Something Offal is Going On

Something offal is going on in Atlanta.  When I visited the city a couple of months ago, many of the highly recommended restaurants had some sort of out of the ordinary animal offering.

Vegetarians, consider yourself warned.  You may not want to read beyond this point.

Offal is defined as the various non-skeletal muscle parts of a butchered animal that may be eaten.  These include the liver, kidneys, thymus (on menus as sweetbread), heart, brain and tongue.

I’ve always been a pretty adventurous eater.  I remember asking my parents if I could order escargot at a French restaurant when I was about 10 years old (and I’ve loved eating them ever since).  I tried tongue once but couldn’t get beyond the texture, and have had mixed experiences with sweetbreads.  But foie gras is one of my guilty pleasures.

Holman & FinchThough I never ruled out eating other organs, I didn’t really think I’d have the opportunity to try them.  When I saw a variety on the menu at Atlanta’s Holman & Finch Public House I felt oddly compelled to order some.

I could have never guessed I would ever rave about — or crave — heart.  But I have not been able to stop talking about Holman & Finch’s dish ever since I dined there.

The decor of the Buckhead restaurant can best be described as “butcher chic.”  Shades of silver and stainless steel make up the color scheme for the dimly lit bar and small dining area that look like they could be sprayed down for cleaning at the end of the night.  From the pig parts and sausages hanging near the entrance to the large sliding barn doors for the bathrooms, everything about the restaurant says vegetarians unwelcome.

I started off slowly, ordering the steak tartare and pan-roasted rabbit livers.  The tartare was delicious, chopped into small bits with whole grain mustard and onions that gave it a great flavor.  I wasn’t as impressed by the rabbit livers which were overly fried, masking the liver’s taste and spongy texture.

marrow at Holman & FinchI decided to kick it up a notch and ordered the gratin of marrow served with parsley salad and country bread.  I’d had marrow before and remembered it being rich and creamy.  Holman & Finch’s version definitely fit this description.  Served in the bone, the marrow tasted like warm, melting butter.  The bread (great in its own right), made an excellent sponge for soaking it up.  Before I knew it, the bone was empty.  I had to restrain myself from picking it up to lick any remaining bits — a thought that seemed strangely normal and appealing in that setting.

With a few rounds of animal parts under my belt, I felt daring enough to order the ultimate offal — peppercorn crusted veal heart.  The dish arrived unassumingly enough; thinly-sliced rectangular pieces of meat served over parsnip puree in a blood orange sauce.  Had I not seen the menu I might have thought it was filet mignon.

veal heart at Holman & FinchTaking a deep breath, I took my first bite.  My reaction was instantaneous.

Quite simply put, the veal heart was out of this world.

The taste was incredible.  The meat was richly flavored without any hint of gaminess, nicely balanced out by the sweet citrus of the sauce.   And I couldn’t get over the texture.  The meat was all muscle and no fat, without any toughness at all.  It was like biting into a lean piece of filet mignon, only better.  The parsnip puree rounded out the meat and potatoes feel, adding a wonderfully creamy element to the dish.  A forkful of the heart, puree and sauce together is one of the best flavor combinations I’ve eaten in quite some time.

I’m not sure if I was channeling the energy of the calf or if it was the 2 glasses of wine, but something in me seemed to turn primal.  I had an insatiable appetite for heart and I wanted more!

Unfortunately in all my excitement, I hadn’t realized how full I had become.  So it was just as well that the restaurant was out of veal brains.  At least I’ll have an excuse for a return visit.

Holman & Finch Public House is located at 2277 Peachtree Road Northeast in Atlanta Georgia.  They are open for dinner Monday through Saturday and for lunch on Sunday.  Reservations are not accepted.  For the faint of heart, there are vegetarian side dishes and less adventurous fare on the menu.

Attention Atlanta residents and visitors: beginning in March the Amateur Gastronomer is expanding to Atlanta!  If you have a story, wine or event to suggest email

Vranec: Macedonia’s Native Red Grape

Looking to discover a new wine from the Old World?  Try a taste of Vranec, the native red wine grape of Macedonia.

Not sure where Macedonia is?  Just look for Greece on map.  Macedonia is the landlocked country to its north, bordered with Albania to the west, Serbia and Kosovo to the north and Bulgaria to the east.

Meaning strong and powerful black stallion, Vranec produces big and bold dry wines that are deep ruby-purple, almost black in color.  Fitting of its name and taste, Vranec is associated with strength and success.

If you enjoy Syrah and Zinfandel, you’ll definitely want to try Vranec.  It has intense berry and red fruit aromas and flavors, with firm tannins giving it structure.  Over time Vranec wines develop more spice and earth notes that round out the fruit.  Vranec pairs well with steak, burgers and hearty meat dishes.

I had my first taste of Vranec at a tasting in Atlanta of reds from Bovin Winery.  Bovin was established in 1998 as the first privately owned winery in Macedonia.  It is located in the Tikvesh wine district, in the central part of the country.

I started with the 2007 Vranec ($15), a big fruit forward wine.  Aromas of red fruits introduced jammy flavors of plum, cherry and blackberry.  It’s full and round in the mouth, nicely balanced with gripping tannins.

Next I tasted the 2006 Alexandar ($15), a dry proprietary blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Vranec.  It opens with complex red and black fruit aromas, giving way to a palate of juicy berries and red currant.  The fruit is enhanced by herbal and spicy notes, making for an intense and complex sip that finishes long and smooth.  It’s an exciting wine for red wine enthusiasts who want to see how Vranec can interact with Bordeaux varietals, as well as for Vranec beginners who want just a peek at the grape.

If you can’t find Vranec quite yet, keep looking.  The wine is gaining more interest in the United States and should be appearing at wine shops and on restaurants’ wine lists more over the next year.  If you happen to live in or travel to Atlanta (where the importer, Two Friends Imports Company is located), you’re in luck — Vranec is already available at a number of restaurants there.

AG Pick Under $15: Le Paradou Cotes du Luberon

Looking for a nice wine to enjoy on a weekday, a Sunday afternoon, or just any time you’re in the mood for a glass of red?  Open up a bottle of Le Paradou Côtes du Luberon 2007.

Le ParadouFrom the bright and whimsical label to the easy to drink, spicy yet smooth taste, everything about this wine says fun.  Even the price — a bottle costs $12.

Le Paradou is from the Southern Rhone AOC of Côtes du Ventoux in southern France.  The grapes are grown at high altitudes in the mountains of the Luberon, which is just south of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas appellations.  The wine takes its name from 400 year old farmhouse in Provence that overlooks olive trees and rows of Grenache vines.  I like sipping Le Paradou and imagining I’m right there.

With its blend of 60% Grenache and 40% Syrah, Le Paradou is a round, well balanced mix of fruit and spice.  It spends no time in oak so the fruit flavors really shine.

Dark garnet red in color, the wine has intense aromas of plum, cherry and blackberry.  These continue to evolve on the palate, enhanced by notes of black pepper and dark chocolate.  Good acidity gives the wine a nice lightness and gentle tannins tickle your tongue at first but soften after a few minutes.

Le Paradou Côtes du Luberon is great to enjoy on its own, or served with beef short ribs, lamb, chicken marsala or rabbit.

FIU Students Help Make Wine & Food Festival a Success

Miami Beach is getting ready to stage its biggest annual food and wine event: the Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival.  Now in its 9th year, the four-day extravaganza will star world renowned chefs and culinary celebrities like Daniel Boulud, Rachael Ray, Bobby Flay, Paula Deen, Masaharu Morimoto, Anthony Bourdain and more.

Like any successful production, it’s essential to have a strong supporting cast.  Working behind the scenes ahead of the festival and throughout the weekend will be more than 800 students from Florida International University’s School of Hospitality.

The festival gives the students invaluable hands-on experience that will help them in their careers, whether it is as a chef or a manager of a restaurant, hotel or cruise ship.  The massive student effort is coordinated by chef-instructor Michael Moran who teaches a course in quantity food production as well as a popular class where students run a restaurant that is open to the public.

The students’ work starts well before the festival kicks off on February 25th.  Early next week the students will leave FIU’s Biscayne Bay Campus in North Miami for the Miami Beach convention center to get ready for the Perrier-Jouët BubbleQ on Friday night.  In the convention center’s commercial kitchens the students will spend approximately 3,500 man hours preparing food for the more than 3,000 people attending the extravagant barbecue and Champagne party on the beach.

It’s quite a feat to put on the feast.  For last year’s BubbleQ the students prepared 1,800 pounds of pork, 1,500 pounds of beef, 1,000 pounds of chicken, 1,200 pounds of fish and 800 pounds of cabbage, as well as several hundred pounds of potato salad, coleslaw and other side dishes.  That’s more than 22,000 portions of food, enough to sate any cowboy’s appetite.

The students’ work isn’t finished once the food is packed onto refrigerated trucks and delivered to the Delano hotel, the site of BubbleQ.  At the event the students will assist professional chefs from around the country including Emeril Lagasse, Michelle Bernstein, Tim Love and John Besh as they cook and serve their mouthwatering dishes.

In addition to BubbleQ, the students will work throughout the festival weekend in a variety of key capacities, including ticket sales and greeting guests at seminars and events.  They’ll also be participating in the Whole Foods Market Grand Tasting Village, serving up a taste of their hard work.

Besides the important real-world experience for students and the chance to network with chefs and people in the food and beverage industry, the festival serves as a fundraiser for the School of Hospitality.  Last year almost $2 million was raised for the teaching restaurant program, which went towards student scholarships and enhancing the faculty and teaching facilities.

As you’re enjoying the delicious food next weekend, take time out to think about who helped prepare it.  After all, you could be tasting a dish from one of the next big culinary stars!

The 2010 Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival will be held February 25th through 28th.  For more information visit sobefest.comClick here to learn more about FIU’s School of Hospitality and Tourism Management.

AG Pick Under $20: Bodega Colome Torrontes 2008

Argentina is not just famous for its bold and spicy Malbec.  The South American country also produces great white wines made from Torrontés, its characteristic white varietal.

If you’ve never tried Torrontés and enjoy drinking white wines, go out and buy a bottle right away.  This grape produces fresh and aromatic wines that have delicate floral and tropical fruit notes.  If you enjoy the roundness of Viognier or like Sauvignon Blanc minus its grassy or herbaceous notes, this wine is for you.

A great introduction to Torrontés is the 2008 Bodega Colomé Torrontés.  It comes from the Calchaquí Valley in northwestern Argentina.  The wine is 100% Torrontés from 30 to 60 year old vines and is aged for 3 months in stainless steel tanks.

Lemon-yellow in color, this wine has inviting aromas of gardenia, honeysuckle and a hint of lemon.  The palate is a blooming bouquet of white flowers, orange blossom and jasmine, rounded out with lemon, grapefruit and white peach.  Well balanced with good acidity and minerality, this elegant wine finishes clean and crisp.

Enjoy this Torrontés on its own or pair it with shellfish, risotto or Asian fusion cuisine.  And since it’s never too early to look forward to warmer weather, this white makes a great summer wine.

A bottle of the 2008 Bodega Colomé Torrontés costs $15.

AG Pick Under $15: Finca Lopez Noceti 1919 Cabernet Sauvignon 2008

1919 was apparently a good year for Finca Lopez Noceti.  Or at least a good name for their range of wines that also include Malbec and Syrah.  And if you buy a bottle of 1919 you’re in for a good sip.

1919 Cabernet SauvignonFinca Lopez Noceti is located in Mendoza, Argentina.  Their 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon is textbook South American red in all the good ways.  It’s lush and dense with great earthy flavors, at an extremely affordable price (around $12).

This wine is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon that was hand-harvested at low yield from a 40 year-old estate vineyard.  It was fermented and aged for 6 months in new French and American oak.

Deep garnet red in color with aromas of vanilla and blackberry, this velvety-soft Cab has flavors of black cherry, black currant, dark chocolate and spice.  As the wine lingers notes of sage and bell pepper emerge.  The wine culminates in a warm, round finish.

The Finca Lopez Noceti 1919 Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 pairs well with steak, lamb and most red meats.

Snapshots from the Key West Food & Wine Festival

Key West was the place to be this weekend for the city’s first food and wine festival.  Approximately 500 wine and food fans enjoyed great eats and drinks in the laid-back, tropical setting.

kickoff partykickoff partyThe festival kicked off Thursday evening with the Barefoot Beach Party at the Southernmost Beach Café.

Guests sipped wines from Barefoot Wine & Bubbly and snacked on an assortment of island treats including conch fritters, scallop ceviche and pork sandwiches.

A live band kept the party going from evening until night, as guests danced while enjoying the famous Key West sunset.

sand sculptureCompleting the celebration on the beach was a pair of sand artists who built a sand sculpture that featured a wine bottle with the festival logo.

On Friday festival goers were able to attend seminars on creating whimsical cakes and preparing the perfect Champagne brunch, go for a bike ride through the city that ended with an ice cream tasting, or just enjoy the warm and sunny day.

Friday evening the place to be was the Sunset Grand Tasting, held on the pier outside the Westin Resort.  As the sun dipped below the waves, guests sampled wines from around the world and dined on a selection of Key West’s fresh seafood including stone crab claws and Florida lobster.

grand tastinggrand tasting

The party continued late until the night with “Martini Mayhem” at AQUA nightclub on Duval Street.  From the bar to the dance floor, the club was filled with people sipping Skyy martinis and dancing to the latest hits.

Saturday was another fun and food-filled day with restaurants hosting mouthwatering events.  Hogfish Bar & Grill held a classic shrimp boil that included lots of Key West pink shrimp, fresh Florida lobster tail, corn on the cob and more.  At Azur restaurant’s “Bubbles and Madness,” diners enjoyed a brunch spread of fresh seafood and Champagne cocktails.

coconut bowlingOnce full from lunch, festival goers made their way to Blue Heaven restaurant for Crazy Coconut Bowling.  The lively competition benefited Wesley House Family Services, a local not-for-profit organization dedicated to helping children and families in Monroe County.

coconut manGuests were encouraged to come in their funniest island finery and submit their best coconut recipe.  Prizes were awarded for the most hilarious costume and the tastiest coconut dish.

For those who wanted a break from all the wine the coconut man was on hand, turning a whole coconut into a refreshing drink with a few swings of his machete

The culmination of the festival was Saturday night’s Duval UNCORKED, a mile long wine tasting and food sampling extravaganza.

Duval StreetDuval UncorkedDuval Street’s eclectic boutiques and funky shops poured wines from around the world, while the neighborhood’s best restaurants shared a taste of their signature dishes.

The evening gave locals the chance to explore some of Key West’s newer or favorite stores and eateries, while visitors got a great taste of the city’s unique and entertaining scene.

Winding down the festival weekend, guests were invited to “Brunch Around” on Sunday morning and savor a relaxing meal at one of Key West’s many brunch spots.

outdoor wine marketsteel drummerFor those who wanted a few more sips of wine before the festival came to a close, the Outdoor Wine Market offered a selection of wines to taste and purchase, as well as fresh produce and flower vendors and local craft merchants.

Though held away from the water, the market had the feeling of being set on the beach thanks to a steel drummer creating a relaxing and upbeat island atmosphere.

Disappointed you couldn’t make it to Key West for this year’s food and wine festival?  You’ll be glad to know that plans are already underway for next year.