Covenant Israel Wine Club Dinner at Herbert Samuel Restaurant

At RCC’s I often lament the fact that we have excellent food and excellent wines, but it is logistically impossible to actually pair the two properly in advance. Sometimes it works out by chance, often times, the two pieces of the puzzle are enjoyed separately. Every once in a while, when planning a dinner at home, I can get some sort of synergy. In the non-kosher world, restaurants justify the cost of their wine-programs by having wines that are available to the diner for any dish the chef might prepare and having a sommelier on staff to help guide the diners – with the sommeliers knowing well the flavors of both the food and wines involved (at least in theory). In the kosher wine world, none of that exists. Even in the upscale restaurants of which there are more and more, at best they might have a wine list that is not embarrassing – but no thought will have been given in how it complements the menu. That’s a shame, and it’s something I hope will change in the future.

But, last month I got an email about a Covenant Israel Wine Club event that took place this past Tuesday night.  Covenant founders Jodi & Jeff Morgan joined their daughter Zoe and their new partner Geoff Rochwarger here in Israel to host a wonderful dinner at the Herbert Samuel Restaurant, located at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Herzliya. Now this was interesting. Here you have a restaurant that I consider to be in the top two in the country, providing a kosher fine dining experience, and you have a winery that understands food and the importance of pairing food and wine – the Morgans have written a number of cookbooks, the most interesting to readers here will be The Covenant Kitchen.

Chef Mor Cohen & Jeff Morgan

I was not disappointed – and my bar is pretty high. First – Chef Mor Cohen tailored a menu and constructed almost all dishes specifically for this dinner (only one of the plates we had was off of the restaurants standard menu). Thought was given on how each dish as a whole would complement the flavors of the wine and vice versa. The gold standard – and it worked beautifully. But even more impressive – while the proteins were all cooked nicely, the vegetables WERE SICK. I so rarely rave about vegetables. Once in a while I guess a specific preparation or component is worth noting. But Chef Cohen is a genius. He elevated vegetables to the point that they stole the show from top shelf proteins such as duck breast, prime rib, and lamb chops. Absolutely crazy.

As far as the wines go, Covenant put out some absolutely great wines – both current and out of their library. Here is a recap of the courses and the wines paired with them.

Course 1

Baked Melon | Ajo Blanco | Salted Almonds – The dinner opened with a Baked Melon Ajo Blanco – Ajo Blanco is a white chilled Spanish soup made of an almond bread and garlic base mixed with olive oil and vinegar. In this case, there was some salted almond that had been crumbled and added an extra hit of salt and of course some great texture, as well as beautiful baked melon that countered the saltiness, as well as adding some great depth of flavor. This dish was beautiful and subtle, perfectly accentuating the wine’s natural characteristics without at all being overwhelming.

Baked Melon | Ajo Blanco | Salted Almonds

2018 Covenant Israel Blue C Viognier – Likely my favorite Israeli viognier. This wine has not really changed since previous tastings.Medium body with a nice weight that was not overpowered by the dish. There is saline which complemented the salt followed by nectarine, apricot and some sort of blossom which played well with sweet components. It finishes with a little mineral and smoke. I remain a big fan.

Course 2

Grouper Tartar | Avocado |Jalapeno and Miso Dashi – Our next course was a tartar of grouper which was seasoned with chili, lemon zest, olive oil, and kombu seaweed, which was shredded and combined with the fish. The sauce was a dashi broth base mixed with a little chili and miso. The miso was made fresh and in the traditional style, which meant that fermentation was taking place that day, adding a sharpness to the soup, which then was balanced by the beautiful creamy avocado and candied lime slices for just a hint of sweetness. Such a delicate balance between spicy and sweet, creamy and acid. Really this was one of the best tartare I have ever had. What was also really nice was that the fish was not at all overpowered by the seasonings. Everything was delicately balanced. Here too, the wine was used to great effect with the both the acid and the creaminess of this aged chard accentuating the flavors found in the dish.

Grouper Tartar | Avocado |Jalapeno and Miso Dashi

2013 Covenant Lavan Chardonnay – This is another wine that I have had the privilege to have had many times over the last year. Again no real change from my notes of a couple of months ago. In short, this wine is showing beautifully right now. A true pleasure to drink.

Course 3

Duck Breast | White Roots | Natural Jus – Here was the first dish where the vegetables stole the show. But first let’s talk about the protein. Expertly cooked slice of duck breast with a nice crispy skin. This was really cooked to perfection. Meat was rare yet cooked through. Skin and fat had rendered down to provide that excellent deep flavor – accentuated by the jus which was prepared by cooking a broth out of the duck bones. But the genius came in what was advertised on the menu simply as “White Roots”. First the Chips made of Jerusalem Artichoke, which of course accentuated the crispy duck skin. You had that balanced out by the cream made of celeriac, so when you had a bite of duck and the jus and the chips and the celeriac cream, you had this crazy combination of flavors and textures that all complimented each other and balanced out. But the real game changer here was the kohlrabi. Kohlrabi is a vegetable that I did not really grow up with. In Israel, it very popular, but is usually eaten raw – served on a veggie platter or as part of a salad. Once in a while, I have seen people add it to chicken soup. Not the most exciting thing in the world. Roasting this vegetable though simply elevates it to something beautiful. It caramelizes, turning slightly sweet with a creamy texture that totally lifted everything else on the plate besides being incredible by itself. So easy and simple, and something I will be doing from now on.

Duck Breast | White Roots | Natural Jus

2014 Covenant Israel Syrah – I have had the opportunity to taste this wine only two or three times in the past, as it was sold largely prior to Covenant really making a local presence for itself. This is the absolute best of all of the vintages I have tasted to date. (It is actually the second vintage of this wine. I have never had the 2013 as just a very small quantity was made in more of a test run than a full commercial push.) The tannin has moved to the center here, but is still firm. There is a beautiful gamey meatiness to the wine that really goes well with the duck with which it was served. Add to that near black ripe rich fruit balanced by nice acidity that totally goes with the creaminess of the veggies. Great pairing. Great wine.

Course 4

Forest Mushrooms | Truffle Cream | ’Not Cheese’ – When I saw the menu and noticed a vegetarian course, I got worried. No offense to vegetarians, but I have found most purely vegetarian dishes to be lacking. Add to that some sort of fake cheese and I was prepared for the worst. I really had nothing to worry about, The “Not Cheese’’ here was based on almonds and apples – and was prepared in a way that was meant to evoke a baked ricotta and totally succeeded. This is the first time I have had a fake cheese preparation that was not meant to be creamy or melted – and actually worked. The texture was perfect and the flavor delicate. The sweetness balanced out by the earthiness of the roasted mushrooms and with the added rich texture of the truffle cream. Wow. I was really shocked and impressed by this dish. Kudos!

Forest Mushrooms | Truffle Cream | ’Not Cheese’

2004 Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon – It is easy to see why the Chef pared the prior dish with this wine. The earthiness and richness yet delicate structure were all totally complimented. Had there been any sort of protein here, it would have killed the wine, which while past its prime and very delicate with a short finish, was absolutely enjoyable as an accompaniment to his dish. It had an earthiness that was just excellent. But I should have paid more attention to the wine first as within a short time the wine started to change (it actually got “redder” for a short time) and then deteriorated. It had about 10 minutes in its prime. It would be interesting to see where a large format bottle of this was holding right now. I sampled a double magnum of the 2006 vintage this past February and it was awesome….

Course 5

Prime Rib | Mother of Wheat Risotto | Sage Dust – So here there was no vegetable per se, but boy did this dish work. The rib was cooked whole and then sliced into individual ribs and then the eye of the rib was portioned out to the diners. WOW. This was cooked exactly the way I love it. Textbook medium rare. It was accompanied by a “Mother of Wheat Risotto”. I’m not 100% sure what the grain was (I neglected to ask), but I would guess it was farro. The preparation truly did emulate a dairy risotto with all of its creaminess, and the sage dust worked SO well with the meat. Really nice – and a perfect accompaniment for what was the wine of the evening for me.

Prime Rib | Mother of Wheat Risotto | Sage Dust

2008 Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon – This bottle was perfect and quite frankly all you really could be looking for in a Napa Valley CS. Much darker than the ’04 that preceded it. There was cassis and earth and nice tobacco with an excellent thread of graphite that ran through it. The fruit was dark red and perfectly expressed. The body was lush without being too much. Tannin was fine and still firm and the acidity was in perfect balance. Quite frankly, the wine tasted perfect to me. Really you couldn’t ask for a better wine to have with Prime Rib and you couldn’t ask for a better protein to have with such an awesome Napa Valley Cab. What a pair!

Course 6

Lamb Chops | Jerusalem Artichoke and Potato Terrine | Garden Peas – Another dish where the veggie was the star of the show! I am sucker for lamb. In fact I like pretty much any cut and almost any preparation – from lamb bacon, lamb stew, lamb kabobs, riblets, leg of lamb – whatever. But, the king of them all is rack of lamb. Based on how these lamb chops looked, they were indeed prepared as a whole rack. For me lamb is super forgiving and I can eat it both blood rare or well done and be happy. For some, though, this might have been on the rarer side of things. But like I said, this didn’t bother me at all – and in fact as far as pairing with the wine, as the fat was less rendered, it was more present in the mouth, which helped with such a young wine. But really the star of the show was the terrine. There were layers and layers of thinly sliced potato and Jerusalem artichoke, which were compressed overnight and slowly and carefully baked and roasted. I have never had a preparation such as this and it was off the charts. I would try to replicate it, but it sounds like SO much work. (In fact Chef Cohen told me that each component for the dinner took on average 3 days of prep from start to finish!) Bravo!

Lamb Chops | Jerusalem Artichoke and Potato Terrine | Garden Peas

2015 Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon, Solomon Lot 70 – This is my second time having this bottle. The first time was under less than ideal conditions at KFWE-NY back in February. The wine showed SO much better here, and I am sure that has to do with the fat that was present in my mouth from previous courses. Now I TRY to have water and something to clean my palate in between courses – and I don’t think I ended up with anything residual flavor-wise, but fat is a different story as it coats the mouth. Fat is a young wine’s friend. It protects your mouth from both acid and tannin, which in young wine sometimes might prevent the wine’s other characteristics from shining. You can’t get rid of fat with just a drink of water – and that was likely a contributing factor here when I first tasted the wine, because it was clearly better than I remember it being. And while this bottle was showing better even before I had the lamb, with the lamb it was just on another level. Each layer of fruit was now clearly discernible. The wine really is structured beautifully and just shows you what you can get when you’re using top notch fruit with excellent wine making. Overall the profile hasn’t changed – still very dark blue and near black fruit are the predominant flavors, but there is some excellent herb and tobacco here that is more expressive with truly excellent long finish that is mostly mocha and tobacco and that lovely rich earth. Very nice indeed!

Course 7

Baked Chocolate Mousse | Banana Caramel |Drunk Ice Cream – Let’s get something out of the way – the ice cream served was the best non-dairy ice cream I have had. Period. That said, this was the weakest course. That was really because of a single component – the Baked Chocolate Mousse. I don’t know if it was the baking – but it made it denser and the chocolate had a grainy texture that might be due to the mixture breaking because of the heat. I’m no chef, so what do I know. But really, it was single component. The Banana Caramel was good (though there wasn’t enough of it) and there was some nice candied ginger. But the star here was the Drunk Ice Cream. I believe it was coconut milk based (though I could be misremembering that. It had a GREAT spice combo of Nutmeg, Allspice, Cinnamon, and Mace, with Rum being the “drunk” component and of course giving it that distinct flavor that worked so well with the spice. Really I couldn’t get enough of it and I got them to bring me another scoop. It was just incredible.

Baked Chocolate Mousse | Banana Caramel |Drunk Ice Cream

Overall this was a great evening. Congrats to all of the folks at Covenant – Jeff, Jodi, Geoff, and Zoe – for putting together a really great evening and serving some truly excellent wine – and to Chef Mor Cohen and his staff at Herbert Samuel, who put out some of the best, most well thought out – and dare I say interesting – food I have had in a while.

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