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COVID-19 and Restaurants

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Maxine, Marilyn, Keith and I have developed a dining ritual of sorts over the last 8 or 9 years: we go to Waterbar, the seafood restaurant on San Francisco’s Embarcadero, underneath the Bay Bridge, and have a couple dozen platters of the oysters du jour, with Champagne or Muscadet or some other suitable wine. The oysters during the lunch hour are only $1 each; with the spectacular views—the Bridge, sparkling San Francisco Bay, Treasure Island and, in the distance, the East Bay Hills and buildings of Oakland—it’s one of our favorite destinations, especially to celebrate a birthday.

This morning, I got an email from Waterbar. “We Miss You!” it said, advertising the restaurant’s “new Take-Home program,” starting June 4, and adding, “We will let you know as soon as we begin table service.” Well, my first thought was, I’m not going to go to Waterbar to buy oysters to take home. I can walk down the block and buy fresh oysters at Whole Foods—and they’ll even shuck them for me. The whole point of going to Waterbar is for the dine-in experience. But there’s hope! Waterbar is determined to re-open as soon as the local authorities—in their case, San Francisco’s Mayor and health officials—allow them to.

We don’t know when that will be. COVID-19 cases continue to rise in California, and there continue to be troubling “hot spots.” When restaurants are allowed to re-open, I think we all know the parameters they’ll be forced to adapt: masks (on servers and diners) and six-foot physical distancing, not to mention (probably) disposable knives and forks, paper napkins and salt and pepper packets instead of shakers. Of course, you can’t eat while wearing a mask, so how will that work out? And will we have to wear latex gloves? Will we still want to go to Waterbar under those less-than-glamorous circumstances? The view will be the same; the oysters and wine will be the same. But the experience will be less.

And there’s also the fear factor. Maxine, Marilyn, Keith and I all are senior citizens. Some of us have underlying health problems that increase our risk of getting COVID-19 and possibly dying of it. Will be feel comfortable in a public dining room, no matter how far apart the tables are? For that matter, would the four of us be able to sit at the little tables they have in the bar area (our favorite place), with so little distance between us? Part of the charm of Waterbar is bantering with the waitstaff. Will that feel comfortable?

It’s not just Waterbar. I’m going through the latest guidebook on San Francisco’s Top 100 Restaurants, from the S.F. Chronicle, and I have to admit I don’t see how some of these places will ever get back to normal. Take Atelier Crenn, the three-starred Michelin seafood-and-vegetable restaurant, where the tasting menu is $363 and, if you want wine, you’ll pay an additional $220. San Francisco is hemorrhaging jobs. It’s still a rich city (for the moment), but who’s going to be interested in paying close to $600 for dinner per person in our apocalyptic post-coronavirus environment? And the same considerations that apply to Waterbar apply to Atelier Crenn, with the masks and distancing and so on. Will people want to go there when it feels more like a hospital cafeteria?

Then there are steak houses, like the House of Prime Rib, a staple of carnivores for decades. The old-fashioned booths are spaced close together; the meat carvers pushing their tableside carts get right up close and personal to diners; and the conversation level is loud. It’s one thing to go to French Laundry and feel like you have to speak in a whisper or else the ghost of Escoffier will rise up and haunt you; but no one goes to a steak house to whisper. What will that experience be like, post-coronavirus?

And then there are communal-table places, like Lazy Bear. Two long tables sit 20 people each; bumping elbows and overhearing everyone’s conversations (and them overhearing yours) is part of the ambience. How does Lazy Bear crowd diners at communal tables post-COVID-19? Answer: They don’t.

Going through the Chronicle’s Top 100 restaurants is a sobering experience. How many will be forced to close forever? And it’s not only these top restaurants, it’s every place in town: dim sum palaces, sushi bars, burger joints, Afghan-style, Ethiopian food, fast food, kosher…no restaurant is safe. We’re already being told that such iconic institutions as public transit, the office-centered workplace and sports events are threatened, and will have to adapt to the new normal if they want to survive. The same applies to restaurants.

Well, there are more questions than answers, as usual. We’ll have to wait and see. But for a food-centered town like San Francisco, COVID-19 is a nightmare. How the City learns to adapt is completely unknown, but we do know one thing for sure: San Francisco will adapt. In one form or another, restaurants will survive. But to be honest, I don’t know about those multi-hundred dollar tasting menus. They might have met their match in COVID-19. That would be all right with me!


PinotFest 2019: Reviews and an Appreciation

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You can take the boy out of the wine critic business, but you can’t take wine criticism out of the boy…or something like that. All of which is to say that, although I’ve been happily retired for years, I still love wine tasting. It’s given me pleasure since the 1970s; why stop now?

PinotFest is a big event in San Francisco, especially since In Pursuit of Balance went out of business. It’s the annual Pinot Noir tasting, held at Farallon Restaurant, to benefit The Watershed Project, which seeks to protect the vulnerable, fragile watersheds of the Bay Area. So you not only get to taste some terrific Pinot Noirs, you also help the environment! (And thanks to Peter Palmer for always inviting me.)

One thing that’s so much fun about tasting wine is to experience how different two wines can be even when they’re grown in close physical proximity. For example, the Byron 2014 Julia’s Vineyard (94 points) and the Foxen 2016 Bien Nacido Vineyard Block 8 (92 points) were grown within about 400 yards of each other; both vineyards are on the Santa Maria Bench. And yet the wines are utterly different: the Foxen big, dark, ripe and juicy, loaded with fruit, while the Julia’s is pale in color, delicate and pure, with a tea slant to the fruit. Granted, the Byron is two years older, and the clones and vine age are different. But Bien Nacido Pinots always show this power, while Julia’s tends towards elegance. Incidentally, Foxen’s co-owner, Dick Doré, was doing the pouring honors. Great to see him looking so good.

At the same time, the Foxen 2016 Julia’s (93 points) was very close in style to the Byron ’14: pale-colored and delicate, with tea, spice and raspberry flavors. It gave me great pleasure to see these two Julias drinking so well, as that was a vineyard I was fond of even before I went to work for Jackson Family Wines. During my tenure there, I spent a lot of time in the vineyard, and watched the Jackson team work very hard to refurbish the Julia’s Pinot Noirs (which had been selling for very inexpensive prices) and boost the quality. It was crazy to name an under-$20 Pinot Noir for Jess Jackson’s and Barbara Banke’s daughter, Julia; surely that wine deserved more attention and a higher price, both of which it now has. Julia—a lovely person, who recently lost her home in the Kincade Fire—must be proud to see her namesake wines doing so well.

It also was lovely to have Byron’s winemaker, Jonathan Nagy, pour for me. I got to know Jonathan well while I worked for the Jacksons, and you couldn’t ask for a nicer man, as well as a more accomplished winemaker. He poured me the Byron 2012 Monument Pinot Noir (93 points), from the Nielsen Vineyard, on the Santa Maria Bench hard-by Julia’s. At the age of seven years, it was really beautiful: perfectly aged, a supple, lively mouthful of Pinot Noir goodness.

A few tables down from Byron’s was Calera. Now, one of the first stories I ever was assigned when I wrote for Wine Spectator was on Calera. I remember the long drive down and up into the isolated hills above Hollister, where the owner/winemaker, Josh Jensen, did me the honors of touring and tasting. Josh and I both are older now; the first thing he told me was, “I’ve retired.” Good for you, Josh: join the club! He poured me his 2016 Jensen Vineyard (94 points), from Mount Harlan, a wonderful wine. I wrote “Shows the spice and fruit and balance of this famous vineyard, but very young. Needs time.” While I was with him, Josh had me taste his 2016 Central Coast (90 points), which retails for $29. It reminded me of the old Central Coast bottling of Ken Volk’s Wild Horse Pinot Noir (a tremendously successful restaurant wine in its day), rich, fruity and racy, with some real complexity, and a good value.

Reverting back to my Santa Barbara County theme, I wandered over to Au Bon Climat’s table, hoping to catch Jim Clendenen. Sadly, he wasn’t there, but I tasted his 2016 Bien Nacido “Historic Vineyard Collection” (95 points). I last tasted that wine in the 2010 vintage, when I gave it 96 points.

I’ve always admired ABC’s wines, and this one didn’t let me down. It somehow combined that fruity power of Bien Nacido with Jim’s ability to wring elegance and translucence out of his wines. A superb Pinot Noir that will improve with time.

Etude was there, admittedly not a Santa Barbara County winery but a famous Carneros one. I used to admire their Heirloom Pinots, even as I recognized they can be bruisers when young: thick and a little heavy, loaded with fruit. So I tried the 2016 Heirloom (90 points). Yes, it was still like that. “A bit rude,” I wrote. I’d love to try some of these Heirlooms when they’ve acquired, say, 15 years of age, but I never have and probably never will.

When I saw Kathy Joseph presiding over the Fiddlehead table, I beelined over. I have fond memories of Kathy: once, when I visited her vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills, she made me a lunch of homemade tacos (I think beef, but they could have been chicken) and served one of her Pinot Noirs. It was fabulous: a perfect pairing, simple and delicious, and of course the fact that I was sitting with the winemaker, in the middle of the vineyard where the wine was made, added to the charm. Her Fiddlehead 2013 Lollopalloza, Fiddlestix Vineyard (94 points), was drinking very well, turning the age corner a little bit, but dry, crisp, subtle and complex. “Superb!” I wrote. Kathy’s 2014 Seven Twenty Eight bottling (89 points) is a sort of poor man’s Lollapalooza, a perfectly drinkable, fruity wine for drinking now.

There was a winery there I’d never heard of, Lando. They started up in 2012, the year I retired from formal reviewing and went over to Jackson Family Wines. The Lando 2017 Russian River Valley (92 points) was classic, with masses of red berries and fruits, root beer and spices, with good acidity and lots of class. The 2017 Sonoma Coast (93 points), which I believe is Petaluma Gap, appealed to me slightly more, with bright acidity and bright fruit. “Super yummy!” I wrote (that’s winespeak for delicious).

Finally, I just had to stop by Siduri’s table to pay my respects to the great Adam Lee, more white-haired than last I saw him but, hey, at least he has hair! I’d known Adam before I went to work for Jackson Family Wines, which bought Siduri in early 2015. In fact, I’d profiled Adam (and his wife, Dianna) in my 2008 book, New Classic Winemakers of California, so when Adam joined the Jackson team, I was delighted. He was pouring his 2018 Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir (89 points), a blend of Santa Maria Valley and Santa Rita Hills. A nice, fruity wine with some class, and easy to drink. Far better was Siduri’s 2016 John Sebastiani Vineyard Pinot Noir (92 points), from the Santa Rita Hills. “A huge wine,” I wrote, “tons of fruit. Could be more delicate, but fresh and savory.” (As I write these words, I ask myself if it’s fair to expect a “huge” wine to be “delicate,” as these terms seem oxymoronic. Maybe that’s the essence of a great wine: it combines contradictory qualities.)

Here’s to California Pinot Noir and the wonderful women and men who produce it! Salud!


Restaurant review: Zuni Café, San Francisco

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I like to think that if I’d had lunch last Tuesday at “Yuni” Café, I would have marveled at the food anyway.

But this wasn’t Yuni Café, it was Zuni Cafe.  Now in its fortieth year in the mid-Market section of San Francisco, Zuni is internationally famous; somehow Chez Panisse overcame it in renown, but Zuni remains vital enough that the San Francisco Chronicle included them—again—in their Top 100 Restaurants this year.

I’ve lived here for 41 years (!!!) and due to my career had access to the greatest restaurants, but for some reason I never actually made it to Zuni. I always was aware of it; it was on my bucket list. So when my cousin Keith had his birthday, and it fell to me in our Northern California family to find a restaurant for lunch, there was no question in my mind.

Zuni.

The neighborhood is sketchy, even by San Francisco standards. The mid-Market area has been marginal for a half-century; even when I lived in the City in the late 1970s and 1980s, it was a scary, dirty district of drug dealers, prostitutes and derelicts. San Francisco passed a law known as the Twitter Tax years ago to reduce taxes on big companies that relocated to mid-Market, in the hope they’d revitalize the neighborhood; Twitter was among them and is still there. Other corporations followed, but mid-Market can still seem like a visit to the Star Wars bar.

Zuni itself is in an old building, a warren of formerly interconnected office spaces, each a mini-dining room. Our table looked out over the copper-plated bar, with street views; the nearest other diner was a good 12 feet away; don’t you hate those restaurants where you’re elbow-to-elbow with other tables?

We just had to order Zuni’s most famous dish: the broiled chicken. It’s supposedly the best broiled chicken in California, maybe America. It cost $63; we decided the four of us would share it, and each could order further appetizers or entrées. We eventually decided on another Zuni speciality: two Caesar Salads for the table. To this we added a prosciutto pizza. My family had various wines and cocktails; I had an IPA.

So what does a $63 chicken taste like? Very, very good—and very salty. Was it the greatest chicken I ever had? Pretty much—and I’ve had a lot of chicken! I’m a dark-meat guy, so I had the drumstick and thigh. Amazingly delicious, sweet, moist, tender and deeply, royally, sinfully flavorful. But salty. I guess the salt is needed to make it so delicious.

When I was in my twenties I was a sous-chef at an upscale restaurant and I used to prepare Caesar salad tableside, so I know something about it. It’s a very simple salad: not a whole lot going on ingredient-wise, easily replicable elsewhere. This Caesar was a marvel. I guess the romaine was first-class, and the croutons were a marvel, but it was the dressing that clinched it. So light and delicate, so subtle with that anchovy sea tang. I absolutely loved it.

And don’t even ask me about the pizza! Look, I love pizza in any form. Zuni’s is extremely thin-crust. This one, with the prosciutto, was so good, we couldn’t believe it. My family are all foodies; Keith and I just looked at each other in wonder. How can a pizza appetizer be this good?

So it was a simple meal: pizza, salad and broiled chicken. But somehow it will remain in my memory forever as one of the great meals of my life. I have dined in restaurants that people would die to eat in. Why was Zuni so memorable? For the same reason it’s remained at the top for forty years: excellence in all its parts, resulting that mysterious je ne sais qua that makes you adore it.


A wine from my cellar, plus Bordeaux at a Basque restaurant

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A few nights ago I pulled the Charles Krug 2008 Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley), which cost $75 on release. The color was still as inky dark as a young Cabernet, but after almost precisely ten years, the aromatics and flavors had turned the corner, picking up secondary (although far from tertiary) notes. The fresh blackberries and black currants I found when I initially reviewed the wine, in the Autumn of 2011 when it was three years old, were still there, but “growing grey hairs,” as they say, becoming more fragile, and showing leathery notes and, perhaps, a little porty, due to high alcohol, namely 15.7%.

In my early review, I wrote that the wine was “certainly higher in alcohol than in the old days, but still maintains balance.” In those olden days (never to come again, alas), Krug’s Vintage Selection, always 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, hovered in the 12-1/2% range. Gerald Asher, writing in the early 1980s, credited Krug’s “influential legacy” (along with Beaulieu, Martini and Inglenook) as having contributed to “the seeds of all [stylistic Cabernet] options available to winemakers today,” a statement that remains true. His fellow Englishman, the enormously influential Michael Broadbent, in The Great Vintage Wine Book, went him one better. He gave the 1959 Krug Cabernet his highest rating, five stars, calling it “most perfect” and “a lovely rich wine,” and added, amazingly, that his friend, Edward Penning-Rowsell, who wrote the best book on Bordeaux ever (The Wines of Bordeaux), “could not fault it,” rare praise indeed from an oenophile who opined about his specialty, Bordeaux, for decades in the Financial Times. James Laube, the most important American wine critic after Robert Parker, was of more ambivalent opinion. While he called Krug’s Cabernets (first produced in 1944) “grand, distinctive [and] long-lived,” his scores on the 100-point scale were less impressive. In his 1989 California’s Great Cabernets he managed only two 90-plus scores over more than four decades of vintages of the Vintage Select (as it was then called).

I scored the 2008 Vintage Selection 93 points in 2011, and would do the same now. Admittedly, that wine took an enormous departure from the Krug Cabernets Asher and Broadbent loved. The high alcohol is a conceptual problem, and perhaps makes pairing it with food more challenging, but these are matters for our imaginations, not our palates. Organoleptically, the wine still provides good drinking. Even on release the $75 price was a bargain, when, for example, Grgich Hills already was $150, and Jarvis was a sky-high $315. Charles Krug had by then long lost its luster among the label chasers, a fickle bunch, and it must have been hard for Krug, used to being at the top, to be so overlooked, or maybe disrespected is the better word.

It’s always risky to predict the future of such wines, but I would not be surprised if the ’08 Vintage Selection is still purring away contentedly in 2028.

Tasting Légende Bordeaux at Piperade

In France “piperade” (pronounced something like “pip-rod”) is a Basque stew of onions, green peppers and tomatoes, spicy and garlicky. In San Francisco, it’s the name of Gerald Hirigoyen’s restaurant, which opened in 2002 and has long been a fixture on the San Francisco Chronicle’s Top 100 Restaurants list. It’s situated on Battery Street, an old-timely San Francisco neighborhood at the junction of North Beach, Chinatown and the Financial District, just below the cliff of Telegraph Hill: old brick buildings, lovingly restored, that now house tech hubs and architectural firms.

Piperade was where an interesting tasting of Bordeaux took place on Monday. I was invited despite my status as a retiree and had the privilege of being seated to the right of Diane Flamand, the winemaker for Légende, the Bordeaux brand that sponsored the luncheon. (I think this honor was because I was the eldest person in the room!)

Légende is owned by Domaines Barons de Rothschild (DBR), which also owns Lafite-Rothschild. It produces five what might be called “entry-level” Bordeaux: a basic red and white Bordeaux, a Médoc, a Pauillac, and a Saint-Emilion. (This latter is, of course, not within DBR’s traditional wheelhouse, but was developed in response to the market.)

I have to say how impressed I was by all five wines. The white, which was served as a conversation starter before we sat down for the meal, was fine, clean and savory, a blend of 70% Sauvignon Blanc and 30% Semillon. The red Bordeaux was equally satisfactory, being dry and somewhat austere, although elegant. The official retail price of both–$17.99, although I’ve seen them for less—made me inquire where in the Bay Area I could find them.

As we progressed through the lineup, the red wines all showed true to form: the Médoc more full-bodied than the Bordeaux, the St. Emilion wonderfully delicate and silky, and the Pauillac the darkest and sturdiest of all, as you might expect. The flight was capped off with 2010 Carruades de Lafite, the “second wine” of Lafite-Rothschild, just for the sake of comparison. As good as it was–and it was!–the other wines had nothing to be ashamed of.

During the meal, where most of the other guests (about 15 in all) seemed to be bloggers, the topic arose concerning Bordeaux’s status and popularity in the California market. I weighed in, as is my wont : ) I mentioned that younger people are looking for unusual, often eccentric wines—the kind their parents never drank—which means they’re not drinking Bordeaux. But, I added, there’s a reason why Bordeaux has been the classic red wine in the world for centuries; and that, as they get on with life, I was sure these drinkers would eventually discover Bordeaux—especially reasonably-priced Bordeaux that shows the classic hallmarks of the genre.

At any rate, if you can find these Légende wines, they’re worth checking out!


What to expect when you pay hundreds of dollars for dinner—and why you do it

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How much money is too much money for a multi-course dinner at one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s top restaurants?

That’s what the San Francisco Chronicle’s longtime restaurant critic, Michael Bauer, asked this past Sunday in this article, in which he takes to task Bay Area restaurants that raise their prices to astronomical levels but all too often fail to deliver for the money.

What kinds of prices are we talking about? $398 at Saison…$310 at French Laundry…$298 at Atelier Crenn…$220 at Quince…$500 at Meadowood…throw in some good wine and the amount soars even higher. I mean, not that long ago those prices would feed four people, not just one.

In the article, Bauer traces the evolution of this price inflation and blames it on the confluence of three things: “food-obsessed tourists” coming to the region, who are already psychologically primed to spend a lot of money on a meal; “the sophistication of the Bay Area dining public,” which includes me and, I assume, those of you lucky enough to live here; and—bottom line–“enough disposable income to indulge.” The latter apparently is no problem here in San Francisco, which sometimes seem like it’s swimming in money the way Uncle Scrooge used to in the comics.

UncleScrooge

How much you choose to spend for dinner is up to you, of course. But I agree with Michael Bauer when he says, “[N]o matter the price tag, there has to be a sense of value. High prices are not a given; they have to be earned.” I’m sure you agree, too; the problem is that these places would not be able to get away with these exorbitant prices if people weren’t prepared to pay them. I’ve had my share of these dinners (Saison, French Laundry, Meadowood and others, including beyond the Bay Area), and was fortunate in that somebody else was usually picking up the tab. But everytime I have one of these meals, I think, “For this price, I could eat at any of my favorite restaurants in Oakland ten times.” This is true, I’m sure, for everybody else, so why do people continue to queue up for seats at these palaces of gastronomy?

For the same reason they line up for the most expensive wines. There are psychological phenomena at work, ranging from not wanting to miss out on something special, to bragging rights and an authentic curiosity about what food at that price tastes like, how it’s served, and the ambience in the restaurant. We foodistas are understandably passionate about great meals. It goes with the territory if you’re a wino. Still, the psychological part fascinates me. I sometimes feel like an anthropologist who’s parachuted into the Bay Area to observe the social habits, including dining, of the natives. Like Margaret Mead when she observed Samoan culture in the 1920s, I want to understand the behaviors of a very particular group: well-educated, primarily white, middle-aged gourmands who are able to afford to eat in the top restaurants of Napa Valley, San Francisco and the Bay Area in general.

This group radiates confidence and refined sensibilities, but at heart they also suffer from a sense of insecurity. Although they possess many things in the form of material comforts, they feel like something is missing from their lives. What it is, cannot be accurately defined; if it could, they would possess that, too. Perhaps the thing they feel is missing cannot be possessed, but one never knows until one has tried. And so the search goes on, for a greater wine, a greater vacation destination, a greater restaurant experience. As Buddhism points out, “desire” is the attempt to fill a spiritual hole that cannot be filled; the pursuit of things to fulfill desire will always be fruitless; the rarest commodity in the world will not really fulfill desire because change—irresistible, inevitable—soon will have us feeling dissatisfied again. And so back at it we go, seeking an ever greater food, wine, exotic locale.

Well, I don’t mean to be the snake at the garden party. I like good food and wine as much as you do. And I don’t care what somebody spends at Quince, or what they don’t spend; it’s no skin off my nose. I do hope that people who drop these big bucks at restaurants are also using their money in more charitable ways, to help others; and I think there’s something to be said about frugality as an attitude towards life. We don’t see much frugality in the Bay Area; we see a lot of its opposite, profligacy. That means “the careless and foolish wasting of money.” Again, of course, it’s not my place to tell you or anybody else what to do with your money. I can only speak for myself.


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