Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Not Your Ordinary Oven

What makes a great get-together?

It’s the right mix of a whole bunch of things: Nice, cozy ambience; a fun and relaxed host; a generous amount of delicious food; a steady flow of alcoholic (or not) beverages; and, of course, a delightful combination of personalities as party guests.

For this reason the regular get-togethers of the Wines and Spirits Club has become one of those events that I really look forward to. This on-line community that Chef Gene Gonzalez (Café Ysabel, Center for Asian Culinary Studies) created with his wünderkinder Chef Gino and Giannina has truly grown to be THE place for genuine lovers of food, wine and the good life, in general.

This time around, the “excuse” for celebration is Café Ysabel’s brand new wood-fired oven, located at the ground floor of the restaurant, across Chef Gene’s art gallery. As posted on the site’s bulletin board, there were to be several dishes served during the dinner, all of them cooked in the wood-fired oven. We were also encouraged to bring our own bottles, which is always fun for me.

When Matt and I arrived, we bumped into winemaster Noel chatting with two elderly gentlemen while having a smoke near the entrance. Looking around, I saw some familiar faces, but nobody I’m really that chummy with. I know that the point of joining these events is to meet new people, but I’m actually quite shy around older people when I’m without “courage juice”. Luckily, we were seated in the same table as Noel and his group, so at least I was more at ease. We were introduced to Noel’s wife, Catha, his cool(er) brother Tad, Tad’s wife, Aaron Palileo and his wife, Jo. The two gentlemen Noel was chatting with outside were Bob and Bill, who were seated right across from us. Next to them were our other friends, married couple Sanj and Cutie, and beside us was one of my favorite home bakers (and fellow food perv), Cookie Goddess.

There were eight courses that night, all baked in the wood-fired oven, except the cheese course. To get the party started, we opened a bottle of Toso Prosecco, my favorite party bubbly. With this, we paired our first pizza for the night- the Goat Cheese Pizza with Red Wine Simmered Onions, Topped with Arugula. The peppery greens were drizzled with some balsamic vinegar and olive oil, which gave it a nice acidity and sheen. Although the crust was a bit tough on some parts, I loved the combination of flavors- sweet, salty, tangy, and a bit spicy. It was a very good light start to the dinner.

The second pizza- and my favorite dish for the evening- was the Turkish Pide with Lamb Sausage, Chives, Parsley, Olives, Feta and Mozarella. The crust was formed into a wide oval shape, and I’m pretty sure it was made the same way as the first pizza. What won me over was the tasty, garlicky lamb sausage. With this pizza and the next one, Noel made me try some of red wines from their group. I remember trying a Barbaresco and a Rioja, which I remember were both very good and refined (and, knowing Noel, well beyond my budget). Sanj, Cutie and Cookie Goddess also brought some very good Chilean reds, which I wish took pictures of because I love great tasting, value for money wines.

The final pizza for the night was a Double Pepperoni Pizza. By this time I am substantially inebriated, and what could be better with that buzz than something nice and oily. This pizza was just perfect for that, and, suddenly brazen after several glasses of wine, I believe I ate more than my share. Which is ok, I think, since I saved the elder diners from a potential heart attack?

After a few cigs outside with some new friends, we were served soup- a Minestrone of Charred Vegetables. Although I did not particularly like this dish, it did promise to deliver in terms of the vegetables really being charred. The broth was just alright, which I had a few spoonfuls of.

Finally, the meat course arrives- Fire Baked Beef Short Ribs with Spicy Bourbon Glaze, Baked Corn, Napa Style Cauliflower. Although dry on some parts, the glaze was delicious and compensates for the less-than-perfect texture. Suddenly, I remember my bottle and ask the waiter to bring it over- a 2005 Peju Zinfandel. This was sent to me more than a year ago by my banker-turned-budding sommelier cousin Poopel who is based in San Francisco. At that time I was gaga over Zins and loved their juicy and jammy character. This bottle was meatier than most Zins I have tried before, and Noel observed the same thing. After a while though the fruit comes out, and its bouquet is suddenly swirling with ripe, juicy berries and some licorice. Not overtly complex, but then that’s what I love about this variety. If you’re not willing to “commit” or be blown away by huge, bold flavors, this would be perfect.

Another wine I tried was from Ines, one of the few other “chicks” in the club. She brought a 2007 Banfi Cum Laude- which was a big- massive- Tuscan wine. From the little that I know of Italian wines, Tuscan reds really need a lot of time to fully mature, which I think is also the case with this particular young bottle. It was just a wall of tannins at first gulp which made it very difficult to figure out. Later on it began to show a bit more of its layers, revealing a very masculine wine with lots of oakiness, tobacco and earth. It just really needs more time.

After the cheese course, we were served our dessert of Burned Butter Ice Cream with Roasted Pineapple. The ice cream was perfection, in my opinion, with the simple and rustic flavors of the roasted fruit to accompany it. This dessert was a winner for me, and I remember Matt’s eyes rolling in agreement. It’s too bad as I was too hammered at this point to take a picture of it (the ice dessert, not Matt convulsing).

At the end of the meal, Chef Gene said a few words and introduced the talented young cooks that prepared our wonderful dinner. Now everyone is just free to mingle and to finish off whatever is left of our wines. Matt has whipped out his bottle of Paulaner which he (happily?) shared with our new and old friends. I tried to sneak a candid picture of TV star Johnny Revilla, but being the showbiz veteran, he knows when a camera is aimed at him and gamely smiled. I remember making some lame excuse that it’s for my mom and that she was a big fan of his last telenovela. Ok, sometimes I would watch it too, but only because I wanted to know which part of the JR-Dave-Audrey love triangle will really end up together, or if Coco Martin’s (who is SO my type) character really died in that car crash, and if “Ingrid” will totally lose her mind and end up in the loony bin. Really, I wasn’t that into it.

Again, it was a great evening of good food, great wine and wonderful company. I love that this club brings together food and wine lovers of all ages because it allows us younger people to learn from the more “senior” members, and hopefully they also learn something new from us. In fact, age was never an issue in this club. It’s all about the shared passion for everything delicious and all of life’s epicurean pleasures.

Needless to say, I am looking forward to the next one.

Café Ysabel
P. Guevarra St.
San Juan, Metro Manila
Tel. no. (632) 7255089

If this looks like a lot of fun, check out http://www.winesandspiritsclub-philippines.com/ and become an instant member by just registering on-line.


Miguel said...

I missed this again - looked like so much fun.

Pizza looks so appetizing..

Noel said...

Definitely a fun night. WSCP should have more of these BYOB affairs and more often!

Best to you and Matt,


Chinkee said...

Hi Mig! Yeah super fun, and it was really cool we got to sit with sila Noel. Great conversations and awesome wines:-) And the pepperoni pizza was also reaaaally good! as in it was loaded. can't believe i forgot to take a picture.

Chinkee said...

Hi Noel! Like I said, it was really nice seeing you again and meeting your family. You're always great fun:-) Let's plan that dinner with Mig soon. Btw, that guy owes me wedding gift...;-)