Thursday, April 30, 2015

Amateur Number Crunching

Years ago, before I became whatever it is you think I am today, I was a research assistant at an energy consulting firm outside Washington, DC. I crunched numbers and wrote technical proposals; VLOOKUPs, COUNTIFs, pivot tables and TOCs were my teammates, in-depth analysis was the name of the game.

Channeling these enviable powers, I decided to run a quick analysis of the results of the 2015 Thessaloniki Wine Competition and the 8th Cyprus Wine Competition, paying close attention to Cypriot participation in both. Given the proximity and (presumable) lower costs, I believe these are the two wine competitions of greatest interest to Cypriot wineries. Of course, there are severe limitations to my study since I don't know exactly which Cypriot wineries submitted their wines to each of the events.

Here's a table with The Rock's winners in Greece. The last column shows whether or not they were also awarded a medal at the 8th Cyprus Wine Competition.

As we can see, Commandaria shone bright in both competitions. In Cyprus alone, including the three vintages listed above, Commandaria received three Grand Golds (1984 KEO St. John, 2000 ETKO Centurion and 2004 LOEL Alasia) and seven Golds. That's quite an amassment of precious metal. Two additional points pop out from this table. First, Zambartas Rose, a Gold medal winner in Greece and a crowd favourite, did not receive an award in Cyprus. Second, Yiaskouris' wines were among Cyprus' biggest winners in Thessaloniki but failed to garner any medals on the island, my guess being they opted not to participate locally. 

This begs an obvious question: What parameters are Cypriot wineries using when it comes to submitting their products to both local and international competitions? Big winners in Cyprus like Ezousa (Special Recognition & Gold Medals for the 2014 Xynisteri and 2009 Metharme Maratheftiko) did not show in Thessaloniki. I must admit that in the past I asked this same question to Michalis Constantinides, Ezousa's head honcho, and he told me the cost of sending wines to competitions abroad are rather prohibitive. There are entry and transportation fees and, if you receive recognition, you have to purchase stickers and invest time putting one on each of your awarded bottles. Seemingly, excellent wineries like Vlassides, Makkas, Kyperounda, Vouni Panayia and Argyrides, to name a few, did not participate in Thessaloniki as evinced by their lack of hardware there. Likewise, I assume Aes Ambelis, who usually sends its wines to Decanter's World Wine Awards and consistently receives medals, and Hadjiantonas did not join either of the contests. 

In the end, what gives?

For full results of the 8th Cyprus Wine Competition, click #CongratsToAllTheWinners!

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Not So Innocent After All

Stools for the Hip!
Secret's out. At least to me who's always late or uninvited to the party.

Walk down Ledras Street at any time of the day and you'll probably find Il Forno and the sidewalks around the restaurant packed with people having pasta and pizza. I rarely go to Il Forno. Even though their pastas are great, privacy is not their forte; there's nowhere to hide from curious onlookers and the hustle and bustle of Nicosia's main pedestrian area. Enter Oinoscent Cava & Wine Bar, Nicosia's latest addition to its growing wine bar scene and home to a solid selection of French and Italian wines.

Oinoscent, latest project of the owner of the now defunct "The French Depot" on Kennedy Avenue, is a stylish, dimly-lit wine bar located diagonally across from Il Fourno and housed in an old shop right on Ledras Street. High tables and a long bar with stools are available for the hip or people with Napoleon complexes, lower tables for those with bad backs and a severe fear of heights. A large dark metallic wine rack sits behind the bar and mirrors cover the opposite wall, opening the space up. The locale's magnificent old tiled floors add a touch of rusticity to what is a chic yet casual establishment. Several cheese, charcuterie and fruit platters are on offer, now standard (and somewhat blah) fare at wine bars across the island.

Wine Anyone?
Here's the kicker, though. As we sat there with Mike Demo, The Wife, Ph.D., and Queen Insurance, patrons around us dug into large salads, bowls of creamy pasta and trays of pepperoni pizza. I flipped through the menu a few times in search of these elusive cooked dishes. Nothing. We then asked the waitress and she told us we could order anything off of Il Forno's menu, which is readily available if you are in on the secret. Here's my question to you—would you rather bump shoulders with other customers on a busy pedestrian thoroughfare or enjoy the same food indoors in a classy, low-key and more private environment? Whatever your choice, this sort of collaboration is a winner for both establishments; Il Forno gets a place where to send their overflow clientele, while Oinoscent builds a customer base and introduces more people to its fine wines.

2009 Asili Barbaresco
Best of all for wine lovers like me, this "partnership" allows you to match your food of choice with a great bottle of wine from the bar's solid selection. From perusing the wine list, it's obvious Oinoscent's strengths are the Old World. New World wines are available but I believe they take second place to their French (Bordeaux) and Italian (Piedmont) wines. Prices range from 20 Euros to the hundreds per bottle so there are plenty of options for all types of pockets. That evening, we sampled the 2012 Luigi Giordano Langhe Nebbiolo, a bright yet tannic red with concentrated dark cherry flavours, and the 2009 Luigi Giordano Asili Barbaresco, a more complex wine marked by notes of forrest berries, spice and cocoa.

Whine On The Rocks' Rating: 4 out of 5 Sparkling Spatulas

Monday, April 6, 2015

Michelin Man

This review is long overdue. Periklis Roussounides, alongside Martino Speciale of No Reservations, are the best chefs in Nicosia and arguably all of Cyprus. What I most admire of their cooking is their restraint; less is more in both of their carefully thought-out repertoires. Subtlety and refinement with dashes of creativity take centre stage on each one of their plates. Many chefs sometimes try too hard to impress, muddling up flavours and techniques to create disjointed and messy offerings. This is never the case with Roussounides or Speciale. Periklis, of course, is The Rock's only Michelin Man, having received a single star decades ago for his restaurant XO, which (unfortunately) had to give it back upon closing. Let's just assume the island wasn't ready for that type of experience...

Last time we sampled Roussounides' food, Little Miss Despot was doused in olive oil and clad in white like a porcelain doll from seventy years ago. She had just received the Holy Spirit and decided to treat forty-plus guests to dinner at Dia Xeiros, his latest culinary lab. That was almost a year-and-a-half ago and I often felt guilty for not having returned. So a few weeks ago we rectified our oversight and headed there for dinner with The Wife, Ph.D., My Zolpidem Supplier and Cousin #4.

The corner restaurant itself is quite understated with simple chairs and tables in white and natural wood. Beautiful woven pillows made by acclaimed Cypriot designer Joanna Louca add pops of color to an L-shaped bench that anchors the back of the room. A small white bar sits across the longer side of the bench and an ample patio that serves as outdoor seating area surrounds most of the restaurant.

The menu consists of avant-garde interpretations of Greek and Cypriot dishes, all superbly prepared and presented. For Little Miss Despot's baptism, for instance, the appetisers included a creamy orzo risotto with wild mushrooms and truffle foam, chicken livers tossed in Commandaria, fresh mint and pomegranate, and Cretan dakos stuffed with feta and sitting on a rich tomato sauce. On our latest visit, we started off with a crisp and well-balanced romaine lettuce salad with dried figs, anari cheese (the local ricotta), roasted hazelnuts and a semi-sweet vinaigrette. As a main, I had a lamb shank with pickled onions, velvety mashed potatoes and a sweet reduction; the meat, which had already been removed from the bone, fell apart and matched nicely with the creaminess, bite and sweetness supplied in loads by its accoutrements. The Wife, Ph.D., and My Zolpidem Supplier had one of my favourite dishes: pork cheeks with a honey mustard glaze, turnip and sweet potato purees, and fried potatoes, a combination of textures, techniques and flavors that sings. One small issue I did find with the food was it could have been served a bit warmer.

Alas, I do have one major complaint. For a restaurant of this stature, the wine list is rather underwhelming. Most wines are Greek and Cypriot and this is commendable. However, the range is limited as it's dominated by Boutari, Tselepos and Kyperounda, all great producers but whose overwhelming presence takes away from the potential for diversity in the wine catalogue. That night, we sampled the 2012 Tselepos Nemea Driopi Agiorgitiko, an easy drinking, fruity and slightly spicy wine that matched most of our dishes.

In any case, I'm sure we'll be back sooner rather than later. Might be time for me to find a Godfather of my own, strip naked before a cassocked priest and then throw a party chock-full of Hallelujahs. Happy Easter, y'all.

Whine On The Rocks' Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Sparkling Spatulas