Friday, July 25, 2014

Michelin Star Dining

On every Wine-Knows trip we try to include at least one visit to a Michelin star restaurant.  Until recently, gourmet diners had to travel abroad to dine in a Michelin star restaurant, however, the much revered Michelin rating system for restaurants is now in the US and has become popular among serious foodies.  The system began in France (where else?) and the story goes something like this…

The Michelin guide began in 1900 when the Michelin tire company offered a freebie brochure for its customers who were embarking on a trip.  It offered maps and tips on how to fix a tire and where to stop for car problems.  As an aside, it also offered information on lodging and restaurants. By the mid-1920’s, the brochure had morphed into a guide that now cost drivers, and included a special designation for restaurants that were exemplary. 

By the 1930’s, the guide was a bright red color and it had fine-tuned its restaurant rating system into almost the same system used today: good restaurants were simply listed (it was an honor to be even listed in the guide).  Particularly noteworthy restaurants, however, were listed in a hierarchy:  one star restaurants were special gourmet stops;  two star establishments were even more oou-la-la  for foodies; three star restaurants offered la crème de la crème of France’s finest dining.

So what criteria is used by Michelin?  No one knows for sure as its rating system and inspectors’ identities are as carefully guarded as the keys to the wine cellar of the Elysee Palace (the home of France’s Presidents).  That being said, the following figure somewhere into the equation: 
  • Service
  • Quality of tableware (e.g. china, stemware, linens)
  • Appointments of dining room (e.g. floral arrangements, draperies, chairs, lighting)
  • Quality of food
  • Quality of wine list

Michelin guides are now in 20-something countries and often have a “make or break” influence on chefs/restaurants.  At least one chef has committed suicide over losing a star…numerous bankruptcies, restaurant closures, and divorces have occurred because of demotions of a star.

Coming to Sicily on the Fall tour?  We’ll be dining at La Madia in Licata, a two star Michelin restaurant.  The guide (published every year and available in most bookstores for about $35), is also available online at

Friday, July 18, 2014

An Updated (and Better) Caprese Salad

There are those who will say one can’t improve on the Italian classic named after the island of Capri on which it originated.  I was one of them… until recently. It’s one of those “I wouldn’t have believed it until I tasted it” phenomena.  Tasting is believing!  And, now is the time to try this gem as nectarines are in their prime.

Like the original Caprese salad, the new version is easy and fast (less than 30 minutes to assemble---no cooking is required).  The new rendition actually uses both nectarines and tomatoes (also coming in to their perfect season).  And, both mint, as well as basil, are used.  Important tip:  do NOT skip the mint as it’s one of the recipe’s secrets.  Also, do not tear or cut either of these herbs until right before serving (to preserve their best aromas).

Ingredients (6 salads served as a first course):

~ 2 lbs of assorted heirloom tomatoes (the smaller are often more flavorful)

~ 1.5 lbs of perfectly ripe white nectarines (yellow can also be substituted)

~ 8 oz of mozzarella or burrata

~ ¼ cup of basil (either the green or purple varietal)

~ ¼ cup of mint

~ 1 Tablespoon peach vinegar (can substitute another fruit vinegar, or Champagne vinegar)

~ ½ Tablespoon of Balsamic vinegar (light or dark)

~ 3 Tablespoons of good quality EVOO (I used ½ regular EVOO, and ½ Basil    flavored EVOO)

~ Freshly ground black pepper and sea salt


Cut tomatoes and nectarines into wedges.  Slice cheese.  Place on platter (or individual serving dishes).  Scatter freshly chopped basil and mint over salad.  Wisk together the vinegars and oil in a small bowl, then drizzle over salad.  Sprinkle with salt & pepper.

Buon appetito!

Friday, July 11, 2014

Nero d’Avola—Sicily’s Signature Grape

Nero d’Avola is rarely found outside of Sicily.  Brought by the Greeks to the Mediterranean’s largest island (Sicily), it is named because of its almost black skin (nero means black in Italian).  It is also named after the town of Avola, located close to the town of Siracusa where the Greeks arrived several centuries B.C.

The varietal, which flourishes in Sicily’s hot and arid climate, is the most planted red grape on Sicily.  Nero d’Avola is often compared to Syrah, as the two thrive in similar growing conditions.  Syrah is also an intensely colored grape.  Both Nero and Syrah offer sweet tannins as well as peppery and plum profiles.  Nero, however, is more aromatic and its seductive flavors of raspberries, cherries nearly billow out of the glass.

There are > 100 different micro-climates in Sicily and Nero has its own distinctive features depending on which area it is grown.  In general, the western side of the island produces more intensely concentrated black-fruit wines that can be harsh and muscular.  In Sicily’s central area, the grape tends to produce wines that have more red fruit character.  But, it is in the southeast, that Nero d’Avola reaches its pinnacle where wines are elegant with after tastes of dried fruits.  The Wine-Knows group that will be visiting Sicily this Fall will be staying on a famous wine estate in this prized growing region.

The grape can be vinified as a single varietal, or blended with others.  The most famous blending is with Frappato to make Cerasuolo di Vittoria, Sicily’s only  DOCG (Italy’s top wine classification).   Here 30-50%  of Nero d’Avola is blended with the lighter weight Frappato.  Nero adds the muscular backbone, while Frappato’s freshness softens.  More recently, Sicilians have even begun to blend Nero with Syrah trying to create a more international-style wine.

What to pair with Nero d’Avola?  Grilled meats and chicken are perfect, however, Sicily’s famous pasta a la Norma (eggplant and tomatoes) is also magnifico.  Another of the island’s most prized culinary items is swordfish.  Especially if it’s grilled, swordfish can be lovely when paired with Nero.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Paris’ Best Croissant & Baguette

Every year a team of well qualified Parisian gastronomes conduct tastings to determine the best of the best croissants and baguettes.   Under very strict rules (blind tastings, products must be of a precise size & weight, everything must be delivered in un-marked brown bags, etc.), the illustrious team of judges of the Concours du Meilleur nibbles their way through 100’s of entries.  Here are the results of this culinary Grand Prixe:

Best Croissant:   Michel Lyczak’s shop is located in Malakoff (a southern suburb of Paris, reached by the Metro’s line #13).   Sounds like a good reason to make the trek to the burbs, non?    68 rue Paul Vaillant Couturier.

Michel Lyczak palming one of his "babies"

Best Baguette:  Boulangerie Aux Délices du Palais (this is the 1st time that a boulangerie has ever won twice---16 years ago, the award was won by the father of the current baker).  Surprisingly, this family of bakers comes from Portugal.  60 Boulevard Brune, 14th Arrondisement (Metro Vanves). 

                        Anthony Teixeira & his father at Boulangerie Aux Délices du Palais