Sunday, October 2, 2011

Test driving the new chef at Feast: Villa Maria Wine Dinner

When you buy a new car, you get to take a test drive with a hopeful salesman beside you. When you buy a house, you get to visit it with a hopeful realtor and have it inspected by a professional. But what about when one of your favorite restaurants gets a new chef?

Sure, you hope he or she has been thoroughly vetted by people you trust, but the consumer's test drive takes place over multiple visits. It takes time to see how a new chef handles beloved menu items, specials, and timing. We got to do our test drive of Feast's new Chef Rich Velazquez recently at the Villa Maria wine dinner, where we got a preview of his creativity and ability to handle dinner for twenty-five.

In spite of its Italian-sounding name, Villa Maria is actually a New Zealand winery. I wasn't disappointed – a cute winemaker with an accent is a cute winemaker with an accent, no matter where he's from, and Simon Fell is definitely that. Hubby and I hadn't tasted any of their wine before this night, and we were on the fence about the dinner until we saw the food menu. It got our attention better than a car dealer's jerking plastic giants ever could (srsly, what's up with those things?).

There were six courses, so I'll hit the highlights. This chef test drive was particularly effective because we got to see how he'd handle some potentially tricky food and wine pairings. For example, the first course was paired with the Cellar Selection Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. New Zealand Sauv Blanc is known for its distinct bouquet, which can range from grassy to cat pee, and undertones that can get pretty odd to sensitive palates. This wine thankfully did not make me think of a litter box, but it did have a certain funkiness that some compared to ripe papaya, and tinned asparagus came to mind for me. Chef Velazquez opened the dinner with roasted cauliflower soup with butter poached lobster and chive oil. The food cut the funkiness and brought out the fruit. My only complaint was that I got two shell bits among the tender, sweet lobster.

My favorite course, and one that our end of the table was clamoring to be added to the menu, was the second one, diver scallops with white truffle mousseline, tomato fondue, leeks, and port wine. It was paired with the Single Vineyard Taylor's Pass Sauvignon Blanc. This wine was more crisp than the previous one, and the acidity played very well with the smooth texture and flavors of the scallops. I made a note that this course was "perfect," and I could have drunk the wine on its own.

The wine highlights for me were the reds. My favorite of the evening, the Reserve Marlborough Pinot Noir, had some coffee on the nose, a lot of good fruit, and silky tannins. In other words, it was a BIG Pinot, and one that shows how New Zealand won this year's Pinot Smackdown. It went well with the fennel coriander lamb loin, kalamata olive and goat cheese farro, oyster mushrooms, and blueberry jus. Another highlight red was the Esk Valley Merlot/Cabernet/Malbec. The fruit in this Bordeaux blend tangoed with the spice of the dark coffee black peppercorn rib loin, horseradish, chive potato puree, asparagus, and rosemary jus.

One odd tasting note for those who like them… The Cellar Selection Marlborough Riesling tasted good and went well with the cheese course, but it had a bouquet of freshly opened pool toys.

The chef and kitchen had the good pacing we've come to expect from Feast, and we left impressed with his creativity. We look forward to returning for more wine dinners as well as to see how Chef Velazquez uses his Latin background to spruce up the menu for fall and winter. Overall, I would say the test drive was a success. I should've figured – owner Terry Rogers seemed more excited-hopeful than nervous-hopeful.

Oh, and the wine? Except for the first Sauv Blanc and maybe the Riesling, I would have drunk any of the ones poured on their own. I was particularly impressed with the reds. For me, a good wine goes well with food or by itself, and several of these satisfied this requirement. I'll be looking for Villa Maria on wine lists since their test drive was a success, too.

Fellow attendee and blogger Dan Browning about to dive in to the rib loin:

Disclaimer: We paid for everything, so I have nothing to disclose.

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