By Cliff Rames
“The food is just so scrumptious, which is why I usually come here,” said a smartly-dressed woman to her companion just outside the nicely-appointed yet easily-to-miss building on W. 12th Street in New York City.
“As for wine…I don’t know much. Croatian wines? Oh, I don’t know anything about them.” She paused a moment, skeptical but searching for reinforcements. “I heard they are fruity. But let’s see….”
With those words I followed them through the door into the warmly-lit hall of one of the most sacred monuments to fine dining – a shrine to every serious Foodie: the James Beard House. Inside, Croatian winemaker Ivica Matošević was about to be honored.
“Mystical Malvazija” was the name given to the October 14, 2011 dinner event that paid homage to Mr. Matošević and his success and skill as one of Croatia’s leading producers of Malvazija Istarska, or Malvasia Istriana. Malvazija is the principle indigenous white grape variety in the Istria region of north coastal Croatia.
It was my first-time ever inside the James Beard Foundation, whose mission is “to celebrate, nurture, and preserve America’s diverse culinary heritage and future.”
Needless to say, I was very excited to experience what it would be like to dine in this acclaimed restaurant and be part of an historic occasion: the first-ever presentation of Croatian wines at the James Beard House.
The fact that all 76 seats at the dinner sold-out was no surprise. What I found even more curious was the diverse array of guests in attendance. This was not the same crowd I typically run into at food and wine events. I recognized almost no one. Most guests had purchased tickets based on the merit of the Foundation’s reputation and had come to dine on fine food and – along the way – to discover Croatian wine.
This posed somewhat of a challenge to Mr. Matošević: It would be his job to introduce everyone to Croatian wines, to the wines of the Istria region, and to the Malvazija grape. More importantly, he needed to impress them and win them over.
The evening began in the downstairs reception area with hors d’oeuvre: Foie Gras Pâté with Apples on Brioche; Duck Cracklings with Sunchoke Velouté and Sage, Uni, Lardo, and Soybeans on Focaccia; Fried Oysters with Lemon Aïoli, Caviar, and Dill; Roasted Pumpkin, Camembert, and Rosemary on Sourdough Crostini. To quench the thirst of the arriving guests and wash down the finger foods was the Matošević 2009 Alba Malvazija, a fresh, clean and highly-quaffable wine with discreet floral, citrus and almonds notes.
After the reception, we moved to the upstairs dining room. There, after the formal welcome and introductions, Mr. Matošević addressed the guests and spoke of the diverse influences that have over the years shaped the Istria region and Croatia’s food and wine culture.
“My grandfather was born in Austria”, he explained with a coy smile. “My father was born in Italy. I was born in Yugoslavia, and my son was born in Croatia. And in all this time, we never left our house!”
The room burst into laughter at his allusion to the historical changes that Croatia experienced over many generations. As I figured, Ivica Matošević had no trouble winning over the crowd. Not only does he make great wine, he is smart, intense, yet very charming. He also happens to speak English pretty well. After a few words and personal visits to each table, the ice was broken.
Dinner was stunning. The 5-course menu, prepared by Chef Gregory Elliott of Lockwood Restaurant & Bar at the Palmer House Hilton/Chicago, began with Hamachi Crudo with Asian Pear, Pickled Cauliflower, and Fresno Chili, paired with Matošević Alba Robinia Malvasia 2006, a spicy and smooth Malvazija that was aged for 12 months in acacia wood barrels.
For the second course we were treated to Olive Oil–Poached Chatham Day Boat Cod with Linguiça Sausage, Smoked Fingerling Potatoes, Cavolo Nero, and Clam Vinaigrette. The cod, potatoes and cavolo nero (aka black leaf kale) worked wonderfully with the Matošević Alba Barrique Malvasia 2009. However, the spiciness of the Linguiça overwhelmed the wine.
The third course featured Becker Lane Organic Farm Pork Roulade with Autumn Heirloom Squash, Porcinis, and Cranberry Beans. The zippy crispness of the Matošević Grimalda White 2008 (a blend of Malvazija, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc) cut through the autumn flavors of this dish and cleansed the palate in preparation for each succulent bite.
The Cervena Venison Loin with Celery Root, Concord Grapes, and Thyme, paired with Matošević Grimalda 2008 Red, was an interesting, strongly-flavored dish that the red Grimalda (a blend of Merlot and Teran) stood up to and complimented. The only distraction was the Concord grape reduction, which was a little too grapey, sweet and fruity for the wine.
Mr. Matošević threw in an extra, “surprise” wine with this course: the Matošević Alba 2008 Antica Malvasia, a skin-macerated, French oak and acacia-aged (30 months) delight. Honestly, I don’t know how well the Antica paired with the venison course. This wine was so exquisite that I enjoyed it simply by itself, in deep contemplation and revelry. Well done, sir!
Dessert was almost too pretty to eat: Canalés de Bordeaux with Black Mission Figs and Port Wine paired with Matošević 2000 Alba Divina. Divina is a sweet Malvazija that Matošević produces by hanging late-harvested Malvazija grapes hung to dry on lines of rope tied to the rafters in his winery’s attic. The grapes for the 2000 Divina spent 6 months (from September till March) drying before being pressed and fermented.
While the richness of the canales and wine were occasionally a bit overwhelming, it didn’t stop me from eating every bite. This was magical and not to be missed.
After dinner there was a brief ceremony in which representatives of the James Beard Foundation presented Chef Elliott and Mr. Matošević with a certificate to acknowledge their participation in the event. Chef Elliott then spoke of his motivation behind the event and how he first tasted Matošević wines, thanks to Lockwood’s general manager, Sasa Sinanagic.
Mr. Matošević also took a moment to thank Mr. Sinanagic and the extraordinary work he undertook to introduce Chef Elliott to the wines, plan the menu, and organize and execute the James Beard event. Seeing Mr. Sinanagic in action in New York, it is clear that the Lockwood restaurant is in very capable hands.
Later in the kitchen as the guests were leaving, I had a moment to chat with Chef Elliott. I asked why he chose Matošević wines to showcase his cuisine at the James Beard House.
“These wines are not fussy,” he answered. “They are very food friendly and delicious. For this reason, these wines make it very easy for a chef to pair with a menu.”
My overstuffed belly could not agree more.
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