Between working on this project at home and Lent, I am still dipping into my treasure trove of labels with the name of the restaurant on it. I have four men’s shoe boxes filled with wine labels that I have broken down by decades, and there are a lot of wine labels that can be fit into each box. I do a search to make sure that I have not written about a wine before, or I try not to mention the same restaurant too often either, but let’s face it, I don’t know about you, but I can become a creature of habit when I am dining out and if I let my Bride pick out the wine, it will always be the same wine. Before I even thought about a blog and being The Wine Raconteur, it was easy and sometimes I did not feel like being challenged with a new venue or a new wine.

MacKinnon’s was a finely respected restaurant on the main drag of downtown Northville and Tom MacKinnon was one of the glory boys of the first round of chefs that had made a name for themselves after having worked at the old Golden Mushroom. Several of the chefs went on to start their own restaurants to show off the talents that they each had. Tom not only had a great place with great food, but he also had a great bar that was always a popular watering hole and the bar was also packed. MacKinnon’s was one of the first places that carried Piedmontese Beef and Kobe Beef and how the servers would love to explain the nuances and characteristics of those meats as compared to the classic Prime that other purveyors would offer. There were times when he would have something exotic like Bison or you could always get a classic dish like Dover Sole or Beef Wellington. The appetizers were such that one could make a meal from them, I remember when I was working across the street from the restaurant, I would order an appetizer to go and eat it at the store and it was like being a King. My Bride would never say “no” to dinner at MacKinnon’s and it was so close to home and if we over ate, one could always go window shopping in the downtown area, before driving off.

One night we had Paraduxx 2002 from Duckhorn Wines in Napa Valley and even though it carried a Napa Valley Red Wine tag, it was hardly a bulk wine. The Paraduxx label had a bit of whimsy to it, as a marketing concept, playing off of the Duckhorn name, the label would show a pair of ducks (Paraduxx) and the label would change yearly, as in this year they showed Canvasbacks. With the scalloped border, I always thought that the stamp reminded me of the yearly Duck stamps one would have to purchase to go hunting and there would always be a major art competition for the next duck painting. Paraduxx was a blend of Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, the three big varietals of California back in the day and still holding top ranks today. Just a big robust wine with the Cab and Merlot keeping the Zin from being overpowering, as I was not a big Zin drinker back then. MacKinnon’s is another restaurant that is no longer with us and has been replaced by another restaurant that is holding out quite well, and they have maintained the bar that still packs them in.

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Finding more wine labels with notes on the back, until Lent ends or I find myself having a glass of wine without tempting my Bride. The restaurant that I am going to mention had a rather long run in Birmingham, Michigan, but it always had mixed reviews. Birmingham is a tough city for a restaurant as there has always been some die-hards that only frequent their favorite haunts and then there are others that have to be the latest and greatest, and we are somewhere in between. We usually like to wait for the dust to settle and hopefully for the kitchen and the wait staff to get their rhythm, before we venture to a new location, not to mention that it is easier to get a reservation.

Forte was a restaurant that I think really fell into the trap of being a “Birmingham” establishment and there was a bit of snootiness that I felt that we encountered, and for all of the great restaurants that we have dined in, thankfully only a few have given me that feel. Everything was ala carte, and the waitress didn’t seem thrilled that we were not ordering soup to nuts, as we used to say. When all else fails, and nothing sounds spectacular, we fall back and order tried and true dishes that we have a modicum of expectations. My Bride order grilled salmon which came with the slightest of pretty side vegetables to make the plate look pretty, as the restaurant was promoting side dishes. I went with braised short ribs, because it is a dish that I totally enjoy and only recently did we attempt to make the dish, and while ours was great, it is a lot of work and I guess it is better to leave it to the professionals. I am also fond of the dish, because I enjoy the root vegetables that are usually prepared with the dish for added flavor.

The wine we had that evening I am sorry to say will be a mystery to me. I mean I have the label, but it is no longer being made and there was no information that I could glean even searching the web for. The wine was Chateau Julien Aleatico 1995. We had this wine before we ever visited Chateau Julien in Carmel, California and this wine carries the California designation, so if any of the fruit was from Carmel or the Monterey area, it was also blended with fruit from other districts as well. I can also surmise since it had the fancy name of Aleatico that it must have been a blend of a couple of different varietals. This problem seldom occurs, but from looking at how hard the label came off of the bottle, I must also presume that the back label was lost as it was not in the box that held this label, so if there was any additional information it is now lost forever, at least for me. It was another night out with wine, and wine always tends to make the evening better. Forte has closed and one of the chain restaurants Hyde Park Steakhouse now has the address and as of yet, we have not tried it.

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This being Lent, it has been a rather dry period around here, as one of us gave up wine. I have also been working on the project that was stopped in the initial stages during my week of hell, and now the whole house is a mess, but soon the remodeling will be done, it has to be done by Easter, as everyone is coming here for dinner. I have the Sword of Damocles hanging over me, if I don’t. Even with the house in total disarray, I have found time to go through one of the boxes of wine labels, to look at my notations on the back, I guess I can be rather anal in my passion about wines. Sometimes it is a matchbook and sometimes it is the label, and for this restaurant it should have been both, as there was still smoking in restaurants back then, but I guess we didn’t get a book or they didn’t offer them.

Boocoo was one of those restaurants that was hot from day one and it was in the right city at that time. Royal Oak was almost the epicenter of where new restaurants were popping up, of course they were a little off the beaten track from the downtown district. They had a European flavor to the food, but it was a bit across the board, from pizzas to some fussy dishes. They also had live music several days of the week, but their flame did not stay lit for that long.  We even were there before it became a “restaurant of the year” by one of the local publications.  My Bride had Georges Bank Scallops with asparagus, Trumpet Royal mushrooms, onions and carrots. I had the braised short ribs, Crème Fraiche mashed  potatoes and pea tendrils. I remember the pea tendrils as I think that is the first time and I think the last time that I ever had that served.

We went with a wine that evening that was a bit off of the beaten track back then.  We chose a bottle of Domaine du Poujol Rosé Coteaux du Languedoc 2002.  This winery was established in 1998 by some Americans from Napa Valley who liked the limestone terroir in this area of the Midi.  The wine is a blend of Cinsault, Carignan, Mourvedre, and Grenache.  It was in 2007 that the area became AOC Languedoc, as the district received more and more attention.  A wonderful wine and a wonderful meal, it is a shame that the restaurant is no longer around.  The name is a play on the French word beaucoup which means “great quantity” and I think they were invoking that name for full bodied taste of the dishes on the menu.

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Keeping it Local

I am very sorry to say that prior commitments kept us from seeing “Dinner in Abruzzo: A Journey Home with My Culinary Godfather” and I have devoted three articles about past memories of Luciano Del Signore and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the other chef on that journey James Rigato. I originally heard of James Rigato from his first restaurant The Root in White Lake Township, Michigan and he has since opened a second restaurant that is also getting rave reviews called Mabel Gray, but we haven’t gone there yet. We went to The Root before it was named Restaurant of the Year by two different publications. White Lake Township, Michigan is about fifty miles from Downtown Detroit and it is not easily accessible, in fact from our house, it seemed like you couldn’t get there from here, but we did and it was worth the drive. The restaurant is located in a small strip center. James Rigato was perhaps the first chef to make a major splash locally about being local, I mean when we went there, everything we had for dinner that evening was from Michigan, save the appetizers. I remember trying to do an “aha” on one item on the menu, because it was shrimp, and one doesn’t think of Michigan as being the shrimp center of the United States, but I was surprised to learn that there was a Michigan man-made estuary created for the sole purpose of harvesting shrimp.

We were going to be good Michiganders that evening, but we did take one side-step, and who could blame us, as they had Hudson Valley Foie Gras (New York) on the menu and it was served with Sherry and onion jam and smoked Marcona Almonds and we also shared an order of Crab Cakes with avocado mousse and a mango-poblano salsa, and yes, we were really rebellious that evening. The rest of the meal was totally Michigan-centric. My Bride had pork shoulder with smoked cheddar grits, the grits were very creamy and the pork was prepared perfectly. I had the free-range chicken with a risotto of house-made chorizo, Swiss chard and roasted mushrooms in a white wine and what a delicious dish it was. We kept picking at each other’s plates both for the appetizers and for the entrée dishes. Afterwards we had coffee and split a Crème Brulee.

We maintained the Michigan theme of the evening with our bottle of wine. We had a bottle of L. Mawby Blanc de Blancs Brut NV from the Leelanau Peninsula in north-west Michigan near Traverse City. Larry Mawby has become the Godfather of the entire area there, helping other wineries get started and he is very proud of his products. This particular wine is made in the Traditional Method that one thinks of, when one thinks of great sparkling wine. This wine is made entirely from Chardonnay grapes and aged first in Stainless Steel, before the long arduous task of making the sparkling wine in the old-school tradition. I think that this wine just made the whole evening more festive, especially since Mawby is one of the wineries that we always try to visit when we are in that area. I must say that this short documentary that we did not have a chance to see, allowed me to remember some great dinners and wines.

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Another Memory of Bacco

Since I am still thinking about the documentary film “Dinner in Abruzzo: A Journey Home with My Culinary Godfather” I will mention one more memory of a great dinner under the guidance of Luciano Del Signore. We don’t get a chance to visit with Luciano as often as we did at Fonte d’Amore, but we still try to have special dinners at his new location of Bacco. This restaurant opened in 2002 and took the culinary writers to new extremes with their accolades for what he has accomplished, to the point of winning Best Restaurant of the Year by a couple of different publications. Since his initial opening, he has since created an outdoor patio for dining, some private dining rooms for parties and an off-site catering company. Luciano is always on the move and not one to rest on his laurels.

One night that we were there, which as I said I wish we could go there more often, we had another exceptional dinner. We started off with a plate of a classic interpretation of Beef Carpaccio, which they do as an accommodation to those diners like me, that adore that dish without any alterations. We also enjoyed a plate of Salsiccia, which is a house made sausage, along with hot peppers, red onions and polenta, a very nice upscale version of sausage and peppers. My Bride had the Branzino, sea bass, potato encrusted with roasted tomato, capers and olives. I had Luciano’s take on the classic Italian dish of Osso Bucco, braised veal shank with rappini and polenta, and it was probably the finest example of the dish that I have ever had.

As for the wine list at Bacco, since the restaurant is named after Bacchus, the Roman God of Wine, it is the fines assemblage of Italian wines in the whole area, and perhaps in the state. Bacco is also selling from his cellar, wines for retail as well, and he has the selection and in depth. That evening we had a wonderful bottle of Ornellaia 1990, which back then only had a Vino da Tavola di Toscana designation, though it was a hell of a table wine. The winery was founded in 1981 and their first vintage was 1985 and since they were using French varietals, instead of classic Italian varietals, they had to accept the table wine listing until 1994 when their neighbor Sassicaia and the whole Bolgheri region were recognized with their own DOC. This particular vintage is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc and it was aged for fifteen months in French Oak and then another sixteen months in glass, before it was released. Another new venture for Luciano is that he now has a winery in the Leelanau County of Michigan and he is making some wines in the Northern Italian style, so that will give me another excuse to go to Bacco.

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Gourmet Pizzas

While I am thinking of the documentary film “Dinner in Abruzzo: A Journey Home with My Culinary Godfather” I am also thinking of the great pizzas that are made by Luciano Del Signore. His first foray into pizza making after he developed his own light crust was at Pizzeria Biga and it was a big hit from day one. He took over a location of a former Italian restaurant and created a new taste sensation. He was using his pizza dough that was easier to digest compared to the doughs found elsewhere and people agreed. He was offering his own take on the toppings, because he was not competing with the big pizza chains and at the same time, he was not offering the classic red and white tablecloth pies that had become almost stereotypical in the area. He was also offering his own house made charcuterie for appetizers, along with other dishes that he thought would blend harmoniously with the pizzas. One must give credit to a chef who thinks outside of the pizza box. There were also craft beers and popular price wines, especially some well-chosen Italian wines.

When he opened up the second location, the name changed from Pizzeria Biga to Bigalora Cucina and then there were more food offerings to the menu as well as the pizzas that had totally taken off. The menu showed his creativity even when the dishes were popular Italian cuisine and more people were discovering his take on what some would consider fast food. Now he had a Bigalora Cucina in Southfield and another one in Royal Oak, and then one in Ann Arbor. Then he bought a food truck and can now cater parties at locations where ever one wanted his pizzas and he was having fun, as he had installed one of his wood burning pizza ovens into the food truck, so that he could deliver the same taste as at the restaurants. Now he has opened another location in Rochester Hills and more people are discovering his concept. Another unique aspect of his pies is that they are brought out without being precut, as he feels that the taste is best when it is cut at the moment, in fact if you get a carryout, you also get a pizza-cutter with your order.

Luciano Del Signore prides himself on his selection of wines that he offers, as he has a stellar personal cellar as well. He feels that wine adds to the food and to the moment and I certainly cannot fault him on that concept. He has an excellent group of wines by the glass and he has many more that can be bought by the bottle. One night we enjoyed a bottle of Fontanafredda Eremo Langhe Rosso, but alas I am not sure of the vintage as I forgot to include it on the back of the label. The Fontanafredda winery was established in 1878 in the Piedmont and now they are also offering wines from the Langhe region of Italy. The Langhe is home to Barolo, Barbaresca, Asti and Dogliani and this wine is a blend of Nebbiolo and Barbera grapes. The Nebbiolo is famed for Barolo and Barbaresca wines, and the Barbera grape has been used in Italy for ages for blending and at one time it was the third largest wine crop. The grape juice for this wine is barreled separately for eight months and then blended in oak casks for an additional four months and it is just a smooth wine and perfect for pizzas and other classic Italian dishes. It is just amazing what a fresh look at an old standby can do, when done by the caliber of a man like Luciano.

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“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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