Ox, gored

huntington chinese garden stone tileLazy Ox Canteen – This is one of the loudest concerts I’ve ever been to.

The food? Small plates, like everywhere else, and really quite good; at a table full of choices running the gamut from vegan to organ, it’s only the latter (in the guise of liver) that disappoints through overcooking. A Robuchon-style purée of butter thickened with a little potato and black truffle is a decadent standout, but shishito peppers, lemon-laced broccolini (a dish that highlights Gjelina’s failure with a similarly sour preparation)…everything else is delicious. The one exception to small platedom is a fabulous, thunderously-sized burger with Cantal and green peppercorn mustard.

Alas, the wine list isn’t so special. Instead, it’s a jumble of largely unappealing yet quirky names without any apparent cohesion or philosophy.

Raventós i Blanc 2010 Penedès “Silencis” (Cataluña) – Very liquid, with white peppercorn and nut spices in an applewood broth. Starts off better than it finishes. (11/11)

Hendry “HRW” 2008 Zinfandel (Napa Valley) – 15.3%. I’m normally a big fan of Hendry, but I kind of hate this. Stenchy dark fruit with a twisted-off finish, like drinking wire one picked up off a dirty floor. (11/11)

But back to the elephant in the room…the one that’s trumpeting directly into my ear. Please, Lazy Ox: turn the music down. Way, way down. I don’t object to deafening music, I just don’t particularly want to dine with it. And it’s not just that I can’t hear my dinner companions, I can’t even see them because the pressure waves have numbed the vision center of my brain and are probably responsible for tectonic activity hundreds of miles away. I have made a certain peace with the modern restaurant fetish for assaultive noise, but this is purely elective, and thus particularly unnecessary. I’d go here again, but I’d wear noise-canceling headphones. I’m not entirely kidding…because yes, it is that bad.

Yuca’s on Hollowood – A micro-chain (of two) counter-service-with-seating restaurants, this one with a tiny patio and very good food executed with just a little bit more swagger than most similarly-operated Mexican joints. I can’t find anything bad to say about this place. The swagger may cover for a bit of non-traditional north-of-the-border exploration, but if not everything is authentic in form, it’s authentic enough in flavor.

Stool pigeons

huntington garden cactusPizzeria Mozza – One fewer barstool. That’s all I ask, Pizzeria Mozza. I know you’re busy, I know it’s the lunch rush, but please: one fewer barstool. Especially as the guy next to me eats pizza like a fifties running back, all stiff-arms and flying elbows.

What? I’m supposed to talk about the food? Um, why? So they can do more business?

Oh, hell. The pizza’s good. Not “the best,” whatever that could possibly mean, but only the very stingy would fail to praise it in some measure. As is my tradition, I go for the strangest-sounding one: stinging nettles, finocchiona, and cacio di roma. It’s not a combo for the salt-averse, but other than brief punctuations of grumpy old man elbow it’s a pleasure to wolf down.

The wine list is all Italian, and written by someone who actually knows Italian wine; the “best” (there’s that awful word again) are rarely present, but the “very good” – no doubt cheaper and thus more appealing for this concept – are, in quantity. I want to give special praise to the pitchered portion of the list, perfect for a solo diner for whom one glass just isn’t going to be enough.

And one fewer barstool. I beg you. Really. You won’t go out of business.

Brovia 2010 Roero Arneis (Piedmont) – I’d say that this wine serves as a constant counterpoint to those who insist that the Piedmont doesn’t produce interesting white wines, but of course a handful of fine arneis (and the very occasional nascetta) do not a robust counterargument make. Dense, with just enough light and space to let the apple blossom and honey (dry, dry honey) through, as they ooze with white powdered minerality. (11/11)

 

huntington library terraceCole’s – The originators of the French dip, are they? Well, whatever. I’m not here to eat, I’m here to drink. And the bar looks very promising.

I think many visitors to LA (and I’d number myself among them) think only of flashy surface ephemeralism and sprawling Mexican-influenced architecture when they picture the city. But any actual resident will correct this: that’s not the city, that’s the greater metro area. Downtown, where the high-rises are, there’s plenty of American Dream classicism, though sometimes you have to look around for it.

That architectural style I just invented out of thin air is the bold mélange of classic European borrowings, Art Deco stylings, and our-horizons-are-limitless triumphalism that can be seen all over the industrial heartland, but which reached its absolute pinnacle (and continues to this day) in Chicago.

Of course, Chicago aside, the “Dream” is mostly in decay and ruins all over said industrial heartland (feel free to insert your own analogy here; I try to avoid politics on this blog), and that’s mostly true in Los Angeles as well. Still, there’s an obvious attempt at revitalization, and one of the unexpected benefits thereof is that some really cool spaces are once more being trafficked by eyes that can enjoy them.

Such is Cole’s bar – we finally get around to the purpose of my little digression – which looks like a Smithsonian version of what it must have been a long, long time ago. The place I really want to go is The Varnish, the restaurant’s craft cocktail enclave, but it opens too late for my purposes. And I’m assured by Those Who Know that the cocktails here are excellent, which assurance seems more likely when I see the progenitors – Old Fashioned, Sazerac, Martinez, etc. –given menu prominence before one gets to the usual diversions and extrapolations.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t turn out quite that way. Some of the cocktails (mostly the diversions and extrapolations) are quite fine. Others…not so much. My Old Fashioned is watery. A companion’s Martinez contains something that’s gone horribly stale (the obvious culprit is the maraschino liqueur, because one would think they’d go through vermouth rather quickly at a bar like this). It turns out that preservation is a mixed…perhaps that should mixologized…blessing.

Mali-Lou

malibu coastMalibu Seafood – Whenever I travel to a place in which one of my many winegeek friends live, I ask them for restaurant recommendations. Because if we’re going to get together to share a glass or ten, we’re going to need a venue, right? Usually, this request leads to a fairly detailed and diverse list of excellent places.

Not so Malibu, in which one of my longest-term fellow imbibers has lived for a good while now. His responses, each and every time, have been the consultative equivalent of a resigned sigh, followed by a suggestion that we meet somewhere else.

But today he’s on a tight schedule, with just enough time to squeeze in a quick lunch, and so Malibu it must be. A takeout seafood shack, with picnic tables and a pretty unbeatable oceanfront view on a fine, sunny day? How bad could it be?

It turns out: not bad at all. In fact, the squid – which comes in fried and sandwich form – is [choose your preferred expletive] delicious. A little cup of pre-squid ceviche is decent, but really: just get the squid. If you’re still hungry, get more squid.

Raveneau 2005 Chablis 1er Cru Montée de Tonnerre (Chablis) – As a non-owner of much white Burgundy of any genre, the whole premature oxidation disaster hasn’t much affected my cellar. But if I’d owned a bunch that needed disposal and then had chosen to hold on to any, it would have been mostly Chablis from this and one or two other producers, and so I’d be eyeing their trajectories with a fear. Or, alternatively, I’d drink them early-ish, because at their best they can be pretty spectacular drinks even in adolescence, given the right coaxing. Like this bottle, which shows every one of the qualities for which Raveneau is known…minus, of course, those only shown by the onset of a fuller maturity. Intensity with restraint, power wielded with a whisper, a nearly-unique textural experience of brocaded silks and burnished shields, and a sense of duration that extends beyond the temporal. It becomes difficult to take a next sip when the one that’s lingering still has so much to say. (11/11)

 

huntington chinese gardenLou – The hotel at which I tend to stay while in Los Angeles, far too scene-y for my tastes and rather unfortunately situated in the midst of Hollywood at its most dissipated, is within walking distance of this incredibly welcoming wine bar-ish restaurant. This is a dangerous thing.

The greater danger, however, comes from proprietor Lou Amdur’s enthusiasms, which – vinously speaking – run towards the natural, the eclectic, the weird, the statement-making, the paradigmatic, the temporally notional, and the because-it-was-amusing-at-the-time-(ic). But enthusiasms they are, and the unfortunate result is that patrons with similar enthusiasms soon find themselves in a rapidly rising river of delicious “here, try this” splashes that, added together, turn out to be rather more wine than was on the initial agenda.

Thank goodness for taxis.

I’m here with fellow Barberagate conspirator Whitney Adams, one of the very few serious wine geeks who should ever be allowed on camera, and amidst some of the usual tale-telling and casual noshing there is, indeed, the periodicism provided by Lou toting another likely bottle for us to try. And another. And another…

Staldmann 2010 Gelber Muskateller Kapellenweg (Thermenregion) – Open four days, and showing itt: lightish floral elements with a barely-oxidizing structure starting to fall apart around it. I don’t think the wine was ever much more physically powerful than this, but I suspect the aromatics have suffered since opening. There’s minerality – stony, rocky – but it, too, is beginning to decline. A fresh bottle would have more to say. (11/11)

Saumon 2010 Vin de France Romorantin (Loire) – Open two days, and I don’t know whether to credit or blame that time for the wine’s current performance, which is jumbled and uninviting. Shrouded and closed in on itself, this is a wine that doesn’t invite introspection, but wishes to conduct same on its own terms. (11/11)

Texier 2010 Côtes-du-Rhône Roussanne (Rhône) – When I was first introduced to Texier’s wines, back in the late 90s, his CdR blanc was a regular hit-it-out-of-the-park surprise for Rhône aficionados, especially at its ridiculously low price. And then, due to vagaries of the market or whatever, it disappeared from my life. Well, it hasn’t gotten much more expensive, but it has gotten even better. Rolling spiced stone fruit, with much more life and verve than is typical for the genre, and a pretty twist of flowers as it finishes. Delicious. (11/11)

Schnaitmann 2010 “Evoé!” Rosé 018 11 (Württemberg) – 80% pinot (I assume noir, but the label doesn’t specify), 20% trolllinger. Growls and yips, but behind a locked door through which all I can perceive is a muted din. What’s left is a countervailing soft strawberryishness and a powdery texture that really doesn’t do a whole lot for me, though there’s a bit of a nip at the end to remind me that this little dog’s unhappy about something. (11/11)

de Conciliis 2009 Fiano “Antece” (Campania) – There’s a real presence to this wine that surpasses the usual ash-and-bones structure of Campanian fiano, something that hums and beats in a texturally persistent way. Also present are waxy memories of lemon and a bit of salt at the finish. As tannic as it is acidic (though not all that much of either), and much of its story seems as-yet untold. (11/11)

Janvier 2010 Coteaux du Loir “Cuvée du Rosier” (Loire) – Pineau d’aunis, which means it’s likely that I’ll hate it. Which I do. It tastes like an ash-dusted vinyl fetish suit. (Well, I mean, so I hear.) Look, I fully agree with anyone’s objection that this is my personal issue with the grape rather than some external truism, but an issue it is, and unfortunately this is the exact opposite of pleasurable for me. If pineau d’aunis was the last grape on earth, well…I’d be a very sober man. (11/11)

Cambon 2010 Beaujolais (Beaujolais) – Yum. I mean, I could say a lot more about this wine – its brittle cohesiveness, its chewy and somewhat surprisingly dark fruit, its vivid life – but really, “yum” gets across the essentials in a much more succinct manner. (11/11)

de Conciliis “Donnaluna” 2008 Cilento Aglianico (Campania) – Spicy, rocky, coal-dusted darkness with a fair bit of unintegrated acidity. I want to like this more than I do, but there’s an insubstantiality to the wine that becomes apparent with greater attention. (11/11)

Rare Wine Company “Historic Series” Madeira Malmsey “New York Special Reserve” (Madeira) – Sweet, heavy, liquefied nuts. I have to admit that I’m not an enormous fan of Madeira due to its ever-present volatile acidity, which I’m unusually sensitive to, but this is pretty nice. I’d really only want to drink a tiny bit of it, though. (11/11)

Rare Wine Company “Historic Series” Madeira “New Orleans Special Reserve” (Madeira) – Sweet, heavy, liquefied nuts. Spicy? If this note seems awfully similar to the previous one, it’s because my attention is flagging at the end of a long night of tasting and socialization, and my lack of true interest in Madeira is starting to reveal itself. This and the previous are pretty pathetic notes for wines on which someone spent a good deal of time and attention, not least the guy who opened and served them to me. Apologies to all involved. Really. These wines deserve better than what I’m giving them here. (11/11)

de Bartoli Marsala Vecchio Samperi “Ventennale” (Sicily) – On the other hand, this is one way to grab my attention, hard, and wrench it back to the wine in front of me. That no one in his region makes wine like de Bartoli is well known, that no one in his region makes wine as well as de Bartoli is pretty widely acknowledged, and yet he achieves something beyond mere iconoclasm and superiority. I’m not sure these are the right words, but there’s a palpably different sort of life to them, as if they’re existing simultaneously on this plane and another that can’t quite be perceived with straight sight. Some might point out that the previous is really just another way of describing complexity, and they’d be somewhat right, but I think it’s necessary to specify that the complexity is not of the usual, three-times-the-descriptors, type. It’s something else. Though the wine doesn’t suggest electric guitar to me at all, this particular quality puts me in mind of Jimi Hendrix as he was first perceived, channeling a muse that was so far afield from that of his peers that it was often clear he was working in a different language, that whatever he was hearing inside his head (which didn’t always translate to his hands) was something that others weren’t going to be capable of hearing for a long time, if ever.

I note, at this point, that I haven’t actually described the wine in any useful fashion. Well, it’s dry, complex in both the usual way and [see above], incredibly persistent, and monumentally compelling. I suppose my lack of enthusiasm for actual descriptors here is more or less a suggestion that you should go out and try this yourself rather than listening to me ramble on about it. One action is much more rewarding than the other. (11/11)

Antoine Arena 2010 Muscat de Cap Corse (Corsica) – Like drinking sweet, sweet sunlight from a glass of freshly-crushed ice in a field of blossoming white flowers. In Corsica. (11/11)

This tally does not, by the way, include all the wines tasted on this evening. At several points, quantity and conviviality intervened to prevent me from even noting a wine’s identity, much less its qualities. See? I said Lou was dangerous.

Disclaimer: I have absolutely no way of discerning a relationship between what I was offered and what I was charged for it, but in the absence of details and based on previous experience at Lou, I think it’s likely to assume that I was at least undercharged for, if not outright gifted, some percentage of this evening’s beverages.

The terror of Colorado Boulevard

huntington gardensLa Taco Estrella (502 N Fair Oaks, Pasadena) – I’m in Pasadena. Where are the little old ladies I was promised?

Well, nothing to be done about it. It’s time for tongue to meet tongue (not, by the way, the latest title from the fine industry folks just over the hill) and stomach to meet stomach. From a takeaway counter, sitting on a picnic bench, come a sextuplet of delicious little tacos in which no bells, talking Chihuahuas, or offensive references to borders are involved.

The stomach version is not my favorite, as the cubes have taken a slightly gum-like texture with a deficit of counterbalancing flavor, which for me is the fulcrum of this ingredient. The tongue, however, is luscious. I’d call it lip-smacking, but that would lead to even worse wordplay, and I’d rather talk about the tacos. There are also nachos, the perfect kind one gets in any competent Mexican(-American) restaurant, and that make one weep for those served everywhere else.

A massive horchata, sweet and…well, sweet…provides enough nervous energy for the day ahead. The price for all this madness? Pocket change, at best.

 

huntington gardensGjelina – The reputation exceeds the hype, but the hype exceeds the execution.

Let me back up a bit. This restaurant has long been known for its very – perhaps excessively – firm “no substitutions” policy. As both an omnivore and someone who generally prefers to be fed at the discretion of the chef rather than engage in a ridiculous triplicate game of upsmanship with the menu, the waitstaff, and the kitchen, this is all just spiffy with me. There’s the eminently sensible argument that the chef understands the dishes better than you (the diner) do, and then there’s arbitrariness just for the sake of it. Some of what one reads – admittedly with a semi-frequent frission of Schadenfreude at the identity of the “victims,” like Victoria Beckham and Gordon Ramsay – is a little ridiculous.

Nonetheless, one knows the rules going in. And certainly a restaurant so supremely confident in its vision and its work is going to be great, right?

The restaurant is deafening (one might as well wear earplugs as it’s impossible to hear dining companions unless they lean in and yell) and it’s dark (they bring additional candles so we can read the menus), but in that it’s hardly alone. Service is fine, though a late-meal error in bringing a dish is met not with an apology, but with a bald-faced lie about a backed-up oven despite everything else having arrived exactly when it should have. Dude, seriously, just admit you forgot to put in the order and apologize. It’s no big deal.

And the food? Just…eh. Much use is made of fire and extreme ambient heat, but it’s not always used well…one vegetable is scorched, another underdone. One is dressed with balance, another is puckering. Pizzas, sure to be the stars of any such oven, are inconsistent; one has a beautiful crust, the other is mushy and rather doughy. And how does a pizza with guanciale, green olive, Fresno chile, and buffalo mozzarella (the doughy one) end up being bland? That’s an accomplishment. Probably the worst of all, there’s the by-now requisite polygon of pork belly that’s almost tragically mushy, lacks any sort of caramelized flavor, and is accompanied by ingredients far too bland to make up for those faults. Pig tummy deserves better.

There’s not a single plate that stands out in memory as surpassing, but there are rather too many that linger as vague disappointments. Nothing bad, nothing great, just a lot of shrugging and indifference. The Tasting Kitchen, just down the block, is equally dim and ear-damaging, but the food’s better.

As for the wine list at Gjelina, it’s relatively interesting, with a few fun surprises and a general lack of “safe harbors.” Though in that context I have to say I’m bemused by my waiter’s ego-stroking reaction to my choices, which are neither particularly offbeat nor particularly interesting. Or maybe that’s just an LA thing…in which case they probably should have tried it on Posh and The Screamer.

San Francesco 2009 Cirò Rosso Classico (Calabria) – 100% gaglioppo. Big and sun-drenched, of course, but the heavy shoulders are rounded as they support leathery black-strap fruit and a roughened cashmere structure, giving the whole thing a surprising amount of symmetry.  (11/11)

Faury 2010 Indication Géographique Protégée Collines Rhodaniennes Syrah (Rhône) – Seems to exist on two planes at once; the first earthy, herbal, a little porcine, and the second a high-toned, edgier, sort of nervous black fruit that’s not all that fruity. I suspect the twain will integrate in time, but it’s still appealing now. It just takes a little more energy to corral its dualism in the glass. (11/11)

Venturini 2007 Recioto della Valpolicella (Veneto) – Concentrated berry residue, sticky and just a bit plastic, with in-control volatile acidity and the requisite tension between light residual sweetness and shriveled-prune tannin. You know, reading back over this note, I should say that I liked the wine more than the descriptors might indicate. It’s no great recioto, but it’s decent enough. (11/11)

Because the Night

huntington chinese gardenNight + Market – Location breeds identity. This is especially true for restaurants, in that one expects to find the most authentic Korean barbecue in a Korean enclave, or the best slow-cooked Texas brisket in, well, Texas. There are occasional exceptions, and a few concepts have proved generally translatable across geographies – Italian, French, Irish, Tex-Mex – but even then, the suspicion that the quality is a little better, the character a little more originalist, closer to the source culture is well-supported by the evidence.

So if one wants to open a restaurant concentrating on Thai street food and extrapolations thereof, and one lives in Los Angeles – which has an eminently comestible Thai neighborhood – where’s the most logical of all places to put it?

Obviously, the Sunset Strip.

I suppose it’s worth emphasizing that Night + Market isn’t street food, exactly. It’s a restaurant that serves some street food and a fair bit of whimsy that should be street food, but likely isn’t, in a space that rather strongly suggests “pop-up restaurant that hasn’t actually popped up anywhere but here.” Maybe that’s unfair, but a mix of small and communal tables and movies projected onto one wall do not a multi-million dollar décor budget reflect. Moreover, eaters who would be suspicious of any Thai menu with English on it would probably – and justifiably – consider the vibe here to be just as consciously foodie/hipster as Thai.

Well, whatever. My apathy for these objections stems exclusively from the fact that this place is awesome. A word I do not dish out lightly, or in fact – in most contexts – at all, finding it grossly overused and rarely applicable. But what’s not to like? The food is vibrant, there’s a tiny but brilliant beverage list, it’s relatively cheap, and the entire experience is pure, edible fun.

Isn’t there anything actually wrong with Night + Market? Sure: bringing a vegetarian here would be an utterly pointless exercise. Since LA doesn’t exactly lack for vegetarian options, this isn’t much of a complaint, but it’s probably worth noting. For this is a restaurant in which the primary, core, foundational ingredient of just about everything seems to be pig. The whole pig.

Another reason to love it.

In fact, I’m not sure I get very far past the exterior of said pig. First there’s fried pig tail, as delectable a snack as I have ever tasted (well, not “tasted” so much as vacuumed in a rapid-fire orgy of increasingly eager consumption). Then pig ear in chile and garlic, with decadent coconut rice as counterpoint. And pork “toro,” as unwise-yet-incredible as it sounds (it’s fried fatty hog collar). Oh, and larb gai, a sort of richly-aromatized hash that’s called a “salad” on more than a few Thai menus, but only barely more salad-like than cassoulet. Everything is vivid with flavor, full of appealing heat (manageable, but the timid will want to order carefully), and – this is important to note, because the previous two qualities often cover for a lack of the crucial third – cooked with skill and precision.

OK, here’s another “complaint”: perhaps appreciating my enthusiasm, but more likely because there are friends in common (see my disclaimer, below), free food starts to emerge from the kitchen, small yet still in quantities well beyond my ability to consume it all. I remember Issan-style sour sausage, in a very different form than that served at Lotus of Siam (probably the only other place that most non-Thais have had it), but there’s more, and it soon starts to blur in a haze of intense flavors, engorgement, and jetlag. So I take some and sundry back to the hotel for breakfast…and let me tell you, that hotel room will smell amazing the next morning.

There’s drink, too. Most interesting, to me, is the compact wine list, mostly natural but overtly enthusiast; most folks will probably have a better chance of identifying the fairly uncommon dishes on the menu than the extremely uncommon wines.

Saumon 2010 Montlouis “Minérale +” (Loire) – A textural masterpiece, as if the terroir has been melted down into vinous form. The fruit’s not bad either, though as indicated it’s rather subsumed by its metal-jacketing and the iron-flecked liquid chalk flowing around it. Recognizably chenin blanc? Perhaps, but it’s a distant familial relationship; the genetic markers are there, but environment and upbringing have exerted the greater influence. (11/11)

Lemasson 2010 Vin de Table “Le P’tit Rouquin” (Loire) – Gamay, spiky and “natural”…by which, of course, I mean to indicate textural spritz and that carbonic touch of frothy proto-brett that marks the genre across grapes and sites. It’s extremely tasty, gluggable, fresh-faced stuff that should be drawn from taps into pitchers rather than carefully measured into crystal goblets. (11/11)

Disclaimer: after a conversation in which we discuss several mutual friends (who happen to sell wine to the restaurant), several complimentary dishes and one non-wine beverage are offered.

On every Street

mixed flowersStreet – I think Susan Feniger was a pixilated Tamale before I cared about cooking enough to, well, care. And after as well, but at the time I lived in Boston and the idea of cooking -Mex, Tex-, or any form of border cuisine seemed remote, at best. I’m sure I watched a few times, but that’s about all of which I’m sure. In any case, the point is that she’s been around a while. Not having much memory of her show other than its existence, I didn’t have much of an opinion of her as a chef.

But that changed not by eating in her long-known restaurants (which I’ve done in the past, to mixed effect), but by seeing her on Top Chef: Masters. For the fun of this show isn’t the competition, as it is with the original, it’s the opportunity to see the comfortable be discomfited and, better, how they react to that discomfort. In that context, I gained great respect for both Feniger and her business partner, not just because their skills proved more robust and reliable than many more-reputed competitors’, but because they seemed like nice people that would be fun to hang out with…which is not something one can say about all celebrity chefs.

Especially Feniger, who seemed like she’d brighten any room just by walking into it. And so it is, as I lunch here fresh off a transcontinental flight and scant minutes before end-of-lunch closure (they are most kind to seat me anyway), that when she in fact walks through the front door, I can’t help but smile. We chat for a bit, and she’s every bit as pleasant and lively as expected, but she has things to do and I let her go to do them. Thankfully, she doesn’t ask about the food.

It’s not that it’s bad. Some of it is very good, and the worst that could be said about the rest is that it’s competent. The problem, I think, is not the execution (though that’s the problem as manifested on the plate), it’s the concept. The spanning-the-globe street food concept is a fun one, but much as there are no musicians who excel at blues, jazz, rock, and classical, there probably aren’t any (or at least many) chefs that can master the world’s various cuisines – even their street-vendor versions – well enough to cook all of them brilliantly. And if those chefs existed, they probably wouldn’t be working at Street. Maybe Feniger, were she able to be in the kitchen at all times, would be closer to this multicultural ideal. But she has brand Feniger to manage, and many restaurants, and someone else needs to be able to helm the concept on a day-to-day basis.

This is a restaurant I want to like, but it’s more or less a hyperextended demonstration of why pan-whatever concepts don’t pan out. There’s just too much to wrestle in the kitchen, and even the best-laid concepts can be birthed in odd ways. I’d also like a more interesting beverage list, and maybe one that reflects the ethos a little better – street beverages, so to speak – might be preferable to the somewhat wan wine list, though the beer and cocktail lists are of more interest. (I should say that it’s possible that this option exists and I just don’t notice it amidst my semi-jetlagged haze.)

Malaysian-influenced angry eggs, with hot chile relish and green sriracha, are, at most, mildly piqued; good breakfast food (perhaps that’s what they are), but lacking the seethe a reading of the menu seems to promise. My banh mi is better, getting the balance much more correct than many semi-Americanized versions that are afraid of the sour and vegetal elements so crucial to the sandwich. The most enjoyable treats are, perhaps, the complimentary appetizers of…well, I don’t remember what they are. Agglomerated puffed grains of some kind, mildly spiced, studded with tasty intruders, and eminently addictive.

Street’s reputation as a “well, it’s OK, but…” sort of restaurant precedes it, but I had to find out for myself. Perhaps the issue isn’t that it’s not a great idea – it is – but that it’s a lot of great ideas that just aren’t collectible. I’d go again with an interested group, because it’s casual, fun, and not particularly expensive, and there are dishes that succeed. And were it located somewhere more culinarily conservative it’d be a revelation. But it’s in Los Angeles, and I suspect that for just about each dish there’s a corner strip mall dive somewhere in the sprawl doing it with greater authenticity and, more importantly, better. There’s value in centralized concepts – driving all over Los Angeles in search of this stuff is a temporal pursuit even culinary dilettantes can ill-afford, except over the very long term – and Feniger is every bit the joyful presence her reputation suggests. But this Street needs some utility work.

A O no

[suckling rome]A few weeks ago, the oenokerfuffle of online story and song was the Olivier Cousin debacle, and it had most of the naturalista wine world talking about it. I read along with a good deal of sympathy for Monsieur Cousin, but a fair bit of dismay at the tenor of the post-hoc debate.

In brief: Cousin, an iconoclast in the purest sense of the word, makes wines that don’t receive the officially-designated appellations they’d otherwise warrant. This is, more or less, by design. What he does, instead, is use various semi-confrontational means to indicate place of origin that run afoul of the humorless French and local wine bureaucrats. In response, they’ve decided to punish him for doing so, and the punishment is almost parodically severe: the freezing of his bank accounts, making it virtually impossible for him to continue to do his work, and the threat (a very real one) of jail time.

They take their bureaucracy seriously in France.

That the punishment is grossly disproportionate to the crime should go without saying. Cousin knows he is deliberately flouting the rules, yes, and a sensible response would be to force him to stop doing so by less abusive means (e.g. “do what we say or you can’t sell your wines in France”), not putting him out of business or behind bars. One hopes something similar will be the actual resolution, and that said resolution will come speedily enough that his livelihood will not suffer irreparable damage. There are, or were, even petitions (French and English) to assist in convincing the French authorities to come to their senses.

That’s all clear. What’s less clear is the path forward, once the current unpleasantness is behind us. Since Cousin is a darling of, and primarily known among, the natural wine set, most of the proposals were fairly predictable, and more or less amounted to “blow up the INAO” (not literally), or at least “do away with the appellation system.” I think this is woefully misguided. But I think the core problem is that the appellation system itself is woefully misguided. Or at least, woefully misapplied and mischaracterized.

I’ve written about this before, but all the problems stem from a division of opinion as to what a legally codified appellation system represents. At the legalistic level (at least as practiced in Old World wine regions), it’s a guarantee of geographical origin, ingredients, and practices in attempt to codify and highlight both terroir and tradition. Certain of these categories are more or less important depending on the appellation under discussion, but they form the foundation of the idea behind associating place, product, and name within the confines of the law.

It’s my belief that this remains a worthwhile structure. The customer can only benefit from a system by which information is communicated via labeling, and that’s what a properly constructed appellation system does. Yes, there’s a certain threshold of knowledge required to make good use thereof, but that’s true for any labeling nomenclature. Nonetheless, knowing the ways in which a Sancerre is different from an Hermitage, or a Roquefort from an Osseau-Iraty, is essential to knowing how and when to utilize those ingredients at the table or in the kitchen.

Of course, this is not what the appellation system represents to any number of entities. To many consumers, it represents some sort of promise of replicability (like a fast-food sandwich) and, inevitably, price point (which is why the very best Muscadet can’t sell for more than a wretched premier cru white Burgundy, even though this state of affairs is ludicrous). To critics, it represents a nebulously subjective paradigm to which aspirants must adhere or be judged as lacking. To some winemakers, especially the industrial ones who represent both the majority and the scourge of any appellation, it is a tool with which to secure their market advantage at the expense of those who would expose their mediocrity. And to bureaucrats, it has somehow come to suggest not just identity, but quality and the attempt to legislate a definition thereof.

All of these external expectations are damaging in one way or another, but it’s the last that’s the source of this particular controversy. The argument goes like this: the granting of a defined appellation (the top of the legalistic heap, in terms of officially-sanctioned labels) is a promise to the consumer that the wine will meet certain expectations, some of them qualitative. As such, we cannot allow wines that do not meet certain qualitative criteria to receive the appellation, for by doing so we would devalue the worth of the appellation system.

And so does a system become self-sustaining and self-justifying for all the wrong reasons. For who decides on those “certain qualitative criteria?” Usually, the majority faction of a given appellation’s producers. And who are they? Of course: the cooperatives and the industrialists. At a stroke of the legal pen, the deck is stacked against anyone who would, via the quality of their product, demonstrate the widespread mediocrity deemed to be representative and thus “typical” of the appellation. And given this system, iconoclasts know they don’t have even a glimmer of hope…which is why so many opt out before they’re forced out.

But the rot goes deeper than externalities. For the worst possible purpose of the appellation system is self-preservation, a recursive and thumb-sucking whirlpool of bureaucratic onanism. And yet, this is what it has devolved to. Like so many other bureaucracies, its interests have all slowly but inexorably become self-interests. But haven’t I previously argued that the appellation is a good thing, at least in theory? Yes, I have. Properly-applied, it’s incredibly valuable.

In France – this is less true elsewhere – the obsession with the qualitative baggage of the appellation has created a system in which working outside it is immediately and often fatally damaging to one’s bottom line. But even in the absence of such rigidity, those who choose to follow their own muse are disadvantaged at every turn; a Sancerre will always sell to more people, more reliably and for more money, than a vin de table, and this is true despite whatever cult fandom may have developed around the latter. Only a high-profile critic’s point-laden and hyperbolic approval can change this…and outside the internationalized, Latin-named super-whatevers in Italy, this is something that can talked about only in theory, not in practice. Outliers must succeed on marketing alone, yet their avenues for doing so are deliberately curtailed by their own governments and neighbors. This is profoundly unfair.

So let’s fix it.

Cousin and his fellow iconoclasts should not, if they produce something grossly atypical of the appellation, be able to use the appellation. They should have to call it something else. The appellation should mean something useful to the consumer, and the existence of extreme outliers diminishes that meaning. But if such producers also want to make something within the expected guidelines of the appellation, they should be able to do so without consequence or legally-enforced disadvantage.

Qualitative leaders within an appellation must be protected from the mediocracy. The very last thing that should be allowed is producers voting on whether or not other producers with whom they are in direct competition are “typical” or not. Give this job to an external authority…say, panels of wine professionals tasting single-blind and within the narrowest possible peer groups…without the built-in financial incentive to act dishonestly. This will never be a perfect solution – no human judgment can be – but it will be less foundationally compromised than the current system.

Remove the barriers to commercial success that exist for those working outside the appellation codes. This requires more than fiddling with the law or label nomenclature. Wholesale and official enthusiasm must be accorded to the idea that such products are not definitionally better or worse, but merely different, than their in-appellation counterparts. The mindset must be created that both an appellation-endowed wine and a table wine from the same site are both authentic representatives of that place. This won’t happen overnight, but the foundation can be laid.

And for goodness sake, leave Britney Olivier Cousin alone.

If this doesn’t happen, the appellation system really will fall into irrelevancy, as it is already in danger of doing in so many places. Both iconoclasts and top producers will flee the system, rendering it not only far from the qualitative guarantor that it has mistakenly been asked to be but a vastly diminished reservoir for conservatism and mediocrity. And thus, a useful tool for the consumer will disappear.

This is the end

[moldy bottle]This is the last Thursday. The very last one. Here, I mean.

There will be a hotel my next namesake night, my home abandoned and swept clean of Me and Mine as it awaits its future partner, but it doesn’t count. It’s a hotel. It’s only a transition.

“Have you stopped blogging?” one correspondent asked. “Are you on hiatus?” queried another. No. I have definitely been bouchonné, in a sense (I love the broad utility of the French word for “corked”), because there’s a post I want to – no, need to – write, but I just can’t get through its abdomen, though the head and tail are long-finished. And in any case, I’ve been a little preoccupied.

Because the thing is, I’m leaving. Boston, you (and your dirty water, and your Charlie-swallowing M[B]TA) are no longer my home. As of eight days from now. And most definitely counting, as the ever-expanding, never-diminishing “list of things to do before…” stares back at my packing-reddened eyes.

Everything is, of course, fraught these days. Many decades of reminiscence. But I’m most struck, at the moment, by what cannot be reminisced. Places. People. Events. Things. Dishes. Drinks. None of them the path taken. All of those moments that I didn’t have in defiance of opportunity. And now, likely, won’t. Ever.

It’s not any given noun that’s set me on this path of…well, it’s not regret, exactly. I’m not quite sure what I’d call it. Reflection? It’s packing up bottles of wine, as any oenoanorak must do in preparation for a move.

Each bottle tells its own stories, long-acknowledged as one of the glories of the pursuit. But one of them – often overlooked – is the tale of its acquisition. The reason, the circumstance, the monetary pain a then-special bottle might have caused, the preferences – long-developed, or perhaps long-abandoned – that led to its companionship. So many years of browsing, of traveling, of savvy deals and what-was-I-thinking errors of quantity or quality. I could write an exceedingly poor-selling autobiography with just these bottles and their history.

As I said, everything is fraught. I can’t pack away a bottle without remembering then. Or there. Or why. Or who. The danger of being overwhelmed by something loitering at the intersection of Nostalgia and Proust is ever-present in these moments.

But this is what I wanted to say: these memories, these snippets of history, these moments that made me as much as I made them…they’re getting boxed up. Shipped. Reinstalled in a new setting, one in which new moments will be made starting from that very first installation. These bottles, heretofore ignored, will play a role in those new tales. And this is, I think, a fitting destiny for wine.

The story of a bottle is inseparable from its land, its grapes, its maker, and its history. It passes to a buyer with this story intact, whether the narrative is known or not. But then, a new epic is written. A story of an enthusiast and his or her wine. And that is a very, very different tale. Yet both make the wine what it is, and also what it will be.

So, Thursday. You’re actually Friday, now, as I finish this, and while I mourn your passing, I have hope. For downstairs, in more boxes than I care to count, are stories upon stories. A library of history, but also a library of the future. Each story familiar, each story new.

And some future Thursday – I don’t know when, but it will be soon – will not be a last. It will be a first. And the stories will begin anew.

When push comes to chèvre

There exist more ways to get what one wants, in the mercantile realm, than ever. For many – especially in the most electronically developed countries – this is the lifting of a burden. One can have almost anything, from almost anywhere, free of the time-consuming friction of face-to-face interaction.

Elsewhere, this is viewed less positively. French feet rest heavy on so many cultural brakes that it’s sometimes difficult to see how, amidst epic and often completely arbitrary contrariness about just about everything, these deliberate pressures can lead to desirable outcomes.

Please forgive the tangential subject-skipping in those last two paragraphs, but there’s a point to it. For I am now going to talk about cheese.

At my Parisian apartment’s nearest supermarket, which is generally dismal and harbors a persistent odor of garbage, cheese is behind a rope and requires the beneficence of staff to acquire. Meat? Fish? Sure. But cheese? The stuff is, mostly, already boxed and wrapped. Why must there be a person between me and my brie? I suspect it’s because, to the French, cheese is too important to be left to the proletariat. Also, because that’s just how cheese is sold. Remember: “arbitrary.”

And if one seeks good cheese – the wheels, wedges, and three-dimensional polygons on which the fame of French cheese is justly built – one must go to a specialist. A merchant and affineur, yes, but also a guardian of tradition, a hyper-knowledgeable guide, and a meddling interferer with consumers’ best-laid plans. The thing is, one does not just buy cheese at such an establishment. One enters into a storied negotiation, the outcome of which is not certain until one is standing on the sidewalk, holding a parcel that emanates lusty aromas of biologically active dairy products. Which might be entirely different from what one intended to purchase at entry.

It’s possible to purchase food and drink from French merchants with minimized interpersonal interaction, but the qualitative sacrifice is enormous. To get the good stuff, one must build a relationship…and I use that word deliberately, because the process is not unlike dating. The complexity of the interaction goes well beyond the boundaries of an “I would like”/“we can sell you” exchange of supply and demand. There are interrogations for which one must offer explanations (“when are you going to eat this cheese? for how many people?”) and catalysts (“the bleu d’Auvergne last week was excellent, but I’d like something a little more aggressive”), there are force-feedings (“this is the cheese that you will buy, and this is how you will serve it”), and as a result the simple act of sectioning and wrapping a few pieces of cheese can take the better part of a quarter-hour. But woe betide should this relationship fail to get off the ground, or develop in difficult ways, because product quality will suffer as a result. It is essential to build a positive rapport with a merchant who has consumable goods one desires, and the burden of that interaction is – contrary to American practice – almost entirely on the consumer, not the purveyor.

Here follows a tale of merchant dating failure. And of success. A multi-year love story that has come to full, and gloriously stinky, ripeness.

Marie-Anne Cantin (2009) – The aroma of fame hangs over this rue Cler shop, lingering thick and nearly tactile in the air to either end of its block. Or maybe that’s just the chèvre.

A famous affineuse, a beautiful selection of cheese…why, then, am I about to complain? Because even after a half-dozen visits, each query as to what’s fresh, what’s interesting, what’s seasonal draws the identical droned reply from the tall, patently bored young man that is always – despite my attempts at identifying his off-day – here: “brie, Camembert, Roquefort.” Yes, OK, and a first purchase demonstrates that versions thereof sold here are superlative. But there’s a whole room full of cheese, some of which are as yet untasted legends from my reference books. Can’t I try something else?

“Brie, Camembert, Roquefort.” Apparently not.

Marie-Anne Cantin (2011) – A year and a half later, the only holdovers on the staff appear to be Madame Cantin herself and her husband (who, on my first visit, scolds me for threatening a pyramid of ash-covered chèvre with the uncontrollable arc of my allegedly wildly-swinging murse). And so, a new attempt at relationship-building is initiated.

This time, it pays off. Suddenly, there’s a lighted and signposted pathway through an oozing world of terroir-specific brie. “Sec” in reference to a goat cheese now actually produces a semi-hard version, not just whichever cylinder or pyramid the shopkeeper happens to put his hand on, and always something different than was offered last week. A full range of creamy rounds and squares, bloomy and washed – the very cheeses that are impossible to acquire legally in the States, and are inevitably past prime when they are available – are systematically offered over the course of two months’ visits. Best of all, a deliriously complex four-year-old Comté, previously extant but not for sale to just anyone (“anyone” being me) suddenly becomes available. Each week, each exchange, is a new adventure in not just selection, but also in escalating warmth. My only regret is that when I come back, I might need to start all over again with a brand new blind date.

There are other sources, as well. One does, on occasion, leave the comfort of a marriageable affineuse for the excitement of a lactic dalliance; this is France, after all. Most of the action on the side comes from a purveyor at the biweekly Grenelle open market that offers a selection of his own goat cheeses from the Loire. His fare tends towards more youthful freshness than is my personal preference, but it’s still a fine and varied array of chèvres. The best is probably his Selles-sur-Cher, which is sold in a range from birth into a creamier era of development, but the ash-dusted fresh rounds and logs are impressive in their own right.

But again, cheese is only part of the act. The rest is his banter with the mostly female market crowd, with whom he relentlessly and shamelessly flirts. (Sometimes unsuccessfully; on my first visit, a middle-aged woman stalks off in anger at his unexpected use of the familiar form, hissing “animal” at him as she harrumphs away. By week four, the familiar is all he’s using in my presence, but then I’m not French and don’t really care about such things.) A good 90% of any commercial transaction with this gentleman is, thus, unrelated to the actual exchange of money for cheese, but rather the chatter than precedes and follows that transaction.

And so, that’s a French cheese transaction. You might not get what you want, exactly, but if all goes well, you’ll get more than you knew you wanted.


Every country has its white zinfandel. A sticky, too-sweet, unstructured, synthetic-tasting Kool-Aid™ wine. France’s is often made from one or both of the cabernets and carries the Anjou appellation, though there are plenty of blushing contenders for the role made elsewhere. I notice, as a frequent renter of apartments and gîtes in various French locales, that when there’s a gift bottle, it’s very often something of this stylistic ilk. Why, I wonder? Perhaps as a result of a guess that it has the broadest potential appeal to all, but especially sundry? Perhaps – though this seems hard to believe based on the evidence – people actually like the stuff?

Well, I don’t. And yes, it’s rude to look a gift horse in the mouth and decide to withhold the lurid neon pink refreshments. But I would love to, landlord by landlord, shift attention to something a little more interesting for both novice and geek tastes. Sweet and fun, sure, but clever as well. A Bugey Cerdon in every pot, maybe? It couldn’t hurt.

Emb. 49125D 2009 Cabernet d’Anjou (Loire) – Sweet synthetic strawberry syrup. It’s wine, but I know this primarily because the label says so. And you have to love the romance and revealed cultural history of the winery’s name. (3/11)

Les Fouleurs de Saint Pons Vin de Pays du Var “Réserve du Cigalon” Rosé (Provence) – Candied berries, a bit hot, thin, and not very interesting. (11/09)

Bernard-Noël Reverdy “Domaine de la Garenne” 2008 Sancerre Rosé (Loire) – Actually, not bad. (I know…lead off with the lavish praise, right?) Dry, with some flattish minerality exposed – something planar and uniform – and a little patina of raspberryishness. Nothing to think about, but quite drinkable while well-chilled. And had I not written this note hot on the drinking’s heels, I’d never have remembered drinking this at all. Meanwhile, that Reverdy family sure is fertile, isn’t it? (11/09)

Renardat-Fache Bugey Cerdon (Ain) – Intense strawberry, with one of the best balancing acts between acid, fruit, and sugar I’ve encountered under this label. Fresher for the lack of a trans-Atlantic trip? A better vintage? Or just an artifact of the environmental bonus multiplier of drinking it in Paris, rather than in a Boston suburb? Well…does it matter? Whatever the cause, this is the best bottle of this wine I’ve ever tasted, and I have consumed a lot. (11/09)

Rondeau Bugey Cerdon (Ain) – Pure strawberry lifted by raspberry/cranberry volatility. Fun, fun, fun, and no one’s T-Bird is getting taken away. (4/11)