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This is not about The French Laundry

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I enjoyed Hosemaster’s spoof yesterday, so decided to re-run this little ditty I wrote a while back.

* * *

The day had finally arrived.

It had taken 6 months, but now it was here: My dinner at America’s top restaurant, La Lavanderie du Paris!

It all started with a phone call. Or, I should say, ten phone calls — for, no matter how often I dialed the reservation number, there was no answer.

And why should there be? Why should the clerk at La Lavanderie du Paris stoop to answer the telephone? Does the Pope personally answer calls to the Vatican?

That meant driving to Yondertown to make the reservation. It was 300 miles away; I set aside the weekend of the 6th. I told Linda, my wife, about it.

“You’re driving where?  For what?”

“Yondertown. To get reservations at La Lavanderie du Paris.”

She looked at the calendar. “That’s the weekend of Sally’s school play.” Sally was our 9-year old. I had to be there.

But there was no other choice. I wanted to bring Linda to La Lavanderie for our fifteenth anniversary, in December. All the other weekends were booked; the 6th, it would have to be.

“You can take pictures of the play,” I said. Linda pouted but yielded. I think she was not averse to dinner at America’s greatest restaurant.

I left at dawn, in a storm. It took 6 hours. I had no trouble finding La Lavanderie du Paris. There it was, the perfect Platonic bistro, in its block of white-bricked shops, each with shutters and winding ivy.

My heart pounded and my throat grew tight as I gripped the door knob. I turned; it resisted. I turned again, more forcefully. It was locked. I stepped back. There was a sign in the window:

Hours: 4 p.m. – midnight.

I looked at my wristwatch. Just past noon. The rain was pounding down. With nothing to do, I headed back to the car, and fell into a cold, cramped doze.

I awoke precisely at 4 with a sore neck. This time, the door was more forgiving. I entered the sanctuary. It was dim, all old wood, red leather and French countryside etchings. There were scents of grilling meat, broiling butter and Provencal herbs. A busboy crossed my path; he was carrying a bottle of ‘01 L’Attitude de Larchemont.

An electric thrill shot up my spine. I was truly here in the culinary holy of holies. I felt like a supplicant at Lourdes, on the receiving end of a divine cure.

On my right was a little podium with the “Reception” sign. Behind it was a man in a tuxedo, imperious, powerful. He saw me, and looked away.

“Uh-hem,” I politely coughed.

He didn’t exactly wrinkle his nose. He just seemed to. “May I help you?”

“Yes, thanks. I’d like a reservation. For two.”

He solemnly cast his gaze down, apparently at a book below eye level.

“We have something available in March.”

I did a quick calculation. Today was the 6th — of April. He meant March of next year: Our anniversary was in December. March was out of the question.

“I’m afraid that’s a little too far off. I’d prefer something before Christmas.”

He smiled. No, “smile” isn’t the right word. His lips twisted into a grimace that was equal parts mirth, irony and loathing. It was meant to reduce me to nothingness.

“Impossible.” His adamant tone brooked no appeal.

But he had raised my dander. “Look here, I’ve just driven 6 hours in a storm. Do you know who I am?” I fumbled for my card; that ought to impress him, I thought, before realizing that, in my haste, I’d forgotten to bring any cards.

There was a scene. The manager came out, the sommelier, even the sous-chef. I dropped one or two names. I knew how to play the game. I got my reservation: December 5th. The clerk glared at me as if to say: I will have my hour. I drove home with the sweet taste of victory in my mouth.

The big day came. I booked a room at a little inn in Yonderville. Linda and I drove up. Even she was excited, having long gotten over our non-attendance at Sally’s play.

We parked. La Lavanderie du Paris’s frosted windows glittered with candlelight in the dark Yonderville night. We crossed the magic portal. I helped Linda out of her stole. We approached the podium. The face was familiar. It was him, still imperious, still evil. He recognized me, knew I was coming.

“Table for ___,” I said, politely, giving my name.

He glanced down at the unseen reservation book.

“I’m sorry, I have nothing for that name.” He looked up and smiled blandly, as if explaining the obvious to a simpleton. But his eyes glowed with malice.

Another scene. The manager wrung his hands, explained there must have been some dreadful mistake, he was eternally sorry — but one had to face facts. There was simply not a table available all night.

Linda touched my elbow, our signal for “Don’t hit anyone.” My thoughts were racing out of control. I looked over at the clerk. He was back behind his podium, carefully avoiding my eye.

It ended on a compromise. We were permitted to order off the menu — for takeout. No charge; the manager insisted. There was a Piggly-Wiggly down the block where we could buy paper plates and plastic utensils. And I learned a valuable lesson. There are enemies worthy of one’s animosity, foes to engage in combat; but the reservation clerk at La Lavanderie du Paris is not one of them. In restaurants, as in life, one must choose one’s battles.


In the Internet era, what makes a wine review credible?

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There’s a brouhaha (or is it a kerfluffle?) going on in San Francisco concerning the relative merits and demerits of Yelp and Open Table.

Both online sites began in San Francisco, so the city’s netizens have a lot of interest in them. And, to the extent that both allow anyone to critique restaurants, that interest has expanded to an obsession in food-crazy Ess Eff, where people take their restaurants up close and personally.

Yelp is currently in a declining state of popularity here. Google “Yelp” and “credibility” and all of the top results are along the lines of “Yelp’s credibility problem” and “Phony five-star reviews threaten Yelp’s credibility.” The problem is that anyone can say anything they want to, anonymously, which doesn’t exactly inspire trust. You don’t even have to have eaten at the restaurant! I used to use Yelp to check out places I was unfamiliar with, but I wouldn’t anymore, except, possibly, for entertainment.

Open Table started as a reservation site, and I do use it for that purpose. But they allow diners to review restaurants, and claim to be more trustworthy than Yelp because “Only diners who booked and honored reservations through OpenTable can submit ratings and reviews,” which is certainly not the case with Yelp.

However, today, the San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant reviewer, Michael Bauer, whom I do trust a lot, and whose reviews I depend on,wrote on his blogabout the possibility that Open Table is censoring, or at least editing, certain reader reviews. In this particular case, an Open Table official did a reasonably good job defending her company. (The situation is a complex one.) But after reading through the 97 comments, it’s clear that San Franciscans are uneasy with any form of unprofessional, anonymous online reviewing, and with good reason. You don’t know who these “reviewers” are, or if they have ulterior motives, or if they have the slightest idea what they’re talking about. Even if someone went to the restaurant, that doesn’t mean their opinion is worth listening to.

Which is, of course, the precise situation we have with wine reviews on the Internet.

Now hold on a minute, Heimoff! Isn’t everybody’s opinion worth listening to? Last time I checked, America’s a democracy, where everyone’s entitled to speak their mind. Right?

Well, yes. But why wouldn’t I trust Michael Bauer, a seasoned pro who’s been at this forever, over a stranger on Open Table? Just because the person booked a reservation at the restaurant doesn’t mean he’s not the owner’s friend–or the owner’s ex-wife with an axe to grind.

Someone on Open Table called Plearn Thai “the best spot for pad ke[e] ma [drunken noodles].” How do I know that that person is an expert who’s actually has had pad kee ma from lots of different restaurants? I bet Michael Bauer has, and moreover has the chops to determine if any particular noodle dish is up to par or not.

And here’s someone on Sons & Daughters [a well-known downtown joint]: “High level, creative…will retrun [sic] on my next San Francisco trip.” Notwithstanding that misspelled word (for me, always an uh-oh moment), for all I know this person is from some Podunk where the best restaurant in town is the local donut shop, and he or she would consider Joe’s of Westlake a fine dining experience.

See what I mean? Credibility is based on experience. It’s not just somebody’s opinion, it’s somebody’s expertise, acquired over many years, and proven to be trustworthy. That’s why I trust Michael Bauer. I may not always agree with him, but I know that he has nothing to lose or gain in his opinion–he knows food inside and out–he’s a pro.

Or, to quote The Office’s Michael Scott: “Anyone in the world can write anything they want on Wikipedia, so you know you’re getting the best information.”


The power of the (somm’s) suggestion

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Dinner last night at Ruth’s Chris, on Van Ness. It was a Treasury Wine Estates event. Treasury is a big company; here in California, they run Beringer, Chateau St. Jean, Etude, Stags’ Leap Winery and others. In other words, a pretty impressive portfolio.

The centerpiece of the menu was, as you might expect at a steakhouse, filet mignon, which they served with two Stags’ Leap Cabernets, 2008 and 2009, both very delicious, although the 2009 was considerably more forward than the rather acidic 2008. One of my dining companions was Jerry Comfort, Beringer’s longtime chef, who now does the wine education for Treasury. We talked a lot about how somms pair food with wine. On my right was the young, delightful PR manager for Stag’s Leap, Michelle Flores. She told me how challenging it is for her to pick a wine from the massive wine lists so many restaurants have these days, and asked me how I go about it. I told her, “For the most part, I put myself in the sommelier’s hands.” Somms know their wine list and menu far better than I do. I told Michelle that I’ll give the somm some dollar parameters for my wine, and then leave the specifics to him or her.

Then Michelle asked me if this approach has worked for me in the past. I shuffled through memories of dining experiences over the years and had to answer, in all honesty, no.

I’ve just had too many somm-inspired pairings that were bizarre. The most recent was at a restaurant down in Carmel-by-the-Sea, a very expensive, high-profile place. I had a little appetizer dish of a beautifully-grilled sea scallop that was all buttery and creamy and nut-sweet. With it, the somm suggested a nine-year old white Rioja.  The server brought it and the scallops. I smelled the wine; very oxidized, unfresh. I tried it with the scallops. Pretty bad. Now, I think you should never criticize someone without trying to see where they’re coming from, so I analyzed this strange pairing to determine what the somm had in mind. No luck. I just couldn’t figure it out. Had I chosen my own wine for that scallop, it would have been Chardonnay. I would have tried a rich, oaky one, and an unoaked one, then gone with the winner.

Later, the server (not the somm) came back and asked what I’d thought of the pairing. I told her, “Since you asked, I didn’t think much of it at all.” She asked me what I would have recommended, and I said, “I respect the somm’s decision to pair an oxidized wine with this dish, although it’s not clear to me what his reasoning was. But, instead of a wine that’s oxidized because it’s too old, how about one that’s oxidized by design, so that it’s fresh. Sherry.” She just happened to have a manzanilla on the list, so out came a glass of that and a second plate of the scallop.

I won’t say that was a perfect pairing, but it was far better than the tired old Rioja. And it made me think: I bet the somm was one of these ABC guys: anything but Chardonnay. You do see a lot of this holier-than-thou attitude among somms. It was like he avoided an obvious pairing, a classic one that would have worked perfectly, in favor of the obscure, the “interesting,” the “surprising,” the off-beat, the eccentric.

What is this need to be different with some somms?

I also thought about the subtle psychology between a somm and his customers on the dining room floor. I imagined a couple coming in to dine at the restaurant. They order that scallop dish. The somm recommends the white Rioja. They order it. They’re a little puzzled by the taste, and by the way the wine made the succulent scallop taste metallic. But, unlike me, they’re unsure of their palates. So when the somm returns, they ask him to explain the pairing, which he gladly does, in poetic detail. They take another little bite of the scallop, another tiny sip of the wine. Suddenly, it makes sense: they can taste what the somm described, and the synergies between the food and wine. They go away satisfied, and with a tale they can tell their friends about the strange white wine that went so well with the scallop they had at this restaurant in Carmel.

The power of suggestion.


The somm’s evolving role in today’s modern restaurant

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I experienced an interesting approach to wine-and-food pairing the other day at Hakkasan San Francisco, which opened recently in the Financial District.

The somm staff invited me to participate in their weekly tasting. This is where they take 5 or 6 wines they’re considering for placement on the wine list. Then, the kitchen prepares a dozen small plates of menu items. The team tries each of the foods with each of the wines; everybody gets a chance to voice an opinion, and, eventually, a decision is made as to whether or not the wine in question is versatile enough to go with the food.

Indulging in this kind of exercise seems like a lot of fun, and it is: Hakkasan’s Asian-inspired food is fantastic. But it also underscored the complexities of coming up with perfect pairings. For one thing, not everyone agrees about everything. What works for me might not work for you. Also, the kind of food they serve at Hakkasan is very complex. Each diner doesn’t just have one plate of food, like a steak or broiled salmon. Instead, there’s lots of little things, and I assume parties share their plates with each other. So everybody’s eating and drinking all kinds of stuff, which kind of makes the concept of “the perfect pairing” obsolete.

We were asked to rate each wine and food pairing on a scale of 1-5, where 1 is “undrinkable” and 5 is “thrilling.” I had only one five: a sake made from red rice with braised pork belly. (The other somms seemed surprised I had only a single five.) I had no “undrinkables,” but  I did have a bunch of 2s (acceptable). These were mostly for a Kabinett Riesling from the Nahe. I found it too sweet for most of the plates, which again surprised the somms: they loved it. To me, sugar in a wine should never dominate the food, but with this Riesling, it did. For example, the jasmine tea chicken had an earthy, flowery bitterness that the wine’s sugar clashed with. In theory you might think that a slightly sweet Riesling, with its natural high acidity and low alcohol, would go well with Chinese food, but for me, it didn’t.

The most surprising wine was a Wynns 2011 Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon, from Coonawarra (13.5% alcohol). Cabernet with Chinese food? Absolutely! I wouldn’t have known that before the tasting. It went well with almost everything, from the har gau (shrimp dumplings) and puffed daikon to the vegetarian chicken, tofu aubergine clay pot and Champagne cod.

Another wine that was tremendously versatile was a Chardonnay-Roussanne, made privately for Hakkasan by Qupe from Bien Nacido fruit. It was so balanced that it seemed to find its sweet spot beside almost everything. Another red wine, a Chateau Unang Grenache-Carignane from the Côtes du Ventoux, was fine with some things (scallop shumai, crispy duck salad) but disturbing with others (the har gau brought out its tannins, while its fruit overwhelmed the daikon puff).

The more I hang out with sommeliers the more interesting I find their job. I asked them what their biggest problems or hassles were; I thought they’d say impolite, pushy customers but, no, it was merely the organizational and logistical difficulties of being on the floor during dinner and having so many things happening at the same time. Lots of juggling. You have to multi-task to be a somm (or server, for that matter).

Thinking about perfect pairings, there are really very few of them, especially with Asian fare, which can be mild, savory, sweet, spicy and fatty, all at the same time—plus packed with umami. It’s not like 100 years ago, when you drank Yquem with the foie gras or red Bordeaux with the beef—simple pairings that made sense because they didn’t have this fantastic array of international ingredients available. Nowadays, a wine has to do double- or triple-duty, pairing well with a myriad of things, and if there are 4 or 6 people in the party, it has to be as nimble on its feet as a Cirque du Soleil acrobat. The somm’s job is to find those wines and then help the customers understand them. (Of course, they also have to work within a financial framework so that the wines they buy make business sense.) I find myself continuing to be fascinated by the evolving role of the sommelier in today’s modern American restaurant scene.


Cork: equal time in the closure wars

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A few weeks ago, I blogged on the closure wars, and specifically about Nomacorc, a plastic “cork.” While I was careful to write, in bold italics, “This is in no way a product endorsement of Nomacorc,” I was aware of the fact that my sources of information were representatives from Nomacorc. They did a good job pointing out the advantages and efficiencies of their product, and that’s what I reported on.

So it wasn’t completely surprising when a fellow named Dustin Mowe contacted me, asking if we could meet up so he could tell me the real,  natural cork side of the argument. Dustin’s president of Portocork America, whose website describes it as “the premier supplier of natural cork closures to the North American wine industry.”

Dustin drove down from Napa, where the company is headquartered, and we met at my office-away-from-home, also known as Whole Foods. (Full disclosure: I let Dustin buy me a medium soy latte.) I told him I was there to learn, not to take sides. This was an important ice-breaker, I think, because the cork people have felt a bit beleaguered in recent years, what with TCA being a problem and vastly increased competition from plastic “corks,” like Nomacorc and screwtops. Dustin was perhaps expecting to have to defend natural corks more than proved to be the case; I let him know right away that I have no great argument against natural cork, just as I have no great argument with screwtops or plastic closures in general (except the ones that swell up after you extract them, and then don’t fit back into the bottle).

It seems to me that every producer has to figure out what makes the most sense for his wines, economically, esthetically and technically. I’ve learned enough over the years to know there’s no perfect solution to the bottle closure issue. There always will be a certain failure rate for natural cork, in the sense of it being infected with TCA, just as there always will be a failure rate in automobiles and medical procedures. (Life itself, let’s remember, has a failure rate of 100%.) Hopefully, the failure rate in corks will be low. Dustin assured me the cork industry is hard at work on getting TCA down to as near zero as possible, and I have no reason not to believe him, since their livelihoods are bound up with finding a solution.

What is the failure rate of corks? Depends on whom you ask. My own experience is around 1.5%. It used to be much worse, maybe 10-15 years ago, so it seems like the cork industry is making progress. Dustin showed me a chart on TCA analysis in natural corks over the last ten years; the tests were conducted by a third party lab, ETS Laboratories, in St. Helena, so there’s no worry of bias. TCA, measured in parts per trillion, averaged just over 4.0 in 2002 and has steadily declined since, with 2012 averaging about 0.50. Dustin cited Christian Butzke, an enology professor at Purdue University: “TCA is no longer a major problem for the US Wine industry.”

So why do some people insist it is? Partly, I suspect, because minds are slower to change than facts. If a critic decided 10 years ago that cork taint was unacceptably high, he might not have changed his mind today. Dustin cited Jim Laube, from Wine Spectator, who’s been criticizing TCA in corks for years. For example, in 2007, Jim wrote, “Wine Spectator’s Napa office tracks the number of ‘corky’ bottles in tastings of California wines, and the percentage of defective corks routinely runs at 15 percent, which seems way too high to me.

Last January, Jim addressed the topic again, writing , “In 2011, out of roughly 3,100 bottles of California wine topped with cork (another 269 were topped with twist-offs), the percentage of ‘corked’ wines dropped to 3.8 from 4.8 in 2010—making it the best year since we started tracking this. In 2009, nearly 7 percent of the wines were corked, and in 2007, it was 9.5 percent.” Don’t ask me how the 2007 “routinely runs at 15 percent” squares with “9.5 percent in 2007” because I don’t know.

People do have differing threshholds for TCA perception, as for other compounds in wine, like brett. Jim’s schnozz may well be far more sensitive to TCA than most other people, including MWs, somms, collectors and winemakers. Besides, every form of closure has its issues. Screwtops can let too little air in, which can lead to reductive aromas. Plastic can give weird rubbery smells. Each closure also has its own environmental footprint issues, which I don’t intend to get into. There are economies that have to be considered by the producer, as well as image issues. Dustin told me that Bronco Wine Co. uses natural cork for most of their brands, even though cork on average is more expensive than plastic or screwtop, because the Franzias believe cork has a better image.

I emailed Joey Franzia about this, and he replied, “BWC [Bronco Wine Co.] % of sales is 2-4% of all case goods produced; consumers like the POP! And screw capped wines are received 50/50 by buyers as positive and negative, corks are natural, eco-friendly and biodegradable.  We do extensive cork testing minimizing TCA contamination with BWC wines.”

I do like the POP! with corks, and the pomp and ceremony of opening a bottle, particularly when I’m entertaining. My poor old fingers are getting a little rickety, after opening 100,000-plus bottles over the years, but that’s a small price to pay for all the pleasure wine’s given me. So you’d have to count me as a cork fan.


Wednesday Wraparound

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The 2012 Wine Star Award winners have been announced by Wine Enthusiast, and it’s a fine list indeed.

I wrote the citation articles on Joe Gallo and David Biggar that will appear in a upcoming issue of the magazine. What accomplished professionals they are, as are all of the winners. I didn’t get all of my nominations; I argued strongly for Napa Valley to be the Wine Region of the Year, because of all the fabulous wines coming from there and because the excitement factor of Napa–America’s premier wine region–is always so high. But I certainly have no problem with Ribera del Duero getting the nod, especially after the tasting I went to a few weeks ago, when I was blown away by the quality-price ratio. So congratulations to all the winners, and I’ll see you in New York in January!

* * *

Off to Fort Ross-Seaview this Friday for a comprehensive tasting of the new AVA’s wines. It’s been some time since I last visited these wild, remote coastal mountains. If you live in Annapolis or Cazadero or even Guerneville, I suppose the area isn’t that far away; but most of us don’t live in those little towns, and it is a schlep, although it’s certainly not as far as Anderson Valley. Distance from major metro areas is the limiting factor on how much a wine district can become a tourist mecca, but I suspect that for the folks in Anderson Valley and Fort Ross, that’s just fine. I do recall meeting a winemaker who worked way out in the middle of nowhere in Fort Ross, and he told me how, when he went shopping for supplies, he had to check his list three times to make sure he got everything. You don’t want to get home and discover you forgot the toilet paper–not with the nearest supermarket an hour away. Eventually that poor winemaker took a job with a winery in Forestville. He simply got tired of the loneliness and isolation, despite that fact that from his little cabin he could see down the coast all the way to the Golden Gate, on a clear day.

* * *

To lunch this afternoon at one of my (and everybody’s) favorite San Francisco restaurants, Boulevard. From the moment Nancy Oaks opened this icon in 1993, it was a star, and remains–nearly 20 years later–a destination eaterie. It’s really a default restaurant if you want total gratification and the certain knowledge that all will be well, not to mention the central location, so easy to get to for me via BART as it’s only steps from the Embarcadero station, three stops from my home in Oakland. The occasion today is a Chablis tasting. I have always loved Chablis, from my humble beginnings in the 1980s when you could get a Premier Cru for a couple bucks. While I love the rich, full-blown white Burgundy and California style of, say, Au Bon Climat, an authentic Chablis–so minerally, racy and dry–never fails to excite me. I’ll write more about Chablis tomorrow.

* * *

“Outstanding” and “ideal” are just a few of the superlatives vintners continue to use to describe the 2012 vintage. From Washington State down through the Central and South Coasts, it was as preternaturally perfect a year as I’ve ever experienced in 34 years of living in California. Read this account, from the Wine Institute, for a hint of its potential glory. Of course, every vintage has great wines and less successful wines, so the point of a fabulous vintage, as 2012 is shaping up to be, is that there are more great wines, at every price point, than usual. We’ll have to see if the hype outraces the reality; the proof is in the tasting. But I can’t think of a single reason why this shouldn’t be a memorable year. There were no problems at all, just steady as she goes. Even that rain the third week of October in retrospect did nothing except wash the dust off the Cabernet. Frosting on the cake is that yields were higher than anyone forecast. With all the doom and gloom global predictions of dire grape and wine shortages, this surely is good news for California.


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