Archive for the Wine Dinners Category


Posted in Allure of the Seas, Giovanni's Table (on board Allure of the Seas), Wine Dinners with tags , on April 29, 2011 by ballymote

The eight cruisers had chosen Giovanni’s Table, the Italian Eatery in Central Park, for our final dinner of the voyage. We had thoroughly enjoyed our first dinner at Chops Grille and had been slightly disappointed in the majority of our evening meals in the Main Dining Room and thus we were looking forward to a great experience to conclude this wonderful week onboard the world’s largest cruise ship.

Our very capable server this evening was Arguejus, from Chile. Despite being from South America he had acquired a very passable Italian accent and he suggested several different items to be brought to the table and served family style.

 We had some nice freshly baked bread with some oil and cheese for dipping and we looked over the wine list carefully before choosing a couple of bottles that went with most of our entrees.

We selected the 2008 Peter Lehmann, Shiraz “The Weight Ticket”. Lots of dark jammy flavors with hints of pepper and spices this Australian wine was priced right and served as an excellent partner for the rich dished to come.

 This item turned out to be the favorite of most of our dining partners. It’s even fun to say. This was the Sformato di Fontina e Spinaci con Funghi Tripolati e Pomodorini (double-baked fontina and spinach souffle, Italian-style sauteed mushrooms and grape tomatoes. We had to have Arguejus bring more of this to keep everyone happy.

We also shared some Capresse and Antipaste with fresh meats, cheeses and roasted red peppers and a plate of Foccaccia with herbs, potatoes, olives and pesto. We feasted on these dishes for a while before it was time for the pasta portion of our feast.

 It was hard to pick a favorite from the trio of pasta dishes placed before us. This was the Ravioli di Polpa di Granchio, Maryland crab ravioli with shrimp, chili oil and grape tomato sauce. Nicely presented and tasting just as good as it looked.

This was the Gnocchi di Potate con Crema al Gorgonzola a Sugo d’Agnello, potato gnocchi tossed in light blue cheese sauce on thyme-scented baby lamb and root vegetable sauce. We passed this around and watched the entire plate disappear in a heartbeat. We barely had room for what turned out to be our absolute runaway favorite of the pasta dishes….

 The Risotto Pomodoro, Basilino Mozzarella 3 Verdure Griglianti, tomato, basil and mozzarella risotto topped with grilled veggies and herb oil. Unlike the risotto we had in the Main Dining Room on the previous evening, this one was cooked to perfection. It was chock full of wonderful, cheesy flavors and we had to force ourselves to pause in our eating because we had forgotten that our entrees were still to come.

 I had the chicken breast filled with ricotta and mushrooms, wrapped in prosciutto and served with a Chardonnay-sage sauce. The chicken was wonderful and I was pleased with my entree.

Several at the table opted for the beef. In this case, an 8 ounce beef tenderloin served with garlic fries in a Barolo reduction sauce. These are the nice, meaty fries that I don’t see often enough. Everyone was happy with this choice.

 This was probably the best looking of all the plates on our table. The veal ossobuco au jus with tomatoes, mushrooms, cheese polenta and sauteed green beans. I was told it tasted every bit as good as it looked.

We had one fish lover in the group and she selected as her entree the baked filet of Sea Bass atop baby lentils in a red wine reduction and artichoke cream. The fish was tender and flaky and the lentils added just the right texture to make this creation a winner.

We were very nearly stuffed but it seemed sinful to pass on the array of desserts that were presented to the table.

 We gorged ourselves on canollis and some excellent tiramisu and were proud that we were able to leave Giovanni’s Table under our own power. You certainly are never going to find this much food and this much food quality for the ridiculous $10.00 service charge which we gladly paid. It almost doesn’t make sense to hope for something decent in the main dining room when this kind of feast is offered in such close proximity. Giovanni’s is a winner!



Posted in BYOB Restaurant Reviews, Cucina Forte, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , on April 7, 2011 by ballymote

 As I mentioned in the previous post, we have a cruise coming up shortly and so on this Saturday evening in early April the four couples who will be on the Allure of the Seas met for dinner at Cucina Forte in South Philly. As usual, parking in the area was at a premium and it’s no small accomplishment to finally secure a legal spot within walking distance of the restaurant. 

Inside the restaurant, we looked over our menus while our server, Vinnie, (I know, how would a South Philly waiter ever have a name like Vinnie) recited some of the many special appetizers and entrees for the evening. I had looked at the menu online earlier in the day and was already pretty damn sure I knew what I was going to be having for my starter. Before I get to the food though, I want to talk about the wine.

 I have been anxiously awaiting the right time to open my first 2008 Bedrock Wine Co., The Bedrock Heirloom, Sonoma Vally. This interesting blend by Morgan Twain-Pederson is quickly becoming a cult classic that distinguishes itself from the other cult wines by being eminently affordable. The Bedrock Heirloom is made from 120 year old vines, some of the oldest in California and it’s spicy, full of flavor fruit has great structure and balance and drinks well now and will be even better with more time in the bottle. Just a yummy wine but only 228 cases made and it’s all gone now.

 Maria’s Dream Soup. Maria is Maria Forte, Chef/Owner of Cucina Forte. I spoke with her on the phone when making our reservation and I told her about my blog. She sounded genuinely excited that we were coming but unfortunately, she had a death in the family and was back in Italy on this Saturday evening. Very sorry for your loss, Maria. Her Dream Soup was created with love for her late husband and features grilled chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, wild mushrooms (I took them out), broccoli rabe, home-made bread cubes dipped in a light egg batter and all served in a chicken broth. I thought it was great. Kathy thought it was just OK,  but I don’t think she sampled enough of mine.

 Some had the mussels, others split a seafood appetizers with grilled shrimp, scallops, calamari and lagostinos over broccoli rabe. There was also an antipasto consisting of roasted peppers, olives and assorted premium meats and cheeses. All of these were tasty and a great way to start dinner.

 For my entree I went with the Lobster Ravioli, in a cream sauce with four nice-sized shrimp circling the dish. I thought the dish was very nice without being overly filling as these dishes can sometimes be.

Tom had the Chilean Sea Bass served in a white wine sauce with tomatoes and capers while Kathy ordered the Veal Saltimbocca, veal medallions with prosciutto sauteed in a wine and sage cream sauce served with potatoes and asparagus spears. She thought the veal was nicely prepared but could have used additional flavoring.

 Joe and Carol both ordered one of the specials, the Sacletti, little purse shaped pastas filled with fontina cheese and prosciutto and served with tomatoes, mushrooms and shrimp in an olive and garlic sauce.

Tom had a side order of the house-made gnocchi and I managed to taste a few of these tiny pasta creations and I thought they were very good.

We decided to skip dessert  went back to one of the couples house to discuss our upcoming trip. We thought dinner at Cucina Forte was a very nice event.


Posted in BYOB Restaurant Reviews, Wine Dinners, Zacharias Creek Side Cafe with tags , , , on April 2, 2011 by ballymote

 To celebrate my friend, Gerry, having a cast removed from his arm, and also because we look for just about any reason we can find to drink some good wines and sample fine food, three of us headed to Worcester, PA on Rt. 113 for dinner at Zacharias Creek Side Cafe this past Tuesday evening. What should have been an 18 minute ride from my office in King of Prussia took well over an hour as I fought the 422 traffic.

After the torturous journey I was ready for some wine.

 As usual, we had some nice choices to sample. I had brought with me a 2004 Chateau Leoville las Cases, St. Julien. This wasn’t the greatest of years for Bordeaux wines but this one still managed to grab 95 points from the Wine Spectator and 93 from Robert Parker. Gerry, John and myself could not find it in our hearts to be quite that generous as we all felt this one didn’t quite do it for us. I think we’d probably come closer to a 90/91. Don’t get me wrong, it was fine, we just expected more. John’s 2007 Mollydooker Blue Eyed Boy, Shiraz was just as I had remembered from previous times; deep dark fruit mixed with hints of tobacco and chocolate, a great sipping wine . Gerry delivered the wine of the night with his 2008 Alpha-Omega Proprietary Red Wine. Gerry has become such a huge fan of everything Jean Hoefliger is producing at A-O that he has become an A-O Wine Club member. The Proprietary Red is a 50-50 blend of Cabernet and Merlot and it’s just silky smooth and rich in fruit, perfectly balanced with a 60 second finish.

 Speaking of silky smooth, our server for the evening, Alli, certainly fit that description. She displayed charm and professionalism all evening. She instinctively understood that we were not in any hurry and she allowed us all the time we wanted before ordering. She also made certain we had several glasses each so we could properly enjoy our wines. Thanks, Alli, you done good!!

Zacharias Creek Side Cafe offers a Prix Fixe dinner Tuesdays thru Thursdays at $29.95. I was the only one of the three of us who opted for this choice. I started my meal with the Butternut Squash and Apple Bisque. It was served at the perfect temperature and the combination of fresh veggie flavor with the hint of fruit made a nice taste combination.

 Gerry and John went with some items that were a little more exotic for their starters. Gerry’s chicken livers were, I believe, a special of the evening and John’s plate of cured meats included prosciutto, bresaole and soppressata looked wonderful. I really should have tried some but I passed and that meant more for each of them.

We conversed over our wines as we awaited our entrees. I was slightly limited in my choices as I has selected the Prix Fixe menu but there were certainly enough enticing items there to allow me to settle on a selection.

 I went with the Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes served with potatoes and parsnip puree, brussel sprouts and roasted garlic aioli. The crab cake was filled with fresh meat and very little filling, the puree was a nice touch and the aioli brought out all of the flavor in the tender crab meat. I may have done better with a lighter wine than what we had with us but that did not deter from a very enjoyable entree.

Gerry chose, from the regular menu, the roast duck. In looking at the menu now, I don’t see it listed so I wish I had jotted down what accompanied the dish because it all looked so good. It was not one of the specials, so I am a little bewildered as to why it isn’t listed on the current website menu. Anyway, he liked it but did mention there might be a tad too much salt in the dish.

 John was thinking like me and went with the jumbo lump crab cake except that he was craving a little meat with his meal and therefore had a four-ounce filet to complete his dish. Both the crab cake and the filet were excellent and John had no complaints whatsoever.

We still had some room for dessert and I was about to write that the desserts weren’t listed individually on the website so, although they were very good, I can’t adequately describe them…..BUT..I just had a flashback to Alli handing me a piece of paper so I went and dug out the shirt I wore that evening and there, in excellent penmanship, on the back of one of Zacharias red comment sheets, is a complete mouth-watering description of what we had for dessert. 

 John had the Creme Brulee. It was fine. Gerry and I went a much more adventurous route.

Here is Gerry’s Pavlova, almond meringue topped with lemon curd, blood orange and strawberry salad with white chocolate shavings and toasted almonds. Looked good, tasted better.

 My little totally low-cal item was the white chocolate passion fruit mousse cake with a deep chocolate glaze. This one was perfect with the cup of coffee I had to conclude my meal.

The three of us enjoyed our dinner at Zacharias Creek Side Cafe. Owner Andrew Gallo stopped by more than once to make sure we were enjoying our food. It is evident that he cares about what is being served and he has good reason to be proud of what he and his wife, Nancy, have created.


Posted in DiPaolos Italian Ristorante, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , on March 31, 2011 by ballymote

 Penns Grove, NJ could be the poster child for South Jersey’s blue-collar, working class neighborhoods. Nestled close to the Delaware Memorial Bridge (Exit 4 off of Rt. 295 South) it is not a town that comes to mind when thinking of where to dine on a Friday evening. Consider too, that it is a 45 minute drive from where we live, and that this particular Friday is part of South Jersey Restaurant Week and that our destination of DiPaolo’s Italian Ristorante is NOT a participant, and it becomes almost bewildering as to why the six of us were there for a 7:45 reservation. Based on some favorable recommendations that Carol and Joe had heard from several friends we had all decided to give this place a try. Actually, the truth is, we weren’t even quite sure of the name of the place, only that it was Italian and “down south near the Delaware border”. My wife Kathy called the Italian Kitchen in Pennsville to make reservations and the befuddled woman who answered the phone asked if she was serious about making reservations at a place that had no seating and made hoagies and cheesesteaks. The woman did say, “you may want DiPaolo’s in Penn’s Grove.”

 On our arrival we were greeted by Karen, our server for the evening, and we were all happy to see we had a rare round table which is so much more conducive to conversation. We were presented with menus which we opened and discovered that DiPaolo’s may be in Penns Grove but their prices would be right at home in downtown Philadelphia or even New York City. While trying to shake off this culinary version of sticker shock I jokingly suggested that perhaps three of us could share a crab cake. Kathy and I had a glass of the XYZinfandel at $8.00 a glass which was reasonable and unlike last week at Catillo’s, a generous pour.

 A basket of warm bread was delivered to the table along with a nice complimentary plate of Grilled Italian Vegetable Antipasto, a nice selection of cheese, roasted red peppers, olives, eggplant, chick peas and other savory goodies. Each meal also includes a house salad. It was enough to enable us to skip appetizers and focus on our entree selections.

 Kathy and Carol each chose the Eggplant Parmagiana, lightly breaded and fried then layered with melted mozzarella and topped with a plum tomato sauce. An ample portion of pasta accompanied the dish. I heard Kathy mention that the eggplant was excellent, among the best she has had. Carol also seemed pleased with her choice.

 Sue went with the Spinach and Cheese Stuffed Rigatoni, tossed in a creamy alfredo sauce with sliced shitake mushrooms and pieces of parma prosciutto. Joe had the Cheese manicotti, fresh crepes stuffed with ricotta cheese, rolled and baked, then topped with homemade tomato sauce served with meatballs or sausage. Joe chose one of each and thought the dish was well done.

Gerry and I each picked the Salmone alla Griglia, fresh salmon grilled on an open flame then topped with a delicate Limoncello sauce and jumbo lump crab meat. It came with garlic mashed potatoes and asparagus spears. As with all of our entrees, the price is high but there is no question the product served is first class. My salmon was cooked perfectly and the Limoncello sauce was one of the best sauces I have ever had on fish. I ate half and took the rest home for dinner the next evening.

As much as the prices for appetizers and entrees shocked us, and remember, we eat out virtually every weekend, the fee for wine and desserts was not in the same league.

 I know that’s a cheesecake topped with fruit on the left but I’m not sure what the tempting cake is on the right. It did have lots of creme and raspberry filling.

 Kathy had the cannoli and I selected something called Coppa Spagnola, vanilla and amarena cherry gelato swirled together and topped with cherries. It was nice and light and provided an appropriate ending to a very good meal.

If you go on to DiPaolo’s website you can review their menu. You won’t find any prices listed next to any of the items and I’m not going to list them here, either. Suffice to say, it’s a nice place for a special dinner and the food might  possibly justify the prices. I’m still thinking about that Limoncello sauce on the salmon.

CATELLI’S – (2nd Review)

Posted in Catelli's (2nd review), Wine Dinners with tags , on March 30, 2011 by ballymote

 Catelli’s in Voorhees, NJ got a jump on South Jersey Restaurant Week by starting a week early. Six of us took advantage of their premature participation and cancelled our Saturday evening reservation in South Philly to take part in the four-course Prix Fixe. I enjoy Catelli’s but it’s not a BYOB so each visit there carries mixed emotions. I miss bringing my wine.

Kathy and I each had a couple of glasses of Ravenswood Zinfandel at $8.00 a glass. The price is OK but the pours are a bit stingy. I would be willing to bet none of them were the normal 5oz. pours.

Among the appetizers that we selected were the Eggpant Rollatini, filled with riccota, mozzarella and basil in a marinara and basil cream sauce and the intriguing Tomato Sampler consisting of a tomato water shooter, Jersey tomatoes with mozzarella and roasted tomato sorbet. Both of theses starters passed with flying colors.

Jerry went with the Roasted Beet Salad, goat cheese, Granny Smith apples, spiced walnuts, baby arugula and a beet sorbet. I selected the Crab Bisque with a floating crab cake. My soup was nothing special and may have been saved by the idea of the crab cake in the middle which added some taste to the soup.

For our second course, those who didn’t choose a green salad selected the Shrimp and Lobster Salad, fried green tomatoes and Remoulade aioli or the Veal Bolognese tossed with rigatoni pasta.

I almost went with the veal dish but decided to join Carol and give a try to the Pulled Pork Slider.

The only thing that could have made this tasty little sandwich better was if there were two more sitting right next to it. This was served on a soft-pretzel roll with a spicy provolone cheese sauce and a salsa made from long hots.  Excellent rendition of something simple made with flair.

Five of the six of us chose totally different entrees for our third course. On the left is the Veal Skirt Steak, grilled and sliced and served with asparagus, mushrooms, hand-made gnocchi in a white truffle cream. On the right is the Filet and Crab Oscar served with Yukon Gold mashed potatoes, asparagus and topped with a garlic and parsley béarnaise. I didn’t hear any complaints on these two.

The nice looking dish on the left was the Chilean Sea Bass served over maple horseradish mashed yams, roasted pepper lobster sauce and oven-roasted tomatoes. The other taste-tempting item is the Lamb Loin Chop served over Yukon mashed potatoes and asparagus.

 Joe and I were the only duplicates as we both ordered the Stuffed Breast of Chicken Francese, with a spinach and Boursin cheese filling, scalloped potatoes, asparagus and lemon-leek cream. It all combined nicely to make a very nice entree. Ahhh, if only they poured more wine in the glass the dinner would have been top-notch.

Our server, Tom, was attentive as servce at Catelli is team-based. There are people replacing silverware for each course and others making sure that water glasses stay filled. We had no complaints about the service on this busy Saturday night.

 Although we had plenty to eat we all had just enough room in our tummies for some dessert, our fourth and final course. We all shared the rice pudding, lemon crepe with berries and the apple cake with vanilla bean ice cream.

Overall, it was a good experience. I think we all expect Catelli to be good every time we go and for the most part, those expectations were met. Just do me one favor, pour another ounce in each wine glass. It’s just not classy to scrimp on wine.

SYCAMORE – BYOB (2nd Review)

Posted in BYOB Restaurant Reviews, Sycamore (2nd Review), Wine Dinners with tags , , , , on March 24, 2011 by ballymote

 It had been almost a year since our last visit to Sycamore in Lansdowne, PA. It’s hard to believe that this dining spot, located within walking distance of where we all grew up, is now listed by Philadelphia Magazine as one of the Top 25 Restaurants in Philadelphia.

We had each enjoyed our previous meal there and I was anxious to pay even more attention now that Chef Sam Jacobson had achieved a certain notoriety.

 Our server, Jamie, had a terrific personality and was efficient and professional in seeing that we enjoyed our evening. We never felt rushed despite the fact that we spent way too much time chatting before even looking at the menu. It was a Wednesday evening which meant the Casual Prix Fixe Menu for $29.00 was available. It was essential that all five of us opt for that style of dining and in the end we decided to just order separately from the regular menu.

My wine for the evening was one that I had heard mentioned often on the wine boards but had never been able to find in any of our local wine shops. I think I finally found this one a few weeks ago at Wine Works in Marlton. It’s the 2008 Educated Guess, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. It’s hard to find Napa Valley cabs under $20.00 that deliver as much flavor as this one. I was totally impressed with the balance and structure of this wine and would score it 92 points and I am making a note to add more of this to my cellar.

After we placed our order Jamie brought us an amuse bouche, herb roasted wild boar with sweet potato ricotta puree. Excellent way to start a meal and certainly not something you have every day. There was not a lot of variety in our choices as four of the five selected the same appetizer.

 Everyone but myself chose the Pancetta and Goat Cheese Tart, phyllo crust and deep caramelized onions. I had this on our first visit and remember it as being wonderful and the four who silently devoured it seemed to be in complete agreement. I would have ordered this again except that I wanted to try what seemed like a very simple, basic dish.

I selected the Spahetti alla Carbonara, cream, bacon and locatelli.  This is absolutely a case of words not doing justice to the food. Trust me, I know it sounds simple but every morsel of this dish was absolute perfection on a fork. The flavors were subtle yet intense. The pasta prepared flawlessly. Quite possibly one of the best starters I have had in the past year. Kudos to the Chef!

 Once again four of the five of us went with the same entree, making for a dearth of pictures at this meal. Only Ange did not go with our selection of the Seared Sea Scallops, potato, chorizo and chantarelle hash, creamed swiss chard. Another simple dish turned into culinary magic at the hands of Chef Jacobson. Just an absolute delight. The hash seemed to be married to the scallops and every bite was enticingly good. It was becoming quite apparent as to how Sycamore had achieved its lofty ranking.

Ange was nice enough to share a taste of his entree, the 12oz. Green Meadow Farm Pork Chop, molasses, smoked paprika and cumin brined, French lentil and bacon cassoulet, local sauerkraut and apple butter gastrique. Beautiful presentation and sweet and spicy flavors dancing off of every bite of the tender chop. I couldn’t help but wonder if everything on the menu was as good as the two dishes our table had consumed.

 We still had room for dessert and our three choices were all very good. I think our favorite was the Sticky Toffee Pudding with dates, caramel sauce and fresh cream. Runner-up was the Rum Butterscotch Budino, graham cracker crust, creme fraiche and crisp local bacon. Last, but not least, was the Ginger Poached Pear, filled with dark chocolate orange ganache.

As we were finishing our meal Chef Jacobson stopped by to see how we felt about our dinner. He is understandably proud of what he has created at Sycamore and we shared with him how good we thought everything was tonight.

 Chef treated us to an extra dessert of sugar glazed clementines drizzled with chocolate and served with creme fraiche. They were yummy.

You could see by the crowd on a weekday evening that Sycamore is no longer a secret gem hidden in the Philly suburbs. If you have not yet had the pleasure of eating here I would strongly suggest adding it to your MUST DO list.


Posted in Food and Wine Lists, Wine Dinners with tags , on March 22, 2011 by ballymote

 It’s that time of year again!! About 40 South Jersey Restaurants will be taking part in this week-long celebration of food known as South Jersey Restaurant Week. Each restaurant will be offering 3 and 4 course dinners ranging in price from $25.00 to $35.00. It’s a wonderful opportunity to sample some of the incredible dishes that local chefs are putting out every night. A complete list of the participating restaurants can be found at

 Reviews of many of these restaurants can be found in the column to the right of this post. Some may even extend the offerings through the entire weekend. Lots of these dining spots are BYOB so grab yourself a nice bottle of wine and take advantage of all the great food deals to be found during this special week that salutes the best of South Jersey.