“Dinner in Abruzzo”

I was reading the paper this morning and there was a supplement about a film festival in Detroit and one of the films was “Dinner in Abruzzo: A Journey Home with My Culinary Godfather” and it featured two of the culinary leaders in the Detroit area. The two chefs are Luciano Del Signore and James Rigato and we have had the good fortune to have dined at their restaurants. Luciano, we first met when he was working for his family at Fonte d’Amore in Livonia and I have written about it once before, but to be truthful, we probably ate there at least once if not twice a month, it was that spectacular and really affordable.

The restaurant was always busy and we adored our one special waiter there, who we always tried to sit in his station, but then so many others did as well. No matter what day we went there, it was busy, but we always seemed to be able to get a table, and I think that we probably tried every dish on the menu, plus all of their specials. Luciano would always walk around the tables after the rush was done in the kitchen to make sure that everyone was pleased. Of course, as the years progressed my Bride would sometimes get lonesome, because I would run into more and more people at the restaurant and I would have to acknowledge them, especially since most were customers of mine at the store. We were always going there, just as a couple or with multiple friends for a night out. The veal was awesome, the pastas and the steaks were great. Luciano also explained to my Bride one night, his trick for making the salmon dishes perfect, and she uses that trick to this day. It was one of the restaurants that I would always have soup at, and it was the “Garlic Soup,” actually it was their “Malanzane Soup,” but that is one vegetable that I just cannot abide, but in this pureed version of a soup with pureed roasted garlic, I could not taste the eggplant. In fact, that soup was so wonderful that we would buy a gallon of it for parties at the house and put it in a heated tureen with their fresh baked bread, and people would just dip the bread in the tureen as a great appetizer before dinner ever started.

The wine list was heavily slanted towards Italian wines and with good reason as it blended so harmoniously with the dishes being offered. The Del Signore family was from the village of Fonte D’Amore in Abruzzo, Italy and there were plenty of photos and signposts from the village found all over the restaurant and it made everyone feel at home. The two wines that we would order over and over again were Montepulciano d’ Abruzzo DOC and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG and while they sounded similar, they were not and sometimes causes confusion. Our most popular wine there, bar none was Illuminati Riparosso Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, which is from Abruzzo and made from the Montepulciano grape. Azienda Aericolo Dino Illuminati was founded in 1890 and they are famed for their wines. This particular wine that they make is from fruit all harvested from one single hillside vineyard and is aged for eight months in Slavonia Oak and then aged for an additional two to three months in the bottle before release. For years, it was not only our go-to wine at the restaurant, but we would have a couple of cases of it in our cellar as well. One of the other wines that we would enjoy would be something like Avignonesi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 1998, the difference being that this wine came from the village of Montepulciano in Tuscany and is made from the Sangiovese grape, and back in the day it was blended with a bit of Merlot, but lately it is now pure Sangiovese. Avignonesi was founded in 1974 and now has a steady following of their own, as they offer several different wines. This particular wine is aged for eighteen months in oak and nine months in the bottle before release. There are times when I feel like having one over the other, but they both are great with meals and one couldn’t go wrong. I also fondly remember leaving my Bride at the table for a few minutes as I would go to the back part of the restaurant where the bar was and have a short intermission cigar, especially if Luciano was holding court and have a few minutes with him.

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Tom’s Oyster Bar

It has been a little quiet around here, so I have been digging into my boxes of labels looking at the back side of them for a restaurant that I can write about. Tom’s Oyster Bar used to have four locations in the Detroit area and perhaps more, I think there is one left, but I remember reading that the original owner sold the business. I remember one time that we went to take advantage of one of his promotional specials back in the day.

The special was run on Monday and Tuesday of each week and it was a live Maine Lobster with corn and redskin potatoes for $14.95. It was at all of the locations, but we went to the one in Southfield, because it was the closest for us. We shared a Salmon Pate for an appetizer and it was more than ample for a dinner. That dinner was an actual steal back in the day, because normally a live Maine lobster was always listed at “market price.” In fact, that is how it is usually priced even today, to cut down on the price of printed menus, though with menus being printed off by computer, I am not sure if that is really a concern.

Since we weren’t going big time for dinner, neither was the wine and I don’t recall if they had a big wine carte or not. We had a popular price wine, even for restaurants, of Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve California Chardonnay 2001. The fruit is harvested from Monterey, Santa Barbara, Mendocino and Sonoma Counties and has been made for about thirty years now and one of the top selling California Chardonnays in the country. It is made in the “sur lie” method and aged for seven months in a mix of French and American oak and it really brought the creamy, buttery Chardonnay to the forefront as the pro-typical California wine. Some may be critical of it, but they have a bona-fide winner for the populace and this wine may have introduced a lot of non-wine drinkers to wine as it is an easy to drink beverage.

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City Cellar

The City Cellar Wine Bar & Grill was a popular venue in downtown Birmingham, which if you are not from the Detroit area is a very upscale suburb and a very tough place to open a restaurant and survive.  There almost seems to be a revolving door for restaurants and even those with the best intentions have a high mortality rate.  I remember going there once with my Bride and another couple and it was at its peak of popularity.  The food was good and they had the Blue Martini club in the basement, that we did not venture into that evening.

The menu was slanted towards Mediterranean which was in vogue at the time.  My Bride and I started off by sharing an appetizer of Escargot with garlic, always a safe way to find out how the rest of the dinner will be; and they were fine.  My Bride had the Chilean Sea Bass which came with vegetables and beans and a red wine sauce.  I had the braised lamb shanks with potatoes and fried parsnips, which I thought was unique, because normally the root vegetables are cooked with the meat.

One of the reasons that I wanted to go there was that they carried fifty some wines by the glass and an assortment of three hundred bottles of wine to choose from.  After doing the math for four, it was easier and more economical to order a couple of bottles of wine for dinner and they had some excellent offerings.  We actually had some wines from wineries that we had visited out in California and that was a nice way to remember some great trips.  The first wine that we had was Talbott Diamond T Estate Chardonnay 2001 from the Monterey area.  Robert Talbott Vineyards was a winery I had first heard of, because I was in the men’s wear business and Talbott Neckwear was one of my leading resources; the winery was started by the son of Robert and Audrey Talbott.  The Diamond T Estate was planted by Robb in 1982 using Corton-Charlemagne clones and planted in very rough terrain, to the point where small sledge hammers were used to break up the larger rocks.  It is a wonderful California take on a classic White Burgundy legend.  The second bottle of wine that we had was Duckhorn Merlot 2000 from Napa Valley.  Don and Margaret Duckhorn were sort of pioneers in Napa Valley when it comes to Merlot wines.  While most wineries were growing Merlot, they did it for blending purposes and not for a single varietal to be bottled.  There first vintage was in 1978, and I remember that I had an introduction to the winery from one of my customers that was a silent investor and one of the sons of the Duckhorn family gave us a private tour during harvest and we ended up with a private tasting in the back of a truck trailer sitting on cases of wines that we were opening up.  One of my great wine memories, but alas the Duckhorn family sold to TSG Products in 2016, but so far, as I understand the current management is maintaining the quality.  I guess that I have been of fan of Merlot from my earliest days trying St. Emilion and Pomerol wines.  Wine always creates great memories.

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Dinner, Wine and a Play

It is amazing what will bring a memory back about wine. I guess I just save too many things, but in hindsight since I have started writing this blog, all of these mementos have been a blessing. Now that the house is back to order, I have started to empty out the library because it is time to replace the carpeting and I guess a new paint job is in order. The logistics of moving everything out of the room, to remove the carpet is s burden, but I found a Playbill from a theatrical production that we saw, that by rights should not have been in the room and it got me to think about that evening. The play was Plaid Tidings from the Forever Plaid series and it was at The Gem & Century Theatres. What is more fascinating is the venue itself, it started off as a theater in 1927 showing foreign films and through the years it became a location for several different movie houses, live theater and restaurants. With the building of Comerica Park, the new location for the Detroit Tigers, the building was going to be razed, but the current owner devised plans and they actually moved the entire structure to its new location. It was moved five blocks over in the downtown area and the move made it into the Guinness Book of Records as the heaviest building ever moved on wheels.

This beautiful building in the Arts & Craft style now holds the charming theater that has been lovingly restored and a fine restaurant that is open when there is a production going on, or for private parties and weddings. That night before the show we dined at the Century Grille. We started off by sharing an order of Duck Quesadilla with roasted red peppers. My Bride had the Planked Whitefish and rice pilaf and I had Grilled Canadian Salmon with a Champagne Sauce. I think that the ambiance of the building and the room, made the dinner even that much more memorable and enjoyable.

The wine list was not as elaborate as the food, and when I am faced with a smaller selection, I tend to go with a popular wine, as I tend to think that it will be fresher. I also refrained from the house wine, since they tend to do a lot of parties, most houses use wines that are more popular with caterers. We went with a bottle of La Crema Chardonnay 2009 from the Sonoma Coast. This is a very safe and dependable buttery Chardonnay and very easy to drink and goes well with lighter foods. La Crema also has a large advertising budget, so it is a brand that most people will recognize, and since it is popular and good, it is a good bet when it is offered.

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Ciao Amici’s

We were going to have dinner the other night with The Caller and his wife, but he was not up to it, so we will have to reschedule for another time. The Caller enjoys his food and his wine and he is also partial to craft cocktails and it got me thinking about another time that we had gotten together for dinner. He lives quite away from us and we usually try to find someplace that is between our two houses and that is why we normally go to Ann Arbor for dinner. One time for dinner he suggested that we meet up in Brighton and I was a bit amazed, but since I know how he does enjoy a good meal, I was game for his suggestion, even though one does not think of Brighton as a culinary center, but as always, he had selected a great venue.

Ciao Amici’s considers themselves as a “contemporary Italian cuisine” restaurant, so that they are not confined to only the classic dishes that one thinks of when dining Italian. That being said, when I looked at the menu, there were plenty of classic dishes, but there were some distinctive offerings as well. I was all set to order Veal Oscar, as it is a dish that I have been fond of since the first time that I had it, years ago, at The London Chophouse in Downtown Detroit. That is until I heard the special dish of the evening. We had started off with a couple of appetizers to share among us. We had the Char-grilled Calamari served with a roasted garlic and lentil salad with a rosemary aioli, as well as “Rosa’s Mushrooms” that were sautéed with shallots and fresh thyme in a Marsala cream sauce on crostini. The Caller had the Filet Mignon that was served with potatoes, braised spinach, tomato butter and a Cognac mustard cream sauce, while his wife had the Shrimp and Lobster Capellini with garlic, leeks, asparagus and cherry tomatoes in a cream sauce tossed with angel hair pasta and Parmesan Reggiano. My Bride had pan-seared Ahi Tuna that had a Nicoise olive crust served with a ratatouille, artichoke hearts and a Great Northern bean puree puttanesca sauce. I had their Macaroni and Cheese with Lobster, and it was the first time that I had that dish, but certainly not the last time. It was a decadent dish of five cheeses with macaroni pasta and a lobster tail done in butter atop of the dish, I mean it was so good that I hardly even wanted to share it with the others, but we always share the different tastes of the evening. We were all extremely happy with our dishes and in the restaurant, to put it mildly.

We started off the evening with a bottle of white wine and followed it up with a red, which I think is the proper progression and they were both Italian wines. We had Castello di Tassarolo Gavi DOCG 1999. This is a single estate wine from the town of Tassarolo in the Piedmont region of Italy and Gavi was awarded the designation in 1998, and is by far the most popular white wines from Italy. The wine is made entirely from the Cortese di Gavi, which is known also as Cortese Bianco and the wine is noted for its unique “flinty” taste. The second wine was from Tenimenti Angelini which started producing wines in 1985 and it was their Tre Rose Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG 1997 from the Tuscan region. These wines originally lived in the shadow of Chianti, as part of the region is in one of the sub-zones of Chianti, but it now has its own designation and rightfully so. Like Chianti this wine is made from the Sangiovese grape which is known locally as Prugnolo Gentile and the DOCG laws require that the wine must be sixty to eighty percent Sangiovese and this wine is ninety percent Sangiovese with ten percent Cabernet Sauvignon and it is aged by law for twenty-four months in oak barrels. I have always found these wines to be easy to drink when young or even if one gets a chance to enjoy an aged version. Of course, no one really objected to this wine even for those that had seafood for dinner, as it is just a mellow wine.

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A Ray of Sunshine

Thank you A Taste of Monterey for raising me out of the doldrums from the “joys” of the last week. I was at home getting a chance to start putting away the mess from the last week and now that we have power, I was helping out with the seven loads of laundry that we had accumulated for the last two weeks. I could only start that, after I replaced the cracked gas line to the dryer. Things were starting to look up and a delivery of wine from my wine club will always do that. As I always state, we get the “Private Reserve Club” offerings, because I really wanted to get some exotic and perhaps rarer wines from the Monterey area, instead of popular priced wines, as there is always the chance that I can find some of them locally, because of the larger quantities produced. Of the three wines in this shipment, the largest production was of two-hundred-eight cases, so the odds were that I would never find them here in Michigan.

The first bottle of the shipment was Pianetta Bilancio 2014. Pianetta Winery and Vineyard is located fifteen miles north of Paso Robles, so it carries a Monterey AVA. Planted in 1997 by John Pianetta, their estate is home to sixty-five acres of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. The Bilancio is a blend of fifty-two percent Syrah and the balance is Cabernet Sauvignon. The winery used for this wine a mix of half new and half used barrels, with twelve percent being Russian Oak. The wine was aged for twenty-two months and was produced without filtering or fining the end product, and they suggest decanting the wine before serving. There were one-hundred-ninety cases made and the aging potential is six to eight years.

The next bottle was Joyce Antle Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013 with a Chalone AVA. Chalone has long been recognized for their unique terroir, as the soil is granite and limestone that has been churned up over the centuries as it is in the San Andreas Fault region and some liken the soil to the Burgundy region of France. This is one of the reasons that the finicky Pinot Noir grows so well in the Monterey area. The wine was aged for thirteen months Sur Lie in a mix of new and old French Oak barrels. There were one-hundred-eighty-seven cases made of this wine and the aging potential indicated was for six to seven years. I would venture to say after having some other wines from Joyce, that it may age even longer, if I can hold myself back, as I can be impetuous at times.

The last bottle surprisingly was also a red wine, and normally they send two reds and one white. Travieso Amaranta Syrah 2011 is from Santa Lucia Highlands, which is becoming one of my favorite AVA areas in California. The fruit all came from Kirk William’s Vineyard that may also be known as Fairview Ranch. This wine is also aged Sur Lie for twenty-four months in French Oak, where thirty-three percent is new. Among the tasting notes is the description that this is a “no-holds-barred Syrah. There were two-hundred-eight cases made of this wine, and the aging potential was suggested for eight to ten years. So, with these three new bottles of wine, the future looks much better.

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“Impetuous” is my favorite line of dialogue from the classic John Wayne film “The Quiet Man” and a fitting theme for St. Patrick’s Day. Now you are probably saying what in hell does an Armenian know about that day and how would he even think of wine on that day as well. The old saying is that everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day and that seems to be true. In the old days when I was just a tot, I remember going to some of the neighborhood establishments in Windsor, where my Father’s family lived for years. My Father and his cronies would order trays of shells on draught. That was the quaint way, as we Americans would say of having draft beer in glasses, and by the way, back then a shell was only a quarter, so even a tray of them would not be expensive. The other quaint thing that I remember and I don’t hear anyone doing it these days, is that they used to add green food dye to the beer for that day, and the odds are that there was never any green beer left the next day.

All of this rambling is for me to get to wine on St. Patrick’s Day, so try to keep up with me and there will not be any Blarney. During my High School years, I helped with the planning for some of the Armenian Youth Federation events that were held in Detroit and the main venue that we used was the old Detroit Statler-Hilton Hotel in downtown Detroit, alas this grand old hotel is no longer around. My contact person there at the hotel must have had a great expense account, because he would invite me for lunches and dinners at the hotel to go over the plans. Most of the times we met at the Trader Vic’s restaurant to eat and specially to drink and as a kid I thought it was a great way to spend an afternoon.

We are finally getting to the wine. It was just before St. Patrick’s Day and he suggested that we have a special drink and it was called Black Velvet. I was so naïve at the time, I thought that Black Velvet was just a “bar” whiskey or what they call a “well whiskey” now. The bartender came to our table with two big “boombas.” Now a “boomba” might be a local Detroit name for a large glass tankard, and I mean a really large glass. In one hand the bartender had a bottle of Guinness Stout and in the other hand a bottle of champagne, and it was just an American “champagne” and you will understand that it does not have to be a Dom Perignon. The two different bottles were poured at the same time into the boomba, and I was told that the secret to drinking Black Velvet was to finish the drink before the champagne stopped effervescing. I only needed one, but my contact person had a couple; and there was no way that I could have had a second one as I was already seeing Leprechauns. This must have been a Detroit version of this drink, because years later I had one and it was a mug of Guinness with some champagne floating on the top of the stout. Trust me, the Detroit version is far superior.

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