Meridian Star

April 8, 2008

You’ve come a long way, Mississippi

By Robert St. John

In 1987, when I opened The Purple Parrot Café in my hometown of Hattiesburg, the wine situation in Mississippi was bleak.

At the time the Alcohol Beverage Control Division of the Mississippi State Tax Commission, the state agency that purchases, stocks, and distributes liquor and wine, had only been in the wine business for 20 years. During those two decades the state’s wine list was extremely small in scope. Statewide, overall wine awareness — among the ABC, the restaurateurs, and the consumers — was limited.

Wine appreciation was sweeping the country. Mississippi was still trying to catch up. “In 1983, when I opened my restaurant, I tried to make a special order for wine and the state couldn’t do it,” said Nick Apostle, owner of Nick’s restaurant on Lakeland Drive in Jackson, and one of the main reasons Mississippi’s wine program has moved forward into the 21st century.

Nick fought the battle harder than any of us. He worked tirelessly with the ABC to increase wine availability. In 2002, he took a contingent of six Mississippi legislators to Napa Valley to “educate them as to how winemakers do business with other states,” and he did it on his own dime.

Nick, along with the members of the Mississippi Restaurant Association, has made great strides working with the ABC to increase the availability of first-rate wines in the state. We have certainly come a long way.

The overall perception is that one can’t purchase good wines in Mississippi. That is simply not the case. “A lot of times we can get wines that can’t be purchased in bordering states, and at good prices,” said Clint Taylor, my business partner, and the sommelier at the Purple Parrot Café.

“There are times nowadays when we can buy excellent wines through the state of Mississippi cheaper than they’re being sold at the best wine shops in Louisiana,” said Apostle.

As a perfect example of how far we’ve come, I can proudly turn to my restaurant’s fourth annual New South Wine Expo which will be held April 18th at the train depot in historic downtown Hattiesburg.

There will be 34 world-class winemakers from California, Oregon, Washington, New Zealand, Spain, France, Australia, Germany, South Africa, Portugal, and even China flying in for the event. These winemakers will be traveling to Hattiesburg to sample over 100 of their best wines, some of which aren’t available in Mississippi, some of which aren’t available anywhere. Many of the wines have won multiple winemaking awards from Wine Spectator and Robert Parker, Jr.

Many of the wines at the expo are highly allocated. Some states can’t even get a single case. Roger Roessler, of Roessler Cellars, will be pouring an extremely limited wine in which only 125 total cases were produced. Sean Larkin, of Larkin’s Wines, will be pouring his Cabernet Sauvignon, of which only 220 cases were produced. Every bottle of wine that Larkin produced last year is gone, yet he will be in town on the 18th sampling his wares. Yes, in Mississippi, believe it.

It’s a one-of-a-kind evening for wine lovers and wine novices. Best of all, 100 percent of the profits from the New South Wine Expo will go to the Hattiesburg Arts Council to help fund arts programs for under-resourced youth in the area. For tickets call the Purple Parrot Café (601) 264-0656 and help continue to put art back in the neighborhoods that need it most.

I am a teetotaler from way back. My business partner and his management team handle the wines while I take care of the food. But it’s amazing when one looks back over the course of 20 years in the restaurant business in Mississippi— from a small list littered with cheap jug wines to an evening with winemakers flying in from all over the world. Thanks, Nick.

For this week’s recipe, Foie Gras with Toasted Brioche, Fig Relish and reduced Port Wine Glaze, go to the blog on www.robertstjohn.com.



Robert St .John is an author, chef, restaurateur, and world-class eater. He is the author of seven books including the upcoming New South Grilling. He can be reached at www.robertstjohn.com .



Foie Gras with Toasted Brioche, Fig Relish and reduced Port Wine Glaze



1 lb. Foie Gras cut into 2 ounce slices

1 1/2 tsp kosher salt

1/4 tsp fresh ground black pepper

8 Slice Fresh Brioche, crusts removed and cut in half on a diagonal

1 recipe Fig Relish

1 Recipe Port Wine Glaze

Preheat oven to 450

Arrange the brioche on a baking sheet.

Season the foie gras with the salt and black pepper. Heat a large skillet over high heat and arrange the foie gras in the skillet so they do not touch. Cook 45 seconds. Carefully turn each piece over and cook for 1-2 minutes. Turn off the heat.

Place the brioche in the oven to toast.

To serve, place one piece of the brioche toast on each serving plate, top with one piece of the cooked foie gras. Top each piece of foie gras with 2 tsp of the fig relish. Rest another piece of toast atop of the foie gras. Drizzle the plate with the port wine glaze and serve immediately.

Yield: 8 servings.



Fig Relish



1 Tbl butter

2 Tbl minced shallots

1 1/2 cups whole fig preserves, small dice

2 Tbl brown sugar

2 Tbl sherry vinegar

2 Tbl minced celery

2 Tbl small diced red peppers

1/2 tsp fresh thyme leave, chopped

salt and pepper to taste

Melt the butter over low heat in a small sauce pot. Cook the shallots for 3 minutes. Add in the diced figs and brown sugar, and cook 5-6 minutes, stirring often to prevent sticking and burning. Add in the sherry vinegar, celery and red bell peppers and lower the heat. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring often. Add thyme, salt and black pepper and remove from heat. Best if made a day or two in advance. When ready to use, warm it slowly in a small sauté pan over a low heat.

Yield:

1 1/2 cups



Port Wine Glaze



1 cup chicken stock

1 Tbl brown sugar

1 cup port wine

2 tsp balsamic vinegar

Place all ingredients in a small sauce pot. Simmer and reduce until mixture forms a thick syrup.

Yield: One quarter cup