Browse Tag


Don’t rain on my café

[stirring coffee]On my very first day in Paris, I ascended the Arc de Triomphe to take in the view, then strolled down the length of this most famous of avenues. I remember the people, the chintzy foreign borrowings, and the over-the-top commerciality, but I also remember being somewhat swept away by the experience.

Well, I have no idea what I was thinking. Some memories are best left as memories, and I quickly come to resent each remembered step. What, exactly, is the appeal of the upper half of this boulevard? Except to business owners, I mean. Only as the street descends to the FDR Métro stop and commerce gives way to gardens does it become worthwhile. In fact, the stretch from there to the Place de la Concorde (my favorite “great space” in Europe) is quite striking. But my advice? If you’ve good memories of the Champs-Élysées, never, ever return. For these days, it’s little more than an avenue of regrets.

…continued here.

Terry & lair-y

[square at night]Leaving Alsace for Paris, via Metz, Burgundy, Montana…and the past. An excerpt:

Normally, this hotel would be in a prime location. I say “normally,” because it’s right behind the National Assembly, which is currently a thicket of police and barriers as the city prepares for a strike. Thankfully, this really only becomes a hassle on our last two days in Paris, while the demonstrators (mostly students) chant and throw things for a well-planned hour or two, then disperse to discuss the matter over coffee. The logistics of a French strike are something to behold.

…continued here.

Turning the Tablas

[vineyard & rock]Notes from a Tablas Creek wine dinner at Simon Pearce in Quechee, Vermont. Food pairings, and their appropriateness with the wines, are described below.

Tablas Creek 2005 Grenache Blanc (Paso Robles) – Stone fruit and almond oil with hints of acacia. Crisp apples dominate the midpalate, which brightens and freshens everything before a denser finish of blood orange rind. This is a really nice wine, with more life and vivacity than one might expect from a Rhônish white, and it would appear to have some medium-term aging potential as well. (1/08)

Served with: Peekytoe crab & shrimp cake with a cucumber/lychee relish and a Key lime vinaigrette. This dish is a tremendous accompaniment to the wine, with each enhancing the other.

Tablas Creek 2000 “Clos Blanc” (Paso Robles) – 45% roussanne, 19% viognier, 19% marsanne, and 17% grenache blanc. Definitely showing signs of age, with a buttered caramel, lactic character dominating the nose. The palate, too, has turned to fat without sufficient substance. However, things are not quite so dire once one really works their way into the wine, which shows intense Rainier cherry, strawberry and apricot warmed by the hot Paso Robles sun. And then, things turn strange again, with an angular, somewhat distorted finish. I wouldn’t hold this any longer, if you’ve still got any. (1/08)

Served with: Atlantic halibut and smoked salmon roulade, almond orange rice pudding, and apricot honey vin blanc. The dish is grossly, inappropriately sweet, and completely obliterates the wine…not that what could be discerned seemed to match very well. Even taken on its own merits, this course is abominable. The rice pudding would be pretty nice on its own, as a dessert, but here? Ugh.

Tablas Creek 2004 “Côtes de Tablas” Rouge (Paso Robles) – 64% grenache, 16% syrah, 13% counoise, 7% mourvèdre. This feels a little lighter than previous vintages, but that may just be the influence of the food. Dark fruit and a slim but present structure dominate, with a dusting of fennel pollen and the very slightest edge of volatile acidity hovering atop the aromatics; nothing that anyone not oversensitive (like me) will notice, though. Soft and accessible throughout, though it seems to fill out on the finish. A typically solid, reliable, good-quality effort. (1/08)

Served with: juniper-seared venison loin, white truffle cauliflower gratin, and cherry molasses sauce. The food is too powerful for the wine, though I suspect a lower-volume dish with the same flavors would make a pretty good match. The sauce isn’t as sweet as it sounds, but the real star on the plate is the cauliflower gratin, which has a crumbed coating and is a really terrific way to extend the natural qualities of this sometimes overlooked vegetable.

Tablas Creek 2004 Tannat (Paso Robles) – 92% tannat, 8% cabernet sauvignon. This is my first domestic tannat; the only other examples I’ve tasted have been from France, Uruguay, and New Zealand. And if this is any indication, there’s great potential for this grape, though I can’t imagine the marketing nightmare it might represent. Deep, dark, mysterious, and even a little murky, with enticements of black licorice and blackcurrant, there’s the expected quantity of tannin here, but none of the usual qualities of tannin one expects from this legendarily tannic grape; instead, the structure is leathery, ripe, and…well, lush. It does calcify a bit on the finish, though…tannat fans need not worry overmuch…while the wine veers into an iron-rich, blood-like phase. There’s a touch of heat throughout, but only a touch. Terrific, and obviously quite ageable. (1/08)

Served with: braised veal cheek, caramelized shallot, marrow, and potato hash with pomegranate cassis jus. A little sweeter than it should be, but the braising and caramelizing components work well with the wine’s deep blackness. The marrow is completely lost, and I think that this dish would, in general, be better without the fruity enhancements. But, of course, Simon Pearce can’t help itself when it comes to adding sweeteners to food.

Tablas Creek 2005 Vin de Paille “Sacrérouge” (Paso Robles) – A dried-grape sweet wine made from mourvèdre. And it tastes like…figs! Black Mission figs, to be precise, in an almost uncannily accurate alcoholic form. Vague suggestions of strawberry jam, plum, or even prune are quickly dismissed by the figgy assault, and the wine has the texture of the seedy pulp left over from squeezing fruit as a preliminary step towards producing jelly. It’s relatively balanced and really, really fun. Will it age? Maybe, but I defy anyone to stop drinking it, once they’ve opened a bottle. (1/08)

Served with: Guanaja chocolate chèvre cheesecake with a hazelnut/fig spread. I should note, up front, that I’m not a big fan of figs except in their raw fruit form (and even then, I can take or leave them), so for me the hazelnut/fig elements of this dish are a complete waste of time. The “cheesecake,” however, is another story…brilliant, in fact, with an unusual texture and a fascinating mix of soft and chalky, bitter and sweet, that pairs beautifully with the wine.

The beautiful hack

[foggy foothills]The original version, with more photos and better formatting, is here.

The reduced-cost meal plan

For me and many others, vacations start with a plane. A long, uncomfortable trip in a cramped seat, the better to not quite succeed at achieving much-needed sleep after a few marathon, and thus sleepless, sessions of packing and preparation. The usual hassles and inanities of the security theater to which airline passengers are nowadays subjected. And, of course, the food. Oh, the wonderful airline food…

Today, on a Northwest Airlines flight that seems dragged from its early-eighties mothballs, it’s some sort of anonymous meat puck with accompanying slop. I think the latter might be gravy, but it’s unclear. Add some long-stewed canned tomatoes and a plop of watery applesauce, and the recreation of public grade school cafeteria cuisine would be complete. Thankfully, there are the excellent accompaniments – rock-hard roll, airy butter whip, mass-market “cheddar,” heavily-browned iceberg lettuce with oil from a squeeze packet, sugary and preservative-laden “cake” – to make up for the main dish’s deficiencies. To wash it all down, of course, there’s wine. Wine of a quality that can only be described as the perfect foil for the foil-wrapped food.

Doña Domingo 2006 Chardonnay (Colchagua Valley) – Sweet and vile. More descriptors would require keeping this wine in my mouth longer, a possibility too horrifying to contemplate.

Santa Domingo “Casa Mayor” 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon (Colchagua Valley) – Stewed herbs and residual sugar. This isn’t just horrible, this is an actual crime against nature and all that is good and decent in this universe. Among the worst wines I have ever tasted.

And thus, I discover a new use for cinnamon Altoids: flavor-obliteration. Only a few dozen are required, though the queasy feeling in my stomach never quite goes away.

The long and the tall of it

As our plane starts its decent into the lush green lagoon otherwise known as The Netherlands, the man in the seat next to me strikes up a conversation. He’s wearing a…festive…ensemble of yellow cardigan and bright pink pants, and at about 5’9” must be a veritable dwarf among his countrymen. His flawless and idiomatic English is a fine introduction to the next few hours of my life, at the Schiphol airport, where virtually every advertisement, sign, and conversation is almost completely devoid of any other language. It’s all just as well for me, since I don’t speak a single word of their language, but it’s a little displacing as well.

And yes, the people are tall. The legends do not lie. Stealing an appreciative glance at an attractive passing teen that happens to be a good six inches taller than me is a strange feeling. I wonder if they sell lifts at duty-free?

I’m hungry – no surprise after that horrid excuse for a trans-Atlantic flight – and somewhat bored with my three-plus-hour layover, so I wander around the airport’s commercial interior looking for food. Noodle Bar strikes some sort of comforting chord deep within, and I enjoy a perfectly passable pork miso ramen (chief complaint: a little sweeter than I’d like, though that could be the miso talking). However, for the first time I also feel the painful sting of my country’s ridiculous currency, ladling out $23 for a bowl of soup and a bottle of water. Ugh.

Dressed for access

Fortified and less cramped, though still feeling short, I descend to some godforsaken bowel of the airport, where a sharp increase in volume and a general decrease in personal altitude indicates the presence of Italians. Lots and lots of Italians, in fact. They, like me, are milling around a locked door that separates us from the gate that leads to my next flight, a flight that leaves in less than thirty minutes. Well, it is one way to secure an airport…

Thankfully, the gate finally opens and we – my wife, fresh from a week of conferences at various locations around The Netherlands, has joined me – board. There’s still English in the air (mostly from Dutch business travelers), but plenty of smooth, sophisticated Italian coming from impeccably fashionable mouths. Indeed, Milan is our destination.

The mid-flight food is an improvement, though the bar has certainly been lowered as far as it can go.

Errors in yellow

Milan-Malpensa always feels smaller than it actually is, and the memories crowd ’round. This was the port of entry for my initial visit to Italy, many years ago, and that first tentative exploration comes flooding back…the excitement, the wide-eyed wonder, the edge of linguistic fear. But this time, I’m better-armed, with a head full of Pimsleur and a confident attitude.

Inevitably, then, I completely mangle my first interaction…buying bus tickets for central Milan. Not exactly a difficult sequence of phrases, true, but my old bugbear – a closed-mouth and under-pronounced Midwestern upbringing – rears its inaudible head, and while the vowels are intact, the consonants come out in a decidedly non-Italian mumble. Thankfully, enough is communicated to get us on board.

Deposited at the massive and forbidding Milano Centrale train station, we scan our surroundings. Where are we, exactly? The GPS unit we’ve brought in lieu of a pile of maps and endless Google printouts is less than helpful, taking an inordinately long time to acquire a satellite signal, and we can’t see a street sign from where we’re standing. Theresa trudges off in search of better directions. While she’s gone, I give it some thought, and realize we’re on the wrong side of the station. When she returns, we start the long walk, dragging heavy bags and a (blessedly) empty wine shipper around the seemingly endless station perimeter, underneath a Hitchcockian swarm of birds, and to our destination.

The Hotel Méridien Gallia (which, during our stay in the city, I will repeatedly refer to as “l’Hotel Méridien Gialla,” to the confusion and consternation of taxi drivers) is a beautiful, stately establishment, with rooms almost unimaginably large on the European scale. Better yet, they’re almost sinfully underpriced for their quality. A massive, lush bed with beautiful old curtains to mask light from the windows, high ceilings, a large and lavish bathroom…this is a room that should go for twice what they’re charging. Not that we’re going to complain. Perhaps it’s the location, though the usual worries about station-side hotels at night don’t really seem all that bad based on our single evening’s explorations. The staff is helpful and friendly, and one concierge (Paolo, who seems to work 16-hour days based on his near-constant presence) is indispensable, booking the train tickets for the next state of our journey when it became clear (despite all evidence to the contrary) that it was impossible for me to do so from the States.

We don’t have a great deal of time before our dinner reservation, which is just as well for me, as I’m still moving through a haze of time displacement and airline cabin confinement. Theresa, long-adjusted to European time, is fresh and lively; this is the complete reverse of our usual first-night travel situation. Soon, we’re bustling downstairs to grab a taxi, having decided to avoid the unfamiliar subway at night.

Our driver, to my surprise and delight, is a stunningly beautiful woman with a deep, sexy voice. I’m beginning to like Milan a great deal. Theresa just laughs and says, “I told you so,” referring to the people. However, she retains her conviction that, by tomorrow’s departure, I will have had my fill of the city. We’ll see.


Around and around, on increasingly tiny streets suffused with that beautiful, dusky golden glow that many of the wealthier Western European cities take on at night, we go, occasionally rumbling across tram tracks and stones, then snaking down narrow alleys. From time to time, we pass a majestic edifice or a stately piazza, but for the most part we’re hemmed in…almost embraced…by the city’s bending streets.

And then, after what seems like a much longer drive than expected, we’re here…a tiny sign over a small doorway on a largely empty street. At the exchange of euros, our driver gives me a cool, distant, expressionless assessment. So like a model. (Is that her day job? I’ll never know.)

The Osteria dei Binari (via Tortona, 1) comes highly recommended by many trusted voices, and as soon as we enter we feel a surge of confidence…because the place is empty. If we’re the first diners at 8:30, that means that most of our fellow diners will be locals. We’re escorted to a fine table adjacent to the (empty) outdoor patio in the restaurant’s funky, elegant-clutter interior, and given a pair of well-worn menus and a wine list, which we peruse as the usual preliminaries – bread, grissini, olive oil – arrive.

Years ago, a Piedmontese friend with whom I’ve since lost touch introduced me to the glories of thin slices of salty pork fat. And thus, lardo from Arnad is an obvious, heart-healthy first choice. Theresa opts for an incredible prosciutto served with a creamy mozzarella that seems more like burrata in disguise. We then share the night’s specialty, a truly definitive and wholly flawless risotto of porcini…the absolute highlight of the meal.

Everything up to now has been perfect. But the meal takes a slight downturn with the secondi, thereby demonstrating an assertion that is, largely, a truism outside a small few Italian regions: most foreign diners would be better-served by stopping with their primi, or at least skipping ahead to formaggi and/or dolci.

Actually, “downturn” is a bit harsh. The problem is less one of quality than it is of expectations; palates raised on and used to American- or French-influenced fish and meat cookery will find much in the traditional Italian repertoire bland and, frequently, overcooked. My costoletta alla Milanese, for example, is perfectly authentic and, for a pounded and breaded veal chop, perfectly tasty. It’s just a little boring. True, the potatoes served with it are an over-crisped mess akin to canned shoestrings, but I ignore them. Theresa’s branzino with an overlapping envelope of zucchini is moist, tasty, and far better, though again it’s her least favorite dish of the evening.

And, in fact, after our secondi we’re served – without prompting – a plate of some of the freshest, most intense parmigiano Reggiano I’ve ever tasted. We devour its salty/creamy deliciousness down to the last crumb, leaving no room for dessert.

The wine list is long and reasonably regional, though as befits an international city there’s an inclusive pan-Italian feel to it.. The wine service is exquisite, with a beautiful tableside decanting (over a beautiful old candle) and an entirely proper rinsing of glasses.

Dessilani “Collefino” Spumante (Piedmont) – The house pour, this sparkling wine made from Greco is simple, floral, clean and quite nice. I could drink a lot of this and not notice…a mixed blessing, to be sure…but in a more contemplative setting it might be possible to discover something beyond these surface impressions.

Vajra 2000 Langhe Freisa “Kyè” (Piedmont) – Upon ordering, the sommelier suggests that the wine is closed (thus initiating the elaborate decanting ritual described above), and he’s right…this gets markedly better as the evening progresses. Grapey and purple, but quite firm, showing berries and black dirt with a gritty, almost angry complexity. The acidity is fine-grained and precise, though a bit sharp until the wine begins to unfold. Ultimately very pretty and versatile (in its response to different accompaniments), with plenty of development yet to come.

Gaja Grappa di Barbaresco (Piedmont) – Extremely elegant and smooth, which is (to my mind) a dangerous thing for a grappa; complexity must be there in force when the edges of this otherwise fiery elixir are shorn. There’s a surplus of floral and spice aromas but a general absence of a definitive foundation, to the extent that it’s highly reminiscent of some of the more internationalized Langhe blends from this house. In the end, elegance remains its primary quality.

By the time we leave, the restaurant is packed to and beyond its gills, reaching a point where it almost seems overcrowded (our peripheral table helps mitigate this effect). The service is uniformly fabulous, and – as we’ve always found to be the norm in this country – the language is Italian-until-you-need-help (with an unknown meat’s identity, for example), which I consider an enormously welcoming gesture. My closing espresso is dark with just the right edge of bitterness. Overall, this restaurant seems a very fair value, though I don’t know that I’d go so far as to call it cheap…after all, this is Milan. We leave happy, satisfied, and tired (me more than Theresa), and pile into a taxi for the ride back to the hotel.

“The Hotel Méridien Yellow” I firmly announce (in Italian), drawing a confused and questioning glance from the driver. Visually, he’s not quite up to the standard of our previous chauffeur, but one can’t have everything. I give him the address instead. As we once more bump and careen around the city’s narrow streets, he suddenly nods, and softly but audibly mutters “Gallia.”

Oh, yes, right. Well, there are some things with which Pimsleur cannot help, and jetlag is one of them.

Squished Dionysus (Alsace, pt. 7)

[andlau]30 March 2006 – Andlau, France

Domaine Marc Kreydenweiss – One of the major proponents of biodynamism in Alsace, Kreydenweiss doesn’t get the press or acclaim of some of his fellow practitioners. But he is an evangelist, constantly pushing the soil-revelatory aspects of his agricultural practices, and any visitor to their tasting room will receive at least a short lecture (including rocky props) on the soil types of the Andlau-area vineyards, which are myriad.

We’re received at the door by Marc, but it’s his son Antoine that conducts our tasting. In retrospect, I wonder if there might not be a reason.

(Continued with photos, an in-depth tasting at Kreydenweiss, and a rather remarkable lunch, here.)

(Not so) hale fellow, well-Quimet (Barcelona, pt. 5)

[bread products]The original version, with nicer formatting and many more photos, is here.

17 October 2006 – Barcelona, Spain

La Boqueria – Take two. This time we’re not visiting, but shopping. We’re soon staggering under the weight of bags of pork products – if it’s made from Ibérico, we’ve got it by the kilo – cheese, and even some token fruit. One can’t live by pig alone (though here, one could definitely make a go of it).

Unfortunately, my consumerist joy is muted. I’m as ill as I’ve ever been. It feels like the worst flu ever, except I’m not nauseous; the sickness is mostly aches, pains, and sinuses that feel like they’re the size of the Hindenburg (and about as explosive). Whatever it is, there’s also lingering respiratory damage from last night’s cigar extravaganza, and I’m having a good deal of difficulty breathing, or even staying upright.

It’s raining, so I haul our loot back to the hotel via the city’s efficient subway system, while Theresa does some business at an internet café – a dying breed in these wireless days, especially in Europe’s advanced mobile culture. I’m tempted to simply collapse and nap the rest of the afternoon away, but there’s more to do and see, and it seems a shame to waste what little time we have left in the city.

At a small grocer around the corner, I collect a case of bottled water, hoping against hope that I’m not asked some complicated question at checkout. At the wine shop across the street (something Baccus; the name eludes post facto clarification), I do a little browsing and then ask them to assemble a case of wine for me, which they (somewhat amusedly) do. Fortified for the next few days’ travel, it’s now time to worry about today’s first meal. Assuming, that is, that I can even enjoy it.

El Quim – We arrive at this tiny countertop in the immediate aftermath of some terribly bitter argument between the proprietors. I mean, seriously bitter; each looks like they may strike the other at any moment. Our order is taken, and our meal delivered, in near-silence from both. I suspect that, later, someone will end up with a stick of chorizo lodged where it probably shouldn’t be.

In the interim, we enjoy our bites and snacks. This tapas bar specializes in more adventurous (for the international palate) selections, which makes sense as the ammoniated and rather nauseating aroma from the massive display of organ meats immediately behind us casts a restroomy pall over the culinary aromas. No offal aficionados, we decide play it fairly safe…and taking chances with my digestive system is probably unwise at this juncture. Asparagus are fresh, vivid and inspiringly simple, albóndigas are rich pillows of meat, and sardines in an escabeche are small and terrific, but the supreme dish is a plate of intensely-flavored eggs with ham. I think Universal is a little bit better (it’s certainly friendlier), but then again it’s hard to properly judge while arbitrarily avoiding at least half the menu.

Museu Picasso – Since it would be a completely wasted opportunity to ride out my malaise back at the hotel room, we opt to visit a few more sites between lunch and dinner. Unfortunately, we’ve missed whatever magic visiting window exists for several destinations – both the Palau de la Música Catalana and the Palau Reial Major are closed, despite our guidebooks’ insistence to the contrary – and so we find our way to this famous museum.

Now, I must confess that I’m not a Picasso fan. To be honest, my interest in what I call “flat art” ends before his ascendancy, though I do appreciate his early work (up through his color-designated periods), and this museum is spectacularly thorough in its presentation of his life’s pursuit. So it’s not surprising that I spend a great deal of time in the museum’s earlier galleries, somewhat less in the middle-period rooms, and then fairly race through the finish. I sit and guzzle a few troughs of coffee while Theresa (who’s much more interested in such things) finishes off her tour. Nonetheless, this museum is, itself, a masterwork, and not to be missed…whether or not one enjoys the contents.

Full of discordia but starting to pine for sustenance, we walk along the city’s peaceful waterfront, passing under giant smiling lobsters and dramatic, artsy archways, and finally just sitting and enjoying the fraying ends of the evening. As night falls, we wander into less touristed, slightly rougher (though by no means “rough”) neighborhoods in search of a place to stand and eat. No, really.

[fish counter]Quimet i Quimet – A lot has been written about this place, and it’s all true: the tapas are primarily derived from the canned, jarred, tinned, wrapped, preserved and pre-made rather than the fresh, the place is impossibly tiny (two micro-tables plus a tiny wraparound counter) and packed to the gills with locals and a few undaunted tourists, it’s standing-room (more like jostling-room) only, and the beverage options are rather staggering. One simply enters and carves out some sort of nook, orders something from the counter, selects a beverage from the wall (higher shelves are reached by a proprietor bearing a long, hook-like device), and gets on with the noshing. More food? More wine? Drinks? Just keep ordering…as long as you can avoid the desperate stares of those waiting for your square foot of real estate. Such a complete lack of pretension or artifice is barely to be believed in these modern times, yet this closet-sized eatery could hardly be more successful.

To the extent that Catalan or Spanish have been necessary in restaurants, I’ve mostly been the one to struggle and mangle my way through. But tonight, I’m too sick and dazed (especially after three successive trips to the pharmacy, with new symptoms to describe each time) to torture another proprietor with my incoherent mumbling. Theresa takes over, finding that French works better than English in the absence of the correct local dialect. A nearby cluster of Russians reaches the same conclusion, but far as we can tell, everyone else is speaking Catalan. That has to be a good sign, right?

Instead of choosing our own tapas, we let the owners feed us, and though the various takes on smoked and preserved fish (with and without accompaniments) are brilliant, the highlight is a stunning plate of Spanish cheeses…the best we’ve yet tasted. And let’s not forget the small dollops of caviar, which has become an unattainably expensive luxury back home; here, they’re practically given away.

Gancedo “Sestal” 2002 Bierzo Mencia (Northwest Spain) – Balanced, with black and red fruit, aromatic flowers on a bed of rich organic earth, and fine structure. While quite flavorful, this is in no way overwhelming; it’s warm-climate, but it’s balanced and pure. Ageable? Probably…a short while at least. Very nice.

Conde de Osborne Brandy de Jerez “Solera Gran Reserva” (Jerez) – Feeling somewhat refreshed by the wine and food, I once again put myself in the staff’s hands, asking for a brandy of some sort. I receive this: simultaneously bitter and rich, with spicy fruit and a keening flor-like note (perhaps just the power of suggestion, perhaps not). Complex and warming. Delicious.

The price for all this elbow-tucking bacchanalia? Just forty-one euro, and we’re both stuffed and suffused with a warm, alcohol-induced glow. (Also, the medication might be at work.) But while it’s an unquestioned bargain, it’s more important to note that this is simply a terrific restaurant.

Cinq villages (Lorraine/Alsace/Paris, pt. 6)

[bergheim tower](The original version, with many more photos, is here.)

29 March 2006 – Ingersheim, France

La Taverne Alsacienne (99, rue de la République) – Be wary: there are at least a half-dozen restaurants in Alsace that carry this name. This is the one in the (only?) pretty corner of Colmar-exurb Ingersheim…the one with the excellent food and the unbelievable wine list. It’s more formal than one might expect for what is otherwise a cramped, bustling restaurant full of lurid pastels. The service is diffident; neither the effortless formality of a starred establishment nor the brusque efficiency of more casual dining. But it doesn’t matter much, because the food’s solid. I have goose foie gras with a mango/passionfruit chutney and pink peppercorns (hard to go wrong there, as long as the foie gras is good…and it is), then duck breast with dual-preparation potatoes, a variation on ratatouille, and mushrooms (mostly chanterelles) with random root vegetables strewn about the plate. This dish is good, but a little confused and haphazard. More importantly, the duck’s slightly overcooked; not inedibly so, however, and given the number of elements on the plate I’m loathe to send it back. I go conservative for dessert, with a perfectly fine and regionally-ubiquitous kugelhopf glacé.

From a list full of well-aged and invitingly-priced Alsatians, we’re inexplicably browbeaten into a far-too-young Rhône. Hey, these things happen, though I’m not sure how.

Chave 2000 Hermitage Rouge (Rhône) – Very tight and stinging – a leather strap whipping the tongue – with sun-charred earth and blackberry roots. It’s chewy but lithe, and while it’s very well balanced and quite long, the midpalate’s oddly slender. With around a half-hour of air, it improves dramatically, showing more leather (decoupled from its earlier, more sadomasochistic expression), softly meaty elements, rich blackberry, and smooth hints of cherry-infused chocolate. Pure elegance. It is, perhaps, not “great”…or, at least, not right now…but at Chave, that’s a contextual assessment that flows from a very high standard.

Bergheim, France – After a drive through some sun-glazed vineyards west of Ingersheim, a sunny post-lunch stroll around this magisterial fortified village is a relaxing way to work off a half-dozen of the thousands of calories we’ve consumed (and indirectly absorbed) over the past few hours. The outer walls feature beautiful vistas of fields, vineyards and mountains, while the center of town showcases the region’s typically exquisite half-timbered architecture, here supplemented by forbidding churches and imposing post-governmental structures.

Riquewihr, France – Often an overcrowded, showy venue for separating tourists from their euros, Riquewihr (one of the very few Alsatian villages to survive multiple wars in a mostly intact state) takes on a very different feel after the visitors head home. A few locals take a pre-dinner stroll, and the most impatient and unacculturated foreign diners begin to settle in for mediocre choucroute and baekeoffe at main street tourist traps, but for the most part the village’s vivid colors and asymmetrical geometries are shadowed and (relatively) quiet. As long as one doesn’t want to buy or taste anything, it’s a fine time to visit.

[bergheim fortifications]

Kaysersberg, France – Even more shut-down than Riquewihr (at least from a tourist standpoint), this historic and elegant village is beginning to enliven with early diners and the beginnings of rural Alsatian “nightlife.” All street activity coalesces around the two main pedestrian routes, leaving the back streets free of motion (except for the occasional finger-sniffing cat). It’s exceedingly peaceful, but all the aromas drifting from the back windows of kitchens and restaurants are starting to make us hungry. And so, back to the gîte we go.

Hunawihr, France

We’ve got white asparagus with a buttery blood orange sauce (unfortunately, the peeler provided by the gîte is woefully inadequate to the task, leaving the asparagus hacked-up and yet still more than a little stringy), a small leg of lamb, and some leeks…followed by cheese. What we don’t have, however, is a red wine. Normally, in Alsace, I’d choose pinot gris to go with lamb – it is, after all, a red grape – but I don’t have any of that either. Poor planning on my part.

Rolly Gassmann 1999 Sylvaner Weingarten de Rorschwihr (Alsace) – Lovely, cream-textured and mildly sweet, with cinnamon, milk, celery and tomato…a bizarre-sounding combination, but it works in this wine. Green, sunny, and fully mature.

Boxler 2004 Riesling L30M (Alsace) – Crystalline sweetness with ripe, almost tropical apple slashed by shattered mineral brilliance. Drying, structured and extremely long, but what stands out most is the wine’s lively, vivid presence.

The riesling’s sheer intensity is more than enough for the lamb, even though the organoleptics don’t quite match, and the sylvaner’s surprising density is a fine foil for the asparagus. Neither much goes with the cheese, but at this point we’re liquored-up enough to not care. A late-night walk to the village’s solemn church provides a little head-clearing, and as it turns out we’re leaning against its fortified wall, staring at the moonlit vineyards below, as its bells chime midnight. Perhaps it’s just the wine, but the tones seem to reach down and grab at something beyond the physical. We walk, quietly and thoughtfully, back to the gîte, and fall, full-satiated, quickly into a deep sleep, the bells still echoing in our dreams.

Kill the wabbit (Cataluña/Pyrenées/Roussillon, pt. 4)

[dried stuff](The original version, with many more photos (including pictorial essays on La Boqueria and the Cathedral of Santa Eulàlia), is here.)

16 October 2006 – Barcelona, Spain

La Rambla – This busy, heavily-touristed pedestrian avenue is filled with rolling street carts selling everything from cheap, logoed tchotchkes to live chickens and bunnies. No, really: bunnies. Does one walk around the rest of Barcelona with a freshly-purchased chicken tucked beneath one arm? Do tourists stuff a few in their carry-on luggage for later consumption? Or is this the land-based equivalent of a “catch-your-own” fish restaurant?


La Boqueria – Food markets just don’t get much more famous than this. Perhaps the Rialto in Venice, or (going back a few years) Les Halles in Paris. In more modern, organized terms, San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza might come to mind. But when a shed full of food vendors becomes a destination for even non-foodie tourists, labeled in every guide book as a “must-see” sight, it’s clear that critical mindshare mass has been reached.

Viewed objectively, the market isn’t all that much different than major markets anywhere else. There’s produce, fish, meat, cheese, bread, wine, oil, some specialists…the usual array of products, tilted (as one would expect) towards local specialties. The only real differentiator is the striking ubiquity of ham. It’s mostly Ibérico, of course, with Serrano taking a strong second place, and then a handful of alternate appellations filling in the corners. What registers and overwhelms, however, is the amazing variation within each category…different cuts, different producers, different preparations…that makes it a little difficult to decide where to start. And given the staggering price of Ibérico, some guidance would be welcome. I curse my unusual unpreparedness, but anticipate the taste of last-minute cramming as I collect several pricey parcels of porcine pleasure.

Aside from ham, the majority of vendors seem to sell produce, which is itself strongly dominated by fruit in lieu of vegetables. There are a few exotics which we resolve to acquire tomorrow, on our way out of the city, but little that’s completely out of the ordinary for a food-focused traveler. Fish vendors exhibit their usual regional specialization, and though we won’t have the opportunity to buy any, we spend a long time studying the options, comparing and contrasting them with other Mediterranean markets we’ve visited. Meat in its muscular form is equaled in quantity by what some euphemistically label “variety meats,” though here the “variety” is rather larger than what we’re used to. Clearly, these are people who love their “parts” an offal lot. (Sorry.) Cheesemongers, on the other hand, seem to sell as much foreign product as domestic, which is a little dismaying (and since we’ve had most of the domestic products on offer, we’re fairly disappointed in the options), but the massive range of domestic oils is proportionally exciting.

Inevitably, staring at food for an hour or so makes us ravenously hungry. Many vendors offer various snacks and tastes, and those on a tight budget could probably assemble a fine graze from these nibbles, but there are tapas bars within the market that are neither pricey nor ill-thought of. Several of the recommended options are already closed for the day (and many vendors have shuttered as well; we’re here pretty close to the local lunch hour), but one bustling counter is still open, and we grab seats the moment they’re available.

Kiosko Universal – There’s an odd sort of Africa-in-Florida, “Livingstone, I presume” theme park style to the signage here, which is a little strange. But the food is authentic enough…fresh, as intensely-flavored as it is simply-prepared, and served with frank rapidity…and the price can hardly be beat. We sample flawless squid with potato “fries” (not crisp, but – like the tentacle segments – drenched in zippy olive oil), fried artichokes dusted with a vivid, complex sea salt, and a stunning row of baby clams bathed in even more oil. But the “killer app,” as such, is octopus gallego in its spicy sauce (though it is, once more, soaked in oil…not a bad thing in any of these three cases, but a little repetitive); the texture and taste are truly definitive. I wash it down with three glasses of a crisp, light, refreshing wine (probably a Penedès, but I don’t ask and they don’t tell), and feel absolutely exhilarated at the end. We’ve done the adventurous, and tonight we’ll do the higher-end, but here’s yet another important side to the ravenous Barcelona food culture. In a way, it just might be our favorite of the three.

We continue our stroll down La Rambla all the way to the broad expanse of the waterfront. It’s a beautiful day, and we pass some time on a short cruise of the harbor; a fairly boring procession of passenger and cargo ships, with only the rise of Montjuïc and the distant ridge of Tibidabo breaking the industrial scenery. At least we get to sit for a while.

[old man against wall]Barri Gòtic – From the waterfront, the entrance to Barcelona’s oldest district is a little forbidding, with tiny, dark alleys featuring neither businesses nor signage. It’s a little like Venice without the water (or the lulling quiet). But soon enough, we emerge into brighter areas: sun-lit golden-brown plazas milling with visitors, and narrow passageways lit up by the glow of commerce and enlivened by the bustling noise of passersby.

The city’s principal cathedral, Santa Eulàlia is oddly situated, hemmed in on all sides by auxiliary and connected buildings, and without a truly grand façade in most directions. Its one ornate face – the front – is masked by scaffolding. Inside, things are grander, with the usual soaring architecture and lovely cloisters (in the middle of which are fenced a rather chatty gaggle of geese, for reasons that remain unclear to me; perhaps they’re guarding the fountain). The nearby Basílica de Santa Maria del Mar is darker, quieter, and much more ethereal, like something out of a distant time. Every whisper and foot shuffle is amplified and echoed (the church is renowned for its acoustics), and the contrast between the two houses of worship is striking and wonderful.

Gaig – The entrance to this luxurious and much-praised establishment immediately throws one into a trichromatic otherworld of white, black, and blood red. But what it lacks is any sort of food whatsoever. That’s because it’s a hotel lobby…stark, spare and highly designed (like so much else in this strikingly visual city). When we arrive, it’s empty. We hesitate, uncertain. Are we in the right place?

As if on cue, a hostess descends the lobby’s grand staircase, escorting us upstairs to the restaurant’s crescent-shaped dining room, itself a dark wonderland of red and white (but mostly red). It’s not ornate, exactly, but rather fashionable in the vaguely minimalist, modernistic vein of our two previous evenings’ restaurants; what differs is that the color is overtly “aggressive” to an extent I’m not sure many restaurants would venture. I picture a bull, a matador, a cape. I feel the warm onrush of freshly-slaughtered livestock. I smell the intense fruit of a vivid red wine. It’s rather captivating, and the mood is instantaneously rendered. It’s invigorating, enlivening, exciting.

Unfortunately, imaginary wine isn’t all we smell.

Moments after being seated, a table just across the narrow room – a hirsute older man and two female companions, both of whom look rather dramatically younger than him – seems to be finishing off the last of their meal. The women light cigarettes…no real problem, and it’s hardly uncommon here, though one young lady goes through eleven of them while carrying on a 90-minute conversation on her mobile…and the man lights a cigar.

And another.

And another.

At first, it’s only a mild irritant. It does fill the room with its intense, overpowering aroma, but we assume it will be over soon – who chain-smokes cigars? – and concentrate on our menu. Amuses arrive in the form of breadsticks with a saline anchovy “dip,” which we nibble to great satisfaction as an accompaniment to apéritifs of flowery cava and shockingly good Manzanilla (the identities of which I do not acquire, unfortunately).

More amuses follow: peanut crisps, little balls of cod, other small bites and tastes…each a focused statement of purity and flavor. We’re given menus, but less than a minute later, a waitress arrives to take our order. She seems highly put out that we’re not yet ready. Do they actually hope to turn our table this evening? In any case, and somewhat inevitably, we choose a tasting menu, a wine from the extravagant (albeit adventurously-priced) list, and settle back to await our meal. And to wonder if we’re going to be battling cigar smoke all night.

The early service issues don’t immediately abate, however. We sit…nursing the dregs of our apéritifs, shoveling the crumbs of our amuses to and fro, waiting for our first course. Or for someone to take our wine order. Either would be welcome, at this stage.

Twenty-five lonely minutes pass.

The mildest possible blood sausage is the first course to (finally) arrive – just a morsel, and as refined as one could imagine from this thoroughly rustic ingredient – with quail egg and a creamy sauce that provides delicious contrast to the frank sanguinity of the sausage.

Muga 1998 Rioja “Prado Enea Gran Reserva” (Center-North) – What I actually order is the ’96, but they bring this without apology, only explaining that they’re out of the earlier vintage after I inquire (which, in halting Spanish, is not rapid enough to stop them from opening the wine). I’d actually prefer to make another selection in this case; however, the retrieval of this wine – which doesn’t arrive until after we’ve completed our first course – takes long enough that I shrug and let it go, figuring I’d rather have a wine on the table than wait any longer. Unfortunately, my original instincts prove well-founded. This is tight, tannic and oak-laden, with obvious fruit (that only emerged after extended aeration) and spiky acidity. By the end of the night, there’s a little more spice to the fruit. Of course this is a wine meant to age, but right now it’s obvious and more than a little clumsy, and had I known that the ’96 was unavailable, I’d have ordered something a little more advanced.

Then: a pretty but simple course of scallops and artichokes that, with the excellence of its ingredients, manages to very nearly define both elements. But the next course, a shockingly good filet of sea bass with basil oil, is even better, and once again a cream sauce provides counterpoint.

[cathedral chandelier]By now, the cigar smell is actively irritating. My eyes hurt, my throat is dry, and I’m beginning to lose the aroma of both food and wine. Which is a shame, because the fourth course – a bit of a signature here – is pure decadence: cannelloni stuffed with some sort of rillettes-like meat-based substance, with a black truffle cream sauce. It’s ecstasy in every bite, a culinary climax on a plate. If there’s a niggle, it’s that it’s the third course of the last four to feature a cream-based sauce.

…and we have now reached the limits of our tolerance, as señor lights his fourth consecutive postprandial cigar. Isn’t this sort of like shotgunning Cognac? I feel nauseous, and Theresa’s eyes looks like they’ve been through a funeral. Desperate, we ask if there’s any way to move farther away from the offending table…a request which they quickly oblige, but that only helps a little bit; cigar smoke is hard to escape. Still, a little respite is better than none at all, and there’s not much the restaurant can do about it in any case.

Foie gras is next, and it may be the best I’ve ever eaten. (Do they make it locally, I wonder?) It’s served with a neon-red fig that tastes of strawberry (which works) and a sugary, mint-flavored candy (which doesn’t). This is followed by a loaf of rich suckling pig…soft on the inside, crispy on the outside…served not in a cream sauce, but with a sort of apple cider/applesauce purée. However, to nitpick once more, the texture of the pig is highly reminiscent of the cannelloni stuffing.

Desserts commence with a “deconstructed” crema catalana presented as custard with a foamy center – and only token caramelization – served in a martini glass. I don’t really see the point. What follows is a little orgy of chocolate: bitter, intense mousse and a clean, direct stack presented in puff pastry. Honestly, both desserts are disappointingly timid, and – other than the quality of the chocolate – a letdown at the end of such a grand meal.

As is my custom, and determined not to let the smoke “win,” I ask them to surprise me with something interesting from their selection of liquid desserts. They come up with a wine I could swear I’ve tasted before.

Mas Estela Garnatxa de l’Empordà “Estela Solera” (Cataluña) – Sweet roasted nuts and caramelized orange with toffee, burnt coffee, and a thick, heated edge. The finish is watery, and the overall effect is decidedly average. And one more thing: the wine – from a newly-opened bottle – is almost opaque with sediment, which would seem to be a minor service flaw, though of course it has no appreciable effect on the taste.

So, the verdict. It has been, in most important ways, a terrific meal…excellent by most standards. And yet. And yet

The service has been off all night. The early timing problems eventually settle themselves into an efficient routine, and our move to another table is carried out with aplomb, but in any case the meal is far too quick; less than two hours for seven courses, and that with nearly a half-hour delay at the beginning…it all adds up to about ten minutes per course, which is unacceptably accelerated for a meal of this magnitude. Other meals in Barcelona have been quick, to be sure, but given the expense and richness of this food, one hopes for something more respectful of the cuisine. This bothers us more in the aftermath than in the midst, but that is almost solely a function of the oppressive cigar smoke, for which the restaurant is not responsible; the meal would have been just as speedy were the cigar-mainlining patron not in attendance.

Beverages have also been a problem. In addition to the wine-related service issues, water has been rather grudgingly supplied, and then sloppily sloshed about the table when served. It seems there’s a sort of schizophrenia at work, wherein some elements of the restaurant are as comforting, luxurious and elegant as one could want, and others are haphazard and indifferent.

But the food…oh, the food. Apart from the most minor complaints about textural repetition, it is exquisite. In France, perhaps, we’d adore this meal for its adventurousness, but here in Cataluña we question its reluctance…fair or unfair though that contextualization might be. Separated from those expectations, however, there’s no denying either the quality of the ingredients or the skill in the kitchen, and it’s important to remember that the rejection of tradition is not, in itself, an inherent virtue. The restaurant is, in the main, truly excellent. Still, it must be said: of our three meals so far, I prefer both Cinc Sentits, and especially Hisop, to this establishment.

One excellent espresso later, we stagger out into the cool Barcelona night. Smoke clings to our clothes, our hair and our lungs. Thankfully, the next time I’ll need my nice jacket is two full weeks away; by then, the smell might have diminished. But upstairs, through the hotel’s prodigious windows, we can see our puffing tormenter, lighting up yet another stogie (perhaps his sixth or seventh). From a distance, at least, one has to admire his stamina.

8 – This bar, on our hotel’s roof deck but featuring almost no view whatsoever (aside from the dark Barcelona sky), is open until…well, that very much depends. On a busy night, with the hotel fully booked with a nightlife-oriented crowd, it might stay open until the very wee hours it advertises. But now, in the off-season, our bartender clearly prefers to make an early night of it (“early” being defined, Barcelona-style, as somewhere around 2:30 a.m.). I share quiet poolside recliners and the near-silence of the late-night Eixample with a small table of young French tourists, sipping the overly sweet succulence of some local brandy and almost blindly scribbling in my journal. It’s a peaceful way to end the evening. And – blessedly – smoke-free.

The unfinished dribble castle (Cataluña/Pyrenées/Roussillon, pt. 3)

[Olssens sculpture](The original version, with zillions of photos, is here.)

15 October 2006 – Barcelona, Spain

Sagrada Familia – I realize, as we approach this in-progress church, that in my subconscious, this has always been the symbol of Barcelona. Blame the Olympic telecast, I guess. Certainly, on the ground it’s but one of many. But seeing it here, now…well, it’s…um, it’s…uh…

The thing is, see, it’s not done. And it’s not done in some fairly major ways…the central tower, for instance, which will dwarf the already soaring apostolic spires, is nowhere to be seen. What is done is covered with scaffolding, which is no way to assess a monument. And yet…

There are things I definitely like about it. The depressing, almost oppressive Passion Façade, for example, which is soul-destroyingly morose; Mel Gibson at his most tortured would not find much to disagree with in the sculptures and depictions. (The Nativity Façade, while more “beautiful” and possibly more important, is too busy for my taste. And it’s going to need a good cleaning, soonish.) The interior, rich with organic elements, is impressive and almost breathtaking in its suggestion of infinite space, even in its barely-begun state. But then there are the candy-shop pinnacles of the bell towers, which look like someone spilled a dessert on a sacred relic, and the eye-numbing clash of architectural styles, and…

I don’t know. It’s just too hard to assess. Maybe when it’s done, which is a long way off. Will I ever see that day? Couldn’t they just hire Vegas contractors, who’d have this thing up in a month? (It would fit right in, too.) In any case, while I’m conflicted but optimistic, and think I’d probably appreciate its finished form, Theresa has no qualms about stating her unchecked loathing of the structure. “It looks like a dribble castle” is her opening volley…from a certain perspective, she’s not wrong…and things get worse from there.

Tapas Gaudí (Avenguda de Gaudí) – Tired and ravenous after our long attempt to understand the inexplicable, we settle for an indifferent meal at this mini-chain, lacking the energy to search for something better. I’m carrying a list of about 75 recommended restaurants, but not one of them is within twelve blocks of our current position. I order defensively, finding much to like about vivid Ibérico chorizo, pimientos, garlicky olives and oily, peppered shrimp from a series of small plates. Theresa, however, errs in choosing a paella, which is difficult to prepare correctly in the best of circumstances, and isn’t particularly successful here. Thankfully, this will be our last mediocre meal in Spain.

Faustino VII Rioja (Center-North) – From a blasé list of nondescript mass-market beverages (we’d probably be better-served ordering sangria; I want a rosé, but it’s not available by the glass), this is smooth, plain and utterly ordinary. There’s red fruit. That’s it, and that’s all the descriptor this wine deserves: just red fruit. I may fall asleep from utter boredom.

Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau – The sunny pedestrian walkway from Sagrada Familia to this working hospital is very pleasant, and there’s reward at the end. The diversions and colors of the modernista architecture are here melded into more traditional forms and structures, which renders a more prosaic result, but one far less jarring to the unprepared eye. If one must convalesce, this would be a good place to do it. That said, it’s a little odd to be snapping pictures while patients hobble around in bathrobes.

Parc Güell – From the hospital, it’s another long walk – one not on any tourist itinerary, and definitely not beautiful (or pleasant, aside from the exercise) in any way – up to this beautiful, sculpted oasis that overlooks that city. Most will enter at the park’s bottom edge, through a network of Gaudí-designed buildings, staircases and artwork, but we come in a side entrance, and thus are surrounded by the much more subtle greens and browns of nature and Gaudí’s enhancements thereof. For us, we soon realize, his style belongs in nature, into which it blends much more naturally than elsewhere, taking the essential forms of the organic and working them in stone and space. I wish we’d come here before seeing Sagrada Familia, because it really helps put that work – indeed, all his work that we’ve thus far seen – in context.

As for the park’s more famous sights – buildings, railings, mosaic lizards and “the world’s longest bench” – they’re nice enough, but absolutely littered with people. Elsewhere in the park, one can actually find some peace. We sit on a bench…normal-sized this time…gazing over the city to the sun-whitened blue of the ocean, while beautiful green birds flutter and chatter overhead, contemplating life, architecture and our next meal.

Casa Vicens – Back down the hill, this time along a well-traveled route full of guidebook-toting tourists, is another (very early) Gaudí-designed structure, and while it would look plenty adventurous in most settings, here in Barcelona it seems almost tentative. Thus, it’s far more pleasing to Theresa’s eye than anything she’s yet seen. And at this point, we – somewhat sadly – resolve to abandon any further visits to modernista sights, freeing us concentrate on the as-yet unexplored Barri Gòtic. But that’s for tomorrow. Tonight, we’ve got to figure out where we’re going to eat.

La Polpa (c/Enric Granados 69) – It’s the same problem we have in France: where to eat on the nights that the natives stay home? From the States, we’d contacted a few places, finding them either closed or full. Thus, we arrived in Barcelona with one gaping hole in our dining itinerary: Sunday night. But, of course, the real problem isn’t finding any old place to dine – there are plenty of options on most major streets – but rather avoiding the showy, touristy spots that tend to be open on non-traditional nights for this very reason. In other words, the goal is to avoid a Catalan version of The Olive Garden. Thankfully, the quiet streets near our hotel provide a few good options…set up to handle tourists if they’re in the area, but not some three-floor extravaganza on La Rambla drawing the unwary with flashing lights and six-language specials boards…and we peruse a half-dozen menus before deciding on this place, which just a few steps from our hotel.

La Polpa is a reasonably spacious restaurant, built on three mismatched levels in a single high-ceilinged room, but tonight it’s extremely quiet; there’s just one other occupied table in the front (probably non-local) section, and a few people nibbling tapas at the central bar. As we dine, a few more locals (and one elderly English couple, who remain vocally but stereotypically septic throughout their meal) arrive.

The menu’s extensive and a little insane, throwing all manner of strange combinations at each other in the hopes that some will stick. In general, dishes are “healthier” than is the local norm (though not everything conforms to that standard), with a lot of elements that might be identified as Italian, Asian or even Californian sneaking into the mix. I order a mesclun salad with raw salmon, papaya and a lemon granita…it’s a little strange, but it works despite the vagaries of temperature, and the granita eventually becomes a sort of sweet-tart dressing for the remnants of the salad…followed by a much richer dish of monkfish accompanied by seasonally-ubiquitous ceps and drenched in a parmesan cream sauce. It’s heavenly. It’s also ridiculously cheap.

The absurdly low prices carry through to the wine list, which is so full of low numbers that I initially assume everything is being offered by the glass. But no, these are bottles. If only this sort of thing could be done in the States, people would drink a lot more wine. Of course, a list like this requires one to have a deep understanding of values and hidden gems, which is not something I possess for most Spanish appellations. Thus, a stab in the dark:

Dos Victorias “Viñas Elias Mora” 2004 Toro (Castilla & León) – A big, doofus-fruit wine full of blackberry, black cherry and blueberry, with walnut-infused tannin adding some structure. The finish is so short as to be almost absent. In other words, while it’s perfectly pleasant for what it is, and good enough for the price, it won’t survive pointed questioning, or even a stern gaze. Drink, don’t think.

Castilla “Montecristo” Moscatel Dulce (Navarra) – Moroccan spice perfume, peach and mixed citrus candies. Simple but nice.

Alvear 2003 Pedro Ximénez (Montilla-Moriles) – Blended chocolate, coffee and prune with raisin-studded plum pie and an endless, sticky finish. Very spicy, with a little apple-toned acidity emerging somewhere in the sugary din. This is to wine as crude oil is to high-octane gasoline. I do like PX, but a little goes a long, long way.

Day with a Diva (New Zealand, pt. 41)

[lynnette hudson](The original version, with more photos, is here.)

Immobile home

Were Matt Donaldson not the very embodiment of equanimity, he’d be impatiently tapping his foot. As it is, he’s standing in the tasting room at Pegasus Bay, jacket already donned, waiting for us to arrive. He’s headed north to Marlborough to check on some grapes, and we’ve delayed his departure. But it’s not our fault. There was a house in the way.

We’d left our fuzzy habitation on time, looking forward to a relatively quick jaunt up Route 1 into the heart of the Waipara. But approaching a large junction near Amberley, we slowed, then stopped, faced with a rather unusual obstruction. A truck carrying a subsection of a prefab home was stopped right in the middle of the intersection. Or, more accurately, the truck and the house were both in the intersection, but the house was no longer carried by the truck. Shattered ropes and chains were everywhere. It was going to be an interesting cleanup. Thankfully, police were on the scene – just how many can there be in sedate Amberley? – and soon got traffic moving again.

Informed of this, Matt almost looks as if he’d like to detour south to check out the domicilic carnage. Nonetheless, after a quick greeting, he’s out the door, leaving us with his partner and co-winemaker Lynnette Hudson. The shape of her morning thus far is clear: grape-stained work pants and dark purple fingertips, the signs of a working winemaker. She’s clearly been hard at it until our arrival. But the balance of her day will be much, much different.

White noise

Lynnette grabs several armfuls of bottles and ushers us upstairs for an interesting tasting, one marked by a series of micro-verticals. While we taste, she spins her and the estate’s winemaking philosophies, which are even more Francophile than on our previous visit. They’ve moved, especially with the top of the line “Prima Donna” pinot noir, from regional and national eminence to something approaching world-class, and they’ve done it by emphasizing restraint and beauty over a sheer power that seems too easy to achieve in the area.

We begin our tasting with riesling, a grape that is a major focus of the portfolio, but one that is not (by critics and certain consumers) as universally admired as the pinots. Some attribute this deficiency to site, but I wonder if it might not instead be a question of finding the wine’s ideal balance. Rieslings come at all levels of sweetness and intensity, of course, and some regions and sites seem more suited for certain styles than others. Pegasus Bay’s successes with riesling seem to increase in proportion to their retention of residual sugar, a trend which is (in part) natural due to advancing ripeness, but is also helped by their grapes’ ability to retain a glacial core of acidity despite escalating hangtimes, something that is not achievable in all terroirs.

In any case, the basic rieslings are fermented cool with inoculated yeast, and bottled relatively early. Lynnette says that both the 2002 and 2003 were full of botrytis and desiccation, with ’03 a little warmer than the vintages on either side of it, leading to a little more “flesh” in the whites from that vintage. As for 2004, December rainfall was at its highest level since 1860, which was paired with the lowest temperatures since the end of World War II. An unfortunate combination. January and February followed “astonishingly hot,” with warm nights, which caused even more damage to already overstressed vines. It was a bizarre vintage that required a great deal of attention throughout the growing season and in the cellar. 2005 looks to be no less difficult, with very poor flowering and precious little fruit (about 30% of normal).

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2004 Riesling (Waipara) – The nose is dry, with a dusting of white pepper and a little whiff of petrol. Medium-lightness contrasted by a slight thickening from residual sugar defines this wine’s form, though there’s the later suggestion of a thick palate redolent of banana skin. Great acidity and a long, balanced finish round out the package. Nice.

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2003 Riesling (Waipara) – Seemingly sweeter than the ’04 (though only apparently so due to decreased acidity), showing stone fruit and pear. It’s a little more obvious than the vintages on either side.

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2002 Riesling (Waipara) – Just starting to show the first signs of aged-riesling creaminess, with sweet lemon-lime, spiced honey thick with aromatic flowers, and a very long, silky texture. This is delicious.

Moving on to the most famous grape of New Zealand (which here is regularly blended with sémillon), Lynnette professes to be seeking more of a Loire Valley, Sancerre-influenced style, rather than the boisterous chile pepper/tropical fruit festivals that are so common elsewhere in the country. The grapes are not destemmed, and after fermentation the sauvignon blanc rests on its gross lees for six to eight months, with some stirring to induce the complexing benefits of autolysis. Semillon is barrel-fermented and enzymed during settling, as apparently its fruit can otherwise be overly coarse. Malo is not induced, as a rule. The goal is a textural richness not often found in Kiwi versions of these wines, and a byproduct seems to be a true ageability that eludes almost everyone else (except those already consciously working from the white Bordeaux model).

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2004 Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon (Waipara) – Grassy, with mixed green elements. Peas and a flat wall of vegetables linger on the finish, which is shorter than I’d like.

One tank of the 2002 was naturally fermented – the first time it had been allowed in this wine – and it struggled to finish. The wine also underwent malolactic fermentation, which changed the texture somewhat dramatically.

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2002 Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon (Waipara) – Fetid hay, grass and tart green apple. Creamier and much more interesting than the ’04.

The chardonnays at Pegasus Bay are undergoing a transition, which is perhaps an artifact of both Matt and Lynnette’s experiences in Burgundy. The grapes are crushed but not destemmed, leaving lots of solids that go straight into the tank, but not given enough time to fully settle. Instead, they’re moved very quickly to barrel, where the must is inoculated (the sugar is apparently difficult to fully ferment with native yeasts) and then moved to 25-30% French oak.

2004 was a vintage that experienced very late malos, which had been arrested about halfway to completion by the addition of sulfur. The wines are traditionally notable for an overabundance of phenolics; Lynnette explains “New Zealand has so much upfront fruitiness, so we’re trying to do everything possibly to increase complexity.” And the results are beginning to show. “This is the first time ever that I’m happy with the complexity of the chardonnay.”

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2004 Chardonnay (barrel sample) (Waipara) – Undergoing cold-stabilization, and recently fined with milk and bentonite. It shows fruit and spice, with good acid and a longish finish. It’s so highly marked by the aforementioned techniques right now that it’s a little hard to assess.

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2002 Chardonnay (Waipara) – Rich stone fruit and spiced vanilla, with a sweeter-seeming palate than the ’04. Hudson identifies “sweet corn,” which encompasses both the aroma and texture. Quite nice.

Noir of the worlds

2003 was a good year for pinot, with even and consistent ripening. The winery mimics a post-fermentation maceration technique practiced in Burgundy (3-4 days in 2003, two weeks in 2004); as with the chardonnay, this is designed to move the wine away from upfront fruit while gaining length and structure. Another result is that wines tend to be lighter, overall, which seems to be a goal of Lynnette’s. Grapes are destemmed, and the percentage of whole berries has been increased. Lynnette explains that pinot noir tannin tends to reside more in the seeds than the skins; the lighter color that leads to some practicing lengthy extractions “breaks” the seeds and leads to an unwelcome surplus of tannin.

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2003 Pinot Noir (Waipara) – Medium-bodied strawberry and walnut with raspberry and apple-crisp acidity. This is definitely more “Burgundian” than some recent vintages, and it’s delicious and appealing in its youthful fashion.

2001 was another good year with nice, even ripening and a lingering autumn. The pinot from that year represented mostly the older, early-planted clones, while from 2003 onward newer Dijon clones have been a component of the blend. Inevitably, these clonal elements present different flavor profiles, with the Burgundian specimens providing more vibrancy in the red fruit spectrum (though not as many intact berries at harvest), better (not a synonym for darker) color, and more cohesiveness. From 10/5 comes a mix of ripe and unripe fruit and chunkier tannins, plus obvious strength, but without as much poise or elegance. Both clones are being pressed off sooner than in the past, and spend an average of sixteen months in oak…40% new French, and the rest a blend of one-, two-, and three-year old barrels…with natural malolactic fermentation allowed to occur in the spring.

(I must say, for the record, that my barrel-tasting experience is that the older clones are currently showing more red fruit than the younger Dijon clones, but I expect that will change with vine age; certainly the finished bottlings have taken a definite turn away from broodingly dark fruit..)

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2001 Pinot Noir (Waipara) – Corked.

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2001 Pinot Noir (Waipara) – Darker than the ’03, with strawberry seeds, dark plum and cherry. There’s a slightly soupy cast to the finish, and the tannin edges towards the green, but it’s still a pleasant wine.

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2004 Pinot Noir (barrel sample, West Block, 10/5 clone) (Waipara) – Plum, black cherry and juicy, vivid red cherry. These were whole berries, allowed a chilled pre-fermentation maceration and resting on the skins for two weeks, with a natural fermentation, twice-daily punchdowns, and pumping.

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2004 Pinot Noir (barrel sample, West Block, 10/5 clone, just pumped over) (Waipara) – Soupier and bigger, with a darker brow and more tannin (obviously).

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2004 Pinot Noir (barrel sample, 114 clone) (Waipara) – Graphite-textured tannin and dark blackberry fruit. Slightly coarse, but deliciously so. This is a Dijon clone that’s popular in Burgundy, but (as of yet) one that hasn’t produced much of interest in the Pegasus Bay vineyards. Perhaps with time.

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2004 Pinot Noir (barrel sample, 113 clone) (Waipara) – Chocolate and elegant dark plum, blackberry and blueberry. Long. Very fruit-dominated.

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2004 Pinot Noir (barrel sample, UC Davis clone 6) (Waipara) – Fatter than other samples, showing medium- to full-bodied blueberry, spiced chocolate and vanilla. Perhaps it’s just particularly amenable to its aging vessel, because it does appear to be soaking up more wood aromatics than the other clones.

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2004 Pinot Noir (barrel sample, Scott-Henry trellised 10/5 clone) (Waipara) – Complex and gorgeous, with a lovely texture. This shows true class and breeding. “Not that I’m really into Scott-Henry at all,” notes Lynnette, “but [it’s] a really nice vineyard” that used to deliver huge tannin and fruit, but is now coming into balance. These, by the way, are the oldest vines on the property, and it shows.

Into the dark

2003 was a good year for Bordeaux varieties in the Waipara, according to Lynnette, and the qualitative focus is moving towards merlot and malbec rather than the harder-edged cabernets.

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2003 Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon (Waipara) – Just bottled. Chewy black-and-blueberry with a dense, tannic, forceful palate and a medium-length finish. Quite good now, but its real strengths will come with age. This was just bottled, after spending 18 months in barrels (10-15% of them new).

“Maestro” is a semi-Bordeaux-styled blend produced in exceptional years. It’s a barrel (rather than vineyard) selection that’s given two years in wood (20% new) and additional bottle age before release.

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2001 “Maestro” Merlot/Malbec (Waipara) – Blueberry and baked earth studded with walnuts, plus dark plum. The structure is just gorgeous, with ripe tannin and fine wood integration, though chocolate and vanilla do stand out a bit at this stage. The finish is ripe, showing oven-roasted blueberry, boysenberry and apple fading into a lovely, drying finish. Balanced and really, really good, with an excellent future.

Liquid opera

Unlike the rare “Maestro” and “Prima Donna” bottlings, the late-harvest “Aria” riesling is made most years. In 2004, however, there are two selections: a regular “Aria” and an ultra-dried, botrytis-ridden bottling (picked on June 25th) that does not yet have a name. Keeping with patriarch Ivan Donaldson’s operatic theme, I suggest “Diva”…Lynnette agrees that it’s a favored possibility, but unfortunately the label is already in use. (Eventually, the wine will be called “Encore.”)

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2004 “Aria” Riesling (Waipara) – Pineapple, sweet lemon and a crisp, elegant, drying finish of medium length. This should be better in a few years, but it’s quite primary now.

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2004 “Encore” Riesling (Waipara) – Very intense, with crystallized peach, quince and apricot. It’s exquisitely sweet, but balanced by sharp, crisp acidity, and finishes long and poised. Beautiful, ageable, and a true masterwork.

Botrytized, late-harvest chardonnay – which is, despite chardonnay’s worldwide ubiquity, somewhat of a rarity in bottle – is, to the extent possible, left out of the regular chardonnay, then separately crushed by foot, soaked and barrel fermented. 2003’s dried berries “didn’t give us a lot of juice,” but there is most certainly new wood employed during the process.

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2003 “Finale” Chardonnay (Waipara) – Just bottled. Silky-textured, showing spiced citrus, peach and apple pie. The finish is clean and crisp with acidity. Terrific.

First lady

But wine isn’t the only thing at which Pegasus Bay excels. The recent recipient of Cuisine magazine’s “Best Casual Restaurant” award can be a tough reservation, even for a weekday lunch. It pays to be in the company of the winemaker!

After an arduous barrel tasting, we’re assembled at an outdoor table, while Lynnette pulls a few more bottles (as if we really need more wine) to show with food. And what food! Lynnette is largely a vegetarian (though she has certain weaknesses) and professes to be not all that hungry, so rather than order from the menu we just let the staff bring us a selection of marvelous small bites. One course that stands out in memory in a sinfully rich soup of creamed leeks, potatoes and goat cheese, but in truth everything is outstanding. While we eat, we continue to converse about wine, travel, the failings of French coffee and French marketing, exchange a bit of gossip about other New Zealand winemakers, and just generally have a great time.

Despite her initial protestations of gustatory parsimony, Lynnette suddenly turns all girly and orders both an extravagant cheese platter and an assortment of desserts to finish off the meal. What is it about women and dessert? We’re stuffed to the gills…in fact, we’ve been full to bursting for a good long while…but we nonetheless manage to steal a few bites here and there, including a taste of what she asserts are some of the very few truly high-quality cheeses made in the country.

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 1999 Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc (Waipara) – Shy at first, with ripe melon and apple skin finally emerging, crisped and sharpened by acidity. This has matured nicely, and is probably ready to go.

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2003 “Prima Donna” Pinot Noir (Waipara) – Black and red cherries, then strawberry and plum with soft, graphite-textured tannin. This wine is pure elegance and refinement, lithe and gorgeous as it caresses the palate, with a stupendous finish. Unbelievably good, and unquestionably one of the best pinots in all of New Zealand.

As the meal draws to a close and we say our farewells, we realize that we’ve been here for a little over six hours. Six hours! Our plans for a casual drop-in tastings elsewhere in the Waipara are now completely moot. But we can’t think of many more satisfying ways to spend a day, and even Lynnette seems to have enjoyed herself.

By the Bay

The wines at this property, already terrific on a previous visit and in many subsequent tastings Stateside, have moved from strength to greater strength. The improvements to the Burgundian palette of grapes are obvious, and everything in the portfolio shows signs of a little extra refinement, a soupçon more delicacy, and a persistent yearning for ever-escalating quality. The latter is the finest compliment one can pay to a winery, and it is one that Pegasus Bay richly deserves. Whatever they’re doing, it’s working. These are tremendous wines.

Though the next time we visit, we’ll remember to skip breakfast. And to avoid immobile homes.

Disclosures: a rather extravagant lunch is provided for free, and we receive a discount on wine purchases.