Saturday, April 16, 2016

[Opinion] My experience with WSET Level 2 Wine and Spirits

At the start of 2015 I had had been toying with the idea of taking formal wine classes for a while and had indeed already completed several casual wine tasting courses. I finally decided to bite the bullet and enrol for the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Level 2 Certificate in Wines and Spirits. There is a foundation Level 1, but it's entirely possible to go straight in at Level 2 if you already have a reasonably good knowledge of wine. 
There are several accredited teachers in Ireland, which you can find listed on the WSET website, but when I did my research, one name was consistently mentioned again and again. I therefore found myself in the very capable hands of Maureen O'Hara from Premier Wine Training. The classes took place at night, over the course of approximately 8 weeks, lasting 2 hours per class. I paid €440 which covered all classes, textbooks and study materials, a set of tasting glasses and the exam itself.

The course its described as being suitable for passionate consumers (a very kind term for passionate drinkers like myself) and people working in the hospitality or wine and spirits industry. My class of about 15 consisted of chefs, wine traders, off-license staff and restaurant waiters. For these people, it was part of their professional development, and I assume sponsored by their employers. I was initially a little nervous about sharing a class with professionals, but I quickly learned that we were all in the same boat.

The theme of the course is "Looking behind the label" and it's all about equipping you with the knowledge to interpret wine labels with confidence. The curriculum covers all major grape varieties, the geographies in which they are grown and how the final wine is influenced by climate. For instance, the widely grown Chardonnay grape will be crisp and flinty when coming from Chablis, but will show more tropical fruit flavours when grown in a warmer climate such as California. And this is before you even start to consider the influence of oak in the final product!

Each class featured about 6-8 wines for tasting, where we learned the WSET systematic approach to tasting wine. Trying to determine whether a wine is "lemon" or "golden" in appearance was a bit of a struggle at the start, but eventually terms like acidity, body and length started to make more sense and I found myself applying them with more understanding and consistency. When it comes to tasting wine, it really is true that practice makes perfect! We tasted a wide range of wines, from mass market to high-end, giving us a broad perspective. Let's just say that the Champagne and sparkling wine class was a firm favourite.

The classes flew by every night, and then it was time to study for the final exam. Even if you are a knowledgeable amateur, there's a fair amount of material to cover for the exam. Being the competitive high achiever that I am, I actually looked forward to the exam as a chance to test everything that I had learned. The exam itself went well, with a few tricky questions, and eventually I was thrilled when the envelope arrived with my results - Pass with Distinction - and a little lapel pin to announce my status.

What did I learn during the course

  • I now like red wine far more than I did. The course challenged my perceptions and got me interested in tasting wines that I would previously have walked past. A good, well-made wine will always be a good wine and I have learned to appreciate that, even if it's not to my personal preferences. This Christmas I chose a Saint-Émilion Grand Cru to accompany our turkey, and it was superb. I simply would not have chosen that wine before the course.
  • I now like oaky wines - As a person who started to drink wines in the late 1990s / early 2000s, I was put off by the heavily oaked white wines of that era. I now understand the use of oak in wine making and have come to really enjoy the buttery, toasty charm of a good Burgundy.
  • I now have confidence when the wine menu arrives at the table. In the past, my choices were based on past experience and I stuck with wines I knew I would like. I didn't fully understand the difference between a Burgundy and a Bordeaux; a Chablis or a Chardonnay. Now that I'm armed with a good basic knowledge, I frequently strike out with new wines. 
  • I learned to have confidence in my tasting. Once you learn the basic vocabulary (red fruit, black fruit, stone fruit and so on), you'll find yourself adding words that mean more to you. I think my high point was nosing a white wine and immediately thinking "blue cheese". It turns out that Women of Reproductive Age are naturally better tasters than men, so ladies, enjoy the benefits of a naturally enhanced nose.
  • Make sure to rinse out your tasting glasses when you come home from a tasting or a class. There's nothing worse than opening up your tasting glasses and finding dried-out wine at the bottom. 
  • I learned lots about the various wine regions and I've already visited Bordeaux. Next on the list will be Burgundy, the sherry bodegas of Jerez or perhaps the steep slopes of the Riesling-making Mosel region. Holidays have taken on a whole new dimension
  • I've met other like-minded, wine-loving souls, and have attended professional and private wine tastings. The more you taste, the more you learn, and these tastings are a great way to learn more about wines and the winemakers. For the average consumer, I really recommend the regular O'Briens wine tastings and fairs and the Ely wine events.
  • Be prepared for your passion to grow as this is a slippery slope. I had one small wine rack before this course. I now have two large wine racks, and I've started to buy wine in cases.
  • I have only just started my wine journey. I really want to take the Level 3 course, which is much more intensive and involves an exam with blind tastings. At the moment, I'm travelling lots for work, so it's not really possible, but you can bet your last bottle of Petrus that I'll be enrolling as soon as I can.
If you are thinking of studying for the WSET Level 2, or simply have a wine question that you want to ask, please feel free to comment below. I'm more than happy to share my experiences.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

[Review] Richmond, South Richmond Street, Dublin 2

Over the last few weeks, I've been trying to deal with the Sunday evening fear. I know I'm not alone here, with many workers feeling the same on Sunday evenings. In fact, I've given consideration to setting up a Glenroe-themed nightclub, where the theme music plays constantly and the tables are stacked with copybooks full of overdue homework. However, in my case, the Sunday fear is exacerbated by the fact that I am currently flying to Amsterdam at ridiculous o'clock every Monday morning, making it hard to sleep the night before.

My latest tactic to handle my insomnia is to go for a nice meal on Sunday evening, helped in no small part by the liberal application of a good bottle of wine. I'm hoping that by the time I return home from dinner, I'll be fit only for bed and a solid sleep before the alarm clock wakes me up ahead of the dawn chorus. Plus, this plan also gives me a chance to catch up on some of the new Dublin restaurants.

This Sunday, it was the turn of Richmond, a new local venue located in the old, iconic Gigs Place on Richmond Street. The Gigs Place, established in 1970, was apparently the ultimate Dublin greasy spoon, and I have to admit that I never crossed its doors. I could never figure out if there was an etiquette for entering or if it was some "exclusive" club. Now head chef Davy O'Byrne and owner manager (the veteran) Russell Wilde have restored and revitalised this piece of Dublin dining history. 

We chose from the superb value Early Bird menu where two courses costs €21.50 and three cost €25.00 A full dinner menu is also available with daily specials chalked over the kitchen pass. My risotto with wild mushroom and white truffle was superb, with little parmesan and sesame crackers for added crunch. A bowl of white bean and wild garlic soup, topped with shredded ham hock, was a nice seasonal touch.
Wild mushroom and white truffle risotto
White bean and wild garlic soup
For mains, I continued the vegetarian theme with plump pillowy pan-fried gnocchi served with roasted butternut squash, dried butternut squash, pinenuts and plenty of delicious sage butter. My second choice meal would have been the seared hake, except for the fact that it came served with lentils. For some reason, I can't really get with lentils and often avoid menu items that feature them. However, Himself didn't object and I have to say that the classic combination of fennel and lentils worked well. The crispy chicken wing didn't really live up to its billing however, but that's not a lot to complain about.
Gnocchi with roasted butternut squash, kale and pinenuts
Seared fillet of hake, crispy chicken wing, fennel and lentils
The wine list is short, but nicely selected, and I was delighted to see one of my favourite white wines, the Heinz W Gruner Veltliner, on the list. 

Even on a Sunday evening, the restaurant was operating at full tilt, meaning that reservations are absolutely recommended to secure a table. It seems to be quite a hit with local diners already, and the burger option was the clear favourite dish of the diners on the night. Indeed it seemed that every table was ordering at least one burger. The Richmond is a bright spot on Richmond Street, offering warmth and a comfortable, cosy meal.

Richmond, 43 Richmond Street South, Dublin 2
Tel: +353 (0)1 478 8783
Twitter: @richmonddublin2
Instagram: @richmondrestaurant

Richmond Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato 

Sunday, April 3, 2016

[Opinion] An ode to the Caesar salad and the humble anchovy

I've been a long term lover of the classic Casear salad. It's undeniably the king of salads, and eating a good Caesar salad is a pleasure like no other.  The combination of crisp Romaine lettuce, a creamy umami-packed dressing and crunchy croutons was a genius move on the part of whoever assembled the first Caesar salad. Its creation is generally attributed to Caesar Cardini, a Italian immigrant with restaurants in the US and Mexico. Legend has it that he was working in Tijuana (to avoid the restrictions of Prohibition) when he created the now eponymous salad. 

I would say that calling this dish a salad is an item of technicality. Yes it is lettuce-based but the creamy emulsion dressing is what makes the salad so delectable. Add in lashings of parmesan cheese and other optional additions, and the calorie count can increase dramatically. However, I'm choosing to still view it as a salad and all the benefits that come with eating salad.

So why am I writing about the Caesar salad? I recently ordered a version at an Amsterdam hotel which I found myself consuming with great enthusiasm.  I went so far as to run my finger around the inside of the bowl to catch all the remaining dressing. And it wasn't because I was starving. It was because it was packed with chunks of anchovies. Those lovely, salty, meaty little fish which pack more punch than a heavyweight boxer. Yes the lettuce was lovely and crisp, the croutons were crunchy, there was loads of parmesan and the addition of grilled chicken, bacon and hard-boiled egg was superb, but it was really all about the anchovies. 

Anchovies are delicious eaten straight from the tin or jar, and will add bucketloads of oomph (more technically known as unami) to any dish. They've been used for centuries as a source of potent flavour, and feature in many classic sauces such as Worcestershire sauce and Pater Peperium Gentleman's Relish. But for some reason, many people dislike the anchovy, probably because they've eaten the cheaper, fishier versions. Invest in some quality anchovies and you will see the difference. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that if you don't like anchovies, we may need to discuss the nature of our relationship. 
My homemade Chicken Caesar salad
Making a Caesar salad dressing can involve a fair amount of whisking as you need to emulsify the egg yolk and olive oil. If you've got biceps of iron, then work away, otherwise use a blender to help speed up the process. A personal tip is to use the leftover oil from the anchovies in the salad dressing for extra flavour. One of my favourite recipes is comes from Bon Appetit and is really easy to make quickly.

If you want to try anchovies in other recipes, try this recipe list from Huffington Post.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

[Review] Old Town, Capel Street, Dublin 1

It's been a while since I recommended a Chinese restaurant on the blog. I'm often asked on Twitter to point friends in the direction of the latest authentic Chinese restaurant that I've uncovered in my non-ending quest for Chinese food. Therefore, in the spirit of sharing, I bring you Old Town located on Capel Street. Several Chinese restaurants have flared brightly at this location in the past, only to die out, but Old Town appears to be doing well so far. 

The cuisine at Old Town is Sichuan-influenced, but it's not hardcore, making it very approachable. The menu is the usual book of delicious looking photos and the occasional oddball translation from the native Chinese. However, I've found the staff to be very friendly, and always willing to make a recommendation, so don't be afraid to put yourself into their hands. The interior has gotten a needed refresh since the last occupants with straightforward wooden furniture, a good lick of paint and paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling.
Interior at Old Town
I've been to Old Town a few times at this stage, and I haven't had a dud dish yet. A braised or fried fish usually features in our meals, and the red braised sea bass shown below features loads of garlic, chili and ginger with impressive presentation in a large chafing dish (€13.80). It came surrounded by plenty of cooking liquor, perfect for soaking into your rice. We always enjoy our fish served whole with head and tail attached, but feel free to request a more trimmed fish if you prefer.
Braised fish
Old Town also does one of my favourite Sichuan treats, the grilled skewer. In this case lamb pieces are threaded onto a skewer and dry cooked over an open grill, encrusted with smoky, and slightly hot spices (€1.50 each). The classic Sichuan dish of mapo tofu came in a large bowl of rich sauce, silky cubes of smooth tofu and a generous sprinkling of lip-numbing, crushed Sichuan pepper. At €8.80 this is a great value dish and despite the Sichuan pepper dusting, the overall heat profile was moderate enough.
Spicy lamb skewers
Mapo tofu
So, if you're in the mood for Chinese food, I'd really recommend Old Town. Dishes such as fried green beans with minced garlicky pork or braised aubergines with pork mince are packed full of flavour without being spicy, while the fierier dishes such as Chongquin chicken will satisfy the heat hounds. As usual with the northside Chinese restaurants, prices are excellent value.

Old Town, 123 Capel Street, Dublin 1
Tel: +353 (0)1 873 3570

The Old Town Chinese Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Sunday, March 13, 2016

[Review] Delahunt Cocktail Bar, Camden Street, Dublin 2

The abundance of classic Victorian and Georgian buildings all around Dublin means that there are many hidden upstairs gems tucked cosily out of sight. The team behind Delahunt restaurant on Camden Street have lavished love and care on their Victorian building which originally housed a "purveyors of groceries and provisions", and even garnered a mention in the classic novel Ulysses. 

Downstairs, a dark wooden bar runs the length of the dining room, with darkly muted walls and marble-topped tables. Take the narrow door next to the bar however, and you ascend a wooden staircase to the cosy cocktail bar. Two rooms have been opened up to create the bar, with fantastic marble fireplaces and a bay window overlooking the street below.
The interior at Delahunt cocktail bar
The cocktail menu is nicely short, with a selection of 10 cocktails. Bar snacks, wines and beers are also available. After a warm greeting, we took two low chairs and sipped on little vintage crystal glasses of elderflower-infused prosecco as we selected our drinks. 
Elderflower-infused prosecco
We were heading for dinner at the newly opened Pickle (by Sunil Ghai), meaning that we had time to sample 4 of the lovely drinks. First for me was the tequila-based Little Bird (€11), mixed with Aperol, yellow Chartreuse, Folláin orange marmalade and smoked sea salt. A Manna-Hatta (€12)  was a fun riff on the classic Manhattan with a floral note added by a frozen hibiscus ice ball. 

I'm very partial to milk-based cocktails, so I had to try the Bourbon Chai (€11), which was sweetened with a touch of Drambuie, all spice dram and gingerbread.  The Dandy (€12) was refined and elegant, made with the light Fine de Cognac, Cointreau and Lillet Blanc.  We also snacked on a plate of gelatinous crispy pig's ear strips with a delicious honey mustard caramel-type sauce. 
Bourbon chai
Little Bird
I really enjoyed the Delahunt cocktail bar. The tables are well spaced with low-pitched music to fill the background. There's a really nice 50s vibe going on in the decor, that sits well in this lovely Victorian building. The cocktails are well-made and well-priced, with special praise due for the stronger stirred drinks. So if you are heading for dinner somewhere on Camden Street, make a date for some relaxing pre-dinner drinks in Delahunt.

Delahunt, 39 Camden Street Lower, Dublin 2
Tel: +353 (0)1 598 4880
Twitter: @DelahuntCamden
Instagram: @delahuntcamden

Delahunt Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Saturday, February 27, 2016

[Review] The Copper Hen, Fenor, Co Waterford

Last year, it was announced that the Copper Hen in Fenor, Co Waterford had received a Michelin Bib Gourmand award. I turned to Himself, a Waterford native and asked where was Fenor exactly. It turned that it wasn't very far away from his hometown and I made a resolution to visit when next in Waterford. Fast forward a few months, and we finally got around to buying a new car to replace our much-loved 16 year old car. It was time for a road trip with our new wheels, and Sunday lunch duly was booked at the Copper Hen. 

Fenor is a typical small Irish village, dominated by the parish church with a very unusual and creative carved tree in the cemetery. The Copper Hen is located upstairs over the local pub, Mother McHugh's, and on this cold Sunday, all car spaces outside were already taken. A large fireplace, with a warm fire dominates the smaller dining room, with a larger room to the rear. It's an oddly bare space, which filled up steadily over lunchtime. Our table received plenty of their homemade brown bread (which could benefit from a little salt in the mix), which is available for purchase to take home. 

I chose the Spanish style croquettas with Kilmore crab meat, which arrived at the table precariously perched on a slate. One croquette made a determined escape off the slate into my lap, but I wasn't letting it get away. They turned out to be the epitome of croquettes (€6.95). Golden and perfectly crispy on the outside, they tore open to reveal a silky smooth potato interior. For himself and Mrs H, a beautiful plump prawn sat atop a salad of chopped fresh prawn and smoked salmon, lightly tossed in a lemon creme fraiche (€7.00). Ever the soup fan, Mr H's choice of spiced carrot and cumin soup disappeared quickly (€4.95).
Croquettas with Kilmore crab served with herb and garlic aioli 
Fresh prawn and smoked salmon salad
There was plenty of main course choice on the menu, with 8 options available. My portion of pan-fried brill arrived rolled up on the plate, lightly crisp on the outside, with fresh prawns and lashings of a divine herb, shallot and garlic butter. At €17, this was excellent value for money with plenty of fresh, flakey fish and rich butter to soak into the excellent, fluffy roast potatoes. My second choice had been the twice cooked Crowes pork belly, which himself chose (€11). This came with a rich veal jus, sweet onion puree and meaty kale, but the star here was the perfectly judged pork belly, topped with crunchy pork crackling. 

Both Mr & Mrs H opted for the thickly sliced roast sirloin of Irish Hereford beef with a red wine gravy (€12.95). Bowls of fluffy roast potatoes and roasted root vegetables came to the table as side dishes, with plenty provided to feed all four of us.
Pan-fried brill with fresh prawns in garlic, shallot and herb butter
Twice cooked Crowes pork belly with onion puree, kale and veal jus
Fluffy roast potatoes
The menu featured a short selection of desserts, all priced at €5 each, from which Mrs H chose a warm chocolate and raspberry tart, served in a rich shortcrust pastry case. Mr H went for meringue with warm berry compote  and fresh cream.

I hadn't been at all sure what to expect from the Copper Hen. Chef Eugene Long and wife Sinead opened the Copper Hen in 2010 and the award of a Bib Gourmand sets a certain level of expectation. For me, the high quality of cooking and the attractive pricing completely exceeded those expectations. It's a real little countryside gem and worth making a trip on any visit to the Sunny South East.

The Copper Hen, Fenor, Co Waterford
Tel: +353 (0)51 330300
Twitter: @CopperHen

Sunday, February 21, 2016

[Travel] A weekend in Amsterdam

There are some places in this world where life's journey keeps directing you. In my case, it's Amsterdam. At this stage, I've worked in Amsterdam for 3 different clients, and my current engagement will keep me there for the foreseeable future. It's a good thing that I like the city! I first lived in Amsterdam in 2010 and managed to get all of the usual tourist experiences done in that first year. Now that I'm back (yet again), my current focus is trying to find the latest and coolest spots. My self-imposed challenge on a recent weekend visit was to visit as many new spots as I could. 

Ironically, on a weekend of new discovery, I started with an old spot, the superb cocktail bar Tales & Spirits, located a few minutes away from Dam Square, down a little street, along with some red light booths. Inside, it's a very classy affair with dapper bartenders and a smart cocktail menu. Grab a seat at the bar and have some fun with the crew as they shake their way through the orders. 
The General Lee at Tales & Spirits
A Zombie at Tales & Spirits
Roomservice at Olof's is a pop-up restaurant running at St Olofskapel, the oldest chapel in the Netherlands. Chef Chris Naylor, from Restaurant Vermeer has temporarily relocated here while the NH Barbizon hotel undergoes refurbishment. Vegetables and herbs will play the central role in meals served in this stunning location. Upstairs, there's a charcuterie bar, a Fever Tree cocktail bar and finally, a Vermuteria. 

We grabbed some drinks at the Fever Tree bar upstairs, overlooking the downstairs dining area. As you'd expect from a former church, the interior is just stunning with lofty ceilings and gorgeous classical features. Two plates of the homemade charcuterie went down really well with a citrussy Copperhead gin and Fever Tree Elderflower tonic, while himself had a Bitterblond beer from Brouwerij de Prael, brewed right in the heart of Amsterdam on the nearby Oudezijdsvoorburgwal. 
Gin & tonic and Brouwerij de Prael beer at Roomservice at Olof's

The next day, we wanted classic Dutch pannekoeken, or pancakes. We took a little walk through the shopping streets of the Jordan district to arrive at Pancakes! Amsterdam on Berenstraat. This cosy little spot gets really busy and it's not unusual to have to wait for 30 minutes or more. Pancakes can be ordered in the traditional Dutch style, or in more experimental styles. Downstairs, you can see the chef cooking, with several well-used pans on the go at any given time. A Korean-style vegetable pancake with a delicous dipping sauce was excellent, while a traditional pancake was given a twist with bacon, banana and hot hot chili. 
Korean-style vegetable pancake at Pancakes!
Classic Dutch pancake with bacon, banana and chili
On Saturday night, we walked to Utrechtsestraat for dinner at new restaurant "Guts & Glory". After struggling up the typically near-vertical Dutch stairs (I don't know how the waitresses do it!), we got stuck into the beef-themed 5 course menu. Over the course of the meal, the flavours built and intensified, starting from delicate fish flakes in broth, all the way through an intense beef bao, finishing with a perfect piece of steak. 
Fish in broth with caviar, red onion and celery
Butternut squash with beef tartare and hazelnut
Beef bao
Steak with broccoli and puree
The next morning, I wanted to check out the allegedly fantastic chicken and waffles at the super-cool Cut Throat bar, part of the old-school Cut Throat Barber. Where else can you get your hair cut, shaved, drink coffee and sip fine drinks? Anyway, despite a mix up in the kitchen, my crispy fried chicken was out of this world perfect, albeit served in a too-small (but cool) aluminium tray. Add in the most divine maple caramel sauce and thick fluffy waffles for the perfect Sunday brunch dish. 
The beautiful vaulted ceiling at the Cut Throat bar
Fried chicken with waffles, potatoes, egg and maple caramel sauce