Sat 17 Mar 2012
I was recently in New York, where lunches at two well-turned-out restaurants brought a question to my mind about wine-by-the-glass service. Should waiters bring the glass of wine to your table or should they bring the bottle to the table, show you the bottle and then pour the wine? Put to the vote, I don’t see how anybody could not opt for the latter procedure.
My flight arrived at La Guardia at 12:35 on Sunday. I had not checked a bag, so I was able to rush outside, grab a cab and beat my friends to a 1:15 reservation at Bar Boulud, on Broadway directly across from Lincoln Center. Talk about a great location. Pre-matinee, the place was packed, and from what I have read, that’s the case with before and after theater at night or anytime. Bar Boulud is one constellation in the galaxy of establishments in New York (and around the world) belonging to French chef Daniel Boulud. It’s called a casual bistro, but instead of going in the direction of Keith McNally with Balthasar in SoHo and Pastis in the Meatpacking District, that is, reproducing down to the ultimate nostalgic detail an old-timey bistro or brasserie in Paris — or our fantasy of such — Boulud called in Thomas Schlesser, the James Beard Award-winning restaurant designer, to create a sleek, contemporary vaulted room that’s cool in its modernist allure yet warm at heart.
The menu features a wide range of traditional French “country” and bistro fare, with lots of charcuterie, which the kitchen, under chef Damian Sansonetti, turns out in stylish versions. The wine list, overseen by sommelier Michael Madrigale (and Daniel Johnnes, wine director for all of Boulud’s restaurants and what a tremendous job, in all senses, that must be), is phenomenal; I mean, truly, it’s the sort of deep and detailed wine list one might expect at a high-end temple of French cuisine, yet it includes many reasonable choices too, though by reasonable I mean under $100. This is New York. The list focuses on Burgundy and the Rhone Valley, with excursions into the wine regions of other countries that use Burgundian and Rhone grape varieties and then a section of “heart-throb” wines of other sorts. The list is interesting, inventive, intriguing, inviting and in the rarefied cases very expensive, so one wisely turns to the wine-by-the-glass offerings.
I forget what my friends ate at Bar Boulud — they had the $29 four-course prix-fixe — but I do remember that they each had a glass of the charming Domaine Triennes Sainte Fleur Viognier 2009 ($12 for a glass; $45 for a bottle). With my “country breakfast” of fried eggs, house-made sage sausage, buttermilk biscuit and tomato confit ($18), I chose a glass of the Domaine Tissot Cremant du Jura Brut ($15; $59), a completely delightful, floral and slightly austere sparkling wine made from chardonnay, pinor noir, trousseau and poulsard grapes.
Our waiter, whose only flaw was being too chatty, brought the bottles to the table, showed us the labels and then poured the wines. We knew exactly what we were getting.
A few days later, I had lunch with friends on West 57th at Brasserie 8 1/2, an elegant restaurant reached by descending a wide spiral staircase theatrically carpeted in red-orange. Our waiter, whose only flaw was that he was goofy and distracted and therefore distracting to us, followed the standard line; he took our drink orders — from the surprisingly ordinary, corporate wine list — and returned in a few minutes bearing a glass of red and a glass of white. Who knew what was in those glasses?
I ordered the Domaine Le Croix St Laurent Sancerre 2010 ($12; a bottle is $52), and, yes, the wine was certainly made from sauvignon blanc grapes in the dry, limestone-loaded style of the eastern Loire Valley — it was quite nice, and I enjoyed it, especially with my sea urchin risotto and skate with lentils (from the three-course prix fixe, $34); executive chef is Julian Alonzo — but who’s to tell if a cheaper wine had not been substituted? No, please understand that I’m not accusing Brasserie 8 1/2 of chicanery; I’m just using that occasion to mention that in the system by which wines-by-the-glass are delivered to the table instead of poured at the table the possibility for abuse exists.
As Americans, we’re all about transparency, especially at this point in history; we’ve been hoodwinked plenty, not to mention keelhauled and financially waterboarded, in the past decade, and we want to know what we’re paying for. Wouldn’t it make sense for the sake of good customer relationships and openness and honesty to have waiters bring the bottle of wine out to the diner and pour the wine into the glass at the table instead of merely escorting to the table the now anonymous glass of wine which has apparently been reluctantly released from some mysterious Guantánamo of wine coolers in the back of the restaurant?