Thursday, October 29, 2009

Drinking the Kool-Aid Out of German Lead Crystal: Reidel Glasses

So, Maximilian Reidel, 33 year old CEO of Reidel Crystal of America, was in town recently with the Reidel Travelling Medicine Show to sell a few wares and preach the gospel of wine glasses. For those who have never heard of Reidel glasses, let me respectfully suggest that you come out from under your rock and try some wine. Reidel is pretty much the gold standard for wine glasses these days. Seriously, if you haven't heard of Reidel glasses, there is a serious question of how much and what types of wine you've been drinking. Sincerely.

Anyway, Max himself, 11th generation of the Reidel family, was in town for a Reidel glass tasting event at Callaway's this last week. If you've never been to one of these events, you must go. The event was entertaining, educational, and you walked out with four spectacular wine glasses. This is the second Reidel event that has occurred in the last few years here in Sioux Falls. If I am not mistaken, the last event featured Max's dad, Georg.

For those who haven't perviously been formally inducted into the Cult of Reidel, let me explain the format for the event. The event started with a reception featuring champagne served in the very cool Reidel "O" champagne glasses. (The "O" series is stemless. Very cool champagne/sparkling glasses.) There were also a few non-descript finger foods. One then adjourns to the next room where tables are laid out in a classroom sort of arrangement. At each place is a glass for water and a place mat set with four big, beautiful, lead crystal glasses, each holding a respectable tasting quantity of wine. In this case, we are talking about the new Reidel Vinum XL glasses and the set consisted of a glass for Riesling, Montrachet/Chadonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir (specifically Oregon pinot.) Also at the place setting is a standard issue wine glass typical of those found at almost any large-attendance event. Not those goofy "tulip" glasses like one would expect at a wedding dance at any particular Ramkota, but still, a standard, who-cares-if-you-break-it glass.

Max then introduces himself and starts the magic show. The program consists of starting with one of the pre-poured wines, usually the "lightest" in this case the Riesling. You take a big sniff out of the Reidel glass and listen to Max explain his impressions, It goes something like this:

"Ahhh, smell zat! Pear! Pineapple! Granny Smiss Appul! (Max is German) Honey! Sunlight!" Then you taste and get more of the same impressions. Then comes the trick. Max instructs the group to pour the wine out of the Reidel glass and into the standard-issue "Joker" glass. "Vhat do you smell? Nothink! Vhat happened? It's gone!"

Okay, at this point, I'd really like to ridicule Max about this alleged alchemy, but he's right. The shape of the Joker glass can't contain the beautiful aromas and subtleties of the wine. The same drill ensues when the crowd is invited to drink out of the "Joker." Sure enough, the first taste of the exact same wine you just drank tastes nothing like it did moments ago. To drive the point home, Max then has the crowd pour the wine into an ordinary plastic cup, to demonstrate that the same wine has less aroma and less taste now.

This process continues through the other glasses at the table and varies only with invitations to pour a varietal into a glass designed for an entirely different varietal. Think a big Oregon Pinot Noir in a glass specifically designed for Chardonnay. Despite the quality of the glass, the right wine in the wrong glass doesn't work.

Okay, so what the fork? Can a glass really make a difference? And, if so, why?

Well, turns out you don't need to be a German engineer to figure this one out. Engineering has nothing to do with it. These glasses are the work of artisans who have worked on glasses specifically designed to showcase the colors, aromas and tastes of specific wines. During part of the demonstration, Max invites everyone to tip the glass forward as one might do to examine the color of the wine. He directs your attention to the shape the wine is making in the glass. This is important. You should notice that the differently-shaped glasses shape and direct the wine in different ways. For instance, a Cabernet glass directs the wine to a relatively sharp point, while the Chardonnay glass allows the wine to flow more widely. You place the thin, cut rim to your mouth et voila, the glass directs the wine to different parts of your tongue. What this does is allow the wine to make it's first contact with critical points of your mouth's tasting apparati.

Reidel makes several series of glasses covering various tiers of prices. These lines cover everything from the hand-blown Sommelier series to the stemless "O" series. Irrespective of what series of glasses you have, chances are there is one that is specifically designed for a particular varietal. In the higher-end lines (Sommelier and Vinum, for instance) there are a LOT of varietal-specific glasses. There are glasses specifically designed for Spanish Tempranillio, Chianti, Port, and Burgundy, as well as glasses for single-malt Scotches or sake. The glasses we tried were part of the new Vinum XL series and, like t-shirts, the XL is for extra large. These suckers are big. The Caberet glass has a capacity of something like 22 ounces. As Max explained, the glasses are bigger these days for the simple reason that wines are bigger these days. Today's winemakers are producing wines that are bold and flavorful. Bigger wines, bigger glass. Works for me. I like a bigger glass for wines because it facilitates swirling the wine and shoving your whole nose and half your face into the glass. (I think you can tell infintely more about a wine by smelling it that you can tasting it.)

This isn't alchemy, though. The glass cannot change what is in it. That's still the same wine in there, the glass just presents it to your nose and your palate in such a way that the first encounter with it is amplified. Just to prove that point, I tried my own little experiment, which, in a way, debunked a little of the mystery. I took a drink from the Reidel glass and then made a point to work the wine aggressively into every corner of my mouth. This is what highly-proficient tasters do. Literally chew the wine and be sure to open your mouth a little and work in some air. I then did the same think with a drink of the same wine from the plastic cup. Turns out working the wine aggressively around your mouth is the great equalizer. Nevertheless, the Reidel glass did showcase the wine from the moment it hits the lips and tongue. The other glasses did not do so.

So, is an investment in glasses like these worth it. If you are serious student of wine or are hoping to increase your knowledge, the answer is an unqualified yes. If you care more about what is in the bottle than how cool the label looks and are willing to spend more than 5 bucks on a bottle, you should invest in some decent glassware. If you are going to paint, you need good brushes. If you are going to ski, you need good skis and boots that fit your ability and style. Basically, you need the right tools for the job and these glasses will compliment and accentuate your wine experience.

One last thing. If you treat these glasses properly, they will last a long, long, time. For such thin glass, they are amazingly strong and durable. A little care while washing and some attention will keep these glasses working for you long into the future.

Go buy the glasses, but clear out some cupboard or bar space for them, a full set of these puppies is going to take up more space than all those hurricane glasses you have brought back from New Orleans over the years. And, if you still have some space, pick up a decanter. You should see the Eve decanter that Max designed! But that's a whole other story for another day.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Parker's: A Very Promising New Addition to the Sioux Falls Dining Scene

Parker's on Urbanspoon
After a soft opening in late September, I finally got around to trying Parker's a little while back. Any new food place in Sioux Falls gets a lot of attention, and soft openings are becoming de rigeur. What's a soft opening you ask? A soft opening is when a new restaurant or bar opens without a big announcement that they are opening on some specific date. People find new places in Sioux Falls without a lot of advertising and attention. Patrons begin to trickle in and this gives the staff a chance to sort of ramp up rather than be faced with a packed house from the word "go." It allows a place to work out the kinks instead of having to open full-throttle.

Parker's occupies a space that has undergone some fairly extensive remodeling. It's on Main Avenue, near 10th Street in a space formerly occupied by a Mexican restaurant, an attempt at a Brazilian joint and a place once known as the House of Soccer. The building has benefitted from the City's facade easement program and features Sioux quartzite and large windows.

Parker's has been billed as creole/cajun/american, which I must say made me a little skeptical. The cajun craze has passed and, face it, no one (at least no one with any sense) really expects authentic cajun cuisine this far from the bayous of Lousianna. The indoor decor of the place is definitely an homage to New Orleans, though: bare brick walls, goofy flooring, old building that leads back to different rooms, high ceilings. It's pretty nice, but the lighting could be better. It's just a tad dark in there at night.

The kitchen is open- that is to say, the chefs work behind the front "bar" area in view and within earshot of the diners. Personally, I couldn't do this. I don't mind people watching me cook because I am on display anytime we cook at my house. The problem would be the diners listening to me and the things they might hear.

The menu is not very extensive, but it features some great items. The dinner menu is divided into courses: starter, salad/soup, entree. Expect familiar items: beef, pork, chicken, fish, but don't expect it to be prepared and presented like something you'd see at Minerva's or Foley's. For instance, there is usually a fresh fish item on the menu. On the night I was there, it was halibut. However, it was coated in a curry sort of rub and pan roasted. Halibut is a phenomenal fish and this particular piece was cooked exactly right. It was cooked just to the point of being done so the flesh was moist and the curry-dusted outside was dry, and well-seared, but not crusty. The halibut was served with fresh cucumber cut into ribbons and dressed with a creamy sauce- rather reminiscent of the sliced cucumbers your grandmother made during the summer months, only more delicate and definitely prettier. The other side was, as I recall, Isreali couscous. Couscous is pasta that is basically milled into the consistency of grain. It's great stuff, takes on flavor like a sponge and cooks in about five minutes. If you aren't familiar with it, you need to get with the program. Isreali couscous is bigger in size- kind of like small tapioca pearls. Personally, I thought the couscous could use a little more flavor, but I was glad to see it on the plate.

Other menu choices include a pork chop, chicken and flatiron steaks. I can't wait to try more. It all sounded great and it was hard to make a choice.

The salads were interesting and feature fresh local produce. There was an heirloom tomato salad with some balsamic glaze and fresh mozerella. This is an example of good menu writing, because in reality, this is a salad caprese- tomatoes and fresh mozerella- for nine bucks. There is also a gumbo on the menu. (Cajun/creole homage to NOLA.) Not bad. Really good creole/cajun food has an amazing quality of prolonging spice. It should be spicy, but not the sort of punch you in the mouth like wasabi or vindaloo hot. I thought the cup of gumbo I had could have used a little more front-end heat and a little less rice in the bottom of the cup. It also could have used just a tad more texture. The feature was the andouille sausage- hand-made. That was great. Like I said, though, the gumbo needed more texture. If you have it in NOLA, you might have a piece of chicken here or there or some vegetables that haven's entirely dissolved.

The real shining star of the menu, however, was the lamb sausage on the appetizer list. You have GOT to try this. Handmade by the chef, and accordingly cooked to the rare side, it is just a tad spicy and oh, so delicious.

The menu of Parker's puts it in the same category as, say, Cafe 334, K's, and probably a few places you may have visited in more metropolitan places. It's good food, but prepared with more imagination than what we have become used to here. The presentations come to the table absolutely camera ready. I guarantee you'll pause when the food makes it to the table to take in the presentation.

The staff is very competent and helpful. Ben Josten, formerly of Food & Fermentation, is there. Ben is a definite asset. He has a passion for wine, a very good understanding of food, and a talent for pairing the two. If you are in doubt about anything on the wine list, seek Ben's assistance. You can't go wrong.

I am reaching the point in my dining and food snobbery, that I wonder if an absoultely perfect dining experience is possible. Taste, after, all is subjective. Nevertheless, if you want to know what I thought could be a little different, or a little better, here it is:
  • Tweak the lighting. The food is gorgeous, but it's a little hard to see. Hell if I know how to adjust lighting. I am not a lighting engineer, but I know it could benefit from the assistance of someone who is.
  • Punch up the wine list. The selections were very nice, but there can be more of them. You don't need a Sears catalog sized list, but a few more selections would be great.
  • Emphasize the ingredient sourcing. In passing, the wait staff mentioned that all the fresh ingredients for the menu, with the obvious exception of the seafood, are obtained locally. Like from within 100 miles of Sioux Falls. That's phenomenal and I think Americans, in general, are finally coming around to what the French have understood for centuries- great, fresh ingredients obtained from people who care and know what they are doing make a HUGE difference. Why doesn't the menu tell me that pork came from a Lincoln County farmer? It should. Frankly, I really want to know this before I order.
  • Punch up the flavors, especially in the sides. Don't get me wrong, I thought the food was well-prepared, but I look for amplification and compliments to the natural, subtle nuances of fresh food. Don't be afraid to season with a heavier hand.
  • I hope between Ben and the culinary staff, you will try some special paired wine events.
Overall, I was quite pleased with my first experience at Parker's and I am looking forward to many return visits. I think Parker's has great promise and has the potential to be one of the crown jewels of dining in Sioux Falls, and South Dakota for that matter.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Holy Frijoles! Authentic Mexican Food in Sioux Falls: Nikki's Taqueria

Taqueria Nikki's on Urbanspoon
A couple of years or so ago, I was reading about Nikki's, a store and restaurant on East 10th Street- in the little strip mall where Subway is located, near Cliff Avenue. The point of the article was that Nikki's had become a sort of community center for the local Hispanic population, particularly those who speak very little English. I also noticed that the article mentioned good food.

Nikki's has opened a large new store on 8th Street and Indiana. The restaurant is still on 10th Street. (I don't know if a move is imminent.) I stopped in for lunch expecting a very authentic Mexican food experience and I am pleased to report that I was in no way disappointed.

Nikki's is the real deal. If your idea of great Mexican food is a Taco Bell Encherito or a big old burrito at Qdoba, the food at Nikki's is going to seem very foreign to you. On the other hand, if you have fond memories of some little tacos full of some really tasty mystery meat you ate during your last trip to Mexico, you are in luck.

Nikki's has a pretty nice selection of entrees and al a carte items. It was lunch and the taco special- four tacos for five bucks made a great deal of sense. The choices far exceeded beef or chicken, hard or softshells. (Actually, they make it pretty clear that there are no hard shells. As a matter of fact, the soft shells are corn, not flour- a plus on the authentic-meter.) There were tons of choices for fillings and you were free to mix and match them as you desired. Here are the choices I can remember: asada (spiced grilled beef), picadillo (shredded beef), pastor (a seasoned pork), carnitas (a different type of seasoned beef), chorizo, lengua (beef tongue), tripa (beef tripe), fish.

Naturally, I had to try the tongue, and rounded out my selections with chorizo, pastor, and the asada. Each taco is barely the size of an adult's palm and is comprised of two little corn tortillas with two or three tablespoons of your designated protein mounded in the middle. You can forget cheese, lettuse, sour cream, etc for toppings. In this case, you got onions and some chopped cilantro. There were also a couple of slices of fresh radish on the side.

As is so often the case with food, these simple little tacos were a great experience of flavor and textures. The soft and somewhat sweet corn tortillas palyed off the textures and subtle spiciness of the proteins. Then you get the sweet pungency of the onions and the salty-spiciness of the cilantro. Phenomenal.

Yes, the tongue was good. Tongue is an unfairly maligned cut of meat. Yes, it looks wierd in whole form and even I would have to do some research to figure out how to cook one, but it really is good stuff. It tastes beefy. Like so many odd beef cuts, the flavor is rather like the taste of a slice of cold pot roast straight from the fridge. That's probably because it has been stored in a fridge. The texture is not too soft and it's not tough by any means, either. It is very fine grained and yielding. Seriously, you have to give it a try.

I wasn't quite up for tripe- beef stomach. Don't get me wrong, properly cooked tripe is a beautiful thing. I actually had a meal at a much ballyhooed restaurant in San Francisco where the the best thing I had was the tripe appetizer. (I thought the rest of the meal frankly sucked- keep this in mind while you watch "The Next American Iron Chef" this fall because the executive chef at this particular restaurant is Nate Appleman who will be competing.) Anyway, considering the love and care put into the lengua, I bet the tripa is pretty darn good, too.

Truly, one of the best things about Sioux Falls these days is the absolute embarassment of riches we are experiencing in terms of diverse cultures. That means great food choices and Nikki's is a shining example. When you can get such a great sampling of flavors for all of five bucks, why wouldn't you?