Thursday, March 22, 2012

Chicago's Benny's Chop House a cut above

Benny’s Chop House: A cut above

Story and photos by Dwight Casimere

-The stunning North Lounge

-Director of Operations Mitchell Schmieding

-Pastry Chef Aaron Lundgren shares his culinary secrets for great S’More

-Pastry Chef Aaron Lundgren’s scrumptious house-made desserts

CHICAGO---There must be an aura that descends upon anything located in the shadow of Trump Tower. Sometimes, just walking by the place, I feel awash in wealth, prestige and power. The same feeling must have possessed the creators of Benny’s Chop House, the latest addition to the Windy City’s laundry list of steak houses.

Everything you’d expect to find on the menu of a typical steak house is on the menu at Benny’s. There’s one huge exception; the food that is served, the method of service and the presentation are head and shoulders above anything you have experienced before. The oysters are fresher, the shrimp bigger, the salad crisper and the steaks-more on that later!

A recent sampling of the restaurant’s spring menu revealed that Benny’s has internalized the concept of the Chicago steak house and elevated it to a new and higher level. From the start, steakhouse classics, such as the shrimp cocktail, for example, have been supplanted by something far superior. A seafood sampler included Jumbo Prawns. The term “prawn”, which I learned while residing in Sausalito, on San Francisco Bay, is used to reference ultra-large shrimp that approach the size of South African lobster tails. There’s nothing quite like them. Melted butter served on the side is unnecessary, they have a mouth pleasing texture and buttery taste all their own. The Japanese call the flavor sensation “Umami.” Perhaps that’s where occidentals derived the term “Yummy.”

An accompanying glass of superior Pierre Moncuit Champagne ($28 and Wine Spectator rated 90 points out of a possible 100, with its creamy mouth-feel and crisp notes of peach and Meyer lemons, was the perfect foil. This is what French Champagne is all about, and is a sterling example of the care and discriminating taste that goes into creating Benny’s wine list of some 1300-1500 labels.

A grouping of “Oyster Wednesday” selections highlighted an exotic mix of fresh oysters, which arrive fresh daily from waters far and near. “”We have a roster of outstanding seafood purveyors who fly these in fresh for us everyday,” said

Director of Operations Mitchell Schmieding. A veteran of eighteen years with the eponymous Charlie Trotter, Schmieding brings with him a meticulous sense of style, order and quality. With the opening of the original Charlie Trotter’s at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas to his credit, its no surprise that Benny’s Chop House is well-orchestrated production. In keeping with that ‘dining-as-entertainment’ concept, Benny’s Chop House features a Live Entertainment Schedule with the incomparable International Music Festival winner Greta Pope and Paul Coscino performing in the North Lounge, with a lively repertoire of music from Brazil to Broadway, a complimentary view of the aforementioned Trump Tower is included through the lounge’s arched floor-to-ceiling windows.

I digress. Now, back to the food. A pleasant variation on the traditional steakhouse lettuce wedge arrived in the form of a grilled Romaine Lettuce stalk slathered in a tangy lemon-garlic vinaigrette accompanied by a couple of wooden pizza spatulas covered with crispy flatbreads topped with wild mushrooms and truffles and another with house-made Italian sausage and Bell peppers. I would have been perfectly satisfied if the meal had stopped there. I loved the grilled Romaine; in fact, I tried some on my own on my garden grill. What an imaginative twist!

Next came the piece de resistance and the raison d’etre of Benny’s very existence, the USDA Prime Natural Filet Mignon. Howell Mountain 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, with its distinctive rich flavor of volcanic mineral soil and deep, bramble, old vines dark berries and smooth tannins underscored the rich mineral flavor of this prime aged steak. I tasted this exquisite wine from the barrel at the recent Premiere Weekend in Napa Valley. This wine is strictly allocated and can be found only at the winery or in the cellars of the most discriminating collectors and a few specialty wine shops. The fact that Benny’s has it on its wine list is further testament to the restaurant’s stature.

According to Schmieding, the restaurant has its own beef production program which ensures that it will always have high-quality USDA Prime Steak, from a reliable source at all times. “The problem with many steak houses is that they have to rely on several suppliers to meet the high demand. That means the steaks may not always be of uniform quality and type. Sometimes what happens is that in party of six each person may wind up having a different steak from an entirely different source. That can make a huge difference in the dining experience that each person will have.”

The steak was served with Home-made Cured Maple Bacon. I have personally sworn off bacon for dietary reasons, but you weren't there to watch me as I devoured every morsel. The Blue Cheese Croquette was a stroke of culinary genius as were the accompanying Tri-Colored Spring Carrots. A nice touch!

Pastry chef Aaron Lundgren provided a fitting postscript to the afternoon, with a poet’s assemble of delicacies, Michigan Apple Pie with fresh Vanilla Bean Cream and my personal favorite, killer Milk Chocolate S’mores with Graham Cracker, a favorite of my daughter’s. She used to cook them over an open fire on the beach in Lake Tahoe. Yes, my mind was transported back to those Halcyon days as I took another sip of Howell Mountain along with a final, heavenly bite of dessert. As I walked past Trump Tower on my way across the Wabash Avenue Bridge, I barely looked toward the imposing structure. I had already experienced the pinnacle of perfection.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

"Cabernet is King" at Francesca's Fortunato

Cabernet is King” at Francesca’s Fortunato in Frankfort, IL.

Story and photo gallery by Dwight Casimere

-Dwight The Wine Doctor with Marchesi Piero Antinori, creator of Antica Chardonnay and Col Solare wines, at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival

Francesca's Fortunato in Frankfort and its fabulous cuisine

FRANKFORT, IL—It’s hard to believe that it’s been 20 years since Chef Scott Harris opened the doors to what was, then, a revolutionary concept on the local Chicago area dining scene; a straightforward, casual dining establishment that served authentic Northern Italian cuisine, using fresh, locally sourced ingredients, with ample portions, friendly service and reasonable prices. Mia Francesca on North Clark, known locally as simply “Francesca’s,” was an instant hit with diners on the burgeoning Lakeview/Lincoln Park dining scene, with everyone, including myself, returning time and again to sample the daily specials that mirrored some of the dishes I’d experienced at trattorias in Tuscany and Umbria on my many visits to Italy. Some of the restaurant’s menu staples, like Carpaccio con Sedano, or the heavenly, gut-busting Pollo Arrosto Ala Romana, remain favorites to this day.

I had an opportunity to become reacquainted with Francesca’s at its 13th incarnation, Francesca’s Fortunato in Frankfort, just a few miles south of The Times Weekly’s home base in downtown Joliet. Francesca’s Fortunato is tucked away on a quiet, tree-lined street in a secluded part of Frankfort, just a stone’s throw from Indian Boundary Park. Resembling a country roadhouse, the restaurant serves a mix of inspired contemporary Italian and American cuisine that leans heavily toward the earthy, seasonal fare of the Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio regions of Italy, where the company’s corporate chefs often travel to for inspiration. The fact that this night’s special menu presentation was centered around the magnificent Cabernet Sauvignon wines of California’s Napa Valley, was an added plus to the immediate delight of an unusually warm, mid-winter night.

Over the years, Francesca’s wine list, specializing in tantalizing vintages from Italy and California, grew to be one of the most food-focused in the area. Often featuring hard-to-find and heavily allocated vintages from the most esteemed wine-makers, such as Piero Antinori, scion of the famed winery of the same name in Tuscany, and new owner and wine creator at the famed Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars of Napa Valley, which now bottles his critically acclaimed Antica label.

Stag’s Leap is historic for its winning of the famed “Judgment of Paris,” Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, in which Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon won a blind tasting against France’s top Bordeaux’s, including Chateau Mouton-Rothschild and Chateau Haut-Brion. The wine competition, organized by esteemed British wine merchant Steve Spurrier, featured a panel of French judges who carried out two blind tasting comparisons. Another California wine also won the white wine competition. Chateau Montelena’s 1973 Napa Valley Chardonnay beat out vintages from the legendary Burgundy houses of Mersault, Joseph Drouchin’s Beaune Close de Mouches and Puligny-Montrachet from Domaine Leflaive. The eleven judges hailed from such origins as France’s illustrious Taillevent restaurant and the winemaker from Domaine de la Romanee-Conti and the sommelier at Paris’ Tour D’Argent restaurant.

I digress. Francesca Fortunato’s “Cabernet is King” wine dinner was an exquisite delight. No less than Francesca’s Corporate Chef Massimo Salantino, a native of Italy, who studied at Italy’s prestigious Scuola Alberghiera di Stresa, Lago Maggiore, and who honed his culinary skills at such gastronomic temples as the Regina Palace Hotel and Harry’s Bar in Venice and Ciao Bella and Cipriani in New York, along with Chef Horatio Sanchez and Francesca Fortunato’s resident chef Rafael Aguirre, designed a dinner around the aforementioned Piero Antinori’s 2009 Antica Chardonnay ($35) and 2006 Col Solare ($45) , a Bordeaux blend from his Washington State property, vinified with the partnership of Chateau Ste. Michelle winery, and Conn Creek’s 2008 Cabernet ($23) and Stag’s Leap Hands of Time ($35), a Bordeaux blend which commemorates the legacy of the more than 35 winemakers who vinified the legendary wines of Stag’s Leap under its founder Warren Winiarski and his family. The winery maintains a permanent collection of an exhibit with cast handprints of each of the winemakers. The image is also emblazoned on the wine’s labels. Francesca Fortunato’s sous chefs Leonel Baca and Gaston Escobedo were another key part of the overall success of the event.

Additionally, I had an opportunity to taste both the 2009 Antica Chardonnay and the 2006 Col Solare in the presence of Marchesi Piero Antinori himself, in a special tasting symposium held at the recent Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival in Miami. In a few days, I’ll be tasting his 2008 Bolgheri Superiore Tenuta Guado al Tasso ($70) at the prestigious Opera Wine, the new premiere event at Vinitaly 2012 at the Palazzo della Ragione, the majestic palace that was once City Hall, alongside historic Piazza Erbe, in the Medieval city of Verona.

At Francesca Fortunato, the wine dinner prepared by chef’s Solantino, Sanches and Aguirre was nothing short of exquisite. From the opening salvo, Filetto Di Pesce All’ Aroma Di Nocciole E Insalata Di Campo, Hazelnut encrusted Grouper fish with baby greens in a beurre blanc (white crème) sauce, paired with 2009 Antica Chardonnay, it was a match made in heaven. The rich fattiness of the white fish combined with the cream sauce was the perfect foil to the earthy limestone backbone of the Antica Chardonnay. The wine’s flavor and structure are derived from the rocky, dry soil of Atlas Peak, which dominates the Napa Valley, high above the Silverado Trail. Antica Chardonnay is a crisp dry white, with the color and flavor of citrusy Meyer lemon, with flavors of little green apples and Bosc pears on the palate and a finish that wraps the tongue in butter and a touch of cinnamon and sandalwood. The beginning bite of Grouper combined with a sip of Antica created a Sirocco (strong wind) in the mouth!

The standout dish, and one which I’ve tried to replicate ever since this dining experience, is the Arancini Alla Valdostana, Rice Balls filled with Prosciutto. Fontina, Sage, with smoked roasted tomato sauce and bitter greens (a simplified recipe follows). Paired with the incomparable 2008 Conn Creek Cabernet ($23), this was a dish that literally exploded in the mouth with a surprising mix of flavors and textures, a phenomenon that the Italians call “saltimbocca” (jumps in your mouth). Whole Foods has a version of these rice balls in their ready to eat case, but its better to either go to the restaurant or make them yourself.

I was really starting to get full by the time the Paccheri Della Nonna, hand-made pasta (all of the pastas at Francesca’s are house-made) with braised pork, herbs (fresh, local) and Parmigiano (fresh, imported Italian) cheese. I did linger to taste the 2009 Hands of Time and took a few bites of the braised pork. The food was perfectly prepared, but nothing could equal the superlative taste of the wine. This was one example of the wine outshining the food in its complexity, texture and flavor. I later experienced both the braised pork and the final course of Bisteca Con Cipolline E Polenta, charred London Broil with Gorgonzola cheese polenta with Cipollini onion and grilled asparagus spears. I had this dish with a bottle of 2006 Col Solare ($45) at home, having taken home the leftovers and had an unbelievably rapturous experience while watching a PBS-TV replay of Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli (“the fourth tenor”) in concert in Central Park.

There’s always room for dessert, so naturally, I had a handful of the miniature house-made cookies and a swirling cup of creamy cappuccino. Abondanza!

Francesca Fortunato

40 Kansas St.

Frankfort, Il. 60423



Francesca Fortunato’s Rice Balls

Filled with Prosciutto, Fontina cheese and Sage


Fried Stuffed Rice Balls

These little rice balls are known as arancini, or little oranges, because of their golden crust, which gives them the appearance of an orange. They can be stuffed with various types of cheese, meats, or chopped vegetables. Arancini are served as snack food in bars and cafes all over Sicily.

Arancini can be assembled up to an hour in advance and fried at the last minute.

Arancini (Fried Rice Balls) Stuffed wih Prosciutto and Fontina with Sage

(Makes 12)

2-1/2 cups chicken broth

Pinch of sage

1 cup Arborio rice

1 tablespoon butter

Salt to taste

1/2 cup grated or crumbled

Fontina cheese

1 whole egg and 1 egg yolk

1 cup flour

2 cups bread crumbs

3 egg whites

2 ounces prosciutto, chopped

2 ounces fontina

Vegetable oil for deep-frying

In a saucepan, combine the broth and sage and bring to a boil.

Stir in the rice, butter, and salt.

Cover, reduce heat to low, and cook 18-20 minutes.

Transfer the rice to a bowl and stir in the Parmesan cheese.

Let cool slightly, then stir in the whole egg and yolk.

Allow to cool completely.

Place the flour and bread crumbs on 2 separate plates.

In a small bowl, lightly beat the egg whites until frothy.

Combine the prosciutto and fontina and divide the mixture into 12 equal portions.

Moisten your hands with water.

Scoop up 1/4 cup of the rice and flatten it into a disk in your hand.

Place one portion of the prosciutto/fontina mixture in the center.

Mold the rice over the filling, shaping it into a ball.

Roll the ball in the flour, then the egg whites, and then the breadcrumbs.

Place on a wire rack to dry for at least 15 minutes.

Continue to make 12 balls.

Rinse your hands frequently to keep the rice from sticking to them.

In a deep fryer, add enough oil to cover the rice balls by 1-inch once they are added.

Heat the oil to 375 degrees F. on a deep-frying thermometer.

Gently add a few of the rice balls into the oil.

Fry until golden brown and crisp all over, about 2-3 minutes.

Using a slotted spoon, remove and transfer to paper towels.

Fry the remaining balls in the same way.

Serve hot.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Countdown to 46th Vinitaly, March 25-28 in Verona begins

Story and photo gallery by Dwight Casimere

-Dwight The Wine Doctor with Lamberto Frescobaldi
-Dwight The Wine Doctor at Donnafugata Wines of Sicily
-Vinitaly at Veronafiere in Verona
-Inside the ancient city center of Verona
-faces within the walls of Old Verona

VERONA, ITALY-Lavish tastings, panel discussions, new product announcements and a chance to rub shoulders with thousands of Italy and the world's greatest winemakers makes the 46th Vinitaly, March 25-28 2012 in Verona, Italy a not-to-be-missed appointment for anyone who is passionate about wine.

That point is made vividly by Vinitaly's premiere event, Opera Wine, Saturday, March 24 at the Palazzo della Ragione, in the heart of Verona's ancient center. A Grand Tasting of the 100 best Italian producers, including Antinori, Gaja, Frescobaldi, Banfi, Mezzacorona, and Zonin, selected in conjunction with Wine Spectator magazine, will be presented within the palazzo's pristine Mediaeval halls. Made in Italy is the catch-phrase at Opera Wine as two worlds of excellence meet; Italian icon: from Fashion to Wine, with the participation of Santo Versace, President of Altagamma, the foundation set up to promote the creativity and innovation of the most prestigious Italian companies on a global scale. Spread over four days, Sunday through Wednesday, the sponsor, VeronaFiere, hopes to optimize opportunities to bring together exhibitors and buyers from around the world. In addition to participants from the United States, France, Australia, South Africa, Slovenia and Russia, Vinitaly 2012 will, for the first time, include participation from Uzbekistan, Moldavia, Azerbajian and Armenia. In addition to providing more space for buyers and exhibitors to interact, there will be increased opportunities for sommeliers and operators to taste and have a 'hands, or palate-on' experience.
Vinitaly 2012 also focuses on ViViT-Wines, Winegrowers and Terroirs, an exhibition dedicated to wines from organic and biodynamic agriculture. Tastings take the limelight with-for the first time together-375 ,wines awarded with Three Glasses by Gambero Rossi, and Tasting, a tour of the world and wines, with tastings that include comparisons between Italian luxury sparkling wines and their English counterparts and a journey revealing Chardonnay in champagne, Argentina, Australia and Hungary, as well as the Ukraine, China and Morocco. Finally, Vinitaly also pays tribute to Verona itself and one of its districts which is best known to wine lovers, Valpolicella, the subject of the retrospective "Thirty Years of Art Amarone." In short, there's something for everyone who has a passion for wine. Vinitaly 2012 provides ample opportunity for people to fall in love with Italian wine all over again!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Marchese Piero Antinori: An Italian wine "Eagle" spreads his wings over U.S. soil

Antinori and Ste. Michelle Wine Estates: A Partnership of Iconic Cabernets

Story and photos by Dwight Casimere

-Marchese Piero Antinori with Dwight The Wine Doctor

-Piero Antinori and Ste. Michelle Wine Estates President & CEO Ted Baseler preside over the Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival tasting seminar

-The iconic FAY vineyard at Stag's Leap Cellars

-Col Solare wine

MIAMI BEACH—Italian wine icon Marchese Piero Antinori addressed the capacity audience at the Wine Spectator Wine Seminar program he headlined at the 2012 Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival with a youthful enthusiasm that belied his 73 years. Appearing with Ste. Michele Wine Estates President & CEO Ted Baseler, the two would lead a tasting journey of their signature Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet-based wines from Italy, California and Washington state, including 2008 Col Solare from Columbia Valley ($40), 2008 Antica Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($46.95) and 2008 Solaia Toscana I.G.T. ($140). For wine enthusiasts, this was a rare opportunity to taste some groundbreaking wines from legendary vineyards in Tuscany and Umbria in Italy and in Washington State’s Columbia Valley and the famed Napa Valley of California. It could not have been a more gratifying experience.

The Antinori name is venerated. The family’s winegrowing heritage goes back 26 generations spanning 625 years. Known for his life-long curiosity of how grapes are grown around the world, hPiero Antinori journeyed to Washington State and discovered Chateau Ste. Michelle in 1992. “The growing conditions there could not have been more different from what I am accustomed to in Tuscany,” Antinori said of his initial impression. “It’s true that opposites do hold some interest, because I was intrigued by the land and how the grapes thrived in Washington’s unique micro-climates.

“It’s a very different experience for us. The conditions are so different from what we are used to, in terms of climate and soil. At first, we didn’t think it was possible to produce great wine in Washington State. When I finally did realize that we could make the type of wine I wanted, it presented a challenge. And that’s when we decided to move forward.”

In addition to the Washington State partnership, Marchesi Antinori and Ste. Michelle Wine Estates also purchased the legendary Napa Valley estate winery, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars is famed for the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting in which Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon took top honors among all red wines at the historic Judgment of Paris tasting that took place on May 24, 1976. Last year, on the 35th Anniversary of the 1976 Paris Tasting, Stag’s Leap created its unique “Judgment of Paris Seal” for its iconic Cabernet Sauvignons.

“They recreated the Paris Tasting in commemoration,” Antinori told the tasting participants, “and the results were exactly the same. Stag’s Leap won again, confirming the correctness of the original decision.”

Napa Valley holds a special place in Marchese Antinori’s heart. “Napa Valley has always been one of my favorite wine areas of the world. Since the first time I visited the area in the 1960s, I always followed the evolution of Napa Valley. When I was finally able to become a part of its great history, it became a great opportunity for my winemakers and vineyard managers to share their experiences with people there and it also became a great experience for me personally and for my family.

“It could be that one day, one of my grandchildren will decide to make California their home or become a part of the educational facility we are developing in Washington State that we hope will rival the program at UC Davis.”

The fact that the Antinori legacy has expanded to the New World should be no surprise to anyone, he explained. “Great vineyards and great wines can happen in almost any part of the world. To work in such incredible environments as we’ve found in Napa and in Washington, is something that I think elevates the quality of life. That’s why I think we are privileged to be in this type of business.”

To say that the wines were spectacular is an understatement. They were a testament to the art of winemaking and to the vast experience and expertise of their creator. The 2008 Col Solare Columbia Valley ($40) is a lavish expression of the soft, dark fruit Cabernet blends that have come to characterize Washington State red wines. Col Solare means “shining hill” in Italian, and it could not be a more apt name for this bright, luminous fruit-forward wine with its long finish and soft mouth-feel.

Both 2008 Antica Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($46.95) and 2008 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. Estate Grown Cabernet Sauvignon ($125) expressed the soil of their origin before even taking one sip. The unmistakable aroma of the unique terroir of the Stag Leap district sprang to the fore with a heady nose. This signature perfume and hints of minerality were the gateway to lush, ripe bramble fruit, hints of cassis, coffee, chocolate and leather that further round out one of the most rewarding flavor experiences of wine drinking. These wines are the standard against which all other Napa Valley red wines are judged and rightly so. It is no accident of serendipity that one of the legends of winemaking, in the person of Marchese Piero Antinori, is the standard bearer for this storied wine.