Sunday, April 19, 2009

Random Thoughts: Where have all the book reviews gone?

I never thought I'd say this, but today, instead of reading my blog, I would rather you turn off the computer, put down the Blackberry or Sacred Useless-But-Entertaining Application Platform (otherwise known as the iPhone, the new techie drug of choice), perhaps even stop trying to get your Android phone to tell you which way is up (does not work when immersed in coffee), and go buy a book. Then read the thing. Talk about it. Discuss it with your friends over coffee, which is conveniently available in a lot of bookstores.

Still reading? First, thanks. Second, I don't blame you. I don't like people telling me what to do without explanations, either.

Sunday routines are sacred, even beyond the scope of worship services. Some people go to church, then go to brunch or lunch at their favorite place. Others take a walk, relax, pray or meditate at home, and then start to dread the return of Monday. Mine is to go to church Saturday evening so I can then sleep in on Sunday morning, cook brunch with Hubby -- with real bacon again! -- and enjoy the "lighter" parts of the paper such as the comics and the book reviews. So, I was horrified to open to the books section of the AJC, which is now thoroughly hidden in the middle of the glommed-together "Arts and Lifestyle" section, and see this:

They've replaced a whole quarter of the Books section with an advertisement!

Okay, now I'm pissed. First, the Books section was shrunk and stuck toward the end of the "Arts and Books" section, then it got harder to find, then the book reviews all came from other papers, and now they've completely cut one review as well as the fun "Book Clubs" section??? And, even worse, there aren't any fiction reviews outside of the brief blurbs in the paperbacks section.

I'm going to type this slowly for the people who are obviously running the decision-making process at the AJC now in language that their intellectually stunted minds can understand: Dude. Srsly. WTF???

There is one redeeming quality to this week's section. It looks like one reviewer is actually on staff at the AJC, and the other one wrote it "for" the Journal-Constitution, but she probably also wrote it "for" several other papers. Hey, at least there's contract work, right? That's what millions of Americans who have been laid off are saying these days, so it's quite reflective of the times.

Oh, and I tried to go online to the AJC's site to find book reviews. Let's just say they don't make it easy. At all. And people wonder why Southern accents are associated with lower intellectual abilities... Maybe they should ask the people who make the decisions about what gets shoved aside for advertising in the paper of this, the largest "true" Southern city (no, I don't count anywhere in Florida).

Meanwhile, I'm looking forward to the two I ordered from Amazon to come in tomorrow. I'll probably end up reading them rather than the paper.

Fellow bibliophiles, please email the AJC or AccessAtlanta people, or whoever is responsible, and let them know you're pissed off as well!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Review: Five Seasons Brewery and Tasting Notes: Italian Wines at JavaMonkey

I somehow ended up being double-booked last Thursday with an office happy hour at 5 Seasons Brewery at the Prado in Sandy Springs and the wine tasting at JavaMonkey. I was the only one at the office with a potential conflict when we decided on the date, and since getting my colleagues together after hours is almost as difficult as scheduling a dissertation committee meeting, I couldn't object too hard. Even so, I arrived on time, but about 10-15 minutes before anyone else from the office.

The restaurant has a lovely covered patio with a fountain, but as we found when we were seated, the noise level is too high to easily carry on conversation without shouting. So we moved inside, ordered drinks, and started the negotiations for appetizers. Since Five Seasons is a brewery, I decided to try the Kartoon Brune, a complex, Belgian-style ale. I love the St. Bernardus Abt 12 and found this to be similar in flavor profile. I'm not sure what the alcohol content is.

You may be familiar with the "Difficulty Principle of Appetizer Sharing:" for each additional person in the group beyond two, the difficulty of agreeing on an appetizer increases exponentially. I'll add that it gets more difficult the more years of education the individuals in the group have, which for our five, added up to multiple decades. We just ended up each getting a salad and one appetizer, which were then passed around. I got the Organic Farm Greens salad with balsamic vinaigrette as well as a special appetizer, Lamb Meatballs, which were served with "garlicky spinach" and some sort of tomato sauce. They were good, but definitely not lean meat. Other appetizers I tried included the Seared Jumbo Scallops, served with an orange glaze and farm micro greens, and the Wild Mushroom pizza. The scallops were cooked to the point that they came apart easily but were still tender in the middle, had a mildly spicy crust on them that balanced well with the orange glaze, and the greens gave it a nice texture. The pizza was good, too.

Score card:
Atmosphere: Casual and open; noise level outside is high, inside is medium
Food: Very good
Wine list: Limited; I'd go for the beer
Wait staff: Very Good, but the kitchen seemed slow
Desserts: Looked good (didn't try)
Vegetarian friendly? Somewhat with four "Little Plates," three pizzas, and one entree
Kid friendly? Hmmmm... Doubt it
Would I go back? Yes

I arrived at JavaMonkey just shy of the 9:00 p.m. cutoff for starting wine tastings. I felt the need to catch up, so my notes were limited, and I'll be using Hubby's as well. The theme was Italian wines.

Carpene Malvolti Prosecco, Veneto:
This family created the Method Charmant. I found it to be well-balanced and drinkable with just a hint of vanilla sweetness.
Rating: Very Good

2008 MontAsolo Pinot Grigio, Veneto:
An oddly buttery Pinot Grigio, the wine rep said it would work well with spicy and saline foods. I could see that, especially with scallops. Hubby described it as "H20" and "Better than NASCAR," which he doesn't like. Right, we'll just go with my rating: Meh

2006 MontAsolo Merlot, Veneto:
Strike two for the MontAsolo winery. This one was pretty unexciting as well, just Merlot spice with a little fruit. Hubby noted that it wanted a good Italian-style pizza.
Rating: Meh

2007 Pietra Majella Montepulciano d'Abruzzo:
Rating: Good, but still not exciting.

2006 Castello Monaci "Liante": 80% Negroamaro and 20% Malvasia Nera
Dark fruit with a little chocolate, and some butter as well. Yep, this one's a "pie wine."
Rating: Very Good

Ca'Bianca Ante Barbera d'Asti, Piedmont:
Nice, smooth berry flavors.
Rating: Very Good

Yeah, I know, those were pretty sparse notes. I'll do better next time. The thing to remember about a lot of Italian wines is that they tend to be better with food because of their acidity. There are exceptions, of course. One trend that intrigues me is that West Coast wineries are now making forays into Italian varietals. On our most recent trip, we tasted some that were great, and some that were not so good, but all were interesting.

Lent is over...and there is much rejoicing! Oh, and recipes, too!

I always get a kick out of irony. Sometimes it even kicks me back.

Last Sunday started way too early, as Hubby and I decided to hit the 8:00 Easter Mass so as to minimize exposure to fussy children who were hopped up on the Easter candy they'd been downing all morning. We returned home mid-morning, and after making the components for and assembling the Black Bottom Banana-Cream Pie, which needed to chill, I started on brunch, which was to consist of blueberry pancakes, bacon, and grapefruit. Hubby pulled out the bacon, which he usually cooks because when I try to do it and pancakes simultaneously, the bacon tends to get burned, and gave it the nose test. He passed it along to me, and...bacon fail! I guess that's what happens when you keep it around too long and ignore it.

So Hubby rooted around some more in the drawer and came up with the veggie bacon -- fake-on? -- that we'd used for a recipe during Lent. It did in a pinch and gave us the chance to finish it, but that meant my Lenten sacrifice was prolonged, at least for another couple of hours. He ran to the Dekalb Farmers' Market and got five slices of Applewood Smoked Bacon for the Syrah-Braised Lamb with Olives, Cherries, and Endives we had for Easter dinner. A bite of that bacon is what I used to joyfully return to my omnivorous practice.

Now that you have the recipes for the main dish and dessert, here is the side dish:

Cecilia's Roased Potatoes with Green Garlic
Serves 4

1 dozen small red-skinned potatoes (about 1.75 lbs)
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 bunch Green Garlic, greens sliced off, and bulbs chopped
1 Tablespoon Rosemary, chopped

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut potatoes into 1-inch pieces. Toss with the rest of the ingredients and bake in a baking dish for 40 minutes or until brown, stirring occasionally.

Yeah, it's simple, but quite tasty.

And wine... Before dinner, we pulled out a bottle of our most recent wine club shipment from Sapolil Cellars in Walla Walla, Washington. We happened to stumble into the winery when we were out there in 2007 and were so impressed with the reds, mostly Syrahs, that we joined their fledgling club. The "Papa Loves Mambo" is a blend of 70% Syrah, 20% Sangiovese, and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, so it's fruity, smooth, and structured all at the same time. With dinner, we had the 2006 Syrah from Sapolil, which was a bit spicy but went well with the lamb.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

It's the little things...

Tomorrow is Easter, and I'm so ready! Our Lenten sacrifice was to give up meat aside from one day per week, which was usually Sunday. If you count it out, the 40 days of Lent don't count Sundays, which are "Feast Days," so that's why. It was fine for the first week and a half, but after that, well, let's just say neither of us are cut out to be vegetarians. Or ovolactopescatarians, which is technically what we did. Hubby enjoyed the regular fish. I tolerated it, but being more into shellfish, got more excited about scallops and shrimp than salmon. Tonight, for our last Lenten meal, we're doing grilled Redfish with sauteed baby pac choy and turnips braised in butter, garlic, and veggie broth. Okay, we haven't been suffering that much, especially with the lovely spring produce hitting the markets and the good seafood from Shields and Sawicki's (see below).

I decided to go to the cafe in my office building for lunch on Thursday because I hadn't gotten to eat out yet this week, and I wanted something with French Fries, which they serve topped with yummy garlic salt. There's not much down there for the non-carnivore, so I decided to get creative and ordered a Philly Cheese sandwich with no meat. Yeah, that earned some interesting looks, then laughter, but more in a "we're laughing near you, not at you" sense. They ended up offering to add tomatoes and mushrooms to the onions and bell peppers to make a really good veggie melt. They didn't have to add the extra veggies, but I thought it was great that they got creative and tried to make it better for me.

The veggie melt was so exciting, and my lightly scheduled day so busy, that I totally forgot to call Shields Meat Market (web site not working, but they're in the same building as the CVS at 1554 North Decatur Road) and order the lamb shoulder for Sunday. By the time I remembered on Thursday evening -- while in the shower, of all places! -- they had already sent their orders off. I talked to Geoff, the owner, who offered a leg or a top round, but he advised me that neither would work in the recipe we wanted to do.

Side note: Shields has fantastic Georgia shrimp. They're huge, tender, and a good price. They also have nice vine-ripened tomatoes that taste much better than you typically find out of season.

Random other side note: WTF is going on with the work on North Decatur Road just past Emory and in front of Shields and that entire row of businesses??? It's like the Dekalb roads department has gotten too lazy to finish the job and/or at least stick metal plates over the chasms they've opened up! We drove through there today, and my poor Honda Civic was not happy with the rough terrain.

So, discouraged and dripping, I called Sawicki's in downtown Decatur and spoke to the owner, Lynn, who typically answers her own phone and deals directly with customers. She already had her orders in, too, but she said she'd "forage" for us, and that I should call back at noon the next day. We ended up there for lunch on Friday because we really like the special Veggie sandwich (the one on the board, not the menu). We hadn't bought meat from her before, just seafood, because we were concerned about the prices being too high. She located a lamb shoulder of about the right size and told us she'd call when it came in. The problem was that it ended up being about three pounds too large. Lynn sold it to us at cost because it wasn't exactly what we had asked for even though it was a special order, and she had gone out of her way to get it for us. We were able to partially defrost it and cut a still-frozen hunk off, so we now have a perfect-sized cut for tomorrow's recipe (want to see what we're doing? Click here!) as well as a nice three pound piece in the freezer for a later meal.

So, I'd like to give kudos to Cafe 400, Shields, and especially Sawicki's for great customer service. I admire Geoff for being honest with me as to what would work in the recipe rather than trying to sell me something that wouldn't. That's why I love living in Decatur: local merchants whom you can build relationships with and who have good-quality stuff at good prices. Seriously, try the shrimp at Shields and the scallops and fish at Sawicki's. You won't be disappointed.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Tasting Notes: Random Oenophile Selects

Greetings, fellow oenophiles!

I think I might've wasted a good worry yesterday.

Last night, for JavaMonkey's Thursday Wine Series, Jess put together a list from wines that I had rated highly in the past year. I was afraid that a lot of people would turn out for the tasting, and they'd all hate the wines, and then I would be booed and have to slink out of JavaMonkey in disgrace. Of course, none of that actually happened, first because all of six people turned out for the tasting (including me and Hubby), and second because the wines were really good.

I'm trying to figure out why there wasn't a bigger turnout. Maybe the rainy weather had a lot to do with it. That's what I'm going to tell myself, anyway. Or I could blame the economy. Yeah, that's what everyone else is doing, so I'll go with that. Turnout was poor because of the economy, by golly!

Are you as sick of that excuse as I am? Yeah, I thought so. Let's just move on to the wine. Here's the lineup with stories and notes:

Gruet Rose Brut, NV (New Mexico):

Hubby and I are adventurous and want to taste wine in all of the states that grow and make it (no outsourced grape wine from Alaska, pls). New Mexico is definitely on the list of destinations, and I'm glad that this one was on the list.

Gruet is best known for their sparkling wines, which are pretty much what's available here, but I've heard that they have some good stills as well. This wine was somewhat tart with notes of strawberry. It has what I'm looking for in both a rose and sparkling: well-balanced between sweet and dry and something that makes it fun. Even better, it's reasonably priced, too. Okay, and it's pretty.

New Rating: Very Good

2006 Foris Leanne Vineyard Pinot Noir (Rogue Valley, Oregon):

We "discovered" Foris Pinots a few years ago, and since then, we've liked all of the ones we've tried. The distributor didn't have the baseline Pinot, so Jess got this single vineyard one, which is typically a step up. It was a really interesting (in a good way) wine that told a story as it moved over the palate. It had a cranberry nose, and the taste went from anise to spice to cherry to butter. The really neat thing was that it did all that even if I swallowed it quickly. The only thing I didn't like was that there was a little bitterness to it at first, but that smoothed out as it opened.

Rating: Very Good

2008 Campos Reales Tempranillo (La Mancha, Spain):

The only "Old World" wine on the list, this one drinks like a "New World" one. When Hubby and I were in Birmingham one time last year, my father had one of these in his wine stash. We plotted all weekend to get him to open it, which he did for Sunday dinner.

I love this wine. It has a buttery nose, and it's smooth and fruity and buttery on the palate, kind of like currant pie. The dark fruit builds as you sip it. Okay, so it's not the most complex wine in the world, especially not after the Foris, but I'll never turn it down.

Rating: Excellent

2005 Del Rio Vineyards Claret (Rogue Valley, Oregon):

Looking at the blend in this lovely Bordeaux-style wine -- 41% Merlot, 36% Cabernet Franc, 14% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 9% Malbec -- it's easy to see why I like it so much. It didn't have much of a nose, but it hits the palate full-force with smooth dark cherry and a nice structure. Yum!

Rating: Excellent

2005 Abundance Syrah (Lodi, California):

We visited the tasting room at Abundance during the Wine and Chocolate Festival (and yes, I know I still need to give you all the delicious details of that weekend) and actually got to taste a little bit from a real barrel. Yes, I'm a wine geek -- I found the barrel thing to be really exciting. They had grilled sausages that were really good, too. Unfortunately a bus arrived before we could taste too many wines, and we had to escape the crowds through the side door.

This wine is big and fruity but nicely balanced. It has that overtone that you find with a lot of Lodi wines, just a hint of caramel sweetness on the nose and finish. This one is good on its own or with meat.

Rating: Excellent

2004 C. G. di Arie Zinfandel (Shenandoah Valley, California):

Of course an Oenophile Selects tasting would have to end with a Zin, although this was a slightly sneaky blend with 86% Zinfandel (the minimum to label it as a single grape), 2% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Cab Franc, 4.5% Syrah, and 0.5% Mourvedre. Yeah, I'm a bit confused, too.

The wine itself wasn't confused, though, being a berry bomb, as Dan called it. I found it to be a bit more structured than a lot of the really fruity Zins, which made it more interesting. This was also not the baseline product, but a step up, and a nice way to finish the tasting.

Rating: Very Good to Excellent

I'd like to thank Jessica Williams, owner of JavaMonkey and the one who puts the wine tastings together, for doing such a great job. I sent her a long list, and she kept in touch with me during the process of whittling it down according to availability. I really appreciate her persistence, and I'm glad that the first "Oenophile Selects" tasting had sort of a "big ass red" theme.

I hope everyone enjoys the lovely weather this weekend!