Monday, June 28, 2010

Benjamin Steak House, New York-where wine meets steak in harmony

by Dwight Casimere

Benjamin Steakhouse

52 East 41st Street

New York, NY 10017

(212) 297-9177

New York-Gotham is famous for its steak houses and none is more renowned than Benjamin’s Steak House. Located discreetly at the rear of the Dylan Hotel in the city’s toney Murray Hill area, downtown, the restaurant has become a virtual institution in its short life. Opened in October, 2006,
Benjamin’s, with its clubby atmosphere and cozy, fireside setting, seems as if its been there forever.

With its ten-foot working fireplace, rich chocolate brown leather seating, oak wood paneling and vaulted decorative ceiling with modern brass amber-tinged chandeliers, Benjamin Steak House is a Midtown oasis on culinary excellence.

Perhaps the fact that Executive Chef and Partner, Arturo McLeod, a 20-year veteran of Peter Luger’s legendary steakhouse in New York, has brought with him an air of authenticity and creativity that is unparalled. His menu is simple, yet very straightforward. He adheres to the basics, but with his own personal stamp that makes each bite a memorable flavor and texture adventure. There is only one way to do great steak, and that is the correct way. Chef McLeod scores a winning goal with each plate that he serves. It is especially evident when the meal is served with great wine as Dwight The Wine Doctor experienced on a recent visit with he and his exceptional staff in New York.

Brought along for the culinary ride were a couple of bottles of superlative Italian wines, RoccaSveva Suave Classico 2008 of Verona ($19.99) and Frescobaldi Remole ($10.99), a joint venture of the scions of an Italian American (Michael Mondavi of Napa Valley, California) and an Italian dynasty (Lamberto Frescobaldi of Marchessi de Frescobaldi, Tuscany). The two wines paired perfectly with Chef McLeod’s cuisine.

Speaking in the delightfully lilting accent of his native Panama, Chef McLeod explained how care in preparation was the key to the dining experience at Benjamin’s.

“The secret to our steaks is in the dry-aging,” he declared. “We age our meats for no less than 28 days. I also serve our steaks with my secret sauce, which has become a landmark in New York.” Chef McLeod would not reveal the recipe, but I can say with certainty that it is absolutely delicious and like no other steak sauce I have ever had, and I have had them all! The flavor of the sauce complements the mineral undertones of the meat without overpowering it. The taste definitely warrants a return trip on my next visit to the Big Apple!

I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the crabmeat in the over-sized crab cake appetizer and the succulent quality and size of the shrimp in the traditional shrimp cocktail. These ‘starters’ provided the flavor template for the exquisite RossaSveva Soave Classico. With its inviting nose of fresh peaches, lavender and olive oil it created an almost creamy sensation on the tongue when combined with seafood. It carried right over to the sea bass, which was the largest and thickest piece of this type of fish I’ve ever had. It was also the freshest tasting. Grilled simply with a slathering of fresh, creamy butter, it was an unforgettable flavor experience. Combined with the wine, the buttery flavor lingered long in the mouth and married with the wine in the back of the throat with a combination of light almond extract and a hint of fresh minerals that made it a nice alternative to your typical summer wine. This wine really held up to the food, but still had a lightness and feminine quality that made it seductive.

Steak at the Benjamin takes center stage, like a Broadway tenor bringing the house down in the second act of Lend Me A Tenor. The Frescobaldi Remole supported the strong mineral flavor brought out by the careful aging of the steak. The texture was fork-tender and the sensation in the mouth was explosive when combined with Chef McLeod’s secret sauce. I was so overwhelmed by the flavor combination that I reserved a good portion of the steak to take back to my suite at the Affinia 50, which contained a kitchen, allowing me to attempt to replicate my dining experience with a bit of left over Remole. Bravissimo, Chef McLeod!

Gosset Champagne and Sunday Brunch at the Biltmore Coral Gables; a match made in culinary heaven

Story and photos by Dwight Casimere

Coral Gables, Florida—The stunning Andalusian fountain courtyard of the Fontana restaurant at the Biltmore is the setting for one of the most fabulous Champagne brunches in the entire nation. The extravagant buffet runs the gamut, from Petrossian caviar and blinis, to sushi and sashimi, carving stations of succulent roasted meats to made to order omelets, delectable pastas and the most sumptuous and authentic Paella this side of Valencia. Executive Pastry Chef Olivier Rodriguez tops it all off with a wall of desserts.

Adding to the Latin exuberance so unique to Miami’s tropical atmosphere are the Classical and Flamenco guitar stylings of Juan Areco who made his Spanish guitar ring with orchestral clarity with his rendition of Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez (1939), which would have made the great Segovia proud.

Gosset premium Champagne ($29.99) from Ay in the heart of France’s Champagne region provided the grace note throughout the afternoon’s culinary adventure. A Grande Marque champagne with only 50,000 cases produced annually, Gosset is the first choice of true Champagne connoisseurs. Having made champagne since 1584, it is the oldest currently operating wine producer in Champagne.

Gosset champagne has a flavor profile that makes it perfect with food. Brut Excellence is composed of 42% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Noir, which is all from Grand and Premier Cru vineyards, and a small amount of Pinot Muenier, to give it softness and elegance. Winemakers add an additional 24% of reserve wines from two vintages to give it complexity and balance. The blend is both exotic and layered with richness. Peach notes and a unique floral characteristic made it sing in the back notes when accompanied with sushi. When tasted with Paella, its flavors danced with the nimbleness of flamenco dancers. Its long, light finish and light toast bristled the tongue like the sound of castanets to the ear.

Cappuccino was the perfect foil to a cascade of mouthwatering desserts, including a Bombay of peach and banana and a specially constructed chocolate ice cream blossom ensconced in a dark chocolate ‘nest;’ which was presented in honor of Dwight The Wine Doctor’s recent birthday. It was a touching end to an exquisite dining experience.

The Biltmore Coral Gables is a landmark in the Miami area and its most diverse dining destination. Constructed in 1926 by the legendary developer George Merrick, it approximates the grandeur of a Moorish castle transplanted from the heart of Grenada, Spain. Through its lavish restaurants, the Fontana, which features Italian cuisine and the top-rated contemporary French restaurant Palme d’Or and its headline-making Culinary Academy, it has become the gastronomic Mecca of South Florida. For more information on the Biltmore Coral Gables and its outstanding restaurants, visit

Friday, June 25, 2010

Florida International Wine Challenge puts wine lovers to the test

Story and photos by Dwight Casimere

Miami Beach-A dizzying array of wines greeted participants in the 6th Annual Florida International Wine Challenge held in the lavish setting of The Palms Hotel & Spa on Miami Beach.

As the advent of a perfect full-moon lit tropical night ascended over the horizon, more than 150 lucky oenophiles had an opportunity to sample 400 world class wines from virtually every corner of the globe and many states in the U.S. Did you know that wines were produced in Slovenia or in Georgia? Well, they were there to be judged and tasted in the two-day event, which is the largest of its kind in Florida and certainly among the top-rated competitions in America. In all, red, white and rose wines from 18 countries were sampled at the tasting.

Judges rated the wines in gold, silver and bronze medal categories based on a pass/fail system. The top wine is to be awarded Best-In-Show honor. As of press time, the judging was still underway.

Wine judges blind tasted the wines during the daytime and then scored them. In the evening, they attended the tastings right along with the general public and had the opportunity to hear their reactions first hand. to the wines.

Tasters were not without their strong opinions. Among the collection of assorted sparkling wines, one taster was heard to mutter, “the whole lot of them give a bad name to the winemaking industry.” Yet another praised the very same sparklers for their “fruit-forward complexity and Champagne-like character. One that drew the Wine Doctor’s attention were the sparkling rose and the sparkling brut from Gruet vineyards near Albequerque, New Mexico. The wines are made in the traditional champagne method and display a surprising brightness, small bubbles and a residual soil taste in the back of the throat that recalls the limestone ‘terroir’ of Champagne, France.

Many were also surprised, to find stellar wines among the many new offerings from Chile and Argentina. The reds in particular were showing extremely well against more established names from the Rhone Valley and Le Bordeaux. Spanish wines, particularly those made from old vines Temperanillo, were quite pronounced in their level of depth. Tasting them side-by-side with wines from the Napa Valley and Burgundy, the showed an uncanny finesse.

There were many experienced wine lovers at the public tasting event, which benefited two local charities, Florida Breast Cancer Foundation and Melanie Finley Ovarian Cancer Foundation. Challenge Executive Director Michael Schaefer told the Wine Doctor that the event is unique because “it has such a wide range of wines in terms of areas, styles and grapes. There’s no event in the country quite like it because of its scope. This is the only place where wine lovers can experience such a diverse wine competition.”

The evening concluded with a special tasting dinner at The Palms Hotel & Spa’s Essencia restaurant. Each patron was allowed to bring two bottles from the competition to pair with their meal. Corkage fees were waived at the restaurant for the evening and 10% of revenue from the dinner was donated to the Cancer charities of the evening.

Executive Chef Frank Jeannetti prepared a Prix Fixe four-course dinner that spanned the flavor spectrum. The first course featured a colorful Paradise Farms salad composed of organic baby greens that included Candy Stripe Beets, Blood Orange segments and Pickled Cucumber Threads in a White Balsamic-Lavender Honey Vinaigrette. Frei Brothers Redwood Creek Pinot Grigio Delle Venezie 2008 was Dwight The Wine Doctor’s choice for pairing with this garden cornucopia. The dry crispness of the ‘grey’ pinot and the slight grassy undertone combined with a bit of sunny citrus in the back notes perfectly framed the sweet/sour sensation of the salad.

Miso glazed North Atlantic Black Cod with celery root puree and shaved ‘Easter Egg’ radish salad forced the Wine Doctor to bring forth one of the ‘Big Guns’ from the tasting, an oak-laden Chardonnay from Concannon Vineyards in California’s Livermore Valley. Concannon has two historic distinctions besides having made wine for the past 125 years; it is the first American winery founded by an Irish immigrant, James Concannon. The winery is also the creator of the nation’s first Petite Sirah wine; whch reflects the winery’s dedication to making world-class Bordeaux and Rhone-style wines.

An Argentinean Red, Urano range Malbec 2007/8 from Eral Bravo, a new boutique winery from the Sanchez Nieto family is distinctive because of its intense flavor. Yet, it is surprisingly low in sulphites. For those who have a sensitive reaction to sulphites, this is a nice alternative. Essencia’s third course of Porcini mushroom-dusted Grass Fed beef tenderloin with Truffle scented Root Vegetable has and Port Wine-Wild Mushroom Ragout was nicely paired with this supple Argentine beauty.

Dessert was a classic Italian worthy of a Holiday dinner table, Buttermilk Panna Cotta, a Banana Almond Cake with Cherry Sorbet. I snuck in a Gallo Family favorite, a California Moscato, just like Ernest & Julio would have poured at the table when the winery was founded 75 years ago. As they say in the 'Old Country,' Abondanza!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

SD26 New York, A Father, Daughter Team Reinvents an Italian Culinary Legend

Story and photos by Dwight Casimere


Madison Square Park

19 East 26th Street,

New York, NY 10010

Telephone 212 265 5959

Father, daughter team reinvents an Italian culinary legend-Story and photos by Dwight Casimere

Marissa and Tony May have reinvented a 22 year old culinary landmark in New York and elevated to the level of high art. SD26 is the reincarnation of San Domenico, a virtual landmark on Central Park South.

San Domenico inspired more poetic superlatives from the nation’s restaurant critics than the works of Michelangelo. It even played a central character in the 2008 romantic film Two Lovers, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow. In the film, the restaurant is shown against the melodic backdrop of Henry Mancini’s lush orchestration of Sergio Mendes’ “Soft, Hot Wind.”

When Tony May opened the restaurant 22 years ago, he set off an instant sensation with his reinterpretation of rustic Italian cuisine to accommodate modern tastes. SD 26 takes the concept one step further, paring the recipes down to their most elemental components and streamlining them to appeal to a younger, more contemporary palate. The restaurant as a whole is a singular work of art.

The idea of restaurant as art form is a theme that permeates SD26, from the sleek décor of the entrance and bar area, to the stylish, vaulted ceiling dining room that more resembles the modern wing of a major art museum that an eating emporium. Artful presentation by the chefs, working feverishly in the open gleaming stainless steel kitchen is continued to the glass and tableware, the artwork that adorns the walls, to the imported and handcrafted materials that comprise the restaurants dramatic space.

“When we bought the space here on Madison Square Park, it was hard to imagine what you’re seeing here today,” owner Marisa May confided. “When we walked in, we were confronted by a 8 thousand square foot jumble of concrete and crumbling walls. It took some real artisans to transform it into what we have now. We bought in hand-cut Italian wood for the flooring and commissioned the best contemporary artists to create a showcase on our walls. Our customers are dining amongst some of the greatest modern art around!”

The art doesn’t stop with the décor. Executive Odette Fada and Chef di Cuisine Matteo Bergamini use locally sourced and organic ingredients in imaginative ways that emphasize the inherent flavors with a judicious application of fresh herbs and Mediterranean spices. Judicious pairing with an inspired wine list makes dining a flavor excursion that transcends the bounds of imagination.

Imagine the velvety texture of a saddle of rabbit served in a reduction of its natural juices with a glass of Chalk Hill Pinot Noir or a grilled octopus appetizer paired with a mouthwatering Franciacorta sparkling wine from Lombardy. Those were only the introductions to a culinary performance that repositioned the restaurant experience as pure theatre.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Stars of Broadway, TV, Film converge at 2010 Tony Awards

Stars of Broadway, TV, Film converge at 2010 Tony Awards

Story and photos by Dwight Casimere

Live at the Tony Awards 2010!!!

Stars of Hollywood,TV and Broadway share the spotlight on the Great White Way-Live at the 2010 Tony Awards

Story and photos by Dwight Casimere

New York—A harmonic conversion of stars from Hollywood, TV and the Broadway stage made the 2010 Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan a spectacle that rivaled even the Academy Awards.

Will Smith and his wife Jada Pinkett Smith reined as the unofficial King and Queen of the night. As co-producers of the electrifying Afro-Pop musical Fela!, they waltzed away with two Tony’s for Best Choreography and Best Sound Design; Musical.

Kelsey Grammer, TV’s Frasier was also in the winner’s circle with his starring role in La Cage aux Folles, which took the little statue for Best Musical Revival. Not to be outdone was his TV partner-in-crime David Hyde Pierce who received an Honorary Tony for his work with the Alzheimer’s Association. Pierce is currently working on the Broadway revival of David Hirson’s LaBete, set for Broadway previews in September and has signed on for a starring role in the long anticipated Broadway recreation of the landmark hit How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, set to open in Spring 2011.

Anthony LaPaglia, the Emmy and Tony Award-winning actor best known for his long-running starring role in the CBS crime drama Without A Trace was nominated for Lend Me A Tenor, in which he co-stars with another TV icon, Monk’s Tony Shaloub.

American Idol’s former bad girl Paula Abdul was all grace and charm on the Red Carpet and at the post award ceremony celebration in the tented Plaza of Rockefeller Center where stars, including Denzel Washington, who won the Tony for Best Actor in a play for the Broadway revival of August Wilson’s Fences, Aretha Franklin and Scarlett Johansson, the surprise winner of the Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Play for A View From The Bridge, danced the night away under the penetrating gaze an dancing fountains of the famous golden corsair of Rockefeller Center. The Moet Champagne flowed as Tony Winner Catherine Zeta-Jones (Best Actress in a Musical) and husband Michael Douglas munched on Smoked Salmon and chive flavored cream cheese and Filet Tenderloin with wild mushroom sauce, along with Jone’s co-star, Broadway and TV legend Angela Lansbury . It was a night to remember!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Wine Lovers, the Wine Tasting Musical: Cabaret goes Sommelier

by Dwight Casimere

In New Orleans, especially in the French Quarter, wine and food are not only the ‘national pastime,’ they’re a passion. They not only enjoy them 24/7, they write musicals about them. Wine Lovers, the first ever wine tasting musical returned to New Orleans for a limited engagement at its theatrical home, Le Petit Theatre, Muriel’s Cabaret on historic Jackson Square. Held in conjunction with the 2010 New Orleans Wine and Food Experience, the play incorporates elements of musical theatre with an actual wine tasting experienced by the audience and led by a singing sommelier.

The interactive show is a collaboration of internationally acclaimed wine writer Michael Green and local New Orleans singer/songwriter Gary Negbaur and is directed by Holly-Anne Ruggiero, who has worked on the Tony Award-winning New York production of Jersey Boys.

Audience members are immediately brought into the action and storyline by participating in a ‘wine tasting’ led by the show’s narrator and lead singer, Jamie Wax. They are seated at tables containing and array of red and white wines in numbered glasses and are asked by the narrator/singer to participate in a wine class led by the mythical sommelier, Charles Thompson. Thompson’s sole mission in life is to rhapsodize about the joys of drinking wine and to pass his enthusiasm and expertise on to others. He gloms on to a pair of mismatched would-be lovers, Brian, an idealistic painter(P.J. McKinnie), and Katherine(Jennifer Schemke), a know-it-all, no nonsense businesswoman. The two are about as compatible as a rip roaring Zinfandel and a delicate Souffle! Over the course of 70 minutes of singing and dancing, Thompson attempts to spark some chemistry between the two while singing the joys of drinking Chardonnay, Cabernet, Savignon Blanc, Semillion and Merlot.

“The original concept came out of the inherent theatricality of a wine class, and the reasons why people attend such a class,” Green, a long time participant and seminar panelist of the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience said of the musical. “Wine is such a romantic beverage that turning a wine tasting into a musical love story just felt natural.”

The score, a collaboration of Green and Negbaur, with book by Travis Kramer, skewers wine snobs and tired conventions. There’s even a number dedicated to the controversy over the use of screwcaps in wine bottling.

The wines are all donated by Muriel’s Jackson Square restaurant owners Rick and Cherie Gratia and include a selection of Barossa Valley Semillion, 2006 ($13.99 retail), by legendary Australian winemaker Peter Lehmann, who Dwight The Wine Doctor had the pleasure of visiting at his estate in the Barossa last year and additional wines, including Hess Select Sauvignon Blanc, Lake County, California 2008 ($13.99 retail)and Poema Cava Brut($11.98 retail), an intriguing Spanish sparkler.

The tasting/musical also included Muriel’s own private label, Jackson Square Merlot, Chalk Hill 2007($38), Napa Valley Chardonnay, 2009($38) and Napa Valley Cabernet 2007($38), all available at the restaurant on their wine list, which offers over 300 bottles from around the world.

“Theatre people love to have a drink, particularly a glass of wine, either before or after a show or at intermission,” director Holly-Anne Ruggiero said of the concept. “Its great to be able to combine those two elements into a single experience.”

Drinking the selection of highly approachable wines and listening to the performers go through their paces was a perfect way to spend an afternoon. As one who loves music and who also loves good wine, it was a match made in heaven!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Muriel's Jackson Square, New Orleans: Ghost of the past lends authentic air to French Quarter landmark

Story and Photos by Dwight Casimere

Muriel’s Jackson Square, the Contemporary Creole Dining restaurant at the epicenter of New Orleans’ historic French Quarter, not only echoes the glories of days past, it is the resident keeper of the flame for the area’s celebrated cuisine and haunted past. There’s even the resident ghost of the original owner of the property, to add to the mystique.

“This was originally the dream home of Pierre Antoine Lepardi Jourdan, who was a successful businessman and property owner,” said Muriel’s owner Rick Gratia, while standing in the upstairs Scéance Room of the ornately grand restaurant, which just drips with the atmosphere of New Orleans’ storied past. “Although Jourdan was extremely wealthy, he was a horrible gambler.

“In 1814, he wagered his home in a poker game and lost. Just before it was time for him to hand over the keys, he hung himself in this room. There are some who say his spirit still lingers here today. On occasion, he goes downstairs to throw around some glasses to express his outrage.”

Gratia recounts the legend with the unassuming ease of many here in the French Quarter who speak of ghosts as if they were real. Here in New Orleans, and especially the French Quarter, fact and legend live side by side. To many, ghost sightings are no more fantastic than the occurrence of lightning. Legend, no matter how preposterous sounding, is no less factual than carbon dating of fossil remains.

In the main dining room, a spirited Louis Armstrong tribute jazz quartet delighted brunch-time diners. Cuisine, prepared by Muriel’s celebrated Executive Chef Gus Martin, brimmed with the flavors of Cajun and Creole culture. “We are one of the few restaurants in the French Quarter that uses actual locally farmed fresh Snapper Turtle in our Turtle Soup. Lots of restaurants say they do, but what the use are either local snapper fish or grouper or a mixture of fish and snapper turtle. We use 100% of the real thing. The same goes for our alligator hash, probably one of the most popular items on our menu. We use only fresh, locally farmed alligator. We use ground alligator meat, along with our very own house made alligator sausage. Combined with local Cajun spices, it is a taste treat that you just can’t duplicate anywhere else.”

As I listened to Joe Simon’s superb Jazz Trio render a flawless recreation of Louis Armstrong’s signature tune, “I Still Get Jealous”, I enjoyed a glass of Piper Heidsieck Brut Champagne ($26.99), which was the perfect accompaniment to the Turtle Soup with its grace notes of ruby grapefruit, apple and peach and back notes of vanilla and light toast. It has a minerality that cuts through the slight brininess of the turtle soup and creates a creamy texture in the back of the mouth that, when combined with the light heat of Creole spice, is an ecstatic dining experience.

Cakebread Sauvignon Blanc 2007 ($29.95) is a spectacular vintage from one of Napa Valley’s most consistent producers. The grapes are all harvested at night on the estate under the cool temperatures and the watchful eye of a full, Harvest Moon. With a blend of grapes from the winery’s Rutherford Estate, newer vineyards from Carneros and Calistoga, as well as premium vineyards in St. Helena, this superb wine is crisp, full-bodied and complex. It defies the typical attitude toward white wine. It stands up to complex flavors, such as Chef Martin’s palette tingling BBQ wood grilled Louisiana shrimp, yet it is graceful enough to caress the slightly tart/sweet yin and yang of his signature bread pudding or bourbon-laced pecan pie.

Muriel’s Jackson Square provided a stunning conclusion to my culinary excursion of the French Quarter as well as a spine-tingling walk through the haunted corridors of its legendary past. For more on the legend of Muriel’s Jackson Square, visit

Next: Wine Lovers, The Musical!