Magic Moments 101

As a follow-up to the prior "theoretical" part, I want to give you four simple ideas for a food and wine tasting that demonstrate acidity in action. We are going for similarity (Tart + Tart = Pavlovian response), or opposition (as in “opposites attract” -- like buttery luxurious cheese and intense, vervy and highly acidic Champagne).

Besides being perfect tools for "wine ed", these yummy appetizers are great for entertaining. So if you are not a wine guy/gal, you can still enjoy the canapes!

Sauvignon Blanc and goat cheese

RamekinSimple but brilliant! The quickest "party trick" for this pairing involves stuffing golden pappadews straight out of the jar with fresh goat cheese.

PeppadewsYou also can use goat cheese in a tart or frittata, and I especially like using individual-size ramekins for an intimate get-together. All you need to do is mix together the cheese, green pepper, chives, a couple of eggs, a little cream, pop the ramekin in the oven, and you are done. Or try the pure, unadulterated chevre on a bed of greens with a simple vinaigrette dressing (if you can, make it with Meyer lemon juice and good quality olive oil). Try these little treats with a Sauvignon Blanc from Loire Valley, France (a Sancerre or Quincy). Another crisp Sauvignon Blanc (e.g., from New Zealand, South Africa, etc.) will also work nicely.

Note: if you choose to play with a Sancerre AND a New Zealand Sauvignon blanc (there's a thought!), you will undoubtedly observe the stylistic differences between the two Worlds (subtle, lean and minerally vs. in-your-face and fruit-forward).

Champagne and popcorn/sea salt potato chips/triple cream brie

Don't worry if buying caviar is out of your reach; there are plenty of other fantastic and inexpensive ways to enjoy a sparkler. Pair French Champagne or another sparkler (Spanish cava, Italian prosecco, Alsatian Cremant d'Alsace, etc. ) with popcorn, sea salt potato chips, and a decadent triple-cream brie (such as Brillat-Saverin or Pierre Robert from Fromagerie Rouzaire, Rouge et Noir from Marin in California, or perhaps a Canadian Goat Triple Cream from Woolwich Dairy). Goat BrieYou can typically find those at a Whole Foods store; or better yet, look for them at a nice specialty cheese shop such as Cheesetique in Old Town Alexandria, or Arrowine in Arlington (I highly recommend either one).

Italian Barbera with oven roasted tomatoes

Vertical tartletSlice cherry tomatoes in half, and roast in the oven for 10 minutes (line a baking dish with foil, pre-heat the oven to 400F, season with olive oil, salt and pepper). They are perfect for making super fast canapes by piling the tomatoes into phyllo cups (I prefer Athens Mini Fillo Shells), with a little bit of good quality feta (French, Bulgarian,Greek, etc.), and popping them into a toaster oven for a couple of minutes, right before you are ready to serve.

The bright acidity in Barbera -- the quintessential red grape of northern Italy -- is just one of the things that I love about it. Its natural acidity, combined with its ripe red and berry fruit flavors, gives it a wonderful versatility, and makes it a great match for the bright, tangy flavors in our appetizer.

Pinot Noir with mushrooms

I love mushrooms as much as I love Pinot Noir-- it's an earthy match made in heaven!

Here is a great opportunity to put those phyllo cups to work once again. This time, we will fill them with mushrooms sauteed in butter, with a touch of thyme and sour cream. I really like the deluxe "exotic" mushroom packs that you can buy at Whole Foods (crimini mushrooms, or baby bellas, would work just fine). Grate a bit of Pecorino sheep's milk cheese on top (I prefer "genuine" Sini Fulvi DOP Pecorino Romano, from Italy's Lazio region). It is salty, intense, and pleasantly briny, and just like phyllo cups, it's a staple in my kitchen. A couple of minutes in the toaster oven, and they are ready to be served. The pairing works, first of all, because of their shared earthiness, as it always translates directly into food and wine pairing affinity. On top of that, the acidity in the Pinot Noir cuts the richness of sour cream like a knife, and is complimented nicely by the saltiness in the Pecorino.

Buon appetito!


Wine Not: Beer and Cheese Pairing at Sova Tomorrow

Wine_cheese When it comes to cheese pairings, most of us automatically reach for wine.  It's hard to deny the complementary effects that wine and cheese have on each other, and the idea is reinforced throughout the media.

But wine is not the only adult beverage that can be paired with cheese, and the folks at Sova Espresso & Wine are hosting an event tomorrow evening that will demonstrate just how well beer and cheese can go together.  They will be pairing five distinctly different cheeses with five complementary beers as part of the Atlas District's First Thursday celebration on H Street, NE on Oct 2nd.

The event will run from 7 to 9 PM, and it costs $25 per person.  The tasting is being conducted by Jessica Wurwarg, a teacher at that cheese-lover's Mecca, Artisanal.  I had a chance to speak with Jessica, and she informed me that beer and cheese pairing events are a growing trend that can be attributed to the natural relationship that exists between the two fermented products.  "While wine and cheese can be either super-delicious together or the other extreme, beer and cheese are more easy-going."

Unlike wine and cheese pairings, which are often chosen for their contrasting yet complementary flavors, beers are most often paired with cheeses that offer similar characteristics.  The effervescence of the beer can cut through the fat in the cheese to allow a greater appreciation of its flavors - hence the need for a beer that won't clash with the cheese.  An example is the pairing of a sharp cheddar cheese with a crisp IPA - a situation where both are dry and tight on the tongue.

Beer_cheese Wurwarg warned that the main thing to keep in mind when pairing beer and cheese is to seek balance - don't let a heavy beer like a porter overpower a lighter, milder cheese.  The hardest pairings, she said, were for cheeses with complex flavors - washed-rinds and blues are particularly difficult to pair, but guests can expect one such pairing at Thursday's event.  Other likely pairings include a lighter goat cheese with a fruitier Belgian beer and a sheep's milk cheese paired with an amber ale.

First Thursdays are an opportunity for the bars, restaurants and entertainment venues of the Atlas District to showcase their own interpretations of specific themes.  This month - surprise, surprise - the theme is Oktoberfest, which inspired Sova owner Frank Hankins to put together this beer and cheese event.  Other venues' offerings include German specials and 'traditional Oktoberfest clothing' at Granville Moore's, a Beer & Brat special at the Argonaut, $3 Harpoon Oktoberfest beer at the Red and the Black, and $1 wursts (while they last) at the H Street Martini Lounge.  These evenings occur monthly, and each month brings a new theme.  Although this end of H Street is not served by the Metro, there is ample parking in the surrounding neighborhood.  But if you're coming for a beer tasting, you might consider picking up a cab at Union Station or riding the X2 bus line to avoid the need to drive home. 

SovaSova has been open on H Street since the end of last year, and Hankins has been slowly but steadily developing it into exactly the kind of place he first envisioned.  A relaxed neighborhood coffeeshop serving quality Intelligentsia coffee and espresso on the ground floor shares space upstairs with a laid-back wine bar featuring ten or twelve wines by the glass that go beyond the usual cabernet, pinot noir, and sauvignon blanc.  His latest addition is a range of gourmet panini and salads.  Sova is located at 1359 H Street, NE.

Wine Spectator Says "Cheese" in September 30th Issue

WinespectatorGenerally speaking, I'm not a Wine Spectator reader.  Though I appreciate its existence and someday aspire to have a need for detailed information on the best ways to stock my personal cellar, I just don't have the means (or the storage space) to truly take advantage of what it usually has to offer.

Their September 30th issue, however, practically leapt off the magazine rack when I passed it in the grocery store recently.  "100 Great Cheeses!" it trumpeted from its cover.  "Best Wine Matches!"  "Delicious Recipes!"  What can I say, I'm a sucker for that kind of talk.  I bought it without even opening to the table of contents.  The dozen or so glamour shots below the title probably didn't hurt, either.

When I got home and had a chance to look at the venerable wine magazine's coverage of their classic pairing partner, I was impressed.  Contributing Editor Sam Gugino first walks readers through "Cheese's Coming of Age," summing up Americans' evolving taste for cheese over the past decade and effectively whetting the reader's appetite.  From there, the magazine delivers on the promise of the cover: "100 Great Cheeses."  Note that title - this isn't a list of the 'best' cheeses, or even a comparison of the cheeses they do mention.  It is a collection of recommendations (or a checklist, if you're more ambitious like me) meant to expand the reader's horizons and to introduce a wide range of truly noteworthy cheeses. 

Cashel The entry for each cheese is concise but informative.  Graphics indicate the type(s) of milk that go into the cheese and a ballpark pricepoint.  A brief description of the cheese - with details on its origin, its characteristics, and a recommended wine pairing - follows. Alongside the list are a few recipes, some Q&A and more detailed examinations of five popular types of cheese (Alpine, Cheddar, Goat, Washed-Rind and Blue).  And it wouldn't be Wine Spectator without a couple of wine suggestions, so the feature closes with recommendations to pair four types of wine (white, red, sweet and port) with cheese plates featuring a variety of complementary cheeses.

All in all, this is actually a pretty impressive introduction to cheese and I would certainly encourage you to look for a copy if you're at all interested in learning more.  But it did leave a couple things to be desired from my perspective, most notably:

  • Organization.  The list was printed alphabetically by name of cheese.  Though this is very useful if you know exactly what cheese you're looking for, it tends to cause headaches if you try to use the list as a more comprehensive reference tool.  While the descriptions of the five popular categories I mentioned previously include the names of the relevant cheeses from the list, there is almost no way to determine which cheeses bear comparison to one another, or to seek out a particular style of cheese to see which listed cheeses fit the bill.
  • No Local Representation.  Because the article limited itself to cheeses that are readily available from online retailers, it's not overly surprising that none of our fantastic local cheeses (Meadow Creek's Grayson, Everona's Piedmont, Blue Ridge Dairy Mozzarella) made the list.  Even so, it's disappointing to be snubbed - especially when Grayson is available through Murray's and several other online retailers.

Have you read the articles yet?  If so, what did you think?  If not, does a list like this hold any interest whatsoever? 

Highfield Dairy at FreshFarm Markets - Eggs, Yogurt and Oh, Those Goat Cheese Pierogies!

HighfieldIf you've overlooked Highfield Dairy in your trips through the Dupont Circle FreshFarm Market, you're not alone.  Highfield doesn't set up a tent, and they don't have a banner to advertise their presence to the crowds.  Week after week, Dan Adams or one of his associates pulls into the market in an old blue pickup truck and sets up a few tables with large coolers full of eggs, yogurt and an array of products made with Highfield's fresh goat cheese.  Hand-lettered signs announce what's for sale and how much it costs.  It doesn't get much more farm-to-table than this.

Fresh_goat_cheeseThe star of the Highfield show is undoubtedly that fresh goat cheese.  With a herd of roughly 100 mixed-breed Nubian goats, John Marshall makes a goat cheese that is incredibly mild and creamy.  There is almost no trace of the usual tang (or the less pleasant earthy aftertaste) that tend to be the hallmarks of goat cheese.  Sold in 8-ounce and one-pound tubs ($6.50 or $12, respectively), the fresh chevre could easily be mistaken from cream cheese - even after the first taste!

But Highfield does us all a HUGE favor by taking their cheese to the next level and integrating it into a couple of addictive treats: goat cheese tarts and pierogies.  The tarts are a savory blend of eggs, peppers, tomatoes, herbs and goat cheese in a small pie crust.  They make a terrific breakfast on their own, though they can be paired with Cedarbrook Farm's pasture pure pork bacon or sausage for a really satisfying meal on a weekend morning.  The pierogies are a revelation.  Growing up in a Russian family, I've had my share of the traditional dough pockets filled with everything from mashed potatoes to prunes to sauerkraut...and I'm kind of a fan of the pork and chive filled dumplings from City Lights of China, as well.  Believe me when I tell you that Highfield's goat cheese-stuffed offerings (which are the size of an ice cream scoop, I might add) blow them all away.  They can be frozen, but be sure to thaw them completely before sauteeing in a little hot oil.  The cheese practically liquefies inside the dumplings and the dough crisps up to a beautiful texture.

Goat_cheese_and_raspberries As good as the pierogies are, I'm a sucker for fresh goat cheese by itself...especially when spread on a cracked pepper cracker.  There's something about the interplay between the creamy tang and the sharp bite of the pepper that works so well.  But I found myself trying something new with this cheese because of its exceptionally mild profile.  Instead of enjoying the cheese on its own, I topped it off with a few fresh raspberries from another market vendor.  The sweetness of the berries took it to a whole new level - it was great!  So simple to put together, but still something that I'd be willing to serve to guests as an easy appetizer.  I'm definitely filing this one away for future reference.

Highfield Dairy can be found at the Dupont Circle market on Sundays - look for them in the PNC Bank parking lot next to the mushroom stand.  Alternatively, you can find them at the H Street NE FreshFarm Market on Saturday mornings between 9 AM and noon.  This smaller market provides a far more relaxed shopping experience where you can still find products from Cedarbrook Farm, Keswick Creamery, Atwater's Bakery and a number of fresh and/or organic produce growers.  In either location, it's worth seeking out Dan for a taste of his creamy and delicious goat cheese.

Grilling Cheese: Have You Tried Halloumi?

Halloumi With Labor Day approaching, my thoughts always turn to the grill.  And since my thoughts almost always involve cheese when it comes to food, I find myself craving grilled cheese.

Wait!  Don't click away just yet.  I know when I talk about 'grilled cheese,' it's a pretty safe bet that your first thought is of Kraft singles on white, browning in a pan with some butter (or, if you're the kind of college student I was, being browned on the counter by a judiciously applied iron).  But that's not the only way to grill cheese.

When I was working at Trader Joe's, I was introduced to halloumi.  This salty, chewy cheese is a product of Cyprus, though its origins are decidedly pan-Mediterranean.  Made from various combinations of sheep, goat and cow's milk, this cheese is defined by two main characteristics - its dense texture and its high melting point.  The combination of the two yields a cheese that is ideal for grilling, though it still requires a light touch to do it just right.

Before Halloumi generally comes soaking in brine, though there are grocery store varieties that come pre-packaged in roughly eight-ounce blocks that are vacuum sealed to preserve their moisture.  On the surface, it looks like a block of shelf-stable mozzarella with a smooth exterior and traces of the curds' natural texture throughout.  As soon as you cut into it, however, you'll see a very distinct difference.  Where mozzarella is soft and yielding to the knife, halloumi is dense with almost no give.  In fact, if you listen as you cut, you may even hear a slight squeaking as the knife slides through the cheese.

The squeak is a result of the curd being heated before the cheesemaking process begins, which toughens the curd and also makes the cheese more resistant to heat in its final format.  This is a cheese that you can literally just throw on the grill without fear of creating a runny mess.

And that simple presentation is probably the best way to serve halloumi.  Sliced thin (or thick, if you prefer), it picks up a great smoky flavor and beautiful grill marks when set directly onto a hot grill.  The paradoxical trick is that the grill needs to be brought up to a very high heat so that it can sear the cheese almost immediately.  Rub the racks down with olive oil first, and then crank up the temperature.  Ideally, you'd like to have your grill running at 400+ degrees before you place the cheese.

After The slices will immediately start to sizzle and pop, giving up some of the briny water it held inside, but you'll notice that it does not begin to dissolve into the oily mess that many other cheeses do.  In fact, it really starts to look more like a boneless pork chop than any cheese - call it the OTHER other white meat!  After two minutes on the grill, make sure you get in there quickly to flip the slices.  You'll get the great grill marks, but you won't have to worry about the cheese softening to the point that it becomes unwieldy.  Another minute or two on the other side, and you'll have a great snack - chewy, salty cheese that reminds me most of a firm mozzarella stick.  Make sure you serve it immediately - it loses some of its appeal as it cools.  As a side dish paired with mint leaves and watermelon, grilled halloumi makes a terrific accompaniment to milder grilled meats - cornish game hens, for example.

Because halloumi is a protected product of Cyprus in the United States, American producers tend to call their similar products by more generic names, like Ballard Family Dairy's "Idaho Golden Greek Grillin' Cheese" and "Gretna Grilling Cheese" from Blue Jacket Farms in Ohio.  Halloumi is available in various forms from specialty cheese shops like Cheesetique and Bower's Fancy Dairy Products, and from grocery stores like Whole Foods and Harris Teeter.  Prices can be a bit steep (in the neighborhood of $10 or more for an eight-ounce block), but this cheese makes a great conversation piece at your end-of-summer cookouts.  Give it a shot and have some fun with it!

Celebrate National Goat Cheese Month with Local Favorites

Img_3964 What's that?  You say you didn't know that August is National Goat Cheese Month?

Well you're not alone. The American Cheese Society doesn't seem to have put a lot of effort into promoting the designation, so the only references that come up when you look for "National Goat Cheese Month" are newspapers and other secondary sources.

Were it not for a recent event put together by Domasoteca and Cowgirl Creamery and an opinion poll over at Endless Simmer, I might have missed this holiday opportunity to raise awareness altogether.  But I didn't, and now you won't either.

D.C. Foodies can certainly choose to celebrate National Goat Cheese Month with national favorites like Humboldt Fog and Truffle Tremor from California-based Cypress Grove or Capriole's Old Kentucky Tomme from Indiana, but there are a number of truly impressive local goat cheeses that I would encourage you to check out:

Img_3957 Firefly Farms - This western Maryland-based farmstead produces a range of more than half a dozen goat cheeses, with textures and flavors that range from light and creamy to firm and earthy, with a blue cheese thrown in for good measure.  Their cheeses are all made from milk purchased from an Amish co-op, and their website offers a great selection of recipes that make use of their various cheeses.  You can find the folks from Firefly near the entrance to the Dupont Circle FreshFarm Market every Sunday morning, or you can purchase their cheeses throughout the week at Cowgirl Creamery.

Img_3194Cherry Glen Farms - Though I was first introduced to Cherry Glen through their Monocacy Ash, I have since tasted their fresh chevre as well as their smoky, spicy Monocacy Chipotle.  Each cheese in their product line has its own distinct flavor, but I still can't get over just how fresh and soft (and runny!) the Ash was the first time I had it.  Still available at Cheesetique and Whole Foods, Cherry Glen's products can now be purchased at Bower's Fancy Dairy Products in Eastern Market, as well.  Availability still varies from time to time, but the crottins and other cheeses seem to be appearing with far more regularity recently.

Chevre500Apple Tree Goat Dairy - I haven't had the chance to try their products firsthand, but fellow DC Foodies writer Ramona (the Houndstooth Gourmet) is a big fan of "Tom the Cheese Guy" who makes a wide range of goat's milk cheese and soap (not to mention the milk itself) on his farm in Ridgefield, PA and sells them on Saturdays at the Del Ray farmers' market and again on Sundays at the West End Alexandria market.  Ramona's recommendation has made this small dairy's chevre one of the next cheeses on my "must try" list - this month seems like the perfect time to do so.

Pipe Dreams Fromage - For more than 15 years, Brad Parker has been making goat cheese using traditional methods he learned in France on his 16-acre farm in Greencastle, Pennsylvania.  It's still all about the cheese for him, as well - he doesn't have a website, nor does he really go out of his way to advertise.  Even so, many local chefs swear by his product and their demand is such that it's become pretty darn hard to find Pipe Dreams chevre in retail shops.  Cheesetique tends to sell out as soon as they get it in, as does Cowgirl Creamery.  I've only tried this cheese twice, most recently in an heirloom tomato salad at Blue Duck Tavern.  Each time, I was blown away by the smooth creaminess of the cheese and the flavor that was tangy but not as reminscent of 'barnyard' as many goat cheeses tend to be.  If you can find it (and believe me, it's worth a trip to a local restaurant like Blue Duck or Zaytinya in and of itself), THIS is the way to celebrate National Goat Cheese Month.

Meadow Creek Dairy's Grayson: "An American Original"


There's certainly no shortage of Virginia and Maryland cheesemakers whose products can be found at farmers' markets and shops throughout Washington.  But I'm hard-pressed to think of a single Virginia cheese more widely available or well-known than Meadow Creek Dairy's Grayson.  For almost 30 years, these folks down in Galax, Virginia (along the North Carolina border off the Blue Ridge Parkway) have been making cheese from raw Jersey cows' milk, and the results speak for themselves.

Grayson is Meadow Creek's most popular and recognizable offering, as well as their most decorated.  This washed-rind cheese is usually compared to Tallegio with good reason - both are pungent, semi-soft cheeses that are shaped into five-pound (give or take) square 'rounds' before they are washed in a brine solution that gives them the telltale orange surface that cheeselovers the world over recognize as an indication of fragrant goodness.  Like Tallegio, Grayson's flavor can best be described as nutty or earthy, though I've heard it referred to as a 'beefy' cheese on more than one occasion. 

Img_2782As it comes to room temperature, you can expect the aroma of Grayson to increase in intensity along with the flavor, which becomes more complex and even develops a mildly sweet note.  The beautiful golden-yellow interior softens and takes on a silky texture that yields easily to a knife but holds its shape without melting.  But be prepared for that pungent nose - it is as much a part of the Grayson experience as the flavor, and if you don't care for 'stinky' cheeses the aroma may make it hard for you to enjoy the great taste.

When serving Grayson, I like to pair it with things that acknowledge and complement its assertive qualities - acidic items like tomatoes or cornichons and whole-grain breads both sweet and savory.  Though the cheese never softens to the point where it can be spread, a small slice atop a hunk of bread with some mustard or a bit of tomato makes for an amazingly satisfying little bite.  Saxelby Cheesemonger, in the Essex Street Market, even goes so far as to cook up grilled Grayson sandwiches that pair the cheese with bread & butter pickles for another savory treat.

Worth_the_hunt For their efforts in the creation of quality artisanal cheeses, Meadow Creek Dairy (and, more often than not, Grayson) has been honored by numerous food authorities and publications.  They are listed as one of the top 10 cow's milk cheeses in the South by the Southern Foodways Alliance, and they have been selected for inclusion in the Slow Foods USA 'Ark of Taste' for their use of raw, grass-fed Jersey cows' milk in their products.  An Associated Press article highlighting American artisanal cheeses identified Grayson as one of six "cheeses worth the hunt," and one of only two from the East Coast (the other being Cabot's Clothbound Cheddar from Montpelier, Vermont). 

Unlike most of our local cheese treasures, Grayson can be found across the country when it's in season (because Meadow Creek's cows are primarily grass-fed using sustainable farming methods, their cheeses are only made during a production season that runs from April to November).  The Meadow Creek website currently lists shops and restaurants in 21 states where Grayson can be purchased, and they ship their cheese anywhere in the country (except Hawaii) via UPS.  A Google search for Grayson cheese turns up listings from Artisanal and Murray's in New York, two of the foremost cheese purveyors on the East Coast.  It also turns up a blog entry regarding a boy named Grayson's visit to Chuck E. Cheese, but that's neither here nor there.   

Be aware that prices can vary widely depending on where you buy your Grayson.  Although it is stocked by Arrowine, Cheesetique, Bower's Fancy Dairy Products, and Whole Foods, they can't seem to agree on a retail point.  In this case, Whole Foods is the best buy, selling it for $16.99 per pound, which is at least $1.50 cheaper than any of the others I surveyed.  Because a little goes a long way, Grayson offers a great value for the money - it's just not for delicate noses!

Assaggi Mozzarella Bar: A First Look

When I heard that someone was opening a "mozzarella bar" in Bethesda last month, I was definitely intrigued.  Can a restaurant in an area with as many options as Bethesda hope to succeed with such a specialized concept?

AssaggiAs it turns out, Assaggi won't have to find out.  While they do plan to offer a full-service mozzarella bar complete with a cheese and charcuterie specialist who will be slicing and serving their various offerings, Assaggi is actually a very accessible Italian restaurant that features a variety of salads, pastas and meat dishes in addition to their signature mozzarrella tastings.  Taking over where Centro left off (and using a few similar design elements while incorporating a distinctly new feel), Assaggi provides a different taste of the Mediterranean.  In fact, the name of the restaurant means "taste" or "sample."

And taste we did.  We began with the Assagi di Mozzarella, which allowed us to sample three of the five mozzarella varieties on offer with a choice of four accompaniments.  The cheese options on the menu: burrata (a buffalo's milk mozzarella with a liquid curd center), ricotta di bufala (not a mozzarella, so we passed), authentic mozzarella di bufala from Italy, Bubalu Bubalis (a Southern California buffalo's milk cheese) and cow's milk mozzarella from local favorite Blue Ridge Dairy* (though they're referred to as "Blue Ridge Farms" on the menu).  The sides offered some unique flavors - a green tomato marmalade that was surprisingly chutney-like in its sweetness, a basil-marinated zucchini, and a roasted organic eggplant were all tasty and basic.  And although the 'fresh, seasonal tomato' was a bit underwhelming, it still managed to convey far more bite and flavor than many of the tomatoes currently available at local markets.

Centro_3 After our mozzarella sampling (which confirmed our love of burrata and the distinct difference in texture and taste between cow's milk mozzarella and buffalo's milk varieties), we tried some options from the rest of the menu.  My wife enjoyed the soup of the day, a gazpacho whose vegetables were so finely pureed and silky-smooth as to make us think that she was being served something with a cream base.  She also had a simple salad of butter lettuce, gorgonzola dolce and a lemon-oil dressing that allowed each of its components to show through to the best of their ability.  I opted for a pasta dish, choosing the orecchiette with ground sausage, air-dried ricotta and broccoli rabe.  The dish was sauced with a combination of a broccoli rabe pesto and a creamy 'deconstruction' of the sausage that gave it a wonderfully smoky and complex flavor without the usually oily texture that accompanies this kind of dish.  It was a really impressive presentation that reminded me of some very traditional favorite dishes but that took things in a more elegant direction.  Though the dessert menu seemed to offer a number of Italian restaurant staples, it also highlighted a few more "assaggi" choices - tastings of chocolate, sorbet, gelati, and biscotti.  We didn't take advantage of any of these, choosing to save them for future visits.

Throughout our meal, service was attentive and knowledgeable.  Questions were answered with confidence by Stephan, our waiter, and he seemed genuinely interested in hearing our thoughts on the food we had eaten.  When a discrepancy between the menu price of our mozzarella tasting and the price that appeared on our bill was pointed out, he remedied it without argument and thanked us for bringing it to his attention.

Our biggest disappointment came from the fact that the vaunted mozzarella bar is not yet functional.  Its two marble countertops stand at the ready, with glass cubicles that will provide temperature and humidity controlled storage for the signature cheeses as well as a high-end slicer that will prepare imported Italian prosciutto to order.  But the Big Cheese himself, the man who will oversee the cheese program for the restaurant, has not yet taken his position behind the counters.  For now, the cheeses are stored and prepared behind the scenes, in the kitchen.

I look forward to a second visit to Assaggi in the near future, both to experience the mozzarella bar in action and to see how the rest of the menu continues to develop.  As a first look, however, this experience was definitely a good start.

Assaggi Restaurant
4838 Bethesda Ave.
Bethesda, MD  20814
(301) 951-1988


* - It seems that there was some confusion about the provenance of the local mozzarella being served at Assaggi during the first few weeks of service.  When I asked my server and then called a few days later to ask about the mozzarella that had been served to me, I was told both times that the cow's milk cheese came from "Blue Ridge Farms...Blue Ridge Creamery," that they take deliveries every few days and that Blue Ridge sells their mozzarella at local farmers' markets as well.  But I spoke to Paul Stephan of Blue Ridge at the Dupont Farmers' Market that weekend, and he assured me that he had not sold any mozzarella to Assaggi in at least three weeks. 

Blueridge When I spoke to chef/owner Domenico Cornacchia this week, he confirmed to me that they had not been stocking the Blue Ridge mozzarella for a few weeks while they waited for the mozzarella bar to come on line.  But he assured me (and Paul Stephan confirmed) that they are now bringing Blue Ridge products - including ricotta and smoked mozarella - on a regular basis.  Because the menus had been pre-printed, they continued to list the Blue Ridge product during its absence, but Cornacchia told me that staff had been informed that it was unavailable and that they were offering an Italian cow's milk cheese in its place.  My experience suggests that the message wasn't uniformly received.

Is this inherently problematic?  Only if you're truly passionate about cheese and eager to know what you're eating and where it comes from.  The mozzarella they served was definitely delicious, but it was not the local product I thought I was getting.

Dean & DeLuca on M Street - A DC Foodie Fixture for 15 Years

Danddupdates In 1977, the first Dean & DeLuca opened its doors in New York's Soho.  Since then, the company has been introducing hardcore foodies and the merely curious to all kinds of new ingredients and preparations.  They were trailblazers in the introduction of upscale prepared foods that could be purchased, taken home, and served with little more effort than heating and plating.  In The United States of Arugula, David Kamp goes so far as to suggest that their aesthetic (and its accompanying commitment to quality ingredients) helped to usher in the idea of food and cooking as part of the refined lifestyle that evolved into the 'foodie' mindset so prevalent today.

All of that is great, but it is of less interest to me than one of their other noteworthy contributions - the celebration of cheese!  Even before Dean & DeLuca came into existence, Giorgio DeLuca operated a cheese shop where he imported some of Europe's best cheeses and offered them up as an education to his customers whose experience with cheese tended toward Swiss, American and Cream.  With Steven Jenkins - a man who has established himself as one of the foremost American authorities on cheese - behind the counter, Dean & DeLuca quickly established itself as a place to go to find some of the best cheeses you'd never tasted before.

Pic_store1With that kind of pedigree, it would be inexcusable to overlook Dean & DeLuca's Georgetown outpost in any survey of Washington cheesemongers.  Even so, you would be hard pressed to find a D.C. Foodie who lists them among their top 5 cheese shops in the Metro area.  Competition from dedicated cheese purveyors like Cowgirl Creamery and Cheesetique as well as newer (and larger) upscale grocers like Whole Foods and Wegman's, coupled with its location amidst the retail establishments of Georgetown's M Street, makes D&D more of an "Oh yeah, them too!" than a "To start with, there's..."

And that's actually to our detriment.  Their location and selection make them an excellent choice, and one I intend to employ more often in the future.  Since 1993, Dean & DeLuca has occupied a renovated Georgetown market hall that dates back to the 1860s.  This is a beautiful, if somewhat small, space that encourages lingering over the numerous hot and cold prepared foods, the wall of obscure (and pricey) spices, and the racks of California wines at the back of the store.

Deandeluca They continue to offer a great selection of hard-to-find imported and domestic cheeses at a counter that can be found about a third of the way into the store down the right-hand side.  Cheese counter duties are handled by knowledgeable staff who are also able to help with questions about their wide selection of charcuterie, salumis, and good old-fashioned deli meats.  Though they're not as likely to offer a sample as the folks at Bowers in Eastern Market or even at Whole Foods, they are happy to take the time to talk about your preferences and make recommendations - especially when they carry cheeses that you are unlikely to have encountered elsewhere.  On a recent visit, I was encouraged to try Rouge et Noir when I professed a fondness for Triple Cream Brie - a relatively inexpensive and widely available suggestion I was happy to embrace. 

It's hard to make a generalization about their price points when it comes to cheese.  Some of their unique offerings (like their 8 oz rounds of Grafton cheddar that sell for $10) carry pricetags that compare well with those of the local purveyors and our neighborhood farmers' markets.  Others, including several of the more widely available international offerings, come in $1-$3 more expensive per pound at Dean & DeLuca than at competing cheese shops in the area.

The combination of variety, atmosphere and location makes Dean & DeLuca a great cheese option for Georgetown residents and anyone else who find themselves craving quality cheese after a day of shopping on M Street.  Though the selection is no longer unique enough to warrant a visit merely for the cheese, their wide range of gourmet products makes it a splurge of a shopping experience that is easy to recommend.

Dean & DeLuca
3276 M Street, NW
(202) 342-2500
Open 7 days a week, 8 AM - 9 PM
Catering available

Everona Dairy - Sheep's Milk Cheese from Virginia's Piedmont

Too_much_meat_012For more than a dozen years now, Dr. Pat Elliott has been crafting a range of quality, artisanal sheep's milk cheeses just a few hours' drive from Washington in Rapidan, Virginia.  Until recently, these delicious cheeses from Everona Dairy have been hard to find for most D.C. Foodies, as they were sold primarily on-site and at Farmers' Markets in Charlottesville.  Those who were able to chase down a wedge of Stony Man or Piedmont at Arrowine or another local shop were rewarded with cheeses that offer deep, nutty flavors; rich, buttery color and a texture that progresses from firm to pliant as it warms.

Thankfully, this month has seen a welcome addition to the lineups at the Thursday afternoon Penn Quarter market and the Sunday morning Dupont Circle market.  Dr. Elliott and her staff have added these two FreshFarm Markets to their weekly rounds, giving us the chance to try their full range of cheeses direct from the source.

Too_much_meat_013And what a range it is!  In addition to the mainstays (Piedmont and Stony Man), Everona Dairy produces a baby Swiss-style cheese, a wine-soaked cheese they call Pride of Bacchus and a wide range of what could be considered 'infusions' -- varieties of Piedmont featuring add-ins like chives and dill, vegetable ash (for the 'Marble' variety), cracked black pepper, and even sun-dried tomatoes.  In each case, the flavors of the additions are immediately noticeable, and most harmonize easily with the smooth flavor of the Piedmont.  The Tomato Torta caught me a bit off guard, but a second tasting helped me appreciate the surprisingly tasty combination.

Too_much_meat_020On my first visit, I decided to branch out a bit and I purchased a wedge of the Pride of Bacchus.  Unlike softer, washed-rind cheeses, this one lacks a pungent aroma and instead offers a vaguely wine-like smelling the inside of a retired barrel that had been used for aging.  The cheese itself is dense and snow-white, looking and tasting a lot like an aged Parmesan (but without the hard, crumbly texture).  Tasting the rind, I was surprised to find some flavorful notes mingled with the normal earthiness, yet you wouldn't be missing out if you passed on the rind altogether.  A subsequent visit resulted in the purchase of a section of the Marbled Piedmont, and the vegetable ash served to give the normally nutty Piedmont an earthier flavor.  Its appearance reminded me a lot of Morbier, the soft French cheese with its own layer of ash in the middle, but its taste was more like a Manchego.

Img_4646 So how does a rural doctor end up running a dairy that produces more than 4 tons of cheese a year?  She buys a dog, of course!  As the story goes, Dr. Elliott purchased a border collie pup on a whim back in 1992, and she soon found that she needed something for the energetic dog to do.  Since collies are working dogs, she decided to buy some sheep.  Sheep led to milk, milk led to cheese, and soon enough Everona Dairy was producing award-winning cheeses made from the milk produced by more than 100 Friesians and other sheep she raises on site.

Though none of her cheeses are inexpensive (wedges are priced by weight and tend to run in the $12 to $18 range for 1/4 to 1/3 of a pound), Dr. Elliott's passion and the story behind her entry into the world of cheesemaking stand out and make Everona Dairy a local producer I'm happy to support.