A Taste of Portugal's Native Grapes

With names like Trajadura, Loureiro, Trincadeira, Alicante Bouschet and Touriga Nacional, the grapes of Portugal don’t exactly roll off your tongue.  Nor do they have the recognition of a Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay.  But with more than 200 indigenous varietals, Portugal’s wines are definitely exciting to explore.

For a great introduction to Portugal’s wines, I recommend trying the wines from Herdade do Esporão.  I’ve been a fan of Esporao’s wines since I first tasted them last fall.

Monte VelhoEsporão is located in Alentejo, a region in the southeast that covers one third of mainland Portugal.  Hot and humid summers and granitic soil add unique character to the grapes.

For a taste of Portugal’s white varietals, try Esporão’s Monte Velho White.  It’s a blend of Roupeiro, Antão Vaz and Perrum grapes.  It’s fresh and aromatic with flavors of peach and apple.  The finish is clean and crisp.  Try this with seafood or pasta, or as an alternative to Chardonnay.  The Monte Velho White costs around $10.

For a more elegant and refined white try Esporão’s White Reserva.  It’s a rich and fruity mix of Roupeiro, Arinto and Antão Vaz, with hints of vanilla from time spent in new American and French oak barrels.  The White Reserva costs around $20.

Quinta da AveledaIf you’re a fan of Spanish Albariño try a bottle of the 2007 Quinta da Aveleda from the Vinho Verde region in northwest Portugal.  It’s a mix of Trajadura, Loureiro and Alvarinho (the Portuguese name for Albariño).  The wine is complex and dry with a crisp lemon-lime flavor.  A nice minerality and good acidity make this a great wine for shellfish and seafood.  It’s a great value at around $9 a bottle.

For a taste of Portugal’s red varietals try Esporão’s Monte Velho Red, a blend of Trincadeira, Aragonês and Castelão.  The wine has rounded flavors of ripe berries and spice with oak and gentle tannins that give it a good body.  This goes well with a variety of meat dishes and tomato-based pasta dishes.  A bottle costs around $10.

Esporao RedI also really like Esporão’s Red Reserva, a blend of Trincadeira, Aragonês and Cabernet Sauvignon.  It has intense flavors of blackcurrant and cherry, with layers of oak and vanilla spice.  This goes great with beef or lamb.  The Red Reserva costs around $20.

My favorite red wine varietal from Portugal is Touriga Nacional.  This grape produces full-bodied wines that have flavors of blackberries, blueberries and rosemary.  Touriga Nacional is great on its own and can be even better when blended with other grapes.  Try a bottle of this instead of a Cabernet Sauvignon.

In previous years Esporão has produced a delicious single varietal Touriga Nacional.  From this year on the winery will only be producing this wine during exceptional years, so be sure to buy a bottle if you see one at your local wine shop.

Quinta das TecedeirasCasa Santos Lima in the Estremadura region in west central Portugal makes a delicious Touriga Nacional.  The 2007 vintage has big and chewy flavors of spicy deep red fruit.  This goes great with grilled meats.  A bottle of Casa Santos Lima 2007 Touriga Nacional costs around $12.

A more expensive alternative is the Quinta das Tecedeiras 2005 Reserva.  It’s from the Douro region in northern Portugal, which is best known as the source of Port.  The wine is a mix of Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca, Tinto Cão, Tinta Barroca and Tinta Amarela.  It has rich and full-bodied flavors of blackberry, plum and mocha with smooth and lingering tannins.  A sip of this makes you crave steak.  A bottle of Quinta das Tecedeiras 2005 Reserva costs around $28.

If the only wine you’ve ever tried from Portugal is a Port, it’s definitely time to visit your local wine store.

For more information on Herdade do Esporão visit www.esporao.com.

Click here for more information on Portugal’s indigenous grapes.

Wine & Culinary Celebration at the Museum of Discovery and Science

I’m not sure what I enjoyed more about the Museum of Discovery and Science’s Wine & Culinary Celebration: eating delicious food from Broward County restaurants or checking out the museum’s interactive exhibits.

MODSFort Lauderdale’s Museum of Discovery and Science (MODS) is a kid-friendly hands-on museum with exhibits ranging from Florida’s ecosystems to air and space travel.  During Friday night’s event I got to pet a baby alligator, fly a fighter plane and create a symphony using sounds from nature.

Food and wine stations were scattered throughout the museum’s two floors of exhibits.  I tried to pace myself so I could try a little bit of everything but there was just so much food.

alligatorI kicked off the evening with a duo of small bites from Sage, a French-American bistro and oyster bar: ratatouille on a bite size piece of bread and escargot served in scooped out new potatoes.  Both were the perfect size for popping in your mouth.  The food was such a big hit that Sage won the People’s Choice Award for best food of the night.  Next I went for a taste of Italy: risotto balls from Casa d’Angelo that were crunchy on the outside and creamy on the inside.

Café Martorano served up its famous meatballs, a delicious mix of beef, pork and veal.  Even if they weren’t good I wouldn’t say anything in front of chef and owner Steve Martorano, who looks like a body builder and could easily crush me with his pinky finger.  They did have some steep competition from YOLO, whose veal and pork meatballs were moist and tasty in tomato sauce with herbed ricotta cheese.

Big City Tavern tacosOne of my favorite dishes was the pulled pork and crème fraîche taco from Big City Tavern.  The crème fraîche added a great tangy flavor that complemented the spice of the meat.  I’ve never thought to use crème fraîche in this way but it makes a great substitution for cheese or sour cream.

Another great dish was Himmarshee Bar & Grille’s wrapped spring lamb chops.  The meat on each lamb chop was wrapped in rice paper, which held in the spices and kept the meat nice and juicy.

MODSThere were so many options for dessert that I wish I had gone for sweets first.  I couldn’t pass up the chocolate fondue from The Melting Pot and a crêpe from CrêpeMaker.  My favorite was the assortment of small cakes from La Marquise Desserts.  I wished I had room to try them all!

The wine stations were set up all over the museum, great for finding a wine to pair with each dish.  A few of the standouts were the full bodied Ironstone Vineyards Reserve Cabernet Franc, the spicy and jammy berry Paul Dolan Zinfandel and the vibrant and crisp Dry Chenin Blanc from Dry Creek Vineyard.

caipirinha barBefore calling it a night I stopped at the Caipirinha Bar.  The Brazilian cocktail, with its mix of lime and sugar, was a refreshing way to cleanse my palate.

The fun atmosphere combined with the extraordinary food and wine selections put the MODS Wine & Culinary Celebration at the top of my list for next year.

Great Reds from Hungary at the Florida International Wine Challenge

More than 200 wines from all over the world were swirled, sniffed and sipped this weekend at the Florida International Wine Fair.  It was my first time at the FIWC and I was glad I was able to attend both the Saturday and Sunday tastings to fully enjoy the experience.

FIWCThe wines were spread out along tables in two rooms, allowing you to serve yourself.  This was good for trying the wines at your own pace, but not so great if you were hoping to learn about the wines beyond what was written on the label.

On Saturday I arrived 45 minutes after the tasting started and found it was extremely crowded.  When I was able to get through to the tables I found that many of the bottles were already empty.

One of the great things about the tasting also caused some problems.  If you were staying for dinner at Smith & Wollensky you were able to take two bottles with you and not pay a corkage fee.  It seemed people claimed their bottles early on, removing them from the tasting which hurt those of us who arrived late.

The experience was much better on Sunday, with far fewer people and no frenzied scramble for bottles to drink in the restaurant (that night you couldn’t claim bottles until an hour and a half into the tasting).  Assuming the format is the same next year, I’d recommend arriving early or paying the higher price to attend Sunday’s tasting.

I can’t complain too much about Saturday’s tasting because I found two great red wines from Hungary.  I’m not sure if it was a lack of familiarity with this country or its grapes, but these bottles seemed to be largely ignored during the tasting.  They were mostly full when I claimed them to take to dinner.

MerengoThe first wine was the 2006 St. Andrea Merengo Egri Bikavér Superior.  It’s from the Eger region in northern Hungary.  The word Bikavér translates to “bull’s blood.”  This type of wine gets its name from a 16th century legend about a small group of Hungarian soldiers who withstood a siege of the fortress at Eger by 150,000 invading Turkish troops.  To motivate and support the Hungarian soldiers, they were served a lot of red wine.  Word spread among the Turkish troops that the wine was mixed with bull’s blood — the reason for the Hungarians’ inexplicable strength.  The rumor demoralized the Turks, and the siege ended.

Ten different grapes are allowed to make up Bikavér, though regulations state it must contain at least three.  St. Andrea’s Merengo is a blend of 50% Kékfrankos (called Blaufränkisch in other parts of Europe), 20% Syrah, 20% Cabernet Franc and 10% Merlot.  It’s an elegant and well structured wine, with delicate notes of ripe red fruit and white pepper.  Gentle tannins are balanced out with a nice acidity.  It’s a versatile wine that can be paired with pasta, poultry and red meat.  I’m not sure where in the U.S. this wine is available, but I believe it retails around $60.

Blue DiamondThe second wine was the 2006 St. John Blue Diamond.  I haven’t been able to find out much information on this wine.  It’s also made with Kékfrankos but I’m not sure what other grapes it contains.  The Blue Diamond is more full bodied than the Merengo.  It has flavors of black fruit and an earthy and slightly gamey taste.  The wine truly came alive at dinner, when we paired it with steak.  This is a wine that needs to be served along with food — in particular heartier meat and game dishes.

While I didn’t find too many wines I was wowed by at the Florida International Wine Challenge, I lucked out by finding these jewels from Hungary.  Members of the tasting board also enjoyed the Merengo, awarding it a Silver medal.

A Conch Tour of the Florida Keys

I love spending a weekend in the Florida Keys.  It’s a quick drive from South Florida but it feels so much farther away.  As soon as I turn onto the Overseas Highway and can see sparkling blue-green water on both sides, I immediately feel happy and relaxed.

Of course no visit to the Conch Republic is complete without enjoying the fresh seafood — especially conch.  Whether my destination is the Upper, Middle or Lower Keys, I have a favorite restaurant I always visit for conch chowder or conch fritters.

Key Largo: The Fish House

The first time I dined at the Fish House was during a family trip to the Keys in the mid 1990s.  Since moving to South Florida a few years ago, I’ve been able to visit the Keys more frequently and always include a meal at the Fish House.  The seafood here is as fresh as it gets — fisherman deliver whole fish each day to the back door.

Fish HouseMake sure to start with a cup of the Fish House’s conch chowder, my favorite conch chowder in the Keys.  It’s a tomato-based soup with lots of chewy conch.

For the main course I always order blackened mahi-mahi.  The fresh fish and mix of spices is a delicious combination that I can’t get enough of.  It’s a dish I like ordering when I’m near the ocean, so the taste of it always reminds me of being on vacation.

conch chowderService is friendly and fast.  If you come when it’s crowded don’t be concerned about the wait time, it’s usually shorter than what the host tells you.

The Fish House is about an hour and 15 minutes drive from downtown Miami — close enough that you can go there and back in a day, and get a pint of conch chowder to take home.

The Fish House is located at Mile Marker 102.4 on the Ocean side.

Islamorada: Islamorada Fish Company

This restaurant looks like a place that locals might stay away from but don’t let the tourists scare you.  Islamorada Fish Company serves up fresh and tasty seafood.

Islamorada Fish CoLocated on the Gulf side of the Overseas Highway, Islamorada Fish Company is a great place to watch the sunset.  Tables are outdoors and over the water, so you get a great view from every seat.

The conch dish to order here is the conch fritters.  They’re the biggest I’ve seen anywhere in the Keys and some of the tastiest.  The fritters have large pieces of conch and not too much filler.

The raw oysters are also really large and as a bonus, well priced.  A dozen oysters cost around $10, one of the best deals you’ll find in the Keys.

If you’re still hungry, try the grilled grouper Reuben.  A big and juicy piece of grouper is topped with Thousand Island slaw dressing and Swiss cheese and served on grilled rye bread.  In a word: yum!

Islamorada Fish Company is located at Mile Marker 81.5 on the Gulf side.

Sugarloaf Key: Mangrove Mama’s

Blink and you’ll miss Mangrove Mama’s, a tiny restaurant located about a 15 minute drive from Key West.  The ambiance is island eclectic — simple tables, bright colors, unusual artwork, and an outdoor patio shaded by palm trees.

Mangrove Mama'sI go to Mangrove Mama’s for two dishes: the conch fritters and the Key lime pie.  The fritters have a great crunchy outside and a warm chewy inside, with big chunks of conch and a slight spicy kick at the end.

I’ve tried Key lime pies at restaurants all over the Keys and Mangrove Mama’s pie is my favorite.  Theirs has the perfect balance of tart and sweet, with a nice, crumbly graham cracker crust.

Mangrove Mama’s is located at Mile Marker 20 on the Gulf side.

Have your own must-visit restaurant in the Florida Keys?  Feel free to share it in the comments!

Surprising Cuisine in a College Setting

When it comes to dining out, South Floridians love to find the next big thing.  A unique experience in North Miami is always one step ahead, serving fare from up-and-coming talents in the food and hospitality business.

The place: the dining room at Florida International University’s School of Hospitality.

Twice a week the dining room is transformed into a restaurant that is open to the public and run entirely by students.  It’s part of a course taught by professor and chef Michael Moran designed to give students on-the-job training.  From food preparation to the front of the house, students are in charge.

The students prepare a three-course lunch that includes freshly baked bread, an appetizer, a choice of entree and dessert.  At $15 per person (which includes a glass of wine and coffee or tea), it’s one of the best deals in Miami.

The class of 30 students is divided into groups that rotate through the different restaurant positions each week.  Chef Moran designs a basic menu and it’s up to the students to add their creativity and flair.

The menu changes every week.  When I went for lunch the meal was inspired by New Orleans – jalapeño corn bread, crab cakes and grits, a choice of roasted pork tenderloin or shrimp etouffee, and for dessert, beignets served with chocolate sauce and caramel.  The crab cakes were crunchy on the outside and moist on the inside, with large chunks of crab.  The etouffee was nicely spiced with a slight kick at the end.  The beignets were a little heavy but still very tasty.  The portions were generous and I found myself quite full before dessert was served.

Past menus have included such mouth-watering dishes as duck confit with dirty rice and orange gastrique, macadamia nut crusted halibut, braised lamb shank, pistachio panna cotta, and blackberry cobbler.

The School of Hospitality’s dining room gives many students their first experience of working in a restaurant — but it’s hard to tell.  The students pay great attention to detail, from decorating the tables to artfully plating each dish.  The servers are friendly and attentive, and willing to offer substitutions to items on the menu.  The pacing was just right; I never felt rushed and each course arrived without any delay.

While enjoying the meal in such an intimate setting I felt like I had discovered a secret dining club.  What made the experience even more impressive was realizing that these students are working towards a degree in the hospitality industry, and are not chefs in training.

After finishing dessert we had the opportunity to meet the students and thank them for a memorable dining experience.  It was truly a diverse group, with students from many countries including the United States, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Russia, India and China.

For these students, this experience gives them hands-on training without the stress of working in an actual restaurant and it better prepares them for a job in the hospitality industry.  We diners get a lot out of it too — a special meal, a chance to take a break during a busy day, and the opportunity to support and encourage students who are about to begin their careers.

The dining room reopens on May 18th.  I’ll definitely be back to see what the next class of students can cook up.

The dining room at FIU’s School of Hospitality is open for lunch on Tuesdays and Thursdays when class is in session.  Service begins promptly at noon.  Reservations are a must – call Paula Wright at 305-919-4500.  You can pay by mailing a check or by cash when you arrive.

FIU’s School of Hospitality is located on the Biscayne Bay Campus in North Miami.  Metered parking is available on campus for $1 per hour.

AG Pick Under $20: 2005 Castano Solanera

I stumbled upon the 2005 Castaño Solanera in my local wine store.  I thought I would give it a try because it’s a somewhat unusual blend of grapes from Yecla, an emerging wine producing region in southeast Spain.

Castano SolaneraOld vines of the indigenous Monastrell varietal make up 65% of the blend, along with 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Tintorera.  Monastrell is the Spanish name for Mourvèdre, a hot-weather varietal grown throughout the Mediterranean region.  A taste of this wine reminds me of bold and earthy wines from the Rhône region of France.

A warning to inexperienced red wine drinkers — this is a big and intense wine both in flavor and in alcohol content (it’s 14.5%).  If you’re bored with the basic Cabernet Sauvignon, give this wine a try.

Solanera is a complex mix of black fruits and earth.  Aromas of smoky blackberry fill the glass.  Flavors of juicy black cherry and blackberry culminate in an exciting spicy and gamey finish.  A hint of fennel at the end refreshes your palate.

Assertive tannins give the wine almost a chewy texture; this is a wine that demands to be served with food.  Pair this with grilled meats that won’t be overpowered by the wine, like steak, lamb and venison.

The 2005 Castaño Solanera costs around $18.  Buy one bottle to drink now and another to drink in a year or two.

AG Pick Under $20: Carmel Road Pinot Noir

I’m very picky about my Pinot Noir and have a hard time finding ones I enjoy that are under $30.  So for a great tasting bottle under $20 it’s hard to beat Carmel Road’s 2006 Monterey Pinot Noir.

Carmel RoadThe wine is 100% Pinot Noir from vineyards in Monterey County, California.  It’s aged for 7 and a half months in 21% new French oak barrels.

The nose reveals flavors of red cherry and cola with a hint of rose petal.  The taste is an elegant mix of red currant and cherry with toast and warm spice on the finish.  The medium intensity wine has a smooth mouthfeel and good acidity.  The wine is a little tight at the beginning so give it time to open up or use a decanter.

This is a very versatile wine and can be served with a wide variety of fish, poultry and beef dishes.

The 2006 Carmel Road Monterey Pinot Noir costs around $16.

Wine and a Performance at Aureole

For a unique wine experience in Las Vegas dine at Aureole, where you get dinner and a show.

At the heart of the restaurant is a four-story, temperature controlled wine tower.  Bottles are retrieved by “flying wine angels,” women clad in black spandex who soar up and down the tower using an elaborate pulley system.

The playbill for this performance is in the form of the eWinebook, an electronic wine list.  With a few taps of the pen you can search through the thousands of bottles in Aureole’s wine collection.  It’s so much fun to play with you’ll forget that you came to the restaurant to eat.

The eWinebook groups wines by type, country, region, varietal and vintage.  It’s great for people who aren’t as knowledgeable about wine; in selecting the characteristics you want, you create your own smaller and more manageable list to choose from.  And of course if you’re completely lost a sommelier can assist you.  My one complaint is that you can’t search by price, which would be helpful in removing wines that aren’t in your desired price range.

Each bottle on Aureole’s list is assigned a number so the wine angels know exactly where on the tower to find it.  The wines are arranged randomly and not by price, so a less expensive bottle may make for a more exciting show.

Though the wine tower can hold up to 10,000 bottles not all of Aureole’s wines are kept there.  Older reds are kept in a rare wine cellar and white and sparkling wines are stored in a cold room kept below 40 degrees.

Fortunately, this show of selecting and retrieving the wine isn’t meant to distract you from the food.  Aureole’s menu is a mix of progressive American cuisine with the theatricality of Las Vegas.  I really enjoyed the seared black cod, which was served with beluga lentils and pomegranate juice.  The Pinot Noir braised lamb shank was tender and delicious.  For dessert the tiramisu parfait is rich and creamy, served with a warm chocolate brownie and salted caramel ice cream.

Aureole Las Vegas is located at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. The three-course prix fixe menu is $79.  The full menu is available a la carte in the lounge and bar area.  If you want to search through Aureole’s eWinebook ahead of time you can browse it online.

Champagne Brunch Buffet at the Wynn

You can’t visit Las Vegas without checking out at least one buffet.  My pick: the weekend Champagne brunch buffet at the Wynn.

For me, buffets can be dangerous — no matter what I tell myself beforehand I always eat way too much and leave uncomfortably full.  I never seem to learn that my eyes are always bigger than my stomach.  But with 16 live action cooking stations and a wide variety of dishes I just had to try a little bit of everything, right?

The Wynn buffet has all the traditional brunch fixings.  There’s a fresh fruit station, salad station, breakfast pastries station, and omelet station alongside all the usual hot breakfast foods.  I skipped all these so I could fill up my plate elsewhere.  There is a seafood station with three different kinds of ceviche and an assortment of sushi rolls (I filled up on spicy tuna hand rolls).  There is a dim sum section with steamed pork buns, dumplings and egg rolls.

Among the many options for the -unch part of the buffet are pasta, enchiladas, pizza, salmon, game hen and a delicious lamb risotto (my favorite).  Another highlight is the carving station, which features a large slab of meat normally prepared as bacon that is instead covered in spices and roasted.  It has a great taste and a soft, slightly chewy texture.  It’s a decadent treat for anyone who likes bacon.

At the Wynn buffet you’ll definitely want to save room for dessert.  There’s a separate room just for sweets.  My first stop was the ice cream bar, where I got a scoop of chocolate and coffee (I couldn’t pick just one).  Then I moved on to the cakes and pies.  The pecan pie and bread pudding were yummy and I really liked the Oreo and chocolate mousse cake, though it was so rich I could only take two bites.  I wanted to take some cookies to go but decided not to.

For an extra $7 you can get a glass of Champagne.  Bonus: unlimited refills.  When I went they were pouring Freixenet Brut Nature, a crisp and dry Cava that went well with the mix of flavors on my plate.  During my two hour grazing session I easily drank an entire bottle, thanks to our enthusiastic server Kevin.  When our glasses were half full there was Kevin, ready to fill them up.  When we were finally ready to leave he even brought us to-go cups.

The Buffet at the Wynn is open for lunch, breakfast and dinner.  The weekend brunch costs $30 without Champagne.  If you go, get there early.  I arrived around 9:30am and had no problem getting a table but two hours later there was a very long line.

For more information visit www.wynnlasvegas.com.

AG Pick Under $20: Daglia Canyon 2005 Meritage

Daglia Canyon’s 2005 Meritage from Oakville in the Napa Valley is a blend of the five Bordeaux varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot.  If you’re not familiar with Meritage click here to read my earlier article.

Daglia CanyonThe wine is deep garnet red in color.  The nose is a mix of red fruit and spice — notes of raspberry and cherry mingle with cinnamon and clove.

Flavors of ripe plum and raspberry fill your mouth with warm spice on the finish.  As the wine lingers in your glass the fruit flavors come forward more.  Soft tannins give the wine a silky feel in your mouth and make it very easy to drink.

Serve this wine with grilled meats, lamb, or duck.

The 2005 Daglia Canyon Meritage costs around $19.