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Au revoir to the oversized wine list

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Hasn’t the day of the bloated wine list come, and gone?

How many wines do diners need to “peruse” on a list anyway? Obviously, there’s no correct answer, so I can only speak for myself. I, personally, like a list with perhaps 50 or 60 choices. It’s manageable; you actually have the time and mental energy to think about each wine, to talk about choices with your dining companions and have an intelligent conversation with your server or sommelier.

There’s another thing about a short wine list I like, and that’s that when you see a good one, you can tell it’s been curated intelligently. Somebody in the restaurant loved that wine list enough to really think carefully about what wines to include. That person truly considered chef’s food, diners’ habits and budgets, and the restaurant’s overall concept. That is so much different from a list whose creator simply threw everything on there he could, based on big names and in the hope of winning awards like the one The World of Fine Wine (WOFW) recently published.

Would you be more tempted to dine at, say, Robuchon du Dome, in Lisbon (one of WOFW’s winners) if you knew they have 12,700 wines on the list? I wouldn’t, nor would I be enamored of having to wade through all 24 pages of the list at Bobby Flay’s Atlantic City restaurant, Bobby Flay Steak—so extensive that, like an encyclopedia, it has a table of contents.

How many Bordeaux, Cabernets, Rhônes, Pinot Noirs, Barolos and Riojas do you need, just to have a decent wine to drink with steak?

Once upon a time, these massive wine lists had a purpose. They announced that the American restaurant had come of age, in terms of wine sophistication. Baby Boomers wanted more variation on lists than had been the case in the 1960s and even into the 1970s, and so restaurants gave them more variation…and more variation…and more and more and more. Then came the era of the wine list award. The result was that many wine lists became—not useful guides for diners—but trophies, in the literal sense: the restaurant could win a plaque, then hang it in their lobby.

But those days are waning. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Michael Bauer, the senior wine critic in California newspapers, recently wrote, Wine lists have also become more compact,” an evolution paralleled by a similar shortening of menus themselves: shorter, more focused menus.”

Coravin, the wine closure and accessories company, wrote about this recently on their blog, quoting a somm who praised “smaller, more focused wine programs that are structured and presented in an approachable fashion for the consumer to extract the most pertinent information necessary”.

These twin developments–shorter menus, shorter wine lists–aren’t merely about helping restaurants save money. They’re due also to a shift in the customers’ thinking, and it’s not just because of Twitter and the 140-character brain. We have only so much time and energy in our lives; we want to devote our consciousness to important things, not minutiae. We also recognize bloat when we see it. What is more sorry than sitting down in a nice restaurant, with nice companions, only to have to trudge through a phonebook-sized wine list? Half the people at the table don’t care all that much anyway; they just want something good. So you inevitably get the “expert” studying the list, alienated from his companions, while the others, in the back of their minds, are thinking, “OMG, just pick something and get it over with.”

Here in Oakland, which is such hotbed of restaurant activity, we’re definitely seeing a move away from bloated wine lists. Oakland is the land of the pop-up restaurant, food trucks, shared kitchens, virtual restaurants, and ethnic fare from all over the world. The hot Wood Tavern, in the Rockridge District, exemplifies this new thinking about wine lists. Theirs is a bit on the longish side (about 65 selections), but it reads short and snappy, shows bottles from all over the world, both well-known and obscure, and is priced affordably. Similar in size is Flora’s wine list, easy to take in at a glance, but so well-crafted and thoughtful. Shakewell’s list is even more curated, a mere 27 bottles (not including Sherry), but really, it is positively Mondrian-esque in its spare, one might almost say spartan elegance. This is the direction I believe restaurants are headed. It’s not only easier on the diner, it means the list is more creative, and the restaurant can save money on inventory, can order more nimbly in order to take advantage of deals, and can keep prices lower. Nothing wrong with that.


Loco’l: A review

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Daniel Patterson’s first attempt at this Oakland space (2214 Broadway), which he called Plum—located at ground zero of the city’s hot Uptown District–was a failure. Plum just didn’t work for Oakland. It’s true that Commis, James Syhabout’s Michelin-starred restaurant on nearby Piedmont Ave., had succeeded with expensive conceptual food, but there’s probably just enough room in Oakland for one such place. Besides, Piedmont, about a mile away, has an entirely different vibe from Uptown: whiter, less edgy, and more receptive to upscale dining; Bay Wolf was there for decades. Uptown was scruffy Downtown until a few years ago, when the Chamber of Commerce types reinvented it. Still, for the fancy new moniker, Uptown remains a little scroungy and rough, which is the way we like it. It’s most successful fooderies for years have been Ike’s Place (awesome sandwiches to go) and Luka’s Taproom, a neighborhood pub, where the old Hofbrau used to get all rowdy on Raider nights.

Daniel Patterson eventually learned—third time’s the charm–from looking around at his neighbors. What Uptown likes is good but casual food, served up in a friendly environment that reflects the town’s urban sensibility. Plum, which was fussy and precious if not pretentious, had none of that. As Eater explained in 2014, Patterson “struggled to find [his] footing,” which made it hard for it to establish a consistent voice.” If Patterson hasn’t exactly pulled a Syhabout*, he has at least paid homage to the concept that a Michelin chef can also sell street food, with pride.

After Plum closed, other restaurants (including Patterson’s Ume, which featured haut-Japanese fare) tried their hand, unsuccessfully, at the space, which is just off the busy Broadway-Grand Avenue intersection. Patterson, though, apparently is not a man to accept the sting of defeat. He still runs Plum Bar, just next door, in the same block, and now, he has opened Loco’L,

LocoL

which he dubs “revolutionary fast food.” With nothing on the menu more than $7, it goes to the opposite extreme of the old Plum: to get cheaper food, you’d have to go to Subway, around the corner.

Patterson’s (and co-founder Roy Choi’s) concept with Loco’l is to compete with the likes of McDonald’s and Burger King, especially in low-income neighborhoods.” The idea, says the San Francisco Chronicle’s Paolo Lucchesi, is bringing good food to the state’s food deserts – on a large scale.” Another Loco’L supposedly is set to open in San Francisco’s seedy Tenderloin District, with a third launching in L.A.

I don’t particularly see Uptown as “low-income” or a “food desert”—if anything, it’s just the opposite, especially judging from the legitimate concerns on the part of locals that they’re getting gentrified out of Oakland. Just two blocks down Broadway from Loco’L is the new Uber headquarters, while kitty-corner across the street are two of Uptown’s most expensive and prestigious restaurants, Pican and Ozumo. Still, the neighborhood (let’s define it as ten blocks in all directions) has plenty of people who are looking for a good deal. They will appreciate good food at Loco’L’s prices. And judging by the crowd last night–largely ethnic and young–that’s exactly what Loco’l is going to draw.

And what of the food? You order at the register—soon you’ll be able to do it from a countertop computer—then stand in line beside the counter until they call your number.

LocolLine

Even though the line was getting long, service was fast. But there are a few wrinkles to iron out. For instance, there’s no alcohol served in the restaurant. I asked an employee about that, and she said I could take my food—“pack it out,” in her words (put it into to-go containers)—

PackItOut

and bring it next door to Plum Bar.

PlumBar

Which is exactly what I did, only to be told by Plum Bar’s bartender that this was not allowed. So clearly, this is something for Daniel to rule on. (Please, Daniel, let us eat at the bar!!!) Besides I’m not sure that I’d like to eat at Loco’l’s seating, which is rather fundamental (the seats are hard upright rectangles and so are the tables).LocolSeating

At the bar, I ordered my standard Vodka Gimlet ($12) and set myself up.

MealAtBar

I had three things: a carnitas foldie ($3), a noodleman bowl ($7),

Noodleman

and a chicken nugs crunchie ($4), for a total of $14 before tax. The foldie was awesome: A soft, flat tortilla-type dough, stuffed with spicy meat, greasy and endlessly satisfying. The noodleman was a bit of a disappointment: filling enough, with spicy, chile-hot noodles, scallions and carrots, but it could have had more flavor. Then there were the crunchies, which I devoured: your basic fried, breaded chicken nuggets, but super-good, filled with dark meat flavor, moist and savory. For fifteen bucks and change, this was a hearty, satisfying and delicious meal. Nothing fancy, but fun and oh, so Uptown. I think this time Daniel has got it right. Loco’l will be a huge success. I just hope (memo to Daniel) they let us take the food and eat at the bar.

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A few years ago, James Syhabout opened Hawker Fare, an inexpensive joint featuring the Thai street food of his youth. It’s about two blocks from LocoL; nothing costs more than $18.

 


On Bauer’s Top 100 Restaurants

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Michael Bauer, the San Francisco Chronicle’s influential restaurant critic, is out with his Top 100 Restaurants list for 2016. A close reading of it provides some glimpses into dining and other trends affecting the Bay Area.

For one, we’re definitely out of the doldrums of the Great Recession. In the dismal years 2009-2012, there was a steady drumbeat of restaurant closures in San Francisco. My town, Oakland, was the beneficiary, because lots of chefs moved their restaurants here, thus helping to fuel Oakland’s growth, especially Uptown; but it was sad to see so many places close in S.F., and so many staff lose their jobs.

Now, San Francisco’s restaurant scene is livelier and more diverse than ever. Bauer pays homage to this diversity, featuring not only old standbys like Acquerello, Commonwealth, Piperade and Boulevard, but newer ones, including Al’s Place—an inexpensive, veggie-centric (but not vegetarian) spot in the Valencia Corridor, Belga, which as the name suggests stars Belgian food, and Comal, a Mexican eaterie that’s actually is in Berkeley (and is owned by Phish’s ex-manager). In fact, I can’t remember so many Mexican restaurants on previous lists as there are now on Bauer’s.

Bauer’s range of cuisines and restaurant styles is eclectic. As he writes in his introduction, among the “predominant trends we see today” are “shorter, more focused menus…increasing use of the prix fixe format…” and—importantly—“the elevation of casual-quick service to fine-dining standards.”

Each of these trends is noteworthy. Shorter menus (and wine lists) are a welcome development; people don’t want to wade through reams of data and then feel overwhelmed in making their choices. In complicated times like ours, we want simple pleasures when we dine out. It’s true, also, that a shorter menu means the kitchen can focus more on what they do best (instead of spreading their time and talents too broadly), and the chefs also can adhere more closely to farm-to-table and locovore standards. The prix fixe format is connected to this trend towards brevity: no fussing and mussing over who pays what (we’re all sharing everything today anyway, aren’t we?), no fussy deliberation over what entrée goes with what side dish, a more relaxed experience for the diner, just what-you-see-is-what-you-get. I like that Prix fixe also means the chef is doing food she loves and wants to concentrate on.

But it’s “the elevation of casual-quick” that I really like. We’ve seen this coming for years, with the increasing quality and interest value of bar food to the to-go cuisine of markets like Whole Foods and Wegman’s. When I moved to San Francisco in the late 1970s, there were “good” restaurants you had to dress up for, and “family style” restaurants you didn’t. I first noticed the change at the old Lulu, South of Market, where the food was incredible but it felt more like a block party than did Ernie’s stuffy atmosphere, and you could wear jeans, sneakers, whatever, and still dine like a king or (more appropriate to San Francisco, a queen). Lulu’s wine list also was revolutionary: it moved away from the standards to feature interesting, inexpensive wines by the glass from places around the world. In the last few years we’ve seen this repeated time and again; here in Oakland, Boot & Shoe Service and Pizzaiolo (also on the Top 100 list) were just such spots, catering to a tattooed hipster crowd, but with food that’s absolutely divine. Perhaps the poster child for this casual-but-upscale is Hawker Fare, also on Bauer’s list, and just a few blocks from my house.

The same trends we see in restaurants can be discerned in the wine scene. “Casual-quick” is what diners, especially Millennials, are looking for in wine, too: easy-drinking, interesting stuff that won’t cost an arm and a leg–generally lower in alcohol and oak, more streamlined, but no less “fancy”—wines that can elevate a meal, but that in turn can be elevated by the food.

One unfortunate trend that’s hit San Francisco and Bay Area restaurants, though, is rising prices, due not to the greed of owners but to mandated fees imposed on them by cities: a rise in the minimum wage is the latest example. Then again, of course, the local economy in the Bay Area (and wine country) is on fire: I’ve never seen people spending money so fast. It’s a carpe diem mentality out there, people are partying like it’s 2099, and the restaurant scene is explosive. Is this another bubble? Perish the thought.


A great sushi meal in S.F., and some thoughts about somms

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Had a fantastic lunch at Pabu Izakaya, Michael Mina’s sushi restaurant at 101 California in the FiDi. My goodness, I love sushi practically more than any other food but it can be pretty generic. In this case, it was outstanding. We had a bunch of different things off the menu and ate it family style and everything was so fresh and delicious, I couldn’t help stuffing myself, down to the last piece of nigiri. Incidentally, their ahi tuna poke, served on a crispy wonton, is my desert island food. OMG, so good, and the perfect starter.

One of my fellow diners was Scott Christopher, from the House of Prime Rib, up on Van Ness, which brought back great memories. I haven’t eaten there for some time, but well remember the cart with the standing rib roast and the Yorkshire pudding, not to mention an excellent wine list. So I’m going to have to get back there, and soon. You’re never too old for that beef fix! And retro is back, as a new generation discovers just why great restaurants like the HOPR have endured through decades of wars and earthquakes and tumultuous times and emerged triumphant.

My fellow diners, including Scott, all seemed to be in their twenties and thirties, wine people, and it’s so interesting to chat with them and find out what’s on their minds. One of the questions I ask restaurant people is, “What’s hot these days?” and that always stimulates a good conversation. A topic that arises with frequency is that a restaurant can’t just have a wine (or beer, or spirits) list that contains stuff the proprietor or beverage manager or sommelier likes. It has to offer customers things they like! This would seem obvious, from a service and commercial point of view, but it isn’t always. For example, I like telling the story of the Sonoma County restaurateur who told me about another restaurant, someplace around Petaluma, that didn’t have any Chardonnay on the wine list. The reason: The somm didn’t like Chardonnay! Anyhow, the restaurateur who told me about this added that he’d heard about it from a diner, who came to his restaurant and told him she’d never go back to the no-Chardonnay restaurant again, because she likes Chardonnay, so why would she? Well, of course, that no-Chardonnay sommelier certainly didn’t do his restaurant any good. He tried to impose his own tastes on his customers. It’s all well and good for a somm to have maybe 20% of the wine list be “interesting” stuff he or she is enamored of. But the other 80% should be stuff that real customers want! The ideal somm, it seems to me, plays the role of a bridge between his tastes and those of his customers. It’s a delicate balancing act. I’ve dined in fine restaurants where the somm tried to push bizarre stuff on me that, frankly, might have been interesting by itself but was awful with the food it was paired with. We need to get past that era, which, hopefully, is ending. When somms respect wine more than they respect their customers, something is seriously askew.

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While I am affiliated with Jackson Family Wines, the postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily represent the postings, strategies or opinions of Jackson Family Wines.


Reflections on the NY Times’ demolition of Per Se

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Pete Wells’ scathing review of Per Se in the New York Times is a schadenfreud-eque joy to read. Twitter lit up with #PerSe hooting and laughing—one tweet calls Wells “my hero,” another accurately notes that “Harsh restaurant reviews are so much more fun to read than glowing ones,” while another comes right out and says what not so long ago was unsayable: Thomas Keller “is no longer the quintessential American chef.” The website amnewyork, in a fabulous gesture of lese majesté, advised Per Se to “emulate Señor Frog’s,” a moderately-placed Times Square Mexican joint Wells recently liked. Our own Inside Scoop at the San Francisco Chronicle trumpeted “Pete Wells’ Takedown” and quoted that old Shirelle’s song: “Mama said there’d be days like this.” Eater—always joyously malicious—ran “The 17 Best Reactions to Per Se’s 2-Star Takedown,” of which my favorite is “$3,000 for 4 persons? And people wonder why Bernie Sanders is surging in the polls,” although this tweet is a close second: “An hour in [to the State of the Union address] and @POTUS hasn’t mentioned that Per Se review.”

What rankled Wells, unlike his predecessor at the Times, Sam Sifton, who gave Per Se 4 stars in 2011 when he selected it for his last Times review ever and called it “the best restaurant in New York City,” was—well, pretty much everything: servors engaged in “oblivious sleepwalking” and cuisine that was “disappointingly flat-footed”: “gluey, oily” bacon-wrapped quail; mushroom pot pie that was “a swampy mess,” “limp, dispiriting yam dumplings,” a bouillon “as murky and appealing as bong water,” cheese that was “rubbery and flavorless.” (Wells’ review was so horrible that some people wondered how he could even give Per Se two stars. Mimi Sheraton, the famous food critic, tweeted, “Pete Wells in NYT review convincingly reports awful food&service&value at Per Se. Why then 2 stars meaning ‘Very good’? Why not none?”

Having myself never eaten at Per Se, I couldn’t possibly weigh in on the food quality/service issue. Maybe Wells was just having a bad hair day, and hankered to write some snark. I have on the other hand eaten at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry, on three occasions, and quite honestly my reaction was expressed perfectly by a gentleman who tweeted on the #PerSe string, “I dined at French Laundry between Christmas and New Years, and my partner and I had great expectations but were disappointed. Given the outsized reputation of French Laundry, we thought we were just rubes who didn’t understand and appreciate our experience. Our experience there was a mirror image of Mr. Wells’.”

Following my first experience at French Laundry, around a dozen years ago, I left feeling the same way: disappointed, a little confused, and fearful that I simply lacked the palate to appreciate this hautest of haute cuisine—that I was, well, a rube. It took additional disappointments, not just at French Laundry but at other gastronomic palaces, for me to finally figure out that the problem wasn’t me. Granted, dining at a place like French Laundry raises one’s expectations to levels that are probably unreasonable, and incapable of being satisfied entirely—at least, to someone like me, who has a core of skepticism about most things. I never wanted to be one of those people who eats at a place like French Laundry and finds it “unbelievable,” the “experience of a lifetime,” “breathtaking,” simply because they think they’re supposed to, and so they find what they expect.

This concept—of the skeptic versus the gullible believer—is a profound one, of course; who is better off in the long run, me with my skepticism and disappointment, or the gullible believer with his joy? I cannot answer that, because it’s an existential question that has no answer. And besides, we are who we are.

But I am also the type of person who looks for the moral of the story: and I think that the moral of Pete Wells’ review of Per Se is this: A younger generation simply isn’t as gullible as an older one. They’ve been raised in the midst of the most alarming hype the world has ever known: the media hypes everything, the news hypes everything, advertising hypes everything, your investment advisors hype everything, drug companies hype everything, everything is hustled and on steroids. Young people have reached the point where hype is not the exception but the rule. They expect hype—to be manipulated, controlled, commandeered by people who want their patronage, i.e. their money. So they react just as any psychologically healthy person would: with suspicion. This is why they have a hard time understanding why Petrus costs thousands of dollars when, really, it’s just another bottle of wine. They may realize that it’s a very special wine, that it’s famous and coveted; they may believe that it takes a certain expertise to appreciate it. But they have no problem at all conceding that they don’t have that expertise, don’t wish to have that expertise anyway, and have better things to do with their money. They do not worship expensive things the way their parents and grandparents did.

I remember one time, after eating at French Laundry ($2,400 for four people, before the tip), telling a friend I’d rather eat at my favorite Vietnamese restaurant any day of the week. Less pretension and self-consciousness; no fear of making a mistake (which fork do I use, what do I do with the napkin when I go to the restroom?), and no fear of being disappointed, because I’m never disappointed by imperial rolls, pho, cellophane noodles with shrimp. I could eat that stuff for the rest of my life. I don’t want to be a reverse-snob and say that cheap things are better. They’re not, necessarily. But good is good, and very good is very good, and great is great, and one thing I learned from being a wine critic is, You don’t have to pay a lot of money for great wine. So I guess you don’t for great food, either.

Have a lovely weekend!


Too many chefs? A culinary academy closure raises questions

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It’s a real shockeroo that the Culinary Academy in San Francisco is closing. Its graduates include Ron Siegel, now of Michael Mina but I remember dining at the old Charles Nob Hill restaurant, which he eventually left to go to Masa’s. Talk about a resumé!

There are two outposts of the culinary arts in the food-obsessed Bay Area: The Culinary Academy [also known as Le Cordon Blue] and the Culinary Institute of America, in Saint Helena. To have one of them shut down in the midst of one of the greatest restaurant booms in memory is amazing. The official reason for the Culinary Academy’s closure is high food and facility costs,” but a major financial problem was “a $40 million settlement in 2011 of a class-action lawsuit by students who claimed the school inflated graduation and job placement rates.”

According to that settlement, 8,500 students who attended the Academy between 2003 and 2008 were eligible for tuition rebates, based on the notion that “they were told a culinary degree from Le Cordon Bleu would allow them to become chefs, but that many students who graduate are unable to obtain that position.”

One hardly knows where to start in the commentary. During the first 15 years of this new century, being a chef was one of the hottest careers in America—at least, the America of the coasts, and in the urban and rapidly urbanizing centers of the country, where despite the Great Recession people had good jobs and were developing the discretionary-income behaviors of upping their food game and looking for great local restaurants in which to dine. I’m sure that many applicants to the Culinary Academy dreamt of being the next Ron Siegel, and why not? It’s a good dream.

The “chefs are hot” movement was rivaled, in our food-and-wine world, only by the “somms are hot movement,” which itself was exceeded by the “mixologists are hot” movement. Still, there seems to be enough room in our hedonistic culture for chefs, somms and mixologists to co-exist, with plenty of jobs for all.

What, then, are we to make of the Culinary Academy’s closure? I will not weigh in on the merits of the 2011 lawsuit, but clearly, even graduates of an esteemed cooking school in San Francisco found it hard to obtain the sort of work they were expecting; some of them faced “in excess of $100,000” in student loans, hardly an amount a young line chef, even if she could get a job, would be able to repay for many, many years.

I remember when I moved to San Francisco, everybody wanted to be an M.B.A. That was the hot job of the first Reagan administration. Of course, all those newly-minted MBAs didn’t get rich. That degree, too, was over-hyped and over-sold. I frequently have the same feeling about sommeliers today. There are so many ways to get certified, whatever that means, that I sometimes think, pace Warhol, that in the future, everybody will be a sommelier for 15 minutes.

But an oversupply of chefs? What else are we to make of the Culinary Academy’s closure? Clearly there are two things going on: (1) the media’s obsession with these sexy careers, and (2) the corresponding reality that there are not enough jobs for all the graduates of the nation’s cooking schools.

I believe in dreams. I made my career as a wine writer based on my dream. But that was then; this is now, and I don’t know that the dream of being a chef is based on reality. There comes a time when a career gets so popular that too many people pursue it; being a wine writer is in a similar plight today. I am second to no one in the esteem in which I hold chefs. They have been instrumental in our evolution as a culture. If I had a kid who dreamed of being a chef and asked for my advice, I’d be torn. Follow your dream? Or forget about it because the competition is so intense and the chance of success is diminishing. I honestly don’t know what advice I would give.


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