Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Ambria: Dinner and An Interview

Earlier this month a good friend of mine gave me a wonderful birthday present: he took me to Ambria for dinner. A mutual friend of ours, Fred DeVore, is a waiter there and he took very good care of us. He is extremely passionate and knowledgeable about the food, so it made for an especially delightful experience.

Also, though I didn’t realize it at the time, our sommelier was the infamous Bob Bansberg. Bob used to teach the wine class at the Illinois Institute of Art, where I attended culinary school. His knowledge was renowned amongst the students and I was very disappointed that he left just before I took the class.

Ambria is a beautiful restaurant, resplendent with a hush-inspiring atmosphere of mahogany, ambient candlelight, and plush Art Nouveau architecture. It’s reminiscent of a time that may be dying out in our desire for shiny, new and modern. Unfortunately, Ambria will be closing its doors on June 30, 2007 after 27 years of fine dining. You can find out more about the farewell festivities in this article from the Chicago Sun Times: The Long Goodbye. If you make a reservation, be sure to request Fred!

I’m so glad I got to experience this Chicago tradition before it’s gone. The following is an outline of our menu. You can hear more about Ambria, as well as a general discussion of the Chicago culinary scene, in my interview with Fred, available below for now and on iTunes very soon.

Menu from Ambria: April 5, 2007

Wine: Cava Avinyó Brut Reserva NV from Penedes, which was crisp and delicious. If you like sparkling wine but haven't tried Cava, you should definitely check it out. It’s a nice (and generally less expensive) alternative to Champagne that seems to be growing in popularity as people become more aware of it.

Amuse Bouche: Leek Potato Soup

First Course: Tapas, or Pintxos in Basque
There was a variety of tapas, but I found the most memorable to be the crostini with spring pea, creme fraiche, and a sliver of smoked salmon. The spring pea was just so delightfully fresh!

Wine: Joseph Perrier Brut Cuvee Royale Champagne

Second Course: Oysters
This warm oyster dish is a 300 year-old Basque recipe. The oysters are dressed with leeks, three varieties of Pimenton de la Vera (Smoked Chile Powder from La Vera, Spain) and applewood smoked bacon foam. Whereas many oyster dishes smother the oysters in other flavors, this recipe is designed to showcase them. It was rich and buttery but not heavy at all. The oysters were Pemaquid oysters from the Damariscotta River Estuary in northern Maine. This was my favorite savory course, and the wine pairing was lovely.

Third Course: Organic poached egg on a bed Anson Mills grits (from Georgia [correction: South Carolina]) with a sauce of thickened chicken jus and perigot black truffles. Being from the South, I love grits, and one of my favorite breakfast is grits and eggs mixed together. This was like my grits and eggs breakfast on steroids.

Wine: Cristom Willamette Valley Pinot Noir Marjorie Vineyard 2004

Fourth Course: Salmon
Served with quinoa, fried leeks and blue foot mushrooms. This salmon is FedExed fresh to Ambria by a Native American man who fishes them out of the Columbia River. Quinoa is considered a supergrain because of its high protein and amino acid content. I’ve had it before, but this was the first time I’ve really liked it, most likely because it was prepared with stock and then mixed with Manchego cheese. The salmon was amazingly tender—the mushrooms were meatier than the fish.

Fifth course: Chocolate Soufflé
Served with quenelles of ice cream and crème chantille (whipped cream). They tapped a hole into the top at tableside and poured in creme anglais. It was absolutely decadent. In his Tribune review of Ambria, Phil Vettel describes it as “all that you'd ever want in a dessert souffle.” I agree. I love dessert, so I couldn’t have been happier.

Sixth Course: Mignardises
A selection of chocolates. I was so full I only ate one, a raspberry-filled piece of dark chocolate. Divine!

My friend’s menu was a little different since he's a little less adventurous than I am. Instead of the oysters as a second course he had a squab breast with lentils du pays, a wild mushroom ragout and currant compote. His third course was a rouget de roche on a potato base. Rouget de roche is a small schooling fish with sweet flesh and red skin from the Meditteranean sea. It is flown in directly from Barcelona. His fourth course was a prime rib and loin of lamb. The prime rib was like butter.

Listen to my interview with Fred—the very first Bitespot podcast!

Bitespot 01: Ambria

Monday, April 23, 2007

Want to Learn About Wine? Drink More!

A friend sent me this New York Times article by Eric Asimov (he's the nephew, BTW): To Study Wine, Buy and Drink. The article requires registration, but if you'd like to read it without signing on, you can always use Bugmenot. Or just read on, I'll give you the gist.

In Asimov's opinion, you get the most out of wine classes and books after you already have a working knowledge and a desire to get serious. He recommends that find a good wine shop, let them know that you'd like to learn, and have them help you pick out a mixed case in the around- $250 price range. Then, you take it home and drink it, preferably with food, paying attention to what you like and don't like. Take notes as you go along, recording how the wines interact and change with food. "The most important thing," he says, "is not how you describe the wine but whether you liked it or not, and whether you felt it enhanced what you ate or clashed with it."

When you're done, you take the notes back to the shop, discuss your experience, and ask them to put together a new case for you. Swirl, smell, swish and repeat.

To demonstrate, Asimov is actually employing this process himself and you can follow along on his blog, The Pour. You can find his case list (he actually ordered two cases from two separate shops for comparison) in the post The Dining Table Wine School.

While I don't agree with the statement that classes and books are only for the experienced, I do think this is a really fun and useful method and a great alternative if classes and books really do intimidate or disinterest you. If nothing else, you get to sample a lot of great wine and he's absolutely right in that you'll start to figure out what you like and don't. He's also right in that that's all many people want or need to know.

If you can't afford a case (and at the moment, I can't, otherwise I'd try and follow along with Asimov) there's nothing wrong with buying by the bottle. The most important thing to understand is where to buy it and what a good wine shop is. As I heard Diana Hammond, the Wine Goddess of the Chopping Block, repeat over and over: the grocery store is not a good wine shop, nor is Whole Foods or the World Market. While the employees may have some knowledge of wine, they usually don't know enough to make a real recommendation. These places are fine if you already have some idea of what you want, but a good wine shop will have employees that really know wine and can make knowledgeable recommendations based on the information you give them.

The second most important thing to know: if you want a wine shop to give you a recommendation, you need to be able to give them a starting point, at the very least a price range. Choosing whether you want a red or a white is helpful, too. You also need to be open minded. If you go in and ask for a really good wine for under $10, expect to be given a recommendation for a wine that you're not familiar with. The most familiar wines (i.e. Cabernet and Chardonnay) are often the most expensive precisely because they're the most familiar. Be willing to try something new, and no nose-wrinkling! If you don't like the wine, feel free to return and say so, but at least try it.

If you live in the Chicago area, there are a ton of good wine shops. Diana always recommended the Wine Discount Center and I've always had a good experience there. There is also an extensive (and recent) list available on the Chicago Sun Times website: The Best in Bargain Wine.

If you are a class and book person (as I am) I highly recommend Diana's wine classes as the Chopping Block. She is extremely knowledgeable, very accessible and not at all snobby. She also offers a Cheap n' Good Wine List on her site. As for books, Eric Asimov does cover his recommended reading list in the post School is in Session, but for a light and entertaining introduction to wine, I highly recommend Drinkology Wine: A Guide to the Grape by James Waller. The information is there, but it's also an easy read.

So drink up and stimulate those brains cells! Apparently, a recent study found that Light to Moderate Drinkers Show Greater Cognitive Ability. True? Who knows, but it sounds good! Cheers!