Browse Tag



santa barbara fogIn-n-Out Burger – I know, I know. It goes against everything I believe about ingredient sourcing. Sometimes, I’m weak. And sometimes, I’m driving from Ballard to San Francisco on a tight schedule and the need for faster food enables my weakness.

As always, avoid the horrible fries.


Terroir – They’ve moved a few seats around. A few folks behind the bar are new. The same old wines have a few new neighbors, no small number of them from a niche importer that just happens to be the former owner and an ex-employee. Other than that, not a single thing of import (sorry) has changed.

One of the unfortunate things about most American wine bars is that they’re not actually wine bars. They’re restaurants that have more than the usual number of wines by the glass. That’s not such a bad thing in theory – eating is a good, and frequently necessary, companion to drinking – but in practice it obliterates the concept, because it makes it impossible to “use” the establishment as a wine bar (except at eccentric hours) because the seats are occupied by long-term commitments rather than three-glass stands.

santa barbara post officeI mention this not because Terroir is, by contrast, so obviously a real wine bar, but because the very complaints that some have about it (in which I’d find both agreement and disagreement) – marginally-comfortable-at-best seats, a little bit of attitude – actually help preserve its function. People come in, they have some wine and a few snacks, and they leave, opening up room for someone else. And those who don’t are the deeply-committed.

Or the should-be-committed. One of the two.

Belluard 2009 Vin de Savoie Terroir du Mont Blanc “Les Alpes Cépage Gringet” (Savoie) – This unfolds very slowly, but by the second or third chapter you realize you’re rapt. At first, it’s just a nice little Alpine white with an edge of something vaguely nutty or floral. But then there’s plot development, a narrative, an ebb and flow and characters move in and out of the story in an orderly fashion. Complexities are those of soil and sky: liquid minerals, yes, but also hues and qualities of light. The end comes with a richer, rounder, and more satisfying story than was evident at the beginning (and being closer to room than cellar temperature doesn’t hurt in this regard, either). I kinda love this. (11/11)

P·U·R 2010 Morgon Cote du Py (Beaujuolais) – Hmmm. Like half a Morgon – the brawling (for Beaujolais), muscular part – without any of the rest that makes it a complete wine. It’s chalky, angular, and void. There’s hesitation from the staff as I’m served this, hesitation as we (“we” including folks who’ve had it elsewhere, with better results) drink it, and a post-consumption questioning by the server that indicates to me none of the involved parties were entirely happy with this bottle’s performance. So I’m going to guess this is unrepresentative until presented with evidence to the contrary…especially as I can’t believe that so many of my like-palated friends have simultaneously lost said palates. (11/11)

Hitch a ride

beckmen & treeTastes of the Valleys – Most of the wine bars along Solvang’s main drag are rollicking in what otherwise appears to be a slow time of year, spitting out wandering clots of weaving wine tourists to – one hopes – the safety of hotel rooms rather than automobiles. But this one, a cozy basement with a few tables and a short bar, is empty when I arrive. Just me and the proprietress.

I’m here because this particular bar is specifically noted as a place to taste Arcadian and Au Bon Climat wines, which aren’t the easiest to find opened elsewhere in the area. Only the latter is actually available amongst today’s selections, but after a long day of tasting and with plenty of pinot in my post-sunset future, it doesn’t really matter.

Au Bon Climat 2007 Pinot Noir Los Alamos (Santa Maria Valley) – There is a particular quality of pinot noir that, in New Zealand, I’ve used – with some success – to guess at Central Otago (specifically Bannockburn/Cromwell) sourcing: blood orange, plum, and beet. But it occasionally shows up elsewhere, there and abroad, and here’s an example. If I hadn’t seen the label, I’d probably once again guess Central Otago, except that there’s a little more sophistication and delineation to the fruit (a consequence, perhaps, of New Zealand’s generally young vines and still-limited clonal palette). It’s really quite a gorgeous wine, overall, and as it finishes a graphite-like minerality…very unusual in pinot noir…starts to rear its particulate head. This is still very young, and yet there are already mature-tasting elements within, so as to its actual future prospects I wouldn’t dare venture a guess. (11/11)

Babcock 2009 Pinot Noir “Rita’s Earth” (Santa Rita Hills) – 13.6%, but tastes much, much bigger…a good lesson in how fruit intensity and extractive winemaking can fool the palate into thinking that excess body is alcohol-derived (which, to be sure, it often is). Purple, black, swollen…this is like drinking a bruise. (11/11)


beckmen roadHitching Post II – I have no idea what things were like in the immediate post-Sideways era, and I’m sure the relentless waves of tourists have made it difficult to retain a true neighborhood feel here, but the reputation of this restaurant as a place where locals do indeed still go is merited. I recognize a few winemakers here and there, though I suppose the biggest celebrity is the one who enters just in front of me, patiently awaiting his usual table: David Crosby. Nice to see he’s putting his new liver through its paces.

The food? No misteak. (Sorry.) Really, though: it’s beef or bust for the most part, though on my night they do some nice things with chanterelles and artichokes (not together). Basically, if it can be done in a single pan or over a fire, it’s probably worth ordering; otherwise, exercise caution. As for the steak on which one facestuffs here, it’s cooked with confidence and skill exactly as I’d have wished it. I could, I suppose, quibble with prices that seem a bit lavish, but then again it is a steakhouse, and is also as much a site on the tourist map as an actual restaurant these days. Best, I think, to just assume that the premium is for the experience rather than just the food.

And as for the experience…my waitress is worth any premium they wish to charge. For every quip she has a comeback, for every challenge a hilarious, smart-assed reply that would split my sides had the giant piles of meat not already accomplished same. Stories of tossing drunks in the back of her pickup abound. I’d have been pleased with the meal in any case, but she’s responsible for its elevation to pure joy.

Hartley Ostini “Hitching Post” 2008 Pinot Noir “Hometown” (Santa Barbara County) – Squared-off, blocky pinot noir in a varietal straightjacket. That’s neither criticism nor praise, exactly, but this wine tastes like someone averaged out all the pinot noir from “here,” left out most of the adjustments and/or trappings, and just presented the results as wine. (11/11)

Hartley Ostini “Hitching Post” 2001 Pinot Noir Julia’s (Santa Maria Valley) – Dusty morels and more intense, freshly-plucked porcini bind with pie fruit (that is to say: there’s an oven-warmed quality to it). This is fully knit and, I’d say, fully mature, even though I don’t expect it to fall apart immediately. A lack of full expression is, I think, inherent to the wine rather than to any artifact of age or storage; while I welcome the fact that the wine wasn’t pushed towards the caricature that afflicts so many of its neighbors, it also tastes as if it wasn’t pushed to the fullest expression of its own inherency, which is something I’d identify as somewhat of a house style at Hartley Ostini. In a way it’s a good thing, considering the alternatives, but one could also wish for just a bit more. (11/11)

Hartley Ostini “Hitching Post” 2006 Pinot Noir Bien Nacido (Santa Maria Valley) – Bruising. Only a vague sense of restraint (or fear) separates this from the punishing perils of Pinot Port. The alcohol isn’t too unrestrained given the overall burl of the wine, but the fruit is dark and somewhat gelatinous, the structure an almost cartoonish 100-pound falling weight, and the body the kind one fears is only achievable via the sort of secretive modern science for which athletes must pee in cups. Not that I think that’s what they’ve done here. But I do think this is a wine for people who usually find Hartley Ostini pinots overly transparent, and I am not one of those people. (11/11)

Disclaimer: the last wine is an off-menu selection offered by the hostess and poured by the glass for the entire table, but for which we are not charged.

Petered out

santa barbara mission baptismal fontPetros – Silence. Dark, anything-but-decrepit silence. Such a change from the Lazy Ox

I’d assumed that lunch in the midst of heavy-duty wine tasting would be some sort of California cuisine accompanied by a glass or two of local wine. I didn’t expect ambitious Greek food in an elegant setting. And I certainly didn’t expect to be dining in what I now find, poking about the internet, is a Fess Parker establishment. Will I ever live it down?

But what’s more baffling is the utter lack of patronage. I mean, sure, it’s neither cheap, quick, nor casual, and I suspect all three are what many wine country tourists are after. But there is only one other table occupied during my lunch, and its occupants…well, let’s just say that as they sit in utter silence, gnawing the decaying threads of a meal, it’s possible that after ninety-plus years (each) they’ve run out of things to say.

I hope, at least, that they enjoyed lunch. Because the food here is really very good. Greek cuisine has not, as a rule, scaled well in the…pardon me…pantheon of borrowed European cuisines. It does not take to fancifying or airs, and while I don’t know if that’s the fault of the practitioners or the cuisine itself, I rather suspect the bulk of the blame lies with the source material. As with certain regional Italian cuisines (though not all of them), Greek dishes really seem to prefer to be left to their own relatively simple devices. At which point the entirety of one’s success with the cuisine comes down to shopping and basic cooking techniques. Both are done well here.

I’ve no complaints about the service either, though I suppose it’s not hard to manage a nearly-empty dining room. As for the wine list, it’s neatly balanced between the local and the non-formulaic Grecian. Someone has put some work into this list, some curation to help ease these unfamiliar wines onto diners’ tables. Of course, I can’t quite resist either temptation…

Brander 2009 Sauvignon Blanc “au Naturel” (Santa Ynez Valley) – Green, biting sauvignon blanc with some razors thrown in for structural intensity. Yet surprisingly expansive, for all that cutting and slashing. Good? Hmmm… (11/11)

Monemvasia 2009 Peloponnese Moschofilero (Greece) – Light and insubstantial, offering a wan gesture in the direction of flowers and white sand. Is this a contextual effect from drinking it amidst a bevy of blowsy California wines? Perhaps in part, but there’s still just not much to it. (11/11)

Counting sleep

santa barbara missionBallard Inn – Wine countries (by which I don’t mean countries that make wine) have their centers of gravity. Ideally more than one. And so it is that anyone visiting the scattered clusters of vineyards more or less near Santa Maria will probably choose from one of the most obvious basing options. Solvang’s nearly parodic Scandinavian revival, full of hotels both sleek and silly, yet dotted with wine bars, restaurants, and all the temptations of trinketdom? The artificial yet eminently sensible tasting room huddlings of Los Olivos? Or why not the lovely, albeit lengthy, drive in from Santa Barbara’s lavish luxury?

Hey…how about a innocuous little hamlet with no wineries at all, and what seems like one church per resident? Probably not. And yet, querying long-time locals, that’s exactly where I’m directed, over and over.

One comes to the Ballard Inn for several reasons, among them its tranquil isolation. Of course, there’s a major utility project going on right out front, and though attempts are made to mitigate the din it does shatter the promised tranquility somewhat. But a proper inn it is, with all the charming periodicity one could want, and some very comfortable rooms. I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for the inn ever since, several years ago, they’d volunteered a full refund despite a very last-second cancellation due to a family emergency. I vowed I’d return one day.

The natives, though, don’t just name the inn for its lodging. Nice rooms can be had elsewhere in the valleys. The primary focus is on the restaurant, said by more than a few to be offering the best cooking in the area. Well, let’s hope.

Before dinner, there are communal libations, a fine tradition to which much attention is rarely paid anymore.

Kalyra 2010 Sauvignon Blanc (Santa Ynez Valley) – Sauvignon-by-numbers. A little too big for its own good, but perfectly decent. (11/11)

Firestone 2009 Riesling (Central Coast) – Yep, tastes like riesling. Off-dry riesling. Not really much more to say about it, aside from the somewhat chemical turn it takes as it lingers. (11/11)

Carina Cellars 2007 Syrah (Santa Barbara County) – Identifiably pinot noir syrah, with smoke and dark berries. There are flecks of char and dark chocolate shavings, though, and in the end it doesn’t really amount to much. (11/11)

Though the cocktail hour is on the early side, most of the inn’s other residents proceed more or less immediately to dinner; not all of them have the excuse of belonging to the super-senior set, either. As a result, I’m the last one in and, inevitably, the last one out. At the entirely indecent hour of 9 p.m. Well, at least there’ll be plenty of opportunity to sleep.

As for dinner itself, it’s all that’s been promised. Nothing cantankerous, but with a surprising nose-to-tail element creeping onto the menu, everything cooked well and served knowledgably. That includes the wine list, which is a little on the pricey side but does fine work with the local fermenteds…any alternative to which I couldn’t possibly consider while in the area.

Calzada Ridge 2010 Viognier (Santa Ynez Valley) – This is entirely nice, with fresh, flowery fruit. Not much of a finish. (11/11)

Arcadian 2006 Chardonnay Sleepy Hollow (Santa Maria Highlands) – With the caveat that I rarely have much good to say about New World chardonnay unless it comes from Kalin, Rhys, or Varner/Neely, and with the corollary caveat that this is very much a New World chardonnay, there’s a lot here to like: the peachy fruit, thick and rich with roundness and polish, is fulsome enough to resist the minor trappings of caramel dip and buttery drizzle to which this grape is so often treated. Moreover, there’s acidity, and it’s well-integrated. It’s big – very big – and though I think the wine will develop and mature in a mostly pleasant way, I think that size will loom the greater as time passes. (11/11)

Arcadian 2006 Pinot Noir “Jill’s Cuvée” (Santa Maria Valley) – Starts pianissimo, with just a few little bursts of ripe, reddish fruit. These develop into a theme, then a theme with variations, as decorative contrapuntal nut shavings and wet soil aromas enter the work. What starts in subtlety ends in restrained lushness, full-fruited but with elegance that does not diminish even as a piercing trill of acidity rings and echoes long into the coda. There is still an air of rehearsal to this wine, and more work and refinement yet to come, and it will probably never be the most complex of works. But appealing? Oh, yes. You’ll find yourself humming the melody the following day. (11/11)

Gehrs 2008 “Fireside” Port (Amador County) – A very simple idea of port, sweet with dried berries and a late-palate burn of alcohol, but bringing little else to the concept beside the name and the fundamentals of technique. (11/11)

Breakfast the next morning is just as delicious. The following morning, however, is a bit of a disaster; despite arriving nearly fifteen minutes before the close of breakfast, they claim that it’s too late (as if I don’t own a time-telling device), then offer a decidedly uninventive fib that they’d done a head count and determined that everyone had already been served. Since there aren’t more than a dozen guests in the entire inn, that seems a dim view to take of their skill with arithmetic, but…well, rather than argue, I just take my coffee and leftover fruit and go. It does certain damage to my otherwise rosy view of the inn, however, and despite a complaint at checkout they don’t seem particularly apologetic. So while I would still recommend the place, I’d also recommend being on the very early side for breakfast. Or maybe buy the staff an abacus.

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.


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.