Shana Speaks Wine

Wine Journalist, Copywriter, and Marketing Consultant

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Filtering by Tag: OpenTable

San Francisco Wocation

Why is it that certain words catch on and become prominent in our lexicon (i.e. "vape" as 2014's Word of the Year) while others seem to get lost in the hashtag cesspool? I'm trying to make "wocation" (working vacation) a thing, because what's better than traveling to do what you love?  Granted, my wocations revolve around wine; I'm sure there's a huge disparity between the enjoyment of my trips and say, a technology conference. But, I'm still going to try to start a "wocation" movement.

April's wocation was to Nothern California and the itinerary covered both city and country: specifically, San Francisco, Napa Valley and Sonoma. Seminars, trainings and of course, winery visits, were all on the docket. San Fran's dining scene rivals New York's in many respects, both in cuisine and in wine, and there's been a bit of a bicoastal culinary showdown going on. Eager to ensure we optimized our non-work dinners, we made several reservations through OpenTable.  

STONE'S THROW

Saturday night started off not with wine, but with beer, at Stone's Throw, where locavore cuisine meets craft beer.  The rustic decor married sleek modern touches in this inviting neighborhood place.

We started with a charred octopus; perfectly tender yet meaty, it was a solid start to the meal. For entrees we opted for sea bass with shrimp ravioli in a tomato-moroccan broth and a seared duck breast with black rice and lettuce-wrapped confit. The just-picked-from-the-garden peas that accompanied the fish were the first mouthful where the concept of seasonality shone through and why there is a premium value placed on eating what nature dictates.  The fish itself was slightly salty but mellowed out when consumed with the savory tomato broth. 

Sea bass at Stone's Throw.  Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine.

Sea bass at Stone's Throw.  Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine.

Tender duck breast with crispy skin was only one preparation of this "duck two ways."  Confit stood in for rice in a play on a dolmas grape leaf; lush and rich, it mirrored rice's toothsome texture but gave an unctuousness to the bite.  

Duck at Stone's Throw.  Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine.

Duck at Stone's Throw.  Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine.

To drink, we paired the plates with Rockmill Brewery's Saison Noir, 3 Fonteinen's Zwet.be and Brouwerij de Molen's Heaven and Hell.  The trip was off to an auspicious start.  

Beers at Stone's Throw.  Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine.

Beers at Stone's Throw.  Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine.

COQUETA

A few days later we found ourselves at Coqueta, Michael Chiarello's tapas joint, located on the Embarcadero. Although the happy hour crowd was effusively, um, happy (most likely due to the strong drinks), we muted them out as one delicious tapas dish after another was delivered to our table.  The simple yet innovative salmon ahumado montadito, comprised of smoked salmon, queso fresco and a drizzle of truffle honey, elevated NYC's standard breakfast sandwich into a salty-sweet concoction.

A new spin on bagels and lox at Coqueta. Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine.

A new spin on bagels and lox at Coqueta. Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine.

Traditional patatas bravas were updated from cubed spuds to white and purple new potatoes fried whole to become orbs of deliciousness.   Dotted with a garlic aioli and a side of smoky, spicy salsa, these potatoes brought a fiery kick to a normally bland starch. 

Patatas bravas at Coqueta.  Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine.

Patatas bravas at Coqueta.  Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine.

We also feasted on grilled octopus, duck and pork meatballs, the fideua with mixed seafood, and head-on prawns. The meal fell apart at the end with a misorder and lengthy waiting times for the last couple of dishes, but overall the bites were innovative.  

Desserts, however, came up short.  Churros were perfectly fried but the dipping chocolate had an offputting herbaceous note that clashed with the cinnamon-y sweetness of the churros.  And a dessert "bite" of an ice cream sandwich was erroneously served with a blue cheese ice cream instead of the promised olive oil.  

The wine menu highlighted most of Spain's wine regions but, as this was California, had a sizeable listing of local producers. From this well-curated list we opted for Terras Guada, O Rosal, Rias Baixas, 2012, an intriguing blend of Albarino and Treixadura. Ripe orchard fruits, bright citrus notes, flinty minerality and a decent amount of acid, this wine worked well with nearly every dish in our lineup. 

Terras Gauda, O Rosal, Rias Baixas, 2012, at Coqueta. Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine.

Terras Gauda, O Rosal, Rias Baixas, 2012, at Coqueta. Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine.

SPQR

Our final meal of the trip took place mere hours before we drove to the airport; at 5:28pm, we were lingering outside of SPQR, waiting for them to unlock the doors and let us in for our 5:30 reservation. It was an ungoldly hour for these New Yorkers to be eating dinner, but we couldn't miss the opportunity to try this highly acclaimed restaurant.  

One would imagine we'd be sick of octopus by this point but we had to have one more go at the cephalopod. Plated with with kale, panisse, chickpeas, basil, pistachio and lemon, the flavors popped with brightness.  This was the definitive winner in the week's octopus lineup.

Octopus at SPQR.  Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine.

Octopus at SPQR.  Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine.

We then dove into the pastas, starting with the radiatore with arugula pesto, teeny bay shrimp, herb breadcrumbs and a shellfish broth.  The wavy ridged pastas were a fun texture and cradled the pesto in its crevices, while the shrimp lent a sweetness to the dish.   

If a menu notes chocolate, it's pretty much an automatic order, whether it appears as dessert, or, in this case, as a pasta dough: chocolate and pea agnolotti with pea shoots, fonduta and ricotta salata. The cheese-filled packages were a symmetrical split of green and brown; however, the chocolate came through as an earthy note rather than sweet.  It was very subtle but complimented the vegetables. 

The final pasta, whole wheat lumache with beef cheek sugo and brussel sprouts, was a homey, comforting bite, reminiscent of a Sunday gravy. It veered towards the emotional, rather than the intellectual, side of the brain.

To drink, we selected Bruno Verdi, Buttafuoco, Lombardy, 2012 from the Italian-leaning list. Dark berries, spice and some earthiness came through on this medium-bodied red, which fared well with the range of pastas.

Bruno Verdi, Buttafuoco,Lombardy, 2012.  Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine.

Bruno Verdi, Buttafuoco,Lombardy, 2012.  Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine.

 

Obviously, we had to partake in dessert, so we opted for the cinnamon bombolini, red wine apple, chocolate, crushed cookie and a fior di latte gelato.  Two small spheres, akin to Dunkin Donuts' Munchkins, were served with a regular sized ringed donut, along with poached fruit, chocolate sauce and the gelato.  Airy, cakey, warm, and sugary, these donuts made us giggle with delight as we consumed them.  

Then, a debate ensued: Should we get another dessert? Since there was no strong objector on this debate team, a tiramisu soon followed.  However, this was more like a trifle; served in a tall glass, the luscious layers of cream and cake enticed the eyes. Moist cake, cloudlike cream and crunchy cookie texture made us grateful for the additional sweet rush.  

The San Fransisco restaurant scene definitely kept us on our toes and we're eager to come back to experience even more from this Bay Area beauty. 

Interested in checking out any of these restaurants?   Head to OpenTable to make your own reservations. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where Would Cupid Eat?

So you thought the Super Bowl was THE food event for the winter season?  Nuh-uh.  Just as you are coming out of your beer-and-wings induced coma, Valentine's Day beckons in all its wine and chocolate glory. 

Whether you're coupled up or grabbing single friends for a group dinner, reservations are a must.  Luckily, OpenTable just released their list of the best places to celebrate the holiday, which makes drinking champagne and downing oysters easier than ever.  You can thank them the morning after.  

 Check out the complete list here: 

http://www.opentable.com/promo.aspx?metroid=8&sort=Name&excludefields=Description&promoid=102&ref=2138&regionids=16

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For Goodness Sake

Lately I've been very taken with sake. The rice-based beverage is similiar to champagne in many ways, from the deep history of its production to the tradition of creating a house style to the current trend of creating single-vineyard bottlings. However, it is so unique in its flavor profiles that I find myself continually drawn to the indecipherable bottles. 

Although sake bars have dotted the city's drinking topography for years, one newcomer, Azasu, on the Lower East Side, has made a name for itself, both in its sake offerings as well as its food.  This restauarant is the only place in the city devoted to solely serving cup sake, which are single serving portions rarely found outside Japan.  In Japan, cup sakes are often found in vending machines located in busy areas such as train stations (and are often fodder for teenagers' rebellious antics, such as Azasu's owner, who used to try to steal the cups with his friends).

The glass containers are sealed with a peel-off aluminum pop-top and the labels are decorated with eye-catching graphics, ranging from artistic to whimsical. With brief descriptions of the style and amusing names, one often drinks for the packaging as much as the beverage itself.  Azasu carries a few sakes that are produced exclusively for the restaurant and will have some new ones coming out in 2015 as well. The best part? The glasses become take-home souvenirs, although staring at numerous cups the next morning are a painful accountabiliity check for your hangover.

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Bambi Deer, the first sake sampled, was dry with a slightly creamy note as well as a yeasty, toasty grain essence. A bit of ripe fruit rounded out this adorable glass.

Akishika Bambi "Bambi Deer" sake. Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine.

Akishika Bambi "Bambi Deer" sake. Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine.

 "Devil Boy" was chosen for its contrast to Bambi in its flavor description.  And, truth be told, the hysterical label.  A bit floral up front, there was a dry finish to it.  The description noted acidity and bitterness and while I didn't pick up on the bitter, it was well-balanced and easy to drink.

Kitaro "Devil Boy." Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine.

Kitaro "Devil Boy." Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine.

The last one, "Demon Slayer" is one of the owner's favorites, and it's easy to see why.  Crisp and dry, it was light and easy (vverrryyyy easy) to drink.

Itami Onigoroshi "Demon Slayer." Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine.

Itami Onigoroshi "Demon Slayer." Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine.

The food, too, goes beyond many preconceived notions about Japanese cuisine and focuses on bar bites. Maki and miso soup are hard to come by; instead, a fryer works overtime to churn out the alcohol padding.  Although Azasu is the casual kid sister to the elegant restaurant Yopparai, the food, while comforting, can be thought-provoking.

Head chef Danielle Sobel fell in love with Japanese cuisine during her first culinary internship.  A graduate of the French Culinary Institute, her path took her primarily to Japanese restaurants in the city: first an internship at En Brasserie, then Morimoto, Public (her only non-Japanese employer), Yopparai and finally Azasu. In an interview with her, she spoke fervently about the etiquette that is found in the kitchens of these establishments. There is a respect for every utensil and every grain of rice. Knifework is elevated to an art form and vegetables are given the same level of respect as any expensive piece of protein.  All cuts are intricate yet simple at the same time.  

A must-order are the pancake octopus balls.  Fried orbs of dough, studded with octopus, are topped with shaved tuna bonito and kewpie mayo. Parchment paper thin, the bonito magically curls and waves from the heat given off from the balls, making for a mystical-looking (and tasting) bite. The slightly crunchy shell gives way to a creamy interior and the flakes melt quickly away like cotton candy.  Texturally, it's a lot of fun to eat. 

Pancake octopus balls. Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine. 

Pancake octopus balls. Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine. 

The Sukiyaki Beef is another winner and one of the chef's favorite items. Thinly sliced beef marinates in a broth and is topped with a raw egg. When swirled in the broth, the yolk gives an unctous richness to the dish.

Pan-fried tofu dumplings are perfectly executed but safe - there are other things on the menu worth giving your stomach space up to.

Need something sweet? Those pancake balls make another appearance at the end of the menu, this time covered with chocolate sauce (and minus the octopus).  Reminiscent of a churro, I only wish there was more chocolate to dip these suckers in.

Many other riffs on comfort food top Danielle's list of favorite menu items: Menchi Katsu, which are panko crusted meatballs done up in slider form; Niku Jyaga, which is simmered beef over crinkle cut fries, a playful riff on the American standard of meat and potatoes; and Chicken "Nanban" - fried chicken, the ultimate comfort food (there's also a fish version if fish n' chips makes you wax nostalgic).  The menu is extensive and there is much to explore.

Interested in checking out Azasu for yourself? Visit the New York restaurants page on OpenTable for reservations to this delicious joint. 

 

Shalom Japan

Fusion cuisine has been around for decades; back in the eighties, it was the haute cuisine of the rich and trendy and was as nouveau as its clientele's money.  Many restaurants adapted this style of cooking, bringing bold flavors to traditional American dishes. Over time it became rather dated, as trends tend to do, and palates veered off into other directions.  However, there is a small, unassuming restaurant in South Williamsburg that is making diners rethink fusion.  The homey feel of the place suggests the current trend of farm-to-table Americana but there is a different kind of comfort food going on in the kitchen.  Two cultures, where food has strong ties to traditions, are melding together in unique and exciting dishes; this restaurant, Shalom Japan, a Jewish-Japanese mashup, served one of the best meals I've had in a while.  

The food, an ode to the 2 chef/owners' backgrounds, tries not to take itself too seriously.  In order to set the mood, take a trip to the bathroom, just to get a viewing of this:

 

Shalom Japan's bathroom deco.  Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine.

Shalom Japan's bathroom deco.  Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine.

Got it?

 The wine list is unique, with several options not often seen on a menu.  Slovenia, Serbia and other Eastern Europian nations were represented alongside France, Italy and California.

Milijan Jelic, Morava, Serbia, 2011.  Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine. 

Milijan Jelic, Morava, Serbia, 2011.  Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine. 

We opted for this Milijan Jelic, Morava, Serbia, 2011. It was rather herbaceous and mineral-driven upon first sniffs, but then a slight floral quality, as well as ripe peach, came through.  Once we started drinking it, the slate and mineral qualities became more prominent. There was a moderate amount of acidity but nothing too punchy. 

Once settled with our wine selection, we turned to the food.  A sign of a good restaurant is the bread basket and although it wasn't gratis, the sake kasu challah was warm and eggy, exactly as challah should be.

Next up were the veal head croquettes with aioli and mustard greens.  Although the meat wasn't discernable from other meat-filled croquettes, the nearly greaseless orbs were balanced with the vegetation they sat upon. 

But oh, those croquettes took a backseat the Okonomiyaki, which was probably the best dish of the night.  An okonomiyaki, meaning "as you like it," is a traditional savory pancake with a variety of ingredients either added on top or incorporated into the batter, then topped topped with some type of salty-sweet sauce.   This particular variation had corned lamb's tongue, saurkraut (a clever twist on the traditional cabbage often found in the pancake) and bonito.  It was like an open faced corned-beef sandwich on crack; almost too rich, my mouth kept wavering between the unctuousness of the lamb, the crisp exterior and gooey interior of the pancake, the sweetness of the sauce and bitterness of the saurkraut. 

For entrees, we opted for the Shana Tova Duck and the Lox Bowl. For non-tribal members, Shana Tova is the traditional new year greeting during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year.  During this holiday, one is wished a sweet new year and apples dipped in honey is found at every holiday table.  This cleverly named and interpreted dish contained slices of tender duck breast and roasted root vegetables, balanced with yup, roasted apples and honey. A perfect autumn dish, my only critique was that the duck skin could have been a little crisper.

The Lox Bowl, the other entree, was a light and refreshing counterbalance to the duck.  Silky slices of cured salmon draped over a mountain of white rice, with cucumber, seaweed, japanese pickle and some salmon roe.  It was a massive bowl of Jewish sushi.  The umami of the seaweed and pickles was such a revelation when eating it; as much sushi as I've eaten in my life, I've never had the elements come together as perfectly as this.  My only note was that there was an excessive amount of rice; we ate only about a third of it but it became monotonous once all the goodies on top were gone. 

Of course we're stuffed but of course we order dessert. And how could you not when Shalom Japan serves on of the best bread puddings EVER? Chocolate challah bread pudding with a caramel and whiskey sauce.  I can't even describe it without drooling. Just know that you need to order it.  No debating. 

Interested in checking out Shalom Japan for yourself? Visit the New York restaurants page on OpenTable for reservations to this delicious joint. 

Huertas

The New York City dining scene is a restless one. Trends come and go, cuisines that used to be out of vogue are now back in fashion and everyone is constantly seeking the Next Big Thing. It can't be easy for a restaurant to find its unique identity. 

Huertas is a new restaurant in the East Village that opened to much fanfare a few months ago.  Upon reading first impressions, the whole endeavor sounded intruiging, if not chaotic, as it seems to try to encapsulate classic dining formats (tapas and passed dim sum) and current trends (a tasting menu, which is the nouveau fine dining experience, and conservas, seafood tins, which is new to the NYC dining scene but an integral part of coastal Spanish cuisine) within one restaurant. Let me break it down. Essentially, the space is split into two concepts: in the front is a tapas bar with a focus on traditional tapas and canned seafood. Up here, servers also pass the daily pintxos (small snacks) around on a tray, dim sum style, so you can eat at your leisure. The back, however, is a frequently-changing tasting menu that focuses on modern Spanish cuisine. With so much going on, how would this restaurant fare?

The chef, Jonah Miller, certainly has the pedigree to pull this place off.  Under the tutelage of David Waltuck (Chantarelle) and Peter Hoffman (Savoy) not to mention a 3-year stint at Maialino, he honed his skills as a chef.  Trips to Spain crystallized his vision for a restaurant and fueled his passion for his own place. Oh yeah, and the guy's only 28. 

We checked out Huertas on a rainy Tuesday night in early September with the plans of drinking wine and having a couple bites (is there any better post-Pilates workout meal?). Walking in, the place was warm and inviting yet energetic at the same time.  We perched on a couple bar stools as we contemplated drinks. The beverage menu was varied and interesting, with well-curated and reasonably priced selections of wine, beer and cidres.  The first glass was  Via Arxentea, Treixadura and Godello, Monterrei, Spain, 2012.  The blend of Treixadura and Godello grapes lent itself to a crisp, moderately acidic wine, redolent of pear, ripe peach and bracing minerality.  It was refreshing after the humidity was trekked through on our way to the restaurant.

Via Arxentea, Treixadura and Godello, Monterrei, Spain, 2012.  Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine.

Via Arxentea, Treixadura and Godello, Monterrei, Spain, 2012.  Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine.

We starting discussing tapas from the menu but a tray of pintxos came around and we were treated to a great surprise: all pintxos are only $1 on Tuesday nights.  Dinner? Done.  

The first one was a duck croquette, a crispy fried ball stuffed with duck. The contrast of the crisp exterior and creamy, saucy interior was delightful but be forewarned: this sucker is hot.  And it squirts. Proceed with a knife and fork.  Another croquette came around, this time with mushroom, and was another fried winner.  We also tasted a pane con tomate (olive oil and tomato rubbed bread) as well as a tortilla (Spanish omelette).  Both were very traditional and well executed.  There was also an anchovy, skewered and snaked around olives, which was a briny, bright contrast to the croquettes. We noshed on several of these as they came 'round and 'round and ordered up our second wine of the evening, Monopole, Rioja Blanca, Spain, 2013.  Like the first wine, there was a good deal of acid and minerality on both nose and palate, but the fruit was a bit more opulent on this wine as ripe peach and pineapple came through.

Monopole Rioja Blanca, Spain, 2013. Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine. 

Monopole Rioja Blanca, Spain, 2013. Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine. 

We were chatting with the bartenders and having a grand 'ole time when an object caught our eye.  A cross between a decanter and a watering can, we discovered the porron, a Spanish wine pitcher.

Image courtesy of decoesfera.com

Image courtesy of decoesfera.com

Often at parties in Spain, guests will pour wine directly into their mouths using the porron and as the night progresses it becomes a fun, albeit messy, drinking game. Naturally, we had to try it out.*

Still feeling peckish, we took another look at the tapas menu and settled on the bocadillo, a sandwich with fried calamari, arugula, fried lemon, and squid in aioli. The umami of the ink aioli balanced perfectly with the acidity of the fried lemon and sweet calamari.  It was a delicious sandwich, although the bread ratio seemed a bit high and obscured the calamari on a couple of bites. 

One of the best elements of Huertas was the service.  The guys behind the bar were attentive as well as passionate about what they were doing. One of them overheard us contemplating an octopus dish versus the bocadillo and brought us out a small plate of the sea creature; it was his favorite thing on the menu and wanted to make sure we tried it.  Damn, he was spot on; that was one of the best bites of octopus I've had in a while. They were also knowledgable and helped guide us in our wine selections (not to mention gave us a crash course on the porron).

I'm now eager to go back for the tasting menu.  If the $1 pintxos are any indication of what's to come, that's going to be a memorable experience. 

Reservation for Huertas can me made on the New York restaurants page on OpenTable.

 *I am proud to report that while neither of us mastered the art of the porron, we did not need to take a trip to the dry cleaner the next day.