Thursday, August 25, 2011


The other day, I went to Viva restaurant I Stockbridge on assignment for “Local Dish.” Little did I know that the advertising person that coordinated this lunch for me had arranged a little something special. Usually Viva is closed on Mondays; Luis, the owner/chef, opened just for me and I had a private chef’s lunch. And it was
I didn’t order off the menu, instead, Luis had a special tasting menu planned. I started off with three different tapas (I should mention that Viva is a Spanish restaurant), followed by paella made especially for me, and all washed down with good strong sangria.
I started off with datiles (8.00), which are dates stuffed with an almond, wrapped in applewood smoked bacon, and then deep fried (yes, really), served atop a balsamic reduction. The thick-sliced bacon is naturally smoky and salty and gets really crispy from deep frying (I also learned that Viva does all their frying in canola oil, compared to some more conventional oils). Inside, the date is sweet, soft and juicy, and the almond is crunchy. The balsamic is sticky and sweet, with a slight tang, from being reduced. Each date is the perfect bite of textures and tastes, sticky and sweet and salty and hot and crunchy, all leading to a highly satisfying mouthfeel. The sweet notes of the dish linger – that is, until the next dish. By far my favorite dish that I tasted. I will dream about these dates for many nights to come.
Next came the wild mushroom croquettes (7.00), served with a garlic aioli for dipping. Luis mentioned that he likes making aioli because it originated, at least partly, in Spain. He makes his fresh daily, using egg yolks, garlic, and Spanish olive oil. For the croquettes, he makes a stock-based béchamel and blends in wild mushrooms – cremini or whatever is available at the time. This is then battered and deep fried (gee, are we sensing a theme here). When the plate arrived at my table, the batter was the first thing to hit my nose. It smelled hot and friend and salty, and it was all that and more. The aioli was thick and creamy, with a strong garlic flavor, the croquettes were good on their own, and then the aioli really elevated their flavor. The mushroom flavor, while subtle, was definitely present. The coating was nice and crunchy and kind of crackled when I bit into it, which provided contrast to the filling, with was smooth and hearty. The crispy coating was flavored with herbs, which brought me to an interesting observation. I really enjoyed how every component, layer, level, what have you, of each dish was carefully and thoughtfully flavored and treated with respect (kind of reminiscent of Indian cuisine).
My final tapas was garbanzos, deep fried with Moorish spices (6.00). I got a brief history lesson from Luis when this dish was delivered, who cited the many cultures and traditions that influenced Spanish cuisine and culture, including Roman, African, and Moorish. He named cumin and paprika as spices brought in from these other areas, but I decided to Google “Moorish spices” to get a better idea. A recipe from Frances Mayes’ blog –who is best known for writing “Under the Tuscan Sun” – that was tagged for using Moorish spices included paprika, cumin, turmeric, black pepper, a pinch of ginger, and saffron (read the blog post here: That seems pretty accurate for these beans, which were fried and then dusted with spices. The scent of the spices was very strong as it wafted up from the bowl. The skin (shell?) of the beans became very crisp from the frying, and inside the bean was still soft and warm. These were surprisingly good – it was hard not to eat the whole bowl and I chatted with Luis. The spices complimented that natural chickpea flavor without overwhelming it, and I was left with a lingering salty flavor.
Finally, completing the meal was a traditional paella. When the Valenciana paella arrives to the table, the heady smells of seafood and saffron are the first the nose detects. The aromatic saffron rice is studded with succulent chicken, chorizo, clams, and shrimp. The natural flavor of the chicken is intensified by the other ingredients, the clams and shrimp are perfectly tender, and the chorizo is mild yet flavorful. Flecked with bits of onion and tomato, the rice has a beautiful bright yellow color from the saffron. Homemade stock helps the rice retain a lot of moisture and keeps it from becoming dry, as well as adding another savory layer of flavor. As a bonus, many of the vegetables are locally grown.
As a true connoisseur of paella knows, the most coveted part is the bits around the edge of the pan that get crispy and caramelized during cooking – and this paella did not disappoint. The charred edges added texture and a deep smoky-sweet flavor.
This dish, which takes about 25 minutes to prepare, serves two for $38.00. A tapas-sized portion or individual entrée is available upon request.
Recommended pairing for any of these dishes: the house sangria, made with a good, strong bodied red wine, liquor, and fresh apples and oranges. The sangria sits for while to allow the flavors to meld, and the fruit soaks up all the flavor from the wine and liquor. Luis jokingly referred to it as “drunken fruit,” noting that many of his patrons eat the fruit at the bottom of the glass (I helped myself to a couple pieces, and it was yummy). Luis invented this sangria recipe and has been serving it since day one at the restaurant.
The atmosphere at Viva is fun and sophisticated. The walls are a vivid red, the napkins and plates are bright yellow, and lively Spanish music plays softly in the background. Little touches, like the pretty silverware pattern, the flowers, and the artwork give the place a lot of character and perfectly compliment the authentic, well-executed Spanish cuisine. They have live flamenco music Friday and Saturday nights, and the dining room has really been cultivated to invite people to sit, talk, enjoy a variety of tapas and drinks, and just take pleasure in each others company. I can’t wait to go back with my dad when he visits this fall.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Want a little cheese with that wine? Also known as Allison and Danielle’s Awesome Winey Adventure

So last weekend I went up to Vermont to celebrate Danielle’s birthday, and OMG, what a great time we had! I arrived Friday evening after spending about 4 ½ hours in the car (super fun – but what a gorgeous drive), so naturally, our first stop was dinner at the Bluebird Tavern. Have I mentioned before how much I love the Bluebird? It was delicious as always, with the usually highs and lows. First we got a cheese board, which has basically become a tradition of ours. It was great, with a wide variety of cheeses and different textures and flavors. However, I must interject – the cheeseboard used to be a flat price (like, $15 or so) and you got whatever they put on it. Now they charge $7 per cheese – something that we were not aware of…meaning we unwittingly spent $35 on cheese! Oh well. It was yummy. Then I had the heirloom tomato salad with house ricotta (and you know how I feel about ricotta) and Danielle had mussels (any surprise there). Oh, and we shared fries with – you guessed it – homemade Bluebird ketchup! I swear, that stuff is legendary. We finished the evening with some really fresh, fruity desserts – blueberry pudding for Danielle (she had a thing for pudding) and a strawberry tart for me. Success.
The next day is when our adventure really began. Danielle had taken some time to route out our trip around northern Vermont. We started in the Champlain Islands, where we stopped at an adorable farmers’ market. While there, we just happened to taste some East Shore Vineyard wine. The Summer Snow is delicious, cool and crisp and fruity. From there, we were off to Snow Farm for another wine tasting. I loved the Rose Red – a surprise, because I’m usually strictly a white wine drinker. I think I liked the Rose because it was sweet, and could be drunk cold, like a sangria….I don’t really care for room temp drinks. Plus, their tasting room was adorable and so scenic.
After the islands we headed inland to Boyden Valley Farms, known best for their ice wine. Well, they had an apple crème liqueur that incorporated ice cider that was simply to die for. Very similar to Baileys, it was smooth and creamy and really flavorful. The guy who handled our tasting was friendly and cute, adding to the fun of the experience.
Now, I must confess, I do not claim to be any kind of wine aficionado. I know what I like and what I don’t and just go with it, regardless of whether it is overly sophisticated or not (as in, we tried one wine that tasted just like grape juice, and I loved it). I would like to learn some more, actually – BCC is offering a few inexpensive wine courses this fall that I might be interested in. In the meantime, I’ll just drink what I enjoy.
We ended up in Stowe for the afternoon. Lunch at The Whip was fab out on the patio, soaking up the gorgeous weather. I had some really yummy crab cakes, and Danielle had a caprese-inspired sandwich. We spent some time wandering the quaint shops, including the Laughing Moon chocolate shop. They have really unique truffles – blue cheese, lavender-chevre, basil-pepper – and delicious hand dipped treats. A quick stop at the Von Trapp Family Lodge for a little touristy fun rounded out the trip.
We finished the day on the waterfront in Burlington, listening to live music (after a stop at Starbucks, during which I made Danielle listen to me while I rambled on about all the ways I’ve missed Starbucks these past few months). Excellent. IS there really a better way to spend a weekend then drinking wine, eating good food, listening to music, and enjoying the perfect mountain weather, all in the company of a great friend? I think not.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Updates, updates, updates

Wow, I have so much I want to share. I am feeling rather exuberant today due to some exciting news I got at work. Everyone at the paper knows that I have an interest in food and that I hope to make a career out of it someday (hopefully sooner rather than later). We have a weekly “Dining Out” section that is really just an overview of area restaurant, and it also includes “Chef’s Corner” (a seasonal recipe submitted by a local chef) and “Local Dish,” a weekly restaurant review. The section hasn’t really received its deserved attention since before I started working here, mostly due to an ongoing string of staffing issues. Well, guess who’s now in charge of this section? (Like you really have to guess). Each week I’ll visit a local restaurant and have lunch or dinner (on them, of course) and then review my experience in a positive light – we are a very positive paper. This is a big step for me – it will provide me with a great portfolio of clips directly related to my career aspirations. Yay!
And in other news….
A few days ago I watched Food, Inc. I know, I know, I am so behind the times – that movie came out years ago. But anyway, I finally got around to seeing it and it was really eye opening and inspiring. As an animal lover, I do sometimes struggle with my love of meat (roast chicken…Thanksgiving turkey…a juicy mushroom and Swiss burger…). I have always kind of justified it by thinking that these animals were raised specifically for this purpose, and that thought did provide some comfort. However, I never really thought about how the animals were treated prior to ending up on my dinner plate. I’ve mentioned before that I do not eat veal for this reason, but for whatever reason, it never spilled over into other types of livestock. Now, of course, my eyes are wide open. I am not ready to become a vegetarian, and I doubt I’ll ever be, but I have strengthened my resolve to only shop for organic, free range, grass fed (etc.) varieties of meat. I already buy organic milk and eggs for health reasons – I do not want extra hormones in my diet – so this isn’t a big leap for me. I’ll keep you updated.
Finally, a quick shout out to the Lenox Farmers’ Market! What a great market – small, but in an ideal location and with a wide variety of offerings. They always have abundant seasonal fruit (like I even need to mention my feelings on that) as well as flowers, baked goods, crafts, veggies, honey, syrup…this list goes on. I love visiting the market Friday afternoons and stocking up for a weekend of treats!