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A mid-winter Bay Area evening

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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

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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.

The repast:

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
415.495.LUSK (5875)


You scratch my back and…when wineries and charities both benefit

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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.


My disappointing dinner at RN74

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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.


Just a short post from Napa

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I’m in Napa for a few days. Had dinner last night at that hot new restaurant everybody’s talking about, Ubuntu, which is vegetarian. I told my server, “I don’t know anything about your menu, so why don’t you just surprise me?” It’s basically a small-plate place, and she paired the wines as well. (Almost everything comes from Ubuntu’s garden, in south Napa.)

Here’s what I had:

1. marinated “forono” beets and “merlin” beet tostones with wheatgrass, goat’s milk labneh and local wheatberries. Wine: 2008 Domaine de Fonstainte (an old fave) Gris de Gris rose, from Corbieres.

2. salad of assorted brassicas and flowering rabes, with miso “bagna cauda,” meyer lemon “sylvetta,” arugula and parmesan cheese. Wine: 2008 Chenin Blanc, Janvier Cuvee Sainte Narcisse, Jasnieres (off-dry).

3. purple rain carrots al rescoldo, cooked in vegetable embers, with carrot crudo, wild celery, kumquat salsa verde. Wine: Gridley Vineyards 2005 Cabernet Franc, Napa Valley.

The wine pairings were seamless and inspired, and I thoroughly enjoyed the meal. On my way out, I spotted, of all people, Charlie Olken (!!!) and his lovely wife, with a few others. Stopped by their table and, although I’d promised myself “no dessert!”, they twisted my arm. The vanilla bean “cheesecake” in a jar, with sour cherries, and crumbled nuts (which my cousin had told me not to miss) sent me into orbit.

Anyway, we talked mostly about (what else?) social media, but there did arise one question: Is vegetarian food harder to pair with wine than meats, poultry and fish? I think it is. If you have a great roast, it’s rugged and potent enough to pair with almost any full-bodied red. But Ubuntu’s veggie fare was so subtle, so transparent, so intricate, I had the feeling that the wine pairings had been carefully and meticulously thought-out.

What do you think?


Big wine lists? Get rid of them

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I got a private email yesterday from a reader of this blog. She introduced herself as a servor at “a very well regarded fine dining restaurant in the Bay area” which she did not identify. She had a problem. The wine list contains “1800+” wines and “I get a little nervous because I feel like I am not prepared to answer a lot of the questions people throw at me.” She asked my advice: “how would you suggest going about learning the wines, I obviously can’t taste them all.”

It’s a good, honest question that raises a lot of issues that aren’t often talked about concerning restaurant wine service. The fact is, many servors are ignorant about the wine list or large portions of it, even at some top restaurants, where you’d expect the person waiting on you to be an authority. The reason why is obvious: as the young (23-year old) lady pointed out, it’s completely unreasonable to expect her to taste through all 1,800 wines on the list, and even if she could, she’d be unable to remember details about them, much less offer factual background information on them to curious diners.

That’s the problem with these massive wine lists. They seem more like fashion statements than something that’s supposed to be helpful to normal people. How many wine selections do you need when you eat out? I personally am happy with a small (under 30 wines) list that’s been thoughtfully chosen to pair with the chef’s creations. In fact, when I see a small, apparently well-chosen wine list, it gives me confidence that the owners care about me and the experience I have. If the list is manageable, the waitstaff can deal with it professionally and competently. They have the opportunity to taste each wine, remember what it tastes like so they can speak intelligently about it, and also memorize a few tidbits of information to offer to their customers. And don’t forget, a servor who knows her stuff and performs well is apt to get a bigger tip. On the other hand, a massive wine list seems snobby, stuffy and officious. It certainly doesn’t give me any confidence about the food. And if you think about it, a restaurateur who has a wine list so gigantic that his staff (like the woman who wrote me) gets nervous just thinking about it is neither a good restaurateur, a good employer or a good host to his customers.

Here’s what I advised the woman:

I guess you just have to learn 1 or 2 things about each of the wines that you can remember. Other than that you can generalize. For example if the list has a “Heather Vineyard 2007 Pinot Noir” from the Russian River Valley you can talk about the vintage (a great one for Pinot Noir in California) and the region (one of the best places for Pinot Noir). And I don’t think you have to apologize if you haven’t had the actual wine. Tell the customer you haven’t had a chance to try it, and if they order it, you’d appreciate hearing their impressions. They might even offer you a sip. (I would.)

This approach will rescue a harried waitperson, and a pro can easily fake it, in a kind of improvised, thinking-on-your-feet performance. But it’s no substitute for the real thing, which is to be able to describe the wine in some detail, and also to make an informed food recommendation.

I asked my Facebook friends what they considered the ideal wine list size to be and almost everybody suggested keeping it small. Nobody wants to feel like they’re studying for a test just to order a bottle to drink with dinner. The exception was a few people who said they liked thumbing through gigantic wine lists. I do, too, but I’m in the industry. As a diner I much prefer something smaller.

I think the era of massive, telephone book-sized wine lists is coming to an end. It’s so twentieth century, an anachronistic indulgence ill-suited to these times and to people’s temperament.


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