Restaurants


Six of us gathered last Tuesday for dinner at Falai, a small, sleek, irresistible Italian restaurant on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It was my second visit, having eaten there back in March. The diners were LL and me, our friend Julie (with whom we stayed for falaishot_01.jpg part of last week), Terence Hughes of mondosapore fame and his longtime partner Ken, and Gabrio Tosti, the irrepressible owner of the fine little (mainly) Italian wine store De Vino, one block north of Falai on Clinton Street. We were joined later — hours later; it was a long riotous meal — by Gian Luigi Maravalle, proprietor of Tenuta Vitalonga in western Umbria, whose plane was late and whose luggage was lost.

Chef at the restaurant is Iacopo Falai, whose talent is for taking traditional ingredients of northern Italian cuisine, adding a sly inventive touch here and a sly inventive touch there and coming up with food that is delicious and memorable without being cute and tricky. After quite a bit of discussion and diplomacy, the table decided to order the prix fixe menu; here were the choices — Antipasto: Polenta Bianca (chicken liver, dried dates and wild mushrooms “Vellutata”) OR baby octopus with fresh celery, string terry_01.jpg beans, Granny Smith apples, American caviar. Pasta: Gnudi of ricotta cheese, baby spinach, brown butter, crema di latte, sage. Carne/Pesce: Manzo (petit filet, butternut squash and orange puree, blood orange fennel salad) OR Branzino (potato-wrapped sea-bass, leek, white asparagus, huckleberry sauce). Dolce: passion fruit souffle. Four courses for $55. Some members of our party tried to negotiate a menu without the gnudi, and the efficient, amenable and incredibly, infinitely patient manager Jiordona — pictured here with Terry Hughes (in his usual serious mood) — even offered such a deal at $50, but in the end, everyone got all the courses.

We began by quickly downing a bottle of the crisp, floral and delightful Ronco delle Betulle Tocai Friulano 2005 from the restaurant’s wine list ($44). After that, we consumed five bottles, two that I brought and three brought in by Gabrio. The first of Gabrio’s wines — and we pretty much scarfed this down too — was a new rosé, the fresh, delicate and tasty Whispering Angel 2006 — everybody who thinks that’s a terrible name raise your hand! — from Chateau d’Esclans in the Côtes de Provence; Sacha Lichine bought the property in 2006. This dry rosé offers whispers of crushed raspberries and strawberries and feathery hints of stones and dried flowers for pleasing effect. The high-concept label is attractive, the wine retails for about $22, and it’s the only rosé that Gabrio sells.

We drank these gentle opening salvos during talk and bread — Iacopo Falai is a former pasty chef, and the breads are excellent — and appetizers, of which the octopus got best marks. You can see from the image how great the plate looked. The baby octopus_01.jpg octopus was exceedingly tender — it’s boiled first and then grilled — and the curl of celery and the slender batons of apple provided crisp contrasts in texture and fresh flavors. Not that the Polenta Bianca was any slouch. Indeed the combination of the creamy chicken livers and slightly crusty polenta with the sweet fruitiness of the dates and wild earthiness of the mushrooms was heady and flavorful, but the dish was definitely rustic compared to the finesse of the octopus.

Next came the gnudi, a carefully shaped oval-like nest of ricotto cheese and shredded, cooked spinach bathed in a nutty brown gnudi_01.jpg butter sauce with a touch of cream; leaning against this delicate construct was one sage leaf. Rich and creamy, these gnudi disappeared into our mouths in about three minutes, leaving us wishing that they had not vanished so quickly.

I picked up a bottle of Domaine Leccia Petra Bianca Patrimonio 1998 ($25) at Crossroads Wines & Liquors on 14th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues at the suggestion of Nicolas Palazzi, who is French through and through yet bears the name of his father and honorable ancestors from Corsica. The Palazzi family owns Bordeaux properties in Cotes de Bourg, Entre-Deux-Mers and Graves, and Nicolas lives in New York nine months a year trying to market the wines. Anyway, he and I are email correspondents, and he, mindful of his Corsican heritage, had delved through the stock at the totally eccentric and treasure-filled wine store, found this wine and sent out a bulletin. “Petra Bianca” refers not to the wine’s color — it’s red, made from 100 percent niellucciu grapes — but to the chalky clay soil that nurtures the vineyards of Corsica’s Patrimonio region. The wine was imported by Kermit Lynch in Berkeley, Ca.

I’ll confess that I didn’t love the wine, though it was very interesting. It opened with whiffs of cedar and eucalyptus, scents of walnuts and walnut shell, dried spice and brown sugar, the sign of a mature red. In the mouth, the wine was dense and chewy, formidably tannic and sporting a startling hit of acid. It smoothed out and became more palatable in 15 or 20 minutes, but the whole time it was in my glass I kept thinking, “What happened to the fruit?” Of course, it’s nine years old; it would be instructive to try more recent vintages.

By this time, of course, our entrees had arrived. When I dined at Falai in March, I had ordered the manzo, asking for it to be cooked to medium rare, but what came to the table was medium or more. This time I ordered the beef rare, so it came to me at a perfect medium rare temperature and rosy-red color. The preparation at the end of the winter included parsnip puree, red wine-cooked shallots and wild mushrooms and a Marsala-truffle sauce; more in keeping with the season — and it was hot in New York last week — the petit filet came with a butternut squash and orange puree and a blood orange-fennel salad. It was a sumptuous yet completely balanced and appropriate presentation. I did not, alas — or I don’t remember, alas — tasting the branzino.

Next we opened the Rosso Ca’ de Merlo 1998 from Guiseppe Quintarelli, who is often called the “Master of the Veneto” or the “King of the Veneto.” This is the kind of wine that at first sniff and sip you say, “Well, here’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” meaning that in completely the best way. This wine also came from Crossroads and cost about $76; it was imported by Robert Chadderton in New York. Despite the name, the wine has nothing to do with the merlot grape. It is, essentially, a sort of super-Valpolicella, made from corvino grapes (taken from a single hillside vineyard) in the traditional ripasso method in which the wine undergoes a second fermentation on the skins of the dried grapes used to make Amarone wines, thus providing additional strength and tannin. Nothing tannic here, however; the Rosso Ca’ de Merlo ’98 was lovely, smooth and mellow, subtle and supple, composed of black cherry, currant and plum flavors deeply infused with dried spice, potpourri and black tea with touches of moss and clean earth. What a treat!

Not to be outdone, Gabrio rushed back to his store and returned with a bottle of the Merlanico d’Orta de Conciliis 2000, a Vino da Tavola (two-thirds merlot, one-third aglianico) produced by Lombardy’s Barone Giulio Pizzini Piomarta; the importer is Vignaioli merlanico.jpg Selections in New York. The price at Gabrio’s store is $150. This is, frankly, a stunning wine, deep and rich and flavorful, and it gets deeper and richer and more flavorful as moments pass. It opens beautifully, warmly in the glass, offering notes of cedar and tobacco, leather, toasted hazelnuts and wheatmeal, black currants and plums with hints of wild berry, earth and minerals. Retaining considerable tannins, the wine is dense and chewy, packed with spicy wood, yet generously supplied with black and red fruit flavors, that wane as the large and fairly austere finish takes over. And what a match for the medium rare beef filet!

By this time Maravalle had arrived, sans luggage and sans vino for us to try, so again Gabrio rushed over to his store to get confine.jpg something from Tenuta Vitalonga. He returned with a bottle of Terra di Confine 2004, a blend of 80 percent montepulciano grapes and 20 percent merlot. As Maravalle pointed out, this is a young wine from young grapes, planted only four years ago, so we were not surprised that the wine was bold and brash, wild and robust, bursting with currants, plums and dark-chocolate-covered raspberries nestled in dense, leathery tannins. Another wine destined for pairing with hearty red meat dishes, it sells for $25. I would try it from 2008 or ’09 through 2012 or ’14. souffle_011.jpg

Were we finished?

With wine, yes, but not with dinner, because dessert came, a sumptuous, luxurious, yet light-hearted passion fruit souffle.

And then we gathered our gear, our notes, our bags and shuffled out of Falai, by far the last to leave, hoping against hope that we wouldn’t have hangovers the next day.

Falai is at 68 Clinton Street, near Rivington. Call (212) 253-1960.
De Vino is at 30 Clinton Street. Call (212) 228-0073 or visit de-vino.com.

The top image of the restaurant, shot from behind the small bar area looking toward the back, is by Jeremy Liebman for New York magazine. The rest of the images in Falai were shot by LL or FK.

The waiter comes to the table to ask if we want coffee. The usual discussion ensues: What types of coffee does the restaurant waiter2_01.jpg offer, are all the choices available in regular and decaf and so on. The waiter takes the orders and then asks, “Will you be needing cream and sugar with that?”

What happened to the days when an order for coffee meant that the waiter automatically brought to the table a little tray that held the cream and sugar and the other accessories with which we decorate or alter our coffee? The service would take different forms. In a diner, you would be brought a little metal pitcher for cream or milk and a little metal canister, usually holding sugar or sugar-substitute packets. In a fine restaurant, a silver tray might hold a silver bowl of sugar cubes, while the milk or cream pitcher would also be silver and have a lid. These luxuries fascinated me when I was a child, especially the sugar cubes wrapped in paper, because when you unwrapped them, the paper kept its tiny neat folds and you could play games with it. Not that my family went out to eat in restaurants frequently, or ever.

Anyway, before I get all teary-eyed with nostalgia and fantasies about lost childhoods, let me say that the seemingly polite question that we hear so often now in restaurants, “Do you need cream and sugar with that?” is merely another way in which restaurants abdicate their responsibilities toward good service and erect a wall of faux-etiquette between waiters and customers.

And then the check comes. Now obviously the vast majority of checks in restaurants are paid by credit card; that’s the way of the world and the expense account. But occasionally I’ll pay with cash, slipping those greenbacks between the covers of the fake leather booklet. What happens nowadays is that the waiter picks up the book, turns slightly and then says, “Will you need change back from this?”

Well, honey, it’s not a negotiation. That question, disguised as polite concern and a way to save you, the customer, time, is such a naked plea for a tip that the waiter might as well get down on his or her knees and say, “Please, please, please!” It’s really a form of intimidation. Why take time to figure out a proper tip, is the theme: I’ll just keep the rest of the money.

No, waiters, take the booklet the way you’re supposed to, keep yer mouth shut, except to smile pleasantly, and bring back the change. Then the diner can figure out the tip and leave the appropriate amount.

Yes, I know, waiters have a hard life, and I’m not being ironic about this — all you have to do is listen to their horrific tales to understand — and, I hasten to add, the points I gripe about in this post are not the fault of the waiters; these are management decisions to deliberately diminish the quality of service.

But the tone of a restaurant, the pace of the meal, the cordial yet detached relationship between waiter and patron, the unspoken yet always fulfilling round of little details that comfort and assuage: These all need to be maintained in order for diners to have a successful experience in a restaurant, whether chomping on a grilled cheese sandwich at Mom ‘n’ Pop’s Road House or slicing into foie gras at La Maison de Upper Crust.

Service with a smile, dude!

Image of the happy waiter is from ckm2005.ucsd.edu.

Car Rental:

The topic of lost cafe rituals is very popular among coffee bloggers around the world. What used to be automatic doesn’t apply in some coffee shops anymore. A coffee blogger who ranted about his terrible car rental experience got more turned off as his day went along because of what he called was poor cafe service. The anonymous blogger is admittedly a coffee enthusiast which explains his extreme sensitivity over the topic of proper cafe values. There was no particular reason as to what exactly turned him off but it had something to do with lost good old cafe a.b.c’s

I recently received a link to the website of a new restaurant in Cambridge, Mass. This is T.W. Food, an amalgam of such vibrant dedication, preciousness and (it looks like) sheer genius that it makes one dizzy just to read about it. The restaurant is the brain-child of Tim Wiechmann, the chef, and his wife Bronwyn, the manager. They are young (33 and 29) and seem to be twfood1_01.jpg energetic, gifted and ferociously sincere. The premise is ingredients and wines that range from simple organic to bio-dynamic and the creation of dishes that reflect synergy among ingredients, locality and wine. The philosophy (or slogan) is “From Seed to Plate,” with a focus on “sustainable and fairly treated ingredients.” The skeptic in me, I’m almost ashamed to admit, says, “How unfairly can you treat a potato.” (O.K., that’s unfair; the menu looks fabulous.)

The menu changes every day, at least a portion of the menu, and is supposed to be posted to the website (twfoodrestaurant) by 10 a.m. The offerings are limited: five starters and a selection of oysters; six entrees and three six-course “chef decides” tasting menus, one vegetarian; three desserts and a selection of cheeses. Prices range from $10 to $15 for starters, $25 to $30 for entrees (tasting menus are $55 — one is vegetarian — or $85 with wine), and $8 for dessert.

Check out the website to see what the intriguing food is like — the menu is heavy on the earnest descriptive style of the 1990s — because what I really want to focus on is the unique wine policy.

Now we’ve all dined in restaurants that field impressive or even oppressive wine lists that sport page after page of chardonnays from all over the world and cabernet sauvignon-based wines from all the world with an emphasis on the Big Names and Labels anointed by ratings of 90 and above from The Wine Spectator and The Wine Advocate. Such profusion makes it difficult to chose a wine for dinner, even for the experienced though perhaps not wealthy patron.

The wine list at T.W. Food begins from completely the opposite direction, offering one sparkling wine, eight white wines, 11 reds, seven desserts wines (six by the glass only) and four reserve wines. The emphasis is on the producer, not the number of wines the list can boast or the roster of Usual Suspects.

In whites, there are a chardonnay and semillon from L’Ecole No. 41 in Washington; two Savennieres, a Quarts-de-Chaume and a sparkling rose from Donaine de Baumard in the Loire Valley; a gruner veltliner and a riesling from Anton Bauer in Austria, and a Premier Cru and Grand Cru Chablis from Domaine William Fevre.

Reds include two pinot noirs and a cabernet sauvignon from Babcock Vineyards in Santa Barbara and a charbono and a merlot from Coturri in the Sonoma Valley; a Cotes-du-Rhone Villages, a Croze-Hermitage and a Chateauneud-du-Pape from Tardieu-Laurent; and, from Chateau de Roquefort in Cotes-de-Provence, a rose, a Bouches de Rhone and a Cotes-de-Provence.

That’s it. Prices range from $39 to $94, with most being in the $40s to $60s. About half the wines are available by the glass, at prices ranging from $9 to $11. What a refreshing and respectful approach to pairing wine with a restaurant’s signature cuisine and to promoting the work of individual producers.

Then there’s the reserve list. Naturally, the prices are fairly high: Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2001, $125; Domaine Bouchard Pere et Fils Chevalier-Montrachet Grand Cru 1997, $180; Chateau Haut-Brion 1998, $240; Chateau d’Yquem 1997, $320.

Here’s the deal though: The prices for the four reserve wines represent the wholesale prices the restaurant paid to acquire them. For patrons at T.W. Food who want to experience these wines with the restaurant’s fare, they are available at the restaurant’s cost. There’s no mark-up, as the website says, “Not a penny.”

I have never heard of a restaurant willing to do that. Sure, the biggest mark-ups tend to come in the lower to middle price range of the wine list, and the restaurant isn’t giving the reserve wines away, but still, it’s not making money on them. You will have to decide for yourselves if this policy is a sign of preciousness or integrity, or perhaps it’s both. In any case, it’s extraordinary.

This was mentioned in The New York Times food section last week, a “carpaccio of tomatoes.” carpaccio2_01.jpg

Now friends, you may slice a tomato thick or you may slice it thin, but no matter how thin you slice it, it’s still just a sliced tomato. And a sliced grapefruit — not an easy matter anyway — is not a “carpaccio of grapefruit,” which I have seen on menus; it’s just a sliced grapefruit.

Most people who love food, especially Italian food, know that beef Carpaccio is a dish that consists of paper-thin slices of raw beef served with olive oil, arugula and Parmesan cheese. It was invented by Giuseppe Cipriani of Harry’s Bar in Venice and named after the great Venetian artist Vittori Carpaccio (1460?-1525/6). The point is, I mean my point is, that “carpaccio” is not a technique; it’s a dish, which could (one grants) have some acceptable range of variation — one pictured here has truffles, carpaccio1_01.jpgwhich seems like over-kill — but still must necessarily operate within its proper sphere. I could see lamb Carpaccio, for example, treated in the regular manner, but I have also been served shrimp Carpaccio and octopus Carpaccio, and I would say that those concepts are beyond the pale.

Today, you see, carpaccio has become the new napoleon. What I mean is that 10 to 15 or more years ago, witty (or desperate) chefs expanded the notion of the luxurious dessert called a napoleon — layers of puff pastry alternating with pastry cream, whipped cream or jam and topped with fondant icing, traditionally with combed brown and white stripes — to mean any group of napoleon1_01.jpgingredients stacked in layers. Hence, lobster napoleons, hence sweetbread and foie gras napoleons. The limit, for me, was reached at La Maison Blanche, in Paris, in March 1990, where I was served a “napoleon” that stacked, carefully, eel with eggplant and zucchini. Sorry, but that sounds like vertical ratatouille to me.

(What I chiefly remember about the restaurant is that a large white German shepherd-like dog was sleeping right inside the front door, blocking the way in or out. Nobody paid attention; they just stepped over the dog. The French are sort of lovable after all.)

The connection between the dessert and the short Corsican conqueror seems to be the remarkable resemblance that the pastry napoleon bears to Napoleon’s Tomb at Les Invalides. Ha-ha, no, I made that up, it’s probably an association with tomb2_01.jpgnapolitain, the French adjective for Naples.

All right, F.K., you’re saying, you’re on one of your tears again.

Well, hell, yes, of course, because words have meanings and they matter, and the names of things, the names by which we know them — napoleons and carpaccio — have meanings and they matter. When those words and names are blurred and forgotten, we have lost something irreplaceable. When some master chef of the “Slicing and Dicing” class at the Culinary Institute of America blithely says, “O.K., apprentices, carpaccio those tomatoes for me and napoleon them on the plates,” we have doomed ourselves a little.

I’m just trying to keep that from happening quite so soon.

The image of the beef carpaccio at top is from abc.net.au; the second carpaccio (with truffles) is from atmospherebistro.com. The napoleon is from grahamdavies.net; Napoelon’s tomb is from sagarmatha.com. Thanks to all.

If Freud did not ask “What do young people want?” he should have.

young_people_drinking_wine.gif
Attempting to answer that question, if only in terms of attitudes about wine and wine consumption — at least one thing that young people want being lots of booze — is this report, “20-25 Year-Olds and Wine,” commissioned by VINEXPO and carried out by the firm of Brulé, Ville & Associés. According to the press release from VINEXPO, the gargantuan wine fair held every year in Bordeaux, BVA surveyed two groups of 10 people in the United States, France, Japan, Belgium, and the United Kingdom, “male and female, students and professionals, independent and living with parents.” all “occasional drinkers.” That’s — um, quick calculation in the head — 100 people. The margin of error here must be about a zillion percent, but let’s go with the results anyway.

Following Gen X and Gen Y — what happened to poor Gen Z? — this demographic of 20 to 25 year-olds is called (or, PR-wise, has been dubbed) the Millennials, presumably because the oldest of them turned 20 in 2001 or so.

The first factor to mention is that attitudes toward wine among the youth of American and the youth of Europe differ markedly. In the U.S., those surveyed indicated not only that they are “not very familiar with wine” and that wine was only “occasionally served in their families” but that wine consumption and knowledge were features of “European culture.” The youth of France and Belgium, on the other hand, know enough about wine to understand its various authentic images: the “noble chateau and grand estate” and the “rustic, countryside farmer who makes his own wine.”

All those surveyed, or at least the countries in general, agreed that wine does not possess a “young image” (as opposed to, say, an oil-drum filled with Purple Passion) and that “the classic wine drinker is older” — get this — “30 or 35-40 with experience, comfortable income and married.” Wine consumers are “refined, educated and cultivated,” as assessment with which, of course, I heartily concur.

In fact, the youth of all five countries surveyed in the report expressed a certain sense of longing, saying that wine drinking is “mature,” that people who drink wine have entered “an older world,” that wine drinkers seem “more responsible,” and that — and here’s the crux — wine drinking is a sign that “you’re getting better behaved and less wild.” The alternatives seem to be a dinner party at which well-dressed and mannerly people drink various fine wines with their courses and chat about art, death, love and time OR knocking back a quart of Red Bull mixed with Ecstasy and disappearing into the Behavioral Sink for a weekend.

The prospect of drinking wine, however sophisticated, does bring anxieties. Wine is “difficult to select” said the responders to the survey because there is “too much diversity,” there are “too many brands and styles,” you never know “what a wine is going to taste like” and — the opening of the abyss — “you can make mistakes.” One sees the headline: “Restaurant Empties After Youth Orders Beaujolais with Thai Hot Wings/Ex-Girlfriend Vows: ‘He’ll Never Hear from Me Again’.”

Branding, on the other hand, can be an attractive advantage, especially for the Millennials of Japan and the U.S. It’s not surprising that youth in the Land of the Rising Sun and their counterparts in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave would be equally interested in “packaging designed for young people” and “promotions with goodies and cool advertising,” nor that they would be “open to something new” such as “different bottle shapes and colors.” Japanese and American pop and consumer cultures have existed as carnivalesque distorting mirrors of each other since the 1960s: We have Courtney Love, they have Hello, Kitty; they have Godzilla, we have Don Imus.

It’s difficult for me to believe, though, that labels like Three Blind Moose and Bitch — Bitch is actually pretty great — will draw young people to wine consumption in droves. Critter labels and chick labels and trailer park labels are promotional fads and have little to do with actually learning about wine and how to enjoy it.

Those youthful snobs in the U.K., by the way, trying to maintain old standards despite the Everlasting Loss of the Empire (and hoping to inherit their fathers’ wine cellars) believe that branding “must not be obviously targeted toward young people” and that the “serious, traditional side of wine” must be conserved.

What does all of this commentary mean or reveal?

Young people want to like wine. Drinking wine makes them feel good about themselves, grown-up, responsible, mature. The whole culture of wine and matching wine with food, though, is confusing: So many grapes, so many kinds and styles of wine, so many countries, regions, labels, brands.

This is where restaurants need to step in. Oh certainly you can have a retail store put together a case of 12 different wines for you and you can invest in one or some of the numerous wine guides that are available. I recommend both of these steps.

But I think that restaurants need to be far more consumer-friendly in their wine lists and approaches to offering and recommending wine with meals. Wine lists need to be shorter, less expensive and more useful at matching the wines on the list with specific dishes on the menu, without being coy or cute. Waiters need to try harder to help diners select wine and not simply leave the list on the table. If you’re in a bistro-style restaurant, for example, order a roasted chicken and ask the waiter to help you choose a glass of a medium-bodied chardonnay and a medium-bodied pinot noir, see how those work together and decide what works best with your palate. Of course this situation means that waiters need to be thoroughly trained about the wine list and the menu, too, and pairing the food and wine, and that process takes time; I bet, though, that it would lead to bigger tips.

The image of carousing youth is from montrosechina.com.

One of my colleagues at the office related this incident:

He and three friends had gone to a restaurant to celebrate his birthday. The restaurant is a fairly sleek and contemporary place that serves upscale French bistro fare. It’s moderately expensive and fields a good (and more expensive) wine list. The chef is well-known in town for his talent and affability.

The group ordered martinis, and my colleague had taken a sip or two — in other words, he was not inebriated — when, in making some expansive gesture, he knocked over his cocktail glass and spilled the martini. He used his nakpin to sop up the liquid, called over the waiter, explained what had happened, and asked for a new napkin, which the waiter promptly brought.

At this point in the narrative, I interrupted and said, “And of course they replaced your martini.” A statement, not a question.

“Uh, no,” said my colleague. “The waiter asked if I wanted to order another one.”

All right, this is a simple incident, an accident that could happen to anybody, and I certainly don’t think the restaurant should replace the spilled cocktail of a knee-walking drunk (if such has not already been ejected from the restaurant). But the good will, the rapport that would have been established by replacing my colleague’s spilled cocktail would have been enormous, perhaps incalculable. It’s the sort of unspoken but deftly performed gesture that brings customers back and earns loyal patronage, compared to which the cost of a jigger of call-brand gin and a smidgeon of vermouth is nothing.

We posted this story on the food and dining blog at the newspaper where I work (and which is not connected with biggerthanyourhead.net), and I was surprised by how many responders said, essentially, “Let the guy buy his own drink! Why should the restaurant pay for his clumsiness?”

Well, O.K., you can take that view, but I think it’s ungenerous. No, one doesn’t want our fine restaurants filled with people who sip half of their Cosmopolitans, knock them over and expect a free replacement. I think the ideal is that we would never expect this sort of magnanimity but that it would be extremely gratifying if it happened. And waiters would appreciate the tip such generosity generated in turn.

 

* Saw this on a menu recently, in the appetizer list: “Toasted bread topped with bruschetta.”

No, people, bruschetta isn’t the topping, tomato/basil (though that has become the cliche) or not; bruschetta is the whole thing, the piece of grilled — not toasted — bread, preferably smeared with olive oil and garlic, mounted by any number of toppings, tomato and basil, certainly, or roasted peppers and eggplant or cheeses or strips of meat or bruschetta_01.jpg chopped shrimp and octopus, pretty much anything that makes a savory few bites to whet the diner’s appetite and go well with a glass of simple wine.

Now we’re even seeing in grocery stores, in the refrigerator case, little plastic containers labeled “Bruschetta” that hold chopped tomatoes and basil in olive oil with a few herbs. No, sorry, you can use that stuff to make bruschetta, but it’s not the thing itself.

* This happened at a restaurant last night, a warm night, suitable for sitting outside, which we did, and ordering a bottle of Taltarni Sauvignon Blanc 2005 and by the way I hate the new label. Anyway, the waiter brought the wine, we went through the tasting ritual, it’s quite lovely but not really cold enough; I mean, this is a sauvignon blanc. So I ask for an ice bucket, “Yes sir,” and she brings the bucket, which is filled with ice, and she tries to jam the bottle down in there. Of course it won’t go; the thing is packed with almost solid ice. So she gives up and leaves the bottle sort of perched on top of the ice with a white cloth wrapped around it.

If you took physics in high school, you know that a bottle of wine sitting on top of a mass of ice cubes is not going to get chilled; there’s no conductivity; it needs water so the cold can circulate, so, of course, I pour my glass of water in the bucket to try and get the ice loosened up a little. It takes several glasses of water. Three, actually.

The point here is that no one trained this waiter that an ice bucket needs to be filled with half ice and half water in order to chill a white wine or keep it cold; the bottle needs to be down in there. And it’s amazing how often this situation occurs, even in fine dining restaurants with great wine lists where you would think they know better. And you hate to be a smart-ass and pull rank and say to the waiter, “Look here, I’m a wine writer and I need to tell you how to handle the ice bucket problem,” because then they turn on you and say something like, “There’s no problem, sir, this is how we do it,” and there you sit with your bottle of white wine or champagne perched on top of the ice and everybody sort of pissed off. At least me.

I had lunch this week — o.k., 25 other people were there — with Daniel Schuster, an owner and winemaker of the winery in New Zealand that bears his name, and he had so much to say about wine and winemaking that made so much sense that I could hardly keep up with jotting down his words of wisdom. Let me lay out three sentences, however, that seem to me to be essential and timeless in their relationship to this beverage that we love.

1. “Wine is always part of something bigger than yourself.”
2. “Wine should be shaped by the environment where it grows.” danny_01.jpg
3. “Great wine has structure, a beginning, a middle and an end.”

Founded in 1986, in the Waipara district of North Canterbury, Daniel Schuster Wines is owned by the Schuster and Hull families. The vineyards are farmed organically, and all processes in the winery are kept as simple as possible. Moving and racking of wines is by gravity; as Daniel Schuster said, “Gravity has been here for a long time, and it’s free.” The down-to-earth nature of that statement, with its hints of practicality and wit, summarizes Schuster’s character. With his bristling mustache and casual clothes, his gruff, hearty and friendly manner, he looks and acts like a farmer, not like one of the world’s great winemakers and consultants.

How is wine a part of something bigger than ourselves? A glass of great wine exists at the apex of a pyramid of historical, geographical, culinary and psychological factors. It encompasses the history of the people who made it and the land they inhabit and where the vineyards exist; it involves the food with which it is consumed, whether a grand four-course meal or a heel of bread, a hunk of cheese and a handful of olives, and the myriad sensual and emotional aspects which it appeals to and appeases.

Those factors have something to do with Schuster’s second aphorism, that wine should be shaped by its environment. This statement is a simple way of expressing the notion of what the French call terroir — the congeries of specific geographical and climatic influences that affect a particular vineyard — but the word “shaped” possesses a lovely implication of gentle malleability. Being shaped by the environment also implies that the winemaking process should be as gentle and non-manipulative as possible, more nurturing than demanding. To that end, Schuster eschews the use of small oak barrels and instead employs large casks, hence avoiding the undue influence of wood.

It would seem logical that great wines possess structure — beginning, middle and end — yet too many wines, especially made in California, feel the same in the mouth from start to finish, bursting forth and then collapsing wearily in a welter of toasty new oak and super-ripe fruit. Winemakers seem to have forgotten the importance of precisely balanced acid, the constitutional element that lends wine life and backbone; too much acid and the wine is thin and nervous, too little and it turns soft and flabby.

Here are my notes on the Daniel Schuster wines we tried with lunch at Erling Jensen: The Restaurant in Memphis. Executive chef is the Danish Erling Jensen; his chef de cuisine is Justin Young.

*Daniel Schuster Sauvignon Blanc 2006, Marlborough. This scintillating wine was served as aperitif. It’s terrifically bright, clean and vivid, bursting with lime, grapefruit and limestone jazzed by electrifying acidity that touches to life hints of tarragon and dried thyme, fig and sunny currant. The limestone element expands in the glass, turning the whole package almost crystalline with purity and intensity. Excellent. About $20.
*Daniel Schuster Petrie Vineyard Chardonnay 2002, Waipara. “Huge, oily, buttery chardonnays are barbaric,” said Schuster, and by contrast offered this amazingly clean, vibrant and buoyant rendition of the often-abused grape. This version seethes with classic chardonnay intensity and flavor yet it’s individual too, its grapefruit-pineapple flavors given a sheen of peach and mango, though there’s nothing cloying or overwhelming here. The acid cuts a swath on the palate, lending the wine refreshing liveliness through a lovely, silken texture. The finish is lovely, pure limestone. Excellent. About $28. The dish: House-smoked salmon belly salad with Bibb greens.

*Daniel Schuster Riesling 2006, Waipara. Very clean, pure and intense, with incisive acidity arrowing through beguiling flavors of peach, pear and white pepper permeated by dried spices and limestone. The texture is seductive, crisp, yes, but almost talc-like in softness, and overall, the balance is exquisite. Excellent. About $18, Good Value. The dish: Roasted monkfish on curried parsnip puree.

*Daniel Schuster Pinot Noir 2005, Waipara. As much as I liked all of these wines and the food they accompanied, this pinot and this course were the highlights of the event; the wine points the way to the future of pinot noir in New Zealand, where much has been proclaimed about the grape without the performances yet to back up those assertions. This, however, is superb, an entrancing satiny, smoky and vibrant amalgam of clean earth and minerals, moss and new leather, black cherry, currant and plum flavors, roses and violets, all shaped by subtle and supple wood notes and a bright line of acidity that would make a Burgundian proud. Exceptional. About $28 and Cheap at the Price. The dish, which sticks in my memory: the succulent and deeply flavorful roasted pheasant breast with truffle-risotto croquettes.

*Daniel Schuster Hull Family Vineyard Late Harvest Riesling 2006, Waipara. This is a romantic version of most late-harvest dessert wines, lovely and delicate but with plenty of acid structure, tender pear, peach and apricot flavors — spiced and macerated — and a super-clean, dry finish to round off the hint of sweetness on the entry. Excellent and Very Charming. About $34 for a half-bottle. Dessert was an individual apple-rosemary Charlotte with caramel sauce.

Visit http://www.danielschusterwines.com

For information about Erling Jensen: The Restaurant, visit http://www.ejensen.com

A restaurant much like the ones you patronize.

The waiter comes to the table, hands out menus, takes drink orders and so on, and then announces that he will recite the roster of specials, the dishes that the chef — or as the chef is known in the restaurant, “Chef” — has created especially for your enjoyment this evening.

A bit of throat-clearing, and he begins: waiter1.jpg
“First Chef has prepared an appetizer of pan-roasted day-boat scallops on a bed of fresh micro-greens and cucumber coulis with a, um, a, uh, black cherry-wasabi vinaigrette. Another special appetizer features seared organic foie gras with, with, um, a Granny Smith apple-port wine reduction and, uh, gosh, what was, oh, right, caramelized Szechuan pepper-corns. The entree special is, uh, let’s see, um, o.k., got it, whew, ha, the entree special is a fennel-and-violet-encrusted Chilean sea bass with, um, yes, basil-buttermilk smashed Yukon Gold potatoes and, well, damnit! I mean I thought I had this down pat, I mean, I swear, an hour ago I was rattling this shit off like one-two-three, it’s with, wait, wait, ah, baby asparagus and a Meyer lemon-Savennieres demi-glace! Yes, I did it! Yes, I said, Yes, I will, Yes!”

Let’s call a moratorium on this sort of command performance, which demands that waiters memorize long lists of special items, requires diners to sit patiently as the recitation winds on, and then we still have to ask what the details are since we can’t remember them: “What was the sauce with that elk again?”

Chefs cannot, I suppose, help wanting to break out of the strictures of the menu and show off their talents for inspiration and spontaneity, but the burden on the waiters who have to recite the specials for diners sometimes seems unbearable. I have often seen waiters tuck crib-sheets inside their order books and glance surreptitiously at the list, but they always seem embarrassed if we catch them peeking, as if they have failed in some way.

I say, go ahead, print the specials on a card and let waiters read them, especially at restaurants where the specials seem to go on and on and we gradually dissolve in a haze of boredom and forgetfulness.

Better yet, print specials on cards and insert them in menus or have waiters pass them out so we can read them for ourselves.

That’s why computers and printers were invented.

Can Montrachet be closed? montrachet.jpg
Here’s what the “Food Stuff” column says in this morning’s New York Times:

This TriBeCa pioneer closed for renovations in early summer but has not reopened. Last week Drew Nieporent, an owner, said he was not ready to discuss his plans for the restaurant, which opened in 1985 with David Bouley in the kitchen and soon received three stars from Bryan Miller in The New York Times. It received two stars in its most recent review, in 2004. It is listed in the 2007 Zagat guide with a note about the renovations, and is on the Zagat Web site with the advisory, “call ahead.” But calls to the restaurant have gone unanswered.

“Temporarily closed,” says gayot.com. “Now closed,” says nymag.com.

Woe is me, for I have a soft spot in my heart for Montrachet. It was the first restaurant I reviewed.

I was in New York in January 1986, my first trip alone to Manhattan. I was teaching college English and writing a weekly wine column, free lance, for The Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis. I proposed to my editor that the paper should pay for me to go to New York to cover a couple of wine events, and to my surprise, she said yes. Somewhere I had read about this thrilling restaurant in the far reaches of TriBeCa, and I made a reservation.

I was staying at the St. Moritz, a hotel whose glory had faded to a kind of shabby European elegance reflected in most of the people residing there. My room was very small and looked out onto the air shaft.

The night of my appointment at Montrachet, I got a cab at the hotel and told the driver where I was going, 239 West Broadway. I seem to remember that the driver turned and looked at me as if I had asked him to drive me to Bulgaria. And not the nice part of Bulgaria. I, of course, had no idea where we were going, nor did I realize that TriBeCa in those days was a dark, deserted outpost of Manhattan, an industrial moonscape south of Canal. Soon we were driving less than purposefully through dim, narrow lanes past grim warehouses. The system of one-way streets seemed wholly arbitrary. The driver stopped, backed around corners, started up streets we had already driven down, crossed streets we had already crossed. He muttered. He scratched his head. Finally he stopped.

“O.K.,” he said. “I think it’s over there,” and he waved his hand vaguely to the left.

“Where?” I said.

“Over there. I think maybe in one of those buildings. Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s it, where those lights are.”

I paid the fare, walked across the wide pavement, heading toward the beacon of a few lit windows. And that’s where Montrachet was.

It was the first restaurant I had been in which the waiters wore all black. I was staggered by the chicness. Montrachet was simple and spare, and so was the David Bouley’s cuisine, yet that simplicity and spareness were infused with flavor and character. And cheap! Appetizers on that menu dated “12/85,” which I have here on the desk, ran from $7 to $15; entrees were $18 to $25, desserts $6 to $8. I suppose at the time that the prices were standard for fine dining, but I had few comparisons. Prices now — at least on the company’s website, where Montrachet is still prominently featured — are $12 to $24 for appetizers and $27 to $38 for entrees.
I remember that I chose an appetizer special, grilled shrimp wrapped in paper-thin strips of cucumber. For entree I bravely selected the pigeon with Savoy cabbage; I had never eaten pigeon. The dessert I don’t remember. The bread was wonderful, each roll bearing a crusty chapeau. I must have had a glass of wine but I don’t recall what that was either. What I do remember, so clearly, was that I had never experienced a restaurant like that, and I couldn’t wait to get back to the newspaper to write about it. My editor said O.K., because plenty of people from Memphis went to New York and would like to know about Montrachet. Though I didn’t take up restaurant reviewing as a permanent beat until January 1988 — after joining the newspaper full-time in August 1986 — Montrachet was the beginning.

Montrachet was also the launch-pad for Nieporent’s ambition, and what was one shining restaurant in the obscurity of TriBeCa became TriBeCa Grill and Nobu and Nobu Next Door and the defunct Layla and the new Centrico and Rubicon in San Francisco and restaurant elsewhere, all under the umbrella of the Myriad Restaurant Group.

Montrachet has seen many chefs steering the stove in 22 years, and dips and rises in quality. We had a splendid dinner there 10 or 12 years ago, but we were in New York for an early birthday in November 2002 and the meal there was, oh, it was fine, but not exceptional, not something you would tell people about with pleasure and glee and awe.

And now this. Is the end coming with a whimper, a few notices on websites, rumors exchanged across other tables, a brief buzz in the papers and magazines, a sorrowful shake of a head. Nobody really knows it seems, perhaps not even Drew Nieporent. But I know one thing. I miss my first great restaurant.


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