Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Adventures in Tasting #1: Cruzan Rum

When it comes to distilled spirits, over the years I've acted like a most typical man and pretty much stuck to whiskies. Bourbon, Scotch, Canadian, Irish, I've known and loved them all. An occasional gin, rarely vodka (not enough flavor), and more recently mas tequila, por favor. I've also enjoyed the happy flavor of rum, but only when I'm feeling tropical (like when I'm in Hawaii or at Trader Vic's), and have never really considered it as an everyday tipple. So I was rather intrigued when I received an offer to attend a Cruzan rum tasting, and since my lovely wife The Rock Star is always up for adventure, we duly returned our acceptance RSVP, and made our way down the Tollway one recent starry night.

First off, I should say that if you want to attend a rum tasting, it is imperitive that it be conducted by someone as delightful as Andrea Bearbower, the Cruzan representative. Fun-loving, knowledgeable, occasionally tart-tongued (she is from New York, after all), and above all professional, Andrea really knows her stuff and is eager to share it. We met in the bar at the lovely Screen Door restaurant in One Arts Plaza, and it was clear from the opening salvo that, although she was quite earnest in her desire to extol the joys of Cruzan rum, the evening would not proceed without hilarity. She had placed her display box on a nearby settee while we were exchanging preliminary pleasantries, and when she turned back to retrieve it, she discovered the sous-chef Terrance rummaging through it! He apologized profusely, as he thought it might have been a package of grits he was expecting. (I think it speaks well of the street-smart, fedora-wearing Terrance; it shows that the restaurant is his domain, and that any unattended packages must explain their presence fortwith.)

Soon enough, Andrea proceeded to break out her goody box, and the demonstration commenced. We learned about black strap molasses (very dark and bitter, with most of the sugar removed), about hi-test (a rich, caramel-colored syrup distilled from cane molasses that is the secret ingredient in Cruzan Rums) and about fusil oil, which is leftover distillates removed in the refining process. Removing as much fusil oil as possible makes for higher quality, better tasting rum, and Andrea was eager to prove it. At her direction, the bartender poured three shots of regular, brand-name white rum and three shots of Cruzan Estate Light Rum. We first admired the color. While the brand-name rum was almost clear, the Cruzan was the color of California chardonnay, its more caramely appearance indicitave of the sugary goodness therein. Next, we lifted glasses to noses and inhaled. The brand name rum was mostly alcohol on the nose, with touches of butterscotch. The Cruzan showed definite vanilla with a touch of oak. Our tasting confirmed these observations. The brand name rum was rather one-noted, mostly the aforementioned butterscotch, while the Cruzan showed vanilla, oak, caramel, and a surprising topnote of cinammon. Definitely the preferred rum for us, and The Rock Star declared her intention there and then to abandon her beloved Malibu in favor of Cruzan. We then finished off the tasting proper with Cruzan cocktails made with blackberry syrup, spices and pepper. Most delightful.

Tasting over, we moved to Screen Door's outdoor patio where we dined on their simple-but-luxurious, Southern Comfort fare (more on that in a later post), and enjoyed the cool, starry evening and Andrea's company well into the night. We motored home happily, convinced that we had made a new friend, found a new restaurant, and discovered the joys of Cruzan rum all in one fell swoop. Website is www.cruzanrum.com, if you would like more info. Embark on your own spirited adventure soon, and remember:


Monday, April 13, 2009

Wine Corner Review #49: Masi Pinot Grigio Verduzzo Masianco

Ready for a shock? What is the world's number one wine producer? France? Australia? The United States? Actually, it may surprise you to know that Italy is number one, giving the definitive boot to the pride of all other winemaking nations. Yet, I know relatively little about Italian wine, and have often wondered why that is the case. Well, this morning it actually hit me: Besides the rather obvious answer that I'm not Italian, I feel the true reason has to do with ignorance of Italy's grape varietals. You see, France, Australia, the US, and other countries generally share the same grapes: Chardonnay, savignon blanc, cabernet, merlot, pinot noir, and shiraz/syrah are usually planted in great quantities in all the top winemaking countries. Not so much in Italy, where the most planted grapes tend to be barbera, sangiovese, nebbiolo, and the delightful little star varietal of this mornings review direct from the Old Country: The Masi Pinot Grigio Verduzzo Masianco.

The robe of the Masi Pinot Grigio Verduzzo Masianco is the pale verdant straw of a perfect Tuscan morning. The nose is definitely floral: wisteria, lavender, and meadow. The crisp acid bite of melons, apples, and grapefruit wash upon the palate, finishing with a nice surprise of minerals. This little vino is just ducky with seafood chowders and bisques, and is just waiting to be invited by a good salad to the ball. Website is www.masiwine.com, and I hope you have better luck getting into it than I did; you might also consider stopping by www.tuscan-wines.com, which will give you a good primer for all Italian varietals, not just those from Tuscany. Expand your Italian horizons soon, and as always:


Monday, April 6, 2009


Neighborhood bistro. Two of the loveliest words in the English language. Every neighborhood should have at least one joint to call its own. Cozy, intimate settings. Neighborly welcome. Excellent unpretentious, homey food that would be cheap at twice the price. The type of establishment you should visit at least once a week. In parts of our fair city, such as Oak Lawn or Uptown, there may be several joints on every block. Wherever you happen to dwell, if you are a food lover like myself, you see it as your mission to patronize such an establishment as often as possible, as small places are more dependant on local patronage than their larger counterparts. My lovely wife the Rock Star and myself have taken note of one such establishment that has recently opened in a strip mall near our casa, and determined as always to ferret out the best in food, we made plans accordingly, and so motored over to Fino's Italian Bistro one gentle Sunday eve.

Chef-owner and New York transplant Alfredo Sechi (it's always good to hear that an Italian place is being run by New Yorkers because Italian food is a religion in the Big Apple much as barbecue is in Texas) has indeed created a welcoming environment in his family-run establishment. Wood and marble tables, only about a dozen of them in the entire place, which gives you some idea of its size and capacity. Small prep area in the rear. Tuscan paintings and wall decorations. In short, Finos atmosphere speaks fluent Italian, so if you're from Tuscany or Jersey, you'll feel right at home. We were welcomed effusively, and led to a table near the prep area, where we watched the rest of the tables quickly fill up. Trust me, whenever a restaurant is full at 6:30 PM on a Sunday evening, and has been open only a month with virtually no publicity, it's a sign of good things to come.

First off, let me state that Fino's is BYOB, and that you should definitely take advantage, as it keeps costs down. Plus, you can be sure that you will get just the wine you need to pair with your repast. Scanning the tables, we noted that every one had a bottle on it, save for one family party right next to us. Also, the bottles appeared well-chosen for the cuisine, not a two-buck-chuck in sight. Clearly, we were dealing with serious diners. If you're wise, you'll order salad. Fino's basic tossed salad is only $1.99 and their smart tomato-basil dressing is not to be missed. In many places, you'll pay twice as much for a salad half as good. First success. My bride loves any dish that reminds her of her beloved chicken cordon bleu, so she selected the Chicken Bolognese. Sauteed with prosciuto ham, fresh mozzarella cheese and wine wine with fresh Roma tomatoes, this dish was as light and airy as a spring morning and twice as good. For me, I simply love Italian sausage, and the Orecchietta proved a deft combination of spicy sausage, ear-shaped pasta, broccoli, and zucchini in a tomato sauce with parmesan cheese. The menu advertises this dish as a boss favorite, and I say, Bravo, Boss! Substantial without a trace of heaviness, our entress paired well with the Homestead Syrah we brought, a nice bottle from a Texas winery that deserves attention. Our only quibble for the evening was that no olive oil or butter was provided with the excellent bread, so I would suggest using it to sop up your juices, which was most likely the chef's intention anyway. We polished off our repast with excellent spumoni, and the chocolate, strawberry, and pistachio ice creams lent richness to our finish. We departed as happy as clams in linguini sauce.

Service throughout was personal and caring, never missing a beat. The website is http://www.finositalianbistro.com/, but it's still a work in progress. Instead, merely ask your waiter for a takeout menu. We did and took note that Fino's offers free delivery of orders over $10. Since we had also taken note of the fabulously thin New York style pizzas leaving the kitchen in a steady stream, we most likely will not wait long to take advantage.

If you want first-rate Italian cuisine from genuine New Yorkers without busting your budget, then I would enjoin you to consider Fino's Italian Bistro. Discover your own neighborhood delights soon, and remember:


Friday, April 3, 2009


Spring in Texas. Life blooms anew again after the sedate dreariness of winter. Now, I'm afraid that spring in the Lone Star State isn't usually quite as dramatic as it is up North, when the transformation from March snows to April flowers is a clarion call to be welcomed back into the human race. Still, winter brown recedes here just the same, and plenty of March rain (in most years) guarantees a virtual carpeting of our beloved bluebonnets, Indian paintbrushes and other flowers that make Sunday driving a virtual necessity. Unfortunately, economics made even a driving tour to our beloved Hill Country out of the question right now, but luckily, Grapevine beckoned to us with its rustic downtown charm and excellent wineries, so we decided on a mini-vacation, and one of the highlights of our tour was when my lovely wife The Rock Star and I lunched one sunny day at Esparza's Mexican Restaurant.

How was the atmosphere? Guys, this is Grapevine! If you haven't journeyed there, rest assured that most establishments comply readily with the city ordinance that states that all restaurants in the town limits must have excellent atmosphere. Esparza's is no different: Old restored house dating from the late 1800s just a couple blocks off of Main street. Plenty of indoor seating in the wood-and-tile interior, while there is a beautiful patio fronting Worth street. In fact, the patio was our preferred dining destination, but when we requested it, we were informed that the patio was for patrons who only wanted to drink and snack, not order lunch or dinner. I have to admit, we found this quite odd, but since hunger was calling incessantly, we decided to accept an interior table. As it turned out, we were settled into a lovely nook just off the main dining room, where we started to peruse the rather extensive menu.

Rest assured, at Esparzas you will be able to find something to placate your taste buds, from classic Tex-Mex such as enchiladas and fajitas to more esoteric offerings such as puffed tacos and seafood tostadas. You can even order Gringo food like hamburgers and chicken sandwiches, but be forwarned that I believe the Texas Constitution forbids anyone over the age of twelve to not like Mexican food in our fair state. Queso? Of course! On most days, we wouldn't think of dining Mexican without our favorite starter, and the thick, rich cheese dip paired well with spicy salsa and thin and crispy chips. As usual, my bride was looking for anything fajita, so the Fajita Enchiladas sounded right up her alley. Juicy chicken breast and smokey beef combined with very good rice and Charro beans for a quality lunch. (My wife doesn't care for refried beans, but she has become a fan of the Charro and black legumes.) Also as usual, I had searched the menu online prior to our visit and decided on the Texas Tacos. Three pan-fried corn tortillas were stuffed chock-full of juicy chicken breast and Monterey Jack cheese, adding up to some of the best tacos I've had in awhile. (In my opinion, tacos filled with meat and then fried while stuffed almost always beat their simple ground-beef-dressed cousins.) We skipped desserts, as we distinctly heard a winery down the street summoning us to a tasting, so we boxed and left.

Esparza's staff deftly handled the large lunchtime crowd, although I'm still somewhat miffed that we were unable to dine on the patio. Website is www.esparzastexas.com, if you wish to drop them a note concerning that very practice.

Dining at Esparza's whether springtime or otherwise, may very well make you feel as green as springtime in Texas. Discover your own getaway soon, and remember: