Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Welcome to our World, Sloane Lily Duys

Cafe Drake patrons and compadres Susan and Henry have just added a new addition to the family - Sloane Lily. We already know she's going to be a girl with good taste, and babies with exceptional palattes are always welcome at Cafe Drake! Donations for high chairs gladly accepted as our table expands for young gourmands.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Hey Mambo: Restaurant Review: Baci & Abbracci & Bianca

(photo above: A visit from Ann Arbor's Ms. Amee always means a splendid meal and delightful evening)

Baci & Abbracci - 204 Grand St., Brooklyn, NY 11211 (718-599-6599)
Bianca - 5 Bleecker St, New York, 10012 - (212-260-4666)

What is it with the Italians these days? First a Food and Wine cover section article in the New York Times this week, then a film festival on Turner Classic Movies and actual projected movies on Mulberry St., and Cafe Drake can't seem to eat out in NYC without scarfing pasta. On an unseasonably warm Halloween, out-of-town honored guest Amee Simmons joined us for a stroll through the mad streets of Manhattan, populated even more than usual with an assortment of fairy princesses, sinister nurses and glamorous ghouls. After-dinner drinks were at Gotham Bar & Grill (always perfect for downtown sophisticated libations amidst multiple mirrors and silver snack bowls - is there a better Manhattan on Manhattan?), but an early super was snagged at the still-reliable Bianca.

Country chic interiors (not an oxymoron when nestled between lacquered white shelves adorned with antique bone china) set the tone for a relaxed evening, but it's the effortlessly artistic peasant food that rules at this East Village favorite. A simple spinach salad ($7.95) needed only the finest Reggiano-Parmesan shaved atop the lightly dressed greens to set it apart from lesser imitations, and a starter of grilled radicchio ($8.95) mixed the bitter vegetable with sweet Parma ham and moist shreds of sheep-milk cheese to mellow its flavor into the very essence of Emilia Romagna cuisine. True to the region, a rich and delicious lasagne ($12.95), served free form and assembled on the plate, borrows from the dual regional tradition of meat and bechamel sauces. An entree of simmered homemade fennel sausage and baked cannelloni beans ($14.95) could serve three, though its addictive nature almost guarantees you'll take only a little home. The wine list is varied and comprehensive, although slanted towards the fine (and expensive) barollos and amarones of Italy's high-end vineyards. Not to worry though, as following Ms. Amee's request we selected a fine and fruity Friulian rosso for a mere $24.

For a neighborhood with no shortage of decent, good and great Italian food, a new paison eatery, decked out with trendy concrete floors, mid-century cafeteria seating and a nouvelle-leaning menu seemed suspect at first, even more so given its Grand Street location, known best for restaurants catering to the weekend local tourists, but a happy surprise is Williamsburg's Baci & Abbraci. Intimate yet not crowded, the very dining room buzzes with a warm, contented energy, set in motion by the friendly welcome extended upon entry. (Everyone is telling us the service was great on their visit; we got the lone sourpuss in the trattoria - a glum waitress who was surly and unhelpful with the menu or esoteric wine list. Nevermind as the rest of the staff is utterly delightful).

A varied bread basket and deeply green olive oil are placed at the table almost immediately, perfect for taming the munchies, as the dinner menu is large and requires careful consideration. Adding to the difficult task of selecting only a few dishes to sample is a nightly roster of six or more specials. Happily frustrated with the surplus of choices, we began with the fried calamari ($8.95), always a barometer of quality when dining Italiano. Expertly battered and fried until just tender, sided with the traditional marinara and a parsley pesto sauce, the appetizer was a harbinger of the superlative quality of both entrees. The lasagne ($12.95) is generously portioned and crisp around the edges, gooey in the center and only brushed with a sweet tomato sauce. The lamb ragout over homemade broad noodles ($13.95) is a Tuscan treat; the stew is light in sauce and dotted with diced carrots and red onions, the meat tender and moist and the broth thick enough to stick to both the noodles and your ribs. Wines are generally well-selected, although not many nestle in the budget range; still, a decent bottle can be ordered for $25.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Best Halloween Website

And it's (nominally) food-related! M&Ms new dark chocolate candies (are they available in the U.S., anyone?) have built a most genius website around a game asking the player to identify the "50 Darkest Movies" via visual clues provided (in a Hieronymos Bosch-inspired desktop mural). We don't want to make it too easy for you - and actually it's quite challenging, mind-twisting and not the usual waste of time - but a few clues from Cafe Drake's area of expertise include lamb, rosemary and corn! Have Fun at http://www.mms.com/us/dark/index.jsp!

A CD for Everyone

We swore we wouldn't post another music entry, as this site is solely devoted to the culinary world and home entertaining, but as we've said before, the soundtrack to a great dinner or cocktail party is 15% of the success rate. Astute hosts will tailor the musical selection to the assembled guests, and very recently Cafe Drake crafted the following playlist as background for a three-course dinner for six. Our five (varied in taste) guests were so enthralled with the tunes underscoring the meal and conversation we sent each home with a quickly burned CD of the night's music. Of course you needn't have every track listed, but the general mood of even a few selections is (almost) guaranteed to spark appetites at the table. As an alternative, simply shuffle a few songs by a handful of the artists. For those of you far off but visiting Cafe Drake via cyberspace (thanks for all the emails this month from new site visitors/friends-we've-yet-to-meet), we'll be happy to send you a copy of this playlist gratis (just email your address). Note: this mix rawks at varying intervals, so be certain to up the mood prior to dinner with a long cocktail hour. Oddly working in alphabetical order (iTunes cued up our list in this manner), the ambiance moves from the excitement of the starter course through the seriousness of the entree, and ends with a bittersweet exuberance perfectly matched to dessert and port.

1. Me & Guiliani Down by the School Yard - !!! (Chk Chk Chk) -
2. Stay Golden - Au Revoir Simone
3. The Disco Song - Au Revoir Simone
4. Elephant Woman - Blonde Redhead
5. Black Gloves - Goose
6. We Don't Know How it Grows - Half-Handed Cloud
7. Words of a Friend - Head Like A Kite
8. Love Like Semtex - Infadels
9. Somerville - Pernice Brothers
10. Year of the Rooster - Sufjan Stevens
11. They Don't Know About Us - The Boyfriends
12. She's Leaving Town - The Corn Sisters
13. That's When the Party Started - The Dismemberment Plan
14. Katy at the Mall - The Dirty Projectors
15. Time Bomb - The Format
16. Payphone Country - The Galactic Heroes
17. Stories of Big Cities & Bigger Hearts - The London Apartments
18. Music is Happiness - The Octopus Project
19. Faster Than You Go - The Cansecos
20. Paul Simon - The Russian Futurists
21. NCR (Funkstorung Version) - Ike Yard
22. Launderette - Vivien Goldman
23. Heart & Soul - Diane & the Javelins
24. My Friend Bobby - Pamela Blue

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Dinner Music (Part 3)

Instead of the usual Cafe Drake playlist, today we're referring you to a couple of great websites every home entertainer should have cued up on the computer.

Pig Radio (
http://www.pigradio.com) – The hidden programmers, the invisible DJs of internet radio, are the true unsung stars of the art of collage. Unconstrained by advertising dollars and the resulting demand for mediocrity and banal playlists, the curators at this iTunes “station” favorite consistently manage to merge the genres of electro, 4-to-the-floor house anthems and quirky indie rock with a preternatural skill for defining listener tastes. Tried and true for two years at Cafe Drake, Pig Radio is indispensible when you've been too lazy to craft a mix for dinner, cocktail or old-fashioned house party. This week they've managed to mix mainstream act The Killers' new single with CocoRosie and the bleep-bleep perfection of The Octopus Project. Try to forgive the cheesey Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller soundbites which occasionally mar the hustle and flow.

Samurai FM (http://www.samurai.fm) - Not the station to provide background for your Sunday brunch party (unless you and guests have just arrived home from the club), Samurai FM is better suited to cocktail parties and dinner with tweekers. We're certain you'll find the right time to turn up these exclusive live DJ sets from Tokyo, London and beyond. Cafe Drake prefers the downtempo mixes during the cocktail hour and the rowdier selections after dinner. This month be sure to check out the minimalist electro of Chris Lake and the robotic anthems of Crosstown rebels.

Dinner and a (scary) Movie

Considering ourselves lucky to have friends who pop over on a Saturday night for Dinner and a Movie, Cafe Drake hosted such an evening recently with Thordis A. as our guest of honor. Even luckier is having that friend show up with a fine bottle of champagne. Sipping bubbles we sat around the kitchen table as piping hot gota were delivered from the deep fryer pan. A Madras street food favorite, we think of them as Indian falafel, made from ground chickpeas, brown mustard seeds and assorted Eastern spices. Dinner was simple as it should be: green salad, cheesey bread pudding and roasted tomatoes and peppers. Nestled in Cafe Drake's living room, Sailor Page warming our laps, we watched the season-appropriate 1971 thriller Let's Scare Jessica to Death.


Great as a vegetarian entree or rich side dish to roast beef.

5 slices dry bread, cut into small squares / 1 1/2 cups milk / 1 cup grated Cheddar cheese / 3 eggs, beaten / 1 t. Worcestshire sauce / salt / dash of hot pepper sauce

  1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.
  2. Butter a baking dish.
  3. Scald the milk, cool slightly and add to the milk, cheese, eggs and seasonings. Mix well.
  4. Pour liquid mixture into dish, add the bread and bake for 50 minutes.
  5. Serve hot.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

A Great Time for Gratins

Complimentary to the cooler temperatures, gratins are often best made with ingredients currently found fresh at your local farmers' market. Further offset an evening chill with roast poultry or meat, the gratin's perfect partner. Red wine, of course, is essential.


Amazingly good when eaten with roast duck, a combination sometimes served at Cafe Drake for Christmas Dinner.

2 lb. peeled turnips, cut into thin slices / 3 T. butter / slices of day old bread (should be dry) / salt and pepper / 1/2 cup (roughly) freshly grated Parmesan or Romano cheese

  1. Boil sliced turnips in salted water for 20 minutes or until tender. Drain.
  2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  3. Butter a casserole dish and, beginning with thin slices of bread, layer alternately: bread, turnips, salt and pepper and cheese.
  4. Layer until casserole is full and dot the top layer (should be cheese) with the butter, cubed.
  5. Bake for 40 minutes or until golden on top.


Simple and light, this unusual dairy-free gartin is very nice with roast pork.

1 1/2 lbs. chopped and well-rinsed spinach leaves / salt and pepper / dried breadcrumbs / 3 T. olive oil

  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Smear a casserole dish with a generous bit of olive oil.
  2. In a mixing bowl, toss the spinach with salt and pepper. Pack into the casserole.
  3. Sprinkle a thin layer of breadcrumbs over all, and drizzle the olive oil over the top.
  4. Place the dish in the oven and immediately reduce the temperature to 325 degrees. Bake for roughly 1 hour.


Very different than the usual preparation of baked cauliflower with bechamel sauce, this version is lighter yet deeply flavorful, thanks to the oven roasting.

1 head cauliflower, broken into florets / 1/4 cup olive oil / salt and pepper / nutmeg / 1/2 cup grated Gruyere & Parmesan cheeses, mixed / breadcrumbs

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Parboil cauliflower for 5 minutes in salted water. Drain well.
  3. Place cauliflower in a casserole dish and toss with the oil, salt and pepper.
  4. Sprinkle with the cheese, breadcrumbs and nutmeg.
  5. Bake for 10-15 minutes until the top is browning nicely.

Cafe McKeever-Duys

Our friend Susan always makes delicious and creative food, using the kitchen as a laboratory for new recipes and global ingredients. Even in the final weeks of pregnancy she managed to whip together a most memorable Fall feast. On a chill October evening we were lucky enough to dine at Cafe McKeever-Duys; greeted at the door with a blood orange and vodka cocktail, we sat down to crostini topped with ricotta, dried fig, honey and walnuts. The sweet start to the meal was balanced nicely by a selection of briney mixed olives! Autumn splendour was the theme of the evening as, nestled in Susan's cozy kitchen, we plowed through perfectly cooked London broil sliced atop chestnut puree, pumpkin mashed potatoes and a salad of watercress and tiny sweet tomatoes. A lovely end was provided by an aged premium tequila - deep amber in color and simultaneously smokey and smacking of caramel. Lucky for the upcoming tot she has such a great cook for a Mom!

Veggie Night at Cafe Drake

Octavio has been dining at Cafe Drake since the days when we occupied a ground-floor apartment on East 11th St. A pesco-vegetarian, Octavio always challenges us to concoct meatless meals that are short on flesh but long on flavor and innovation. This week we served utthapaams - the southern Indian take on a savoury pancake (made from chickpea and fermented rice flours). Also on the boards were oranges and onions dusted with a chat masala spice blend, acorn squash and tomato curry and a refreshing green salad.

Thordis' Triumphant Return

Back in New York after three months in her native Iceland, Thordis Adalsteinsdottir celebrated her return and smash-hit exhibition at Reykjavik's The Living Art Museum with a quiet dinner at Cafe Drake. South Indian fare was on the menu again - fish curry, tangy tamarind rice, pineapple salad, mango chutney, raita. Spicy as Thordis herself after the second lemon martini, dinner was a wonderful chance to catch up with a friend and cook for a truly adventerous palate. Adding to the brave novelty of the sweet/sour/salty/spicy meal was a bottle of hand-delivered berry wine from the hinterlands of the Icelandic countryside; jammy and pungent, it provided the perfect exotic background.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Dinner en homage Dirk Bogarde

Sir Dirk Bogarde had a most unpredictable career, beginning as Britain's favorite matinee star (known as the Idol of the Odeons during the 1950s) and ending as the international symbol of European art films. Whether he was working for directors as diverse as Joseph Losey, Luchino Visconti or Reiner W. Fassbinder, Sir Dirk always brought enormous panache and elegance to any of his roles, even the seamier, less glamourous ones (Suggested Filmography: The Servant, Victim, The Damned, The Night Porter, Justine).

Spending his later years in semi-retirement on an estate in Provence, the actor turned to writing, penning a riveting trilogy of autobiographical works and several novels loosely based on his jet-set circle of aristocratic and eccentric friends. In honor to an actor inspiring even off the screen, Cafe Drake created the following menu, full of the flavors of Provence and loosely based on meals described in Bogarde's memoirs. Hearty but not overly rich or dense, the dishes in this menu work perfectly for the cooling-but-not-yet-cold time of year. Serve a white bordeaux or Cotes du Rhone with the main course.

Canapes & Champagne

GIBOLOTTE DE LAPIN (White Wine Rabbit Stew)

The entree will serve four generally, but if you've invited guests with large appetites, you may wish to double the recipe. Do not prepare ahead as we've found this is the rare stew that does not reheat successfully.

1 rabbit, cut into 6-8 pieces / salt & pepper / 3 T. olive oil / about 1/4 lb. slab bacon, cut into small chunks / 1 large onion, chopped / 2 cloves garlic, sliced / 3 T. flour / 1/4 cup Cognac (honestly, an inexpensive variety will do here) / 2 cups dry white wine / water (as needed) / bay leaf and 3 sprigs of thyme tied together (can add rosemary if you like) / 1 lb. small new potatoes (peeled)

  1. Season rabbit with salt and pepper. Add to a large skillet with the olive oil and bacon.
  2. Brown on all sides (about 20 minutes) and then add the onion.
  3. After another 10 minutes add garlic and sprinkle the flour over all. Cook for 2-3 minutes then add brandy.
  4. Stir all the delicious bits from the bottom of the pan, then add the wine and herbs. Pour just enough water over to barely cover the contents (if needed).
  5. Add potatoes and cover and simmer at a VERY LOW heat for 45 minutes.
  6. Serve stew directly from the pan onto warmed plates or platter.

ENDIVES BRAISEES (Braised Belgian Endive)

Endive is pricey, but this side has suprising substance and flair for miles!

1 1/2 lbs. Belgian endive, washed and trimmed / Salt / 1 slice prosciutto, cut in slivers / 1 t. butter, cut in small pieces / juice of 1/2 lemon / 6 T. heavy cream

  1. Butter a casserole dish and place endives inside. Sprinkle small pieces of butter, prosciutto and salt on top. Cover and place on stovetop over low heat.
  2. From time to time, turn endives over and check to make sure they are never browning or burning too much.
  3. After 50-60 minutes add lemon juice and turn endives to coat completely. Pour in cream, turn again and serve immediately.


Audrey & David Visit Cafe Drake

PHOTO CAPTIONS (from Top to Bottom)

Sailor scouts Audrey's plate in search of leftovers.

Catalan Rice is brought to a simmer on the stovetop before baking in oven.

David and Audrey appear disturbed by Cafe Drake's spooky decoration.

60s folk album cover?

Asiago toast awaits the broiler.


Raspberry Gin Coolers / Roasted Spiced Split Peas

Arugula Salad with Lemon-Tahini Dressing and Asiago Toasts

Clay Pot Catalan Rice with Chiles, Chorizo and Chickpeas

Mexican Hot Chocolate / Spice Cookies and Candied Pecans

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Simplest Chicken Ever


Who can't use another tasty baked chicken recipe (besides vegetarians?) This requires marinating overnight, but is quick to assemble the following evening, and sublime with a winter squash side dish. Historical reference: we served this chicken, many moons ago, in one of Cafe Drake's first "grown-up" dinner parties, deep in Manhattan's Alphabet City. The entree was followed with a simple green salad, a plate of cheese and poached pears and coffee and chocolates to finish. Guests applauded and A Hobby Was Born. In hindsight we do regret the (timely) dinner soundtrack provided by Nirvana. Smells like youthful folly.

1 1/2 cups dry sherry / 1/2 cup honey / 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice / 4 garlic cloves / 1 T. ground cinnamon / 1 t. kosher salt / freshly ground black pepper / 1 3-lb. chicken, cut into 6-8 pieces / about 2 T. vegetable oil (do not use olive oil)

  1. Mix all ingredients for marinade together (except oil) and toss with chicken. marinate overnight in the refrigerator in a large zip-lock bag.
  2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  3. Remove chicken from marinade and, in a large skillet, sear in the oil on all sides for 5 minutes or until skin is golden.
  4. Move chicken to a shallow baking dish and roast in oven for 20 minutes.
  5. Boil reserved marinade until thicker, about 10 minutes. Pour over chicken nce it's been removed from oven.
  6. Garnish with toasted sesame seeds and thinly sliced red onions.

Season of the Witch

With Halloween around the corner, Cafe Drake is going into scary mode, and beginning to serve theme meals based around our darkest holiday. Things should never get sinister in the kitchen however, and the new crop of pumpkins and other squashes and root vegetables, combined with a seasonal taste for heartier fare, makes menu planning easy. Try the hauntingly good cocktail and soup recipes below to get in the mood, and don't forget to break out the eerie music mix and creepy decorations. Table designers will thrill to the possibilities Halloween affords, just remember to air on the side of good taste, accessorizing with friendly ghosts and witches - gruesome centerpieces such as dismembered hands or trays of eyeballs are best left to frat parties or horror film set dressers. DO NOT, in other words, throw a Texas Chainsaw Massacre BBQ dinner. Opt instead for an elegant vampire theme or haunted house grandeur.


We've been serving this soup for years, not just at Halloween but frequently as a first course for Thanksgiving dinner. The recipe is adapted from an old cookbook written by, appropriately enough, Vincent Price. Canned pumpkin works quite well in this instance.

1 large onion, diced medium / 2 carrots, diced medium / 1 large leek, diced medium /2 cups pumpkin, canned /6 cups vegetable or chicken broth /1/2 teaspoon cumin powder / 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon / pinch of clove /pinch of nutmeg / salt, to taste /1 cup half and half

  1. Place all ingredients except the half-and-half into a stock pot over medium high heat.
  2. Bring to boil and reduce to simmer.
  3. Simmer for 30 minutes and remove from heat.
  4. Stir in half-and-half and let sit for 5 minutes, covered. Gently reheat until just hot. Garnish with a swirl of pumpkin seed oil or toasted pumpkin seeds (or both).


Conjuring up equal parts Halloween creatures (in name) and tropical 60s locales (in historical reference), this potent witch's brew is sure to rattle your chains.

1 oz Apricot Brandy /1 oz light rum / 1 oz dark rum / 1 oz lemon juice /1 oz lime juice /dashes grenadine and orange juice / 1 oz 151 rum

In a cocktail shaker, mix light & dark rums and brandy. Add lemon and lime juice and dashes grenadine. Shake well and strain into a higball glass filled with ice. Fill glass with orange juice leaving room to float 1 oz of 151. Garnish with cherry, orange slice, pinapple wedge.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Relaxed Dining

We know you heard us the first seven times we said it, but just as rewarding as a multi-course dinner for eight is the casual, last-minute meal shared with a good friend or family member. Details from a couple of Two Minute Table Settings are shown above: at top are farmers' market orange baby tomatoes and raspberry jam from a breakfast with Susan McKeever on Saturday (healthy and glowing and vivacious in her eighth month of pregnancy); below is the setting for a rustic Spanish Wednesday night dinner with Jen Lazzaro, chicer as always than the peasent-themed tabletop above.

Cooking with Bourbon

Though international in scope, Cafe Drake's deepest roots formed in soil firmly below the Mason-Dixon line, and that Southern identity can never be too far from the surface. While we're putting back our Confederate dollars for a rainy day, try two recipes below featuring our libation of choice down South - bourbon whiskey. From Mother's bourbon balls at Christmas, to Whisky Sours and Mint Juleps on Derby Day, Cafe Drake remembers and proudly carries on the tradition of proudly serving this surprisingly adaptable liquor. And while it's no doubt fun to have a bottle in the kitchen while cooking, do be careful around flames and try to keep most of the spirits in the food. We too love watching drunken buffon videos on YouTube, but you don't want to end up in one.


Best with hot salty grits made rich with butter and a side of okra and tomatoes. Yankees will love it alongside mashed potatoes and pan-fried cabbage.

1 pound chicken thighs (you will probably need to remove skin, thought they are sometimes sold skinless and boneless - try Trader Joe's) / 4 ounces soy sauce /1/2 cup brown sugar /1 chopped garlic clove /1 teaspoon powdered ginger /1/2 small onion, minced /1/2 cup bourbon (no need to use the most expensive variety) /2 tablespoons white wine

  1. Mix all the marinade ingredients and pour over chicken pieces in a bowl. Cover and refrigerate (stirring from time to time) for several hours (best overnight).
  2. Bake chicken at 350 degrees for 1 hour in a single layer, basting every 10 minutes.
  3. Remove chicken. Scrape pan juices with all the brown bits into a frying pan. Heat, and add white wine.
  4. Stir and add chicken.
  5. Cook for 5 minutes and serve.


This is based on a recipe we found in Gourmet magazine years ago. The original was needlessly complicated in preparation and ingredients; the streamlined version is equally delicious and incredibly quick and easy when you're not in the mood to cook.

1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined /2 tablespoons unsalted butter /1/2 cup bourbon /2 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon tomato paste /1 cup heavy cream /1 tablespoon minced fresh dill /kosher salt /black pepper

  1. Saute cleaned shrimp in butter. Remove shrimp and set aside.
  2. Add bourbon and saute on high until liquid is reduced to a few tablespoons.
  3. Add tomato paste and cream. Simmer to reduce sauce by half.
  4. Return shrimp and add dill.

Wine Tasting Part 1 (Spain)

It was until recently the case that the best cases of Spanish wine stayed mainly on the plains of that southern nation, sold locally from vineyards or served in local restaurants. Most of the exported stuff was aimed at the low end of the market, a poor cousin to neighboring Italian and French products. With the unprecedented rise of Spanish food abroad (especially in the United States) during the early 2000s, and the virtual diefication of Barcelona chef Ferran Adria (whose restaurant, El Bulli, bullied all other professional kitchens aside to earn the title of Best Restaurant in the World from several prestigious sources) it's little wonder that we're re-examining the wines of Spain with a new appreciation.

Cafe Drake wanted to determine if a decent bottle of vino de Espana could be had for less than a Moorish king's ransom, and after a few faulty steps found three (listed below) which were both tasty and economical. All are under $15 and distributed State-side. Good enough to bring as a gift or sip on your own, each of these wines is adaptable to many types of food, though why not use a sampling as an excuse for a tapas dinner? You might also consider a Spanish wine-themed cocktail party; you only need some good green olives, toasted almonds, a few figs and a big wedge of Manchego cheese for a nibbling station.

La Ino Dry Fino Sherry
Of course sherry is the quintessential essence of Spanish wine culture, but forget the overly sweet cream varieties associated with grandmothers at cocktail time, and branch out to the drier vintages. With often dozens to choose from in a sophisticated wine store, grab a bottle of La Ino - it's crisp, mildly fruity and truly pops on the tongue. The producing winery, Pedro Domecq, has spent years perfecting ultrapremium sherries, and their expertise is evident even in this budget bottle.

Cordorniu Pinot Noir Brut Cava
We've suffered through a number of inferior cava wines in our day, so the pleasant surprise of the season is this rose sparkler. Perfect for champagne cocktails or Kir Royales, Cordorniu is also good enough to be served on its own as an apertif or with fish or fowl. One crisp sip and you'll be checking the receipt again, certain you've been undercharged for bubbles with this clean of a finish.

Valdubon Cosecha 2003
This bottle is all over the place, and easy-to-find and cheap-as-hell don't signify disappointment in a glass in this rare instance. 100% Tempranillo and smacking of dark red fruits and oaky cellars, guzzle freely with dry aged cheeses or spicy chorizo sausage.