The Best Bites & Libations of 2017! #tt

2017 will go down in the history books as a dauntless year of firsts! Working my first harvest, swinging of a cliff across from the active Volcán Tungurahua, unplugging at 15,000 ft, enveloped in soft clouds, accomplishing a spirits blind tasting test, the trip to hallowed ground of Nebbiolo- Barolo, too a journey to the middle of the earth at 0 0’ 0” and more….

Briefly lifting my head buried in books to capture snapshots of this prolific and fleeting year. It’s an agonizing task, fundamentally because each experience, regardless of location, price, prestige, or cuisine, not only nourished our frames and elevated our palates, they reaffirm our faith in the basic goodness of mankind.

The resonating theme for this year is accessibility and value for money. Paying homage to small businesses, driven by passion and unshakeable faith, they are beacons of conscientiousness, armed with boatload of fearlessness, undeterred by the wind or fashion, spreading magic in our lives.

According to SBA (small business administration), there are more than 28.2 million businesses operating in the United States, accounting for 99.7% of all US businesses. By supporting your local business/winery/restaurant/farmer, not only do you boost the local economy by circulating dollars within the community, reduce environmental impact, invest in your and your children’s future; you literally build character in your community, and nurture your minds, in this case literally one sip or bite at a time.

So without further ado, I present to you the Best Bites & Sips of 2017, (in no particular order). Bites and swigs with an element of surprise and lip-smacking satisfaction, expressing haunting flavors that always seems just out of reach and always just beyond description.

Our latest travel takes us to the land permeating with natural beauty – Ecuador, a treasure trove of picturesque peaks, viridescent tropical rain forests, two smouldering volcanoes, also home to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution (Galapagos Islands), bountiful fruits and vegetables, invigorating air, and some of the most benevolent souls, collectively as a nation, we have come across in our varied travels.

Some times the simplest things in life take up the most room in our hearts. Llapingachos (yah-peen-GAH-chos) Ecuador’s aboriginal emblematic dish, takes the ubiquitous mashed potato to new heights. It’s impossible to describe just how perfectly complete, this savory/sweet plate of airy potatoes soft as custard, spiked with piquant tomato salsa, earthy beet salad, crisp lettuce, adorned with a single fried egg, house made chorizo, an entire creamy avocado, drizzled with aji sauce was. For $3.50, it earns the Best Good Eats!

I whole heartedly agree with Anaïs Nin – “Luxury is not a necessity to me, but beautiful and good things are.”

New Delhi, my home town has taken bounds and leaps since I left India in its expansion of cuisines. In recent years the Delhiites (as the residents of New Delhi are called) have embraced all international cuisines with open arms and thereby crated a demand for authentic “other than Indian food”. That said, where can you find the “best” Indian food?

Pinnacle of juiciness – Galawaat Kebab, could we be audacious enough to consider it the “perfect” kebab? Mopping up mouthwatering morsels of Gosht Nihari, lamb shanks swimming in a deeply flavored yet unbelievably light stew, with Gilafi Naan Pushtaini, where laminated buttery dough meets tangy yeast risen naan to create a flamboyantly flaky bread. Yes! this is precisely what I envisioned Muglai cuisine should deliver. Delicate palate tickling flavors, where each spice shines, not the single dimensional grease and cream infested, diluted versions available in every nook and cranny of Delhi or for that matter America. And the endless permutations of wine pairings from sparkling, racy whites, fruited roses, to rich reds, that will not be over shadowed by the heat(chili) factor. Hallelujah!!

At times, fancy or expensive tools does not necessitate magic in your kitchen. Some good technique, dash of patience, and abundance of high quality ingredients, will do the job. Tucked away in the corporate corner of Gurgaon, India, Pushtaini, is a gem hiding in plain sight –  crafting a kaleidoscope of flavors (from the tiniest kitchen I laid my eyes on). Where you can eat like royalty without astronomical damages to your wallet. And yes they deliver!! Hands down the Best Meal of this year.

A lifelong spokeswoman of all things Italy, we found ourselves back in our spiritual motherland – Italy, specifically Barolo. Where 70 of the world’s notable wine experts, journalists, sommeliers, and Italian Wine Ambassadors aka yours truly, congregated to experience the glory and richness of Italian regionality via a celebration forged by the grandest twinning of all – art, food, and wine at Collisioni. 

Italy’s one of eight and Piedmont’s only 3-Star Michelin restaurant, Piazza Duomo exceeded all our expectations with whimsical presentations and magnificent morsels from locally sourced ingredients, specifically from Chef Enrico Crippa’s personal playground – a bio-dynamic garden boasting 500+ wild herbs, that easily positions the White House Garden to shame. Add magnanimous maverick Federico Ceretto’s breathtaking estate as backdrop, and world class wines Ceretto to the mix, it was unquestionably the high point of this glorious year.

Montalbera

Speaking of wine, also from Piemonte, the wild card wine that wins the notable Rare Find of 2017, happens to be from the unsung hero of Piemonte – the aboriginal grape Ruche. Unearthing it’s scrumptious potential, was the local pastor Don Giacomo Cauda. Today, production is limited to the two towns of Monferrato and Scurzolengo.

A pretty red, that promise to turn all heads, Montalbera’s Ruche di Castagnole Monferrato DOCG La Tradizione 2015, danced in the glass with intensely floral notes, ripe red berries, minty thyme, and hints of white pepper. Showcasing purity with emphasis on ripe tannins, the floral bouquet and medium body allows it to be consumed as an aperitif, while the lively acid stands its ground to a cup of not so spicy chili or your mom’s pot roast.

In my adopted home state Orlando, the award for both the Best New Restaurant and Restauranteer, is shared by the dynamic duo Jason Chin and his lovely wife Sue, for introducing not one but three, highly successful, ethnically diverse eateries, while upholding traditional tastes.

I have the sweetest spot for tamales that I am perpetually searching to satisfy. The Street Tamale and Ryes Mezcaleria is precisely what Orlando was missing, texturally tantalizing, folded with savory and sweet notes, it rocked all our senses. PS: cocktails and other classic dishes are spot on too.

My love affair with South African wines bloomed from a trade seminar, hosted by the the illustrious Dr. Jamie Goode at TexSom. The Innovative award of the year is lauded to the cult status boutique winery – De Toren. Who had courage of convictions to break traditions, while adopting an admirable code of self-regulation (23 to be precise but whose counting), that embody best of both the worlds – latest scientific technology to recognize and unravel the true potential of their estate, while upholding traditional wine-making with minimal intervention – hand harvesting, manual sorting, non-use of mechanical instruments and no filtration.

Emil and Albie are producing some of South Africa’s finest quality wines in relation to price. Rich with dark fruit and powerful Cabernet dominated De Toren Fusion V 2014 and luscious blue fruit with silky tannins De Toren Z 2013, both already expressive in their youthful charm, with such vigor and verve.

And mind you, take it from personal experience, I can not emphasis enough how crucial hand-sorting is to the quality of the wine. Both hand-harvesting and sorting are time-consuming quality measures that ensure only the flawless, unblemished, and healthy grape bunches fabricates the backbone of their marvelous wines.

 

“Life is not measured by the number of breaths you take but by the moments that take your breath away” – Maya Angelou. To all you geeks itching to apply for a harvest internship – spoiler alert – harvest is difficult work and it requires tireless determination that will take your breath away.
Christmas shopping for the wine lover in your life? Snag a bottle of the ultra-premium De Toren Book 17 XVII or Black Lion 100% Shiraz, both undergoes ruthless selection, including drastically reducing yields (5 times), that promises to deliver seriously sensual sips, for years if not decades to come.
Women are the creators and keepers of life, eternally nurturing and nourishing. It’s heartwarming and befitting to note that rocking girl power, are an exclusively team of women, who tend De Toren’s vine to wine.

According to a 2014 report from the National Bureau of Labor Statistics, the hospitality labor workforce in the United States is now 51 percent female. Powerful things happen when women come together, the energy is uplifting and addictive. Celebrating Women in the Kitchen in our backyards was James Beard Foundation’s four-course sublime soiree, hosted by our very own celebrity chef Kathleen Spoon, (The Rusty Spoon, Orlando, FL), with an all-star cast including: Chefs Adrienne Grenier (3030 Ocean, Ft. Lauderdale, FL),  Paul Da Silva (Burlock Coast Seafare & Spirits), JBF award winner Anne Quatrano (Star Provisions), Whitney Otawka (Greyfield Inn, Cumberland Island, GA), Melissa Kelly (Primo, Rockland ME), Katharine Elder (Elderslie Farm and Bramble Café, Valley Center, KS), Jennifer Pucio and JBF award winning pastry chef Emily Luchetti (The Cavalier, Leo’s Oyster Bar, Marlowe, and The Park Tavern, San Francisco), Gloriann Rivera(1921 by Norman Van Aken, Mount Dora, FL). Awarded our most Exhilarating Experience of 2017!

“You educate a man; you educate a man. You educate a woman; you educate a generation.”
― Brigham Young.

Frankly speaking, we don’t sport much of a sweet tooth. However, we do thoroughly appreciate the tremendous artistry of pâtissiers, the Michelangelo’s of edible art. One time we devoured each technically perfect, visually stunning, sublime spread, was at Homestead Harvest fundraiser benefiting Fleet Farming, where celebrity chefs and like-minded foodies rallied to creates a culture of health and vibrant ecosystems.
Luxury hotel Ritz Carlton’s Pastry Chefs Sebastien Thieffine (The Ritz-Carlton Naples) and Stephane Cheramy, (The Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott Orlando, Grande Lakes) flawlessly married playfulness, color palettes, and impeccable construction in their whimsical pièce de résistances, that are still haunting our dreams. Bravo!!

Diamonds are a girl’s best friend. In our case, it’s sparkling wines which makes us feel alive! Disclosure – It only took intensive research and multiple blind tasting sessions in preparation for the WSET Diploma’s Sparkling Wines exam to truly grasp the cerebral complexities of method Champenoise and its painstakingly patient process.

Krug Grande Cuvee, the flagship label from the iconic Champagne House’s portfolio, seamlessly crafted, tells a story of 120+wines, of which 35-50% is sourced from their reserve collection of six – ten vintages. Pale golden in colour, it shimmered with soft mousse, ultra-fine bubbles, ravishing fruit, rich honeyed palate, and well-integrated oak – an epitome of exalted equilibrium. A very complete and complex wine, with suggestions of hazelnut and dried fruits – there’s simply nothing quite like it.

The perennial question people ask us – What’s your favorite meal of the week? Unequivocally for us it is Brunch. There is nothing better than a boozy brunch to melt away your weekend woes. It’s like a mini-getaway, to nourish your soul and body, with bubbles and butter. South Carolina’s hottest family steakhouse Halls Chophouse Lavender scented Brioche French Toast will permanently alter your perception of french toasts. A sublime interpretation, supple softness of the brioche, contrasted with the crunchiness of cornflakes, adorned with espresso mascarpone cheese and applewood smoked bacon, aka our new favorite.

We can’t stop gushing over the impressively, consistent bottlings from one of Spring Mountain, California’s enigmatic paragons – Spring Mountain Vineyard, producing some of the longest-ageing new  world wines, one you should know; one we truly adore. We have yet to uncork an older vintage that was tired, or over the hill.

Aromatic purity, elegance, restraint, and the discernible delicacy and tension is the connecting thread for their entire portfolio ranging from the tropical fruit driven Sauvignon Blanc, creamy Chardonnay, succulent Cabernet Sauvignon, to the dazzling intellectual beauty – Elivette.

We still haven’t quite managed to pin down the magic – whether it’s the 8 diverse soils, 135 parcels swaggering distinct micro-climates sustainably farmed, the colorful history (the trailblazer Tiburcio Parrott’s revolutionary victory in 1880, against the State of California, that prohibited the employment of Chinese or Mongolian workers), or superior wine making skills, the very essence of Spring Mountain is an unwavering testament that manages to do what so few can: combining concentration with elegance, and for over 14 decades. Now that kind of perseverance merits an award!!

“Perseverance is the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did” – Newt Gingrich.

All the stars were aligned in my favor, as my bucket list dream came true – working harvest at one of the prettiest landscapes in the universe – Brooks Wines. They earned the Best Winery of the Year, not only for developing and effortlessly executing a wine enrichment program, more importantly for the professional camaraderie and unconditional support wine maker Chris Williams and his team contributes towards the local community, notably the farmers. These are a rare breed of men (and 1 super woman – Ms. Claire), designed from a fabric of fortitude, tenacity, solidarity, and loyalty. They are here to reminds us that wine-making is a reverent glimpse into our history, heritage, craft, and relentless pursuit of perfection through experimentation and progress. And I was deeply honored and humbled to witness such nobility.

Notable Mentions:

The exuberantly feminine and nimble 100% Sangiovese Col di Lamo Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2012 – a class of it’s own, produced by the sophisticated lady wine maker Giovanni Neri, from her organic/BD vineyards.

Taco Billy Asheville tantalizing take on Vegetarian Tacos and the BEST damn Biscuits from Biscuit Head, period. And yes we visited them two days in a row. (yet another 1st for us).

It seems like this year we swapped our chefs knives and apron for a wine glass and spitting cup (not that we are complaining). What we consume, inevitably consumes us, and we surrender to wine with reckless abandon, for life.

When food and wine is treated with the respect it so richly deserves, it becomes a way of life. These are our every day heroes, relinquishing guns for grapes and chef knives, with unwavering set of lofty principles, meticulously crafting superior products, on a daily basis. And that my dear friends, is where you can taste the difference!

Until next year, have a delicious day!!

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