The Charlottesville 29

If there were just 29 restaurants in Charlottesville, what would be the ideal 29?

Five Finds on Friday: Will Curley

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Porron skills.

Today’s Five Finds on Friday come from Will Curley, Wine Buyer for Ten Course Hospitality and Manager at Brasserie Saison, which has just launched its onsite brewery and will soon open a basement bar called Coat Room. The reservation-only, wood-paneled dining space below Brasserie Saison will offer an exclusive list of special beer, wine and cocktails. Curley’s picks:

1) Maiale Milanese at Tavola. “Call it comfort food, fat kid food, or just happy food, this is the dish that I think about days in advance of any meal at Tavola.  The grilled lemon sauce with peppery arugula and a perfectly fried pork cutlet hit all the high notes and are best paired with whatever Wine Director Priscilla Martin wants to pour that day.”

2) Al Pastor Tacos at La Michoacana. “Moving from Chicago to Charlottesville has brought some amazing things; a role at a great new restaurant, the chance to meet people inside and outside the wine & restaurant world, and a gorgeous, historical town with an amazing food & drink scene.  What I miss most, however, is the breadth of Mexican food options that were available to me in Chicago. From Nayarit-style seafood to Oaxacan moles, the varieties of delicious, affordable food there are seemingly endless.  Overall, The Bebedero is top-to-bottom my favorite Mexican in town, but sometimes you want filling, cheap and quick, and La Michoacana is all three.”

3) Double Bacon Cheeseburger at Riverside Lunch. “Chef Tyler Teass introduced me to this Charlottesville staple recently, and I’m still upset at him for not showing me sooner.  Smash burgers > pub burgers.  Cheap beer and the friendliest wait staff.”

4) Frisee Salad at Petit Pois. “My favorite and most-visited restaurant in Chicago was a tiny neighborhood bistro, and I was happy to discover that same soul at Petit Pois.  Classics are classics for a reason, and the combination of egg yolk, lardons, frisee and a perfectly balanced mustard vin make a great light lunch.  Pro tip: combine with chicken liver mousse, escargot and a bottle of rose, and kiss your afternoon goodbye.”

5) Bacon, Egg and Cheese Biscuit from Timbercreek Market. “Chef Tucker’s light, fluffy, gigantic biscuit sandwich is the perfect way to start your day, even more so when your day starts at 11 am after a long Saturday night service. Plus, Tucker is always happy to talk shop and give advice on the restaurant scene here in town.”

Charlottesville Says Farewell to Nadjeeb Chouaf

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Fresh off his ground-breaking success at the world cheesemonger competition and interview on NPR, Nadjeeb Chouaf has closed Flora Artisanal Cheese. Housed first at Milli Coffee and then at Timbercreek Market, for years Chouaf’s cheese shop was beloved in Charlottesville and beyond, even making Eater’s Charlottesville Heat Map.

What’s next for the man whose cheese career began at Charlottesville’s Whole Foods? The Big Cheese is moving to The Big Apple. (Mmm, cheese and apple.) There, Chouaf will join the sales team of importer Columbia Cheese, both selling cheese and helping to develop a monger education series called The Barnyard.

“I really just want to thank everyone for having had the opportunity to share my love of cheese over the past four years with Charlottesville,” says Chouaf.  “I have always wanted to focus on selling my favorite cheeses and with Columbia I get that opportunity.  I will miss Charlottesville, but couldn’t pass up an opportunity at this time in my life.”

Here in Charlottesville, Chouaf will be missed, too, having enriched the lives of so many with expert recommendations, sourcing, and education. The tireless cheese apostle also leaves a trail of special experiences all over town – a cheese cart at The Alley Light, cheese plates at The Wine Guild, raclette and grilled cheeses at Champion, cheese dinners at restaurants like Lampo, vineyard cheese service, and a “perfect bite” tasting to celebrate being crowned the nation’s best cheesemonger.

But, Chouaf’s greatest value was providing us access to a world class cheesemonger whenever we wanted it. My favorite time to drop in on Chouaf was weekdays after work. “I need just one cheese to have for dinner tonight,” I’d tell him. Add a baguette and – voila! – a world class dinner every time.

Chouaf’s pairing expertise was also invaluable. While wine and beer are the most common accompaniments, one of my favorite Flora memories is when Chouaf suggested something even better. The cheese was Wrangeback, a hard, washed-rind cheese from Sweden, dating back to the 1800s. What should I drink with it? Bourbon, Chouaf said. You got it!

And so, while Charlottesville wishes Chouaf well in the big city, let’s hope he comes back one day.  World class cheesemongers who recommend bourbon with your cheese don’t grow on trees.

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Farewell, NaCheese.

On Negronis

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Leather Negroni

I think about negronis a lot. A lot. Most people would find it weird. And, by “think” I don’t mean “crave” (although that may be true, too). I mean that I actually think about and reflect upon the cocktail that has captured my attention for a decade.

The latest subject of rumination is how to reconcile my two seemingly discordant views on negronis. On the one hand, I enjoy many different versions of the classic drink. At home, I experiment often. On the other hand, I disfavor misguided riffs, which I sometimes find in my glass even at my favorite bars. Leave a good thing alone, I think to myself.

Why I do welcome some types of negroni tweaks while viewing others with suspicion? The answer, I’ve concluded after much consideration, lies in the theory behind the cocktail’s basic structure. But, first a little background.

What is a Negroni?

The negroni is a classic cocktail of three equal parts: gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth. To me, what makes it such a success is the balance and interplay of the latter two: bitter (Campari) and sweet (vermouth).

The blend of Campari and sweet vermouth is so harmonious that I have come to believe that the cocktail’s third ingredient is largely interchangeable, depending on mood or preference. A cooking analogy helps. Think of the bitter-sweet combination of Campari and sweet vermouth as a classic sauce. Once you’ve perfected a sauce (say, hollandaise, vindaloo, or sweet-and-sour), you can serve it over almost anything.

The same is true of Campari and vermouth. They are the sauce. What to serve with the sauce is up to you. Want something light and refreshing? Replace the gin with sparkling water. Something smoky? Try mezcal. Or, if brown liquors are your thing, use your favorite whiskey. So long as the third ingredient is a balanced, finished product that you would enjoy on its own, you can use almost anything. I’ve had success with most liquors, as well as things as far-reaching as red wine, white wine, coconut water, gose, and, one of my favorites, India Pale Ale.

Given the negroni’s origins, its versatility should come as no surprise. The negroni was said to be invented in 1919 in Florence, Italy at Cafe Casoni, where a popular cocktail at the time was the Americano, combining Campari, sweet vermouth, and sparkling water. One day, a customer asked the bartender to replace the sparkling water with gin. His name? Camillo Negroni.

The Structure

Thinking of the negroni in these terms helps one understand the cocktail’s basic structure and provides a framework for successful experimentation, while avoiding ill-considered deviations. Campari is an Italian bitter digestif, also known as an amaro. Though it is delicious, there are are many other excellent bitter digestifs and apertifs, such as Aperol, Cynar, and Gran Classico, among many more. Likewise with vermouth, while I have my personal favorites, almost any decent sweet vermouth can work.  And so, the structure of the negroni family of cocktails is:

1 Part Bitter Digestif or Apertif
+
1 Part Sweet Vermouth
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1 Part Gin or Balanced, Stand-alone Ingredient

Once you grasp this structure, it’s just a game of Mr. Potato Head. Choose a bitter digestif or apertif and a sweet vermouth, and then add either your favorite gin or an alternative third ingredient.

The negroni riffs I view with skepticism are those that deviate from this essential structure. For example, a restaurant recently served me a negroni that had a heavy dose of lemon juice. To the cocktail’s essential structure, lemon juice introduced a new element – sourness – and the result, predictably, was sour, imbalanced, and unpleasant.

Does that mean a negroni should never have a fourth ingredient? Of course not. After all, many of the best third ingredients (liquor, beer, wine, etc.) are really just combinations of many other ingredients. Some gins have more than twenty ingredients. And, even the ill-conceived lemon juice could have been saved by sugar to balance the sourness. Lemon, sugar, and water make lemonade – another stand-alone that can work as the third ingredient in a negroni family cocktail. (Try San Pellegrino Limonata.)

Other additions that work are those that enhance existing flavors, rather than change them. Salt, for example, the universal flavor enhancer, I almost always include in my negroni. Similarly, bitters, which some bartenders consider their “seasoning,” make a nice addition, in moderation.

The other variable that can be tweaked successfully is the amount of the third ingredient. Remember, Campari-vermouth is the sauce. So, it’s up to you to decide how much sauce you want on your main course, the third ingredient. The drink’s standard ratio yields two parts sauce to one part third ingredient. Want to taste more of the third ingredient? Just increase its amount. Many bartenders like to do this with gin. I find it also works especially well with beer and other less assertive ingredients.

In short, negroni tweaks that honor the drink’s flavor structure work well. Of others, beware.

 Leather Negroni

All of these ruminations about negronis left me very skeptical the first time I encountered the Leather Negroni at Washington D.C.’s Casa Luca.  To make the drink, the bartender explained, a classic negroni was aged in a goatskin leather bag.

The first thought that occurred to me was: “Why?” One of the great virtues of a negroni is its ease. Pour the ingredients over ice and you’re done. After that, there’s almost nothing you can do to the drink that will improve it significantly, if at all. It’s my Rule of the Oyster. After you shuck an oyster, there are lots of things you can do to it – roast, fry, stew, season, etc., many of which will yield a delicious result. But, none will improve upon the way it tasted when it was first shucked, at least not in a degree that warrants the effort. Working hard on a freshly shucked oyster must make some economists squirm. Likewise with the negroni. Making a leather negroni requires time and effort. If the result is no better than when I started, what’s the point?

On top of this, I wondered, won’t leather alter, rather than enhance, the cocktail’s classic flavors? Isn’t this just another ill-fated gimmick? How is this any different from the unpleasant lemon-juice negroni that lingered in my memory?

But, then I tasted it.

One sip erased my skepticism. Casa Luca’s leather negroni is outstanding. So good in fact, that, for the past several weeks, I have been flouting my Rule of the Oyster and jumping through the many steps necessary to create the drink at home — from procuring the right goatskin bag, to seasoning the bag, to aging the drink.

With serendipity, the end of the long process happened to fall on Father’s Day. How was it? Every bit as good as I remembered. Congratulations to Luca Giovannini on such a successful innovation.

And so now, I am left wondering why it worked. Why does adding the flavor of goatskin leather – a seeming deviation from the classic structure – yield such a delicious result?

Time for more thinking.

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