Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The wine god smiled upon us

The understated pale yellow dinning room expertly worked by soft-spoken staffs hardly seemed deserving of a name like Bacchanalia. There was no riotous, boisterous, or drunken festivity to be seen anywhere. The name only became fitting when we dived into the food, in the company of a nicely chilled bottle of rosé, and experienced that wine-drenched orgy in the mouth. Somewhere out there, Bacchus was smiling upon us.

The evening’s feasting actually began with thumb sized cheese puffs. Unfortunately, we gobbled them up so fast they had no chance to pose for the camera.

Next came this dainty little cup of chilled summer squash soup. The consistency was wonderfully thick, but very sippable. Alone, the soup was a bit on the salty side. But when taken with a nice bite of the hot and dense bread, it was quite delicious.

While others at the table were distracted by the various tempting appetizers such as foie gras torchon and sautéed sweatbread, I had no trouble settling on the blue crab fritter for the third time in a row. In a way, this is very unlike me, whose goal in life is to fill limited dining time and stomach space with the most varied foods. In another way, this is exactly me to all those who know me well. Having grown up in Maryland, when it comes to blue crabs, resistance is futile and all cautions are thrown to the wind. I devour with abandon and offer no apologies. In other word, she is no crab nibbler!

What followed was the much anticipated halibut. After almost a year, E still salivates every time she talks about it. What came looked every bit as georgeous as I remembered. The tri-colored cherry tomatos were painstakenly peeled and gently braised to achieve amazing balance between freshness and flavor. Unfortunately, my fork encountered resistance when it came in contact with the beautifully seared halibut. A few extra minutes of cooking turned what was once light and flaky into dense and slightly chewy.

With a name like pink lady, the Georgia native radish had the grace of a princess. It needed very little and was dressed minimally. The feta cubes were very mild and creamy, perfect little pillows for a princess' throne.

A mint panna cotta was served before the dessert course to cleanse the pallate. There were no surprises, just perfect execution. The panna cotta was the right creaminess, sweetness, and freshness from the mint.

Finally, the adorable peach tiramisu. I am not a big fan of marigue, but the softserve shape is a delightful touch. The tiramisu has no Italy in it at all. It is probably better described as a warm fruit triffle. The focus was very much on the ripe Georgia peach. It didn't wow me, but it also didn't leave me feeling heavy after eating the whole thing.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Anniversary dinner with E -the evil twin

Life is a patchwork of countless moments. Most of these moments are fleeting, perhaps brilliant in passing, but soon fade into oblivion and are never thought of again. Other moments may not arrive with fireworks, but are cherished time and again for they become defining threads of unique embroideries, which, in the end, differentiate one patchwork from another.

In the stream of my life, a moment of the later kind came to pass last year this month. After 25 years of striving to be the best loner that I could possibly be, I was blessed with a long-lost twin who looked nothing like me, but knows my evil thoughts as if she lived in my head. Partners in crime, we’ve taken the city, or more like the world by storm. Forks at the ready, we’ve eaten our way up and down the eastern seaboard, across both the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans, and along the south China sea in a mere 365 days. With such an impressive record, it seemed only fitting that on the one year anniversary of our fateful meeting, we memorialize that moment by exercising our taste buds at one of the finest establishments that Atlanta has to offer.

We arrived at Quinones at Bacchanalia early in the evening. The cozy dinning room tucked away in a secluded courtyard was quietly bathed in the early evening sun. Near the window, an old couple, dressed as if at church were quietly conversing with a pair of teenagers, who looked less than ready for the eight courses that are about to come their way. We took our seats at a table a few yards away from the foursome and gladly accepted champagne and a bite of foie gras mousse to start the evening’s feasting.

The day’s menu had a few expected treats typical of early summer with a couple of surprises obviously flown in from afar. We selected the wine pairings and then went on to laugh our heads off in our usual fashion about something that I am no longer able to recall.

The first to arrive is a crudo of Hawaiian Ahi Tuna with cucumbers and coriander. The freshness of the tuna came forward immediately and found resonance in the crunchiness of the cucumber. It was paired with a glass of 2004 Domaine Zind Humbrecht Riesling from Alsace. The Riesling had the lively aromatics typical of an Alsacean Riesling and its bright acidity married well with the citrusy tuna marinade. E was so impressed, she declared it the best pairing of the evening.

The next course was hand cut pappardelle with chanterelles, morels, cepes and Italian summer truffles. E and I are both huge fans of truffles and its heady, earthy aroma was unmistakable in this dish. The pasta was beautifully presented and the mushrooms had that almost meaty chewiness that I loved so much. The only draw back was the deepness of the bowl, which made it awkward to leverage the pasta without making a splash. This reminded me of a comment that I had read in Mimi Sheration’s book “Eating My Words,” which criticized modern restaurants for elevating artistic expression above ease during the dinning experience. The pasta course was paired with a Clos de la Vierge Sec, Barrere 2004, from Jurancon. I sensed that the intention was for the wine to echo the earthiness of the mushrooms and truffles. While the wine had a pleasant woodsy nose, on the palate it bloomed into a forest, which left me momentarily unable to taste much else. Since E didn’t have the same reaction, I had to attribute my perception to my recent and very unpleasant affair with a bottle of antibiotics, which gave me splinters from anything oak-aged.

The fish course was the ultimate surprise. We were offered what looked like perfectly lined up little toasties next to a small artful puddle of local patty pan squash with flowers. From presentation to taste, this was by far the winner of the evening. The sturgeon had the texture of very tender pork. The proscuitto imparted just the right amount of savoriness and was slightly crunchy from being lightly pan fried. The squash, oh my god the squash, was insanely tender and creamy from bathing in the subtle butter sauce. Perhaps because I was too taken by the perfect union of sturgeon and squash or perhaps I was still recovering from licking hardwood floor from the previous Barrere, the pairing of Vouvray, Domaine de Clos Nadin, Foreau 2001, from the Loire Valley didn’t leave much of an impression.

The meat course was the predictable treat of spring lamb for this time of year. The lamb was braised with spring onions, sweet peas and pork belly. I, for one, love anything with pork belly, so the dish hit all the right spots and was just hearty enough to satisfy all my desire for savories. The best part of this dish and, for me, the entire evening, was the pairing of the lamb with a Chateauneuf-du-pape, Domaine Usseglio 2003, from the Rhone Valley. The nose had ripe berries and a hit of earth. On the palate the berries were very pronounced with almost a bit of stewed fruit quality. The part that went so well with the lamb was the hint of mint, which is as classic as one can get with lamb.

The dessert courses followed. While they were pretty and delightfully light, they didn’t add too much more to the culinary enjoyment. They did, however, prolong our session at dinner, which as always, involved more laughing than sometimes I think I am able to handle. All I can say is that if I am lucky enough to keep my twin around, and if it’s true what they say about the effects of wine drinking and laughter on longevity, E and I will be a force to reckon with for a long long time to come.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Quest for Fruits

On the last day of a beautiful long weekend filled with outdoor activities, J and I finally managed to anchor ourselves at home to get some work done. The morning went by productively enough with only a few distracted moments during which we caught one another gazing longingly through gaps in the curtains dancing in the pleasant early summer breeze. By the afternoon, our convictions to stay at home started to waver as we found every excuse to visit the balcony and soak in the sun. The home-bound plan completely crumbled around 4 pm when J opened the fridge and declared that we needed to restock our fruit supply because all that’s left are mangos, oranges, and apples. Of course we must, I agreed. After all, we are fruit people who enjoy a great variety.

So at 4:30 pm, we drove out in our beloved sliver bullet, top down and no trunk space, with every intention to load up on lots of fresh fruits and veggies. Whole Foods soon passed on our left. We didn’t stop. After all, there is no sense shopping at a chain when there are abundant freshness for much cheaper at the farmer’s market. Then we passed the farmer market. What’s the point going into a covered market, when local farmers are offering bounties right off the many small highways all around Georgia. So at 5:15 pm, we found ourselves happily going down highway 20 towards Lake Oconee with image of a well-tanned smiling farmer waiting for us right at the lakeside with a huge basket of the early summer’s best picks in hand.

Half way to the lake, we decided to get off the highway and take the road less traveled. What awaited us was a small two lane highway with amazing view of lush grasslands on both sides dotted with lazy grazing cows colored cookies n’ cream. “There are so many of them! I wonder if they make cheese here,” I commented to J. My question was soon answered by a sign proudly claiming “Putnam, the diary capital of Georgia.” When the wind blew in the right direction, the smell of manure was unmistakable and further solidified my view that manure is a main component of the nose in a great majority of Bordeaux.

At 6 pm, two hours into our quest for fresh summer fruits, we saw water, green, calm, and specked with gold from the sun. Circling the Lake for a place to park, we passed a sign pointing to a Ritz on the water. Having seen the lake-facing view of the same Ritz onboard “big mama” being dragged behind E’s daddy’s boat at 30 miles per hour, I assured J that it’s deserving of a visit.

The building is decidedly old school with plenty of mahogany decorating the hall. Despite the less than breezy choice of wood, the view from the plenty of windows facing the lake is bright and soothing. Following the view, we found our way outside looking over the Ritz pool shimmering in the same shade of green as the lake beyond. Slightly elevated from the lake shore and cascading off the far side, the pool appeared to be flowing right into the lake, an illusion that we fully appreciated. Right next to the pool, a casual restaurant sent out tantalizing whiffs of fried seafood to beckon our patronage and we were in no condition to resist. A quick review of the wine list uncovered just the perfect cooling agent, a local Riesling from Persimmon Creek that I had tried and liked in my wine class. The menu was a mesh of bistro favorites and southern seaside grabs - all happy laidback offerings. J went for the ribs and fries, while I, true to my dedication to seafood, opted for the crabcakes and bass. The plates were enormous and the food did not let down the view if only a tad oily, but we are not ones to pick bones when the moment was this perfect. Not much talking went on during dinner, but smiles were seen flashed constantly across the table.

Finally, at 8:30 pm, we found ourselves back on highway 20 heading back to the metropolis that is now our home. In the full-on sunset that was then dyeing our slightly tanned skin an ultra attractive shade of bronze, I turned to J and said “wanna stop by Whole Foods to pick up some watermelon”?