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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.


We want stronger food tastes. What about our wines?

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A couple years ago, Dr. Vino wrote an influential blog post called “Is the clock ticking on hedonistic fruit bombs?” He didn’t come right out and say so, one way or the other. But he cited evidence of a “backlash” against high alcohol, extracted wines. Since then (Dec. 2007), lots of people have wondered if the pendulum is swinging away from higher ripeness and toward wines of greater finesse. I, myself, have written about this, although I’ve done so in the same hedge-your-bets way as Dr. Vino. I have speculated that cooler vintages in California (and, man oh man, 2010 is turning out to be one of the coolest yet) may be helping to bring the grapes in at lower brix levels.

Now comes an absolutely fascinating article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal with powerful implications for the wine business. With the intriguing headline “A Taste for Hotter, Mintier, Fruitier,” its thesis is that “The increased craving for intense flavors suggests that the American palate is changing.” Changing from what to what? Away from “natural flavors” and towards “intensity in flavor.” The author, Miriam Gottfried, lists plenty of examples of how steroidal flavors are being packed into our foods: “Snack chips are spicer. Chewing gum is mintier. Energy drinks are fruitier. In short, American cuisine is adrenaline cuisine.”

Gottfried bases her conclusions after interviewing a chef at a New York outfit called International Flavors and Fragrances, whose website describes it as “a leading creator and manufacturer of flavors and fragrances.” Their executive chef told Gottfried that Americans are seeking “a lot more umami,” the term popularized some years ago to describe a certain type of appealing savoriness in food. That Americans are in fact seeking more savoriness is accepted by a vice president of the James Beard Foundation, who told Gottfried, “You always need something spicier, something more, a bigger high” when it comes to food. He was echoed by a chef at McCormick’s (the spice people), who told the reporter, “Bold is replacing boring.”

I can totally accept this hypothesis. We do want more flavor, don’t we? As a longtime aficienado of cookbooks and food sections in the local newspaper, I’ve noted a trend toward spicier, bolder, richer, more layered, more complex and more savory food. Here in California, with our heavy Mexican and pan-Asian influences, our cuisine has become wildly delicious and adventurous. A good restaurant meal is a high to rival any substance I’ve ever had.

If it’s true that the American palate is changing in the direction of bigger and bolder, can it also be true that those same Americans are wanting their wines to be tamer and leaner? I suppose a case could be made. You could argue that a big, bold meal wants a companion wine to be restrained, in order to let the food star. On the other hand you could take the “like-with-like” route and suggest that the last thing you want with a big, umami-flavored dish is a thin little wine.

I’m still not ready to come down on one side or the other and make some stark pronouncement that hedonistic fruit bombs are [or aren’t] dead. I don’t know if the pendulum is swinging, and if it is, which way. We in the media tend to paint things in too-absolute terms anyway, as if everything is black or white. Of course, things aren’t. America is too big a country, and too fractured in cultural diversity, for such simplistic pronouncements to be made.

What are my own experiences with “hedonistic fruit bombs”? There are still plenty of them. And I don’t see them going away anytime soon. Of course, the word “bomb” is an explosive one. Your “bomb” may be my “chockful of fruit” delicioso. California growers and vintners have worked too long and too hard to achieve fruit perfection to turn around and throw it out the window. Cooler vintages may lower the alcohol a little bit, but not enough to reverse a generational shift, which is what we saw from the 1970s to the 1990s. The most important word in all this may be “hedonistic.” Last time I checked, it wasn’t an expletive, but a word based on the Greek root for “pleasure.” Nothing wrong with pleasure, in my book.

P.S. No new post tomorrow. I’m in Seattle for the weekend.


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