Thursday, November 29, 2012

#310 - Walnut-Pomegranate Chicken & Rapini With '01 La Rioja Alta Viña Ardanza Reserva Especial

Three months ago in Rioja, during the best vacation of our lives, a restaurant was recommended to us by someone in the know on one of the nights we didn't have any food plans.

Los 4 Arcos in Briones, particularly for their lamb roasted over wine vines, a tradition quickly becoming a rarity in Rioja, as we were told.

I think everyone has those places they're told about where the possibility of eating THAT becomes almost mythical in their brains. It becomes a bit of an obsession, something that HAS to happen, especially after driving there, up a myriad of zig-zagged, impossibly narrow "streets" to the very peak of the hilltop town only to find out they were closed for their September vacation.

So that lamb, the thought of eating that lamb, morphed into THE lamb, the one that has transformed into the pinnacle of having lamb and we haven't even eaten it yet.

Stupid and silly brain stuff, that. But with tentative plans to go back to Rioja (and Hotel Viura, Arzak and Etxebarri), Los 4 Arcos will hopefully be able to accommodate us because that's lamb that we want to eat, both because of what it is and what it's become in our brains.

I say all this because this meal with this wine jettisoned itself into that superlative Spanish food and wine world we love so much, that place where the meal tastes like something Given. Something that makes you say, "Nah. THIS doesn't exist. It doesn't!" It tastes like an intimate history of a place that we seemingly know but weren't born there, only been to a couple of times and don't even really know the language. It's stuff that feels like a gift.

Just does.

Food: Chicken in walnut-pomegranate sauce with rapini and baked sweet potatoes

And it's not even Spanish food! It's Middle Eastern food with Spanish echoes.

Inspired by a duck recipe in The New Book of Middle Eastern Food, find the recipe in modified chicken form here. Two chicken breasts subbed for thighs in the recipe. The breasts propped up on the plate with a chunky walnut, Spanish onion, cumin seeds, touch of saffron, lemon thyme, a spoonful of honey and pomegranate molasses concoction spread on top and all around the plate with pomegranate seeds and a ton of parsley sprinkled on top. I've said it before and I'll say it again. The sauce alone could be put in a shot glass on a tasting menu and it would be the star of the night. Tastes like a late fall breeze running through a rustic valley at dusk.

It's Top 50 food. You eat it and think, "Nothing else is needed. I'm completely and utterly satisfied in every way."

Subpar rapini. Chewy. Jewel rapini is no longer an option.

Sweet potatoes to round things out and became important in the wine pairing.

Wine: 2001 La Rioja Alta Viña Ardanza Reserva Especial ($30 - Spanish Table)

La Rioja Alta has been making wine for 120 years and only three times have they labeled the Viña Ardanza a Reserva Especial. Again, if you see 2001 Rioja on the shelves of your wine shop, you buy that.

80% tempranillo and 20% garnacha, aged three years in American oak.

No decant (and don't - just pop it about 20 minutes before drinking or you'll miss the entire evolution). Wisps of everything that is old-style Rioja on the nose. Something about the nose of old-style Rioja feels more important than wine from other regions to me. It's more of a shepherd and storyteller than most, evoking more of the story about to be sipped.

Macerated morello cherries in a balsamic-laced sauce led the way and swirling all over the place, alive as all get-out. Touch of light-light-light anise perking up here and there. Cedar and herbs also in a very light form playing around. But this one was about bright cherries in a darker wrapper to start and an enormous mid-palate that exploded with those same cherries and a leafy-cedar complexity that kept changing with every sip. Such length, such beautiful acid that tastes like it's not going to budge for years, such a bright finish. And that finish told the journey this one has yet to take. It wanted so much to keep expanding, long enough to keep the wine in the territory of great but little perky tannins clipped things a bit.

You want to know Rioja? Start here and then have a 2001 López de Heredia Bosconia. For about $65, you will be told everything that is old-style Rioja. You will know it and you will love it and you will not want anything else for a good long time.

Pairing:  95  Damn close to perfect

That's it. Damn close to perfect. Tastes like a group of scientists were thrown in a cave for a year and told not to come out until they find 50 perfect food and wine pairings.

This was one of them.

Walnut-pomegranate chicken with a few tweaks and this wine in about five years will take the "damn close to" part off the description.

Quick Note: Tuna Niçoise with 2011 Domaine Les Pallières Au Petit Bonheur Rosé ($20 - Binny's). The addition of persimmon was the only diversion from this pairing five months ago.

First time for the 2011. Much less fruity than the 2010, showing delicious, secondary, all-Rhône flavors led by a Christmas toffee and fruit candy number. We'll see where this one goes. It's very intriguing stuff.

Feels like Kermit Lynch is experimenting here a bit with flavors more reminiscent of a wonderfully gnarly Rhône that isn't kowtowing to the need for a fruit-first expression. The cleanest meal on the planet with a wine that cleaned things up as only Rhône rosés can. Pairing Score: 92

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