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley, CA. A great wine with fish, the subtle fruits and soft tannins helped me greatly in choosing my entree and appetizer. Jerry B. brought one of the always dependable 2005 Franciscan, Magnificat, Napa Valley. Bright berry flavors, hints of chocolate and licorice and a long, smooth finish  make this a great wine for any setting. As the bread was being passed around the six of us focused on our appetizers.

Carol B. chose the Caesar Salad, and although I thought the presentation looked very nice she found the salad to be bland. So much so that she asked for more dressing which did little to improve the offering. She termed it “disappointing”.

Equally disappointed was her husband, Joe, whose selection of the Jersey Tomato Salad was far from “special”. He pointed out that the tomatoes were very cold and that Jersey tomatoes should never see the inside of a refrigerator. A lifetime of experience in the produce business certainly gives him the credentials to recognize the shortcomings of a tomato salad. Jerry B. had the same salad and also felt it was lacking.

My wife, Kathy and I, fared considerably better with our choices. Our pan-seared scallops with smoked bacon, potato and apple hash, silky cauliflower puree and sherry shallot gastrique was excellent. The scallops were large, perhaps mine slightly larger than hers as she was quick to point out, cooked perfectly and full of flavor. My meal was off to a good start.

JoAnn B. ordered the Wild Mushroom Soup and although I would not have picked that even on a double dare, she thought it was tasty. I’m not sure where I got this mushroom phobia but it seems to be pretty deeply engrained in my head.

When it came time to select our entrees, Kathy, Jerry and Joe were all on the same page with the Sauteed Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes, on a bed of sauteed arugula, roasted peppers, shitake mushrooms, grilled asparagus and lemon-caper aioli. The presentation was lovely and the crab cakes nicely done. I heard no complaints from any of the trio of crab lovers.

Carol B. must have not had her fill of steak last night because once again she chose the Grilled Filet Mignon, carmelized onions vegetable and manchego cheese stuffed zucchini, roasted garlic Yukon mashed potatoes and red wine reduction. This was another beautifully presented dish and Carol thoroughly enjoyed it. 

Joann’s entree was the Veal Larousse, medallions of veal in garlic cream sauce, sauteed jumbo lump crab, asparagus tips and olive oil poached potatoes. Another classic looking presentation. Obviously someone in the Cafe Loren kitchen knows something about what a finished dish should look like. Joann emphasized that her sauce was good, the crab was VERY good, but the veal itself was distinctly lacking in flavor. This one came under the heading of “looks can be deceiving”.

I hit a bullseye with my selection of the Black Pepper & Coriander Crusted Wild Scottish Salmon, chick pes & hummus salad and cumin yogurt sauce. It looked so pretty on the dish that I wasn’t sure if I should eat it or have it matted and framed. Fortunately, I decided to eat it and it was delicious. I was very happy with both by appetizer and my entree. I know some of the others were a little disappointed and the prices are a bit on the high side, even allowing for “seashore dining inflation”. Brad, our server for the evening, did a good job, he was attentive and charming. We decided to skip dessert, said goodbye to Joe and Carol who had to head back home, and went to Springer’s in Stone Harbor for ice cream.

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