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TN: "It’s ugly" (Cataluña/Roussillon, pt. 1)

[street tile](The original version, with more photos, is here.)

12 October 2006 – Boston

How do you say “omakase” in Catalan? Or, for that matter, in Spanish? Never before has such a ridiculous question consumed so much of my thought.

After a long, difficult summer, I’m on the road again. And I’m doing it alone; Theresa is in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, speaking at a conference, and will be meeting me at my destination a few hours after my arrival. I, on the other hand, know less than five words of the native language at my endpoint, I probably don’t even speak at infant level in their secondary language, there are many large and uncharacteristic gaps in our itinerary (some of them as proximate as two nights hence), and I would feel slightly terrified were I not completely exhausted from about forty straight hours of last-second freneticism.

And I really, really wish they’d let people – like, say, me – bring deodorant on the plane.

But will I be able to get myself to the hotel? What if the luggage is mishandled and I can’t speak to anyone? What if…?

No. No time for worry now. I need sleep…

12 October 2006 – somewhere over the Atlantic

Given all the things we’ll do on this trip, my excitement is oddly ordered. I’m most intrigued by the new destinations, both urban and rural. Food is a major focus. But while wine has certainly played a role in the general shape of our itinerary, I’m strangely unmoved by it. Unanticipatory. No more than a day or two over two and a half weeks are promised to the dedicated pursuit of wine knowledge. That’s…unusual, for me.

And certainly, no wine knowledge is being imparted here, on British Airways. This is an airline I quite like, and the food – even in steerage – is usually tasty, in context. Today it’s beef, lasagna, salad, cheese and chocolate cheesecake, plus some trimmings. Oh, and wine. Or rather: “wine.”

Despagne “Château Tour de Mirambeau” 2005 Bordeaux Blanc (Bordeaux) – Tart green grass and underripe green apple with a plastic finish. Yuck.

And there’s another problem, too. Since departure, I’ve known that my seatmates are going to be a problem. The woman next to me is uncomfortable, and keeps stretching, half-standing and wiggling, each time poking me with her elbow or rubbing me with her sweaty, flabby triceps. And, of course, she feels that I’m deeply interested in her medical history. She also seems like a nervous traveler. Further, despite my attempts to show her how to use her armrest media control, she keeps thumping and pushing at her view screen, trying to change the channel or volume; a half-dozen irritated stares from the lady in the seat that she keeps jostling do nothing to stop her. Next to her, however, is someone far worse.

Now look: I try to be understanding of buffoonery. We’ve all been there, in some sense and at one time or another. But my tolerance decreases as the volume increases. And in any case, I definitely have my limits. Which this guy – I think he’s the annoying woman’s husband, but I don’t care enough to ask – reaches and passes within minutes of takeoff. Everything he says is repeated…not once, not twice, but at least three times. Sometimes many more. And at top volume, too.

The absolute nadir comes during dinner service, when he chooses sparkling wine (some kind of sekt, I think) as his apéritif, decides he doesn’t like it as-is, and asks for one of those tiny bottles of Cognac when the beverage carts return. He announces that he’s going to mix it with his sekt (which, of course, he calls Champagne). And here is what the rest of us in the cabin are treated to: “I’m going to mix my Champagne and my Cognac. I’m going to mix Cognac and Champagne. I’m putting Cognac in my Champagne. Cognac in my Champagne. I’m having Champagne and Cognac.” A pause. “This is Champagne and Cognac. I’ve got Cognac in my Champagne.” He sips, and with the apparent tolerance of a gnat, gets rapidly drunk, slurring his words and doubling his volume. “ChampagneandCognac. There’sh Cognac in my Shampagne. Hey, y’should try thish. Cognac in the Shhhhampagne. Hey…hey…get some Champagne. Put thish Cognac in it. It’sh Cognac and Champagne.”

And so it goes, for a good forty-five minutes, until everyone has been individually informed of his mixology, then reminded, and then reminded yet again. I speculatively eye the emergency door release a few feet away, considering how I could get him near the door without trouble from the crew. Would the explosive decompression be worth it? It’d probably be quieter.

A flight attendant, apparently sympathetic to my plight, loads me up with extra wine. It’s a mixed blessing, to be sure, but she’s at least trying.

Sichel “Prieur des Jacobins” 2004 Bordeaux “Les Jalles” (Bordeaux) – Green, ultra-shy canned black cherries. Slightly bitter. This is as boring as a wine can possibly be.

I finally manage a bit of sleep, as the C&C guy slurs his way into alcoholic slumber and the twitchy woman next to me loses feeling in her legs and collapses within the boundaries of her seat. I wake to mediocre breakfast pastries and surprising silence from my seatmates. Have they been gagged or otherwise tranquilized? Because that would be most helpful.

13 October 2006 – Heathrow Airport, London

Pre-dawn Heathrow is a cold, heartless shuttling of multicolored masses from one enclosed metal tube to another. Yellow and black signs with arrows point, and point, and point, until anyone with claustrophobia would be tearing their hair…finally disgorging their human refuse into long queues with no clear direction for continuance on display. A security gate, a passport check…and then more tubes, signs and arrows, this time punctuated with escalators and elevators. And still, absolutely no indication of where I must be to catch my connection. This terminal? Another? Given the long transits involved, it matters, and I’d really like to know.

Finally, a helpful sign. People crowd around, scanning. It takes a while…Heathrow’s a big airport…and here’s the dismaying news: I have to change terminals. I check the clock. It’s going to be a close thing.

Down stairs. Along endless hallways. Up stairs. Through another gate. Into another queue, waiting for a bus that just seems to sit there with doors closed. Then a long and crushed stand on the bus, through tunnels and featureless grey access roads, turning and turning and turning again. Will it ever get to the new terminal? It does, fifteen minutes later. More halls. Another escalator. Another security queue. And then…finally…civilization. Stores, just opening for the morning. The smell of coffee. But where are the planes? My scheduled departure is in twenty-five minutes, but the overhead signs still provide no gate information for my flight. Yet they say that a trip to the most remote of the gates in this terminal will take twenty minutes? Is this reasonable? What if I were infirm?

Still feeling a back-of-the-head buzz of uncertainty, one now amplified by the stress of intra-airport commuting, I buy a tiny English-Spanish dictionary. It’s gotta be useful, right?

13 October 2006 – somewhere over France

At long last, difference. Of late, our travel has been in a bit of a rut: France, New Zealand, California, France, California, New Zealand, etc. France has long been warmly familiar, New Zealand is like a second home…and California is like a second home on which we cannot afford the taxes or maintenance. But one first notices that difference in the faces. Are they darker? Swarthier? More Mediterranean, but reaching farther around the circumference of that fabled Old World sea? They don’t look Sicilian, though. And they don’t look much like their South and Central American descendants, either. They’re…well, they’re different.

Oddly, this thought helps the stress recede. It’s the truly unknown that terrifies. “Different” is, for me, a sort synonym for “intriguing.” And anyway, despite the faces, everything else is the same. Businessmen (and women) in suits, clacking away laptops. The morning paper (in three languages). A cheese panini, fresh fruit, fromage frais, and a pot of coffee. I settle back, smiling, though still utterly exhausted, fighting for a few moments’ rest. It’s going to be OK after all.

Below, the frosted peaks of the Pyrenées – their heights already thick with snow – fence the known (France) from the unknown (Spain). And yet, they’ll be “home” soon enough. Just a week away. Excitement builds. Sleep is off the table.

13 October 2006 – Barcelona

I’ll say one thing for Barcelona Airport: you’ll never want for shopping. The whole thing is one high-rent strip mall, and no path from point A to point B fails to pass dozens and dozens of retail outlets. But the customs/baggage experience is relatively painless (an experience that will not be shared by my wife), and soon I’m blinking in the bright Barcelona sun.

Through consultation with my guidebook, I’ve tried to master one simple Catalan phrase that will lead a taxi to my hotel. No such luck. Spanish and some gesturing get the job done, and without too much delay (though €20 lighter) I’m in the midst of the swanky Eixample.

Nice neighborhood.

Granados 83 – Highly designed, with an intriguing mélange of materials – metal, glass, brick, wood, light and shadow – and dotted with Asian accents and old Asian art that just sits there, right out in the open. Our room is narrow, leaving little space for suitcases or residents (no surprise in Europe), but cleverly-arranged despite its lack of size, and with a spectacularly modernistic bathroom. There’s also a small balcony overlooking a courtyard in which school children recess and older women carefully tend greenery.

There are slight signs of wear, however, and a quick touch-up might be helpful in certain spots; also, there is a lingering smell of sulfur near the bathroom after each shower, and this is a problem the hotel does not appear to be able to contain. These are relatively minor issues, however. Perhaps the only truly irritating thing is the lack of an iron on the premises; laundry must be sent out, at exorbitant expense. The staff are very helpful, and (of course) fully multi-lingual, which eases everything.

I walk around a bit to get my bearings and a brief sense of the neighborhood, return to the hotel, and nap for an blissful hour or so. Theresa’s phone call breaks my repose – she’s in the airport, trying to figure out how to re-penetrate security to get to her inexplicably misdirected luggage despite not speaking Catalan – and I take the opportunity to unpack and shower.

Casa Milà – With Theresa arrived and similarly unpacked (she was, though unexpected recollection of high school Spanish, able to find the necessary words to retrieve her suitcase), we spend some time walking the beautiful streets of the district. We quickly find that design-mindedness isn’t just a function of our hotel, but pervades the city. It seems that every third store sells shoes. Window shopping is the norm, as snappily-dressed natives almost always slow to gaze into the window of any fashion or furniture store. And the streets themselves (especially in the Eixample, which is itself the product of conscious design) are beautiful, tree-lined, and crowned by wrought iron balconies of regularly exquisite delicacy.

But there is another style that infuses this city, and that is the relentless experimentation of the modernistas. Aside from the old gothic quarter, little of the city escapes the wild flights of fancy practiced by these architect/artists, which simultaneously draw and confound the eye. The first example we encounter is Antoni Gaudí’s second most famous work.

I’m intrigued. As so many have commented before, the building seems to defy codification or description, virtually mocking both convention and rationality. But I glance at Theresa, and I can tell she’s far less positive. She squints, cocks her head, shades her eyes, and stares. Finally, a conclusion is reached.

“It’s ugly.”

Oh dear. This is going to be a long vacation.

The line for the interior tour extends well down the block, and the last bits of fading sunlight are now only a memory, so we don’t go in. (If I have one lingering regret from Barcelona, this may well be it. But at the time, we feel we might stop by early one morning, beating the touristy crowds. How little we understand the rhythms of Barcelona.) Besides, hunger is growing. And it would be close to dinnertime in the States, which here means that it’s time for that great Spanish tradition: pre-dinner tapas.

Taverna Mediterránea – On the same block as our hotel, and given its location probably serving mostly tourists, this small bar serves the small-plate basics with casual indifference, although it can get smoky as business accelerates. We manage to point and stutter our way through an order of octopus on potatoes (an interesting contrast of textures), chocos (wow, are these good), and standalone albóndigas (soft and rich, perhaps even a bit mushy). Intense olive oil – usually with salt and pepper, sometimes with smoked paprika – is the dominant sauce, dressing, and condiment, and as with so many Mediterranean cuisines, it has a surprising lightening effect versus dairy-infused culinary traditions.

Parato 2005 Penedès Blanco (Cataluña) – Simple, clean and fresh, showing citrus and grass. Finishes pure and direct, with a little bit of bound carbon dioxide prickle on the back of the tongue. Refreshing, and before we know it a bottle’s gone. There’s no complexity here, but that doesn’t appear to be the point.

Cinc Sentits – A classy, modern, living restaurant, which (at 9:30, our reservation time for our entire Barcelona stay) is just barely getting ramped up with their first, tourist-oriented seating. This is something we’ll find over and over; we arrive about mid-meal for the early-dining tourists, and just as we’re leaving (usually somewhere around midnight) the restaurant is fully repopulated by natives at the beginning of their meals, which go late into the morning. When do the waiters sleep?

What would be flights of culinary adventure back home are the norm here, and Barcelona is one of the more exciting culinary cities on the planet, but this is not “molecular gastronomy” as it is commonly understood. Rather, it is adventurous modern food with a close regional focus, utilizing a number of the techniques of the avant-garde, but making few of those techniques overt on the plate. What results is a more comforting approach, wherein the interested may deconstruct and enthuse at their leisure, but those who are simply out for a good meal may nosh in unchallenged comfort. While the techniques may not appear cutting edge, however, the same cannot necessarily be said for the flavor combinations, which are creative enough to regularly skirt the edge of disaster. It’s high-wire gastronomy, and it doesn’t always work. (Though it should be pointed out that Cinc Sentits does not push the boundaries as aggressively as some of its brethren.) But when it does, it feels like a revelation on the palate.

Two more generalizations must be made before diving into the specifics of this restaurant. First, the level of service is very, very high. Efficiency is perhaps prized more than it is in, say, France or the American temples of gastronomy, and without pushback meals will proceed at a fairly rapid pace. But all of our meals – casual to fancy – are not only error-free, but a pleasure to conduct, with service appropriate to their level. That’s saying something.

Second, meal costs seem to be a regular percentage below what one would pay for an equivalent meal in the United States, or France. Perhaps 20-25% lower, at all price points. This may be a measure of how much they value dining in Cataluña (this would be but one sign among many), or it may be a matter of tradition, or it may just be inertia. But whatever the reason, it’s a most welcome thing, for it helps dissipate the dollar/euro disparity, and makes dining out less oppressively expensive than it is elsewhere.

As for our meal, it’s a delicious procession of surprises that suffer a bit from their newness; we spend a little more time deconstructing than we should, and not quite enough time sitting back and enjoying. Despite this analysis, I fail to note any of the meal in my journal, other than a shockingly good slice of pork fat with pumpkin seed “salt” that, yet again, reveals how much I love lardo and all its cousins. And there are two dishes (one savory) that employ maple syrup, which we’ve found is an ingredient that seems to fascinate European chefs. We should remember to bring some next time. Who knows what doors it might open?

Oriol Rossell Cava Brut Nature (Cataluña) – Rich and deep; it tastes like red grapes, though it isn’t made from any. It finishes dry and structurally austere, though the length is unquestioned. I know this isn’t a tiny artisanal producer, and I have no idea of how it’s viewed by Spanish wine gurus, but it wipes the floor with all the bland industrial cava we get in the States. I could drink a lot of this. (And, it turns out, I will.)

Pujanza 2002 Rioja “Norte” (Center-North) – Bright, fruity cherries with untamed, wilder berries lurking in the background. Whatever they’ve done to their French oak, they’ve made it taste profoundly American: coconut, rather than vanilla. Though there’s no dill, which is a good thing. It’s big, boisterous, spicy-hot, and coconut-infused…in other words, it’s zinfandel. That’s not necessarily a criticism, because I do get a good measure of goofy enjoyment from the wine, but it’s a little dismaying nonetheless.

Vichy Catalan (Cataluña) – This is water, not wine, and – alongside the horrid French Chateldon – one of the worst waters I’ve ever had the displeasure of putting in my mouth. Note to self: avoid this at all costs.

We conduct our dinner in four languages – mangled Catalan, pidgin Spanish, French and English – depending on which waiter is tableside. This is something that will happen over and over again in Cataluña, and we’re grateful, because otherwise we’d have to resort to a lot of pointing. But in the end, the most satisfying translation is the one we won’t have to make. For here, right in the middle of the menu, is the word I’ve been so desperately searching for. The word that’s caused me such fits of anxiety. And I have Cinc Sentits to thank for it.

The name of the seasonal, surprise menu? “Omakase.”

Who knew?

TN: Falling into everywhere (California, pt. 11)

[Yosemite Falls base](The original version, with more photos, is here.)

28 April 2006 – Yosemite National Park, California

Mist Trail, Vernal Falls, John Muir Trail – The most popular hike in Yosemite, we’re told. It’s easy to see why, though the track is more popular in theory than in practice, as the lower elevations littered with the defeated demonstrate. Especially in the spring, a good soaking is promised, and a good soaking is delivered. What’s even more fun than the ascent, however, is looping back down via the end of the John Muir Trail, which provides breathtaking views of Yosemite Valley and Falls. Lunch – on a picnic table with nature all around – has rarely been devoured as quickly.

Harrington 2003 Pinot Noir Birkmyer (Wild Horse Valley) – Mixed red berries and plums with hints of graphite. Ripe and full-fruited, yet pretty. It’s a little on the heavy side, but then that’s hardly unusual for domestic pinot. Pleasant.

Yosemite Falls, Bridalveil Fall – The eerie (and wet) moonscape of Yosemite Falls in full spring torrent is something to behold, but so is the drenching soak of the impossible approach to Bridalveil Fall. If you’ve ever wanted to get saturated without leaving “dry” land, this is the way.

The Ahwahnee Bar – The décor of this hotel lives up to the hype, though the combo Indian/medieval theme is a little jarring at first. The bar, however, is somewhat dreary…and the prices are wearying.

Bakers 7 Year Bourbon – Sweet peach and brown sugar. A little too obvious.

Dinner back at Yosemite West is a selection of sausages from a Ferry Plaza butcher – duck & pork, wild boar & beer, and veal with spinach – plus asparagus in a Meyer lemon dressing. This food needs a wine with some bite, and we’ve got just the thing.

Edmunds St. John 1999 Sangiovese Matagrano (El Dorado) – Crisp raspberry acidity spiked with strawberry seeds (that add both their fruit and their bitterness) with very slightly green tannin. It’s long and intense, however, and really sings with food. What is isn’t is completely ready; a few more years might help calm matters down.

TN: Sam, I am (California, pt. 10)

[Yosemite Falls](The original version, with more photos – and since it’s Yosemite, they’re quite worthwhile – is here.)

27 April 2006 – San Francisco, California

Taylor’s Automatic Refresher – Loaded up with overpriced but high-quality groceries from the Ferry Building Marketplace, we’re completely ready for our trip to Yosemite. Well, that’s not quite true…we’ve got food for later, but we could use some food for now. And so, it’s one more trip to this upmarket burger joint for a perfect bacon cheeseburger, sinful garlic fries, and a decidedly average “black and white” shake.

27 April 2006 – Yosemite National Park, California

Yosemite National Park – Anyone with the slightest bit of awareness has seen innumerable pictures of this place, and yet they still don’t replicate the jaw-dropping experience of one’s first glimpse of Yosemite Valley, El Capitan, Half Dome, and the various waterfalls that surround the valley. “Breathtaking” doesn’t even begin to describe it. Photos come closer, but even then….

Yosemite West – We’ve rented a self-catering apartment, in a little cluster of houses between the valley and Wawona, and technically outside the park itself (though the only way out, other than on foot, is through the park). It’s dark and in need of updating, but it’s clean, quiet, and comfortable…if a little bit harder to find than it should be. Theresa whips up a dinner of sturgeon with thyme and Meyer lemon, red leaf greens with crumbled Point Reyes blue cheese, and burrata for dessert.

Edmunds St. John 2003 Viognier Rozet (Paso Robles) – Sweaty and full-bodied, showing sultry decayed flower petals and dark stone fruit; the sun beats down on this wine, but it’s a dark, eclipsed sun. It’s rich and a bit heavy, but quite tasty nonetheless.

Dönnhoff 1999 Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle Riesling Auslese 19 99 (Nahe) – From 375 ml. Long crystalline quartz, pulsing with energy and intensity. There’s candied tangerine rind, needle-sharp acidity, and massive yet well-integrated sweetness, but what’s most unbelievable about this wine is the length. Stunning, awe-inspiring wine.

TN: White paint (Oregon, pt. 11 & the end)

(The original version, with bigger photos, is here.)

[grapes]15 July 2006 – Willamette Valley, Oregon

Oregon Sauvignon Blanc Cartel – While tasting at Bella Vida, we’re handed a card announcing this most unlikely event: a sauvignon blanc tasting at Patricia Green Cellars (normally closed to the public). Sauvignon blanc from Oregon? This we have to taste for ourselves.

The drive, which crosses the hills on a small country road winding through trees and vineyards, is a beautiful one, but we take it a bit faster than caution might indicate, as we’re short on time. In Green’s busy winemaking shed, three wineries are represented: Andrew Rich, J. Christopher, and Patricia Green Cellars, and not everything on offer is made from sauvignon blanc. We grab glasses, push through the dwindling late-afternoon crowd, and dive in.

Andrew Rich 2005 Sauvignon Blanc Croft (Willamette Valley) – Grassy, with big lime, green apple and grapefruit bursting forth on the nose and palate. It become riper and more focused on the finish, with gooseberry, lime, lemon and lemon curd dominating, yet the wine is obviously a bit of a fruit salad. And there’s an intrusive Styrofoam note throughout, the memory of which the delicious finish can’t quite obliterate. Admirable but worrisome.

Andrew Rich 2005 Gewurztraminer “Les Vigneaux” (69.5% Washington, 30.5% Oregon) – A “freezer wine” that apes true ice wine as made in Germany and Canada. There’s much varietal truth here, with lychees and peaches in play, and though the wine is a little on the silly side, it’s got a great balance between acid, sugar and fruit. Fun.

Patricia Green 2005 Sauvignon Blanc (Oregon) – Citrus rind, Bosc pear, green apple and fetid armpit notes – not all that unusual for sauvignon blanc, though I don’t know that it’s ever actually welcome – with an exceedingly dry, flat finish. Not very interesting.

Patricia Green 2005 Chardonnay “Four Winds” (Yamhill County) – Restrained with terrific acidity, showing melon, grass and lemon over a firm bedrock of limestone. The finish, though seemingly dominated by malic acid, is incredibly persistent. A terrific wine that almost mimics unoaked Chablis (not in taste, but in overall structure)…and it’s hard to believe that it’s from the U.S. I don’t know that it will age, but it’s awfully nice right now.

[Mt. Hood]J. Christopher 2005 Sauvignon Blanc Maresh (Dundee Hills) – Dominated by majestic quartz-like minerality, with grass, dried lemon, and apple skin. Acid and a tannic dryness compete with fine-grained minerals on the finish. Just terrific, and probably the best domestic sauvignon blanc I’ve ever tasted.

J. Christopher 2005 Sauvignon Blanc Croft (Oregon) – It’s interesting to compare this with the Andrew Rich wine from the same vineyard…though I note they use different appellations. A blending issue, perhaps? This is harder-edged than both the Maresh and the Rich version of the Croft, with green apple about all that’s discernable amidst a biting wave of acidity. It probably needs some time to settle down and develop aromatics, but it is a much more uncompromising interpretation that either of its cohorts.

Ponzi Wine Bar – Part of a larger complex of restaurant, wine bar, and (as of our visit) empty space awaiting a client, this is a very pleasant spot that desperately needs a better exterior view. Nonetheless, it does well, presenting both Ponzi and other Oregon wines by the glass and bottle. The staff, almost inevitably, is almost exclusively comprised of attractive young people…though unlike so many other similar venues, they appear to know their stuff.

Ponzi 2005 Arneis (Willamette Valley) – Floral, showing honeysuckle, ripe apricot and mango with a spicy texture. Yet despite all these yummy descriptors, the wine comes of as simple. Pleasant, to be sure, but simplistically so.

Ponzi 2004 Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley) – Very closed at first, with burnt cherries and a bit of jam underneath a heavy, palate-deadening weight. With air, a Port-like character emerges, with jam a significant player as well. A decidedly fruit-dominated, somewhat behemoth wine that’s not to my taste, but that’s executed pretty well for those that appreciate this style. And I suppose it will age…though my previous experiences with old Ponzi pinot suggest that “last” is a better term.

[vineyard]The Painted Lady – Like Red Hills and the Joel Palmer House before it, this is a converted residence. And as with the Joel Palmer House, we barely see the interior, preferring an outdoor table on the restaurant’s tiny terrace to one of the over-conditioned rooms. (A word of advice: there are serious issues with glare and heat from the setting evening sun on the few outdoor tables, so if you eat early, be prepared to play a positioning game until after sunset…or sit inside. After the sun goes below the rooftop horizon, however, the outdoor tables are well worth their previous inconvenience.)

With a passionate, knowledgeable owner and (mostly) excellent service, plus a true purity to the cuisine, this ends up being the most complete dining experience of our stay. While it’s not as memorable at our fungal fiesta at the Joel Palmer House, it does everything just a shade better.

Theresa starts with fried razor clams, their panko-encrusted texture and form a surprising and worthy variation on an old standard, while I nibble on flawless sweetbreads in a shallow pool of chopped corn and porcini cream, the earthier aspects of each combining for a glorious whole. Proximity to source improves an impeccably roasted filet of wild King salmon, while halibut over corn succotash and fried green tomatoes is no less perfectly presented. The most outstanding dish, however, is a simply-prepared 10 oz. cut of Strawberry Hill beef that brings out every beautiful essence of rare steak, served with pillowy potato gnocchi and a few asparagus spears drizzled with olive oil. It sounds unexciting to the jaded diner, but each bite proves otherwise.

Willakenzie 1998 Pinot Noir Aliette (Willamette Valley) – Shy at first, though it builds and improves throughout the evening, showing gentle baked cherries and leaves over a flowing stream of gravel and crushed granite. Soft-textured, this pinot embraces the tongue, getting longer and longer with each sip. A lovely wine, though I don’t know if I’d hold it much longer.

The only lapse in the restaurant’s perfection comes at the end of the meal, when we’re offered a “small plate of local cheeses” and, after much delay but no explanation, presented with a single, razor-thin wedge of a cheese…from Washington. Well, OK, I guess it could easily be “local,” but somehow this seems to subvert the premise. Or at least the plural.

Toro Albalá “Don PX” 1971 Pedro Ximénez “Gran Reserva” (Montilla-Moriles) – Prune motor oil that’s still amazingly primary (though I’m led to believe that this isn’t exactly 100% 1971 wine, but rather more of a solera), yet with beauty and elegance as the wine lingers…and lingers, and lingers, and lingers. Old PX is the longest-finishing wine I’ve ever encountered, which I guess means that one should studiously avoid bad examples. Thankfully, this isn’t one.

And thus is our brief Oregon visit brought to a satisfying close. The drive to the airport, through otherwise depressing strip malls and chain shopping complexes on the southern outskirts of Portland, is overwhelmed by the beauty of a dark purple sky, in which the snowy peak of Mt. Hood and the smoking crater of Mount St. Helens gleam as pinnacles of light and dark; metaphoric representations of good and evil made manifest. (Or perhaps that’s just the wine talking.) We’ll remember the books, the wines, and the mushrooms, but most of all we’ll remember the gentle beauty of a region to which we’ll soon find a reason to return.

TN: Another terrific No. 9 Park tasting menu

A tasting menu at No. 9 Park…28 August 2006.

Roederer Champagne “Brut Premier” (Champagne) – Intellectual, earth-driven but satiny stone fruit (minus most the fruit) with a gentle, yet inexorable persistence. Very thoughtful bubbly. Served with: ultra-thin-sliced smoked lobster sashimi with grapefruit, avocado and cilantro. The wine and the food stand essentially apart here.

Cusamano 2005 Sicilia Rosato (Sicily) – Made from nerello mascalese. Big, broad-shouldered raspberry and maraschino cherry fruit with a keening, fresh flower aroma. It’s simple alone, but with food it almost explodes with additional complexities. This is an inspired match. Served with: seared yellowfin tuna (about as pure and wonderful as this fish could ever be) with a brilliant marmalade of heirloom tomatoes lent smokiness by chorizo, which infuses the marmalade and adds a textural counterpoint in little crisp bits perched atop the cubes of fish.

Schrock 2005 Ried Vogelsang (Neusiedlersee) – A blend that’s a bit at war with itself, showing lots of interesting characteristics that seem to have absolutely nothing to do with each other: crisp acidity, juicy/lemony sprightliness, herbal grassiness, spicy headiness…it’s a bunch of smart people, all talking past each other. Served with: day boat scallops on a purée of curried cauliflower (possibly the single best expression of this vegetable I’ve ever tasted) and crispy little bursts of fried tapioca. This isn’t much of a marriage, though the wine does no actual harm to the food.

Faiveley 2003 Bourgogne Rouge (Burgundy) – Cranky, rough, ungenerous and difficult, with wan suggestions of something that might once have been red fruit buried under clumsy, off-putting tannin. A last-minute replacement due to a chef deglazing with red wine rather than the intended white, and not a very successful one. Served with: handmade orechiette, flawlessly pressed and cooked, with a Burgundian snail ragout that works rich, earthy wonders on the palate. A better red Burgundy would be magical here.

Lustau Almacenista Palo Cortado Sherry “Vides” 1/50 (Jerez) – Dark, fire-roasted nuts that consistently suggest sweetness, but never quite achieve it, settling instead for an intense, warming richness. The alcohol is a little more intrusive than normal, and it negatively affects the food pairing. Served with: seared La Belle Farms foie gras with golden raisins, almond praline and balsamic vinegar. The dish is flawless, but the wine only goes well with the accompaniments; the alcohol buries the delicacy of the foie gras. It’s an adventurous notion, but ultimately an unsuccessful one.

Vajra 2004 Dolcetto d’Alba Coste & Fossati (Piedmont) – Delicious. Sneaks up quietly at first, with light blackberry dust and a slightly exuberant structure, but soon fills out with gorgeous mixed bouquets of freshly-picked wildflowers and an earthy, morel-infused bottom end. Very, very agile with food. Served with: softly-seared Pekin dust breast with “melted” strawberries, honey, and perfectly bitter counterpoints of red shiso. This is an inspired match.

Les Pallières 2003 Gigondas (Rhône) – A heavy, ponderous stew of garrigue, leather and dark, smoky fruit overladen with tannin. The wine is chewy, and that’s not a compliment. It’s one of the better 2003 Rhônes I’ve tasted, though that’s certainly faint praise at best. Still, there are terrific raw materials underneath the sludge, and it’s possible that a few centuries of aging will resolve matters. Or, more likely, not. Served with: roasted lamb loin with a truffle “fondue” and leeks, dusted with thyme. The food actually helps tame some of the glue-like tannin in the wine, but the price paid is a diminution of the elegant earthiness found in the truffles.

A palate-cleansing celery sorbet is audaciously magnificent.

Pieropan 2001 Recioto di Soave Classico Le Colombare (Veneto) – A stunning wine, full of concentrated peach, orange rind and iron shot through with flowers and perfumes from some mythical Orient. Powerfully sweet, but with flawless balancing acidity, and as long as one would ever wish a wine to be. Majestic. Served with: blueberry and crème fraîche soup with a carrot “confit,” white chocolate, and anise hyssop garnish. The dish doesn’t sound like it should work, but in fact it’s some sort of revelatory symphony of summer flavors; and the wine, which also doesn’t seem like it should work with this mélange, soars above the music in perfect harmony. There’s real genius behind this pairing.

Garitina 2005 Brachetto d’Acqui “Niades” (Piedmont) – The usual bright red fruit, frothed (though so lightly as to be almost unnoticeably effervescent) and given just a touch of late-palate bitterness. Simple fun. Served with: a warm chocolate tart with chocolate sorbet and “wilted” grapes. The latter seem superfluous, like a half-hearted nod towards molecular gastronomy, but everything else on the plate is superb and properly undersweetened, which helps the wine dance around the edges. Of all the wines alleged to pair well with chocolate, I think brachetto may be the only one that really does so.

TN: Watch your head (California, pt. 9)

[pine cone buds]24 April 2006 – San Francisco, California

Quince – One of the more difficult reservations to make in San Francisco quickly becomes one of the most difficult to keep, as our group stands around the restaurant’s cramped front section, generally feeling as if we’re intruding on everyone’s dinner, for a full thirty-five minutes after our scheduled time. The blame can’t be laid entirely at Quince’s doorstep – if a table won’t leave, it won’t leave, and there’s no call for Manhattan-style deadlines on what should be a leisurely dining experience – but a little more consideration and, at the very least, apologizing would be nice. We receive little of either.

Once seated, we set to the dual tasks of deciding which of the many wines we’ve brought should be opened, and what to eat with them. Quince sets a two-bottle limit on BYO, which is stringent but obviously works to the benefit of their excellent wine list, and their $25 per bottle corkage seems fair given the overall setting. Choosing the food, however, is more difficult, because for a small restaurant there are almost too many enticing options.

A first course of fried fish with favas and an herbal sauce is fine, as are small pieces of halibut on toast, but a pasta course with razor clams is more of a mixed blessing; tart and delicious in its crisply acidic sauce, but featuring slightly overcooked pasta that too-closely mimics the texture of the clams. My main dish of salt-encrusted pigeon is flawless and brilliant (though the squeamish will want to quickly dispense with the head, which is included in the presentation), but its accompaniment of peas is, like the pasta, somewhat overcooked…or maybe Quince is trying for an English approach to the vegetable. I eschew dessert, but an evening-capping coffee is simply world-class.

Once we’re finally seated, our service – and especially our wine service – is excellent.

Boxler 2002 Gewurztraminer “L60P” (Alsace) – I forget precisely what the “P” stands for, but it’s a site designation…though not a grand cru. The wine shows – big surprise – intense aromatics, featuring lychee and spiced white plum. It’s full and rich, yet somehow carries a delicate balance through its long, persistent finish. Gorgeous wine, though unquestionably on the very sweet side.

Bründlmayer 2004 Grüner Veltliner Langenloiser Berg Vogelsang (Kamptal) – Celery root and ripe Meyer lemon with good, grapefruit-like acidity. Perhaps the dominating crispness attenuates this wine a bit, but the finish feels shorter than it should. This probably suffers from following the Boxler, though plenty of palate cleansing and food interruption does little to change the impression.

Gaja 1985 Barbaresco Costa Russi (Piedmont) – Murky, silky and sultry all at the same time, with spiced dried fruit, spicy plum, red cherry and strawberry seed over a steaming bed of hay…a strange wine, seemingly dominated by its spice (from which one makes inevitable deductions about wood), with a lot going for it, but not a lot of coherence. However, after an hour everything has snapped into focus, with exotic floral notes and a rich complexity coming fully to the fore. The first version of the wine is good but odd, the second is inspired. I recommend drinking the second.

Aldo Conterno 1985 Barolo Bricco Bussia Vigna Cicala (Piedmont) – Sexy, but a bit rough, showing S&M strawberries and a succulent, balanced finish. As with the whites, this may suffer in comparison to the bigger, richer and more “worked” Gaja…but it also definitely improves with time and distance from its regional counterpart. This is a wine that deserves a little more quiet contemplation that it probably receives here.

TN: Grüner or later (California, pt. 8)

(The original version, with nicer formatting and more photos, is here.)

26 April 2006 –San Francisco, California

[burger & wine at Taylor’s]Taylor’s Automatic Refresher – On a gorgeous, pure blue day on the Embarcadero, an outdoor table is too much to resist, and I end up here rather than back for another (expensive) bout with a few dozen oysters. The Wisconsin sourdough burger is, like all Taylor’s products, pure, drippy decadence. Not cheap, but worth it…especially when partaking of the burger joint’s clever little wine list. I cart a half bottle to my outdoor picnic table and feel completely decadent. (Also, later: sunburned.)

Storybrook Mountain 2003 Zinfandel Mayacamas Range (Napa Valley) – Fat and woody, with spiced cedar and huge blackberry fruit. There’s good acid though, and this really works best as simple, sun-drenched fun.

bacar – Packed, which renders service a little slow, and yet it’s good to see this excellent wine bar in fine economic health despite its slightly difficult location. My only complaint – and it’s a minor one – is that, for several years now, the enticing wine list has been rather dominated by blowsy 2003s. I suppose they have to sell through their stock, but I’m looking forward to being able to order Austrian, German, and other higher-acid whites with more confidence that I’m going to enjoy the results.

Nigl 2004 Grüner Veltliner Kremser Freiheit (Kremstal) – This wine undergoes a fascinating transformation from nose to finish. It starts out very salty, while showing classic celery and green, grassy acidity. From there, it proceeds to sweeter melon rind, green kiwifruit and floral aspects. Finally, it finishes almost fat, with orange blossoms, raw cashew oil and hazelnut. Such a procession from light and nervy to full and flavorful is one of the delightful surprises of good grüner, though it’s not usually experienced quite to this extent. It would be nice if the nose were a little more enticing, but I suspect that will come in time, as its center of gravity shifts forward.

Bründlmayer 2004 Grüner Veltliner Kamptaler Terassen (Kamptal) – White pepper, ripe apple blossom and white rice-encrusted apple and green plum form a ripe, vivid whip-snap, albeit one encased in silk. Skin bitterness adds structure and counterbalance to the fruitier aspects, which edges very slightly towards being a bit warmer (that is, more alcoholic) than ideal. That’s nitpicking, though, for this is a very good wine.

Donabaum 2003 Grüner Veltliner Atzberg Smaragd (Wachau) – A ripe, fat nose of rum-soaked banana skin doesn’t improve much on the palate, where alcohol adds a harsh burn. Things are a little better once one becomes accustomed to the heat, and creamy celery and cauliflower with ripe white asparagus steer the wine towards the silkier, more dairy-like aspects of high-test grüner. Still, as the wine fades, one is once more left with that buzzing, numbing alcoholic fire.

Hirsch 2003 Grüner Veltliner Heiligenstein (Kamptal) – A smoky nose full of mineral dust, ripe celery and heavy red cherries precedes a smooth, balanced palate and long finish that provide more of the same. Unfortunately, the wine also carries a throbbing, fiery burn from out-of-balance alcohol.

Revelette 2004 Côteaux d’Aix en Provence Rosé (Provence) – Salty canned fish (not, as it might seem, an inherently bad thing, though it is unusual) and heavy, molten lead with dead, softening wood rotting away in the background. OK, scratch the equivocation about the salted fish; this is pretty much the opposite of “fresh,” which I do believe is a virtual requisite for Provençal rosé. Worse yet: even with all the weirdness, the wine is boring.

Corbières du Boncaillou 1999 Corbières (Languedoc) – Gorgeous aromatics of dried flowers and spice with rustic undertones…but probe deeper, and there’s a smooth granite base with strong, complex striations. There’s a hint of something that tastes very slightly modern, but I’m not sure it’s possible to render Corbières all that urbane without leaving scars. No wounds here.

TN: Mushroom, mushroom (Oregon, pt. 8)

(The original version, with bigger photos, is here.)[vineyard]

14 July 2006 – Willamette Valley, Oregon

Joel Palmer House – For some people, the Willamette Valley isn’t about grapes at all. It’s about mushrooms, which grow wild, and…apparently…in some quantity, or so one must conclude from their ubiquity on local menus. But no one does as much with as many champignons as this restaurant, yet another set in a converted house of considerable charm. Not that we get to enjoy much of that charm, because we sit outside. It’s a beautiful evening; why waste it?

Service is a bit on the quick side, and since we’re ordering the five-course mushroom tasting menu, this rapidity does impact our ability to finish each dish. However, it’s hard to find fault with a restaurant that passes out free glasses of Argyle when one of the managers learns he’s just become an uncle.

Argyle 2001 Brut (Willamette Valley) – Frothy. Tart citrus and more lurid tropical notes dominate a wine playing host to a war between simplicity and goofiness. It’s pleasant, but easily forgotten.

The tasting menu works like this: a diner selects a “main” course from the (already mushroom-dominated, though there are a scant few exceptions) regular menu, while the chef constructs the rest of the meal based on what’s been freshly-foraged. It’s an exciting concept, and we do love mushrooms, so…

Amuse bouche: mushroom risotto. The concentration of mushroom flavor here is almost unfathomable (one presumes mushroom stock of a rare intensity), though this is balanced by a heady dose of piquant parmesan. The risotto is done in the drier American style, in which the rice is a bit softer and the runoff less pronounced. But it’s no less excellent for it.

First course #1: porcini chowder. All the classic elements of pure New England chowder (well, minus the potatoes) are here, with the creamy and sweetly earthy power of porcini in their thick dairy sludge dominating the little counterpoints of corn. Delicious.

[cat]First course #2: mushroom soup (from an old family recipe). Theresa receives this as an alternative to my chowder…and while my dish is nearly flawless, this one is flawless. A beautifully-integrated mélange of flavors literally explodes with every bit of fungal earthiness one can imagine. It’s salty, but not overly so, and I could happily eat bowl after bowl of this. But then, I’d miss out on the rest of the meal. Pure umami, available by the spoonful and growing under a tree near you.

Second course: three-mushroom tart. Simplicity works best here, showing off the quality of a blend of mushrooms that, contrary to many such tarts I’ve had, are not variably overcooked. Perfect.

Third course: baked portobello with gruyere. Decent, but nothing special.

Fourth course: sautéed morels with crisp potato curls. Just when the earthy intensity of the mushrooms – and these are pretty spectacular morels – threatens to overwhelm, these crisp little shreddings of potato liven things up. Sort of a root vegetable intermezzo, if you will.

Fifth course: local (from nearby Carlton) fallow venison served with juniper-infused red cabbage and black trumpet mushrooms. My most disappointing dish, and one I do not care for at all. The problem here is the cabbage; an extremely sour and over-flavored expression that reminds me of an Vienna-style Christmas dish cranked up to eleven (or perhaps about eighteen). It obliterates the mushrooms, and comes very close to muting any positive qualities of the venison as well. What’s the point? Theresa opts for a ’shroom-less rack of lamb with jalapeño cornbread, which is quite nice but very spicy…and also a huge amount of food to appear this late in a tasting menu.

Sixth course: candy cap mushroom ice cream, with caramelized candy caps and candy cap cheesecake, plus a hazelnut/chocolate torte with raspberry sauce. Now, careful readers will note that the five-course tasting menu has, including the amuse bouche, become seven courses comprising nine different dishes. This isn’t a bad thing at all, but given the quantities involved it’s worth noting. More importantly, this is an incredible dish, utilizing the natural, maple-like sweetness of this rather unique mushroom to stunning effect. The non-mushroom torte is awfully nice as well, with a better balance between the nuts and the chocolate than such concoctions usually possess, and showing admirable restraint with the sauce.

All of this is paired with a selection from a very long wine list, jammed with local specialties (and, of course, very heavy on the pinot noir, which can and does excel with the mushroom-dominated cuisine) and littered with mini-verticals. However, the markups range from large to huge, and there’s very little that comes with a “name” or an appealing number of years in bottle to be had for less than three digits. It’s not that there’s a lack of bottlings at more reasonable prices, it’s just that with a list like this, one hopes to be able to drink something not currently (and widely) commercially available without sending the tariff into the Michelin-starred range. We have a long, friendly, but ultimately frustrating dialogue with a waiter who presents himself as the wine guy for the evening, though he seems unable to find something to our tastes (all his suggestions are way, way above our oak/extraction thresholds) without several consultative trips to the kitchen…and even then, his suggestions are not really what we’re looking for. Lacking expert local guidance, we turn to a bulkier variation on an old friend.

[vulture]Domaine Coteau 2002 Pinot Noir “Reserve” (Yamhill County) – Solid, with dark fruit and black, post-forest fire undergrowth. A dense, muscular structure surrounds the brooding fruit, and there’s incredible aging potential here. Right now, however, it’s all a bit much to take, and requires aggressive food to keep it in check.

Coffee is weak…not that it much matters, because we’re stuffed to the gills. I take a flyer on a glass of dessert wine, though in the end I wish I’d not bothered.

Sineann 2002 Riesling Medici (Willamette Valley) – The restaurant’s wine list calls this “late harvest,” but I can find no evidence that such a wine exists in the Sineann portfolio, leaving this as the only identifiable alternative. Anyway, it’s out of balance, showing sweet lime, lemon and green grape with spiky acid that’s completely unable to beat back a thick, goopy sludge. Those for whom intensity is the only worthwhile virtue in wine will find this exemplary. But it’s not good. It’s not good at all.

The final verdict on the Joel Palmer House is this: the chef has a clear specialty, and like many other such chefs can appear to lose interest in dishes that don’t fit the theme. Almost any dish with mushrooms will be somewhere between good and extraordinary, while other dishes are decidedly more variable. And the salt-averse will want to be wary here. However, the relentless brilliance of the majority of the mushroom dishes makes this one of those meals that surpasses its objective quality, making it truly memorable. That’s something that even many of the best restaurants in the world can’t say, and something to be cherished.

TN: The end of the reign (New Zealand, pt. 37)

[Queenstown overlook]All good things…

Our last day in Queenstown. Can it be?

In a sense, travel is a series of goodbyes. A new destination is achieved, then abandoned. Just as a certain comfort is acquired – with the geography, with the sights, with the rhythms, and with the quirks and individualities that make up culture – it’s back in the car (or train, or plane) and on to the next place with little more than a fond thought. There’ll be plenty of time for nostalgia afterwards, when each destination has become not a thing to experience, but a memory to recapture.

This is why the notion of “settling in” is so dangerously seductive. Bags are fully unpacked, belongings are given a home, and accessories (often in the form of groceries) multiply and take their own respective places. The regularities of everyday life intrude on the abandon of travel…a morning cup of coffee, a post-dinner cleanup, the number of days that can pass before the laundry simply must be done…and lend their normalcy to the experience-rich environment of elsewhere. And in turn, experiences are that much the greater for the familiarity of their context.

But when it’s finally time to say goodbye, there’s a price to be paid. The passing melancholy of moving on becomes more wrenching, more poignant. Familiar sights and paths are revisited, suffused with longing for that one perfect memory. And then drawers and cabinets are emptied, bags are packed, and one’s life is once more contained within the boundaries of a suitcase. It is, inevitably, a diminishment, and it carries with it the potential for great sadness amidst the satisfaction of a destination well-lived.

Cuppa Joe

Another interesting experience allowed by a long visit is the chance to become (however temporarily) a “regular” at a local haunt. And though I wish I’d made the connection earlier in our visit, one location almost immediately suggests itself: Joe’s Garage.

The staff – already unnaturally attractive, despite the occasional brooding – is today joined by one of those people at which I just can’t stop staring. She’s beautiful, yes, but with that extra and individual something that speaks to my subconscious. I sip a series of flawless flat whites, feeling a mixture of attraction and mild guilt (it doesn’t help that she frequently meets my glances, smiling each time), and then Theresa arrives…fresh from the spa…to rescue me from my imagined but disquieting psychic infidelity. Some encounters are better off left to the imagination.

Hanging out

Warmed by milk-infused caffeine, we’re protected against rising winds that buffet the waters of Lake Wakatipu into frothing whitecaps. It’s not exactly cold on our decidedly non-aerodynamic little boat, but the forecast suggests that it will be. As the girl at the ticket booth cautions, “gotta sail now, ‘cause the weather’s turning to shit.” And thus, if Theresa wants to dangle from a big cloth, she’s going to have to do it immediately.

Or perhaps I should back up a bit.

(Continued here, with tasting notes included…)

TN: A silent confrontation (California, pt. 7)

[cable car in Chinatown]

Send me a cable

25 April 2006 –San Francisco, California

Ocean Pearl (781 Broadway) – This is a dive in every imaginable way, with tilting tables and leaking teacups (not that it much matters, because the tea is lousy). Potstickers are constructed and served like spring rolls – a new experience for me, and one I don’t think is to their gustatory benefit – and salt & pepper squid have good flavor but are overly doughy. On the other hand, a plate of spicy jellyfish is simple and tasty. Everything here is dirt-cheap, and I suppose you get what you pay for. English is barely spoken, and not well-understood either.

VinoVenue – A “concept” that seems to have spread to a lot of places, wherein one buys a sort of debit card and inserts it into machines that dispense tastes of wine. They’re tiny tastes, and something about this whole venture strikes me as profoundly antisocial, but there is an actual bar at one end, with seats and a real live bartender. Plus, proximity to the Moscone Center can’t hurt business.

The wines – several dozen of them – are categorized, albeit haphazardly, into general substations based on color, region, variety, obscurity, and price. And the per-taste prices are just uneven enough that one will inevitably be left with insufficient funds at the end of a tasting session…which is no doubt designed to encourage “recharging” of one’s debit card.

Cullen 2003 “Ephraim Clarke” (Margaret River) – A sauvignon blanc/semillon blend. There’s sweat-covered grass and good acid up front – this attack is being led almost exclusively by the semillon – and a thick, long finish that’s full and luscious in a highly floral way. If there’s a criticism, it’s that everything ends on the goopy side. But it’s a pretty good wine nonetheless.

Coyne 2002 Grenache “Old Vines” (Lodi) – Confected bubblegum, dill-infused blueberry syrup, and toast with wood-flavored jam. Blech.

Stonecutter 2003 Pinot Noir (Martinborough) – Soft plum, tomato (perhaps tamarillo would be more accurate, though there’s no citrus), and golden beet with good acidity and a long, spicy finish that, eventually, turns vegetal and sour. This is just an odd wine.

Hochar 1995 Musar (Bekaa Valley) – Well-spiced earth of terrific complexity, paired with mixed peppercorns and a stunning black truffle core. Delicious, elegant, and certainly ready to drink…though I don’t think holding it will do any damage either.

Havens 2002 “Black & Blue” (Napa Valley) – A cabernet sauvignon/syrah blend, and dreadfully, painfully corked.

It’s this final wine that assures I will never return to VinoVenue. That the wine is corked is immediately obvious…the fruit isn’t just obscured, it’s buried in a thick, moldy reek. I bring my glass to the clerk at the front desk, who shrugs and directs me to one of the bartenders. I hand him my glass.

[street & Coit Tower]

The white tower

“I think this is corked.”

He waves the glass in the general direction of his nose for far less than a second. “Nope.”

I frown. “I’m sure it is. It smells like it, and there’s absolutely no other aromas.”

He shakes his head.

This is getting nowhere. So, I attempt a bargain. “Look, the wine’s almost empty at the dispenser. Open another one, we’ll compare the two, and if I’m wrong, I’m wrong. If I’m right, though, I think you should credit the taste.”

He simply turns away. No further conversation is invited.

A few minutes later, as I’m pondering whether or not to escalate my complaint, the bartender reappears, a toothy grin that looks like more of a skull’s grimace pasted on his face. He’s carrying a glass. “This is what a corked wine smells like,” he says, presenting the liquid.

I sniff. He’s not wrong. But the Havens is far more deadened than this wine. At this point, I’m irritated, and say so. “It is corked. But it’s not as corked as the Havens. I do know how to identify corked wines. So are you going to replace it, or not?” For the second time, he just turns away. Apparently, non-confrontation is the service standard here.

Not that I’ll ever find out. Because I won’t be back.

Slanted Door – In need of a restorative (or perhaps purgative) wine experience, but with limited time before dinner, I power walk to the Embarcadero, in search of a wine bar that I know won’t ever let me down. And it doesn’t, as a grab the last seat in a restaurant that’s already getting very, very busy with early diners.

Prudhon 2001 St-Aubin “1er Cru” “Sur le Sentier du Clou” (Burgundy) – Lovely and elegant, with earth-flecked loam and lurking raspberry. The wine’s a bit of a structural chameleon, with good acid and tannin up front, a quick, sun-drenched brightening, then the emergence of a deeper, basso undertone, before finally softening once more on the finish. Air tightens the wine. It’s good now, but after a disappointing stage as it closes down it’s likely to be very pretty at full maturity.

[Italian products]

Where’s the prazhoot?

Delfina – It’s time to try another of San Francisco’s small Cal-Ital meccas (is that a horribly cross-cultural descriptor, or what?), and the Mission’s Delfina is next on my list. It’s absolutely packed, and the sort of “scene” that just screams SF, with same-sex and mixed-sex couples making out all around us, then sort of making out with their food. Wine flows like a river. We squeeze into the bar and order a few glasses to start.

Sorelle Bronca Prosecco di Valdobbiadene (Veneto) – Fun citrus and sweet flower nectar with grapefruit and ripe melon. Aromatic and succulent. Terrific prosecco.

Unti 2003 Syrah (Dry Creek Valley) – Heavy, dark and thick fruit fighting through thick wood and thick (though ripe) tannin. Did I mention something about thickness? There are good raw materials here, and I suspect long ageability is a given, but the sludge is so heavy that it’s a chore to drink.

The food is fabulous…at least, most of the time. Artichokes done in the Jewish-Roman style with mint and lemon, a straight-from-the-sea salt cod dish, and a stunning, pure essence of cauliflower soup are the standouts from the first course, a giant platter of Tuscan pork ribs is carnivorous heaven, and gnocchi are absolutely flawless in their pillowy chew. The only letdown among the savory courses is a wan Dungeness crab salad, though it’s still better than dessert: a misguided buttermilk panna cotta with candied kumquats, which lacks both harmony and any appealing tastes.

Anselma 1993 Barolo (Piedmont) – Bitter tannin overwhelms fully-resolved fruit, leaving some dried rose petals and rough, sun-baked red cherries in its wake. Hanging on, but only just, and not that interesting of a wine.

Theresa opts for an oolong tea that arrives grossly oversteeped, while I delve into the stranger side of the dessert wine list.

Contini 1996 Vernaccia di Oristano Riserva (Sardinia) – Like dry oloroso Sherry, flat and austere with dark molasses residue. Very, very different. I’m initially repelled, but by the last sip it starts to grow on me.