Browse Tag


6.02 * 10^23

[mural]Monte Alban (11927 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles) – Sleepy, despite the widespread acclaim it has received from friends and sources. Though I guess there’s no shortage of Mexican food in LA. As is somewhat typical for the better restaurants of this genre (and to be specific, I believe this restaurant tends towards Oaxacan cuisine), the opening nachos and their salsa are so amazing that much restraint is required, lest the heartily-portioned dishes to follow become impossible to finish. There’s molten cheese, ever-succulent huitlacoche, an Oaxacan mole with chicken…all of it excellent. But where are all the customers? They’re missing out, wherever they are.

Kimchee whiz

[womens’ commode]Park’s BBQ – Confident, even swaggering. That’s not just the design, nor the wallpapering of awards and press coverage in the entrance, but also the firm assurance of the proprietor that “you’ve come to the best place” as you sit. Well, I can’t adjudicate that, but it’s pretty awesome. Nor can I eat like this every day; I’m completely gorged when I leave. Meat over fire is the thing here, of course, both beef (heavy on the wagyu options, by the way, which is appealing in print but perhaps not best-suited to this particular presentation) and pork. As is traditional for this style of dining, the meat soon becomes almost lost in a vast ocean of accompaniments and accoutrements, many of them decidedly fiery. The meat is excellent, but it’s all the ways to mess with it once it’s on the plate that make Korean barbecue so incredibly delicious (and why I question the utility of Wagyu, which one is almost certainly going to overcook in this environment). Do bring your heat tolerance, because you’ll need it.

His noodly appendage

[cacti]Santuoka Ramen (655 Paularino Ave.) – Anthony Bourdain often laments the pathetic state of food courts in the U.S. (as compared to those in Asia and elsewhere), but he probably doesn’t have places like this in mind. There’s a large handful of dining options clustered within this Japanese grocery, but the favorite is clear by both the line at its ordering counter and the identical bowls a few inches beneath pretty much everyone’s nose. I go mostly basic, adding a little bit of extra pork belly, and am rewarded with a pretty special bowl of noodle soup. Is that all it is, though? No. That’s the point. I have neither the experience nor the locality to argue whether or not this is among the best in LA, as many do, but it’s extremely good by any standard.

Lou, sir

[bar sign]Lou – I have to say this right up front: the aforementioned Lou (a fellow Minnesota escapee, by the way) provides on this night a silly quantity of wine and grossly undercharges me for it.

Anyhoo, this is a little wine bar/restaurant tucked into in one of those corner strip malls that, in any east coast city, would mean culinary disaster…a bad take on the sub/hoagie/grinder genre, mediocre pizza, or horrid MSG-instead-of-flavor Chinese takeout. Here in LA, it very often means something awesome, though that awesomeness is more typically confined to non-western foodstuffs. In any case, I doubt many people are casually driving down Vine, see the sign out front, and opine, “hey, honey, there’s a sign says ‘Lou’…let’s stop there and see about dinner.” Or, I dunno, maybe in LA people do exactly this sort of thing. But I suspect that, to be here, one has to want to be here. Well: I do.

I glance at the menu, which looks interesting, but I’m here on a Monday and so the fixed-price “Monday supper” is offered in its stead. Not in the mood for dessert and such, I fail to partake. Given the amount of wine I’m about to encounter, this is an exceedingly regrettable error of judgment, though I won’t necessarily realize this until the next morning’s head-throb. Instead, I snack my way through the menu’s grazing options: candied bacon, a light and delicious chanterelle and goat cheese tart, salad, bread (both natural and garlic-toasted), cheese, and so forth. Everything is fine to better-than-fine, and serves the wine well…and since wine is most definitely the focus here, that’s OK. Pretty much everything liquid is offered in two tasting sizes and by the bottle. As for what’s on the list: natural, “natural,” alternative, interesting. Not fully-described in most cases, so to know exactly what you’re drinking you’ll either need to see the bottle or have a conversation with one of the staff, and given how often aromas and tastes roam afield from the norm, I would highly recommend the latter. I suspect they would, too.

Laroche “Domaine aux Moines” 2001 Savennières-Roche aux Moines (Loire) – Layers of oxidation. Fulsome with a barky, drying palate. Snow globe-like with its swirling tartrates (and my pour is far from the bottom of the bottle). Copper-jacketed and starting to preserve itself in amber. I spend a good twenty minutes trying to decide if I like this, and never quite come to a conclusion. (11/10)

Bornard 2007 Arbois Pupillin Ploussard “La Chamade” (Jura) – Delicate and sweetly pretty, like a country girl in gingham and braids, or perhaps a Norman Rockwell portrait of same. Succulent. (11/10)

Tedeschi 2007 Monteviglio “Spungola Bellaria” Pignoletto (Emilia Romagna) – Pine and tarragon with a slight prickle, though the latter doesn’t rise to a fully tactile sensation, preferring to remain a background shade. Seems to sweeten or dry as each accompanying food requires, which is a neat trick, and a small glass taken an hour later has grown in both aroma and richness. Fabulous wine. (11/10)

Causses Marines 2008 Gaillac “Les Greilles” (Southwest France) – Lemon and ripe apple, but there’s more going on here than just a few fruit descriptors. It’s a kind of ineffable complexity, though, which is why my note stops where it does. There’s a sheen and a fairly deep core, but I couldn’t put a name or specific descriptor to either. Very good. (11/10)

Giard “Domaine du Manoir de Montreuil” Cidre Pays d’Auge “Cambremer” (Normandy) – Absolutely opaque and luridly aromatic; the Islay Scotch of ciders. There’s more pear than apple, at least to my palate, but the apples are something fabulous and iconic (perhaps reine des reinettes), and there’s a heavy hand with the white pepper grinder as the finish develops. Extraordinary. (11/10)

La Casaccia 2007 Barbera del Monferrato (Piedmont) – Presents itself with a smooth slickness, but soon gives its true self away: vibrant acidity, dark and rough-necked minerality, and a fair bit of churn and motion. It finishes as pristine and poised as it started. Experience suggests that this is a wine that rewards aging, and it is quite primary right now. (11/10)

Los Bermejos 2008 Lanzarote Tinto (Canary Islands) – I’ve never tasted this much spice in a red wine, not even a lavishly-oaked one. If Penzeys released a wine, it might taste like this. The dominant spices include nutmeg and mace, coriander, white pepper, and turmeric. So, so, so exotic. And – pardon the expletive, but it’s needed here – fucking delicious. This is the first quarter-glass that, by the end of the night, turns into a fully-drained bottle. (11/10)

Gramenon 2009 Côtes-du-Rhône “l’Élémentaire de Gramenon” (Rhône) – Firm tannin leftover from creating the leather sofa on which this wine lounges. Blackberry fruit-leather as well, plus an herbal stew. This tastes as much like a chinato as it does a Côtes-du-Rhône, and that’s an interesting conflation of styles. Challenging. (11/10)

Bebame 2009 Red (El Dorado County) – It takes me a long time to move past an active dislike for this wine into a wary tolerance, but ultimately I’m happy when my glass is empty of it. Tart, puckery fruit (not overly acidic, though there’s plenty of that, but without enough generosity to support the acid that’s there), underripe melon, sour greenness, green sourness. I feel like I should like this more, given that my favorite California winemaker is involved, but I just don’t. (11/10)

Barral 2007 Faugères Valinière (Languedoc) – Spicy mixed berries and cumin seeds. Quite tannic, but it’s a beautifully ripe tannin, and everything is both concentrated and in flawless balance. This is terrific now, but the question is whether or not anyone will wait long enough for it to be the even better wine it should become, many years from now. Masterful. (11/10)

Domaine de la Tour Vieille Banyuls “Vin de Meditation” (Roussillon) – Rancio, plum, and caramel. The first sip is enticing, the second tiresome…and that, unfortunately, is too often my reaction to this house’s various takes on Banyuls. So drink it in single-shot quantities, I guess. (11/10)

Primitivo Quiles “Fondillon” Alicante “Gran Reserva” (Levant) – “The best sherry I’ve had all year,” I joke. I’m not even sure if the joke’s true, but it’s a pretty extraordinary wine in that style, volatile, pointing and gesturing at oxidation, and mold-influenced (in a stylistically authentic way). It’s really big, though, and there’s not much subtlety to it at the moment. Maybe that will emerge and maybe it won’t, but it’s hard to ignore, and eventually the din is very slightly wearisome. Another wine for small-quantity consumption. (11/10)

Vin d’Autan de Robert Plageoles & Fils 2001 Gaillac Doux (Southwest France) – Silkily-sweet bronzed apples and syrup-cured citrus. Extremely appealing. (11/10)

Overnoy 2005 Arbois Pupillin (Jura) – Loaded with bretty stench (or maybe it’s reductive; frankly, I’m thirteen jibs to the sheet by this point in the evening and could be drinking stealth Franzia for all that I know, yet my notes indicate surety that there’s brettanomyces, and I probably shouldn’t second-guess). One will either be able to get past that or not. The wine underneath the assreek has the sort of breezy power that lovers of syrupy wines don’t think something this light can actually have. Well, they’re wrong. Potentially fabulous, if one is not sensitive to whatever’s stinking up the joint, or if there’s bottle variation…which isn’t exactly unheard of at this house. (11/10)


[candle at aoc]AOC – Surprisingly big and quite a bit more formal-feeling than I’d have suspected based on concept; it self-advertises as a wine bar, and while it is that, I think pretty much everyone I can see – including us – is treating it as a restaurant. The clientele is dressier than I’d have expected, too, and I suspect there might be a slight tension between how this place was conceived and how it is being utilized. Well, one rolls the dice one is given.

Small plates are the thing here, and everything is pretty good. Yet I wouldn’t call anything inspired, and there are a few trips and stumbles – dry duck confit (which takes some effort to ruin), undersalted clams (which I actually enjoy, usually finding this particular prep to be grossly oversalted) – and some haphazard plating. Vegetarians are well-served, and dairy is used in such a way that vegans can pretty successfully reconstitute most vegetarian dishes to their preferences (yes, I am here with a vegan friend).

Service is fine and friendly when we enter a half-empty restaurant. By the time we leave a packed-to-the-gills upstairs room (a quarter what the equally gill-packed first floor offers), the service is clearly overwhelmed; plates are cleared with efficiency, but I never do get to order the glass of dessert wine on which I’ve my eye, and even getting the bill is a bit of a hand-waving chore. I think they’re about one person short on the floor, and since for all I know that might actually be the case this evening, I can’t be overly critical.

The wine list is really good, and I have to say this despite a fair – but not unreasonable – portion of it not being in my palate wheelhouse. The non-wheelhouse swaths make up the majority of the high-ticket entries, so noting that the list isn’t exactly priced to fly only really affects those with different tastes than mine. But this also needs mentioning: it is a persistent peeve when places labeling themselves wine bars offer a spectacular list of bottles and yet an anemic, uninspired handful of by-the-glass options. I can’t conceive of how a place can call itself a wine bar and do that, yet I find it happens again and again. Here, the opposite is very nearly true: the glass (and carafe) list is long and much more inspired and inventive than much of the bottle list. I find that commendable.

Graillot 2008 Crozes-Hermitage Blanc (Rhône) – Really quite reticent, but the bones, shells, and raw almonds have a clean appeal. I find myself wishing for more, but the wine is unwilling. (11/10)

Swan 2008 Pinot Noir “Cuvée des Trois” (Russian River Valley) – Absolutely gorgeous, bringing lush New World fruit into a fine simulacrum of maturity even at this very young age; while past experience suggests that the wine will endure and morph for a while, this specific bottle gives me cause to question that norm. In any case, I see absolutely no reason not to drink this right now, because it’s delicious. Soil, baked plums, fall leaves, rich morels, and soft golden memories of old-growth forest and well-tilled earth. I could drink a case of this, and still be on my feet…Joni Metaphorically-speaking. (11/10)

Fèipu dei Massaretti 2009 Riviera Ligure di Ponente Rossese (Liguria) – Light, airy, saline, and somewhat insubstantial in the midpalate. The fruit that’s there is light in the fashion of, say, a Sancerre or Alsace rosé, but with less acidity and a softer expression. I almost like this, and in a less critical context I probably would, but the wine needs to exert more of an effort towards my affections. (11/10)

Tenuta Luisa 2008 Refosco dal Peduncolo (Friuli Venezia-Giulia) – Very, very, very restrained, almost to the point where I suspect TCA (but after long airing, I’m convinced it’s just the wine). Lots of structure (which is muted) and some black raspberry, as if there’s fruit-weight and firmness pressing against an impenetrable barrier, and I’m tasting the wine on the other side of that barrier. Just OK. (11/10)

Sapping strength

[coffee sign]Sapp Coffee Shop (5183 Hollywood Blvd.) – In a stretch of LA absolutely littered with tiny Thai establishments (it is Thai Town, after all), some sporting nary an English letter on their signage, it’s unlikely I would ever be otherwise compelled to enter a door bearing this name, nor frankly even suspect it was actually a restaurant at all. Lay the blame a certain foodster TV show. Or, in this case, thank that show (which, if I understand correctly, drew its own inspiration from a noodle-obsessed Angeleno blogger), because this is awesomely good. My boat noodles with beef, tendon, and tripe are as terrific as advertised, and the resultant broth is dense, impenetrable magic, increasingly spicy and increasingly wonderful as I drain it to its dregs. Just as interesting are the dry jade noodles with peanuts, barbecued pork, and chiles.

So the food’s terrific and the prices are almost laughably insignificant. But here’s what else I love. We’re here with a vegan friend, and even in diet-obsessed LA I’d be wary of the conversation necessary to eliminate certain ingredients from dishes (it helps that she’s not particularly militant and probably won’t throw a fit if a dollop of unmentioned fish sauce shows up in something). But our waitress, who has already talked me out of a simpler preparation of my boat noodle dish and into a more complex, “native” version, while talking another fellow diner out of the soupy version of jade noodles and into the delicious dry variation, enters into a long dialogue with our friend about exactly what she does and does not want, constructing a satisfactory dish (of vegetables, rice, and very spicy tofu) in that conversation. Later, another employee arrives with a little chile-infused dipping sauce, pauses after a glance our friend’s plate, and asks, “do you eat fish sauce?” When the answer’s no, I expect this to be the last we’ll see of the sauce. But no…another one arrives, this time with soy. Not everyone would do that, because not everyone would care; many would be annoyed at the very idea of substitution, others at the potential waste. This restaurant knows it’s good, wants you to know it, and wants you to love it. It’s hard to see how one couldn’t.

The Eveleigh brothers

[pacific tower]The Eveleigh – This Sunset Strip restaurant (God help them) is, on my visit, brand new and a little breathless, and very clearly not yet fully settled-in, so read what follows in that context. There’s a smallish interior dining room, but it’s open to an exterior heated tent (nothing unusual for LA), and that’s where we sit. First problem: the tent is extremely dark, and the menu is tiny black print on a dark olive-tan background (at least, I think it is; in this much darkness, colors blend). As the youngest of the five at the table, I am the only one who can read the menu without the assistance of a pilfered candle or an overturned iPhone, and even then much of it reads as hieroglyphics.

Service is mostly very good, with the exception of the second problem: a bad habit of interrupting conversations (or, at least, our waiter does), to the point where one of my fellow diners finally puts his hand on the waiter’s arm and says, “I’m sorry, you can’t interrupt another conversation; please come back in a few minutes.” Which he does, good-naturedly and making a joke about being released from purgatory, but one hopes the general message gets across. To be fair, the breathlessness of the restaurant comes from a very steady stream of both reserved and walk-in customers, some famous and some not, that they’re obviously very eager to accommodate; we do hold our table for a fair time, and maybe they’d like to turn our seats a little sooner than we allow. The solution would be to make this intent clearer, rather than constant interruption. But, again, this is a very new restaurant.

Design? Well, it’s dark. Dark wood, dark tent, etc. The biggest and brightest light comes from the kitchen, and when one is in the front (semi-enclosed) portion of the restaurant that light is a little blinding if one is facing it. This, too, is a design issue in search of a better solution.

We order a fair array of things from both the menu and the nightly specials (which are offered only after we ask; more post-opening jitters). First courses are small and share-worthy, and the unquestioned star is a frankly brilliant roasted eggplant dish; as a life-long eggplant agnostic, it takes something for me to say this. There’s also an excellent crudo, which I won’t identify because it’s certainly something that changes regularly, except to say that the restaurant may wish to lend a closer eye to the sustainability of certain fish, because I think this one may be on the red list. As for second courses, they’re reasonably-sized and clearly preference heavier expressions from the animal realm; nothing we have that’s not pig or cow quite measures up. My pork belly is well-flavored and nicely crisped, but the meat layers are a little dried out (it should be noted that a fellow diner finds the belly too fatty, but from my perspective the balance of meat and fat was perfect), and the beef rib cap is a really beautiful piece of flavorful flesh. The dish I don’t order but am most interested in by its description, braised beef cheeks, is slightly more problematic. The cheeks are cooked perfectly, at that flawless stage where there’s just enough melt but not a complete loss of texture, and the aggressive spicing is extremely enticing at first bite. But at more than one bite, the spice eventually overwhelms the luscious flavor of the beef itself. A slightly lighter hand, please, and this dish will be perfect.

We’ve hauled a quantity of our own wine into the restaurant, but I do take a peek at the wine list. It’s short but purpose-driven. Those of a Europhile bent will need to be ordering white wine (though see above, re: meat-dominance), because the Old World is highly underrepresented on the ruddy side. Instead, there’s a lot of domestic and a surprising Australian presence (that is to say, it’s surprising until one learns that a good portion of the ownership is Aussie), and to my eye gets pricey pretty quickly. This location may well be able to handle that sort of thing, though. In both shades, size is definitely preferred, and despite it not being to my personal taste I think that’s appropriate for the cuisine.

Tyrell’s 1999 Semillon “Vat 1” (Hunter Valley) – Sneaks up, taps you on the shoulder, waits for you to pay attention, then slips away, laughing at your sudden realization that you haven’t been paying enough mind, and now you’ve missed something important. It plays this teasing and eluding game over and over, never surrendering and just showing what it has. It’s not entirely divorced from the flavor profile of a delicate old white Burgundy, though with a little more grass and lemon, and quite satin-textured. The finest white pepper dust, maybe, later in the play. Those who think they can understand a wine’s adulthood and retirement from its birthing pains are, or at least should be, routinely mocked into abashed humility by the journey that this and other Hunter Valley semillons take. (11/10)

Bründlmayer 1979 Grüner Veltliner Kirchengarten (Kamptal) – Powerfully fizzy, so much so that were there any other sign I’d worry that this was refermenting in the bottle. As it is, there’s so much pétillance that the table discussion is over to what extent this was a deliberate winemaking choice; a little early prickle isn’t unexpected from this house, but at this age the outright froth is a little shocking. So what else? Celery, still, but fossilizing into a mineral form. Salt, kelp-infused. A brightness, as well, but the light rests on decaying bones…there’s no actual weakness yet evident, but there’s a certain trembling that indicates that the wine may begin to corrode fairly soon. This – grüner of an age I very, very rarely encounter – is an absolute thrill to drink, though I admit part of the thrill is the identity, rather than just the organoleptics. (11/10)

Texier 1999 Hermitage (Rhône) – Cellared since release. Packed up in a hand-constructed individual stryo sleeve. Stuffed into a bag and checked, paying the airline’s asinine baggage fee to do so despite not otherwise needing to check a bag. Collected at baggage claim after much foot-tapping delay. Unwrapped and rested, upright, in the hotel room to let the sediment settle. Transported, with care to avoid further sedimentary disturbance, to a restaurant. And – wine people can see the inevitable conclusion coming a mile away – corked. (11/10)

Allemand 1995 Cornas Reynard (Rhône) – Hey Zeus, this is good. Entering a bit of a soy phase, but it’s soy-soaked springbok jerky, very saline and entirely meaty. There’s salty brown minerality, too. Herbs, sometimes (though not always) found in older Cornas? Not so much, but in their place is a sort of lurid necro-floral aroma that’s really much better than that descriptor makes it sound. Balanced, still muscled despite much maturation, and really beautiful…if you’re a carnivore, that is. (11/10)

Allemand 1999 Cornas Chaillots (Rhône) – Still sorting itself out, but the folders are starting to populate. In one, there’s an herb-infused slow-cooked meat, still enveloped in a certain mystery. In another, something very floral and even a little aggressively aromatic. In a third, rocks piled upon rocks. This is still headed somewhere, and though it’s quite approachable now I think there’s more to see before it decides to stop for a rest and an idealized drinking experience. (11/10)

Seppelt 1986 Sparkling Shiraz “Show Reserve” (Barossa Valley) – Right out of the bottle, there’s the baked soy and caramel thing that I loathe, and too often find, in Barossa shiraz. But that doesn’t last long, and after an hour or so of nudging and sipping, the last glass is by far the best. Moreover, I fear there was still more to come as the dregs are drained, though of course I’ll never now. The intended froth is still present but the wine is so full-bodied (and this is in a worldwide, not strictly Barossan, context) that you don’t much notice it after the first few sips. Luscious dark fruit, certainly sun-drenched but not overly so, and black pepper, with a more particulate and coal-dust texture than I would have expected. Fun just because sparkling shiraz is, but with a serious side as well. This wine, decades ago and from a different (and older) vintage, was the one that convinced me sparkling shiraz could be something other than a parlor game and the setup for jokes about goat sacrifice. I’m glad to see that little has changed. (11/10)

Domaine Saint Vincent Brut (New Mexico) – Extremely bright. Lemons, apples, other tart citrus. A little copper adds some interest, but this is mostly about upfront fruit. A party sparkler. (11/10)

Umami said knock you out

[view from observatory]Umami Burger – A mini-chain that’s been much hyped on the food-geek interthingy, and as a fan of the en-sandwiched ground meat arts, I feel it’s my duty to assess the hype/quality ratio. At this Santa Monica outpost (stealthily camouflaged by a nondescript Fred Segal), and somewhat surprisingly quiet at Saturday lunch, the quasi-ironic Manly Burger – whether it’s named after the attitude or the Australian beach, I don’t ask and thus don’t know – and the signature Umami Burger are both entirely delicious. The former carries crisp onion strings, cheese, and hearty lumps of excellent bacon; the latter presents a more complex array of accompaniments. I have to say that, while the Manly is a classic experience, the Umami is something special. Both are quite superior to In-n-Out (I’m not factoring price into this assessment), and while I’ll have to recontextualize them on the chain burger lusciousness scale by returning to, say, Fatburger, they’re certainly “better” than that chain’s offerings by less hedonic measures, and maybe even by organoleptic ones as well. And while I realize this is highly subjective, I think they’re flawlessly-sized.

The accompanying cheesy tots are delicious as tater tots but could be cheesier. As for the tempura onion rings, their taste is almost magical, but their crispness fails very quickly, and so their primary quality is disappointingly ephemeral. An aside: the latter absolutely must be accompanied by the jalapeño ranch condiment, which is very nearly a perfect marriage between unhealthy fried stuff and unhealthy saucy stuff. Prices are upscale-burger but entirely fair, service is friendly in a casual California way, and the only negative is that almost everyone else is eating their burgers with knife and fork. Man up, people of Los Angeles and tourists alike. Use your damned hands. It’s a burger, not a Wagyu torchon.

Anderson Valley Brewing Company “Boont” Amber Ale (Anderson Valley) – Somewhat fulsome, but also somewhat thin in the middle where it counts, and the only thing that’s never in question is that it’s bitter in a raw hazelnut sort of way. A good, not great, beer with character but without commensurate appeal, at least for me. The intrinsically embittered might find more here.(11/10)

A post-facto coda: the role that the owner played in the outing of an LA Times restaurant critic? Dickish. As a result, my current interest in returning, despite my above-expressed culinary approval, is nil.

Something fishy this way comes

[shark]One of the jobs of celebrity chefs running famous restaurants is greeting those guests that it is necessary to greet. And so when Neil Perry is pulled from his post by the absolutely breathtaking blonde that walks by, no doubt on her way to one of those coveted rear tables, we’re not particularly surprised. Not that I blame him; every eye in our dining hinterland is also on this woman as she enters, passes, and disappears…Chef Perry in smiling tow. I only wish I knew who she was. (The next morning, the gossip pages in the newspaper give the game away: it was Naomi Watts. Well, no wonder everyone was looking at her. As usual, my ability to recognize celebrities on sight is nonexistent. Though I did recognize Chef Perry right from the start. I wonder what that says about me?)

…continued here.

Chicago is…

Frontera Grill – The promised 45-minute wait is only fifteen or so, which has to be better than the justifiably promised 45-minute at Xoco, our intended lunch destination. Fun décor, pleasant enough food, but honestly there’s as much or more interest in the cocktails than in the food. My huitlacoche torta, for example, is – to the eye – loaded with fungus but certainly doesn’t deliver as much smutty taste as is promised by that visual. The wine list seems impressive, but I don’t partake, instead working my way through a series of distilled agave exotica blended with other things.

Webster’s Wine Bar – A casual, downscale-but-not-really hipster vibe not unlike the sort of wine bars I tend to prefer (the ever-growing number of places ‘round the world named Terroir, for example), but with a more suburban ethos. While it’s not actually suburban, I do wish it was closer to downtown, because I’d visit more often. The by-the-glass options, all thematically flighted or available on their own (in multiple portion sizes), are a little timid in comparison to the by-the-bottle list, and since I can’t talk my companions into a bottle despite the fact that we will drink more than enough to have had one, some of the most intriguing wines go unexplored. So here’s a tip: bring thirsty friends. Also worth noting are the unusual number of wines with a reasonable amount of age on the by-the-bottle list, most very fairly priced. I’m pleased to see that txakoli is poured in the traditional fashion here, from spout to jelly-jar glass rather than stem, and from a great height. Nice touch. As I’m only passing through on the way to a largish dinner, I avoid the menu of bites, plates, cheeses, and so forth, but one companion who’s not pronounces the bacon-wrapped dates worthy.

Bulfon 2008 Cividin Valeriano (Friuli-Venezia Giulia) – A little aromatic (pressed flowers), a little waxy (the paper as much as, say, beeswax), and a lot dry. Makes one come to it, and then still won’t give everything up, but the mystery holds a certain intrigue. (9/10)

Shady Lane 2007 Pinot Noir (Leelanau Peninsula) – Prematurely fading, very light, and a little green…all signs of a place, or at least a house, that might not quite have a handle on pinot noir. Whether I should append a “yet” or suggest the terroir isn’t right for the grape isn’t possible to know after just one sample, of course. It’s not bad by any means, and though the autumnal aromatics are already quite advanced, it’s quite drinkable. But the “…for Michigan pinot noir” tag is going to have to be appended to any positive description of this wine for the time being. Who knows what the future will bring? (9/10)

Preisinger 2008 Zweigelt (Burgenland) – Extremely aromatic, with a dark, purplish needling quality to the juicy blackberry fruit and a lot of succulent floral stuff chasing after it. Black pepper, too. A lack of density and crisp acidity remind the wine that it’s zweigelt rather than something lusher. Extremely appealing. (9/10)

L2o – In one mood, I would describe the service here as nearly perfect…and in fact quite obviously striving for that perfection. It’s certainly a quiet ballet of unobtrusive excellence, which I love. On the other hand, it’s not entirely perfect. For example, we request a tea menu at the end of the meal and it never arrives. But that’s minor. Here’s what’s very slightly more major.

The wine list is extensive, way overloaded with both reds (it’s a fish restaurant, folks) and upper-class white Burgundies (I’ll cut them some slack here; the chef is French, after all), and very pricey. Nonetheless, there’s no lack of appealing options for those of pretty much any stylistic bent, and after some online previewing and at-the-table scanning, I narrow my choices to three. One, the most intriguing, is a white from Movia that I haven’t had before. Thus, I’ve two questions: is it oaked (the problem I have with most non-“Lunar” Movia whites is that they’re pummeled into anonymity by wood) and is it orange (that is, will it be too structurally abrasive for what I know is a procession of sometimes-austere piscatoria)?

The sommelier is fetched. And fetching. She – and it’s worth noting that pretty much everyone on this floor, male and female, could work as a model in their non-restaurant time – is maybe 5’11” without the heels, draped with luxuriant blonde curls, and is quite frankly gorgeous. Do I somehow not remember Larry Stone looking like this? In any case, she’s not (according to L2o’s web site) the sommelier, but rather the floor representative of same for the night. And look, I’m still a guy…she could probably tell me just about anything, at this point, and I’d be inclined to be agreeable.

Unfortunately, what she tells me is stuff I could have read on Movia’s web site, because I’m fairly certain that’s what she’s just done in the space between my question and her answer. Yes, yes, I know the Movia story. I don’t want their backgrounder, I don’t need their bio. I have very specific questions. Can’t she answer them? It turns out: no, she really can’t, other than to tell me the wine does see some wood. And it’s sur lie. Well, great. That’s not a whole lot of help. O, lovely blonde goddess of wine, how quickly you’ve let me down. Oh well. I order the wine anyway.

The food is as extraordinary as advertised, marrying a stark Japanese sensibility for fish to the European urge to cook, season, flavor, and sauce with a different sort of precision. Blessedly, the cooking styles that come into play are not strictly Eurocentric, but rather South American, pan-Asian, North American, French, Italian, Spanish/Basque/Catalan/etc., and so forth. It’s a brilliant, nervy ride on that fine edge between punishing reverence and sloppy fusion, and while the ride is thrilling it never loses sight of its destination.

Expensive? Why yes, it is. But not, I think, overvalued. This is a truly great meal.

Thierry Fluteau Champagne Brut Blanc de Noirs (Champagne) – Delicate. Strawberry, perhaps a little clover, with a very fine bead. Initially appealing, but it sort of vanishes into itself in response to attention. Pleasant. (9/10)

Movia 2004 “Veliko” (Brda) – A blend of ribolla gialla (or, I guess, rebula here in Slovenia), mostly, with chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and pinot noir as potential partners; the blend apparently varies, and I don’t know the specifics of this vintage. The mélange bring some light and shade to the heavier, waxier notions provided by the dominant grape. Lemon and molten silver, silken texture and fine-polished exterior wood, with everything in balance. I have no idea where this is on its evolutionary curve, but it’s drinking beautifully, if simply, right now. (9/10)

Metté Marc de Gewurztraminer (Alsace) – So much spice, smoked meat, and coriander whipped up by raw distillate. Very easy to hate, and I almost do…but in the end, it’s just so gloriously weird that I love it. Marc can be appealing or it can be challenging, but I think marc de gewurztraminer is the post-graduate examination of marc; so, so difficult without proper preparation. (9/10)

The Purple Pig – Small-plate dining, alternating between market-based and pre-packaged tapas (that is to say: lardo, high-quality canned tuna, and so forth), and a lot of fun. Wine, from a pretty decent list, is offered in multiple sizes over a pretty large percentage of the available bottles, which is an excellent touch that I wish more restaurants would pursue. And the food’s good. What more could one want? Well, perhaps consistency: on a second visit, near the end of the lunch rush, it’s more hit-and-miss. Not so much so as to discourage a potential third visit, but it seems the kitchen can get overwhelmed and hurried, and that appears to be when the problems start.

Lini “Labrusca” Lambrusco Rosso (Emilia-Romagna) – Sharp, pins-and-needles red fruit lashing and slicing its acidic path through the palate, cleansing everything and taking a layer of something or other with it. There’s some dirt and pepper, too. Really pretty glorious. (9/10)

Montenegro Amaro (Emilia-Romagna) – Decidedly on the sweet, mellow side of amaro, showing caramel-based complexities more like a brandy than something more traditionally bitter. A simple pleasure. (9/10)

Callabriga 2005 Dão (Portugal) – From a bottle opened a day earlier, and already showing signs of fading. There appears to have been some nice black fruit at one point, but it’s lost to history. (9/10)

Ramazzotti Amaro (Lombardy) – Pleasantly bitter, but dominated by licorice-espresso caramel. This might be the best of the commonly-available brands (my opinion changes, often based on what’s in the glass in front of me), but there’s more complexity (and, you know, bitterness) in other brands. (9/10)

Alinea – There’s probably nothing I can say about this transformative restaurant that someone else hasn’t already said. Perhaps the most important thing that needs to be stressed and re-stressed is that it’s not, and will never be, for everyone; you either like this sort of thing or you don’t. I do, when it’s done well (and I hate it when it’s not; I’m looking at you, Mr. Dufresne). But I do need to say this: for all the reputation it has as a stuffy, dictatorial establishment in which instructions outnumber dishes, I don’t find it to be anything of the sort. Yes, there are instructions, but they’re fun: eat with your hands, dump your dessert all over the table and slather it together with your spoon…and here’s your high-thread-count wet-nap, sir. Etc. Yes, the food is extraordinary, the service excellent, the technique overwhelming, the price throat-constricting. But I not only enjoy the food (and that very, very much), I have a smile on my face all night, and there are more than a few moments of out-loud laughter. Who knew Alinea was a barrel of laughs?

I never see the wine list, instead choosing the suggested pairings for the current menu. Some of the matches are inspired, a few don’t work as well, but when there’s a problem it’s usually much less the pairings than the wines themselves. And to be honest, while I appreciate the motivation and good business sense behind Alinea’s elective refill policy (in brief: empty your glass, get more; don’t and you won’t; you pay for what you drink rather than what you order or what arrives unbidden), I find it a little distracting to have to think about the consequences of the size of my sips. The wine service itself is predictably and consistently excellent, and so all this amounts to much less of a complaint than it might read, but next time I’ll order from the list.

Fernão Pires “Quinta do Alqueve” 2008 Ribatejo Blanco (Portugal) – Elusive, but deliciously so. Fades away in isolation, tasting of null space and absence, then returning with thousands of atom-thin layers of something I can only describe as succulent dryness. There are hints and rumors of fruit and nut, but they never rise to anything identifiable. The entire taste of this wine is its structure…except, not really. It’s hard to explain, obviously. (9/10)

Abbazia di Novacella 2009 Valle Isarco Kerner (Alto Adige) – Starts bracing, then falters somewhat into an unfocused sort of refrigerated fruitiness. Something like lemon, apple, tomato…in that wide realm, a palate wandering around looking for clarity. There’s good structure and certainly interest, but the wine is as meandering with food as without. I like it, but that’s as far as I’ll go. (9/10)

Lucien Albrecht 2007 Pinot Gris “Cuvée Cecile” (Alsace) – Brilliant shattered-glass minerality, the kind that one almost never finds in Alsatian pinot gris anymore, and vibrant acidity lacing illuminated pear and brittle structure. Exciting. Yes, there is a bit of residual sugar, but it’s so well-compensated that it doesn’t matter. (9/10)

Deiss 2002 Burg (Alsace) – Like drinking fruit-flavored lead. A completely limp, lifeless, neutron star of a wine, showing ponderous (and, it must be noted, not insignificantly oxidized) fruit that might, once, have lived somewhere in the strawberry realm…if strawberries were made of fissionable material. This has far more in common with the grossest offenses among New World pinot noirs than it does the sugary offenses of Alsace. So, um, congrats to Deiss? And the much-vaunted terroir-over-variety concept? Unless it’s Deiss’ argument that Burg is a shitty terroir unworthy of the respect of competent winemaking, he’s not making much of a case for it here. (9/10)

Cedar Knoll 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley) – Weedy and underripe, with nasty green tannin suffused with stale cigarette ash, then treated to a burnt licorice overoaking and nasty, rancid buttering. I can’t get this out of my mouth fast enough. (9/10)

Anima Negra 2005 “An” (Mallorca) – Internationalized sophistry well-executed and warm, lush with anonymous fruit and coconut-ized into splendid tropicality. Give it a bowtie, a snazzy briefcase, and a cocktail umbrella, and we’re good to go. Not a bad wine, but – not having sampled any of the island’s other wines – I suspect it says fuck-all about Mallorcan terroir. (9/10)

Elio Perrone 2009 “Bigarò” (Piedmont) – A brachetto-moscato blend, which is kind of a goofily wonderful idea if it works. Which it does, mostly. Frothy strawberry, leaves, slushy orange blossom perfume, sweetness and foam. Nothing unexpected. It’s fun. Don’t ask questions. (9/10)

Rieussec 2002 Sauternes (Bordeaux) – If I remember correctly, Rieussec was my first “good” Sauternes. I’d had a few cheapies as a run-up, but this was the one that lit the bulb over my palate; “oh, I get it now!” Since those exploratory days I’ve learned that the botrytized and wooded style is far from my favorite way to consume liquid sugar, and so I mostly drink other things. In a way, then, this was as much a Proustian pleasure as it was an actual pleasure…though it was that, too. Good? Yes. I wouldn’t call it great, though, and that may well be the aforementioned stylistic preference at work (which is why I mentioned it in the first place). All the expected elements – bronzed and preserved fruit, caramelized apples, toasted spices, a warming mélange of bakery aromas – are in place and in balance. There is acidity, but as my preferences run towards sweet wines with a lot more of it, it seems slightly insufficient to me. And it’s not particularly deft with food, either; it can wage (and may win) a battle of richness, but it does not envelop nor allow itself to be enveloped. Still, I don’t want to over-criticize; there is almost no situation in which I would turn a wine of this quality down. (9/10)

Ferreira “Duque de Bragança” 20 Year Tawny Porto (Douro) – One of the two ways I like my tawny: not so much tawny. Still quite fruity – in fact almost primary – with dark, chewy, still-tannic berries and wild (that is to say, tart) plums. Spice, amber, and haze lurk in the background, which is how one differentiates this from an actual ruby port, but they are still not the lead actors, merely understudies. A very nice wine, sweet but with so many contrasts to that sugar that it operates well as a “table wine” of sorts. (9/10)

Quinta do Noval 1968 Colheita Porto (Douro) – The trick for colheita and my palate is finding that balance point in which the wine is no longer a simple collection of brown-hued sweetness and spice, but hasn’t yet flatlined into its long, oxidative decline. This is sometimes made trickier by the apparent fact that a lot of dedicated colheita-heads want that latter stage, or at least wish it to be more prominent than I do. So, preferential disclaimers aside, how about this one? It’s marvelous. Less spice and thinned-out molasses than a collection of molten metals…bronze, copper, iron…in whorls and gentle curls. But yes, there’s spice and sweetness as well, and lingering memories of fruit, and a confident persistence. It’s rather beautiful, really. (9/10)

Mercat a la planxa – It’s perhaps a little odd to be seeking out a Philadelphia chef’s Catalan restaurant in Chicago, but it’s proximate to where I need to be, and so why not? On a very brief sampling from the limited lunch menu, it’s good but not great, with interesting wine (available in multiple glass, pitcher, and bottle configurations) and a very casual vibe. Worth a second look to learn more, perhaps.

Itsas Mendi 2009 Bizkaiko Txakolina Txakoli “Aihen” (Northwest Spain) – Heavy. I know, it seems absurd to say that about a txakoli, and of course I mean it contextually, but it is heavy. A little heavier than I’d like, frankly. Whitewashed fruit (citrus? lime and grapefruit, maybe, but so blanched it’s hard to tell) and white-walled beachfront housing – yes, I’m aware that isn’t such an easy description to understand, but it’s what this wine makes me think of – blasted by sandstone and empty wind. But it’s just too gravitic for its own good. In a lineup of, say, chardonnays, it would be biting and crisp. But in its own context, I’d prefer a little more zip. Zing. Life. Fun. Any of the above. (9/10)

The Publican – Oh, if there was ever a restaurant that was dangerously pointed right at my weakest points, this might be it. Shellfish, pork, wine, beer? Raw stuff and ridiculously heavy meat preps? Hams? Cheeses? God help me. Were it no so ear-punishing they’d have to build me a bedroom upstairs, because I might never leave.

They don’t try to mess with the food too much, which not only works but allows them to get a lot of food out of the kitchen very quickly…necessary in a place of this (surprisingly expansive) size and with this turnover rate. And it’s probably unwise of me to order fideus (which is, here, the neutron star of dishes, offering a good 50% of the animal kingdom atop a completely unnecessary pile of starch) as a third – rather than only – course. But despite being bent with culinary double-stuffing as I leave, I enjoy every moment. It does not, in my personal affections, trump the conceptual brilliance of Avec (with which it has much in common) in this culinary mini-empire. But it’s way more fun, and frankly better, than Blackbird.

There’s a wine list, and it’s fair enough, but the thing here is beer. And they know their beer, too; unfamiliar micros are a subject on which one can have a quite involved conversation, which is not always the case even in places that have interesting lists thereof.

Two Brothers “Atom Smasher” Oktoberfest Style Lager (Illinois) – Heavy. Good heavy, but heavy nonetheless. I’ll admit that no matter the tradition, this is the sort of style I always feel is (or at least should be) implied by the autumnal name, but is rarely delivered by most beers of similar designation. Weighty, somewhat bitter, somewhat refreshing, and definitely seasonal; one can almost taste the leaves crunching underfoot. Molten rocks. Definitely leaves an impression. (9/10)

New Holland “Pilgrim’s Dole” Wheat Wine (Michigan) – A barley wine-style brew made, as the name indicates, with wheat. And – here’s a warning – a beverage for those who think barley wines are watery and light. Holy crap is this dense! Nearly opaque, as well. Comes as near as I’d want to drinking pure molasses (without the sugar). It’s fascinating, frankly, but I don’t think I’ll ever want this much of it again. Stylistically, it’s closer to the old Seppelt “Para Port” Liqueur wines than it is any beer of my acquaintance. Worth the experience, at least. (9/10)

Hanssens “Oude” Kriek Lambic (Belgium) – Oh, yes. Beautifully tart, but not so iconoclastically acidic that it becomes an Olympic-level challenge to struggle through. Here I suppose I reveal my long-time struggle with the Cantillon style, in which I have to warm up like a beer athlete to deal with the fierce lash of puckering sourness, and which even with said warmup I don’t always warm to. This is less aggressive, and maybe it’s less authentic as a result, but it’s far more to my liking. (9/10)

Topolobampo – Can any restaurant live up to this sort of hype? Not hype that it’s the best of all restaurants or anything, but the hype that it has changed the entire perception of Mexican food in this country, and that it will change the diner’s perception as well? I think it’s important to not have unmanageable expectations for such a transformation when approaching an establishment with this much fame. Why not just go and try to enjoy the meal?

And I will say that, with one exception (see below) I have an absolutely marvelous time here. The food on my plate and stolen from others’ is extraordinarily good. It perhaps doesn’t challenge the very foundations of my western palate, but then I’ve dabbled in Mexican cooking myself, so it probably wasn’t going to anyway. But surprise? Delight? Absolutely. In our group, we sample each of the various tasting menus on offer, and despite our token Brit struggling a bit with the peppers in a not-very-spicy dish, there’s not a single course that isn’t pronounced somewhere between very good and terrific. From conception to execution, this is a kitchen operating at a very high level of skill, and since this restaurant is so famous and there are so many other income sources for the Bayless empire that it probably doesn’t have to do more than push competent food out the door, I’m even more impressed.

Service is engaging and flexible; I hear our principal waiter in patient cajole with a nearby table of more tentative diners, while with us he’s delving into minutiae and esoterica as we shift our interrogations from plate to waitstaff. Noise levels are high, but decently handled by the separation of the restaurant into smaller rooms.

And then there’s the wine list. It’s very long. Parts of it are very good, but it’s clearly attempting to be all things to all people, and there’s a stylistic incohesion as a result. Further exacerbated, of course, by the unavoidable fact that a good number of the dishes really aren’t easy wine matches at all, and some are downright impossible. One is faced with several choices: to just drink what one wants, to accept guidance, or to attempt very difficult pairings which, unless one has extensive experience with this cuisine, are likely to fail anyway. It’s not an inexpensive list, either. To the list’s credit, however, there has been a clear attempt to hold some wines back for a time, and the older (not mature, usually, but at least not ultra-primary) wines are often the best buys on the list.

One of our group is a habitué of the restaurant and friends (he has a lot of “friends,” quotes not meant pejoratively but to distinguish between them and confidants, which is one of the benefits of his acquaintance) with the sommelière. And unfortunately, while he’s made a big preparatory play of the fact that I’m a wine guy and that she and I are going to have a great conversation about wine, it turns out to be one of those relationships that just doesn’t work. I want to offer a written shrug here, because sometimes these things just happen, and they’re nobody’s fault. But despite a promising beginning (she grabs an off-list German riesling, right in my palate’s wheelhouse, for us), the conversation starts to go wrong very early, and completely fails halfway through the dinner…to the extent that, by that midway point, she’s patently and obviously upset with me, but everyone at the table (having been very disappointed in her suggestions thus far) is in agreement that I just should order the wines and stop consulting with her. After which we do drink better. It’s largely the fact that I can’t seem to get her to understand what I don’t want, and thus I keep getting offered wines more woody, modern, and internationalized than I want. Her argument would be – and in fact is – that the wines I’m mentioning don’t “go with” the food. And she’s not entirely wrong about that, but since we don’t want to – in any context – drink the wines that she thinks do go with the food, it’s an intractable problem. There’s also a confusing palate misalignment, made clear to me when I query after a Dashe Zinfandel and she informs me it’s “too light” for the food. I think that may be a first, at least in my hearing. Of course, the Biale and Turley wines she offers in its stead (which are, I agree, less “light” than the Dashe) range from painful to undrinkable for my palate, so there’s no way to come to a détente.

(I should note that, as a result of this, I am going to do something counter to my regular practice and leave a wine that we drank – or, more accurately, were served – out of the list that follows. It was her counter-suggestion after my attempt to order a Rioja, it was a Washington State syrah, and it was horrible. Absolutely wretched. Seeing it lingering, mostly unconsumed and to all of us virtually undrinkable, in our glasses, she whisked it away and did not charge us for it. Since I never would have ordered it in the first place and very much wanted a different wine, I see no reason to go ahead and trash the wine just out of spite at my few unpleasant moments with it. So I won’t. Besides, I have enough problems in Washington.)

It’s the only flaw in the evening’s festivities, and I do my best to repair the relationship while retraining control over my own wine ordering, but I don’t think I’ll ever be the wine director’s favorite diner, nor she my favorite wine consultant, and I suspect she will allow me to go my own oenological way should I return. Which is fine. The food more than makes up for everything.

Brander 2007 “Cuvée Natalie” (Santa Ynez Valley) – Weird, but one approaches this wine knowing that weirdness is on offer. Leafy greens, pale citrus, lurid pink weirdness, and then sort of washing out in a shallow pool of salinity. Did I mention that it’s weird? (9/10)

Leitz 2002 Rüdesheimer Berg Schlossberg Riesling Spätlese Trocken (Rheingau) – The ever-so-slight touch of cream is a little surprising in this wine, given that it’s so young, but it works wonders in terms of textural cohesion. Everything else is still primary…gravel and dried white flowers, weight and presence, steel under lidded eyes. Surprisingly approachable, and yet nowhere near what it will become. (9/10)

Santo Tomas 2003 “Duetto” Cabernet-Tempranillo (Baja California) – I expect Baja wines to have a dried out, baked character, and this bottle does not disappoint in this regard. Is this a fair assumption, or have I just had the wrong wines? The fruit’s not shy, but it’s limp. And yes, there’s heat…both in the wine and showing its effects at the wine’s creation…with a premature desiccation that doesn’t bode well for the future. It’s important to say that none of this was unexpected, and I don’t want to overcriticize a wine I purchased specifically for the experience of having Mexican wine with Mexican food. It is what I thought it was, as Dennis Green might say. How often does Dennis Green turn up in wine notes, anyway? (9/10)

Dashe 2007 Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley) – Dark little berries, each one offering a tiny explosion of slightly tannic fruit, in a twisted-vine broth of surprising structural lightness; the overall effect is thus one of heft without overt density, of strength without force. Aside from a little dusting of black pepper, it lacks the further complexities one expects from the very best zinfandels, but it delivers everything – fruit, acid, just enough structure – one wants from the grape, without the baggage of booze and volatility that so often hitchhikes. I think it will age for a few years, if one is so-inclined. (9/10)

R. López de Heredia 2000 Rioja Reserva Viña Bosconia (Center-North Spain) – Not, I think, the best Bosconia of my lifetime. That said, it’s still compelling enough, gentling into its soft, tanned redness enveloped by old wood, then fading away to show its smooth, polished bones. It should be noted that my dining companions, who have never tasted an LdH of any vintage or designation, are utterly fascinated by the wine. So those of less jaded palates may enjoy this more than I do…though I do enjoy it. (9/10)

Leydier “Domaine de Durban” 2005 Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise (Rhône) – I keep waiting for someone to show me a better example of this wine, and year after year I come back to Leyder/Durban as the pinnacle. (I’m open to counter-suggestions, though.) The key, since my very first taste, remains a vibrant foundation of quartz-like minerality. Lots of wineries can do the perfumed sweetness, the orange blossom, the fun. The rocks are something special. And I can only guess that it’s terroir or some sort of particular cellar technique, because I find the same incredibly appealing quality in the winery’s Beaumes-de-Venise red. (9/10)