Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Smile and Say Cheese at the Gaylord National Hotel

On a recent January afternoon in our nation’s capital, I walked into the Old Hickory Steakhouse, the Gaylord Hotels’ signature restaurant, with plenty of time before my appointment to watch maitre d’fromage, LaVonia Smith, prepare her cheese cart for that evening’s dinner crowd.
Just what, you might ask, is a maitre d’fromage? It’s the same question I posed to the restaurant’s general manager, John Hackett, a food and wine-knowledgeable young man who took me on a quick tour of the Steakhouse.
"Think of a maitre d’fromage as the equivalent of a sommelier," Hackett explained as we strolled past the restaurant’s white marble bar and "cheese cave," really a glass-enclosed, temperature and moisture-controlled cabinet that fits inside a wall in one of Old Hickory’s five dining rooms. "As a sommelier is to wine, so too is a maitre d’fromage to cheese."
Further on, Hackett pointed out the Spanish cedar humidor, full of imported cigars, ready for purchase and smoking on the restaurant’s cigar terrace, then led me into the main dining room, a lofty room overlooking the gorgeous Woodrow Wilson Bridge and flight path into Reagan National Airport, not to mention the Washington Monument in the distance.
Turning my attention away from the DC landmarks, I met up with the young maitre d’fromage, an enthusiastic aficionado of all things cheese ever since she had her first taste of Ossaqu-Iraty, a smooth, slightly sweet cheese made from sheep’s milk in the Northern Basque area of France.
A cut way above an ordinary cheesemonger, Smith trained in-house under cheese maestro, Carolyn Stromberg, and took classes at the Artisanal Premium Cheese Center in Manhattan. She also beefs up on the subject by reading "Culture," considered the premier cheese magazine on today’s market.
In addition to picking each hand-crafted, artisanal cheese served at the Steakhouse, she carefully re-wraps every cheese in the case daily to make sure they breath (like wine) and that the temperature in the "cave" ranges between 45 and 55 degrees F. to keep them at the peak flavor and texture.
Each evening, Smith chooses around 17 cheeses from the cave, displays them artfully on her cart and adds condiments that compliment her choices such as sweet glazed walnuts, marcona almonds and dried Turkish apricots.
"With one of our cheese plates, you get virtually a balanced meal full of calcium, protein and good fatty and amino acids," said Smith, who changes the cheese selections one or two at a time every couple weeks.
Later, at the end of our meal, Smith rolled by with her enticing cart and handed us a cheese menu, subdivided into cow, goat, sheep, blue and mixed sections. As we perused the list, she told us about the history of some of the cheeses.
Even though we’d already shared a tender and tasty pork chop raised at the Niman Ranch without the use of antibiotics or hormones and an exquisite Cowboy ribeye from the award-winning Harris Ranch in California, we just had to try some of Smith’s cheeses. Picking six from the extensive list, we chose one from each cheese category as an exercise in comparison.
Smith then cut one ounce portions of each and placed them in a circle around our plates starting with the mildest at the six position on a clock and proceeding in a clockwise direction to the sharpest.
Our beautifully composed cheese plate served nicely as dessert, the finishing touch to our meal, although Smith explained that many of her patrons like to start rather than finish their meal with a selection of her artisanal offerings.
"It’s all a matter of personal preference," she said.
For more information on the Old Hickory Steakhouse and the Gaylord national Hotel, phone 301-965-2000 or visit website

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Add Sparkle to Your Valentine's Day Celebration

by Dave Zuchowski
Pink Bubbly Makes Valentine’s Day Extra Special
According to legend, the evening before his execution by Roman Emperor Claudius II for his Christian beliefs, St. Valentine is said to have written the first valentine card addressed to his beloved, a young blind girl who was also the daughter of his jailer. To sweeten the story even more, the legend has it that, on his way to the block, Valentine miraculously cured the girl of her blindness.
In modern times, February 14, the date Pope Gelasius I established as St. Valentine’s Day in 496 AD, has become an annual commemoration of love and affection with the giving of candy, red roses and valentine cards. According to the U. S. Greeting Card Association, an astounding 190 million valentines are exchanged on February 14 in the U.S. alone.
Recently wine producers have capitalized on the affinity of chocolate, a Valentine’s Day staple, with red wines and champagnes and have attempted to make wine an essential ingredient in the annual celebration.
If you’d like to add icing to the day’s festivities and be "in the pink" come evening, two Spanish sparkling rosé s available in many Pennsylvania state liquor stores are affordable, tasty and pack in a lot of value for the buck. This means that Valentine’s Day aficionados can pop the cork on some delicious pink-hued bubblies for around $10 a bottle.
For the economy-minded, Segura Viudas Brut Rosé ($8.19) is intensely fruity on both the nose and palate and is made from the rare black Trepat grape. Refreshingly dry, this Brut rosé is light-strawberry colored and mates well with fish and seafood dishes but also does well as a stand alone beverage.
Freixenet (pronounced fresh-anet) Cordon Rosado, ($12.99), has an abundance of medium size bubbles that rise quickly through the strawberry colored wine, kissed with floral and fresh bay leaf aromas that blend with ripe red fruit, blackberry, strawberry, fig, dates and exotic grenadine flavors.
For those who might want to go higher end, Freixenet Elyssia Pinot Noir Brut ($20.79), takes its name from the Latin description of the heavenly or blissful Elyssian fields. Made from 85% Pinot Noir grapes, this luscious and refined pink sparkler has an intense strawberry and blackberry aroma with a fragrant, sweet aftertaste and soft acidity.
As Dom Perignon said at the moment he first discovered sparkling wine, "Come quickly, I am tasting the stars." This Valentine’s Day, why not toast that someone special with a glass of pink stars?