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.
Twenty Five Lusk is located on Lusk Street, one of those ubiquitous little alleys that pepper San Francisco. It’s a half block off Townsend, within spitting distance of AT&T Park, in the city’s hippest, hottest district, South Beach.
As you round the corner at night, the restaurant is dramatically lit against the darkness, with young, good-looking valets standing sprightly at attention. The first impression on entering, which lasts, is of a modern space, all exposed brick and wood, vaguely postmodern, off-lit, clubby, hip. Soft jazzy music, not too loud, thrums in the background. It’s a big venue, 120 seats, but seems small and intimate, with table groupings clustered in galleries. There’s lots of happy conversation, but the place never seems noisy; the wood absorbs the ambient sound, and in fact the more crowded it gets–and Twenty Five Lusk gets crowded–the more intimate it feels.
The crowd is–what can I say?–young and pretty. The evening I went a table across from me was peopled by four, young, gorgeous women, in glittery, low-shouldered evening wear, sipping martinis and laughing. I (who was dining alone) made friends with the couples on either side of me, who overheard my banter with the servors and with wine director Cezar Kusik, and wanted to know who I was. (But there’s none of that awful, table-to-table ghetto closeness; the owners give you space.)
Yes, I was comped (although I paid my gratuity). Twenty Five Lusk opened only recently, and they’re looking for publicity. I asked their P.R. people (from Glodow Nead) why they invited a wine guy (I would have been happy if they’d said, Oops, we thought you were a food reporter, invitation yanked), but no, they said they wanted to get across to local winos as well as foodies and so, would I please come. It being the second anniversary of something in my life–something profoundly unhappy–that requires serious eating and drinking to combat, I accepted, and drove in across a Bay Bridge that was a parking lot until things eased up at T.I.
I started with a glass of Champagne, Lenoble Cuvée Intense, while perusing the wine list, menu and just getting the feel of the place. A brut-style blend of 2/3 Chardonnay, with Pinots Noir and Meunier, the wine was dry, yeasty and minerally, very rich and fine in pin-pointed bubbles. With fresh warm rolls and butter, sprinkled with rock salt, it was a satisfying starter.
For apps, I went with the raw yellowfin tuna, sliced into quarter inch panels, served with olive conserva, lime avocado purée and a star anise cracker. The conserva is a darkish paste, sort of a creamed olive tapenade highlighted with orange and lemon zest. It was decadently rich and sweet. The avocado purée was like guacamole on acid, complexed with lime purée and ginger. Both sauces paired perfectly with the sweet, pure and generous slices of tuna. The star anise cracker was thin, crunchy and licoricey, providing a nice counter-texture to the dish’s soft, creamy ones.
With that, my waiter recommended a Sancerre, 2009 Laporte La Bouquet, a good, dry, minerally wine that matched well. I generally prefer to allow waitstaff or a somm to recommend my wines, as they know their menu and I don’t. The thing I liked about that Sancerre was that it was one of the driest, juiciest Sauvignon Blancs I’ve had for a while, with that fragrant gooseberry thing that stops–mercifully–just short of cat pee.
Cezar made his appearance at that point and, to be honest, he was a frequent return visitor, despite obviously being pulled in fifty directions at once. He told me he’d been hired only five weeks before the restaurant opened–an impossible situation for a wine director–due, apparently, to management problems with his predecessor. It wasn’t the first problem Twenty Five Lusk had; GM Chad Bourdon said they’d had to postpone opening for a year or two due to the sudden onset of the Recession. Cezar also apologized for not having the wine list online at the restaurant’s website, something I’d mentioned, rather absent-mindedly, to my servor. He must have immediately reported it.
The servor returned with an amuse bouche, a torchon of foie gras, in which the fatty meat is poached. I am not a foie gras lover, but this was irresistible, served in a sweet, creamy Sherry reduction sauce and topped with shiso, a slightly bitter, minty micro-green. With the remaining Champagne, perfect. I was beginning to feel good.
Not to be outdone, servor next delivered a second amuse bouche, braised oxtail ravioli, with caramelized onion, some sort of radish for bitter crunchiness, and two sauces (which seems to be a theme of Chef Matthew Dolan, whom I didn’t meet): one a dark brown purée of black garlic and Meyer lemon, the other a yellow sauce of veggie stock, cream and the oxtail braising liquid. The oxtail meat was wrapped into the sweet, tasty little raviolis.
This was an extraordinarily complex and delicious dish and, as it proved, difficult to match. Cezar brought me a Marsannay red Burgundy, 2006 Audoin Les Longeroles. To a California palate, this Pinot Noir was refreshingly dry and earthy, but it wasn’t the best match for the ravioli. When Cezar asked what I’d thought, I explained, apologetically, that I understood pairing with Pinot Noir, but that the Marsannay was too tannic and dry for such a dazzlingly sweet plate. I wondered, I said, if the Lincourt–
Cezar cut me off. He knew exactly where I was going. There was a Lincourt 2008 Pinot Noir on the list, a Santa Barbara wine I know well. He’d almost brought it out. I added that maybe the Lincourt’s soft fruitiness would have been a better pairing. Cezar said he’d actually thought the same, but had been so busy, he’d allowed his Burgundian instincts to prevail. I told him the Marsannay certainly wasn’t a deal breaker, like the awkwardly paired wines I’d been served at RN74. I mean, we’re talking inside-the-beltway, super-fussy wine geek stuff here! But Cezar was very moved, and the next thing I knew, there was a brand new plate of oxtail ravioli in front of me, with a glass of the Lincourt.
Yes, it was better, but still…good as the Lincourt was (and I was right, its soft fruitiness was compatible with the ravioli’s creamy sweetness), there remained a problem: the Lincourt simply wasn’t complex enough to stand up to that elaborate plate. Cezar came back to inquire a second time. By now, we’d bonded, and I wasn’t afraid he would think I was some kind of nut. He disappeared, and came back with a third glass of wine, a Riesling Halbtrocken Rosch Leiwener Klosergarten, 2009, from the Mosel. I smiled, and told him I’d actually been tempted to order it. Cezar said, try it with the ravioli. I did. So much better than either of the two Pinot Noirs, but once again, something slightly askew, or, not so much askew, as missing; it was as if a gorgeous garden needed just one more additional flower to complete it.
Cezar eyed me. What might it be?
Well, I said, you cannot change the wine–
Exactly, Cezar said.
–But you can change the dish, to make it marry the wine better.
I work with Chef all the time doing that, Cezar allowed.
I thought. The Riesling was so pretty, so polished, so complete in itself. But there was a gap between it and the oxtail ravioli. What could bridge that gap?
“Green apples,” I told Cezar. “Just a few little chopped pieces, in the sauces.”
“Granny Smiths,” Cezar said, promising to take it up with Chef.
Are such exchanges warranted or even excusable between a customer and a wine director? They are when sincerely requested.
The main entree was grilled diver scallops with carrot, microgreens, roasted oyster mushrooms and, again, two sauces, puréed cauliflower and a lobster sauce. It was among the greatest scallop dishes I’ve ever had, the succulent little bivalves large, buttery sweet and perfectly seared. Cezar had paired it with a white Burgundy, Lucien Le Moine 2006, which I was less enamored of. It was acidic and minerally, which I like, but for me, a little one-dimensional and hard. This was nearing the end of the meal, and when Cezar asked what I’d thought of the Lucien and I told him, he said, simply, “I disagree.” That was fine. I didn’t expect another plate of scallops to appear before me, with 3 or 4 more wine choices! But Cezar did explain something I’d never really thought of: how limited a wine director is when dealing with wines by the glass. Had he been able to select something from the restaurant’s extensive bottle list–an impressive international selection, thoughtfully assembled–he would have been able to rise to the occasion. But Twenty Five Lusk’s philosophy is to give San Franciscans affordable luxury (most glass prices are under $20), and the risk of a by-the-glass list is that every glass has to do double or triple or quadruple duty. This is not to say that there’s any excuse for an off-pairing, but the Lucien was not an off-pairing. It was simply not to my taste.
No dessert for me, just a perfect double cappuccino, and then, pleasantly buzzed, back into the (for December, tropically mild) San Francisco night, which was still young, with many possibilities to explore.
I highly recommend Twenty Five Lusk and, as I told Cezar, if I lived in South Beach (and I wish I did), I’d be there all the time.
Twenty Five Lusk
25 Lusk Street
San Francisco CA 94107
Had a call from a friend, Larry Schaffer, proprietor of Tercero Wines, in Santa Barbara. He wanted to know if I could come to an event next month in San Francisco, a promotional thing between the Rhone Rangers (on whose board Larry sits) and The GAVI Alliance, an international nonprofit that combats pneumonia in children. GAVI’s supporters include U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Larry explained that each Rhone Ranger member winery had decided to donate $10 for each case of Syrah sold during November to GAVI. He was looking for help promoting the event.
As it turned out, I couldn’t go. But I was curious as to how and why the partnership between the Rhone Rangers and GAVI had come about. Larry explained that, last June, Eric Asimov had written a piece on his New York Times blog, at The Pour, that was super critical of California Syrah. Eric had repeated the tired old joke (which I’ve now heard about 25 times), “What’s the difference between a case of Syrah and a case of pneumonia? You can get rid of the pneumonia.” He said some rather harsh things about California Syrah (“dreadfully generic”) that I don’t agree with–that’s not the point–but it was a kick in the groin for California Syrah producers, who are struggling.
Shortly after Eric’s piece, a doctor named Orin Levine wrote a piece on the Huffington Post in which he said that, after reading The Pour, he’d had an idea: In recognition of World Pneumonia Day 2010, “I am asking all winemakers and wine retailers to contribute $10 from every case of Syrah they sell in November to the GAVI Alliance, and asking American wine drinkers to make Syrah their wine of choice in November.” Levine seems to have clout. The Rhone Rangers heard about his challenge, one thing led to another, and ergo, the event in San Francisco next month. Even Stephen Tanzer jumped in, following a Rhone Rangers-GAVI tasting in New York, and urged consumers to support the effort, under his cleverly named blog posting, “Pneumonia’s Last Syrah.”
Larry Schaffer was frank in his talk with me in conceding that the Rhone Rangers’ reason for working with GAVI is as much to gain publicity for California Syrah as it is to help kids with pneumonia. Last week, I went to the big Mondavi family dinner, held in conjunction with Morton’s The Steakhouse, to benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation. It was clear to me then that the various Mondavi brands involved were happy to be helping kids out, but were also happy to see their names connected, in a positive way, with concepts of helpfulness, compassion, love and sharing.
My cynical gene kicks in here. How much of a winery’s motivation is due to the desire for publicity, and how much is true concern for the charity? Is there in fact a difference? It’s impossible to know for sure, since I’m not a mind reader; but in the case of wineries and charities, the question actually is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter what the winery’s real motive is. What matters is how much money the winery is able to help these charities deliver. In the end, these are win-win situations, good for everybody involved. In the case of California Syrah and the Rhone Rangers, I’m happy to pass the message along: during the month of November, if you find yourself needing a red wine, consider buying a California Syrah, and especially one by a Rhone Rangers member. There are dozens of great ones, from up and down and across the state. And memo to Eric Asimov: you were being a little harsh on California Syrah. Lighten up. Don’t shop for the quote that trashes. Give equal treatment for defenders, of whom I am one.
When RN74 opened last year, in San Francisco, it was to huge buzz — even in a town where restaurant buzz is as unavoidable as fog.
The magical names of Michael Mina, Rajat Parr and chef Jason Berthold drew in the Bay Area’s wealthiest, most discriminating foodies and winos. The San Francisco Chronicle’s powerhouse restaurant critic, Michael Bauer, called RN74 “All around great” and, this past April, put it on his coveted Top 100 Bay Area Restaurants list.
So it was with great anticipation that I took BART three stops into the city, and then walked a block south to Mission Street, where RN74 is located in the fancy-schmancy new Millennium Tower, an ugly highrise that’s distortingly out of place in its SOMA neighborhood.
lurid and bloated
I arrived early, and beelined straight to the bar. Parr’s by-the-glass wine list is eclectic, offering a wide range of things from around the world. It had been ages since I’d enjoyed a nice Sherry, so I had the Palmina Equipo Navazos La Bota de Fino #15 ($10), an excellent wine that made me wonder once again why Sherry doesn’t play a greater role in our national drinking life. After that, I had a second glass, a pretty Austrian Riesling, 2008 Hirtzberger Steinterrassen Federspirel, from the Wachtau ($21). Why two glasses bam bam in a row? Because the pours were so miserly. For $31, I had the equivalent of a decent glass of white wine. The two bottles together retail for about $90, which means RN74 probably paid half that at wholesale. If you figure at least six glasses per bottle, with those tiny pours, that’s a huge markup.
My dinner companions, the lovely Rebecca and her handsome husband, Jesse, arrived, jet-lagged after the long trip from Hong Kong, and starved. We ordered. I decided to start with the sauteed pork belly and stuffed squash blossom first course ($16), because I’d previously clipped out a recipe for pork belly (which I’ve never cooked before), and wanted to see how it performs on a Mina menu. But first, I asked our server what glass of wine he would pair it with. He thought for a while, then recommended the Chablis: 2005 Louis Michel Montmains ($16), a premier cru. I thought it was an odd choice. I knew the pork belly was an Asian sweet, spicy dish, and a tough, acidic young Chablis didn’t sound right. But my philosophy of ordering wines in restaurants, especially one so wine-friendly as a Michael Mina joint, is to happily put myself in the server’s or somm’s hands, since that person knows way more about the wine and food than I do.
Five minutes later, before anything had been brought to us, the server returned and said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about that Chablis I recommended. Maybe a Riesling would be better.” He now wanted me to try the Selbach-Oster Bernkasteler Badstube Kabinett, from the Mosel ($12). I was grateful he was trying to take care of me.
“It’s funny,” I told him. “I thought the Chablis was a bizarre choice, but I didn’t want to say anything.”
“Want to try both?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said. “Bring a half glass of each, and I’ll let you know what I think.”
The pork belly came. It was truly a great dish, the thick slabs of smoky meat seared perfectly, with sautéed bits of heirloom tomatoes, bacon, basil and lemongrass. I took a sip of the Chablis. Horrible! After the spicy rich sweetness of the pork belly, the Chablis was a minerally acid freak that tasted even harder than it would have on its own. I could barely drink it.
The Riesling was much better, but I wouldn’t call it a match made in heaven. It was too sweet for the food. I know they say a wine should be sweeter than the food with which it’s served. But the residual sugar in the Riesling was very pronounced, and so was the acidity, and the combination muted the pork’s opulence, made a dish that’s supposed to be flamboyant taste merely good. The by-the-glass list contained several other white wines and sparkling wines, and even a Russian River rosé. Any one of them might have been a better match for the pork belly, but I’ll never know. I thought it was surprising that our server should be so uncertain about an elemental wine-and-food pairing, and, after all, RN74′s menu is not particularly extensive. There are only 8 appetizers and 7 entrées. You’d think the waitstaff would have their perfect pairings down.
For the main course I had the sauteed Alaskan halibut ($28), which was served with gnocchi, cherry tomatoes, celery and ginger. A pretty dish to look at, the fish all toasty golden, with a flaky crust. But it was dry, dry, dry. Jesse had the same thing and agreed. “It tastes like they let it sit for too long,” he observed. Maybe they did. I’ve worked in restaurants and know how a chef will put a dish up on the waiter’s shelf, under red heat lights. If it’s really busy, that dish can sit there for a while, continuing to cook. But RN74 wasn’t particularly busy. It was a Sunday night; it was maybe half full, and there certainly seemed to be plenty of staff. So no excuses for a dried out piece of fish that tasted like defrosted Mrs. Pauls.
The server and I went through the dance again when I asked him to recommend a wine for the halibut. I still had that glass of the Montmains, so I kept it, hoping it would be happier with the fish than it had been during its brief and miserable liaison with the pork belly. I asked if there were any Sancerre by the glass. Negative on that. Any Pouilly-Fume? Sorry. What about a Sauvignon Blanc? He suggested the Chateau Bonnet 2008, which he described as “white Bordeaux.”
Well, I remembered the 1980s when I used to buy that mass-produced Bonnet for something like $4 a bottle. Even today, it’s a $12 or $13 wine at retail. I don’t think it’s right to tell a customer a wine is white Bordeaux when it’s Entre Deux Mers. You can call Domaine de Chevalier Blanc “white Bordeaux” but Entre Deux Mers? The server seemed to be saying, “I don’t think you have a clue about wine, so instead of taking the time to explain what Entre Deux Mers means, I’ll just call it white Bordeaux, because even a moron like you has heard of Bordeaux and has positive associations with it.” The glass went for $11 at RN74; the wine was okay, but it was still the same, elemental EDM it’s always been.
Too tired to talk about wine anymore, wanting only to relax and eat with Becs and Jesse, I green-lighted the Bonnet. Whatever. After a while, the server came back with a “complimentary” half-glass of a 2009 Russian River rosé, Soliste’s Soleil ($12). He said the bartender, whom I’d friended over my earlier Sherry, thought it might go well with the halibut.
So I had 3 glasses in front of me: the leftover Chablis, the Chateau Bonnet, and a fruity, simple Sonoma rosé, made from Pinot Noir. By that time, I’d given up all semblance of caring what went with what. Ultimately, a meal with convivial friends isn’t the place to anguish over pairings. Jesse, Becs and I are all intensely political, and we filled the hours talking about, not bouquet or finish (although there was a little of that), but Tea Parties, deficits, what an investment bank actually does (it turns out it’s rather like a used car dealer), and China’s North Korea policy. (And, yes, I’m afraid I got a little animated when the subject turned to Sarah Palin!)
Becs, who’s a vegetarian, had the grilled cobia ($28), a plate of roasted butter beans, pole beans, tomato and artichoke barigoule (a sort of spicy stew) that was amazing. Even Becs, a seasoned restaurant adventurer who’s dined in three-star places around the world, praised its simple deliciousness. What did the server recommend she drink with it? 2005 Branaire Ducru ($16), a Fourth Growth Bordeaux so leanly tannic that it was utterly useless with the cobia. Becs grimaced, then asked me why they would even sell such an unattractive wine at RN74.
“It’s not a bad wine,” I explained, “it’s just too young. It needs 8, 10 years to come around. At least.”
“Then why don’t they age it?” That led to a discussion of why it’s so hard for restaurants to sell properly aged wines: cost-prohibitive. If they’d sold ‘95 Branaire instead of 2005, the glass would probably cost $45.
Then Becs asked one of those “out of the mouths of babes” questions. “Aren’t there inexpensive wines that would taste better with this food that don’t have to be aged?” She told me about some Spanish reds she buys in Hong Kong for $25 a bottle that are soft and fruity.
I replied, “I’m sure there are. But I don’t think Michael Mina and Rajat Parr could get away with selling an inexpensive Spanish wine at RN74. The snobs would crush them.” And it’s too bad, really, when you think about it.
The bill for the three of us, with tip, was $300, which actually isn’t too bad for a red-hot San Francisco restaurant. But I was majorly disappointed with my dinner at RN74, which I think is the latest poster child for so many things that can go wrong, and do, in our celebrity-chef, cult restaurant-obsessed culture.