Before we consider this interesting question, we have to ask ourselves if any wine can possibly be worth $750, or $3,000, or–gasp–$168,000, as that bottle of Penfold’s 2004 Block 42 Cabernet Sauvignon just went on the market for. [Before you open the link, know that the advertisement preceding it is really annoying.]
I think all of us, possessing common sense as we do, would agree that $168,000 is too much to pay for a bottle of wine. But $750 for Screaming Eagle? Maybe. Where you stand, as they say, depends on where you sit. Here are some other expensive wines, courtesy of the wine-searcher website, which each of you will have to decide is worth the price of admission.
That $498 dinner, by the way, can be found at Saison, a restaurant in San Francisco (and in the Mission District, which those of you unfamiliar with San Francisco should know was, until relatively recently, the divier part of town). Saison recently announced a 22 course, 18 drink din-din. Josh Sens’ account, in San Francisco Magazine, is a good read (and the magazine itself, in its latest iteration, is gorgeous and always worth spending time with).
The most expensive meal I ever had was at French Laundry. A friend called me one day: he had a friend, a Brazilian investment banker whose hobby was dining at the world’s greatest restaurants. (I guess that’s more fun than collecting chia pets.) He, the Brazilian guy, was going to be in the States for a two-week window. He’d tried to get 3 seats at French Laundry, but couldn’t. My friend said if I could get 4 seats, the banker would include me as his guest. This was an offer I couldn’t refuse. I pulled a few strings [rank hath its privileges], got the requisite 4 reservations, and so one fine evening we drove up to Yountville and did the Laundry. (That’s how I imagine Michelin devotees talk. Or maybe it’s “did Keller.”)
We opted for the chef’s special tasting menu. It was pretty good, but, being 14 courses or so, I can’t say that everything knocked me out. I also thought some of the wines were just so-so, or not all that cleverly matched with the food. The night’s denouement of sticker shock came when the servor brought the bill. We all discretely hushed as the banker looked at it. I swear I saw his chin drop down to his chest. It was $2,400, before the tip. A lot, even for a Brazilian banker.
Well, that came down to $600 per person, more even than Saison, and I didn’t think it was worth it, at least, food-wise. The experience itself, as sheer existentialism? Sure. Now I can boast I’ve eaten at French Laundry. (Actually, it’s been three times over the years.) But I eat at restaurants for gustatory pleasure and socializing, not bragging rights, and one of the dreariest conversations I can conceive is when people start babbling about all the Michelin palaces they’ve dined at around the world.
Readers of this blog know that I generally eschew snobby things. Not the things in themselves: the wines and the foods, which I love, but the attitudes that so often contaminate their consumption. (We live in a very poor world that’s getting poorer in many ways and conspicuous consumption turns me off.) Still, would I refuse an invitation to dine at Saison? No, and here’s proof: I just accepted one. (No, I won’t be paying for it.) It won’t be Chef Skenes’s full 22 course extravaganza, but it will be a dozen courses, with ten wines. My interest is part gustatory, but the reporter in me wants to know what all the fuss is about. The dinner is tomorrow, Wednesday; I’ll blog about it, probably on Friday, unless I can stumble home to Oakland late Wednesday night, sated and sloshed, and pound something out for Thursday morning. Probably not.
Yesterday was all about food in the Heimoff household. I was on deadline to complete a piece for Wine Enthusiast’s online site about foods that Napa chefs prepare for garden parties and wine tastings during our glorious summer months. I’d tasted through about 50 little munchies during the Napa action walkaround event at Jarvis, chosen 5 or 6 to write about, and gotten agreement from the chefs that they would work with me to develop the recipes and then come up with wine recommendations.
First let me segue by telling you how difficult it is to work with chefs! If you want to know why, read (or listen to) Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain’s funny insider’s tale of life as a cook. I’m used to having winemakers or their P.R. reps return my phone calls and follow through on their promises. They’re very good about that. Chefs? Fageddaboudit! It’s like pulling teeth. I had to beg, cajole, threaten, practically get on my knees and cry. But it all came together, so I got my recipes: golden tomato gazpacho with toasted garlic, basil and lemon; tuna taco with nuoc cham sauce and guacamole; and Dungeness crab Louis. You can read all about it, hopefully by next week, on the magazine’s website.
All that talking and writing about food made me a hongry honcho, so I hightailed it down to Whole Foods with Gus and bought a tofu burger sandwich on a 7-grain bun. Filling enough, but the chicken enchiladas in the prepared food area looked so good, I bought a box of that too. Ate them both right in the car, as Gus watched pleadingly but unsuccessfully. I never share my food with him, and he never shares his food with me.
But I’d invited Marilyn for dinner, so the eating was just getting started. I was bushed after completing the recipe article and in no mood for fancy cooking, so when Marilyn arrived–late, due to traffic; the Giants game had just ended [WE WHIPPED L.A.’S ASS! GO GIANTS!]–I told her that, contrary to our usual tradition, we’d be going to a restaurant, instead of me cooking up a meal. I had been planning on making–you won’t believe this–a Reuben sandwich, something I hadn’t had since I was a kid growing up in Da Bronx. It’s not the usual semi-fancy thing I like to cook for Marilyn, but I’m reading Jacques Pepin’s delightful memoir, The Apprentice, where on page 148 he has a recipe for a Reuben he says he became “a sucker for” after he moved to NYC (and approvingly quotes James Beard, “who said not many people appreciate a good sandwich.”).
But I was tired, so the Reuben will have to wait. Instead I decided to take Marilyn to the new Indian-Pakistani restaurant that opened in my hood when my old, favored Chinese restaurant closed. I hadn’t been there, but Rajeev, who is decidedly Indian, told me the food was good, so The House of Curries it was. But first, it was back to Whole Foods, for a half pound of cold smoked salmon, a jar of crême fraiche and a loaf of ciabatta, for an appetizer. I like to slice the bread thick, rub it generously with mashed garlic, drizzle it with extra virgin olive oil, and then–extravagantly–top each slice with a sliver of butter, then toast the bread on one side only in a toaster oven until the bread turns a golden brown around the edges. Top with the smoked salmon, add a smear of crême fraiche, and voila. With it we consumed the rest of a bottle of Domaine Carneros’s non-vintage Cuvée de la Pompadour brut rosé, which I’d reviewed the night before. It had been so good, I’d saved the rest, instead of pouring it down the drain, the fate that most of the wine I review suffers.
So we were already feeling good and sated by the time we stumbled down the hill to The House of Curries. We had the usual assortment–beef and lamb tandoories and chicken tikka masala and naan and jasmine rice so on. Unfortunately, the restaurant doesn’t have a liquor license yet, but there’s a market down the block with a wide assortment of beer (which is better with Indian food anyway), and our waiter encouraged me to get some and drink it at our table. So we did. A couple bottles each of Anchor Steam and some Mexican brand whose name I don’t recall but it was really good.
In Pepin’s book he talks about how amazed he was at the unconsciousness or ignorance of Americans in general about food when he came here, in the 1960s (did you know he was offered the job as White House chef for JFK but turned it down to be a head cook for Howard Johnson’s?) People, he said, looked at food as sustenance, rather than pleasure, as he’d been raised in France to do. I’m not sure I agree: As a boy of that time, I remember taking great pleasure in the foods my mother gave me: simple but satisfying things like grilled chicken, veal parmigiana, French toast, bacon and eggs, and, of course, bagels and lox. But I take Jacques’s point: As he wrote, the word or concept of “foodie” had not yet been invented.
Now it has. One of the things I love about Oakland is that it is truly a foodie’s Paradise. So many ethnicities, so many interesting and charming little local restaurants, so many weird and wonderful markets (Korean, Afghan, Ethiopian) to delight in. I love my wine country cuisine, yes I do, but don’t try and get between me and my Ye Feseg Beyaynetu at Ensarro.
It’s news when a bigtime chef like Paul Canales leaves his longtime restaurant, Oliveto, after many years. It’s even newsier when his new stomping ground is Uptown. This gritty and fast-blossoming neighborhood (which happens to be where I’ve made my home for 25 years) is the new restaurant capital of the Bay Area, as low rents, an urban-core feel, and the availability of localized ingredients (not to mention the cuisines of almost every country on Earth) draw adventurous chefs to this side of the Bay. I met up with 51-year old Chef Paul (whose food at Oliveto I’ve enjoyed for many years) at his new Duende. Set to open in September, right now the inside of the space consists of raw concrete and piles of dirt. But, as Chef [who also is a performing musician], explains the floor plan, I get excited.
How would you describe Duende?
It’s a restaurant, bar, wine shop, music venue.
You were most recently where?
For how long?
Fifteen years, and executive chef the last 7-8 years, something like that.
So why Uptown?
Well, I wanted to go where the action was! I wanted to go where people were more like me. And I wanted to be able to create a more relaxed, accessible vibe than what I’d been able to do before. And I wanted more diversity from my creative side and also from a guest side.
What is happening in Oakland culinarily that people don’t know about?
People misunderstand Oakland. The thing that’s great about Oakland is you can be whatever you want. There’s no overriding dogma. We pull from all the dogmas in the Bay Area, because there are definitely a few of them around! But Oakland is definitely its own thing. It’s very much a do-it-yourself esthetic. Kind of reminds me of punk in the late Seventies, or classical music in the Fifties with [John] Cage, that kind of scene. And Oakland’s like that. It’s kind of a Brooklyn moment here. You see amazing stuff, like Hawker Fare. That’s a really cool Siamese vibe. [Hawker Fare is the new restaurant of Michelin-starred Commis’s owner/chef James Syhabout, also in Oakland.] Go to True Burger [also in Uptown, from the former sous chefs at Bay Wolf], or to Plum, where Daniel Patterson’s [from San Francisco’s two-Michelin starred Coi) doing his thing. There’s so many places that are not trying to fit one esthetic. And yet, it’s all coming from markets, it’s all happening, all the stuff we think about Bay Area food is built in. People are leading with their creative experience and expression.
Duende won’t open until late summer or early fall, but what is your thinking about the menu?
We’re going to use Spain as a cultural touchpoint, but that includes south of France, over towards Italy, down in North Africa, over to Turkey. So Spain is a melting pot for the Mediterranean. [Chef is of Basque descent, by the way.] It’s also not going to be museum food, like “Let’s do the greatest hits of Spanish cooking,” because who gives a shit about that? What I care about is the meal, that the menu is very flexible, and it allows people to eat as little or as much as they want, and it gives me maximum flexibility to make smaller or larger plates that express what’s happening in the markets and on the farms.
Now, we just had lunch at one of my favorite local restaurants, Ensarro, which you hadn’t known of, and you loved the food. How would you incorporate a discovery like that into Duende’s menu?
Well, first of all, all good cooking is the same, in the sense like, those [Ensarro] guys know their food, they know how to cook their food, they know how to season their food, but to me, what made that better than any Ethiopian place I’ve eaten, ever, for how many years, thirty? was that there was someone with a point of view creating that food. And so when you taste that green salad, it’s not like some vinaigrette or whatever. That salad was bright, and exciting, tucked into the middle of a beautiful plate of injera [flatbread] and all this other stuff. That was cared for, that salad. It wasn’t just kind of like, “Oh, this is the way we make Ethiopian salad.” So in that sense, there’s a lot of translation, because there’s someone who had a point of view and cared about it. Also, that kid, Solomon [our host] is very passionate. He wanted us to taste certain things. That [beef] tartare? What was so cool about it is, Ethiopia and Italy are pretty tight, culturally. And to me, that was very much like an insalata di carne cruda you would get up in the Piedmont, except that influence of the Ethiopian spiciness, which was beautiful. But he never lost the flavor of the beef in that. The trippy thing was there was this other flavor, and at first it seemed a little off, like “Something’s wrong here.” And it was a little bit warm. It wasn’t cooked, but a little warm. And all of a sudden, it occurred to me, it was butter!
Clarified butter! Which was the coolest thing, because it was that caramelly kind of flavor. So I might say, Wow, I’ve never done a warm, raw salad of any sort. I’ve never had anything like that ever before. And I’ve made so many types of crudos: fish crudos, lamb crudos, goat crudos, beef crudos. You name the protein, I’ve done it. But to have it in that context, where he warmed it and used a different kind of fat, and he created a whole new experience–that was unique.
Finally, what about the wine at Duende.
So we’re going to definitely have some Spanish wines. We’ll have some California wines. What we’re looking for is distinctive wines that work with food, as opposed to wines that are like beverages. We’re not tasting for the classic things people talk about in some wine circles, where it’s jammy, or big fruit, or whatever. It’s more about distinctive wines. Many natural wines we’ve been tasting are amazing. I think we’re trying to find wines that people maybe haven’t tried, but are not so far away from something they’re familiar with that it just creates havoc in their mouth. Like if people like Rombauer, fine; people do. But if we have something that is unique and interesting, we’d like to offer them that experience. So we want a highly curated list. And sherry is a really amazing wine.
And [partner] Rocco [Somazzi] has been pairing sherry throughout a dinner, and it’s crazy! And even sherry cocktails; we’ll do that kind of vibe as well. We’ll find out along the way things we don’t know today, so that will be part of the fun.
Duende, http://duendeoakland.com/blog, 468 19th St., between Broadway and Telegraph, in Uptown Oakland. Opening September 2012.
If you go to the Calafia Cafe, in Palo Alto, you won’t have to wait for a server to take your order. Instead, you just call up the menu on the touch screen mobile pad on your table, look at hi-res digital images of the foods, and then punch in your selections. Let’s say it’s the clams and udon noodles for an appetizer, then the grilled hanger steak for the main course. Your friends do the same thing. Your orders go right to the kitchen. While you’re waiting for the food, you might play a social game on the same tablet; your table’s high scorer at trivia gets $1 off the cost of dessert. Of course, when your food is ready, a real live human being brings it to your table–the tablet can’t do that. But when the meal’s over, you can pay for it with a swipe of your credit card–no waiting for a busy waiter to have to notice you’re ready to leave. You can enter your email and get a digital receipt promptly sent. And, since the night is still young, you can browse the tablet and discover clubs, bars and so on that are right in the neighborhood.
The tablet is called a Presto, and it’s manufactured by E la Carte, which was started up in 2008 out of MIT, and now has offices in Silicon Valley, Boston, Chicago and New York. They’ve raised venture capital from angel investors, and Calafia isn’t the only restaurant that uses Presto and similar devices, both in this country (L.A.’s Umami Burger, for example) and overseas, in Japan and Europe. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that “chains across the country are signing on [to Presto]. Creator Rajat Suri expects that soon every mass-market, mid-range restaurant and bar – and even some independent operations – will start using the Presto or similar technology.”
Does it mean actual waiters will soon be anachronisms? It’s hard to envision a time when somebody won’t have to schlep the food from the kitchen to the table. But a busboy (or a robot, for that matter) could do that. And you wouldn’t have to tip a busboy (much less a robot) 20% of the tab just for carrying a few plates of food.
How about wine? Restaurants already are featuring touch screen devices for the wine list, instead of a dirty old booklet with everyone’s germs on it. Barbacco, a trendy trattoria in San Francisco’s Financial District, was the city’s first. “Diners…browse through [wine] selections on screen, and can store a number of possible choices. Ordering will still take place the old-fashioned way — through a real live human being,” the Chronicle’s Jon Bonné reported. But is it so hard to imagine a future generation of tablets that not only list all the wines, but interactively suggest pairings? Maybe you order Barbacco’s paccheri, a pork ragu with plenty of parmigiano reggiano. You’re not sure what to drink with it. But the tablet is. It may suggest a nine-year old Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, from Emidio Pepe, explaining that the wine’s tannins are resolved, and its acidity and extract will stand up to the food’s richness. You look at the price: $110. Ouch. You ask the tablet to suggest something less pricey. Back comes a 2006 Tuscan Sangiovese, from Querceto di Castellina, which the tablet tells you is similarly full-bodied and dry, with acidity to cut through the oiliness. And the price is a more reasonable $48.
Is there any reason this can’t happen, thus eliminating the [sometimes uncomfortable] dance diners are forced to perform with sommeliers? The Chronicle article suggests it will. “Eventually, [Presto] will tell diners what kinds of wines they like based on a personality quiz.” That sounds kind of silly (“Are you the type that hates to ask for directions? Then choose a Pinot Noir”), but there already are rudimentary “computerized sommeliers” on the market. For example, at Hong Kong’s Landmark Oriental Mandarin Hotel, they advertise “a computerised sommelier that will recommend food and wine pairings by region, taste or price.” With advances in A.I. coming fast and furious, who’s to say that in a generation the human sommelier won’t be seen as an charming relic of a bygone era, like trolley conductors, gas lamp lighters and doctors who make house calls?
Did you see the announcement yesterday that our friend Eric Asimov, the New York Times’ chief wine writer and critic, has been appointed the paper’s interim restaurant critic, following last month’s promotion of Sam Sifton as national editor?
That’s big news, and I’m happy for Eric, assuming he wants to wear both mantles for the time being. It’s a lot of work being a daily wine critic, not to mention writing a wine blog at the same time. That’s what I do. I’d hate to have nighttime come around–a time I cherish for resting and doing my own thing–and know that I have to report to work for my second job, restaurant critic! Exhaustion piled on top of exhaustion. Good luck, Eric. By the way, I wonder what Eric would say if the Times offered him the permanent restaurant gig, which, I have to assume, would mean he’d have to step down as wine editor. If I put myself in Eric’s shoes and fantasize about having that choice, I’d probably pick restaurant critic. Not saying it’s a cinch, because until you’re actually faced with these kinds of choices, they’re hypotheticals. But a part of me always wanted to be a restaurant critic. I tried my hand at it, once, in this blog, nearly a year ago, when I reviewed Twenty Five Lusk, a smokin’ hot place near AT&T Park. That was huge fun, but I will admit I felt a little out of my league. I know a lot more about wine, especially California wine, than I do about food and restaurants, and I realized it takes a lot of time to reach the point where you know enough about food and restaurants (which includes the prior history of the restaurant’s owners and chefs, and even of its space) to write authoritatively about them. One can fake it, of course. One can simply give one’s reactions to the food and the atmosphere, the way the guests do on Check Please! Bay Area, Leslie Sbrocco’s amusing show on KQED-TV. They don’t often have the background that a seasoned restaurant reviewer ought to have–not that that makes their opinions any less worthy or entertaining. But still, a critic of any kind, from cars and movies to wine and restaurants, should have a solid background in what she’s talking about.
Eric, fortunately, does. He’s done prior stints at restaurant reviewing at the Times, so this isn’t entirely new for him. It will elevate him, I should think, to greater power and visibility in New York. The restaurant critic at the New York Times is and always has been considerably more powerful than the paper’s wine critic. I don’t think a Times wine critic has ever been feared, but the Times restaurant critic is. So is the restaurant critic at any important American newspaper, like the San Francisco Chronicle’s Michael Bauer, one of the best in the business.
I do wonder how Eric will be anonymous when he dines out, given that his face is so well known. Will he wear a Groucho mask? A long wig? Eric, if you read this, weigh in and let us know! I don’t expect you to send a picture of your new secret identity, but tell us, in the interests of journalism, how you intend to get around being so recognizable.
Had dinner last Thursday night with Keith at a little place in San Francisco, Paul K restaurant, I can definitely recommend.
It’s in Hayes Valley, on the corner of Hayes and Oak. Twenty-five years ago that was a disreputable neighborhood. It lay under the dark, cold shadow of the Central Freeway; the local population seemed to consist of drifters, prostitutes, drug casualties and other unsavory types. There were a few mom and pop markets, a hardware store, a junk shop or two. Even though Hayes Valley was just a few blocks from Civic Center and City Hall, it was not a place you wanted to go.
The first sign that things were changing was in the mid-80s. Suddenly you started seeing Lesbians. This is always an early indication of a rising neighborhood. Because the rents were super-cheap compared to other parts of San Francisco, and because Hayes Valley was so centrally located, they began colonizing it, opening little shops and tidying the place up. Following the Lesbians came the gay boys. After them came the Yuppies, and a wave of condo conversions. Yes, some people complained about gentrification, but not me.
Today, Hayes Valley is a cool, hip urban center of restaurants and cafés, wine bars, nightclubs, chic clothing shops, art galleries, theater and dance studios. They tore the ugly old Central Freeway down after the ’89 earthquake, opening the streets up to light and warmth. Hayes Valley now has that eclectic, exciting buzz associated with neighborhoods where people want to live, work and visit. The streets are crowded, the restaurant windows aglow at night. It feels fine to be there.
I’d never been to Paul K, but Allison, at the magazine, said she liked it a lot. I arrived early and sat at the bar, where a friendly mixologist poured me a crisp, dry Sancerre. I’d brought with me, from my cellar, a 1996 Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon. I’d opened it at home just to make sure it was okay, and it was, although it was still very dry and tannic. I hoped it would blossom in the bottle.
Keith and I split a big appetizer plate of pomegranate braised lamb riblets in a garlic yogurt sauce. The four riblets were perfectly tender and juicy. The yogurt sauce was a little unusual, Middle Eastern or North African I suppose, but it worked. Keith drank a Caipirinha, a Brazilian cocktail he’d heard about, which was a little too sweet for me. I nursed my Sancerre, and started in on the Mayacamas.
For dinner, he had the grilled hanger steak with shoestring potatoes (mmmm), mushrooms and harissa butter. I ordered the milk-braised pork shoulder with grilled radicchio and a very buttery polenta. Both dishes were awesome.
The Mayacamas was an interesting wine. To begin with, the alcohol was 12.5%. How ‘bout that! It was an old-fashioned trip back to the way Napa Cabernet used to be. Mayacamas has gotten riper over the years, but is still pretty earthy compared to most of Napa Valley. The 2005, which I reviewed last summer, clocked in at 13.8%, very low for a Napa Cabernet. The ’96 definitely was not one of your big, fat, sweet cult wines (and I’m not putting them down, I’m just sayin’). It was still tightly wound in tannins and acids and, even after the bartender kindly brought an unsolicited decanter and the wine sat in it for a while, it remained lean and minerally. But the food teased out sweet blackberry notes and it was really a very nice wine to drink. I suspect its best days lay ahead.
Later, back in Oakland, I stopped by the new wine bar in the hood, The Punchdown. It’s at the same site where the old Franklin Square Wine Bar used to be (it folded a year ago). Rick Mitchell still owns the property, but the management is different, a young couple, D.C. and Lisa, who decided to try living their dream. It’s a tough economy out there, and this area of Oakland, or “Uptown” as people are calling it, is edgy despite the burst of restaurants, galleries and nightclubs that have arisen lately. Maybe the edginess makes it interesting. As D.C. noted, what Uptown needs now is retail. Uptown reminds me of nothing so much as Hayes Valley, twenty years ago. It’s gathering momentum.
Anyway, I wanted one more glass of wine for the road (or the sidewalk, so to speak, since it’s only a 10 minute walk home), so I asked D.C. to recommend something. He immediately suggested a 2009 Commanderie de Peyrassol, from Provence, a rosé. I just looked it up in Wine Enthusiast’s database; the great Roger Voss gave the 2006 90 points, and the retail was only $17. At The Punchdown they’re selling the ‘09 for $11 the glass, but it’s a big pour, easily a good six ounces. The blend is Grenache, Cinsault, Syrah and Mourvedre, and while we have similar blends in California, they don’t seem as cleanly structured and crisp.
It was a lovely night to stroll home. After our bitterly cold December and first week of January (cold by California standards, that is), on Jan. 12 the pattern completely reversed itself. Except for a little storm on Jan. 30 that barely washed the dust off my car, the weather has been gloriously sunny and warm, with temperatures approaching if not exceeding 70 in Napa-Sonoma (and on Sunday night, as I edit this, it was 80 today in Oakland!). And things don’t appear to be changing anytime soon. The long-range forecast shows the possibility of light rain on Feb. 13, but nice until then if not quite so warm. This is what I love about the Bay Area. Great weather, exciting, vibrant neighborhoods, cool people, wonderful food, and wine country just a short drive away.