Cruising Iceland – London: Highlights

by artfuldiner on November 30, 2022

in Uncategorized

Silversea Silver WhisperFollowing a day of sightseeing in Reykjavik, on Friday, July 15, 2022, we boarded Silversea’s Silver Whisper for a 12-day cruise that would take us around Iceland and through the Faroe, Shetland, and Orkney Islands. Following a stop in Edinburgh, Scotland, we would disembark at Greenwich, England; and, from there, be transported to London, one of the world’s most civilized and livable cities.

Patreksfordur, Iceland - Memorial for Fisherman Lost at SeaPatreksfordur, Iceland: A tiny village (population approximately 721) named after Patrick, bishop in the Hebrides, who was the spiritual guide of Őrlygur Hrappson, the original settler in the area. A majority of the inhabitants are engaged in some form of fishing. Those that are not tend to hold down several occupations… Like our guide, for example. He is both a teacher and an amateur magician; and, on this particular day, happened to be filling in for a friend as our guide. He was delightfully informative and possessed a great sense of humor.

Perhaps the most moving part of our tour was the Memorial for Fishermen Lost at Sea (pictured). Located adjacent to the harbor area and inscribed in several languages, it is well worth a visit and moments of quiet meditation.

Our excursion concluded with a visit to a local restaurant and a mouth-watering tasting of several different varieties of local fish.

Akureyri, Iceland - LaufasAkureyri, Iceland:  Known as Iceland’s “Capital of the North,” Akureyri may be located a scant 60 miles from the Arctic Circle, but it blossoms with a certain cosmopolitan feel, especially during the summer months (the time of our recent visit). On this particular day, however, the weather was not the best – it rained the entire day – and our guide simply didn’t have her act together. Our excursion, however, was rather interesting…

It began with a short bus ride to the Laufás Museum and Heritage Site, a renowned farm and church, the farm being an excellent example of a wealthy vicarage from earlier times. The Laufás Church was built in 1865 by Tryggvi Gunnarsson and Jóhann Bessason, and the furniture includes a pulpit constructed by Illugi Jónsson in 1698.

Akureyri, Iceland - Nonni's HouseFollowing a short visit, we journeyed to Nonnahús – Nonni’s House, the childhood home of writer and Jesuit priest Jón Sveinsson, “Nonni” (1857 – 1944). Sveinsson wrote 12 children’s books about his childhood in Iceland. And, although he wrote in German, his books have been translated into more than 40 languages, including Chinese and Esperanto.

Nonni’s House, which was constructed in 1850, is one of the oldest houses in Akureyri; and it has been preserved as an example of a typical 19th century Icelandic town home. Visitors to the cozy museum are also treated to the only known moving pictures of Nonni, taken in Valkenburg, Netherlands in 1942.

Adjacent to Nonni’s House is the Akureyri Museum, which houses a rather intriguing hodge-podge collection of music, musical instruments, and fashion oddities.

Husavik, Iceland - from the airHúsavik, Iceland:  Framed by the majestic Húsavikurfjail Mountain on the shores of Skjálfandi Bay on Iceland’s north coast, Húsavik is home to just over 2,300 inhabitants.

According to the Landnámabók (“Book of Settlement), Húsavik was the first location in Iceland to be settled by a Norseman. The Swedish Viking Garôar Svavarsson remained here for one winter in 870 A.D. When he departed the island in the spring of 870, he left behind a man named Náttfari and two slaves, a man and a woman, who established a farm here. The name Húsavik means “bay of houses,” and undoubtedly refers to Garôar’s homestead, which may have been the only house in Iceland at the time.

Husavik, Iceland - Whale WatchingIncome on the island is derived basically from tourism and fishing, as well as certain retail stores and small industries. With respect to tourism, however, Húsavik’s claim to fame is that it has become a center of whale watching in Iceland, due to the different species that frequently enter the bay. The day of our excursion, it was the humpbacks that took center stage, swimming remarkably close to our (rather small) boat and otherwise putting on an amazing diving exhibition for an enthusiastic crowd of novice seagoers.

Seydisfjordur, Iceland - Low Cloud CoverSeydisfjordur, Iceland: According to Frommer’s, this charming Icelandic village is nestled in an 11-mile fjord that is “lined with sheltering, snow-capped mountains and tumbling waterfalls.” Well… not quite. At least not the day of our visit. As you may clearly observe from the photograph, it was another one of those miserable rainy days… with all those charming “snow-capped mountains and tumbling waterfalls” totally obscured by a particularly pervasive low-cloud cover.

In fact, the weather was so downright miserable that all the morning excursions were cancelled. I had planned to take a dip in the Vök Nature Baths in the afternoon, but since the dismal rainy weather persisted, I decided to catch up on my notes instead. Unfortunately, the day was a complete washout.

Faroe Islands - Runavik GorgeRunavik, Faroe Islands: Sandwiched between Norway and Iceland, this tiny cluster of 18 islands is something of an anomaly, as it is conspicuous by its absent from most itineraries, and generally overlooked – or ignored – by the peripatetic public. And this is truly unfortunate, as the Faroe Islands are utterly fascinating, to say the least.

Runavik, on the southern tip of Eysturoy, the Faroe’s second-largest island, is the epitome of off-the-beaten-track travel. As we stepped off the ship, we were immediately engulfed by the staggering beauty of the unspoiled landscape.

Despite its small size and population (approximately 50,000), however, the Faroese aquaculture industry is recognized as the boutique producer specializing in top-quality Atlantic salmon in the world.

Faroe Islands - Runavik w Salmon Farms on LeftThe aquaculture industry in the Faroe Islands is committed to sustainability and sound stewardship of the environment. The industry worked closely with the Faroese Government to design and implement one of the most stringent aquaculture regulatory regimes governing veterinarian best practices in the world. The legislation ensures strict compliance with the highest level of fish welfare and environmental protection possible. This exclusive veterinary prevention program has been so effective that farmed salmon from the Faroe Islands are completely free of antibiotics. (Pictured: Runavik from the road above. Note the salmon farms in the upper left corner.)

The Faroese aquaculture industry has a long and proud history. And this heritage, combined with ideal natural conditions and a commitment to quality and sustainability, keeps Faroe Islands salmon, which is now exported to six continents, in extremely high demand. And farmed salmon is also a vital part of the Faroese economy, representing half of the country’s export while also providing valuable employment for rural communities.

Faroe Islands - BowlingDuring our drive back to the ship, our excellent guide planned a brief stop for coffee and cake at a small restaurant cum bowling establishment. One of the last places in the world you’d expect to find bowling lanes… Only six, but I just couldn’t resist taking a pic for all you bowlers back home!

Shetland Islands - Eshaness CoastLerwick, Shetland Islands, Scotland, U.K.: Situated between the Scottish and Norwegian coasts, just south of the Arctic Circle, the Shetland Islands are an archipelago in Scotland, United Kingdom, composed of over one hundred islands, fifteen of which are inhabited.

Spanning an intriguing Neolithic history and 5,000 years of human heritage, these isolated islands are immense treasure troves of both history and the scenic wonders of windswept beaches, rolling landscapes, and rugged coastlines. Our excursion for the day, for example, transported us to the breath-takingly jagged cliffs of the wild & woolly Eshaness Coast (pictured).

Shetland Islands - Sheep GrazingThese islands are also home to the famous diminutive and wavy-fringed Shetland Ponies. Their presence here is a testimony to Viking history, as local horses bred with ponies brought ashore by Norse settlers created the crossbreed that is an icon of these islands today. They may be readily observed roaming freely on the rolling moors… But they are not nearly so plentiful as the sheep, which seem to be everywhere (approximately 150,000 compared to 25,000 inhabitants) – making many of the narrow roads nearly impassable – since there are no fences or other barriers to confine them.

Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, Scotland, U.K.: Scattered just off the northern tip of Scotland, the Orkney Islands may be physically close to the United Kingdom but, they feel a world away.

Orkney Islands - St. Magnus CathedralThe centerpiece of Kirkwall, the capital of this scenic archipelago, is the majestic St. Magnus Cathedral, which was founded by Earl Rognvald, nephew of St. Magnus, the Earl of Orkney, in the early 1100s. Construction of Britain’s northernmost cathedral began in 1137 and took 300 years to complete. When first built, the cathedral was part of the Archdiocese of Nidaros (Trondheim) in Norway.

Orkney Islands - St. Magnus Cathedral - PulpitOrkney became part of Scotland in 1468 and, a few years later, the cathedral was given to the people of Kirkwall by the Scots King, James III. After the Scottish Reformation in 1560, the cathedral was used for Protestant worship. Today, the cathedral belongs to the people of Orkney and is looked after by the Orkney Islands Council. It has a Church of Scotland congregation; and, by arrangement, can be used by any Christian denomination.

Restoration works took place in the 1850s and again from 1913 – 1930 following a large bequest from Sheriff George Thomas, when the present floors, woodwork, stained glass windows and spire, were installed. The cathedral has been evocatively named as the Light in the North.

So much for the Sacred… now for the Profane (with apologies to Mircea Eliade, Romanian historian of religion, fiction writer, philosopher, professor at the University of Chicago, and author of The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion) and those infamous mists of the Scottish moors…

Orkney Islands - Highland Park DistilleryThe Highland Park Distillery, one of the oldest working distilleries in Scotland, was founded by Magnus Eunson, a butcher and church officer by day and illicit distiller and whisky smuggler by night. In 1798 he was caught illegally distilling whisky on the site (There are numerous legends about the extent to which illicit distilling was occurring on Orkney, many of which involve accounts of the mayor of Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney, being a major smuggler!).

The first license to distill whisky was granted to Highland Park in 1826, with Robert Borwick overseeing production.  The Borwick family-maintained control until 1895, when it was purchased by James Grant, the owner of Glenlivet Distillery. In 1937 the site was purchased by Highland Distillers who, in 1979, initiated a different marketing strategy. Instead of using the majority of their production for blending, they decided to market Highland Park as Single Malt, which increased sales enormously. The Highland Park visitor’s center opened in 1986. In 1999 the Erdington Group and William Grant & Sons acquired Highland Distillers and initiated a multi-million-dollar renovation of both the distillery and the visitor’s center.

Orkney Islands - Highland Park Distillery Visitors' CenterAs well as being one of Scotland’s oldest distilleries, Highland Park also has the distinction of being the most northerly distillery in Scotland. And it produces an impressive range of official bottlings… 12-year-old, 18-year-old, 21-year-old, 25-year-old, 30-year-old and 40-year-old. The distillery also offers a series of special bottlings, which includes the “Valhalla” range, editions named after the Norse mythological gods, as well as an Orcadian Series, which is currently comprised of 1964, 1968, 1970, 1971, and 1976 bottlings. Highland Park is also used as a major component in the Famous Grouse whisky blend.

After a tour of the facilities, we finally got down to more important matters – like the tastings! We sampled two of the distillery’s bottlings, the 12-year-old and the 18-year-old. While the former was a bit on the sharp side, the 18-year-old was velvet on the palate and as smooth as silk going down.

Introduced to the Highland Park portfolio in 1997, the 18-year-old was named “Best Spirit in the World” in the Spirit Journal on two separate occasions. The intense balance of flavors is the result of the distillery’s five traditional keystones of production, honored for over 220 years: slow-burning, aromatic peat from Hobbister Moor; hand-turned floor maltings (which our group personally observed); sherry-seasoned European oak casks; cool maturation in a temperate island climate; and a decidedly unhurried process of harmonization.

If you are a devotee of fine Scotch whisky, you should definitely give Highland Park 18-year-old a try. According to my latest research, it is listed at $164.99 for the 750 ML bottle in Pennsylvania State Stores… Unfortunately, it is out of stock (What else is new???). It is readily available online for a variety of different price points (plus shipping).

Orkney Islands - Italian Chapel ExteriorThe final stop on our excursion was a visit to Orkney’s famous Italian Chapel. Apart from the nearby statue of St. George, the Chapel is the only relic of Camp 60, which, in the latter years of the Second World War, housed several hundred Italian prisoners. These men, captured during the North African campaign, were sent to Orkney to work on the Churchill Barriers, a massive series of concrete causeways that seal the eastern approaches to Scapa Flow (a natural harbor located off the coast of Scotland, United Kingdom).

At first, the camp consisted of thirteen generic huts; but the Italian prisoners made concrete paths and planted flowers, completely transforming their surroundings. To preside over the camp “square,” an artistic prisoner named Domenico Chiocchetti, made the figure of St. George, built up from a framework of barbed wire covered with cement.

Orkney Islands - Italian Chapel InteriorAt this point, the only thing the camp still lacked was a chapel, which was deeply felt by the prisoners, and the construction of which had been urged by the War Office Inspector of P.O.W. Camps. To whom the credit for the ambitious idea of building a chapel should ultimately be assigned remains something of a mystery. One point is certain, however… It developed as a natural outcome of the goodwill of the commandant, the pastoral concern of Father P. Gioacchino Giacobazzi, and the genius of the aforementioned Domenico Chiocchetti and his fellow prisoners. Who could possibly have foreseen that, under their hands, a building would be constructed that is still a thing of beauty and an inspiration to countless visitors.

After the war, the entire camp, apart from paths and hut foundations, disappeared; but the chapel (and St. George with his dragon) remained. And, over the course of time, it has become a place of pilgrimage for anyone visiting in Orkney.

Edingurgh, ScotlandEdinburgh, Scotland, U.K.:  Recognized as the capital of Scotland since the 15th century, Edinburgh is the seat of the Scottish government, the Scottish Parliament, and the highest courts in Scotland. In addition, the city has long been a center of education, particularly in the fields of medicine, Scottish law, literature, philosophy, the sciences, and engineering.

As Charlotte Bronte once wrote, Edinburgh is to London as poetry is to prose. One of the world’s stateliest cities and proudest capitals, it is built – like Rome – on seven hills, making it a magnificent backdrop for the ancient pageant of history. Despite its rich past, however, it is also a modern city of lively festivals, excellent museums, and galleries filled with beautiful works of art. Edinburgh’s Old Town and New Town together are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which has been managed by Edinburgh World Heritage since 1999.

Edinburgh, Scotland - View from CastleOur day’s excursion took us by bus through the New and beautiful Old City, ending with a visit to the Edinburgh Castle. Situated on a volcanic crag called the Castle Rock, this majestic stronghold, former residence of Scottish monarchs, stands 443 feet above sea level, overlooking the city of Edinburgh (Pictured: View from Castle Rock).

Castle Rock has been the site of human activity for at least 3,000 years. The first king of Scotland known to have made his residence here was Malcom III Canmore (reigned 1058-93). His wife, Queen Margaret, who died in the castle in 1093 and was later canonized as St. Margaret of Scotland, is commemorated in St. Margaret’s Chapel, which was built between 1130 and 1140 on the highest point of the rock and is the oldest surviving building on the castle grounds. The last monarch to stay overnight in Edinburgh Castle was Charles I in 1633.

Edinburgh, Scotland - CastleThe castle was repeatedly besieged during the 17th and early 18th centuries. It was captured twice, briefly, by Covenanters during the Bishops’ Wars of 1639 and 1640 and was seized by Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army in 1650 during the English Civil Wars. Between 1757 and 1814, the castle housed prisoners of war taken by the British in the Seven Years’ War, the American Revolution, and the Napoleonic Wars. Still in use by the British military are the New Barracks (1796-99). Elsewhere on the castle grounds, Scotland honors it military tradition in the Scottish National War Memorial (opened 1927) and the National War Museum (opened 1933). The castle is the traditional repository of the Honours of Scotland, the country’s crown jewels. A more ancient relic of Scottish royalty is the Stone of Scone (or Stone of Destiny), which arrived at the castle in 1996, exactly 700 years after it was removed to England. The stone is a block of sandstone upon which Scottish monarchs were traditionally crowned.

Edinburgh, Scotland - Castle EsplanadeJust outside the castle drawbridge is a large open area called the Edinburgh Castle Esplanade (pictured), where grandstand seating is installed annually for an international military music festival called the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo and for other summer concerts.

The day of our excursion to Edinburgh, in addition to our rather small vessel, which accommodates a mere 382 passengers, there were two other larger ships (approximately 2,000 passengers each) anchored in the harbor. So, as you will note from the photograph, the esplanade was something of a mob scene.

 Greenwich, England, U.K.: Following two days at sea, we disembarked in Greenwich and were transported to London, where we spent four days taking in the sights, exploring the West End theater district, and ingesting the city’s extraordinarily diverse culinary culture (articles to follow).

 Bon Appétit!

Be Safe & Stay Well

TAD

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Mat Bar

Hverfisgata 26

101 Reykjavik, Iceland

(354) 788-3900

https://www.matbar.is

Mat Bar - InteriorThe Mat Bar is what we would call a “gastropub.” A combination of the words “pub” and “gastronomy,” the term was first coined in 1991 to emphasize the exceptional quality of cuisine served in what is usually referred to as a kind of local “happy-tappy.” In other words, a gastropub focuses not only on what you drink, but what you eat as well. As someone once said, “think of it as a restaurant in a pub.”

And Mat Bar fills that niche quite nicely. Replete with spiffy retro black-and-white tile floors and diminutive cozy bar, this little bohemian pub is every local’s favorite eatery, serving up one of Reykjavik’s most creative menus. Owner Guǒjón Hauksson has taken a best-produce-first approach, and it has held the restaurant in good stead. The menu changes seasonally – seemingly in the blink of an eye – with favorite dishes reappearing in new forms, depending upon the mood of the kitchen and dictates of the weather. And the tapas plates – both small and large – are all meant to be shared.

Mat Bar - Cod Crudo… And they arrive at table individually, as they are prepared. The night of our visit, the first small plate to put in an appearance was the Cod Crudo (Crudo, which means “raw,” is a dish that originated in Spain and Italy. It is raw fish – in this case, cod – that is splashed with olive oil or light vinaigrette and a variety of herbs). The presentation here added an intriguing combo of diced apples, crumbled rye bread, and garden cress.

Mat Bar - Broccoli Celeriac CannelloniNext up were the Broccoli and Celeriac Cannelloni (pictured together). The broccoli was seasoned with a subtle hint of sweetness, salted lemon and mint. It also sported a bit of heat, as the florets were rubbed in chili oil before cooking.

Celeriac, which is also called celery root, knob celery, and turnip-rooted celery is a variety that is cultivated for its edible stem and shoots. In this instance, it is sliced wafer-thin, formed into a cylindrical shape to resemble cannelloni, stuffed with cheese, and topped with diced potatoes and green tomatoes.

Mat Bar - Eggplant TempuraOur one shared large plate – the high point of the evening – was the absolutely spectacular Eggplant Tempura. For starters, the tempura batter was delicate, crispy, and utterly ethereal on the palate. The eggplant sections were just the right consistency – neither too firm nor too mushy – and impeccably seasoned… And the accompanying puttanesca sauce with a sprinkling of fresh basil was the pièce de résistance. “Herein lies Mat Bar’s appeal,” as the Reykjavik Grapevine so aptly put it. “Every dish is remarkable, in one way or another, with bold choices in presentation, flavor combinations, and unusual twists on well-known recipes. Everyone at the table tastes each course, making for animated conversation as you and your fellow diners untangle the complexities of each dish, and form opinions about your favorites.”

Desserts show no sign of a letdown, as our Hazelnut Praline Ice Cream spruced up with chocolate, cocoa nibs, and coffee was more than up to the mark… Ditto the intriguing choice of creative cocktails, as the restaurant’s careful attention to detail and seasonality begin with your first sip. My dining partner’s Paper Tiger, for instance, was a near-lethal-sounding concoction of bourbon, Aperol (Italian bitter), lemon and Armaro (bitter/sweet Italian herbal liqueur).

Mat Bar - Penicillin Paper TigerMy Penicillin, which is served on the rocks and was mentioned in detail in a previous article, incorporated Johnnie Walker Red Label Scotch, honey, ginger, lemon, Angostura Bitters, and a splash of peated Scotch over the top. In his 2016 book A Proper Drink, cocktail historian Robert Simonson referred to the Penicillin as “the most well-traveled and renowned new cocktail of the 21st century.”

Be that as it may, neither my dining partner nor I had ever heard of the Penicillin – ditto the Paper Tiger – before spotting them on Matt Bar’s cocktail list (pictured above: Paper Tiger on left; Penicillin on right).

Mat Bar - ExteriorIn addition to a nice writeup in Frommer’s, Mat Bar was chosen as 2018 Best Vegetarian Meal, 2018 One of the Best Places for Cocktails, 2018 Best Place to Start the Night, 2018 Best Goddamn Restaurant, and 2019 Runner-Up Best Goddamn Restaurant by the Reykjavik Grapevine.

If you’re contemplating a trip to Iceland – and it is well worth a journey – be sure to pay a call at Mat Bar in Reykjavik. I can assure you that you will not be disappointed.

 Bon Appétit!

Be Safe & Stay Well

TAD

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Rolling Through Reykjavik

by artfuldiner on November 3, 2022

in Breaking News, Opinion, Special Events

Prior to embarking on our July, 2022, 12-day cruise from Iceland to London, my traveling companion and I arrived in Reykjavik a day early to get our bearings and take in the sights.

Reykjavik - Keflavik AirportIt was the middle of July, but, as expected, the weather was cold, damp & dreary with a light, misty rain. The landscape around Keflavik Airport was incredibly desolate (pictured above), made even more so by the inclement weather. There was not a tree in sight, the result, as our driver pointed out, of the various lava flows from the nearby still active volcano (which erupted once again two weeks after we had returned to the United States).

Reykjavik - Spiral Stairway in Hildton NordicaVia Silversea, our cruise line, we were booked into the Hilton Reykjavik Nordica, just east of the downtown area. Originally opened in 1965, it became part of the Hilton chain in 2007 and completely renovated. The chrome-glass natural-wood interior is sleek and modern – a bit too modern for my tastes; and the postage stamp-sized bathroom wasn’t much of a turn-on either – but the place did grow on us. The bar/lounge, for example, was especially comfortable, boasting, among its other attributes, a beautiful spiral staircase that wound its way up to the hotel’s top floor.

Reykjavik - WaterfrontAs I mentioned above, when we arrived at the airport, the weather was a good deal less than hospitable. However, by the time we settled in at our hotel, the day had turned sunny and the temperature had warmed significantly. So much so, in fact, that we decided to take the on/off bus tour of Reykjavik… And since we only had the remainder of the day before embarking on our cruise, this seemed the most logical way to see the city. I won’t bore you with a blow-by-blow description, but several stops did stand out.

Located on the eastern point of Reykjavik’s harbor is the spectacular concert hall and conference center, Harpa, which opened to the public in 2011. Designed by the Danish firm of Henning Larsen Architects, in cooperation with renowned Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, the building consists of a steel framework clad with geometric shaped glass panels of different colors, which reflect both the sky and the ocean.

Reykjavik - HarpaEncompassing a variety of artistic venues, Harpa was developed in consultation with artistic advisor Vladimir Ashkenazy and international consultant Jasper Parrott. It is the country’s premier music and event center, hosting films, concerts, and various performances every night of the week. The beautiful space also includes several stores, two restaurants, and a long-distance bus stop.

Hallgrímskirkja (Church of Hallgrímur) is a Lutheran (Church of Iceland) parish church. At 244 ft tall, it is the largest church in Iceland and among the tallest structures in the country. The church is named for the Reverend Hallgrímur Pétursson (1614 – 1674), Iceland’s foremost hymn writer and an ecclesiastical scholar and poet.

Reykjavik - Hallgrims ChurchThe distinctive exterior, with its prominent steeple, is often described as both primordial     and futuristic, as if the church were some kind of volcano or glacier that had been transformed into a rocket ship. A statue of Leif Eiriksson is aligned directly in front of the church, as if he’s about to lead it down the hill. The statue was a gift from the United States to commemorate the 1,000th anniversary of the founding of Iceland’s parliament.

Reykjavik -PerlanOne of Reykjavik’s most distinctive landmarks, Perlan (The “Pearl”) is a museum and rotating glass dome that stands on the top of Őskjuhliö Hill surrounded by forest. The site is built on top of six water tanks that store millions of liters of Reykjavik’s hot water.

Architect Ingimundur Sveinsson designed the building in 1991; and the project was originally curated by Daviö Oddsson during his term as mayor of Reykjavik. Perlan was originally home to a viewing platform, restaurant, and café; recently, however, it has also become an educational site, boasting numerous exhibitions and displays.

The Glacier Exhibition of Iceland, for example, opened in July 2017 and contains a 100-meter-long ice tunnel where visitors are offered a glance into the past, present, and future of Iceland’s glaciers. It is the only museum in the world with such a dramatic exhibition.

In addition to the exhibitions, Perlan is also known for its sightseeing opportunities, as the observation deck offers an impressive and panoramic view of the city and its surroundings.

The most recent addition to the facility, which opened in the summer of 2021 is a 230-meter-long (251 yards) zip line that allows those adventurous enough to glide from one of the water tanks to the ground below at 31 miles per hour… Not for the faint of heart.

 Bobby Fischer Center, IcelandOne final note… If you’re a chess fan, Iceland holds one additional treasure. In the village of Selfoss, just a short drive from Reykjavik, you will find the Bobby Fischer Center, a small non-profit biographical museum housing memorabilia of the 1972 World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer.

On display at the Center are photos, the scoresheets, and a replica of the chessboard used during the World Chess Championship of 1972 between Fischer and Russian Boris Spassky. The museum also includes interesting artifacts related to Fischer’s stay in Iceland from 2005 to 2008, including Fischer’s chair from Bókin, the antiquarian bookshop in Reykjavik.

Bobby Fischer’s grave site is located at Laugardaelir Cemetery, just a little over a mile from the Bobby Fischer Center.

 Bon Appétit!

Be Safe & Stay Well

TAD

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Jean Touzot - Frederic TouzotThe Touzot family domaine is located in the northernmost part of France’s Mâcon region of Burgundy, just south of the Côte Chalonnaise. Their 209+ acres of vineyards are planted with 70% chardonnay and 30% Pinot Noir.

In 2002, after graduating from the Lycée Viticole in Mâcon and completing a stage of education in South Africa, Jean’s son, Frédéric, took over the management of the family estate and immediately dedicated himself to moving the Domaine’s viticultural practices to sustainability. He ended systematic vineyard treatments and now only does so when absolutely necessary He also discontinued the use of herbicides and regularly plows the soil to ensure its health and helping the vine roots to sink deeply into the limestone subsoil. Frédéric also believes that careful pruning in winter, leaf stripping, and bunch thinning in abundant years enhances the quality of his wines. He utilizes organic fertilizers only when deemed necessary by tests of the soils. As a result, he observes that his grapes are now both healthier and riper at harvest time.

Environmentally friendly practices are also used inside the winery, such as the recycling and purification of rinse water before it is drained away. “I try to be more observant and attentive to the needs of vineyard,” Frédéric notes, “rather than habitually using the same practices every year. By respecting nature, I better understand my profession.”

The Touzot Mâcon-Villages is a benchmark of this appellation. The estate’s potential was already recognized in 1996, when the Revue du Vin de France proclaimed: “At last a wine with fine acidity, with a lively expression of terroir and of fruit, which departs from the general surrounding mediocrity.”

Jean Touzot 2020 Chardonnay…And the 2020 Domaine Touzot Chardonnay Vieilles Vignes Mâcon-Villages certainly bears witness to this assessment. The chardonnay grapes are hand-harvested and then quickly pressed in a state-of-the-art pneumatic press, in order to extract all the fruit and aromas while avoiding any bitterness. After two days of cold stabilization and a light clearing of the juice (débourbage), the wine is slowly fermented in temperature-controlled, stainless-steel coves for ten to fifteen days. The wine is aged on its lees in tanks and undergoes full malolactic fermentation in January. It is then bottled in April.

The 2020 is a textbook example of Mâcon-Villages… the marvelous aroma of green apples that extends over onto the palate… the crisp and beautifully balanced acidity… the subtle hint of melon on the finish… and the more than reasonable price tag: $18.99 at Pennsylvania State Stores.

The Touzot Bourgogne Rouge comes from a south-facing parcel of old vines. The grapes are hand-harvested, destemmed, and given a two-day cold maceration before fermentation begins. The winery does two punching down operations per day over four days and circulates the juice over the cap once per day to attain optimal extraction. The wine is then aged in casks (10% new; the balance 1-5 years old) for twelve months. The wine is lightly filtered and is not fined before bottling in early spring. The production is about five hundred cases. The wines exhibit the color, taste and texture that are similar to the more expensive Pinot Noirs produced in the Côte d’Or.

Jean Touzot 2018 Pinot NoirThe 2018 Domaine Touzot Bourgogne Pinot Noir is a rustic, concentrated Pinot Noir with significant fruit intensity. Pale ruby in color, medium-bodied, dry & tart, with subtle tannins and balanced acidity, the 2018 is mellow but powerful, with a decided hint of bitterness that is quite pleasing to the palate. The price is also rather pleasing as well… $19.99 at Pennsylvania State Stores.

 Cheers!

Be Safe & Stay Well

TAD

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Circa 1886 Restaurant

Wentworth Mansion

49 Wentworth Street

Charleston, South Carolina

(843) 853-7828

www.circa1886.com

 

Circa 1886 - InteriorTucked away in the original carriage house of the Wentworth Mansion, replete with its original pine floors and enchanting architectural accoutrements, Circa 1886, as their website so understatedly notes, “evokes the romance and Old-World charm of historic downtown Charleston.” An understatement, indeed, considering that in 2020 the restaurant was cited as one of “The Most Romantic Restaurants in the World” by Architectural Digest.

Circa 1886 - Ex Chef Marc CollinsBut Circa 1886 offers diners infinitely more than alluring ambience, as the restaurant is consistently ranked as one of the finest the city of Charleston has to offer. For over a decade, Executive Chef Marc Collins has worked with local farmers and fishermen to create an innovative seasonal & local menu that has taken Lowcountry cuisine to new culinary heights… In 2019, he launched a unique four-part menu that takes diners on an historical journey through South Carolina’s fascinating foodways – Tastes of Native TribesFlavors Brought from Africa… Influences from Europe – and how these elements have been fused into a decidedly modern take on Lowcountry cuisine… South Carolina Today.

Needless to say, the menu presented so many intriguing possibilities that it was extremely difficult knowing what to choose. Somehow or other – undoubtedly by pure chance – my dining partner and I managed to put a dent in all four categories. I began with the Foie Gras (from Europe), which, when I happen to spy it on a menu is almost impossible to resist. Mr. Collins version was particularly avant garde, bewitching the palate with such delicious traveling companions as cassava pudding, pomegranate strawberry jam, lime basil oil, and smattering of hazelnuts.

Circa 1886 - Shrimp & GritsCirca 1886 - Rainbow TroutMy dining companion’s Shrimp n’ Rice Grits (from Africa; pictured) was equally au courant, incorporating smoked ham hock gravy, Burden Creek Dairy goat cheese, and tiara of cabbage leaves.

It was a rather warm evening in Charleston, so we decided to take the piscatorial route. I opted for the Paprika Grouper (from Europe). Pillowed on a seabed of leeks n’ kale, it was accompanied by crispy fingerling potatoes and garnished with Manchego cheese and an intriguing preserved tomato & caper crudo… A captivating combo of flavors and textures to say the least. My dining partner’s Rainbow Trout (Native Tribes; pictured), however, was even more thought-provoking. The filet was enveloped in an ethereal sunflower sumac crust and kissed by an enticing corn sauce, with a wild rice porridge, arugula, and cranberry paint in strong supporting roles.

Other interesting items that are definitely worth a try… Butternut Squash & Peanut Soup: grilled scallion lacquer, dried mango; Southern Grilled Cheese: pimento cheese mousse, grilled brioche, Surryano ham, paddlefish caviar, cured yolk powder; Chicken Fried Duck Breast: Hoppin’ John, turnips & tops, orange & grapefruit salad, buttered biscuit gravy; Peri-Peri Pork Belly: coconut red rice, collard greens, red onion piccalilli, guave purée; Sea Scallops: blue corn grits, copper carrots, Brussels sprouts, vanilla bean vinaigrette.

Desserts continued the kitchen’s winning ways with one representative from each of the menu’s above-mentioned four culinary categories: Sweet Corn and Huckleberry (Native Tribes): sweet corn Bavarian, Johnny cakes, huckleberry sorbet, puffed hominy; Coconut Sombi (from Africa): Carolina gold rice pudding, fresh mango, coconut sorbet, benne seed tuile; Mousse au chocolat (from Europe): dark chocolate mousse, caramel crèmeux, pecan profiterole, chocolate sauce.

Circa 1886 - Strawberry Shortcake SouffleOur denouement of choice, however, was the Strawberry Shortcake Soufflé (South Carolina Today; pictured): beautifully textured buttermilk soufflé, rich, decadent Grand Marnier ice cream, and sweet fresh strawberries… Incomparable.

One final note. Circa 1886 also has a fabulous wine list… including a Bucket List Wines by the Ounce, with one, three, and five ounce pours of some extraordinary vintages. And their innovative specialty cocktails are certain to raise a few eyebrows as well as spirits… Like Spring on Wentworth: Vodka, Limoncello, Lemon, Basil; Ladies Man: Glenmorangie, Cocchi Americano, Orange Bitters; or Little Bird Told Me: Spiced Rum, Campari, Pineapple.

Circa 1886 - ExteriorIf you are visiting the Charleston area, Circa 1886 is certainly worth a visit. Check that… a journey.

 Bon Appétit!

Be Safe & Stay Well

TAD

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During a recent road trip to Bar Harbor, Maine, for a family gathering, my traveling companion and I discovered two interesting restaurants along the way.

Docks, South Portland, Maine - InteriorDocks Seafood Restaurant & Market, 15 Evans Street, South Portland, Maine, (207) 899-4433, www.docksseafood.com: Visited on our way to Bar Harbor, Docks was conveniently located a stone’s throw from I-95 and just a few blocks from our Courtyard Marriot. This super-casual restaurant/market combo features fresh, local & sustainable species of fish & shellfish, Maine craft beers, wine & cocktails, and local snacks & art.

The setting is unpretentiously utilitarian, but the welcome is warm and the regional cuisine carefully & lovingly prepared. And lobster, as you can well imagine, plays a significant role here. The Maine Lobster Dinner is a house favorite, or you can also go for the Lobster Roll, Lobster Nuggets, or the downright decadent Lobster Mac & Cheese.

Docks - Haddock ReubenFinny fare includes items like Grilled Swordfish; Salmon, baked or grilled; Haddock, baked or stuffed; and such sundry other possibilities as Seafood Newburg, Fisherman’s Platter, Seafood Alfredo, and baked or seared Scallops. My traveling companion opted for the Fish & Chips, while I settled on the Haddock Reuben (pictured), an utterly delicious amalgam of fried local haddock, Swiss cheese, coleslaw, and Thousand Island dressing sandwiched between toasted slices of Mainly Grains marble rye.

Landlubbers, however, may take heart, as the menu also features Hamburger, Pulled Pork Sandwich, and “Value Meals” such as Chicken Tenders, Grilled Hot Dog, and Grilled Cheese.

If you should be traveling north to Maine, Docks Seafood Restaurant & Market would make a very pleasant stopover.

 

Fix Burger BarThe Fix Burger Bar, 108 Grove Street, Worcester, Massachusetts, (774) 823-3327, www.thefixburgerbar.com: Tucked away in an old warehouse building, the Fix Burger Bar provides a modern setting for custom burgers companioned by craft beers, a slew of innovative cocktails, and a number of spiked milkshakes.

The cocktails here are called Remedies; and they are certainly good for what ails you… The Hibiscus Mojito: Hibiscus-Infused Rum, Hibiscus Simple Syrup, Muddled Mint & Lime and Soda; the Navola: Drumshanbo Sardinian Citrus Gin, Italicus, Limoncello, Lemon Juice, and Simple Syrup; Plum Surprised: Damson 6 O’clock Plum Gin, Lime Juice, Plum Purée, Ginger Beer; and the Peach Piggy Smash: WhistlePig PiggyBack 6yr Rye, Peach Liqueur, Muddled Mint & Peaches, Ginger Ale… Well, you get the idea.

Fix Burger Bar - Fried PicklesThere are a number of interesting ways to start things off here – the Mac & Cheese with parmesan, cheddar & truffle breadcrumbs looks like a good bet… ditto the Spicy & Sweet Snaps, roasted sugar snap peas, spicy sweet soy glaze, crushed cashews, and red pepper flakes. Then there’s always Roasted Garlic Hummus or Potato Chip Nachos with short rib, cheddar, fresh jalapeño, whisky BBQ, corn, onion, and chili sour cream.  Our starter of choice, however, was the Fried Pickles. They are crispy crinkle cuts with a dynamite horseradish dipping sauce (pictured). This is a really great starter. Just a hint of dill through the light breading with the sauce adding a nice bit of heat. If you’ve never tried fried pickles, you’re in for a real treat.

Fix Burger Bar - The Gatsby BurgerWith a name like Fix Burger Bar, burgers are, as you have probably surmised, nothing short of spectacular. They are, as the menu notes, “cooked through while remaining tender and juicy.” Without doubt, the best I have tasted anywhere. Possibilities range from the Bigger Mac, obviously a takeoff on McDonald’s (2 ¼ lb. house patties, special sauce, lettuce, American cheese, pickles, onions, sesame bun), through the Mushroom (sautéed mushrooms, grilled onion, arugula, Swiss cheese, truffle mayo, brioche roll), the Bacon Blue (Great Hill blue cheese, bacon, red leaf lettuce, red onion, tomato, creamy Frank’s Red Hot, brioche roll), the Phenomenal (bacon, smoked gouda, fried egg, frizzled onion, sweet chili ranch, brioche roll), culminating with the Gatsby (pictured), the most expensive burger on the menu, (1/2 lb. American Wagyu patty, clothbound cheddar, slab bacon, grilled onion, ancho ketchup, brioche roll).

The menu also offers a number of intriguing alternatives to beef… the Green Acre (veggie patty), the Enzo (grilled chicken), the Spartan (lamb patty), and the Ghostface (roasted garlic turkey patty), as well as Burger Bowls featuring variations on both beef and chicken.

Fix Burger Bar - InteriorDesserts, which we did not sample, also look good. The two listed on the menu are B5 Chocolate Spring Rolls (white chocolate mousse, ginger strawberry sauce, whipped cream) and Pistachio Cheesecake (orange honey, crème Chantilly, candied pistachio).

Traveling near Worcester, Massachusetts…? The Fix Burger Bar is not to be missed.

 Bon Appétit!

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Penicillin CocktailIn the title of his recent article in the Robb Report, Jason O’Bryan described the Penicillin as “the Most Successful Whiskey Cocktail of the Millennium (So Far).” And in his 2016 book A Proper Drink, cocktail historian Robert Simonson referred to the Penicillin as “the most well-traveled and renowned new cocktail of the 21st century.” Today, Penicillin is considered a modern classic; and yet, somehow, also a reminder of the past as well.

Mat Bar, The - IcelandBe that as it may… I freely confess that I had been absolutely unaware of this libation before I spied it on the cocktail list at the Mat Bar (pictured; full review at a later date), a cozy little gastropub in Reykjavik, Iceland, and decided to give it a try. The name, of course, caught my eye immediately, as did the intriguing list of ingredients: Johnnie Walker Red Label Scotch, honey, ginger, lemon, and Angostura Bitters. If I order a cocktail before dinner, I prefer a predominance of bitterness rather than sweetness… and the Penicillin definitely exceeded my expectations.

Sam Ross, BartenderUnlike the Negroni cocktail, mentioned in a previous newsletter, which traces its history back to 1919, the Penicillin is a relatively recent phenomenon. It was created in 2005 by Sam Ross (pictured), a native of Melbourne, Australia, at New York City’s famous Milk & Honey Bar. Just 22-years-old at the time, he was experimenting with Gold Rush, a cocktail that featured bourbon, lemon juice, and honey. He decided to skip the bourbon and, instead, mix blended Scotch with fresh lemon and a homemade honey-ginger syrup. The result was a beautiful balance of sweet, tart & spicy, similar to that found in a Whiskey Sour. The real genius of the drink, however, was the quarter-ounce of smoky Scotch that he floated on top. Served in a rocks glass, it really spiked up the aromatics.

While the Penicillin is considered a modern classic, and is available across the globe – from lavish hotel lounges to local neighborhood bars & chain restaurants – it is also easy enough to shake up at home.

INGREDIENTS

 For the Cocktail

2 oz blended scotch (I prefer Johnnie Walker Black Label)

¾ oz fresh lemon juice

¾ oz honey ginger simple syrup

Dash of Angostura Bitters (optional)

¼ oz peated scotch (I prefer Bowmore from the Island of Islay)

For Honey Ginger Simple Syrup

1 cup honey

1 cup water

4 inches fresh ginger peeled and chopped

Sam Ross - BartalkINSTRUCTIONS

 For the Cocktail

  1. Add the blended scotch, lemon juice, honey ginger simple syrup, and Bitters into a shaker with ice. Shake for 30 seconds or until well chilled.
  2. Strain into a rocks glass with ice. Top with the peated scotch and garnish with a piece of candied ginger.

For the Honey Ginger Simple Syrup

  1. In a medium saucepan combine honey, water, and ginger and bring to a boil, ensuring the honey fully dissolves.
  2. Remove the pan from the heat, allowing the simple syrup to steep for 30 minutes (or up to a day if you prefer a singer ginger flavor). Strain out the ginger and transfer the simple syrup to a clean glass jar.
  3. The simple syrup may be stored at room temperature for 1 week or in the refrigerator for a month.

One final note… In addition to the Penicillin, Sam Ross has also created three other incredibly popular cocktails that may be of interest: the Fort Lauderdale, Paper Plane, and the Conquistador. If you would like to watch all four of these cocktails being made, be sure to check out the following video on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VKrjesDNhn8.

 Cheers!

Be Safe & Stay Well

TAD

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Agave Mexican Cuisine

1620 Baltimore Pike (Route 1)

Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania

(484) 770-8345

www.agavebyo.com

Agave - ImageThere is absolutely no shortage of Mexican restaurants in the Phoenixville/King of Prussia area. However… if you consider yourself a discriminating connoisseur of south-of-the-border cuisine, a road trip to Chadds Ford is something of a must. I say this because Agave, which made its debut on January 25, 2017 – and was previously reviewed by this writer in February 2018 – remains, in my opinion, the numero uno Mexican eatery in Philadelphia’s western suburbs.

I have put in several dinner appearances recently and have yet to hit a clinker. The kitchen knows what it’s about and carries it off with understated flair and panache. Mexican fare isn’t exactly renowned for its photogenicity; but most of Agave’s presentations are as attractively presented as they are carefully and lovingly prepared.

A scant moment after you’re seated, the tortilla chips and salsa hit the table. The house-made chips are especially good, delightfully crunchy and seductively seasoned… But be sure to team them up with the kitchen’s benchmark Guacamole, served in a traditional molcajete (the Mexican version of mortar and pestle). While customarily made by mashing ripe avocados and sea salt, other ingredients may vary significantly. Agave’s irresistibly chunky rendition, for example, incorporates chopped tomatoes, red onions, cilantro, serrano peppers, and a splash of lime.

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Other starter possibilities include the ubiquitous Nachos de la Casa; Clams a la Mexicano, littleneck clams sautéed in garlic white wine or red diabla sauce with chorizo; Tuna Tostadas; or Queso Fundido, a type of party dish often compared to a cheese fondue (pictured). Typical main ingredients are melted cheese and a characteristic meat sauce of loose fresh chorizo, tomato, onion, chili, and spices. It is served in a small, shallow casserole or other ceramic or metal heatproof baking dish. The cheese and sauce are prepared separately and combined just before serving. The mixture is quickly broiled and presented while still bubbling hot. It is then spooned onto small soft tortillas for individual servings. This is an extremely rich dish, but also incredibly delicious and satisfying.

Agave - Quinoa Salad On the other hand, if you’d prefer something a bit lighter, the kitchen also does a commendable job with salads. For example, the Salpicon Salad (or salpicón, meaning “hodgepodge” or “medley” in Spanish) is comprised of romaine lettuce, diced tomatoes, cucumbers, avocado, radishes, queso fresco, and white wine tomatillo vinaigrette. My favorite, however, which I’ve sampled on numerous occasions, is the incomparable Quinoa Salad (pictured), a delightful amalgam of pumpkin seeds, avocado, raisins, cherry tomatoes, cucumber, and queso fresco splashed with an enticing lemon vinaigrette dressing. Simply not to be missed.

Agave - Taco Tasting Platter w Kennett Square MushroomsAs I mentioned in my initial review four years ago, as you move on to what would be considered entrées, the tacos – all served on homemade corn tortillas – are definitely a cut above. My favorites include Coliflor (cauliflower and chick peas), Costilla (short rib braised in guajillo chili sauce, and Pescado (mahi mahi served with chipotle aioli, red cabbage coleslaw & avocado). But the Taco Tasting Platter, which I thoroughly enjoyed during a previous visit, is clearly the way to go here (pictured with side of Kennett Square Mushrooms). Choose your five favorites and feel free to share.

Agave - Grilled SalmonDuring my most recent visit, however, matters piscatorial took center stage. The Bronzino, Mediterranean sea bass, was exceptional… but the Salmon a la Plancha (pictured), grilled salmon served on a seabed of quinoa and arugula was even better. I seldom order salmon when dining out, as I so often prepare it at home… However, companioned by perfectly prepared julienne vegetables, this filet was an incredible textural treat, cooked through (as opposed to translucent) but still incredibly moist and flavorful. Just the way I like it. Kudos.

Agave - Tres Leches CakeAs I mentioned in my first review, Mexican restaurants aren’t known for their desserts… but Agave’s renditions are definitely worth the extra calories. The Flan is quite good… ditto the Spicy Chocolate Mousse Cake. Though not noted on the printed menu, when it is available, the Cheesecake with Tequila Sauce is excellent. Even better, however, is the spectacular Cheesecake with Crème Brûlée Topping. The thick Graham cracker crust provides a fabulous crunch, while swatches of raspberry sauce add touches of color and a tangy contrast to the sugary crème brûlée.

Most recently, I sampled the Tres Leches Cake (pictured), a sponge cake soaked in a mixture of three milks – evaporated, sweetened condensed, and heavy cream – topped with whipped cream. Very sweet… but very, very good. Be sure to save room.

Agave is still BYOB. However… On Wednesdays and Thursdays, the restaurant offers a three-course special for $35.00 per person and will throw in a complimentary bottle of white wine or pitcher of margaritas. So be sure to check it out.

Located very close to Longwood Gardens and just a stone’s throw from the Brandywine River Museum, if you happen to be traveling anywhere in the Chadds Ford area, Agave Mexican Cuisine is definitely worth a visit.

 Bon Appétit!

Be Safe & Stay Well

TAD

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Essay Wines of South Africa - VineyardThe term “Essay” is a play on words, as it refers to the popular abbreviation for South Africa (SA). But it also implies “assemblage,” or the blending of elements to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its individual parts.

Essay Wines of South Africa - Riaan Moller, WinemakerInitiated by partners/cellarmasters José Conde and Tyrrel Myburgh of MAN Family Wines and head winemaker Riaan Möller (pictured), Essay Wines consists of two blended Mediterranean-style vintages produced from grapes grown in the Agter-Paarl (“behind Paarl”) Cape Coast region of South Africa. The vineyards are grown sustainably, are unirrigated, and are planted on old shale soils, which tend to produce grapes with good minerality coupled with fresh fruitiness.

The 2021 Essay Wines Chenin Blanc consists of 72% Chenin Blanc, with the addition of 17% Roussanne & 11% Viognier giving the wine an impressive aromatic “lift” and touch of richness on the palate.

According to the producer, 2021 was a warm and dry season that produced smaller berries with enhanced flavor concentration. Warmer day-time temperatures combined with cooler nights resulted in perfect fruit quality, demonstrated in both excellent flavor intensity and fresh acidity.

The 2021 Chenin Blanc is medium-bodied and delightfully fruity with a fresh finish. The wine is perfect on its own for warm weather quaffing or as an aperitif; but it also pairs exceedingly well with a wide variety of foods, especially Asian entrées and summer salads.

Essay Wines of South Africa - Chenin Blanc, SyrahAnd the price is quite a delight as well. The 2021 Essay Wines Chenin Blanc retails around the $10.00 mark.

For those who enjoy red wine, the 2020 Essay Wines Syrah is a blend of 59% Syrah, 17% Cinsault, 14% Grenache, and 10% Mourvèdre. Like the above-mentioned Chenin Blanc, this Syrah is also medium-bodied with a decidedly lush mouthfeel.

Like a typical Syrah, the 2020 is rife with hints of ripe plum and dark fruit on the nose and palate. Grenache softens things up a bit, as well as adding some floral notes. The Mourvèdre contributes complexity and spice, while the Cinsault a touch of softness to the final blend. This is a wine that shows both depth and finesse with gentle tannins. This is a most satisfying wine that is perfect for everyday quaffing. And, once again, the price is right. The 2020 Syrah averages around $12.00 retail.

These wines are available from various sources. However, since both may be easily purchased online via special order from Pennsylvania State Stores, going this route may save you a great deal of hassle.

 Cheers!

TAD

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Dante’s Italian Bistro & Pastry

550 Kimberton Road

Phoenixville, Pennsylvania

(484) 924-8072

https://www.facebook.com/DantesItalianBistroPhoenixville

Dante's Bistro - ExteriorFor those of you out there who may be keeping score, the answer is Yes. Yes, I am aware that I’m reviewing two Italian restaurants back-to-back. Last month it was Davio’s Northern Italian Steakhouse, this month it’s Dante’s Italian Bistro. Initially, this one-after-the-other formula struck me as an exercise in futility, sort of like comparing apples and oranges; but, the more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that having a look-see at their similarities and differences might prove very interesting to readers – from a fiscal as well as a culinary perspective… Especially since one is the absolute antithesis of the another.

Davio’s, as you may recall, is a loud, bustling, pricey (overpriced, in my opinion), classy chain establishment with 10 outposts stretching from Massachusetts to Texas.  Dante’s, on the other hand, is a quiet little mom & pop BYOB restaurant and pastry shop that tends to fly right under most people’s radar (my dining partner and I only discovered it via word of mouth from a friend who just happened to give it a try).

Tucked away behind Citadel Federal Credit Union in the Kimberton Shoppes, sharing space with Kimberton Nails, Gracie Jiu Jitsu, RK Arters Tax Prep, Z Best Cleaners, and the Asian Café among others, Dante’s is easily passed by without notice.

Dante's Bistro - Pastry Display CasesYou cross the threshold, stroll past the pastry displays (have a good look, as you’ll want to take some goodies home later), and follow the hostess to a small dining room in the rear.

Utilitarian and brightly lit, the area isn’t exactly high on ambience… but it’s comfortable, the service is friendly & attentive and, as an added treat, every once in a while, you’ll catch a glimpse of papa toting a tray of freshly-made pastries from the kitchen to the front of the house.

Dante's Bistro - Garlic Knots & SauceThe food here, as you may have surmised, is just as homey and down-to-earth as the atmosphere. Everything is made from scratch; red sauce – which, I will warn you in advance, tends to be on the sweet side – predominates the proceedings, and portion sizes are prodigious. You won’t go hungry here. You won’t go broke either, as prices are decidedly easy on the wallet. The menu tops out at $28.99 for Homemade Scampi Ravioli; salads and appetizers range from $4.95 – $9.99; and, should you order a pasta dish, the price will include not only homemade garlic knots (pictured) & a side salad, but the dessert of the day as well.

You may start things off, as noted immediately above, with either a salad or an appetizer. Among the former, the Chicken Caesar is always a good bet… ditto the Italian Chef’s Salad, a hefty combo of lettuces, deli meats, olives and provolone cheese. When it comes to the latter, you discover many of the standard – but exceptionally well-prepared – items such as Mozzarella Sticks, House-Made Crispy Onion Rings, and Classic French Fries served up au naturel or with bacon & cheese or bacon & a delightfully decadent Alfredo sauce.

Dante's Bistro - Arancini al FromaggioFor my money, however, the Arancini al Fromaggio (pictured) is clearly the way to go. A staple of Sicilian cuisine, Arancini are Italian rice balls that are stuffed with mozzarella (and, occasionally, other items such as green peas and ham), coated with bread crumbs, deep fried, and served with a marinara dipping sauce… Definitely a “Wow” factor in the works!

As you move along, entrées clearly demonstrate that this restaurant understands its proper role in the ultimate gastronomic scheme of things and will not allow its reach to exceed its grasp. In other words, the kitchen knows its limitations and doesn’t attempt to do too much. Diners are offered main courses from only three major categories: Seafood, Chicken, and Pasta.

Even the Seafood option, which may at first appear to be rather broad in scope is, in reality, exceedingly narrow, as the kitchen’s culinary creations, at least according to the printed menu, are limited to various incarnations of shrimp. The Homemade Scampi Ravioli, mentioned above, for example, consists of homemade ricotta-filled ravioli in a vodka sauce with bacon crowned with shrimp scampi. Variations on the theme include Shrimp Scampi, pan-seared garlic butter shrimp served on a pillow of fettuccine, and Linguine & Shrimp with bacon vodka sauce.

Dante's Bistro - Sicilian Citrus ShrimpOther possibilities include several familiar items – and some not so familiar: Shrimp Fra Diavolo, a traditional favorite of sautéed crustaceans in a spicy marinara over spaghetti; Shrimp Alfredo in a made-to-order white cream sauce with parmesan; and Creamy Garlic Butter Tuscan Shrimp in a creamy sauce with garlic, sun-dried tomatoes, spinach, and melted mozzarella.  For something a bit different, however, be sure to try the Shrimp Regina with fresh tomatoes & broccoli in a white wine sauce, or Gameretti al Limone (pictured), pan-seared shrimp and broccoli in a lemon white wine sauce with fettuccine.

The chicken dishes tend to round up the “usual suspects”: Parmesan, Francese, Piccata, Marsala. But there are also a couple of interesting surprises that are well worth trying. Balsamic Caprese, for example, caresses the sautéed chicken breasts in a tangy balsamic glaze with tomato, basil, and melted mozzarella in strong supporting roles. On the other hand, if you prefer your entrées on the rich, rich, rich side, there’s always the Gorgonzola Chicken, pan-seared breasts swimming in an addictively creamy gorgonzola sauce spruced up with Italian herbs.

Dante's Bistro - BologneseIf this kitchen has a claim to fame, however, it is undoubtedly their pastas – and there’s something for just about every taste. If you like it rich and creamy, go for Fettuccine Alfredo or the Pasta Norcina, penne pasta with slices of mild Italian sausage in a cream sauce with parmesan. Or, if you’re prefer not to go overboard on the cream, I highly recommend the Fettuccine with Authentic Bolognese Sauce (pictured). Here you have a slowly simmered meat sauce awash with celery, carrots, and onions buttressed by tomato sauce, wine, and just a touch of cream.

On the other hand – with apologies to Alighieri – if you like it hot, there’s always Dante’s Inferno, a fiery combo of penne pasta, hot Italian sausage, and hot cherry peppers swimming in a spicy marinara sauce. It isn’t the Nine Circles of Hell – but it’s close. And since it’s specifically noted on the menu as “VERY spicy,” don’t say I didn’t warn you. Since gastronomic discretion is the better part of peristaltic valor, you might want to settle for the less lethal Pasta Arrabbiata, penne in a made-to-order spicy tomato sauce. Yes, I know it’s a step down on the spice scale … but it may save your delicate innards from an uncomfortable stay in purgatory.

Other options, two of which my dining partner has enjoyed during separate visits, include the Baked Homemade Cheese Ravioli smothered in marinara and melted mozzarella and Dante’s House Special Pasta. This latter selection features penne luxuriating in an Italian spiced bacon tomato sauce awash with morsels of the rich house special sausage. Both proved to be excellent choices.

Dante's Bistro- Eggplant ParmMy own proclivity is for Eggplant Parmesan (pictured). When I see it on a menu, I freely confess that I find it difficult to resist; and my visits to Dante’s certainly proved to be no exception. I have also discovered that it is an excellent test of a kitchen’s prowess (or lack therefore). For while it is relatively simple to prepare, it is also quite easily mucked up. The eggplant could be undercooked, or overcooked and mushy… The breading could be too sparsely or too liberally applied, burned to a crisp or raw-tasting on the palate… The sauce could be too sweet or too acidic… The cheese, etc., etc. Well, you get the idea.

Fortunately, Dante’s kitchen does an excellent job of keeping all the elements in perfect sync. The eggplant is hand-cut, breaded, and fried to perfection. It is then pillowed on a veritable mountain of spaghetti marinara and smothered in melted mozzarella. As I mentioned at the outset, and as you will note from the photograph, the portion size is, indeed, prodigious.

Dante's Bistro - Dessert CookiesDesserts (if you still have room) vary with the day and whim of the kitchen. On several visits, my dining partner and I took the pasta route, which meant that dessert was included. On those occasions, we were treated a plate of homemade cookies, which, given the size of the entrées, proved to be the perfect ending to a perfect meal. And, speaking of cookies, don’t forget to check out the pastry displays before departing, as I know you’ll want to take something home.

By the way, Dante’s also offers diners a variety of lunch salads, cold hoagies, hot grilled panini sandwiches, stromboli, calzones and, of course, pizzas.

Just don’t forget… Dante’s Italian Bistro & Pastry is a BYOB restaurant.

Bon Appétit!

TAD

 

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