Category Archives: Food and Wine Pairings

An evening at The Ravens Club in Ann Arbor

The Ravens Club on Ann Arbor's Main Street

The Ravens Club on Ann Arbor’s Main Street

The Ravens Club is a bar in downtown Ann Arbor, right on the most important restaurant road in Ann Arbor, Main Street. I’ve been there once or twice, but my main memory is from right after I moved to Ann Arbor. While Nina denies ever having been there with me before, I am certain we went there pretty soon after I moved to Ann Arbor from Germany. From that visit, I remembered its great cocktails fondly. But I also liked the atmosphere with its gold and dark, pretty classy. However, we were dirt poor at the time and couldn’t afford to go out much, and somehow The Ravens Club dropped off my radar…

A well-stocked bar at The Ravens Club

The Ravens Club’s well-stocked bar. The cocktails here are absolutely amazing!

So, a couple of weeks ago I received an invitation from The Ravens Club’s managing partner Jeff to come and sample their new fall menu along with a bunch of other food and booze bloggers in and around Ann Arbor. He specifically touted their revamped wine list, and you know, free food and free wine? Count me in. I was joined by my blogging and real life friends John (The Food and Wine Hedonist) and Hannah (Next Stop: TBD). It was great to meet other bloggers from the area, too, like the authors of Clover Eats and All the Brews. Others have written about their impressions, so feel free to check out The Food and Wine Hedonist‘s, Clover Eats‘, and Hannah‘s take on the event. I also asked both of them whether I could use some of their photos, because a) I suck at remembering to bring a camera, and b) I usually suck at taking photos. They were kind enough to let me use them, so all visual beauty today is thanks to them.

Jeff told us that he thinks he and his team finally figured out what The Ravens Club is about: A bar with excellent cocktails that will offer bar food with a twist. He admitted that it took them a long time to figure it out (roughly four years), but that he is now comfortable with what The Ravens Club is. He wanted to share his vision with us, and we were happy see what they had up their sleeves. The cocktails have always been amazing, so I won’t even go into those.

While I am a foodie of sorts, I want to focus this review on The Ravens Club’s wine list. But the food was good, and I like that they incorporate interesting dishes into the menu. Chef Frank came out to talk to us, and it was interesting to see how this young chef balances making bar food to please the average diner at a bar who doesn’t want fancy food and making food that is creative and keeps him on his toes. I think, overall, he managed to achieve this. These were my favorites:

House-made pickles that paired very well with their rillette.

House-made pickles that paired very well with their rillette.

Insanely tasty chicken liver pate with apple chutney and pistachios. Probably my favorite of the night.

Insanely tasty chicken liver pate with apple chutney and pistachios. Probably my favorite of the night.

The burger was cooked exactly right, and was one of the best burgers I have had in town. Excellent.

The burger was cooked exactly right, and was one of the best burgers I have had in town. Excellent.

Kudos to chef Frank for putting roasted bone marrow on the menu. Unique, glibbery, and very tasty.

Kudos to chef Frank for putting roasted bone marrow on the menu. Unique, glibbery, and very tasty.

However, on to the wine list. Let me preface that I believe that bar’s have the hardest time to figure out a wine list: The normal customer comes for the cocktails or the beer (in The Ravens Club’s case mostly the cocktails). Wines lead a shadowy existence in a bar setting. This poses several issues for bar owners: How restricted should my wine list be? What’s my ratio of wines that an average customer might be interested in (I am just throwing it out here: Cabernet Sauvignon, Moscato, or a sweet Pinot Grigio) to wines that I am proud of serving? Should I offer wines at all? The Ravens Club, according to Jeff, tried various approaches in the past: From a vast wine list befitting a fine dining establishment to a small, mainstream (boring) list. Just like with the theme of The Ravens Club, they now feel they know what they want The Ravens Club’s wine list to be.

We had a chance to talk to the guy who put this list together, Ben Eberlein, who heads The Signature Collection, which is the boutique wine division of Henry A. Fox Sales Co. Ben is a super chill guy, and I loved talking to him for a while (it helped that his family’s roots are in Germany, and that we seem to have similar tastes in wine). First of all, he looked at what The Ravens Club has to offer: classic cocktails and American bar food. This led him to focus on American wines only. Except for the sparkling wine, which is a Spanish cava (which I always consider a good alternative to expensive champagne). He then decided to create a limited wine list of twelve still wines: six red, six white. Period. The wines are all from either California, Washington, or Oregon. I was a bit surprised to find no Michigan wines on the list, given how home state-proud a lot of Ann Arbor is, but it is what it is…and probably not for the worse.

The wineries deliver their wines in small barrels of 19.5 liters (around 5 gallons), and most wines are available on tap. At first I was a bit surprised, but it actually makes a lot of sense: Their wine sales aren’t overly big, and when you store the wines in the barrels and have them on tap, you can hold them and offer them for up to six months without them losing flavor. I think it is a win-win strategy for winery, The Ravens Club, and also the consumer. All wines I tried tasted fresh and one couldn’t tell how it got into the glass.

Chef Frank hanging out with us over a bottle of excellent Chardonnay.

Chef Frank hanging out with us over a bottle of excellent Chardonnay.

With my wine buddy John sitting right beside me, and Hannah helping out from across the table, we got a good go around of a lot of their wines. Here are my thoughts on what I had:

  • We started with the Stolpman Sangiovese Carbonic from Ballard Canyon, California. The wine is made with carbonic maceration, which means the grapes are not crushed but put in a tank and then infused with carbon dioxide which causes the grapes to ferment in the berries. It’s an interesting way of making wines. However, the result was not my style at all: It showed a very light and VERY bright color (insanely bright for a Sangiovese), and ended up being pretty sweet without any Sangiovese characteristics (no cherry or underbrush). While this was not my style, I think this can work for those seeking a sweeter wine and I grant The Ravens Club that this is more interesting than your average Pinot Grigio.
  • I also tried the Blacksmith Cabernet Sauvignon fromOakville, California. Now most of you know I am not a big fan of that grape in a monovarietal, but I wanted to see what The Ravens Club offers that most consumers will probably go for. This was about what I expected: wood and red fruit. Clean, nothing really objectionable, but also nothing that would excite or entice. For what it is, it probably works well for many.
  • Now the Corvidae Lenore Syrah from Columbia Valley, Washington was an entirely different story: If you want to try wine at The Ravens Club (and you should), I highly recommend this one. Pitch dark, juicy and smoky, with depth and layers and layers of interestingness. To my palate, which likes restraint, Syrah can easily be too spice. But this one was just the right amount. This also paired well with the burger.
You knew I had to try the Riesling...

You knew I had to try the Riesling…

  • I simply had to try the Corvidae Ravenna Riesling from Columbia Valley, Washington. Most West Coast Rieslings leave me wishing for more and often disappoint me, but this was outstanding. I would compare it to Alsatian Riesling in style, with prominent notes of petrol, clean and bright citrus flavors with good acidity. The wine was very balanced, and it paired amazingly with the rillette and then the chicken liver. I was a bit stunned, because I didn’t expect this wine to wow me that much, but in fact it did. Pretty high up on the list. In what I assume is an attempt to make people actually order this wine it is described as off-dry. But to my taste buds, this seemed way more dry than off-dry. In a very pleasant way.
  • When we asked Ben what else we HAD to try, he said the Chardonnay that they sell as a bottle only. It took little to convince us at that stage (two cocktails and a couple of wines into the evening): the Roco Chardonnay from Eola-Amity Hills, Oregon. US chardonnay and I have a charred history, where I often struggle with too much alcohol in the wines (which is my personal crux). Everyone that tried this wine seemed to love it. It was the picture perfect example of what a well-made Chardonnay can be: crisp, clean, refreshing, with bright lemon and green apple flavors. A delight to drink, and definitely worth a try.

As should become obvious here, there are some true gems on this wine list. For Wine Century Club lovers, they have a Grenache blanc on the list, and for the eccentrics or the bourbon lovers, they have a wine that matured in bourbon barrels. In any case, it is worth looking past the cocktails and the excellent selection of bourbons that The Ravens Club has to offer. The wines make for interesting pairings, and can be a nice mix-up of the regular fare.

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Why I love Korean food so much…

Korean food is one of the big loves of my life. While Nina and I were in Thailand, she kept informing me that for her, it is Thai food that beats any other food. When she looked at menus, she wanted to try everything on them…literally, everything. She loves the smells, she loves the flavors, and how everything comes together.

During our 28 hours in Seoul on our way back, I was immediately reminded that it is Korean food that does this for me. The city was full of food smells, and I was craving, craving, craving everything.

One of my favorite spots in Seoul: Doksugung, a palace opposite City Hall in the heart of Seoul.

One of my favorite spots in Seoul: Doksugung, a palace opposite City Hall in the heart of Seoul.

I went to Korea around this time of year 13 years ago for love, and fell in love with the country, its people, and its cuisine. There is a simplicity that is not boring, and an honesty in Korean food that I greatly appreciate. Many dishes just contain a few ingredients. The flavors are far from simple, because they are actually rather layered, but it is a modest approach (except for the insane heat in a lot of dishes). In East Asia, they have a saying that pretty much states that Japanese food is pretty, Chinese food tastes good, and Korean food fills your stomach…you get the idea. Korean meals are communicative, usually served family style with the senior party member ordering the food.

I was working at a consulting firm at the time, and the great thing about that was that I got to try all sorts of food, because we would always go for lunch in a group of people, and I was always the youngest member so had no real authority over what I was going to eat. I was exposed to soups and stews, for which Korean cuisine is rather famous: from the fermented cabbage based Kimchi jjigae to the the SPAM, ramen and hot dogs containing budae jjigae (literally “Army Soup”, invented after the Korean War – I am still a big fan). We would eat all kinds of grilled meats and fish, with dipping sauces, from the famous Bulgogi (marinated beef strips that are grilled at the table) to squid and steaks on the same grill. The possibilities were endless, and I got to try a lot of them.

Kimchi Jjigae (Photo credit: Wiki Commons)

Kimchi Jjigae (Photo credit: Wiki Commons)

Moving back to Germany, it was virtually impossible to get good Korean food. I actively sought out Korean restaurants in phone books, but when I went, they were usually Korean-run places that had a big generic Chinese food menu, with a half page in the back that read “Korean specialties”. It was frustrating and pathetic. I guess there never was a real market for real Korean food. Germans like to go to Chinese restaurants (which have nothing in common with actual Chinese food), but Korean? Way too exotic. No one would go because, as a German saying says: “The farmer doesn’t eat what he doesn’t know.” Whatever Korean food I was able to get in restaurants, was usually ok, but never really as mind-blowing as I was used to. There are a few exceptions in Germany, Frankfurt being one that offers decent Korean food (notably the restaurant “Shilla”). Berlin now has a trendy and hip and very delicious Korean restaurant called “Kimchi Princess”.

Luckily, I had and still have my dear friends ManSoo and his wife Hyekyung in Trier, where I was living. They kept my love for Korean food burning by inviting to dinners with all my favorite foods, bulgogi, japchae (a glassnoodle salad), spring rolls,  Kimbab (the Korean sushi roll) and more. These home cooked meals were highlights of my months. The coolest thing though was that since ManSoo always loved Mosel wines, he began pairing them with Korean food. That was an eye opener! These fruity Rieslings with residual sugar matched the strong and pungent flavors of fermented cabbage, fermented soy bean paste (those Koreans really like to ferment!), and the acidity cut through all the heat in some dishes. Just incredible. We would have elaborate Korean dinner parties with tons and tons of Riesling and it was just divine. Some of my best memories of my ten years in Trier are connected to these evenings and the friendship they expressed. They also provided the communal aspect to Korean food, which I had missed as well. The best thing about these dinners was that we combined my love for Riesling with my love for food. Just like with friends: Being able to make your two best friends really get along well is just awesome and furthers the bond.

So when I got back to Seoul, this time around, I had contacted the secretary at the firm I worked at in advance, and she was excited to see me (she did remember me!). We made plans for lunch. She also told me that I should contact the now retired partner in the firm that was my boss during my time there. He immediately replied that he wanted to take Nina and I out for dinner…I was really startled and humbled by them remembering me (I only worked there for 5 months) and wanting to meet up. I had told Nina a lot about true Korean food (we have been to Korean restaurants in the States, and while some deliver on flavor, it is still a different experience) and its customs and culture, so she was eager to try it out…

We met for lunch with Ms. Song (and her daughter, who was 7 when I was in Korea last!) at Sariwon, a group of several restaurants that are famous for their bulgogi. After hugs and a ton of excitement of seeing each other again, our table started to fill up. And that is one of the things I always loved most about Korean food. While you do get “main courses”, the restaurants always provide between 6 and 10 different little snacks, called banchan, from steamed spinach to kimchi to little dried fish to water radish kimchi to sweet potatoes in hot sauce…the number and range of different banchan is incredible. Best of all, there is free refills on all of these. If you are done, you just tell the waitress to bring more. They are provided for free by the restaurant! (This is the biggest difference to Korean restaurants abroad, where, if you are lucky, you get 4 to 6 banchan, but they are, if at all, only grudgingly refilled.) Ms. Song had also ordered bulgogi for all of us and a soup/stew for her and her daughter and two other dishes for Nina and I….it was a grand feast! Just what I had been missing for all these years…it was wonderful. The food tasted great, the company was wonderful, and time just flew.

THIS is what a table in a Korean restaurant should look Sariwon.

THIS is what a table in a Korean restaurant should look like…at Sariwon.

For dinner with my former boss, we went to a very fancy restaurant called Yongsusan, a group of several highly acclaimed upscale Korean restaurants (they have one branch in Los Angeles San Francisco!!). This was a completely different, yet familiar ceremony for me. This menu contained 9 courses (I believe), and we sat in a private room of the restaurant. We drank traditional Korean rice wine (called makkoli, which only has 6% ABV) and enjoyed highly sophisticated dishes of ancient Korean royal cuisine. This was much more refined than anything I had tried before. Forget the heat, forget the pungent smells and flavors. This was all refinement and focused flavors. It was divine.

Most of all though, and these meetings in the city I love, brought one thing home. I love Korean food, and always will. And I need to go to Korea more often for my fix of it, because nowhere comes even close…

Post-lunch happiness at Sariwon.

Post-lunch happiness at Sariwon.

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2010 Osél Ruchè di Castagnole Monferato DOCG

2010 Osél Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato

2010 Osél Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato

One of the finds during our Wine Century Club quest (see here) was this wine: the 2010 Osél Ruchè di Castagnole Monferato, a red wine in the highest Italian qualification tier: the DOCG. It is also one of the newest DOCGs, only having been induced in 2010.

It was Nina’s birthday (as I seem to have informed about everyone multiple times by now…sorry about that), and she wanted something low-key, so I decided to make her the best burgers ever, and I mean ever. I had gotten great hamburger meat from our local butcher, I stopped using the colored cardboard they sell at the supermarkets pretty much immediately after I first arrived in the US, and I had gotten the buns Nina loves. I found ripe avocados (a true feat in Michigan!), so I was going to make my own guacamole. The right lettuce would top things off, add in our variety of mustards. We’re both no big fans of pickles, so those were out. Then I added bacon to the mix. A good burger needs bacon. And then, in a whim, I decided to buy big Portobello mushroom heads, trim them to medium thick slices and roast them in the bacon grease as the bottom layer on the bun, under the patties. The burgers were bbqed on our grill out in the snow. I also made homemade sweet potato fries with a mayo-kochujang dip.

Sorry, no photos of the burgers…

Why am I telling you this? Because, to pair with wine, this is a total nightmare: Greasiness from the meat and bacon, heartiness from the meat. Sweetness from the ketchup, heat from the chilis in the guacamole and the mustard. Sourness from the lime in the guacamole. And again sweetness in the buns. Bitterness from the lettuce and roasted onions (which I forgot to mention)…you see where I am headed? It’s a nightmare. There is a reason why people drink beer with burgers. But, it was our Wine Century Club quest anniversary, so there had to be wine. (And I dislike beer).

So I did my thinking, I did my research. I didn’t want a Zinfandel, I didn’t want a Cabernet Sauvignon. It would have been best to find a grape variety we had not had. I settled on a few wine types that I could imagine going with this dish: Barbera and Nero d’Avola were my first choices. But then I decided to just head over to a small, local grocery store right across the street, which has a pretty decent wine collection. I imagined this was the moment were it would be great to talk to their wine guy and get his recommendations.

I ventured over, and, in what seemed like a total first, the wine guy was nowhere to be found. Ugh, that sucked. I know people need not be at work all the time, but I needed him! Well, I just started checking what they had. I appreciate their small selection because it is less overwhelming. So I kept looking at this wine and at that, I think I read pretty much every label. There was no Barbera and no Nero d’Avola. I was growing a bit restless (which usually doesn’t happen to me in a wine shop) and then this one caught my eye: A Ruchè. I had no clue about it. And I don’t own a smartphone, so no way to check. The heck. It said it was good for meat and spice and Asian foods…so that kinda sealed the deal.

Once home, I looked it up: Ruchè is a grape grown in Italy’s Piedmont region. Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato is one of the smallest DOCGs in Italy, with only about 40 hectares (100 acres) under vine. It is said to have similarities to Nebbiolo and the wines are said to have slightly bitter aftertaste.

The wine is sold under the label Osél, which is produced by Siema Wines, an importer and distributor into the US. They have currently over 500 wines in their portfolio. According to the website, it was produced by grapes from one farmer in the region. Apparently, David McIntyre liked this wine in the past, saying it is cheaper than most Ruchès and an “extra-good value” (I paid around $15). It is wholly made from Ruchè grapes and has 13.5% ABV.

It poured in a lighter red with some hints of brick. The nose was floral and perfumy with cherry and jammy notes. Rather enticing. The flavor profile of this light to medium bodied wine was very intense, with again cherry and some earthy aromas. There was noticeable residual sugar, maybe a tad too sweet. It had a peppery and slightly bitter finish that was rather short.

I liked this wine a lot, especially in its pairing with the burgers. It worked. It stood up to the food, but did not overpower the burger, and it held its own against all those crazy assaults from left and right. I was quite amazed how well it worked.I am not sure this would work on its own, though. But if you can find a bottle, give it a try!

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