Saturday, October 13, 2018

A Noble Taste - Crown Royal Whisky

  I met Stephen Wilson, Director of Whisky Engagement for Crown Royal in Houston last month. We sat down for a tasting of some of the brand's more popular offerings including the recently released Texas Mesquite Whisky.

  Wilson shared the the story of how the brand was created in 1939 when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth came to Canada to tour the provinces. The whisky was stocked on their train for them to enjoy throughout their travels. The name, the shape of the bottle, and the bag were all designed to showcase the whisky as a royal gift. The popularity of the brand increased immediately after entering the American market. It is still the top selling Canadian whisky in North America.

  This original flagship blend set the standard for Crown Royal, it is comprised of five different styles of whisky blended together from many different years aged in many different barrels both new and seasoned to create the consistent taste and texture that aficionados have always enjoyed. The five whisky components of the blend each add something different to the final product, lightness and softness, juiciness, buttery notes, floral notes, caramel, chocolate, banana or a spicy character. Expertly combined together, they make up the classic Crown Royal profile.

  Wilson recommends tasting whisky in a certain way for comparative purposes. "I take a little sip, hold it in the center of my mouth before moving it around a bit to coat all the different areas before swallowing. Then, I breathe in across my tongue and engage the whole olfactory system."

  Crown Royal Reserve was launched in the early '90s as a thank you from the blenders to the people who regularly drink Crown Royal. It was designed to be an elevated version of the original, flagship blend. It is comprised of the boldest and, often, the oldest barrels of whisky which give it more pronounced aromas of baking spice and nuts while also contributing an added creaminess to the texture. Wilson feels the Reserve makes great Manhattans and other cocktails but prefers to drink it neat.

  The Crown Royal XO is a play on Cognac.  The original blend goes through a second maturation in Cognac barrels which gives the whisky a richer profile pulling in additional aromas and flavors. The seasoned Cognac barrels add fruit and spice nuances while also considerably lengthening the smooth, creamy finish.

  I was most excited about tasting the Crown Royal Texas Mesquite flavored whiskey which just launched in May of this year. Originally, it was intended to be a Texas exclusive but demand for the whisky has already brought it into the market in several other states. Unique to Texas is the blue bag with the Texas star on it, in other states, it is sold in a plain blue bag with just the Crown Royal signature logo. 

  Wilson shared that the new product has already become a favorite among mixologists adding a distinct smokiness to their cocktail creations. He noted that at several tastings, consumers reported loving it as cocktail component but after tasting it neat or served on the rocks, they preferred it straight. The Crown Royal Texas Mesquite is bold and rich with caramel and vanilla notes but the mesquite character adds an unmistakable uniqueness in the glass, the finish has a decided barbecue brisket quality that persistently lingers. 

  Wilson concluded, "We make whisky the Canadian way. It's all about carrying on the tradition that started in 1939. The whisky flavors and personality, everything you taste in the glass is by design. So, when I say, we make whisky the Canadian way, that is our style and we take a lot of pride in it. It's approachable and unique, it may be a lighter style but that doesn't mean it lacks complexity, that's what excites me and that's why I like drinking it and that's why I like talking about it."

Thursday, September 20, 2018

La Lucha in the Houston Heights

The much anticipated new restaurant concept from Chef Ford Fry opened this week in Houston. La Lucha is the chef's opportunity to pay respect to one of his favorite childhood restaurants, the San Jacinto Inn, that his family regularly visited for southern cuisine and other gulf coast favorites. It is the first restaurant of its kind in the Ford Fry family.

I just had my first meal there and I am excited to go back for more. My husband and I sat at the bar and each went with a wine by the glass. I ordered the Cleto Chiarli "Vecchia Modena" Lambrusco, a refreshinging and very food friendly light sparkling Italaian winewhile he went with a more classic choice of Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve Champagne. We had great service at the bar from both Colton and Allie. They knew the menu well and were quick to discuss their favorite items.

We started with a side of watermelon that was dressed with Thai chiles, lime and fresh cilantro and an order of La caviar
and onion dip topped with chives and served with a half can of Pringles potato crisps. This combination was extremely tasty together. The fresh, sweet and spicy watermelon was an ideal contrast to the savory, creamy, salty goodness of the dip. We quickly finished both in record time barely maintaining against the urge to lick the dip container and wash it down with the watermelon juice in the bottom of the bowl. Luckily, our next course was quick to arrive

We decided to split a whole fried chicken which was served with biscuits, pickles and a choice of sauce. Colton shared that the green harissa was his favorite so we followed his lead and enjoyed the  fresh herb condiment alongside the crispy yet juicy bird. Predictably, we could not finish it all so were able to bring a couple of pieces back to our daughter at home as a late work day had prevented her from joining us that evening. We both felt that our drink choices had worked well through the entire meal.

Kevin, the bar manager, stopped by to check on us and we took the opportunity to question him about his favorites. He highly recommended the oysters, both raw and fried, paired with Mezcal as a top choice for him. As they have a great Happy Hour deal on the oysters, I imagine we will be back soon to test that out. Other items of interest that we saw going by were the fried shimp and the Pharmacy burger. We also watched Colton mixmaster up some cocktails that he assured us were not only refreshing but that also played well with the menu options.

To top off the evening, we enjoyed small dishes of soft serve ice cream. I had the vanilla topped with  crushed saltines while he had the chocolate sprinkled with crushed oreos. Simple and delicious.

As a born and raised native Houstonian, I am particular about my southern Gulf Coast cuisine. Chef Ford Fry, along with Executive Chef Bobby Matos have gotten everything right with this menu. This is no surprise as their restaurant on Westheimer, State of Grace, is one of my family's favorites as well. While I like to eat at a restaurant a few times before labeling it one of my top choices, I have no doubt that La Lucha is on it's way to making that list, I highly recommend it after one visit and I'm looking forward to returning soon.

Check out my thoughts on State of Grace here.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Mixology Class with Susi Zivanovic

Susi Zivanovic

I had a fantastic experience this week learning about the cocktail program at Perry's Steakhouse & Grille with beverage director, Susi Zivanovic. In addition to selecting the wines for the restaurants, Zivanovic creates all the cocktail recipes that guests enjoy at the many Perry’s locations. Zivanovic shared with the group that her philosophy for mixology involves high quality ingredients masterfully blended into well-balanced deliciously drinkable cocktails. She said that when she creates the different recipes, she chooses only premium ingredients - most importantly, she makes sure that there are no artificial colors, flavors, or sweeteners.
Invitees to this event started the evening with the Perry's Hog-Hatten. This drink was prepared by the true professionals behind the bar. This Manhattan-based cocktail is elevated with spicier Redemption Rye Whiskey instead of the more traditional Bourbon. This is combined with Vya Vermouth and is complemented with a Sugar in the Raw rim and some homemade bbq sauce. The drink is then garnished with a skewer of Perry’s Famous Pork Chop Bites alternated with Luxardo Cherries. We learned this mini-meal on your glass can also be added to any Manhattan cocktail of your choice for only $2. They suggest dipping the skewer in this drink which enhances the sweet and smoky flavor combination.

The Lemon Bubbles was the first cocktail that each member of the group created. This light and refreshing drink is a blend of Pierre Ferrand 1840 Cognac, Caravella Limoncello, and freshly squeezed lemon juice which is shaken together, poured into a Champagne flute, and then is topped off with sparkling Chandon Brut. 
The Lemon Bubbles cocktail was paired with the Bacon Wrapped Scallops. Together, this combination would be the perfect start to any evening at Perry's.

The Peachy Glen was our next shaken cocktail. It combines Glenmorangie 10 year old Scotch with Belvedere Peach Nectar Vodka, fresh squeezed lemon juice, and stone fruit purée. This is poured into a coupe style glass which is then garnished with organic and edible flowers which provide a beautiful topping and an interesting flavor should you decide to consume them. To me, the flowers started off with a fruity flavor which then evolved into a more celery-like flavor. The fruity flavors of the Peachy Glen drink tasted even more delicious when paired with the Seafood Stuffed Mushrooms served over tomato cream. This was my favorite cocktail and pairing of the evening.

The Bourbon Bloom was our next cocktail. This drink starts with a muddling of blackberries and mint which is then shaken with Woodford Reserve Bourbon, St Germaine Elderflower Liqueur, and fresh lemon juice. The Bourbon Bloom’s flavor profile has many similarities to red wine which makes it an excellent pairing for the Beef and Bleu Crostini as well
as with any steak on the menu.

For the grand finale, Susi stirred up mini-sized Jameson Mocha Old Fashioned cocktails for the group. This blend of Jameson Caskmates Irish Whiskey, house-made coffee syrup and molé bitters played beautifully with the Chocolate Crunch dessert. This dessert is reminiscent of a Twix candy bar and the spicy coffee flavors of the Mocha Old Fashioned worked extremely well with it. I could imagine myself enjoying this while passing out Halloween candy at home.

Perry's Steakhouse and Grille is a family owned restaurant chain that started off in the Houston area. It has now grown into multiple locations across the country. The Perry family started with a butcher shop so the restaurant is known for its high quality USDA-aged Prime beef but the restaurants are also famous for the 7-Finger Pork Chop, a family recipe that has been perfected over more than 3 decades. The Pork Chop Bites skewer is an ideal way to get a small taste of this classic menu item.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Abruzzo - An Italian Destination

Abruzzo is located east of Lazio and north of Puglia on Italy's east coast along the Adriatic Sea. I went for a wine media trip to this region in May and learned that this is another one of those many places in the world that should have been on my destination bucket list to try to visit far sooner.
I didn't know what I didn't know until I went and saw.

There are seaside cities with beaches and seafood and mountain towns with sheep and cheese. There are medieval castles and ancient hilltop towns. There are beechwood forests inhabited with wolves and bears and huge national parks. There are water sports and snow skiing. The Gran Sasso mountain looms in the background while the blue Adriatic cools down the coast.

Montepulciano is the most important red grape in the region. It is the second most planted red grape variety in Italy after Sangiovese. It makes a robust juicy red wine that has always been considered as a great wine with pizza. Abruzzo has long been known as an area for bulk wine but that image is changing as more producers are becoming quality conscious and bottling their own wine. We tasted many complex and elegant renditions with pairing potential that went far beyond red sauced entrees.

The region is also known for their rosato that is made from the Montepulciano grape, Cerasuolo d'Abruzzo, it is the darkest of the Italian rosés. The fuller body and lightly tannic structure make it an excellent partner both with simple prosciutto plates and heavier fish dishes.

The local white wines were an unexpected treat. They were delicious on their own and were a great match to the raw and other lighter seafood options. Trebbiano, the main white variety has gotten more interesting as vineyard practices have improved. The whites made from Pecorino were crisp, fresh, and perfect for the hot months ahead. Cococciola, a rarer variety is a crisp, lively white wine that would be an excellent aperitif at any summer soiree.

All of the wineries we visited are recommended. I have posted on each one at Some are more tourist friendly than others so check their websites before attempting to visit, most require appointments.

We stayed at Hotel Villa Maria in Chieti which is a Best Western resort. My suite was spacious with a large sitting room and a comfortable work area. It had a king-size bed in another room and a roomy, modern bathroom. It was very clean and nicely appointed. It also had a large private patio and a huge closet as well. The hotel appears to have a rather nice spa but I did not have a chance to try it out. I did enjoy breakfast  every day outside on the terrace with lovely views of the sea.

A sunset dinner at a trabocco is a must do if you visit Abruzzo. Trabocco are connected fishing piers with numerous places for nets, poles, and pulleys along with a large hut. Many of these huts have now been converted into restaurants. We dined at Trabocco Punta Cavalluccio, the food was phenomenally fresh and I highly recommend it. For another seafood option, I would also recommend Ristorante Da Bacone in Pescara. We also enjoyed two paired menus at renovated castles, there is more on those two meals through the link to the winery posts above.

Speaking of castles, there is more than one to see in Abruzzo. We stopped by the formidable looking Ducal Castle of Crecchio to stretch our legs between stops. This particular castle was built by the Lombards in the eighth century. 

There are also several museums to visit. We took time out to see the exhibits at both the Genti d'Abruzzo Museum which is an ethnographic museum and the Casa Natale di Gabriele D'Annunzio museum which is the birthplace or first home of one of Italy's most celebrated poets. Both are located in Pescara.

I thoroughly enjoyed my short trip to Abruzzo. The most important thing that I learned was that I need to return again soon. There is so much to see and do and so many delicious things to eat and drink.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Staying at Château La France - Bordeaux

During a trip to Bordeaux last fall, I stayed at the bed and breakfast at Château La France, a modern five room boutique hotel located between the cities of Bordeaux and Saint-Emilion in the commune of Beychac-et-Caillau. Visitors are greeted by a huge cock proudly overseeing the vineyards. The monumental sculpture was created by artist Georges Saulterre from sheet steel mirror. The rooster's appearance changes from silver through gold as the day progresses and the lighting changes.

The property is over 200 acres and is classed as one of the largest estates in the region. Château La France was built in 1830 on the site of a former Gallo-Roman villa. The actual château can be rented out as well, it contains six bedrooms, has a private pool and can house up to 14 people. I did not stay in the main house during my time there as it was rented out by a wedding party so I was unable to tour it but you can see it on video here.

My room was the Chambre Merlot, a single level room for two which includes access to the spa overlooking the vineyard area, a daily small buffet style breakfast, air conditioning, satellite tv and free wifi. The room was very clean, appointed with bright, contemporary decor and a modern bathroom.

The location makes it easy to access both the city of Bordeaux and the village of St Emilion which are each located less than 13 miles away. Golfers can find paradise at the Golf de Teynac, an 18 hole course just over a mile away from the property while cyclists can rent bikes at Créon, a nearby town situated less than 10 miles away.

If you are visiting the Bordeaux region for the wine, you will find some delicious options produced on the property along with a pleasant tasting room in which to try them. They make four different styles: a Bordeaux Blanc, a Bordeaux Rosé and two Bordeaux Supérieur reds- one aged in stainless steel vats and one aged in oak barrels. While the estate's winery is very modern with a gravity system for moving the wine which helps to preserve aromas and freshness, the winemaking is traditional.

Of the four places that I have stayed in the Bordeaux region, this is my top recommendation for my friends and family. My room was clean and comfortable, the shower was large, the breakfast was tasty and the wines were delicious. The added bonus of unwinding in the hot tub with a glass of wine  at sunset makes a perfect ending to any day there.
Highly recommended.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Visiting Planet Bordeaux

In the Beychac-et-Caillau commune in the Gironde in southwestern France, you'll find Planet Bordeaux which is both the headquarters for the winemakers association and a recommended place for you to begin your tasting tour of the Bordeaux wine region. I visited there in the fall and was surprised to discover that behind the nondescript entrance was a unique and thoroughly modern wine experience waiting for me.
In addition to housing the association, Planet Bordeaux is also the tourist center for the wines from the Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur wine appellations. They have guides to help out visitors and can do tours in several languages. They offer attractions like educational exhibits and audio/visual installations covering a range of wine-related subjects along with wine tastings and cooking classes. The center can help with the planning of visits to local chateaux as well. It is not just for wine consumers and tourists, it is also a hub for visiting wine professionals from around the world. 

Following the tour, you are invited to an exceptional retail experience. The wine cellar at Planet Bordeaux is expansive and includes the best from the appellations, all offered at the same price as at the Châteaux. They will also box the wines for you so they are suitable to withstand the perils of travel.

You will find the hours they are opened via the link and you can email them with any questions you may have about setting up a visit at .