Five Casual Arizona Eateries I’m Going to Miss and You’re Going to Love

Even though I’ll be moving to one of the great foodie cities of the world, I’ve always considered the dining options in the Phoenix area to be vastly underrated.  Not only can you find great Mexican food and steakhouses in the Valley of the Sun, there are endless restaurants featuring just about every cuisine you can imagine – from French to Ethiopian to Native American fusion, Phoenix has something for everyone.  For those who don’t want to spend big bucks on the fancier restaurants in town, I’ve compiled a list of some of my favorite casual eateries in the Valley.  I am going to miss these options once I leave – if you live in the Phoenix area or plan to visit some time soon, be sure to check these eateries out if you are looking for a good bite to eat and don’t want to break the bank!

Rancho de Tia Rosa
Type of food: Baja Mexican
Why I love it:  Before we get to the food, let me tell you about the property.  Dennis Sirrine, owner of Tia Rosa, was a general contractor by trade.  He and his wife purchased the property Tia sits on, and designed and built the property himself.  I love the design for not only its authentic Mexican flair, but the restaurant is brilliantly broken out into smaller sections so that you always feel like you are in an intimate space.  My favorite location to eat, weather-permitting, is their back patio – with heat lamps and misters, comfortable booth seating and beautifully-kept gardens, it is a relaxing place to hang out and enjoy the company you are with.

Tia Rosa’s menu has your typical gringo foods for those who fear a little adventure, but their specialty is seafood.  The only time I venture away from their seafood section is to have their delicious chicken mole.  You’ll find that the majority of their food isn’t overly heavy, and in some cases, not all that fattening, if you are watching what you eat.  They have an abundant selection of salads, soups, and many of their dishes won’t leave you feeling too guilty.  This makes you feel a little better about chowing down on their chips and salsa or sipping one of the best house margaritas in town.
My Go-To Dish:  I love their seafood tacos.  I typically get a grilled shrimp taco, which comes with pineapple salsa, lettuce and cheese, and a grilled salmon taco, which comes with mango salsa, lettuce and cheese.  Both are on soft, thin tacos and have a nice combination of savory and sweet.  When you’re loading up on chips and margaritas, this is a main dish that won’t send you into a coma.
For More Info, visit: http://www.ranchodetiarosa.com/

Essence Bakery Cafe
The type of food: French and Greek-inspired breakfast and lunch fare
Why I Love it: Tucked away in a little strip mall just a couple of blocks away from ASU, this is my go-to place for the rare times I go out to lunch at work.  Owner Eugenia Theodosopoulos is of Greek heritage and was trained at École Lenôtre in Paris.  Her foods are never heavy, and a lot of care and attention has been put into every dish.  Take, for example, her croissants.  She brought in a famed pastry chef with the rare M.O.F. designation to consider the temperature, humidity, and other factors in Arizona and come up with the perfect croissant under these conditions.  Biting into a chocolate-filled croissant at Essence is a little taste of heaven.
My Go-To Dish: While I love everything I’ve had on the menu – the Croque Madame, Croque Monsieur, a chicken salad sandwich with lemon and basil, spanakopita, there is one thing Essence is famous for in the valley: macarons.  No, not those gross coconut blobs your Aunt Trudy forces on you every Christmas, these are French macarons – delicate, merinque-like cookies filled with icing or jams.   Eugenia makes many wonderful pastries every day, yet when I’m in there, I cannot resist buying macarons.  It’s like an addiction – any time you see a new flavor, you have to try it.  So far, I can’t decide if my favorite is her espresso, hazelnut, lime, meyer lemon or raspberry rose macarons.  Or her rum filled? Or the mint chocolate?  See, they all are delicious, there’s no way to choose just one.  For those of you who want to try these confections but won’t be in town any time soon? They Deliver!
For more info, visit: http://www.essencebakery.com/

Four Peaks Brewery
The type of food: Mirco-brews and barfare
Why I Love it: Over the years, some very good brewery-restaurants have popped up throughout Arizona – San Tan Brewery in Chandler, Oak Creek Brewery up in Sedona…but there is one that is the Godfather of Arizona Breweries, and that is Four Peaks.  Four Peaks is the place you go to when you want to meet up with friends after work, have a couple of beers, and grab a bite of comfort food. Their fare is pretty standard for a pub – tasty burgers, pizza, and appetizers with the occasional dish incorporating one of their beers, but they shine with their famous brews.  No Phoenix-area resident with a love of beer goes for long without Four Peaks’ Kiltlifter (a red Scottish ale) in their fridge.  In addition to that, they have a wide selection of regular brews, from IPAs to Peach ale, to Hefeweizen and Oatmeal Stout to quench your palate.  Their seasonal beers are also quite good, with their Pumpkin Porter being so in demand they can’t keep up with production around this time of year, and wait to offer it in growlers.
My Go-To Dish: When I’m at Four Peaks, I don’t want to go too fancy – I’m relaxing with friends, after all!  I’ll just order a mushroom-swiss burger, and get a Snakebite to drink along with it.  What is a Snakebite? An interesting combination of two of their beers – you’ll have to order it and find out!
For more info, visit: http://www.fourpeaks.com/

Gelato Dolce Vita
The type of food: Gelato, coffee, cannoli and now Italian deli fare at their East Mesa location
Why I Love it: If you consider gelato to be that junk you get at the gelato spot, you’re in for a pleasant surprise – Italian husband and American wife-team Walter and Marti bring these authentic Italian treats to you daily, and I guarantee if you close your eyes as you let that hazelnut gelato melt in your mouth or sip on that cup of cappuccino, you just might  believe you’re in Florence.  They rotate out flavors often, but every gelato made is of the highest quality and use fresh ingredients.  I especially love the fresh, natural flavor of their fruit flavors.  I also appreciate when they roll out something a little weird, like their chile chocolate gelato, or a gorgonzola gelato.
My Go-To Dish: As much as we love their gelato, I crave their cannoli, cappuccino, and drinking chocolate.  If you are a chocolate lover and never had authentic drinking chocolate before, on a cold night, give them a visit, and if it’s available, be sure to give it a try.
For more info, visit: http://www.gelatodolcevita.com/

Flancer’s
The type of food: fancy pizza, sandwiches and pasta
Why I Love it: When you live in east Mesa, there aren’t many dining options outside of the Applebees and Olive Gardens of the world.  Thanks to Tia Rosa, Flancers, and Red, White & Brew, we at last have a few good alternatives.
Flancer’s is a nice small spot with a couple of televisions on ESPN and psychedelic concert posters adorning the walls.  The service is always friendly and the food is unique and delicious.  While their pasta is a bit of a weak point on the menu, their pizza and sandwiches are one-of-a-kind, using ingredients like prickly pear juice or green chiles to jazz up a simple dish.  They offer a lot of options for sides, allowing you to incorporate healthier options, if you so choose.
My Go-To Dish: As much as I love their pizzas and calzones, sandwiches are where it’s at.  My personal favorite is their Perfect Prickly Pear Chicken sandwich with green chile mayonnaise and a side of their crispy sweet potato fries.  When I’m not in the mood for regular bread, I’ll get it on a whole wheat tortilla.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my husband’s favorite on the menu, their We Must Meat, I Ain’t Lion sandwich, consisting of filet mignon, caramelized onions, gorgonzola and chipotle mayo.  It is a great combination of flavors and is sure to fill you up.
For more info, visit: http://www.flancers.com

Honorable Mention:
Red White and Brew – located in East Mesa, this is a great place to take the family (i.e., a large group of picky eaters).  In fact, it’s become our go-to place when we take out my in-laws and 10 year-old nephew.  From pizza to burgers to great fish entrees (their pecan salmon is my favorite), there is something for everyone here.  Don’t let the name fool you – while they have a respectable selection of wines and beer, the emphasis here is the food.  Web site: http://www.rwbaz.com/
Cornish Pasty Co. – I prefer the Gilbert location to the scary, claustrophobic flagship Tempe hole-in-the wall (which is a nightmare for lunch on a workday, quite frankly).  Bring your appetite, the calzone-like pasties are enormous and filled with potatoes, stuffing, meat, gravy, and just about everything you can think of.  You’ll love every last bite, but they are sure to send you into a food coma.  Be sure to check out their beer selection while you’re there, especially if you’re a fan of British imports.  Web site: http://www.cornishpastyco.com/
Dilly’s Deli – One of my favorite lunch spots in town.  Their bread for sandwiches is thick and perfectly toasted, they give you a ton of meat and toppings, and best of all, their bread bowl soups are out of this world.  I’ve heard all the soups are delicious, but after all this time I still haven’t been willing to move beyond their potato soup.  Web site: http://dillysdeli.com/

Le Nom Volume VI: Southern Comfort

A quick apology for the delay in posting.  Due to illness over the past several days (I was convinced it was Black Death, but it turns out it is just a bad sinus infection. Go figure), I’ve been somewhat incomprehensible and incredibly pathetic.  Well, more so than normal.  On both counts. I’m gradually getting back in the swing of things, so enjoy!

Since we started our international cooking club, I’ve learned there is a common thread that connects all good food around the world: the sense of family behind a dish.  The most famous of dishes in any country’s cuisine were not created by chefs in palaces, but have their roots in the homes of the villagers.  These families had to create calorie-rich food that could give everyone at the table enough sustenance to get through their physically-demanding duties.  You have your Italian Ribollita, your French Boeuf Bourguignon, and your Mexican tamales.  Pierogis began as a peasant food in Poland, but in my family as with many Polish families, pierogis are a special Christmas Eve dish.  All of these foods are steeped in that tradition of family dining, and when we eat them, we call them “comfort foods,” because they give us that feeling of home and familiarity.  They feel good for the soul when we eat them.

There is something about Southern cooking that makes it the King of Comfort Foods; from light breads to chicken fried steak to sweet potato pie, all of it makes you feel like you’re home and you can put your feet up and relax with family.  Our cooking club is our family of friends, so what better way to celebrate food and friendship than with a feast of down-home Southern dishes?

The centerpiece of our feast was the fried chicken.  I am normally not a big fan of fried foods, however this recipe was amazing.  The breading wasn’t too thick, and it was fried  perfectly – the texture was crisp but not dry and fried but not oily.  Needless to say, there were very few leftovers by the end of the night.

The other big dish on the table was biscuits and gravy.  My husband’s mother made this often for breakfast when he grew up, and I learned how to make it as well.  It is a dish that is so caloric and fatty, it feels wrong eating it, but it is irresistible when made correctly.  The gravy is really simple – you take a stick of butter, melt it over medium high heat, then add a pound of hot breakfast sausage.  Once the sausage is fully cooked, add a cup of flower and stir it in until it is fully mixed in with the sausage.  Add a half gallon of milk (don’t go lighter than 2%, or it won’t thicken properly), and bring to a boil while stirring constantly.  Keep on stirring until it thickens, take the temperature down a little, salt and pepper to taste, and pour it over your biscuit of choice.  Add an egg over easy into the equation and you’ll be in heaven.  It’s that simple.  This is also a great hangover food.  Um, not that I would know of course…

To provide the proper companionship to these dishes, we had a number of sides. You cannot have fried chicken without mashed potatoes, so clearly, that was a necessary presence at the table.  We also had amazing creamed corn.  This recipe calls for a generous amount of parmesan cheese in the dish, which makes it oh-so cheesy and good.  My friend Celeste expressed concern that she may have added too much cheese.  We looked at her as if she were mad; you can never have too many friends, too much joy, or too much cheese.  These are impossible things.  The creamed corn was so good, it was the only dish where there was literally not a bite left over by the end of the night.  We also enjoyed the corn bread I put on the table, which admittedly was a little neglected as we devoured all the other foods.

For dessert, I made a chocolate chess pie.  I will admit, this was a slight cheat; the ingredients for regular chess pie looked a little odd to me, so I went with the chocolate recipe, because chocolate generally makes everything taste better.  As you can guess, I’ve never had a chess pie before, but I thought it was pretty good.  It has the texture of a slightly undercooked brownie. If that’s your thing (and it is kind of my thing), this would be a simple and tasty pie for you to try out.

For fun, we had a few cocktails with a little southern inspiration: Watermelon pulp with sprite and vodka was a refreshing summer treat, and we tried mixing a few things with Southern Comfort.  Depending on how the portions worked (that is to say, if you could taste the Southern Comfort at all), the cocktails made your arm hairs stand at attention.

Due to the Labor Day holiday, we are skipping September, and will reconvene in October for…you guessed it – Oktoberfest!  I am expecting a full spectrum of German Bier to be on the menu.  Oh, and food too.  See you then!

 

Le Nom, Volume V: The Mexican Dinner Fiesta-Siesta

Growing up in Stamford, Connecticut, I equated the question “do you want Mexican?” with “do you want to go to Chi-Chi’s?”  Thankfully, after living in the southwest for roughly half my life, I’ve developed a bit more knowledge and appreciation for Mexican cuisine since then.  I’m not about to eat menudo or calf’s brains or anything crazy like that, but I at least appreciate a number of dishes and the diverse flavors of Mexican cuisine.  For this month’s Le Nom, we decided to explore a few different dishes in Mexican cuisine, and as always, the results were amazing.

For starters, we enjoyed two kinds of homemade salsa – red and tomatillo (example).  Tomatillos are a staple in Mexican cuisine, being the primary ingredient in many green sauces.  A member of the tomato family, tomatillos are generally tart in flavor and can provide a bit of a citrus flavor to dishes.  Many tomatillo salsas call for a little bit of sugar to be added to offset the tartness.  We enjoyed both salsas with chips and Tecate Light with lime – always a great selection with chips and salsa!

We had two main dishes to enjoy, the first being machaca (example).  A dish popular in the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico, machaca is a spicy dish consisting of shredded beef or pork.  Interestingly, even here in Arizona the style of cooking varies by region – in the Tucson area, machaca tends to be dry, yet in the Phoenix area, it has a bit of a soupy consistency.  The Tucson style is more similar to the Mexican style, however the Phoenix style is enjoyable for letting your flour tortilla sop up all of the the spicy liquid that comes with the dish.

Our other dish was my contribution for the night – chicken mole.  This is a dish that is popular all over Mexico, being most popular in Oaxaca.  This wonderful dish is loaded with flavor, typically averaging over 20 ingredients in a given recipe (the recipe I used only has 15 ingredients).  There are a variety of flavors all working together in mole – you have the spiciness of chili powder and a chipotle chile in adobo sauce (recipe note: note that the recipe says ONE chile from the can, not the entire can; I think you could safely go with two for a little extra kick, however). There is also the unique spiciness of cumin, nutmeg, coriander and cinnamon contrasting with the earthiness of toasted sesame seeds and the richness of cocoa powder and peanut butter (the recipe called for 3 TB of cocoa powder – next time I’m adding an additional TB).   If you have never had mole before, this combination of ingredients may sound a little off-putting – I mean, chocolate and chicken? But I assure you, the results are amazing and like nothing you have ever tried.  I even left the raisins in, and I hate raisins.  This recipe in particular is super-easy to do – you simply put all the ingredients in your slow cooker, and let it cook for 5 hours.

Both of the main dishes are perfect for rolling up in tortillas.  Our Tucson friends brought up some of the best fresh tortillas in Arizona from Anita’s Street Market.

For our side, our Tucson friends also made homemade refried beans. (example).  Normally, the beans can take hours to prepare, but thanks to their pressure cooker, they were able to reduce the cooking time significantly.

After loading up on our main dishes, we enjoyed brownies with chipotle chile (example).  The dish contained a number of flavors common in Mexican food – as you can see from the mole, the combination of chocolate, cinnamon and chile is rather popular.  While it may sound odd to have chiles in your brownies, they do not make the brownies spicy; on the contrary, the chiles enhance the richness of the chocolate, giving the brownies a dark chocolate, fudgy flavor.  The hint of cinnamon balances everything out perfectly.  I also really loved these brownies because they are “proper” brownies – all too often, people either make them too fudgy or too cakey.  These were the perfect texture, so mad props to Rachael for baking them!

For our final dish of the night, we were blessed with the Latin American treat of Tres Leches Cake, made by our birthday girl of the evening, Angela.  Angela took the recipe from the wonderful Pioneer Woman web site (which you may remember, is where I got my pots de creme recipe last month) and made a few minor adjustments to the cake.  Her advice is as follows: “The yolks and sugar need to be beaten to look pale white, but also to the point that you can see the nascent batter trace on top of itself. The recipe doesn’t tell you that, but my hubby did. I inadvertently beat the egg whites a bit beyond ‘soft peaks,’ but it wasn’t the worst thing. I baked the cake, removed the cake to cool overnight in the refrigerator with a cotton gauze tea towel atop it, and returned it to the pan for easy transport. I added all of the three milks liquid, only realizing later that some sweetened condensed milk was still in its can. Finally, I did not use Maraschino cherries, as I don’t really like them.”

The cake was really phenomenal – it was spongey and the sauce was delighfuly gooey, however it wasn’t too much so (which I’ve ran into with other Tres Leches Cakes, and ew to a soggy cake). The topping was whipped cream, and even though we were all full, we basically devoured the entire sheet.

After all was said and done, I witnessed something I’ve never seen before at a Le Nom: every single person was sprawled out in our family room in a semi-coma watching Scooby Doo with the kids.  On the floor, on the couch – every one was stretched out, fat and happy.  That’s the only way to end an evening of Mexican food!

We are skipping Le Nom for July due to a number of conflicts regarding the 4th, however we are considering doing a Southern-style picnic on Mount Lemmon for August.  For those of you not in Arizona, Mount Lemmon is perhaps the coolest place you can find in southern Arizona (and houses the southern-most ski resort in the country).  As we hit temperatures of over 110, cooler weather in the pine trees sounds pretty amazing.

Until then? Don’t be afraid to be adventurous and daring in your kitchens! When all else fails, there is pizza, so why not try something new this weekend?

Le Nom, Volume III: A French Dinner Party

When life deals you lemons, throw them away and make cheese sauce.  This is the lesson I learned from this month’s Le Nom.

Due to a few scheduling conflicts, we had a smaller group for this dinner party.  To make sure we continued with the tradition of having more food than anyone can possibly eat, I decided to contribute not one, but three dishes to ensure we had a little bit of everything.

My initial plan was to make garlic aioli for us to dip bread in.  I found a recipe on food.com, which called for a fruity olive oil.  This was the perfect opportunity to use the Queen Creek Olive Mill Meyer Lemon Olive Oil.  Queen Creek Olive Mill is the only company in Arizona to make their own EVOO, and offer a number of unique flavors  – Mexican Lime, Roasted Garlic, and Chocolate are but a few. They practice sustainable farming and have a great reputation around the valley. I’ve been dying to try them out.  Unfortunately, I either completely screwed up the recipe for the aioli, or it was a bad recipe to begin with.  When I made it, I expressed my concerns over the result on Facebook.  My chef friend Brian asked me what the problem was.  The conversation went something like this:

Me: “What should the texture of aioli be?”
Brian: “Mayonnaise.”
Me: “Yeah…it’s like soup.”
Brian: “What was the proportion of egg to oil?
Me: “One Egg, 1.5 cups olive oil.”
Brian: “A whole egg?”
Me: “Yup.”
Brian: “That’s the problem. Here’s what you do…”

He gave me excellent instructions on attempting to revive my soupy aioli.  Unfortunately, it didn’t really work, and I decided to give it a little taste to see if it was even worth saving.  Between the high amount of olive oil and the lemon juice the recipe called for, the mixture tasted like oily lemon, and not in a good way.  The olive oil was an amazing olive oil (I got a second bottle for non-aioli purposes), however this recipe just didn’t work at all. I’ve decided to have Brian or gourmand-friend Steven show me how to make aioli someday.  I’m pretty sure the majority of this fail is on me.  I’m a visual learner, and I think I need to see someone make it.

Why am I telling you about the dish that failed? Because I want you to know that it’s okay to screw up a dish.  It was a pricey screw up, but the only way to reach new horizons with cooking or anything in life, is to take a risk, be willing to see it blow up in your face, learn from it, and move on.  So? I moved on.

The next recipe I tackled was pots de crème. I have always wanted to make pots de crème, which is basically a sexy, naughty version of custard or pudding.  I found a great recipe on The Pioneer Woman’s web site – it’s not a traditional way of making pots de crème as there is no baking involved, but this recipe is super-easy, can be made ahead and is a silky chocolatey treat.  I particularly appreciate how she explains she made a mistake with the temperature of the eggs and coffee, because I probably would have done the same thing had she not mentioned it.  I had some Godiva liqueur on hand, so per her suggestion, I replaced the vanilla extract with the liqueur.  I also added white chocolate Godiva liqueur to the whipped cream – I need to practice this more.  I used to be really good at boozy whipped cream, but lately I’ve been adding in the liqueur too early, and it’s not thickening as much as it needs to.
Pairing suggestion: You could go with an alcohol pairing, like Raspberry Lambic, or banyuls, but I think just a good old-fashioned cup of coffee works here.  It is so rich, you need the bitterness of a cup of coffee to balance it out.

The next thing to tackle was Cauliflower Gratin.  Why did I choose this dish? Well, for one thing, I wanted to have a vegetable on the table.  Second, it has all the ingredients that make French food delicious – cream, butter and cheese.  Magical things happen when these three ingredients come together.  This is also a simple recipe, and I think it came out perfectly.  I’ll be making it again on Memorial Day weekend for friends who missed this month’s Le Nom.
Pairing suggestion:  Since this is a side, you’ll want to pair to your main dish, but if you decide to have a mountain of Cauliflower Gratin for dinner – and there’s nothing wrong with that – an unoaked Chardonnay would be a tasty choice.  I think a mildly sweet Riesling might work too.

So, the house was clean, the table was set, the gratin was in the oven and people were soon to arrive.  I needed a replacement for my Aioli Fail, so I decided to wing it.  I had a ton of Gruyère left over, so I decided to basically take an Alfredo recipe, replace the Parmesan with Gruyère, omit the garlic, and at the suggestion of Steven, add white pepper and nutmeg for seasoning.  While it didn’t thicken very well initially (as it cooled, it was much thicker), it was cheesy goodness that was devoured by all.  Was it a “French” dish? I’m not totally sure - Gruyère is from Switzerland, but it’s used in many French dishes – quiche, croque-monsieur, french onion soup… I’ll give myself a pass.
Pairing suggestion: again, an unoaked chardonnay or a Riesling would work.  A Brut champagne would be pretty yummy too. One of the Le Nommers brought a Sauv Blanc that worked nicely.

While we were enjoying the cheese sauce, another Le Nom member showed up, explaining their own challenge with the dish they were going to bring – a peach crème brûlée for dessert.  Apparently, video games and baking do not go well when done simultaneously! Not a problem for us – again, we always have more than enough food, and we had an emergency dessert waiting in the wings.

After enjoying our bread and cheese sauce, it was time for the main meal – inside a beautiful Le Cresuset oval French oven, Steven and Jennie brought with them the dish of all dishes, Juila Child’s Boeuf Bourguignon.  Because I’m a little nerdy, I was excited to try this particular recipe because I loved the movie Julie & Julia, and the boeuf bourguignon was a critical plot point in the movie.  It also looked really yummy on film.

Served atop egg noodles, this dish is a mix of elegance and comfort food. It is a labor of love – taking all day to make, as several of the ingredients must be prepared in advance prior to adding them into the stew. From the Burgundy region, boeuf bourguignon was originally a food for peasants, but today it tends to reside in the world of haute cuisine.
Suggested Wine Pairing:  We enjoyed pinot noir with the dish, however a nice Syrah or Cabernet would also go well here.

All of the food was delicious, and we actually had the perfect amount of food for six people.  My only regret was not saving a bit of the boeuf for myself for the next day.  What was I thinking?

Next month, we are heading back to this continent to tackle Mexican cuisine.  There are so many regions to choose from, and so many different dishes that can be made – carnitas, flan, enchiladas, mole sauce, ceviche…yum.  I can’t wait to see what everyone brings!

Suggestions:
               

Arizona Restaurant Week Spring 2012 – My Recommendations

Arizona Restaurant Week Spring 2012 is almost upon us! As you know from my previous post on the matter, I am a huge fan of restaurant week.  Spring doesn’t have the same level of participation as the fall restaurant week, but there are still many excellent options to choose from.

If you are new to Restaurant Week, I’ll give you the 411: for one extended week in the spring and one extended week in the fall, some of Arizona’s best restaurants put together three-course price fixed menus ranging from $20-$40 per person, depending on the restaurant.  This is a way for them to show off their chefs’ mad skills and staff’s great service, and it is a great way for you to enjoy some of the finest restaurants in the Valley without breaking the bank!

Of course, not all restaurants are created equal; if you’ve been to a few restaurant weeks, you’ll find a few places present rather uninspired menus.  And of course, not everyone is a four-diamond restaurant – sometimes, you encounter service that can be a little disappointing for what you are paying.  But fear not! I looked over the list of participants and menus for next week’s ARW, and have compiled a list of five places where I don’t think you’ll go wrong.  I’ve been to all of these restaurants, and where noted, I’ll give you my personal recommendations.  If you try any of them, please come back and comment – I really want to hear what you think!

1. Different Pointe of View ($40 per person)
Notes: if you can only go to one place in the valley next week, go here.  This is a fabulous place to go on a date – their terrace has an incredible view of the valley at sunset, and you feel like you’re in a little desert getaway above the city.  I’ve actually seen wildlife hanging out near the terrace while eating my dinner.  The service is impeccable, and their sommelier may be the best in the Valley.  On to the menu [my notes are in brackets]:

First Course
- Choice Of -
Lobster Bisque [You want this one.]
Avocado & Shrimp Salad
Crispy Seared Pork Bellies

Second Course
- Choice Of -
Filet Mignon
Pan Seared Halibut
Diver Scallops
Chef’s Daily Risotto feature  [My recommendation - they make a great risotto here]

Third Course
- Choice Of -
Any dessert off our menu [this is a really cool thing for them to offer - most places offer a fairly simple, arguably boring dessert course for ARW, and they have a great pastry chef here.]

2. noca ($30 per person)
Noca is one of those places Open Table would say is “Fit for Foodies.” The location is in a strip mall, and the interior is more “bustling chic” (is that even a thing?) than romantic, but man oh man, is their food good.  If you are given the option of doing a wine pairing with your meals, I recommend it – the last time I did pairing recommendations here, they were spot on with every dish. I really liked their menu options for ARW, because: 1) You’re getting three great courses for $30, 2) The menu selections are unique and 3) They give you a bunch of extra deals if you want to add to your 3-course meal.

First Course
- Choice Of -
Gazpacho
Rock Shrimp, Avocado, Olive Oil
Spring Salad
Fava Bean Hummus, Pita Croutons, Cherry Tomatoes, Feta, Honey Tarragon Dressing
“Bacon & Egg”
Benton’s Bacon, Farm Egg, Stitt’s Grits, Red Pepper Sauce
Supplemental First Courses for the Table:
Burrata $14
Spring Vegetable Succotash, Grilled Scallion Pesto
Lou’s Balls $12
Pork & Beef Meatballs, Crispy Rice Cake, Creole Tomato Sauce

Second Course
- Choice Of -
Buckwheat Pappardelle
Four Peaks Oatmeal Stout Braised Beef Shortribs, Fontina Crema, Breadcrumbs [Shoutout to using a local brew to braise the beef!]
Anson Mills Rice Grit Risotto
English Peas, Mascarpone, Spring Onions, Grapefruit, Tarragon [This is what I’d get - it sounds kind of like something a mad scientist chef would come up with]
Atlantic Hake
Corn & Okra Macque Choux, Carrot Top Pesto [I recently had hake for the first time at Red, White and Brew of all places, and really loved the flavor of it]
Braised Berkshire Pork
Butterbean Casserole, Trinity, Natural Jus
Supplemental Entree:
Bone – In Ribeye ($18 supplement) $38
Vidalia Onion Fondue, Baby Carrots, Red Wine Jus
Sides for the Table ( $7 )
Creamed Calabrian Corn
Asparagus – Truffle Hollandaise
Mac & Cheese Fondue [I have no idea what this is, but I’m on it.]

Third Course
- Choice Of -
Flavors of Sacher
Milk & Dark Chocolate, Raspberry, Apricot
Strawberry
Sesame Shortbread, Mascarpone Sorbet, Farmer Mint

Additional Offering
3 Course Menu $30
4 Course Menu: add pasta or risotto as 2nd Course – $40
On Sunday May 20th, Monday May 21st, & Sunday May 27, when ordering the 4 Course Menu option, a glass of champagne will be included with the meal. [Consider this bullet point when making a reservation, my friends.]

3. Eddie’s House $30
This is one of the friendliest restaurants in Old Town – just outside of the main drag, you walk into Eddie’s House, and everything feels cozy even though it is really loud and happening.  The food is great, but I do have two “warnings” about Eddie’s – one of the times I went, my super-friendly server was really, really confused with drink orders and was a little slow in bringing us our cocktails.  That said, they have a fantastic cocktail menu – I’m a fan of their champagne cocktails.  My other reservation is in regards to their desserts, and this is just a personal preference of mine: although unique, none of their desserts seemed to really fit their definition.  For example, their pot de creme was not a pot de creme at all.  The selections below seem to be a bit more mainstream, so for ARW, this may be fine.

First Course
- Choice Of -
Ahi Tuna Tartar Nacho, Arizona Corn & Cilantro
Mediterranean Quesadilla, Grilled Steak, Charred Peppers & Onions, Harissa Sour Cream
Mini Sonoran Chicken Cobb Salad, Corn, Bacon, Garlic Confite, Fried Egg, Avocado

Second Course
- Choice Of -
What’s With the Braised Beef Short Rib? [I think their beef dishes are their best offerings - this is probably very good]
Pan Seared Corvina Bass, Black Bean Pineapple Risotto, topped with Fire Roasted Tomatillo Shrimp
“Down Home Dinner” Grilled Honey-Spiced Drumsticks, with a skillet of Prosciutto Mac ‘n” Cheese [I recommend this - their Prosciutto Mac n Cheese is pretty awesome]

Third Course
- Choice Of -
Tres Leche Cake with Peach Carmel Glaze
Peanut Butter Cheesecake, Oreo Crust
Warm Peach Cobbler a la Mode

4. The Greene House ($40 per person)
It’s been a while since I’ve been up to The Greene House, but their food is great.  Located in Kierland Commons, it’s a loud and happening place, but again, the food is excellent, and the cocktails are pretty amazing. I really liked the look of their ARW menu – lots of options, and it’s unlike most of the other selections I saw on other menus:

First Course
- Choice Of -
Chicken Tortilla Soup- Avocado, Pico de Gallo, Queso Blanco
Arugula Salad- Pickled Peppers, Olives, Local Tomatoes & Manchego
CheeseHerb Hummus- Grilled Flatbread, Tomato, Onion & Feta
The Greene House Salad- Green Vegetables, Arugula, Green Goddess Dressing, Pistachios, Parmesan
Tempura Calamari- Seasonal Vegetables, Red Chili Shoyu

Second Course
- Choice Of -
Bacon Wrapped Pork Tenderloin- Horseradish Potato, Mushrooms & Asparagus
Crispy Half Chicken- Creamed Corn, Green Beans & Tomato Jam
Sea Scallops- Caramelized Cauliflower, Snap Peas & Bacon [This is my recommendation: I am very particular about sea scallops.  Every time I’ve ordered them here, they are excellent - they have that buttery melt-in-your mouth flavor and texture that few places can get right]
Atlantic Salmon- Beets, Fingerling Potatoes, Horseradish Vinaigrette & Sherry Jus
Filet of Beef- Stir Fry Vegetables, Togarashi Spiced Fingerlings, Miso Butter

Third Course
- Choice Of -
Spike’s Chocolate Bars of Sin
Pineapple Rum Cake Vanilla Bean Gelato [Yes, please]
Ever Changing Sorbet
Warm Cinnamon & Sugar Donut Vanilla Bean Custard

5. Cowboy Ciao ($30 per person)
Great service, great menu, an extensive wine list thanks to their sister restaurant/wine bar Kazimierz, which is located just around the corner.  I chose this one because the dishes sounded really exciting, and the menu is only $30 per person.  You can’t beat that for what you are getting.

First Course
- Choice Of -
Daily Bowl
Testosterone Salad
Grilled Black Tiger Shrimp
Stetson Chopped Salad

Second Course
- Choice Of -
Duck Confit Enchiladas
Exotic Mushroom Pan Fry [even though I would choose the enchiladas, if this is your first time at Cowboy Ciao and you can live without meat in your main dish, I highly recommend this staple dish of theirs]
Grilled Scallops & Squash
Wild Boar Meatballs

Third Course
- Choice Of -
Cowboy Ciao Original 1997 Bread Pudding
NV Martinez tawny port or ’02 Meroi picolit, Friuli, Italy [love that they offer a port as a dessert option...]

I have a couple of honorable mentions:  the following restaurants are not included on my list because you need to experience them in a non price-fixed setting:

Roka Akor, Binkley’s, Tapas Papa Frita, Ocean Prime

I absolutely love these four restaurants, but for three of them, you need to experience their full menu and presentation.  In the case of Ocean Prime, it’s not their presentation that leaves them off the main list, it’s that you must try things on the menu they don’t offer on their ARW menu – crab legs from the raw bar, their NY Strip and their Sea Bass are some of the best-prepared dishes I’ve had in the valley.

There are two restaurants I love but didn’t include because they don’t have a menu posted on the ARW site.  I am pretty certain whatever they offer is going to be great, and will likely in the $40 range.  Similar to the above restaurants, it’s worth it to splurge and check them out on a non-ARW week.  They both have Chef’s Tasting menus that are the bees knees:

Cork
Quiessence

Are there any restaurants you are looking forward to? Have you tried any restaurants you’d like to report on?  Please comment below!

Arizona Restaurant Week runs from May 19th through May 27th.  Please visit the official web site at http://arizonarestaurantweek.com/ for a full listing of participating restaurants, menus and information on reservations.

Image(s): FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Le Nom, Volume II: A Polynesian Feast

After our successful Italian Dinner Party, we decided to go to the other side of the globe and try our hand at Polynesian cuisine.  Polynesia is a series of islands in the South Pacific that include Hawaii, Samoa, Tahiti, and all of those beachy places they use on Survivor.  It’s a beautiful part of the world: lush, green landscapes, waterfalls, coral reefs and delicious warm-water seafood like mahi mahi, opakapaka, and tuna.  Even though we are land-locked in a desert, we did our best to imagine a cool, saltwater breeze and recreate a few foods inspired by the Polynesian islands.  Polynesian culture celebrates with food, Le Nom celebrates food, so it sounded like a perfect match!

 

One of the most authentic dishes of the night was panipopo, a Samoan bread that has a sweet coconut milk glaze on the bottom.  While bread was introduced later to Samoan culture, coconut milk has always been a common ingredient in Samoan cuisine.  Other common ingredients in Samoan cuisine are not surprising – taro, breadfuit, bananas, fish, chicken and pork are all common staples.

Due to the remote nature of the islands, many foods have been around for only the past couple of centuries.  Beef, for example, was not introduced to the Hawaiian islands until the end of the 18th century.   Pineapple, a fruit often associated with Hawaii was not cultivated until the early 19th century.  Both pineapple and sugarcane plantations became big business for Hawaii, to the point the plantations had to bring in immigrant workers.  The immigrant workers, many coming from China, Japan, and Korea, brought their cuisine over with them, and soon the foods incorporated into Hawaiian cuisine.  Another dish we had, Polynesian Meatballs, is a great example of a Hawaiian-inspired dish that incorporates these “newer” elements.  This sweet and savory appetizer has tender meatballs paired with a pineapple and soy sauce that is absolutely delicious.

 

Also sporting Chinese influence, we enjoyed Pork Spring Rolls (the recipe states they were baked but our Le Nommer decided to fry them) with duck sauce or sweet and sour for dipping.

If you look at a map of the world, you’ll see that the Hawaiian islands are very isolated.  In fact, Hawaii is considered the most remote island chain in the world.  Because of this isolation, there were few edible plants and the only mammals were bats on the island when the first Polynesian settlers arrived around 300-500 AD.  Fortunately, the settlers were smart enough to bring a bunch of plants and food with them and those plants thrived in Hawaii’s rich soil.  For animals, they brought pigs with them to use for religious sacrifice (which resulted in eating the pig).  Today, eating Kalua pork is almost a religious experience, it is so delicious.  The word “Kalua” means “to cook in an underground oven.” This is the method for cooking you typically see at luaus – they dig a large pit, fill it with koa wood, then place rocks over the wood to retain the heat.  The pig is salted and stuffed with hot rocks, wrapped with banana leaves, then buried in the hot pit to cook for several hours.

 

No one at Le Nom was interested in digging a pit in their backyard, but I did find a fantastic recipe that gives you a similar flavor and consistency.  The Kalua pork I made for the dinner party is insanely easy, although it takes a while to cook (at least 16 hours on low in the slow cooker).  It was worth the wait – when the time came to shred and serve the meat, the bone in the pork came off cleanly and easily, leaving behind tender, smoky meat you can eat by itself, in tortillas, or in Hawaiian sweet bread sandwiches.

 

Our final dish of the night was a simple but delicious dessert that incorporated both Polynesian and Chinese ingredients.  The Fried Bananas were a great way to end the meal.  Topped with whipped cream and/or honey, they were very tasty and a huge hit!

Once again, Le Nom success! Every dish was great, and thanks to me being hostess for this month, I had some awesome leftovers for the week.

What’s on the menu for next month? I’ll give you a hint: think Julie and Julia.  My mouth is watering already!

Le Nom, Volume I: The Italian Dinner Party

One month after an inaugural meeting filled with friends, appetizers, wine, and …shots?? (how’d that happen??), we had our first official club dinner party.  I named the club “Le Nom,” not to be properly translated as “The Name,” but to be in the vein of “nomnomnomnom.”  As you can tell from my blog titles, I’m not good with names. It’s short, and that’s good enough for me.  Our tagline is “Voulez-vous manger avec moi? Ce soir?” My husband thought that translated as “will you sleep with my food?”  He knows 900 computer languages, but when it comes to the non-geek ones… I love him.

This month was Italian Night, hosted by my stylish friend Kirsten.  Where I normally throw down a plastic tablecloth and put out a bunch of mismatched Solo cups left over from previous parties, she does things like this (yes, that’s a printed menu in each glass):

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So yeah, she’s pretty good at this stuff.

The rules for Le Nom are simple: In our first meeting, we agreed to meet the first Saturday of each month, and discussed what international (or regional) cuisines we wanted to have as future themes.  Once a theme is determined for the month, the person who volunteers to host the event cooks the main dish, and everyone else is responsible for making the appetizers, sides, and dessert(s).  We haven’t quite figured out coordinating the courses, but were able to get all aspects of the meal in for Italian Night.

My personal hope for the club was to get together with my foodie friends to enjoy their good company, eat their food, and challenge myself in the culinary arena by making dishes I’ve never made before.  The night did not disappoint!

Listed below is a breakdown of what we ate, recipes (where provided), a little background on each dish, and a suggested wine pairing, should you decide to try it out for yourself.  I apologize for the lack of photos – I completely forgot to take pictures of everyone’s food, either due to excitement or too much Ecco Domani Pinot Grigio.  I’ll leave it to you to guess which was more likely.

 

Caprese Skewers:

Caprese (translated as “in the style of Capri”) is a delicious and light dish that gained popularity in the Campania region of Italy in the 1950s.  Fresh mozzerella (preferably buffalo moazzarella), tomato and basil on a stick – this is a fantastic hors-d’oeuvre for a party.  It’s colorful, delicious, finger-friendly, and doesn’t require any cooking.  When topped with olive oil and balsamic, they are to die for.  I could have had 10 of them.
Suggested Wine Pairing: Chianti or Sangiovese

 

Crab-Stuffed Mushrooms

Another great hors-d’oeuvre for a party.  Italians love their wild mushrooms – among the most coveted are porcini and of course, tartufi (truffles).  Here’s a cooking tip – never store your mushrooms in plastic – it will make them mushy.  Instead, store them in a paper bag, and refrigerate them for no longer than 2-3 days.
Suggested Wine Pairing: any non-oaked Chardonnay

Ribollita

This was my contribution to the theme.  I had this soup for the first time when I visited Florence, and loved all of the different flavors in the soup as well as its heartiness.  Ribollita began as a peasant dish to reuse existing soup, vegetables and older bread.  I used Giada de Laurentiis’ recipe, which is not only tasty, but takes out a lot of prep time by using a few canned and frozen items.  The soup was so pretty, I took a number of pictures as I cooked it, as you can see here.   I love how it has the colors of Italy – red tomatoes, green spinach and white beans.  The recipe also calls for Herbes de Provence, which smells wonderful as it cooks.  I think it turned out pretty good – so much so, I made another batch the next day!
Suggested Wine Pairing: Sangiovese or Chianti.

Bruschetta

Let me tell you about my friend Steven: he covets his Bon Appetit the way some people covet vintage Playboy magazines (or, I guess, National Geographics, but that just doesn’t seem as appropriate).  He is passionate about all things culinary.  He makes his own bacon, for God’s sake.  He is exactly the kind of person who was born for this sort of event.  He brought two things to the party, the first being his amazing bruschetta.  The flavor of the topping was so rich and fresh, I could have dove into a pool of it and eaten my way out.  Instead of putting it in a pool for me to dive into, he put it atop lightly toasted slices of bread, and topped each piece with some cheese, broiling it just enough for the cheese to melt.  Fantastic.  As far as the history of the dish goes, bruschetta has origins back to the 15th century, and existed as a way to use bread that was going stale.  It comes from the verb “bruscare,” which is translated as “to roast over coals.”
Suggested Wine Pairing: Once again, Sangiovese and Chianti are great, although if you want to go with a white, a Sauvignon Blanc would pair well.

 

Handmade Pasta and Meatballs

This was Steven’s other amazing creation – he made fresh fettuccine (or tagliatelle, I’m not sure what the difference is).  I love fresh pasta – it’s so delicate and soft.  The meatballs were full of flavor and moist.  This made me feel bad for not using my pasta roller yet, even though I’ve had it for over 2 years.
Suggested Wine Pairing: Barbera d’Alba, Zinfandel (real Zin, not that fakey white Zin)

 

Sausage and Gravy with Mostaccioli

This style of Ragu was more in the style of the Campania region – lots of sauce, and large chunks of meat.  Ragu is believed to originate from the French ragout, which appeared after Napoleon’s invasion in Italy.  Where Bruschetta and Ribollita were peasant dishes, Ragu was a dish for nobility.  We were lucky enough to get the leftovers for this, and enjoyed them for dinner the next two nights! Needless to say, this reheats well.
Suggested Wine Pairing: Same as above.

 

Chicken Marsala

Marsala is a fortified wine (like Sherry or Port) from Sicily that dates back to the late 1700s.  It can be drank as an accompaniment, of course, but it is also used as an ingredient in a number of dishes, such as Chicken Marsala, some risotto, and tiramisu.  This was Kirsten’s dish, and she did an amazing job of making this dish for 16 people – the fillets were perfectly browned, and the sauce turned out great!
Suggested Wine Pairing: Pinot Noir

 

Chocolate Hazelnut Gelato

Anything Nutella-ish is A+ in my book! Gelato is essentially an Italian ice cream, however there are a few key differences from regular ice cream – there is significantly less butterfat, and it is typically stored at a slightly higher temperature to remain nice and soft. It is believed the chef for the Medici’s in the 16th century created what we know as modern-day gelato.

There are a lot of gelato places in the U.S. that aren’t that great – I’d recommend avoiding large chains if you want to try it.  If you are in the Phoenix Metro, my favorite is Gelato Dolce Vita.  They also make a mean drinking chocolate and cappuccino.  Check them out!
Suggested Wine Pairing:  I’m not big on pairing wine with this kind of dish, but a Port or sweet Sherry (such as a PX) would be nice.

 

Rum Raisin Tiramisu

There is debate whether Tiramisu (Italian for “pick-me-up,” likely for the caffeine in the dessert) originated in Sienna or Treviso.  Regardless of where it came from, it was a great way to end the evening.  It traditionally uses Marsala, but this recipe calls for dark rum – you can’t go wrong with rum, right?
Suggested Wine Pairing: Like the gelato, I’d go with a Port or sweet Sherry for this as well.

 

 

So that was our wonderful Italian Night for Le Nom!  Next month’s assignment? Polynesian/Chinese (odd mix, but people weren’t thrilled with Polynesian, so we decided to mix it up a bit).

What are some of your favorite Italian Dishes? Post below, I’d love to hear them!

A Tale of 5 Brews

No trip to the Denver area is complete without enjoying a few of the excellent beers Colorado offers.  If you think I’m talking about Coors, you can stop reading now and go back to your blue-canned beer and bro-love burritos at four a.m.  I’m not even talking about Fat Tire and its counterparts at New Belgium Ale; no, Colorado offers some of the finest craft beers and microbrews in the country, many of which are so fresh, you will be hard-pressed to find them outside of the region.

As much as I rag on Coors, I have to credit them with turning Colorado into a beer-making haven.  Walking down the street on any downtown area in Denver or its suburbs, you will find a number of pubs offering local brew on tap, many of which are beers the pubs brew themselves.  On our most recent trip to Colorado, we had the pleasure of visiting one of these brew pubs.  Wynkoop Brewery, located in downtown Denver, offers a wide variety of award-winning brews, all of which you can sample in 3 ounce glasses for a dollar a piece.   For my visit, I sampled 5 beers, which felt like I was taking a beer tour of the world even though everything was brewed in-house.

For anyone who is new to beer drinking, I would recommend starting out with wheat beers.  Malted barley is replaced with malted wheat, creating a mild flavor that is low in hops.  Wixa Weiss is Wynkoop’s offering for unfiltered wheat beer, made in the Bavarian tradition.  The beer has nice foam on top, and is cloudy in appearance.  Due to the fermentation process, the beer takes on distinctive notes of clove and banana.  My non-beer-drinking husband (who you will note was also a non-wine drinker not so long ago) was a huge fan of this beer.  He was frequently stealing a sip or two from my sample glass, loving the banana flavor in the beer.

Surprisingly, the only thing keeping my non-beer-drinking husband from drinking all of my Wixa Weiss, was my sample glass of Cowtown Milk Stout – I nearly had to slap his greedy paws away from this stout, which surprised both of us.  Milk stout is made using roasted malt or barley, but a little bit of milk sugar (lactose) is thrown in to add a touch of sweetness.  The brew became popular in Great Britain after World War II, but has since declined in popularity.  Wynkoop’s milk stout is smooth and delicious, has a rich, thick head, and has flavor notes of chocolate and coffee.  Although the flavor is robust, it isn’t sour or bitter in the slightest bit.  After trying Cowtown, we have since tried a bottled milk stout, and it didn’t compare to what we had on tap at Wynkoop.  If you are going to try a stout – try this, and try it on tap at Wynkoop.

The remaining three beers I sampled were far too “beer-like” for my husband, so I got to have them all to myself.  The most interesting of the three was Patty’s Chile Beer, an award-winning brew containing Anaheim chili peppers and smoked Ancho peppers.  If you are a fan of chili peppers, this is the beer for you – the beer is crisp and clean, but is distinctively spicy.  The chili pepper flavor is so pronounced, I’m not sure what would be a great pairing with it – perhaps a burrito or some other heavy, mildly-spicy Mexican food?  Like one of those bro-love burritos at 4 a.m. from the Coors commercials?  Hmm…at any rate, pairing it with something equally hot, like jalapeño poppers might be too much.

My favorite of the remaining three beers was their B3K Black Lager.  Made from malted barley, this lager is a schwarzbier, which has a slight smoky flavor.  I enjoyed the rich taste of the beer, and thought it would pair well with a smoky BBQ dish.  Because of its mild flavor, schwarzbier is a good beer to introduce someone to darker brews.  It’s not as bitter as British lagers, although it wasn’t as smooth as the milk stout.

The final beer I tried was their Belgorado Harvest IPA.  Where lager is brewed at cooler temperatures, IPAs are typically fermented at warmer temperatures.  This ale is what they call a Belgian-style IPA, which means it has the hoppy flavor of an IPA, but the dryness of a Belgian beer.  After having a few different IPAs, I’ve decided I’m not a fan of the flavor.  If there is going to be a hoppy bitter taste to a beer, I prefer something with a lot of flavor and muscle, like a stout.  A pale ale just doesn’t have enough flavor to balance the bitterness, in my opinion.  That said, the Belgorado would please many IPA fans for its hoppiness and fresh taste.

Unfortunately, most of Wynkoop’s offerings aren’t available outside of the Denver area, however that may change with their recent merger with Breckinridge Brewing Company.  Until then, I may just have to visit Colorado more frequently to get my fix of these delicious offerings!

 

Wynkoop Brewery is located at 1634 18th St. in downtown Denver, Colorado.

The Non-Wine Drinker Wine Drinking Series, Part I: Moscato D’Asti

He looked at the flute of Moscato D’Asti with his typical skepticism for any wine. He sipped.

He raised his eyebrows.  Could this be the one?

He took another sip.  “Oh my God…” he enthused.  “I like this!Like, I actually want to drink this!”

He ordered a glass for himself, and we bought a bottle to take home.  This was a double victory for me – not only did I finally find a wine my husband Chris would drink, it was bubbly, so it fits the bill for celebratory wines.  Considering we toasted on our wedding day with him drinking a Sprite, this was a big moment.

Moscato D’Asti is what I call a “gateway” wine.  Sweet, fizzy and crisp, it provides a great introduction to the wonderful world of wine for people like Chris.  I am convinced that there are two approaches to becoming a wine drinker, if you don’t care for the taste right off the bat: either you keep drinking the same wine until you acquire the taste (thank you, chardonnay), or you keep trying out different wines until you find one that you truly enjoy.  If you choose the latter method, Moscato D’Asti is a great starting point.  But what is it? What makes it so tasty and sweet compared to other wines?

Well, much like anything else in this world, sweetness comes from sugar.  Without getting too technical, the fermentation process in winemaking converts the sugar in grapes to alcohol.  The less sugar that is converted, the sweeter the wine tends to be.  Moscato D’Asti goes through an intricate fermentation process to keep the sugar from converting to alcohol: the process begins with a gentle pressing of Moscato Bianco grapes to extract their juices.  The stock from the juices is then stored at 0 degrees Celsius to prevent fermentation from occurring.  When it’s time to ferment the juice, it is stored in an airtight, pressurized tank and heated up to 15 degrees Celsius.  The pressurized tank retains the carbon dioxide that forms during this process, allowing the wine to retain its fizz.  The juice continues to ferment until the sugars have converted enough to put the stock at 5-6% alcohol.  At that point, the yeast in the mixture needs to be made dormant to halt the fermentation process, so the stock is chilled back down to 0.  Once chilled, the juice is filtered again into another pressurized tank to settle.  The filtration removes the dormant yeast, preventing further fermentation.  The very controlled halting of the fermentation process is what makes Moscato D’Asti sweeter than its mass-produced sister, Asti Spumante (now known simply as Asti).

When pairing sweeter wines with foods, you generally do not want to eat something that is sweeter than your wine; if you do so, it will often give your wine more of an acidic taste.  Thankfully, Moscato D’Asti is sweet, but not cloyingly so; its flavor allows it to pair nicely with most desserts, especially fruit-based or berry-based desserts.  A dessert with mascarpone cheese and peaches would be delicious with this wine.  Moscato D’Asti also goes nicely with salads or fluffy, light pastries.

What is the best way to serve Moscato D’Asti so you can enjoy it at its full flavor potential?  First of all, an important general rule to follow with any kind of wine is the sweeter the wine, the colder it is served.  If you had a glass of Moscato D’Asti served at room temperature, the sweetness would taste almost syrupy.  When chilled at 10-12 degrees Celsius, it remains sweet, but takes on a crisper, refreshing feel over your palate.

Moscato D’Asti is in the frizzante style, making it less bubbly than sparkling wines like Asti Spumante or champagne.  Because it is less bubbly, it tends to lose its effervescence sooner, so I recommend drinking it the day you open the bottle.

Where sparkling wines are to be served in a flute, Moscato D’Asti is properly served in a standard white wine glass.  If you ever have Moscato D’Asti at a restaurant, chances are they are going to serve it in a flute – while this is considered incorrect, it’s not going to ruin the flavor or the experience of the wine.  Besides, let’s face it – champagne flutes indicate celebration and fun; if it’s the only fizzy wine you like, why not put it in a flute for a special event?  If someone is going to be a snob about it, chances are, they’ll be a snob simply because you prefer the sweet Moscato D’Asti over a brut champagne.

Now that you are ready to enjoy your first glass of Moscato D’Asti, it’s time to give you a few recommendations:it is important to know when you are searching for a bottle that there are other wines that have Moscato in their names, but they are not Moscato D’Asti, and they will have distinctly different flavors.  The Moscato grape is used for a multitude of rich, dessert wines, like Muscatel from Spain, or a California wine called Essensia, which has a distinct floral flavor.  Moscato D’Asti always is listed as such on the DOCG label, which is located near the lip.  DOCG stands for denominazione di origine controllata (“controlled origin denomination”), and its presence on your bottle verifies that the wine was produced in a specific region of Italy, and meets the defined quality standards and methods for making for that type of wine.

If you are at a restaurant, Moscato D’Asti is located in either the sparkling wine section, or in the dessert wine section (often served with your dessert menu).  However, if you are going to go out and buy a bottle to try, here are three of my favorites:

Michael Chiarlo Nivole is by far my top choice for three reasons: it is a half-bottle, it is inexpensive (you should be able to find it for under $15), and it is a high-quality Moscato.  I buy this brand often, and have yet to come across a bad bottle.  Fortunately, it is also very common – you should be able to find it at your favorite wine cellar; it is also often available at both Total Wine & More and BevMo.

Marenco Scrapona is a little more difficult to find, but it is delicious and worth the purchase if you come across it.  I’ve never seen it at the big-name stores, but found it at a local wine cellar.

Vino Dei Fratelli is also quite good, and seems to be a little easier to find than the Marenco.  I have seen it in Whole Foods, and it is also available at BevMo.  Keep in mind that if you are in an area where it is legal to ship wines, you can find these brands via on-line stores.