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PJ place setting
Place settings at a wine tasting dinner set the mood for the multiple courses of food and wine.
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Poached lobster opened the meal.
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It takes teamwork to assemble the plates.
OK, I admit it. This morning, I am a little hung-over. One look at all those wine glasses on the table at the Papa Joe's tasting dinner last night should be a clue. But it certainly was worth it. This “grand experience” dinner was built around six different wines from the Elizabeth Spencer Winery in Rutherford, California. This particular winery has developed such a fan base that a couple drove in from Indianapolis, and another from Columbus, to help us consume this meal.
You should know there is no such person as Elizabeth Spencer. However, there are Elizabeth Pressler and Spencer Graham, who are married to one another. Using their first names to brand their winery was her idea, according to Graham, who joined us at Papa Joe's. Both were veterans of the restaurant and wine industries before they founded Elizabeth Spencer in 1998. They are winemakers, but not grape growers. However, they are committed sustainable and organic production, and they work closely with the farmers who provide the fruit for their wines.
There are advantages to this way of making wine. For one thing, vintages are a little less important when you have the option of selecting fruit from sources other than your own land. It also allows them to make a number of single-vineyard wines in small-case lots, usually no more than 300 cases. Those wines are only available directly from the winery. Elizabeth Spencer makes six wines for national distribution, all available in the Akron area, and we got to taste examples of each last night.
Papa Joe's has been holding tasting dinners like this one for several years. If you are a careful reader of this blog, you know this restaurant is serious about wine, to the point it actually has a retail wine shop attached. Under the guidance of Jeff Brunno, who married into the Iacomini family (well known for several restaurants in the area), these meals give the kitchen staff an opportunity to show their creativity “off the menu”. Frequently, wine tasting dinners are a joint effort between the restaurant and either a wine distributor or a winemaker.
As you might imagine, planning starts at least three or four months in advance, often longer. Once the wines to be presented are selected, the chefs begin the process of developing and testing recipes to compliment the wines. To successfully market such an event, the restaurant needs to be able to show prospective diners both the wines and the dishes that will be offered, and they need around 60 days of lead time to get the word out. There is also a significant amount of kitchen planning involved; remember that in addition to the tasting dinner in the private dining room, the staff is also serving the regular nightly seatings in the public areas.
Atmosphere is important. Take a look at the table, set with silverware and glasses for multiple courses, fine linen, candles and flowers. The intent is to create the feel of a well-catered meal served in a private home, but take advantage of the things a restaurant can do. With so much experience, Papa Joe's has always pulled these challenges off with a flare. There are several other restaurants in our area that also serve wine tasting dinners on a regular basis, and I think when one looks at the cost of the food and wines if purchased ala cart, you can see what a true value they really.
This particular menu was superb. It started with butter-poached Maine lobster, served in a lobster veloute sauce with a large dab of avocado mousse floating alongside, just to remind you of the Atlantic coast. Served with a nice flinty 2008 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, it immediately reminded me of why French Chablis is a good choice with shellfish. Served in a soup bowl with a soup spoon, calling it soup would be a terrible injustice. The lobster and sauce were sweet and buttery, while the avocado introduced that lemony counter-point that compliments fine seafood.
The second course consisted of barbequed lamb ribs finished with a cherry BBQ sauce and topped with almond brittle crumbs. This was paired with a 2008 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. Typical of California Pinots, this was not a light wine at all. However, I felt this was in some ways the least successful pairing of the night, as the BBQ sauce nearly overpowered the wine. I think the idea of trying to match the cherry notes in the Pinot Noir with the dark cherry sauce was inspired, but I think the “heat” in the BBQ overcame the fruit.
Continuing our tour of fish, meats, and poultry, the next course was a really wonderful roasted chicken ballontine filled with braised chard and morel mushrooms. If you're unfamiliar with the ballontine preparation, a chicken breast is pounded very thin, then rolled around a filling. After roasting, it is sliced into rounds for plate presentation. In this case, each slice was placed on a brandied cream reduction. Proving that you can serve a full-bodied red with white meat, this dish was paired with the Elizabeth Spencer 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, which is the signature wine from this producer.
I felt the most successful course of the evening came next. Here, a 2008 Sonoma Coast Syrah was paired with sliced, roasted peppered beef tenderloin. This was finished with a port fig sauce, crumbled blue cheese and micro greens. The overall effect was very eye-pleasing, and all the flavors went well together. This was one of those courses where you want to give the chef and the winemakers a standing ovation.
We finished off the meal with a course of assorted artisan cheeses, and the newest offering from the winery, a 2006 Oakville (Napa Valley) Cabernet Franc. In France, Cabernet Franc is a blending grape that usually shows up in a small percentage in many of the finest Bordeaux chateau-made clarets. It contributes structure and helps to “dry out” those wines. However, this version was a much fuller and rounder wine that complimented the cheeses perfectly, and it was a welcome change from the sweet dessert wines that are more often selected to end meals like this.
I should note that while we were waiting for all the guests to arrive, we were served a lovely Mendocino County Sauvignon Blanc. This wine is organically produced, which makes it very attractive to those who prefer less sulfites in their wine. This one is light and crisp, and was a great start on a hot, humid, night.
Six, maybe seven or eight, generous pours later, my dining partner drove me home. Another couple at our table arrived by taxi, and returned home the same way. I am feeling way better now as I end this entry than I was when I started it, but I must admit, I think it will be a few days before I need to eat again.
If you would like read more about the meal, here is a link to the Papa Joe's web site: www.papajoes.com/special.html