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To Santa Maria Valley, and my dinner at RN74

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Off to Santa Barbara today, for a quick trip to the Santa Maria Valley and Cambria and Byron. I always like traveling through coastal wine country, especially at this time of the year; as you pass by the Santa Lucia Highlands, and the vast stretches of southern Monterey and the San Bernabe Vineyard – as you zip through the Central Coast, with Arroyo Grande and Edna Valley just to the east, marked by the Seven Sisters – as you come into Los Alamos and the vineyards pick up again, sprawling on both sides of the road – you get a real sense of the terroir of the coast. Always just to the west is the mighty Pacific. Sometimes you can see it, sometimes the road curls too far inland, cutting the ocean off from sight; but always you can feel it in the cool winds, and I swear I can smell it, a sort of ionized, salt-laden scent that reminds me of Manzanilla sherry.

This sense of terroir is very different from the more technical analyses that we writers love to engage in, but to get a more generalized sense of the lay of the land – one which you feel subtly in your fingertips but can’t precisely define – is perhaps the more important way to understand terroir. The emotive and intuitive sense always has been important in a thorough understanding of wine. I had dinner last night with the Master Sommelier, Sur Lucero, who spoke of perceiving wine in terms of colors and shapes. I, myself, do not. When it came my turn to describe what we were drinking, I turned to human characteristics, for different wines always remind me of different sorts of people. There are shy, reticent wines, boastful wines, wines of elegance and charm. There are common wines, rude and ill-raised; then there are what I can wines of breed. We drank, courtesy of the sommelier at RN74, an older Burgundy, a Latricieres-Chambertin, whose vintage was unknown; the label bearing the year had fallen off. Sur guessed it to be 1985. It was a magnificent specimen that changed constantly in the glass, never drying out even after several hours but always gaining in force. With beef tartare it was excellent; ditto with gnocchi, and at the end of the meal, when the server brought a little plate of chocolates and other sweet dainties, that Burgundy was a fine partner. As I ate my first little chocolate and sipped the wine, and before I could say anything, Sur observed – correctly – “Stripped away the fruit, didn’t it?”

“Yes,” I replied, “but still a good pairing.” With the fruit, which was massive, now having receded, one could appreciate the wine’s structure even more. Sur seemed to like that, so I continued. There is a concept, I told him, of being raised properly by one’s parents, to be kind and respectful to everyone, King and servant alike. I always had been struck by interviews with people who met Queen Elizabeth. “Such a nice lady” is the usual take. “Puts you at your ease. So easy to talk with.” This is the sign of good breeding. In the same way, that red Burgundy got along with every food I had it with. I’m sure someone could have come up with something it clashed with, but it was a wine whose very universality was perhaps its greatest recommendation. A wine like that possesses, not so much a distinct personality, as the absence of a personality: it is the Platonic ideal of wine, and as such embraces, with love, any food with which wine, even theoretically, can be enjoyed. For that reason it was what some people call a conceptual wine.

At any rate, it was a lovely evening, and even though Sur and I didn’t agree 100% of the time on things like In Pursuit of Balance, I was very grateful to benefit from his take on wine. He also has a great (if frightening and sobering) personal story of the Napa earthquake.

Have a great weekend!


Pssst: Wanna buy a restaurant reservation?

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Ever get frustrated about not being able to get a restaurant reservation when you actually want one?

Happens to me a fair amount. My go-to restos tend to be in Oakland, since that’s where I live: Ozumo, Pican, Bocanova, Lungomare, among others. But so popular are these places that you really need to make your reservations far in advance—unless you’re willing to dine before 6 or after 9, which for the most part I am not. I like eating dinner at the normal hours of 7-8 p.m., but so does everyone else: hence, the difficulty. (The problem is worse in San Francisco. Try getting a 7:30 table at Boulevard. Good luck!)

Of course, I can always go to a non-reservation restaurant. We have some nice ones in my neighborhood: Boot & Shoe Service, the new Captain & Corset, and Hawker Fare. But that presents its own problems, namely, lines! I pretty much have a firm policy of not standing in line waiting for a table to open up.

Dining should be a pleasant experience; we should be able to eat where and when we want to. But that’s not reality. So some entrepreneurial types have discovered a new way to make money in the San Francisco Bay Area: they get reservations at in-demand restaurants, and then sell them online.

I first heard about this practice a while ago, when I read this article about reservationhop.com, a startup that makes reservations at San Francisco’s most popular restaurants and then sells them back to the public ‘for as little as $5’”, according to the S.F. Chronicle. But reservationhop is hardly the only new business trying its hand at the reservation-selling game. Table8 also is doing it: when I went to their website yesterday, they were selling reservations for such ultrachic places as Acquerello, Foreign Cinema, Waterbar, The Slanted Door and, yes, Boulevard (for up to $25 a shot!). The online S.F. site, Eater, quotes Table8’s founders as claiming “their offering actually levels the playing field for ‘normal’ people, allowing them the chance to get into a hot restaurant without advance planning.” That is true, I suppose; but you have to be a fairly well-to-do “normal person” to be able to afford to eat at one of these places plus pay a double-digit fee! (I don’t suppose you have to factor the reservation fee into the tip, do you?)

As you’d expect in a contentious town like San Francisco, there’s been some blowback against the reservation sellers that’s reminiscent of the complaints about Uber and Airbnb. One person who’s not so happy with the situation is a restaurant owner himself: Ryan Cole, whose Stones Throw is on Russian Hill. “I feel sick to my stomach to think that restaurants of such high pedigree and prestige would agree to participate in something so fundamentally against the principles of hospitality,” he wrote recently, in an open letter published in the Chronicle’s Inside Scoop online edition. He likened it to the old practice of slipping the doorman a $100 bill and skipping the wait for your table.” (Actually, it’s also rather the way StubHub works.) Ryan feels there’s something vaguely immoral about selling reservations. “Just because you can charge the premium doesn’t mean you should.”

I myself am neutral on all this. “It is what it is,” goes the current slogan, and besides, even if reservation selling is a horrible degradation of traditional restauranting, it’s here to stay. People want to be able to eat at top restaurants at their preferred times, and if they have to pay an extra $25 for the privilege, so be it! (I just hope they don’t make up for it by skimping on the wine.) But I personally won’t indulge in any of it. For every nice restaurant that’s next to impossible to book a table, there are dozens that aren’t. Let’s not forget that.


Friday Fishwrap: old wine writers never die, we just eat pizza!

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Hello. My name is Steve and I’m a “grand-fatherly white male traditional print writer.”

That’s what Amy Corron Power called me in her blog today. She was referring to my recent panel on wine writing at the Wine Bloggers Conference; my co-panelists were Mike Dunne and James Conaway, who are pictured, with me, in this little graphic Amy put up.

writers

She wrote, apparently facetiously, that we were “the only ‘true experts’ to whom we should aspire.”

I must admit that when I saw my panel I had the same thought. Three aging Boomers in a room full of bloggers mostly in their twenties and thirties: Yes, it did seem a little weird to me.

But let’s break it down. There’s lots of collective career success between Dunne, Conaway and me. And the Wine Bloggers Conference always has had a pedagogical or mentoring relationship with the bloggers who attend: I’ve gone there for long enough, and sat on enough panels, to know. If you’re a young and ambitious blogger, who better to get advice from than older guys (and gals) who have been around the block a few times and can tell you what’s up?

* * *

I’ve written a fair amount (here, on Twitter and on Facebook) about Oakland’s changing culinary scene. One classic example of it—and of what not to do—centers around Michelin-starred Daniel Patterson (Coi, in San Francisco) and his recently shuttered Oakland restaurant, Plum. Much was made of Plum when it opened in 2010 in the Franklin Square area off-Broadway. It was from Patterson, it was at Ground Zero of the restaurant scene in the newly-dubbed Uptown District, and it was high-concept and expensive. Those last two distinctions sealed Plum’s fate.

I ate there a few times in 2010-2011 and was always disappointed. I’m not big on high-concept food, where the abstract thinking and plate design seem to be more important than the flavors. And the prices were quite high. It was the experience of eating in places like Plum that always led me to tell people I’d rather have good, cheap Mexican or Thai than throw my money away for a “culinary experience.”

Well, apparently I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Patterson closed Plum and has reopened the spot as Ume, a Japanese-themed restaurant whose prices aren’t bad. I haven’t eaten there yet, but plan to; Michael Bauer gave it a pretty good review in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Plum’s closure does say something about Oakland and what its citizens want in a dining establishment. We want nourishing, delicious food in a friendly environment that’s filled with people who look and sound like us. Oakland isn’t San Francisco or Manhattan; high concept doesn’t cut it. (I still don’t understand the success of Commis.)

The quintessential Oakland resto is Boot and Shoe Service. Loud, easy-going, happy, hip and boozy, this pizza-themed joint caters to a blue-jeaned, tattooed crowd that knows how to have a good time. I love bringing friends, sitting at the bar munching on a margherita pizza and gulping vodka gimlets while all the pretty people come and go. There’s money to be made in Oakland, only you have to know what people want. Whole Foods understood that when they built their big store around the corner from me. I credit Whole Foods with helping to turn my neighborhood around. I think Josiah Baldivino understands that, too, with his launching of Bay Grape. We Oaklanders are proud of our culture and traditions, and will support entrepreneurs who believe in us and respect our way of doing things.


Wednesday wraparound: Boredom, urban wineries, and medals, medals, medals

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Once upon a time, people bought the wines they liked and had trusted over many years, because they knew they would not be disappointed.

It may have been a Gallo Hearty Burgundy, or a Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé, a Chianti or Mateus or Wente Grey Riesling. The wines could always be found on the local supermarket shelf, and the price didn’t break the bank.

That was then; nowadays, we have “the paradox of choice. Overstimulated by so many options,” writes Joyce Goldstein, in Inside the California Food Revolution, “we have become accustomed to constant change and instant boredom.”

Granted, Joyce is talking about how and where we eat—the amazing proliferation of types of cuisine we have at our disposal. But the same could be said about wine. And this is making life very difficult for the small family winemaker.

I was hanging out yesterday with a guy who owns his own wine brand, but he’s not likely to in the future. Business is not good, and he, himself, doesn’t know what to do about it. He can’t afford a staff, which means he has to do it all: vineyard contracting, winemaking, sales, marketing (such as it is) and all the rest. This is obviously too much for one person, so the end of the road is near.

It’s a sad story, especially since I’ve known this guy and know what a terrific winemaker he is. But his plight is the direct result of Joyce’s observation about our food proclivities: We’re accustomed to constant change, and we grow quickly bored. Under those circumstances, someone might have bought my friend’s wine and enjoyed it. But that person will be reluctant to become a loyal customer because of this constant search for the new and different.

I don’t know what the answer is. There may not be one. Not every problem has a solution. And it’s not enough to warn a young person not to get into the wine business, because when you’re young, you’re starry-eyed and ambitious, and you can’t believe that all your dreams might not come true. They might not—but usually, people don’t realize that until they’re in the forties.

* * *

Our little, homegrown East Bay Vintners Alliance is preparing for their annual fiesta. This year it’s August 2, down at Jack London Square. This is the Oakland version of “the urban wine experience,” a keen piece of marketing wines made in our nation’s increasingly popular, hip cities. For whatever reason, the phenomenon (if that’s what it is) is getting widespread press. For instance, there’s an article in the latest issue of “Via,” the AAA magazine, called “Wineries go to town,” that includes several of the East Bay’s locals: Donkey & Goat and Rosenblum, as well as wineries in San Francisco (Bluxome Street) and Portland (Enso).

I’ll be at the August 2 event and hope to see you there!

* * *

Not to knock my friends who organize and judge at the California State Fair’s wine contest, but a headline like “Thousands of medals awarded in State Fair wine completion” doesn’t exactly gain my respect. According to the local ABC affiliate, “There were 2,829 wine entries in this year’s competition. A panel of judges awarded 2,068 medals to competitors.” That’s a lot of medals: nearly half of all the wines won one. Bragging rights are, of course, the payoff for winning a medal—but something about this kind of inflated result makes me think of Garrison Keilor’s witticism about the kids of Lake Wobegon: “and all the children are above average.”

Have a good day!


California cuisine and California wine: partners through life

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It had been years since I dined at the Stanford Court Hotel, on top of Nob Hill, so I was looking forward to meeting some folks there last night—not for dinner, just for a few drinks. Still, I wanted to check out the restaurant menu. Reading—no, make that devouringJoyce Goldstein’s new book, Inside the California Food Revolution, I was curious to see how the menu had evolved from 20 years ago, when Fournou’s Ovens, the hotel’s grand restaurant, served what I recall as rather rich food, French-influenced, and heavy on the meat.

Alas, the menu has evolved, but not as I’d anticipated; as it turns out, there is no restaurant at the Stanford Court, just a rather plain bar menu (sandwiches, steak and such). I asked the concierge about that, and he replied, “New ownership—changing times.” Indeed.

Which brings me back to Inside the California Food Revolution. The mark of a great book is that it gets you thinking. I loved the juxtaposition Joyce, and many of the chefs she interviewed, set up between the Los Angeles and San Francisco culinary scenes of twenty years ago. L.A. was “food as fashion,” in Joyce’s words, as well as “overdone, very over-manipulated…places to see and be seen,” according to another restaurateur. By contrast, S.F. chefs were obsessed with purity, quality ingredients, seasonality and eclecticism.

The problem with appealing to fashion is that, quoting the former owner of a famous L.A. restaurant, Citrus, “the life of a restaurant is very short [in L.A.]..very trendy. You’re good, you’re busy, and then, when a new restaurant opens, say good-bye to your business.”

Well, you can say that about any restaurant, to some extent (Daniel Patterson’s Plum just closed in Oakland, after a run of several years), but San Francisco and the Bay Area seem more willing to bless a great place, like Boulevard, with longevity than L.A. is. There is, of course, a wine tie-in to all this: I have often wondered about the lifespan of some of these super-expensive California lifestyle wineries, which pop into existence (often in Napa Valley) with the alacrity of mushrooms after an autumn rain, only to disappear just as quickly. With a hired “name” winemaker, the brand enters the “you’re busy” phase, which is quickly succeeded by the “good-bye” phase, unless the owner is so wealthy that he can afford to ride an ocean of red ink.

Still, there was one thing both the Southern and Northern California founders of the California cuisine revolution shared in common: a passionate ingenuity bordering on the naïve. As one of them told Joyce, “Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, a lot of chefs weren’t [classically] trained. That was freeing. You weren’t tied down to a set of rules and told, ‘You have to go this way.’ No, I don’t, because I don’t even know what the rules are.”

It was that disregard for “the rules” that enabled chefs, including Joyce Goldstein, to do their own thing. They figured that, if they liked something, others would, too. There’s a connection, I suspect, between that approach and the loss of Fournou’s Ovens: the grand hotel restaurant, with its banquettes, snooty somms, heavily-sauced food and pontifical atmosphere, is no longer suited to today’s dining needs, which are more casual. Joyce anticipated that at Square One, her own restaurant, when she opened it (after leaving Chez Panisse) in the mid-1980s. Today, I look at a place like Boulevard, which I think and hope will never close. It’s as California-cuisine-y as you can get: the California Lamb Prime T-bone, “wood oven roasted, served off the bone, with zuckerman banana fingerling potatoes with fresh turmeric, aleppo & coriander sauteed bloomsdale spinach, thumbelina carrots, our cardamom orange blossom yogurt, huckleberry molasses, sicilian pistachio aillade, and roasted lamb jus” is a triumph of World ingredients, a happy concoction of elements no one would have conceived of before the California food revolution tore down the walls. Yet Boulevard is noisy, happy, relaxed and fun—all the elements I associate with California (and Northern California, especially). And when you think of it, that’s what we want in wine, too, isn’t it?


The perils of being a restaurant reviewer: Almost as bad as being a wine blogger

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Michael Bauer’s recent glowing review of Saison ignited a firestorm of reaction from people who felt that the restaurant reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle was pandering to the one percent and blithely ignoring anyone who can’t afford $398 for a one-person “discovery menu” at the city’s most expensive eaterie.

Typical of those who wrote in to complain was saywha, who asked, “At what point does Michael Bauer spend time reviewing places that everyone can afford? I feel like his column has become just a review of the most expensive restaurants or the ones with the most famous chefs. Perhaps he can just start calling his column ‘The 1%. Sad.” Commented UltraGuy: “I wonder what Bauer would review if he had to pay?”

Even for politicized San Francisco, the debate turned pretty heated—and this is about restaurants, not Google buses or the high price of housing!

Michael was forced to reply to the critics. In a piece on the Chronicle’s online site, he dug himself in even deeper with his remark that “Maybe I’m a Republican when it comes to dining, because I believe in the Trickle Down theory.” His point was that top restaurants, like Saison, Meadowood and French Laundry, come up with “ideas” that “filter down to the mass market,” such as foraged foods, lettuce mixes, humanely raised animals and organic products.

It’s never a good idea in San Francisco to associate yourself with Republicans, even if it’s just a metaphor! Sflover2 wrote, “Stopped reading after this stupid sentence: ‘Maybe I’m a Republican’…”. FroggyBoyee commented, “As if a no-name place cannot innovate. However, as always, the high end places where 1%ers dine get more PR.” Meanwhile, Grenadine suggested “Bauer’s columns should be moved to the comics page.”

Here’s my take. First of all, anyone in public life in San Francisco—whether it’s a politico, a restaurant reviewer like Michael, a movie reviewer like Mick LaSalle, a wine critic like Jon Bonné or a rich entrepreneur—is going to be on the receiving end of a lot of carping from people who disagree with him or her. It goes with the territory. This isn’t the first time Michael’s stirred the pot, it won’t be the last time, and he handles it pretty well, with dignity and respectfulness for the bomb-throwers.

Michael ultimately justifies his praise of Saison by saying, “These high-end places may seem out of reach for most people, but they create ideas, techniques and combinations that seed other chefs’ imaginations and improve the dining scene.” It seems to me that we have to separate out our emotional reactions to the one percent enjoying “a barigoule of artichoke fortified with wild thistle milk [that] becomes a broth that surrounds a chunk of artichoke and scallop” from the reality that, just outside, homeless people huddle against the cold, and “ordinary” people struggle to find a way to pay the rent and feed the kids at the same time.

Those are social policy issues, and they can, and rightfully do, stir up passions on all sides of the political spectrum. We ought to be having discussions about these things, and we are. That’s good.

But politics aside, at some point you have to appreciate the contributions that haute cuisine, as practiced as Saison, makes to the general culture. While it may be true, as one angry person commented, that “I really don’t see too much of the flame-licked wood pigeon, sea urchin caviar, or any of the molecular gastronomy stuff trickling down to neighborhood restaurants,” it’s also true that the mere existence of a place like Saison raises the bar for other chefs, in terms of the adventurousness, creativity, philosophical approach and just plain deliciousness of their food. Nobody can deny that the Bay Area’s restaurant scene is more glorious than it has ever been—and while a lot of that is due to our wonderful mix of ethnicities, credit also has to be given to the high standards that the best restaurants lay down for everyone else.

I’ve eaten at Saison (courtesy of the restaurant) and came away suitably impressed—not dazzled, but it was a pretty cool experience. Would I pay to eat there again? No. I’ve said many times that I’m just as happy at Boot and Shoe Service or Hawker Fare or Tacolicious as I’ve been at Meadowood, French Laundry, Saison, the old Cyrus or any other grand palace of cuisine. So I’m not a snob, but neither am I a reverse snob—against someplace just because it’s expensive. So I say, give Bauer a break. He’s the senior restaurant reviewer in California, he frequently reviews restaurants for “the 99%”, he’s incorruptible, and if he can’t say something nice about Saison without getting kicked in the head, something’s wrong.


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