A Trip to Rioja (Without Leaving LA)

February 22, 2018

Suppose a friend, who happened to be a terrific chef, went off on vacation. Suppose that instead of boring you with photographs you’d rather not watch, he came home and described the trip by feeding you a slew of delicious dishes?

That’s pretty much the premise behind Maude.  Curtis Stone and his chef, Justin Hilbert went off on a chef’s tour of Rioja a few months ago.  You can read about their trip here.  Or you can go to the restaurant and eat it.

Frankly, I’ll take the food route.

The  voyage begins upstairs in the wine cellar, a comfortable romantic little room where you sit sipping Spanish vermouth, eating olives, almonds and soft rosy slices of jamon iberico.

Then it’s downstairs to dinner.  If you’re lucky you’ll be sitting at the counter, where you can watch Justin painstakingly plate the first dish of tiny vegetables.  An ode to the garden at Venta Moncalvillo, this isn’t really food – it’s a painting on a plate, just a little something to whet your appetite.

But this journey is as much about wine as it is about food; if you’ve ever craved a Rioja seminar, sommelier Andrey Tolmachyov is your man. The first wine, new to me, is Palacios Remondo Placet 2015, which has a lovely edge of bitterness at the back.

It’s followed by a tempranillo blanco- a grape of which I have remained ignorant for my entire life.. The Ad Libitum is lovely – and what’s even lovelier is that these clams are cooked in the same wine (along with oranges, bergamot and a sofrito). You’ll want the bread to dip up every bit of the delicious broth.

Next up, this very cheffy version of the classic Catalan tomato bread: meringues, roasted garlic and just the faintest rumor of tomato.

“When we went foraging with Francis Paniego,” says Curtis, “we got so many mushrooms. But we didn’t even try to bring them back with us; we were sure customs wouldn’t let them into the country. These are California mushrooms.”  Still, when he lifted the lid from the pot, the aroma  took me straight to Spain.

I love old white Riojas because, unlike most white wines, they aren’t afraid to show their age. The Marques de Murieta Castillo Ygay Gran Riserva is a grande old dame, and also one of the most appealing white wines I’ve ever sipped. Still lithe and graceful, it has the special dignity of its many years.

Next up, a couple more aged creatures:  bonito and carrots, cured to mimic classic Spanish conservas.  And a fascinating wine from one of Rioja’s most modern winemakers, Tentenublo Xerico, 2015.

Do you ever dream of  beans? I could not forget this classic Rioja stew – the local red caparron bean cooked with chorizo. To the chefs it  recalled a dinner with Juan Carlos Sancha.  To me it was a journey to a wonderful place, layers of fat and flavor that reverberated through my body.  It arrived with a misty coat that slowly melted away to reveal the beans. I loved the respect the chefs showed this humble dish: the caparrones were served with a truly majestic wine – C.U.N.E Imperial Riserva 1981.

And finally the classic chuleton of Spain: a righteous piece of meat that had been beautifully aged.  With this, a wine that is Rioja in a different mood: Artadi Pina El Pisan, 2006.   Don’t miss the wine. Don’t miss the meat. And don’t miss them together.

By now I was so happy I forgot to shoot the first dessert: sheep’s milk curds with cherry and salted almond.  But by the time the classic crema catalana came around I had recovered. Served with a rare sweet Spanish wine, Bodegas Tritium Mercator, it was a lovely final flavor.

And should you be interested in a bit more of Spain…  I was in nearby San Sebastian last year, where I had some of the most wonderful food of my life.  You can read about it here.

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