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Chefs put local food, wine in the spotlight

Restaurant Week runs Oct. 22 to 29

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Posted: Friday, October 12, 2012 10:03 am

A new addition to the Finger Lakes fall calendar promises to make an already stunning season even better.

Tastier, to be specific.

Finger Lakes Wine Country is offering its second Finger Lakes Restaurant Week from Oct. 22 to 29.

At least 19 restaurants throughout the region have signed on to participate in the local food challenge, offering up an array of fresh, seasonal flavors. Chefs have agreed to prepare pris fixe two-course lunch and three-course dinners throughout the week, relying only on Finger Lakes ingredients.

Menus are certain to present a variety of fall favorites, including creations using butternut squash, pears, sweet potatoes, pumpkins and apples — each carefully matched with Finger Lakes wines.

Organizers say the success of the initial Finger Lakes Restaurant Week in June encouraged them to offer a fall event, something they hope becomes an annual staple.

This month’s take on the local food challenge may prove even more successful than the summer version, thanks to a few minor adjustments.

“We made a slight change, mainly because of the feedback from the chefs,” explained Morgen McLaughlin, president and chief executive officer of Finger Lakes Wine Country Tourism Marketing Association.

In June, chefs were asked to produce 100 percent local offerings, right down to the salt and pepper. McLaughlin said some chefs thought it a tad too restrictive.

Spices were the real challenge, and chefs who wanted to toss in a bit of cinnamon or nutmeg were out of luck; thus, the regulations were changed to read “100 percent Finger Lakes food and wine,” McLaughlin explained. That means chefs can spice away, though the finished product must still be 95 percent local.

All restaurants on a Finger Lakes wine trail were welcome to participate.

“I think we got it this time,” said Ginny Lee Café chef Vachel Mitchell, noting they were able to work out hiccups in the first event and tailor Restaurant Week to each establishment.

A recent preview event at Red Newt Bistro in Hector allowed chefs to test new creations, along with tried-and-true favorites.

Sharing a first-course fixture, Knapp Vineyard Restaurant chef John McNabb offered a taste of his butternut squash bisque. Nearly sweet enough to be a dessert, the bisque blends local squash and Knapp’s seyval blanc with spices like tarragon and nutmeg.

“It’s always been a fall menu item and it’s always been extremely popular,” McNabb explained.

The dish was seamlessly paired with the same seyval blanc used to make it.

Union Block Italian Bistro chef Bruce Java served a white wine-braised chicken leg with a brussels sprout-and-bacon ragout drizzled in popcorn cream sauce. The chicken is a delicious divergence from the typical poultry dish, while the ragout is sure to make even the most hesitant of brussels sprout fans crave more.

“This is a play on popcorn chicken,” Java explained. “I just figured I’d have fun with it.”

Java’s dish was matched with an rkatsiteli from Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars.

Next on the menu was a poached pear salad from Veraisons Restaurant chef Orlando Rodriguez. Paired with a Glenora rosé, the dish offers a burst of blue-cheese flavor for the filling on a bed of fresh arugula.

Menu items are unlikely to get any more local than Rodriguez’s creation, made with pears from the restaurant’s backyard at Glenora Wine Cellars.

“I went back and got it off the tree literally myself ... well, I brought somebody along to hold the ladder for me,” he chuckled.

The second course included a flavorful, potato-crusted chicken in a white-wine cheese sauce from Mitchell, made with Wagner Vineyards chardonnay and paired with a Wagner riesling.

Braised short ribs with white-corn polenta, a rich dish from Esperanza Mansion chef Brian Personius, followed. That was paired with a Salmon Run meritage.

Brud Holland of Red Newt Bistro offered a fine-dining twist on an American favorite: ribeye meatloaf on grilled rye bread with a hint of blue cheese, paired with Red Newt cabernet franc. The “upscale diner dish” blends tasty comfort food with five-star cuisine.

“We literally took an entire ribeye and ground it,” Holland said. “I don’t know many chefs that would do that.”

The possibility is one of many brought about by a strong relationship with the local farmer that supplies them, he explained.

“We get a great deal,” he said. “It’s more than just buying it from the guy down the street. It’s the relationship that you create.”

Holland followed his meatloaf with a refreshing, pumpkin-ginger cheesecake too creamy and delicious to pass up, even after such a filling meal. Served simultaneously was Rodriguez’s apple pandowdy, an old-fashioned treat topped with chocolate-laced mint.

Desserts were paired with ice wines: Wagner’s riesling ice and Glenora’s iced riesling.

Restaurant Week menus may not match those offered at the preview event; chefs experiment with what is fresh at the time. And, in addition to wine pairings, beer and distilled-beverage pairings may be available at select locations.

“Certainly, the goal that we see is just telling the story of the farmers and the producers,” McLaughlin concluded. “Yes, it’s a restaurant-week promotion, so yes we want to highlight chefs and restaurants, but it’s equally about highlighting where this chicken was raised, where was the wine made and trying to marry them more together.”

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