Special occasions

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.

A day is 24 hours, a week is seven days, but you know how they can seem longer. That’s how last week seemed, longer than it should have been. One of those weeks. Car trouble, tooth trouble, computer trouble; lots of stories and deadlines at the newspaper.

So it was a relief to be home Friday afternoon. I made a couple of bone-cold, bone-dry martinis (with twists), and we sat out on the back screened porch, finishing the New York Times, sipping those utterly transparent, heady concoctions and snacking on some two_01.jpg Copper River sockeye salmon I had smoked over hickory wood Thursday night. I’ll confess that when we tried the salmon Thursday at dinner, I thought it was too smoky, but Friday afternoon, nibbled on a sesame flat-bread cracker, it seemed just right. Everything was very pleasant, with the dogs gamboling about, and the cats snoozing in the sun, and birds batting each other off the bird feeder, competitive little buggers.

We did that for about an hour, and LL said, “Well, that’s it, let’s go watch a movie.”

Two for the Road (1967), with Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney had arrived from Netflix, so I cranked up the DVD player and we all gathered round to watch. It’s a pretty good movie. Hepburn is radiant and funny (and very well-dressed in cool and outrageous late ’60s haute couture), though weighed down with eyeliner and fake eyelashes, and I could do without one more peppy-sobby Henry Mancini score. Albert Finney is actually truculent and arrogant, but his character is supposed to be rather asshole-ish, but somehow lovable as far as Hepburn is concerned. The screenplay, by British writer Frederick Raphael, is sparkling and snappy and witty.

About two-thirds the way through the movie, LL said, “You know what I would like? I’d like some toast with olive oil and a glass of red wine.”

So we stopped the movie and we all trooped into the kitchen — the dogs muttering darkly, “So what the hell’s going on?” — and made caymusspecialselection.jpg some toast and drizzled it with olive oil. I went to look through the platoons of red wines standing at out beck, and saw a bottle of Caymus Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 — still holding the price at $136, bless their hearts — and I thought, “Oh, well, jeeze, why not? It’s been a long week. We deserve it.”

So I opened the bottle and poured us each a glassful and we went back and watched the rest of the movie and ate our toast with olive oil and drank our Caymus Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon 2004, which was fabulous, like drinking the whole history and geography and geology of the Napa Valley yet also wonderfully, monumentally flavorful.

And everything was pretty damned perfect.

Oh, the pressure!

The special present. The special flowers. The special dinner. bonnydoon_hearthasitsriesling.jpg
Special, special, special. Get it right, Bub. Or Bubbette.

Perhaps I might ease a bit of the pressure by recommending some wines to accompany that special, intense, romantic candle-lit dinner, wines that have, as it were, Valentine’s written all over them.

First, Bonny Doon’s The Heart Has Its Rieslings 2005, designated an “American Riesling” whose grapes hail from Eastern Washington, though the winery is in Santa Cruz, California. This offers a beguiling bouquet of rubber eraser and bubble gum — classic characteristics of the grape, I promise — lychee, peach and pear; it displays gratifying balance between sweetness of slightly over-ripe and spicy stone fruits with the bracing nature of lime and grapefruit and a stong limestone element. Charming and rated Very Good. Suitable as an aperitif or with spicy (but not fiery) Southeast Asian cuisine. About $14-$18.

Then, from Alsace, there’s Hugel’s Cuvee Les Amours Pinot Blanc 2004, a lovely wine, soft yet crisp, delivering tasty pear and melon scents and flavors touched with almond and almond blossom, and permeated by heaps of limestone and chalk for a dry and slightly austere finish. Try with fresh oysters or mussels or grilled trout. Very Good+. About $15.

We don’t see many rose wines from Bordeaux, but the style is allowed in the general Bordeaux appellation. The Oriel rose_01.jpg “Femme Fatale” 2004, made from 100 percent merlot grapes, is a dark melon-cherry color. It bursts with scents of fresh and macerated strawberries, raspberries and currants, to which, in the mouth, are added touches of spiced tea and orange rind. The wine sports a seductive satiny texture and a surprisingly substantial structure; it’s thoroughly dry and reveals on the finish touches of dried herbs and stones. I wouldn’t typically recommend a rose wine that’s more than two years old, but this will bring a great deal of pleasure through the end of summer 2007. Quite attractive and rated Very Good+. Try with roasted chicken, pate with crusty bread, an omelet whipped up at the last minute. About $20.

Of course we could not omit a wine with such an obviously Valentine-themed name as Saint-Amour. The area is the northernmost of the Cru Beaujolais wines, of which there are ten allowed to put the name of the village or commune on the label. The Saint-Amour 2005, from the ubiquitous Georges Duboeuf, is a striking deep ruby-purple color; it offers lovely scents and flavors of strawberries and blackberries with undertones of spiced stone fruits. It’s quite dry and brut98.jpg minerally and is packed with a surprising amount of chewy tannins. Try with roasted chicken or veal. Very Good+. About $10-$14.

I could recommend dozens of champagnes with which to woo and wow, but I think what’s called for on this romantic occasion is something not obvious or heavy, something that doesn’t shout “Blockbuster!” but plies its winsome way more subtly. This would be Pol Roger’s Brut Vintage 1998, made from 60 percent pinot noir grapes and 40 percent chardonnay and a marvel of delectable elegance and balletic fervor. The color is an entrancing mild gold with silver overtones; the bubbles surge upward in the glass in a constant fountain. This champagne offers seamless integration of citrus and limestone, toasted hazelnuts and baking spice, a crisp, lively nature with a texture that approaches lushness, all this devolving to a finish of notable austerity. Excellent. About $83. Surely he or she is worth it.

Well, o.k., that’s pretty steep. Here’s a less expensive alternative, the Schramsberg Blanc de Noir 2003, a pinot noir (85 percent) and chardonnay (15 percent) blend and a glamorous California blond of a sparkling wine, elegant and spare, crisp and satiny, generously spicy and citrusy but with a formidable strain of limestone on the finish. Excellent and about $35.

Five days before Thanksgiving, my daughter got married, each occasion — the wedding reception and the annual feast — a welcome excuse for choosing wine to serve to family and friends, the difference being that we had 12 at Thanksgiving and 200 at the wedding.

Here are the wines I picked for the reception. My daughter wanted all French (there was sort of a French theme), and that’s what she got.

*Macon-Lugny “Les Charmes” Chardonnay 2004, Maconnais. About $10-$12. One of the world’s most dependable and tasty chardonnays. charm_01.jpg

*Les Tuileries 2005, Bordeaux blanc, a crisp and floral blend of 80% sauvignon blanc and 20% semillon. About $12.

*Chateau de Pennautier 2004, Cabardes, a robust blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, grenache, merlot, syrah and cot, or malbec. About $10-$12.

*Le Pin Parasol Reserve Shiraz 2002, Vins de Pays d’Oc. About $10-$12. This syrah from the south of France, goofily called “shiraz” to entice consumers familiar with the inexpensive shiraz wines of Australia, was a softer and spicier counterpoint to the forthright flavors and rusticity of the Pennautier.

*Bailly-Lapierre Cremant de Bourgogne Chardonnay 2004. About $15-$19. A terrific sparkling wine with surprising character for the price; it belongs on every restaurant wine list.

Since Thanksgiving is a thoroughly American holiday and banquet, I always serve a variety of American wines, trying to appeal to a range of tastes. I wish that I could include wines from New York and Virginia and Michigan and so on, but outside of New York and Virginia and Michigan and so on, such wines are hard to come by. Anyway, here was our wine roster for Thanksgiving:

*Heller Estate Chenin Blanc 2005, Carmel Valley. About $22-$25. The best chenin blanc made in California. heller_01.jpg

*Trefethen Dry Riesling 2005, Napa Valley. About $16-$19. This scintillating and authentic riesling surprised me by being the hit of the dinner; people kept asking for more. riesling.jpg

*Ridge Vineyards “Three Valley” 2004, Sonoma County. A blend of zinfandel (68%), carignane (11). syrah (10), petite sirah (7) and grenache (4) that boldly faced up to the Thanksgiving feast’s multitude of flavors, spices and textures. And it was great the next day with left-overs.

*Domaine Serene “Yamhill Cuvee” Pinot Noir 2004, Willamette Valley, Oregon. About $28-$33. A pretty damned perfect pinot noir (and Domaine Serene’s least expensive pinot), one bottle fine with dinner, the next wonderful with left-overs a few days later. Go figure.serene2_01.jpg

*Beringer Nightingale 1997, Napa Valley. I had been saving this blend of 70% semillon and 30% sauvignon blanc since it was released. Its unctuous combination of roasted peaches and apricots, muscat-like floral elements and a sort of liquid bananas Foster quality were terrific with the pumpkin and pecan pies.

That measured out as a week and more of great eating and wine-drinking. And my birthday, Christmas and New Year Years are coming right up! One has to plan ahead for these things!

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