Wednesday nigtht, in the intimate setting of Osteria del Mondo, 1028 E. Juneau, Marc and Marta Bianchini hosted a six course dinner featuring the wines of Sonoma Valley, California's St. Francis winery.
Chris Silva, President and CEO of St. Francis Winery and Vineyards, couldn't have been a better co-host, as he mingled through the cocktail hour, nibbling on the passed hors d'oeuvres of coconut shrimp with mango dipping sauce, thin slices of veal with tuna sauce and capers on crostini, truffled popcorn balls, and tuna tartare with pineapple salsa nestled in tortilla chips.
In addition to featuring the St. Francis wines, which delectably run the gamut from a deeply buttery chardonnay to a dry, explosive wild oak zinfandel, the menu featured items of influence from all four of the Bianchini's restaurants: Osteria del Mondo, Cubanitas, Coa, and Indulge.
The first course ushered in a halved lobster tail in the shell (Cubanitas), layered with a rich buttery garlic sauce that was only more enhanced by the St. Francis chardonnay. Silva explained that St. Francis picks their chardonnay grapes in the morning, so that the slight coolness of temperature allows for enhanced flavors in the wine. The result is a smooth, and crisp, yet extraordinarily flavorful chardonnay that would hold up to just about any entrée.
Seafood reigned through course two as well, with grilled swordfish appearing over a peanut papaya salsa (Coa). The wine pairing for the swordfish was the vineyard's trademark wild oak merlot, a merlot that shames most others of this varietal. For those wine drinkers who believe merlot a novice drink, you may want to delve into the St. Francis wild oak version, as it was one of my favorite glasses of the evening.
Next we found a plate of seared duck in a Fonseca port wine glaze with a creamy roasted onion risotto-done perfectly. Risotto is one of those dishes I loathe to order in most restaurants, but Osteria's version was failsafe and ever so slightly milky for wonderful results. And before we reached the finale, we sampled roasted and braised lamb with a stuffed portabello mushroom cap in juniper berry thyme sauce. Both of these courses arrived in symphony with two of St. Francis' cabernet sauvignon.
As Silva explained, while Sonoma Valley is usually not known for their cabernets, at St. Francis, they grow the cabernet grapes of their wines mountainside, to create smaller, more compact grapes with larger, more robust flavors trapped within the skins.
Both wines were quite excellent, although they merely scratched the surface of the Wild Oak Zinfandel that accompanied the Indulge-originated family style platter of rich truffles, nuts, cheeses and chocolates that rounded out the evening.
All in all, the experience was exceptional, and the food and beverage divine. I was doubly impressed with Silva's knowledge and passion for the vineyard -- I found it completely satisfying to learn so much about the different varietals and the history of the vineyard throughout the course of the meal, as well as to hear his entertaining stories about the people who made the St. Francis winery come to be -- and the pairings were spot on with what came out of the kitchen.
Notably, at the end of the meal, Silva commended the Bianchini's for their menu and the wine pairings, as he said that typically in his travels, he must himself pair the wines with the menu the chef creates. In this instance, Marc and Marta created the entire menu around his wines, and according to Silva, had done so remarkably.
Amy L. Schubert is a 15-year veteran of the hospitality industry and has worked in every aspect of bar and restaurant operations. A graduate of Marquette University (B.A.-Writing Intensive English, 1997) and UW-Milwaukee (M.A.-Rhetoric, Composition, and Professional Writing, 2001), Amy still occasionally moonlights as a guest bartender and she mixes a mean martini.
The restaurant business seems to be in Amy’s blood, and she prides herself in researching and experimenting with culinary combinations and cooking techniques in her own kitchen as well as in friends’ restaurants. Both she and her husband, Scott, are avid cooks and “wine heads,” and love to entertain friends, family and neighbors as frequently as possible.
Amy and Scott live with their boys, Alex and Nick, in Bay View, where they are all very active in the community. Amy finds great pleasure in sharing her knowledge and passions for food and writing in her contributions to OnMilwaukee.com.