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Inside the somm’s mind: pairing 18 wines with 22 courses

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Mark Bright is co-owner and wine director of Saison, which he founded three years ago with his friend and business partner, chef Josh Skenes. The restaurant has lately become famous for being the most expensive in San Francisco, despite its location in one of the city’s edgiest neighborhoods, the Mission District. A 22 course tasting menu, featuring 18 wines, will set you back $498. I wondered how Bright, a Bellagio alum who came up through the Michel Mina empire, and who calls Rajat Parr his “mentor,” goes about pairing wines under such complicated and challenging conditions. Skenes may change a course recipe in the middle of an evening, adding an ingredient that completely changes the directional compass of a dish, thus forcing Bright to quickly come up with a new wine to pair it with. We had a nice little chat about all this yesterday. Here are excerpts from that conversation, in what you can think of as a tour of a sommelier’s conscious mind.

First, Bright on that $498 price tag. “You have to realize, the ingredients are so expensive. We have a fulltime forager on staff! It’s not a price we aimed for, it just fairly covers our costs. Take the caviar course. The caviar itself is $20-$25 per serving, and that’s just one ingredient for one dish, plus there’s 21 other courses. Some courses have 40 ingredients in them. So it’s about us giving the diners everything we’ve got.”

Which comes first, the wine or the food? “It always starts with the food. I’ve worked so closely with Josh for so long that, when he explains what direction he’s going, I get a preliminary style of wine I think will work. Josh will tell me the dish’s components, I’ll taste them, separated on their own, to see their acidity levels, flavors and textures, and I’ll have it down to 2 or 3 wines at that point. If he changes something suddenly–which happens all the time, many things can happen in a kitchen, maybe he just wants to try something new–I’ll taste just the component change, not the entirely prepared new dish. It’s not a given that the wine has to change, but if the dish changes dramatically, then you have to change the wine. The thing is, every wine brings out different things in a dish. One wine might bring out the food’s earthiness, while another brings out the high tones and a third brings out the acidity. There’s no right pairing; there are a lot of amazing pairings, but you can never say there’s one perfect pairing with a dish. As long as both the food and the wine are enhanced, you’re doing something right. Also, wine grows and matures in the bottle, so in any given dish, if the ingredients remain the same over time, at some point that wine will take itself out of the running.”

Do we collectively get too precious and stressed out over perfect pairings? “You know what? A lot of the time, that does happen, and you know why? I see people doing wine pairings just to be creative and outlandish, completely forgetting the one important fact: it has to be delicious! More than it has to be creative. When I see people do that, I’m like, Wow, what are you trying to prove? You can’t force a good pairing. It just has to be delicious.”

What does Bright eat and drink at home? “Ice cream sandwiches! But honestly, I eat a lot of fish, because my fiance’s Chinese. I love Indian food. An earthy, meaty Syrah works great with it. Cornas, amazing, mind blowing. But I also keep a lot of beer in the fridge. When you’ve been drinking wine all day, there’s nothing better than a cold beer.”


Random notes on a dinner at Saison

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Last night’s dinner at Saison really was a tremendous experience. I lost track of how many courses were served. The official menu lists twelve, but there were more than that, especially with the desserts, which just keep arriving, one after another.

This seems like a lot of food, but in reality, it’s not: most of the courses could literally fit into a teaspoon. In fact, I was still hungry at the end, so much so that I made myself a bacon sandwich when I got home.

The point of an experience like dining at Saison, then, is not to fill your belly but to appreciate, on an intellectual and esthetic basis, what the kitchen is capable of doing. While I took notes on each course, they were of necessity incomplete: when I asked our server to tell us about a course listed simply as “caviar,” he got as far as saying it was from American white sturgeon, on a grilled bread gelée, and there was something about chicken, but then he stopped himself short and said that, if he were to explain every single ingredient, and how it had been cooked, he would be there forever. I wrote, concerning that caviar course, “It tastes like one thing,” while in reality it was many different things, all put together so seamlessly that it had the purity and simple beauty of, say, a bite of lobster or of a ripe, plump pear.

And so it was with every course: the pea and parmesan broth, which was actually a custard, the tiny, succulent scallop plate, the vegetables–harvested or foraged in San Francisco, although no one in the restaurant would tell me exactly where (from some hill someplace, I would think: Bernal Heights?), the brassicas, mustard-style bitter greens, also foraged, a rich morsel of rabbit, lamb, a farm egg. The word that kept occurring to me was umami, which to my way of thinking means so much more than merely savory. These are bites of food that stun: your first reaction is OMG, and then you experience the brief ecstasy of such pleasure, and finally your last reaction is a repeat of OMG, and then the server shows up with yet another course.

I liked Saison’s ritual of having a different chef present each course, although I wish the restaurant would hand out little prepared pages of information on each food, instead of the chef stating rapid fire what it was. So much information, so little time to absorb it, or to even hear each word distinctly, with the noise of human conversation and rock music all around.

The service was impeccable, the staff charming and well-informed, the dining room smallish and warm. Saison’s location is a little edgy: at Folsom Street and 17th Street, a few blocks south of the blossoming Valencia Corridor, in a neighborhood that’s as gritty as when I lived there, 25 years ago. Just in front of Saison, I met, by sheer happenstance, an old friend, Amy Cleary, who used to work at the University of California Press when they published my two books. She lives in the neighborhood and told me that that stretch of Folsom Street is rapidly gentrifying. (I kind of figured that out when I saw the new Mission Bowling Club, an authentic bowling alley with restaurant and bar, a block from Saison.) I wonder what the denizens of the Mission District will do, where they will go, as their rents soar and they’re squeezed out. Still, walk along Mission Street, between, say, 16th and 18th, and it remains a riot of bodegas, thrift shops and dive bars, the sidewalks choking with individuals of colorful, if questionable, appearance, the scent of pot everywhere, beggars sitting on the curbs, staggering drunks, young kids on stoops listening to Mexican music on the radio, the Spanish language as common as English, shopkeepers pulling down burglar-proof metal doors on their furniture stores as the business day comes to an end, young mamas pushing baby carriages, old people pacing their way carefully along the crowded sidewalks, carrying bags of bananas and mangoes and bread, police cars routinely patrolling this high-crime area, and all the hipsters, pouring into the clubs and bars as soon as their workday is over, starting their drinking early. Speaking of which, try the Venetian Coast cocktail at Bar Locanda. Tequila, luxardo bitters, lemon, cucumber and salt. A magnificent achievement, and the bartender is pure Nureyev, without the tights. I had one right before the Saison dinner commenced, at 6:30, the perfect way to begin an evening of pleasure (as was the bacon sandwich the perfect way to end it).

 


Can any meal possibly be worth $498?

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Before we consider this interesting question, we have to ask ourselves if any wine can possibly be worth $750, or $3,000, or–gasp–$168,000, as that bottle of Penfold’s 2004 Block 42 Cabernet Sauvignon just went on the market for. [Before you open the link, know that the advertisement preceding it is really annoying.]

I think all of us, possessing common sense as we do, would agree that $168,000 is too much to pay for a bottle of wine. But $750 for Screaming Eagle? Maybe. Where you stand, as they say, depends on where you sit. Here are some other expensive wines, courtesy of the wine-searcher website, which each of you will have to decide is worth the price of admission.

That $498 dinner, by the way, can be found at Saison, a restaurant in San Francisco (and in the Mission District, which those of you unfamiliar with San Francisco should know was, until relatively recently, the divier part of town). Saison recently announced a 22 course, 18 drink din-din. Josh Sens’ account, in San Francisco Magazine, is a good read (and the magazine itself, in its latest iteration, is gorgeous and always worth spending time with).

The most expensive meal I ever had was at French Laundry. A friend called me one day: he had a friend, a Brazilian investment banker whose hobby was dining at the world’s greatest restaurants. (I guess that’s more fun than collecting chia pets.) He, the Brazilian guy, was going to be in the States for a two-week window. He’d tried to get 3 seats at French Laundry, but couldn’t. My friend said if I could get 4 seats, the banker would include me as his guest. This was an offer I couldn’t refuse. I pulled a few strings [rank hath its privileges], got the requisite 4 reservations, and so one fine evening we drove up to Yountville and did the Laundry. (That’s how I imagine Michelin devotees talk. Or maybe it’s “did Keller.”)

We opted for the chef’s special tasting menu. It was pretty good, but, being 14 courses or so, I can’t say that everything knocked me out. I also thought some of the wines were just so-so, or not all that cleverly matched with the food. The night’s denouement of sticker shock came when the servor brought the bill. We all discretely hushed as the banker looked at it. I swear I saw his chin drop down to his chest. It was $2,400, before the tip. A lot, even for a Brazilian banker.

Well, that came down to $600 per person, more even than Saison, and I didn’t think it was worth it, at least, food-wise. The experience itself, as sheer existentialism? Sure. Now I can boast I’ve eaten at French Laundry. (Actually, it’s been three times over the years.) But I eat at restaurants for gustatory pleasure and socializing, not bragging rights, and one of the dreariest conversations I can conceive is when people start babbling about all the Michelin palaces they’ve dined at around the world.

Readers of this blog know that I generally eschew snobby things. Not the things in themselves: the wines and the foods, which I love, but the attitudes that so often contaminate their consumption. (We live in a very poor world that’s getting poorer in many ways and conspicuous consumption turns me off.) Still, would I refuse an invitation to dine at Saison? No, and here’s proof: I just accepted one. (No, I won’t be paying for it.) It won’t be Chef Skenes’s full 22 course extravaganza, but it will be a dozen courses, with ten wines. My interest is part gustatory, but the reporter in me wants to know what all the fuss is about. The dinner is tomorrow, Wednesday; I’ll blog about it, probably on Friday, unless I can stumble home to Oakland late Wednesday night, sated and sloshed, and pound something out for Thursday morning. Probably not.


Foie gras ban: What do you think?

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I’ve been watching this foie gras brouhaha unfold in California for the past several months, unable to wrap my head around it. Background: the state passed a law that went into effect on July 1 banning the sale of foie gras made by the conventional method: force-feeding birds.

Next thing you know, foie gras lovers were up in arms. Companies that manufacture the stuff sued the state. Conservative and libertarian publications denounced it as an unConstitutional intrusion of Big Government. Restaurant owners are said to be openly defying the new law, daring to be arrested, while some are taking a more interesting approach: one owner whose restaurant is in the Presidio national park says the law doesn’t apply to him because his place is on federal land, not California–even though it’s right in the middle of San Francisco.

What’s baffled me are not the legal issues, which I don’t understand and will leave to the courts to unwravel, but the moral ones. Personally, I don’t care for foie gras. Never did like the stuff. I’ve had plenty of it on my plate over the years, thanks to all the wine dinners I get invited to (I’d certainly never buy foie gras), but I generally leave it alone, or offer it to someone else who’s more of a paté lover than I am. Foie gras is pure fat; to me, it’s like eating Crisco. I don’t want that in my body.

But then there’s the moral issue of force-feeding the birds, and this is when I get brain freeze. I certainly don’t like thinking about it: putting a tube or funnel down the bird’s throat, then shoving food down there. The practice is known as gavage. Here’s the Wikipedia definition: “…the practice of feeding a person or an animal against their will. The term ‘gavage’ refers to the supplying a nutritional substance by means of a small plastic tube passed through the nose or mouth into the stomach…”.

Seems like it would hurt–a form of torture, actually. Who could possibly be in favor of that, especially since the point of it is merely to supply needless calories to a population already severely overweight?

But then I start thinking that every animal product I eat is the result of some form of torture. My chicken, my salmon, my lamb, they all come from cute little animals that have been killed for my pleasure. A chef once told me that the reason why Japanese wagyu, or Kobe, beef is so superior to Texas or Australian versions is because in Japan there are no animal cruelty laws: the poor cattle are penned in for their entire lives, so that they never develop muscles. (When I learned that, I decided never again to eat Japanese Kobe beef.)

I have several friends who are vegans or vegetarians for precisely this reason: they cannot countenance their well-being and happiness based on the imprisonment and murder of other (conscious, feeling, suffering) animals. (I admit to occasionally wondering if that ear or corn or stalk of wheat feels pain when it’s summarily chopped off from its living root.) While I’m not about to give up meat, I have enormous empathy for those who have. In a way, they’re my moral superiors.

So foie gras? Like I said, I just don’t know where I stand on this one. I’ll wait and see how it plays out. What do you think?


A perfect food day in Oakland

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Yesterday was all about food in the Heimoff household. I was on deadline to complete a piece for Wine Enthusiast’s online site about foods that Napa chefs prepare for garden parties and wine tastings during our glorious summer months. I’d tasted through about 50 little munchies during the Napa action walkaround event at Jarvis, chosen 5 or 6 to write about, and gotten agreement from the chefs that they would work with me to develop the recipes and then come up with wine recommendations.

First let me segue by telling you how difficult it is to work with chefs! If you want to know why, read (or listen to) Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain’s funny insider’s tale of life as a cook. I’m used to having winemakers or their P.R. reps return my phone calls and follow through on their promises. They’re very good about that. Chefs? Fageddaboudit! It’s like pulling teeth. I had to beg, cajole, threaten, practically get on my knees and cry. But it all came together, so I got my recipes: golden tomato gazpacho with toasted garlic, basil and lemon; tuna taco with nuoc cham sauce and guacamole; and Dungeness crab Louis. You can read all about it, hopefully by next week, on the magazine’s website.

All that talking and writing about food made me a hongry honcho, so I hightailed it down to Whole Foods with Gus and bought a tofu burger sandwich on a 7-grain bun. Filling enough, but the chicken enchiladas in the prepared food area looked so good, I bought a box of that too. Ate them both right in the car, as Gus watched pleadingly but unsuccessfully. I never share my food with him, and he never shares his food with me.

But I’d invited Marilyn for dinner, so the eating was just getting started. I was bushed after completing the recipe article and in no mood for fancy cooking, so when Marilyn arrived–late, due to traffic; the Giants game had just ended [WE WHIPPED L.A.’S ASS! GO GIANTS!]–I told her that, contrary to our usual tradition, we’d be going to a restaurant, instead of me cooking up a meal. I had been planning on making–you won’t believe this–a Reuben sandwich, something I hadn’t had since I was a kid growing up in Da Bronx. It’s not the usual semi-fancy thing I like to cook for Marilyn, but I’m reading Jacques Pepin’s delightful memoir, The Apprentice, where on page 148 he has a recipe for a Reuben he says he became “a sucker for” after he moved to NYC (and approvingly quotes James Beard, “who said not many people appreciate a good sandwich.”).

But I was tired, so the Reuben will have to wait. Instead I decided to take Marilyn to the new Indian-Pakistani restaurant that opened in my hood when my old, favored Chinese restaurant closed. I hadn’t been there, but Rajeev, who is decidedly Indian, told me the food was good, so The House of Curries it was. But first, it was back to Whole Foods, for a half pound of cold smoked salmon, a jar of crême fraiche and a loaf of ciabatta, for an appetizer. I like to slice the bread thick, rub it generously with mashed garlic, drizzle it with extra virgin olive oil, and then–extravagantly–top each slice with a sliver of butter, then toast the bread on one side only in a toaster oven until the bread turns a golden brown around the edges. Top with the smoked salmon, add a smear of crême fraiche, and voila. With it we consumed the rest of a bottle of Domaine Carneros’s non-vintage Cuvée de la Pompadour brut rosé, which I’d reviewed the night before. It had been so good, I’d saved the rest, instead of pouring it down the drain, the fate that most of the wine I review suffers.

So we were already feeling good and sated by the time we stumbled down the hill to The House of Curries. We had the usual assortment–beef and lamb tandoories and chicken tikka masala and naan and jasmine rice so on. Unfortunately, the restaurant doesn’t have a liquor license yet, but there’s a market down the block with a wide assortment of beer (which is better with Indian food anyway), and our waiter encouraged me to get some and drink it at our table. So we did. A couple bottles each of Anchor Steam and some Mexican brand whose name I don’t recall but it was really good.

In Pepin’s book he talks about how amazed he was at the unconsciousness or ignorance of Americans in general about food when he came here, in the 1960s (did you know he was offered the job as White House chef for JFK but turned it down to be a head cook for Howard Johnson’s?) People, he said, looked at food as sustenance, rather than pleasure, as he’d been raised in France to do. I’m not sure I agree: As a boy of that time, I remember taking great pleasure in the foods my mother gave me: simple but satisfying things like grilled chicken, veal parmigiana, French toast, bacon and eggs, and, of course, bagels and lox. But I take Jacques’s point: As he wrote, the word or concept of “foodie” had not yet been invented.

Now it has. One of the things I love about Oakland is that it is truly a foodie’s Paradise. So many ethnicities, so many interesting and charming little local restaurants, so many weird and wonderful markets (Korean, Afghan, Ethiopian) to delight in. I love my wine country cuisine, yes I do, but don’t try and get between me and my Ye Feseg Beyaynetu at Ensarro.


It’s not the points, it’s the pairing

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I have never heard of a wine critic who didn’t try to educate the public that the higher scoring wine isn’t always the best one to drink with the food.

I’ve tried to get this point across since forever. Sometimes, the principle is proved in dramatic ways. Marilyn made lamb shanks with roasted polenta on Saturday night. This is a rich dish, being at once creamy, sweet, smoky, spicy, fatty and meaty. It obviously called for a red wine, but which variety?

I immediately ruled out Pinot Noir, for obvious reasons. But that left many other possibilities. In the event, here are the wines I opened (my reviews and scores will be in future editions of Wine Enthusiast):

Mayacamas 2007 Merlot. From Mount Veeder, it had alcohol of 14.5%.

Corison 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon. With 13.6% alcohol, this was a typical Corison Cab, dry and rather austere.

Hunter III 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, with ABV of 14.5%.

Clif Family 2009 Gary’s Improv Zinfandel. The alcohol was 14.5%.

Sanguis 2009 The Prophet Syrah, alcohol at 15.7%.

Sanguis 2008 The Ballad of John Henry Red Blend, alcohol 16.3%.

Can you guess which wine was the perfect match?

The Mayacamas Merlot, good as it was, was simply too lean and tannic to stand up against the food, which made it taste and feel even drier and harder than it already was. Ditto with the Corison.Very lovely wine, ageworthy, but too aloof for the food.

Regarding the two Sanguis wines, I had high hopes. I personally have no problem with high alcohol in California table wines if they’re balanced, which Sanguis wines always are. I’ve been reviewing them for a couple years, and I get off on that heady richness.

I figured, intellectually, that a big, rich, high extract, high alcohol wine was just what the lamb-polenta dish needed, but I was wrong. Oh, the match was okay. I wouldn’t have thrown a hissy fit if you’d invited me to your home for dinner and paired either one. But neither of the Sanguis wines really fully meshed with the food. It was like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

Then we came to that Clif Family Zinfandel, and badda bing! Perfection. It wasn’t just the complementarity of flavors–spiciness, smokiness, sweetness–or the wine’s rich tannins, which cut marvelously through the greasiness of the lamb. It had also to do with the wine’s weight in the mouth. Yes, the Sanguis wines (I’ve been trying throughout this entire post to avoid pluralizing Sanguis as “Sanguises”) were full-bodied and dense, as was the food, but they [the wines] were too full-bodied and sweet and hot. The lamb dish, rich as it is, had an earthiness that was perhaps from the herbs Marilyn added, or the charring of the meat before she braised it, or the polenta’s slight corn starchiness, or a scattering of root vegetables she had put in there; and with these elements the Sanguises (there, I said it) failed.

The Zinfandel by contrast was perfect. Element for element, there was perfect complementarity. The dish itself is slightly rustic, which is just the kind of food Zinfandel loves. It also was less expensive than most of the other wines, and the score I assigned it was lower than for the Sanguises, although not by much. The point being that score alone is simply not enough information to consider before deciding what to pair with what at the table.

So what does point score reflect, anyway? It reflects the success of that bottle relative to all other bottles of that type in the taster’s experience (which is why tasting a whole lot of wine over a long time makes one a better taster). It reflects the reviewer’s impression of that success, or lack thereof. Put into another context, it reflects the degree to which the wine “has texture and pleasure,” in the simple, cogent words of Michel Rolland, as quoted to me by Screaming Eagle’s Armand de Maigret. Point score reflects all these things (and a good deal more), but what it does not reflect, and never cab, is how well or badly a wine will accompany any particular food.

So we’re back where we started. Buy wine for the pairing possibilities, not for the points. That’s the single most important lesson score-obsessed consumers should remember.


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