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Inside the somm’s mind: pairing 18 wines with 22 courses


Mark Bright is co-owner and wine director of Saison, which he founded three years ago with his friend and business partner, chef Josh Skenes. The restaurant has lately become famous for being the most expensive in San Francisco, despite its location in one of the city’s edgiest neighborhoods, the Mission District. A 22 course tasting menu, featuring 18 wines, will set you back $498. I wondered how Bright, a Bellagio alum who came up through the Michel Mina empire, and who calls Rajat Parr his “mentor,” goes about pairing wines under such complicated and challenging conditions. Skenes may change a course recipe in the middle of an evening, adding an ingredient that completely changes the directional compass of a dish, thus forcing Bright to quickly come up with a new wine to pair it with. We had a nice little chat about all this yesterday. Here are excerpts from that conversation, in what you can think of as a tour of a sommelier’s conscious mind.

First, Bright on that $498 price tag. “You have to realize, the ingredients are so expensive. We have a fulltime forager on staff! It’s not a price we aimed for, it just fairly covers our costs. Take the caviar course. The caviar itself is $20-$25 per serving, and that’s just one ingredient for one dish, plus there’s 21 other courses. Some courses have 40 ingredients in them. So it’s about us giving the diners everything we’ve got.”

Which comes first, the wine or the food? “It always starts with the food. I’ve worked so closely with Josh for so long that, when he explains what direction he’s going, I get a preliminary style of wine I think will work. Josh will tell me the dish’s components, I’ll taste them, separated on their own, to see their acidity levels, flavors and textures, and I’ll have it down to 2 or 3 wines at that point. If he changes something suddenly–which happens all the time, many things can happen in a kitchen, maybe he just wants to try something new–I’ll taste just the component change, not the entirely prepared new dish. It’s not a given that the wine has to change, but if the dish changes dramatically, then you have to change the wine. The thing is, every wine brings out different things in a dish. One wine might bring out the food’s earthiness, while another brings out the high tones and a third brings out the acidity. There’s no right pairing; there are a lot of amazing pairings, but you can never say there’s one perfect pairing with a dish. As long as both the food and the wine are enhanced, you’re doing something right. Also, wine grows and matures in the bottle, so in any given dish, if the ingredients remain the same over time, at some point that wine will take itself out of the running.”

Do we collectively get too precious and stressed out over perfect pairings? “You know what? A lot of the time, that does happen, and you know why? I see people doing wine pairings just to be creative and outlandish, completely forgetting the one important fact: it has to be delicious! More than it has to be creative. When I see people do that, I’m like, Wow, what are you trying to prove? You can’t force a good pairing. It just has to be delicious.”

What does Bright eat and drink at home? “Ice cream sandwiches! But honestly, I eat a lot of fish, because my fiance’s Chinese. I love Indian food. An earthy, meaty Syrah works great with it. Cornas, amazing, mind blowing. But I also keep a lot of beer in the fridge. When you’ve been drinking wine all day, there’s nothing better than a cold beer.”

Getting squirmy with the somm


Besha Rodell is a restaurant critic and blogger for LA Weekly. She blogged yesterday about an incident that occurred when she dined, along with some friends, at what she called “one of L.A.’s most highly regarded restaurants.”

From the sound of it, she and her companions had a very uncomfortable experience, and it had to do with the sommelier.

Go ahead, read her post and then come back here. Briefly, Besha and her friends can be faulted with not having asked the sommelier for the exact prices of the bottle and glasses of wine. So, in that respect, Besha doesn’t have any basis to complain about paying nearly $200 in wine costs. And since she knew in advance how “highly regarded” the restaurant was, she should have anticipated that she was going to end up spending a lot of money on vino.

On the other hand, the somm can be faulted for not telling Besha exactly how much the wines would cost. After all, “not too expensive” is in the eye of the beholder. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly who was responsible for the bad experience. There’s probably enough blame to go around for everyone to share.

When I read the article, I remembered how uncomfortable I sometimes am at restaurants with sommeliers. You’d think a wine writer like me would be able to negotiate the restaurant-somm waters with ease, but that’s not the case. There’s something that almost always makes me queasy, and I can’t quite put my finger on it.

I can relate to Besha’s not asking the somm for the specific price. She was embarrassed. Now, you can argue that she shouldn’t have been, but the fact is, lots of us are embarrassed to ask about bottle prices, unless we’re made out of money, and who is? If I were a sommelier, I like to think I’d be on the customer’s side in terms of helping him find the precise wine that suits his meal, in the most comfortable price zone. But I don’t know how somms are paid. Do they get a percentage of the bottle price? Are they under pressure to push more expensive bottles? And the tip, which is a percentage of the total bill, also goes up with more expensive wine, doesn’t it? Not knowing exactly what the somm’s motives are can make the somm-customer interaction murky and stressful. It’s almost like there’s a subtext to the conversation, with the somm prodding the customer upward in price and the customer resisting, politely and tactfully. That is not the stuff of which good restaurant experiences are built.

I don’t think the situation is the same with beer or cocktails. I mean, the customer’s relationship with a bartender is much easier than with a somm. It’s the fact that wine is so much more expensive that really distorts the dining experience. If you eat at a top restaurant, you almost feel like the servers and sommeliers and even the customers are looking at you and expecting you to spend a bundle on a bottle (or 2 or 3) of wine. (Don’t you look to see what other people are drinking? I do.) It’s like, if you don’t splurge, you risk looking like a cheapskate. I don’t know about you, but paying $120 for a bottle of wine, when the meal itself costs maybe $50, isn’t something I’m prepared to do very often. (And, as Besha knows, a bottle simply isn’t enough for a meal. You’re going to want a couple of glasses, too.)

How do you feel about the customer-sommelier experience? Does it ever make you feel weird? How do you handle it?

Random notes on a dinner at Saison


Last night’s dinner at Saison really was a tremendous experience. I lost track of how many courses were served. The official menu lists twelve, but there were more than that, especially with the desserts, which just keep arriving, one after another.

This seems like a lot of food, but in reality, it’s not: most of the courses could literally fit into a teaspoon. In fact, I was still hungry at the end, so much so that I made myself a bacon sandwich when I got home.

The point of an experience like dining at Saison, then, is not to fill your belly but to appreciate, on an intellectual and esthetic basis, what the kitchen is capable of doing. While I took notes on each course, they were of necessity incomplete: when I asked our server to tell us about a course listed simply as “caviar,” he got as far as saying it was from American white sturgeon, on a grilled bread gelée, and there was something about chicken, but then he stopped himself short and said that, if he were to explain every single ingredient, and how it had been cooked, he would be there forever. I wrote, concerning that caviar course, “It tastes like one thing,” while in reality it was many different things, all put together so seamlessly that it had the purity and simple beauty of, say, a bite of lobster or of a ripe, plump pear.

And so it was with every course: the pea and parmesan broth, which was actually a custard, the tiny, succulent scallop plate, the vegetables–harvested or foraged in San Francisco, although no one in the restaurant would tell me exactly where (from some hill someplace, I would think: Bernal Heights?), the brassicas, mustard-style bitter greens, also foraged, a rich morsel of rabbit, lamb, a farm egg. The word that kept occurring to me was umami, which to my way of thinking means so much more than merely savory. These are bites of food that stun: your first reaction is OMG, and then you experience the brief ecstasy of such pleasure, and finally your last reaction is a repeat of OMG, and then the server shows up with yet another course.

I liked Saison’s ritual of having a different chef present each course, although I wish the restaurant would hand out little prepared pages of information on each food, instead of the chef stating rapid fire what it was. So much information, so little time to absorb it, or to even hear each word distinctly, with the noise of human conversation and rock music all around.

The service was impeccable, the staff charming and well-informed, the dining room smallish and warm. Saison’s location is a little edgy: at Folsom Street and 17th Street, a few blocks south of the blossoming Valencia Corridor, in a neighborhood that’s as gritty as when I lived there, 25 years ago. Just in front of Saison, I met, by sheer happenstance, an old friend, Amy Cleary, who used to work at the University of California Press when they published my two books. She lives in the neighborhood and told me that that stretch of Folsom Street is rapidly gentrifying. (I kind of figured that out when I saw the new Mission Bowling Club, an authentic bowling alley with restaurant and bar, a block from Saison.) I wonder what the denizens of the Mission District will do, where they will go, as their rents soar and they’re squeezed out. Still, walk along Mission Street, between, say, 16th and 18th, and it remains a riot of bodegas, thrift shops and dive bars, the sidewalks choking with individuals of colorful, if questionable, appearance, the scent of pot everywhere, beggars sitting on the curbs, staggering drunks, young kids on stoops listening to Mexican music on the radio, the Spanish language as common as English, shopkeepers pulling down burglar-proof metal doors on their furniture stores as the business day comes to an end, young mamas pushing baby carriages, old people pacing their way carefully along the crowded sidewalks, carrying bags of bananas and mangoes and bread, police cars routinely patrolling this high-crime area, and all the hipsters, pouring into the clubs and bars as soon as their workday is over, starting their drinking early. Speaking of which, try the Venetian Coast cocktail at Bar Locanda. Tequila, luxardo bitters, lemon, cucumber and salt. A magnificent achievement, and the bartender is pure Nureyev, without the tights. I had one right before the Saison dinner commenced, at 6:30, the perfect way to begin an evening of pleasure (as was the bacon sandwich the perfect way to end it).


Can any meal possibly be worth $498?


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.

A perfect food day in Oakland


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.

Oakland’s red-hot Uptown District now boasts Oliveto’s former chef

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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?

Oliveto Restaurant.

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.

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.

Love it.

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,, 468 19th St., between Broadway and Telegraph, in Uptown Oakland. Opening September 2012.

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