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Here’s to our American somms!

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If you have 10 minutes, read this story on “The Rise of the American ‘Somm,’” by the engaing London writer, Francis Percival. In it, he tracks the evolution of “sommeliers”– a “previous generation of quiet professionals” who wore tastevins and tuxedos, and confined themselves almost exclusively to the wines of France–to today’s “somms”–with “tattoos on display,” dressed in “barely more than a t-shirt and jeans,” and possessed of a “relentlessly informal, swaggering” presence.

Obviously, Francis has mixed feelings about our beloved American somms! On the one hand, he recognizes that “the wines embraced by this new somm are diverse,” which surely is a good thing. But he seems a little put off by their new somm culture: it’s “fratty,” its language is “equal parts grifter slang and wine-service Urban Dictionary,” it’s addicted to “lots of photos on Instagram.” American somms have an annoying habit of “touching guests,” which is “unknown in most of Europe,” and “the public face of the American somm has become one of intense, but friendly competition with their bros.”

Good writing, and Francis concedes that, as an Englishman, his viewpoint may be biased. “It’s been staggering to me,” he writes, how “professional wine service has been refashioned into something close to the apotheosis of modern America,” which sounds like something between crowd surfing at a rock concert and smoking a blunt. So allow me, as an American (and a Californian at that, the apotheosis of casual, engaging America) to defend our tattooed somms.

I think we can all agree that it’s better for a wine service professional on the floor of a restaurant to be less stuffy than more stuffy, no? And today’s American somms certainly are. I also like it when a somm is younger rather than older. This may be a personal preference having little to do with the somm’s experience or knowledge–but I have a feeling that a younger somm is probably more in tune with today’s vast array of wine choices. Younger somms also are probably more likely to be studying for one of the gazillion levels of somm certification, which would increase their knowledge base.

I can remember those “quiet professionals” who used to populate the sommelier world. They were snobs. If it wasn’t French it didn’t exist. Well, maybe they would allow a Mosel or Chianti onto the list, but reluctantly. As for California, mais non! Do I have any New York friends who can tell me when California wines began appearing on the lists of chic Manhattan restaurants? I don’t know, but I bet it wasn’t until comparatively recently. So those “quiet professionals” of yesteryear certainly didn’t do their customers any good by expanding their palates. And they certainly didn’t help to expand the range of foods available in this country beyond French.

What a better country America is for having the most diverse food choices in the world. Here in Oakland, I feel infinitely lucky to have the cuisines of 100 nations at my disposal. If I was just starting out, I might choose to be a somm. What an exciting job, centered on wine, food, socializing and night life. Yes, there’s something “fratty” about somm “bros” and their culture, but what’s wrong with that? In the old days, one had the feeling those “quiet professionals” went home to quiet lives in quiet little apartments and quietly read books. Today’s American somm reeks with excitement and buzz (although perhaps not as much as mixologists). And it’s wonderful that women are now as welcome to the somm’s ranks as men, which never could have been the case even 20 years ago.

Today’s somm is a democrat with a small “d”. They’re not going to look down their noses at anyone. I certainly wouldn’t want my somm (or my server) to be in a tuxedo: I like the street aspect of t-shirts and jeans, which doesn’t seem shabby to me at all, but comfortable, easy to relate to and, yes, sexy.

These modern somms are open to any wine in the world. If I have any objection (and it’s a minor one), it’s that they can be a little too addicted to the obscure. But after all, that’s their passion; it’s what turns them on, and part of the reason for going to a cool little restaurant, with great food and a great somm, is to discover new foods and drinks.

So here’s to our American somms! Rock on, bros (and sisters!).


Report from Seattle

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I’m up in chilly, drizzly Seattle with the northern branch of my family for the holidays. In this case, it’s two holidays: today is the first day of Hanukah, while tomorrow is Thanksgiving. So my niece has been preparing food for several days in a row, in order to host not one, but two large gatherings. Today is latkes day. If you don’t know latkes is, it’s traditional Jewish potato pancakes. They’re greasy and heavy and utterly delicious. You generally serve them with apple sauce, although some people prefer sour cream. I wouldn’t know what wine to recommend with latkes, to tell you the truth. Beer is probably better. Since brisket of beef is also on the table, that suggests some kind of hearty red.

But then, these full-throttle meals–the kind you serve for Hanukah and Thanksgiving, where there’s a bit of everything, from sweet and sour to salty and bitter and umami–do not require precision pairing. You put a bunch of stuff on the table and let people drink whatever they want. We will have some pretty good wine. I took care of that. But we’ll also have some Trader Joe’s backup, just in case.

Random Seattle notes: Rainier from 15,000 feet in my Alaska Airlines plane: all gold, pink and yellow above the tree line in the low winter sun. Puget Sound sparkling, flashing in the light. Big houses on the beaches. Conifers everywhere. My family lives in West Seattle, whose Alki Beach neighborhood reminds me of Oakland or Berkeley. Hip, young, cool, lots of cafés and great little restaurants. We ate at a Thai place last night, Buddha Ruska, that was absolutely delicious. (Yay, crispy chicken!) No wine with Thai: Singha beer. At my sister’s, for the 5 o’clock cocktail hour, we had an Artesa Reserve 2011 Reserve Chardonnay, very oaky–maybe a bit too much–but rich and satisfying.

Anyhow, I’m clearly writing this on the fly. Family vacations are hectic, you’re not really in charge of your schedule, but I wanted to get something up. I wish you all a very Happy Thanksgiving and to those of you of the Jewish persuasion, Happy Hanukah! Did you know that Hanukah can occur as early as late November and as late as January? I never knew why until I asked my 11-year old grand-nephew this morning. “Because it’s determined by the lunar calendar,” Joey explained, patiently. Smart kid.


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.


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