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The terror of Colorado Boulevard

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because the Night

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

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

Obviously, the Sunset Strip.

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

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

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

Another reason to love it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

On every Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When push comes to chèvre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Brie, Camembert, Roquefort.” Apparently not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corse grind

This and untold essays to follow are a Parisian travelogue…in a sense. Neither an event-by-event diary, as most are, nor a bare-bones food-and wine accounting, as more recent others have been, but something different.

Food and beverage are the foundation, and no entry will be without one or the other. But does anyone need me to tell them that they should visit Sainte-Chapelle, and why? I don’t think so. Then again, Paris deserves more than a guide to consumption. Besides, there are already sites that do exactly that, and brilliantly.

Oh, and this: this “travelogue” encompasses multiple temporalities: at this writing, a month-plus visit in the late fall of 2013, a two-month stay during March and April of 2011, and a one-month stay in 2009’s autumnal decline. By the time it has been fully populated, it will no doubt have been supplemented by future visits. The only case in which this really matters (wine notes) are – as always – dated for clarity, but where necessary commentary on restaurants, shops, and so forth might also carry date specificity. Usually, however, the same thoughts apply to multiple time-frames. In Paris, even the temporal is eternal.

So…that’s probably enough introductory essay, and in fact enough idle musing for one entry. Why not jump right in? Because that’s how I start my stay: night one, hour one, very shortly after arrival via Eurostar, and still chilled to the roots by an icy week in London. Shopping options at this hour range from a dismal Monoprix to a downright depressing Franprix, and in any case the owner of the apartment I’m renting wants to have a quick dinner in a nearby restaurant. Sounds good to me, especially since I get to pick.

Villa Corse Rive Gauche – In the United States of a slowly-disappearing era, this space might have been labeled a “supper club.” It is swanky and club-like, but in neither case akin to, say, a starred establishment. Maybe more like faux-Vegas hipster? I don’t mean to disrespect the bookishly masculine interior, which I actually like, but it’s very obviously both restaurant and gathering place.

My dining companion needs to catch an overnight bus back to her cross-channel home, and so our dining hour is far in advance of anything even remotely typical by Parisian standards. But if they’re surprised, they’re happy to seat and serve us anyway. The menu is, as the restaurant’s name promises, Corsican. The wine list even more so, with a breadth (though not depth) that’s extremely impressive. Perhaps by-the-glass options could be a little less reliant on the island’s internationalized offerings, but that’s a quibble, and it’s unlikely that most will fail to find a wine they want on this list..

Our food is mostly well-prepared and served with brevity (a correct reading of our early-hour dining needs that may not apply to more temporally acceptable dining). My chop, from some Corsican breed of pig, is flavorful despite overcooking (I’ve become acclimated to the persistent French and Italian preference for this meat to be less pink than I’d prefer), but my companion’s gargantuan assemblage of noodle and mushroom is the superior dish.

My only complaint is about price. This is not an expensive restaurant, exactly, but it’s a little more expensive than its ambiance, quality, and (especially) ambition warrant. I think the bifurcated and somewhat clubby intention of the restaurant adds a certain surcharge to what, elsewhere, might be the same cooking presented in a more direct manner and in less luxe surroundings.

Leccia 2008 Patrimonio “Petra Bianca” Rouge (Corsica) – Dark fruit. A little wild. And very, very heavy. It’s not thick, precisely – there’s a reasonable amount of space in the middle (too much, perhaps) – but it’s like a Christmas tree with its outer limbs over-draped and sagging with weighty decorations. Most of that weight is structure, and time will tell what it tells of that structure’s development, but right now it really needs the counterweight of intense animal flesh, or a reasonable equivalent. (3/11)

The one & uni Fergus

Vinoteca – A bustling, chaotic, pretty much disorganized wine bar that, almost magically, actually seems to be organized when one is a customer. They serve people sitting, standing, bar-leaning, and shopping in what seems an utterly chaotic and random way. But serve them they do. On offer are a fairly mediocre list of wines by the glass in the midst of a pretty wide-ranging wall selection of wines by the bottle. I don’t try the food, as I’m on my way to dinner, but I suspect the trick here is to plan the liquid capacity of your group carefully, so that you may order by the bottle rather than the glass.

That said, they’re friendly and receptive to banter, even in the midst of a crushing post-work rush. Really, this isn’t a “wine bar,” this is a neighborhood bar that happens to serve wine and be awfully well-known. And that’s not so bad.

Huet 2007 Vouvray Le Mont Sec (Loire) – The oft-expressed opinion of increasingly ego-overwhelmed critics that great ageable wines taste great in youth is persistently dispelled by wines like this. It’s nice enough, with firm structure, gently chalky minerality, a lot of spine without much flesh, and a strikingly long finish that holds its poise all the way to its denouement. But really, there’s so much more to come that only those intimately familiar with the usual trajectory could even begin to divine the potential here. I doubt I would, encountering this wine blind. So is it a waste to drink this now? I’m starting to wonder if it might not be. At the very least, the demi-sec bottlings offer more early material for appreciation. (3/11)

Kracher 2008 Zweigelt “Illmitz” (Burgenland) – Oaky zweigelt. What a terrible idea. What an unpleasant wine. (3/11)

Haisma 2007 Gevrey-Chambertin (Burgundy) – Dark fruit, though far from opaque, with the slender musculature of a runner. Mushroom dust, some earth. There’s wood, yes, but it’s young Burgundy. Wood’s not uncommon at this stage. Structurally sound. I’ve never heard of this guy, but on a sample size of one, he might be worth watching. (3/11)

St. John – A place that probably needs little introduction to the carnivorous, the nose-to-tail ethos is not overwhelmingly in evidence on my menu tonight. Or maybe I’m already a quarter of the way in from each end, and it’s just the stuff in the middle that I’ve yet to 100% embrace. But to be honest, tonight’s carte is pretty staid, vs. my expectations.

And yet, those expectations include a determination that I will push my boundaries a bit. So, rather than the infamously delicious marrow that I’d usually order, I opt for sea urchins. Now, I eat their roe all the time in Japanese, Italian, and other sorts of places, but the slashed-open entirety of these spiky little sea aliens are a new experience for me. New, and delicious. All the briny liquidity that makes a carefully-shucked oyster such an exercise in perfection is, more delicately, displayed here.

After that, my cream-stew-ish dish of some sort of heirloom pork is perfectly tasty but pretty standard and straightforward. The chocolate terrine that follows, however, is stunning…and even more so with the incredibly rich Armagnac ice cream that accompanies it. There’s a vieille prune and an excellent coffee somewhere in this quadrant of the evening, but honestly I’m meated and wined into fair, albeit happy, oblivion. The atmosphere is gymnasium chic, the service is quick, the overall experience is pack-‘em-in and move-‘em-out. And everyone loves it. This is a great, great restaurant.

Bizeul “Domaine du Clos des Fées” 2008 Côtes du Roussillon “Les Sorcières” (Roussillon) – Flavorful, but with odd helixes and skews to its geometry. Red fruit mixed with earth, herbs tossed with grains, light but with a low subwoofer hum. There are a lot of tasty elements, but they never quite coalesce. It’s good, but only just. (3/11)

Same post, many more photos: here

William Henry

Terroirs – Apparently, every major city must have a wine bar carrying this name, with or without the trailing pluralization. This one was a little more groundbreaking than some of its namesakes, shaking up one of the most established wine cultures in the world with naturalia and a passel of its qualitative cousins.

The menu’s perfect for a sort of place in which one wants (or should want) to sample and graze both solids and liquids. I make it simple on myself, in conception if not quantity, by assembling an array of charcuterie from the Pyrénées, radishes with anchoiade (the only failed dish I’ll order; the sauce is gelatinous and obliterates the delicate radishes), and cod roe with egg. The bread’s good, too, and given what I’ve ordered I end up with rather a quantity of delicious cornichons, which are about as sharp a palate-clearer as one can find.

To my amusement, the guys behind the bar are both American. We chat into the wee hours of the late afternoon, at certain points including my neighbors to the right (ties over their white-shirted shoulders and highly intrigued by the opacity of the orange wines in front of me) and my neighbor to the left (a beer aficionado with an immense affection for Portland, Oregon). Wee-hour chatting encourages wee-hour bibulous addenda, and that is how the rest of the evening goes slowly but inexorably wrong. On which subject I will have nothing to say, now or in any future post…

Mathis Bastian 2008 Riesling “Grand Premier Cru” Wellenstein (Luxembourg) – Bright and vibrant. Crisp acidity, not overly sharpened, with flaky limestone minerality and ripe lemon flavors. Pretty impressive, and by a fair margin the best Luxembourgeois wine I’ve tasted. (3/11)

Il Tufiello 2007 Fiano “Don Chisciotte” (Campania) – An orange wine. What’s most interesting to me is how clearly both the waxiness and textural impact of the grape and the dust of the region shine though the layers of tactility provided by extended skin contact. The tannin here is present but quite manageable within the wine’s overall balance, and acidity hasn’t been completely lost, so the end result is something a little brighter and fresher than the orange norm. It’s not as complex as some, but it’s a simple pleasure. (3/11)

La Stoppa 2006 “Ageno” (Emilia-Romagna) – Very deep, rich, and shaded. A powerful, almost stravecchio style of orange wine (really more brown when taken to this extent), full of dessert spices, minerality, and preserved fruit. Absolutely delicious, albeit heady. (3/11)

Vino di Anna 2009 “Jeudi 15” (Sicily) – Carbonic (at least, what one imagines a carbonic wine to taste like) and crisp. Apple (skin on), raspberry, red cherry. Vivacious, irresistible. I love this. (3/11)

Les Foulards Rouge 2010 Vin de Table “Octobre” (Roussillon) – Spicy, frothy acidity with sharp, boisterous red berries. There’s more to it, thankfully, with earthier and more herbal…well, I was going to write “nuances,” but they’re more like microbursts. Nothing’s quiet in this wine. Fun, if simple. (3/11)

Navarre 2008 Saint-Chinian “Cuvée Oliver” (Languedoc) – I really don’t like this. Stale butter and the scotchy taste of wood (is it wooded? the web site doesn’t mention it if so) completely ruin whatever fruit characteristics might be present. Nasty stuff. (3/11)

de Bartoli “Vecchia Samperi Ventennale” Vino Liquoroso (Sicily) – A wine of tension. This strikes me as amusing, since I’m sure it would be characterized as a wine of meditation on many Italian lists. But it’s that settled uncertainty – is it trying to be sweeter or drier? is it a Marsala or not? – that’s this wine’s brilliance. Complexity defined. A jumble of bones, rocks, nut oils, and differing shades of late afternoon. Long. Incredibly long. Really brilliant. (3/11)

Cazottes Eau-de-Vie Goutte de Mauzac Rosé Passerillé (Southwest France) – Floral as much as fruity, with the quality of my preferred clear spirits in that it goes beyond a simple spirituous expression of the source material to achieve something a little more interesting. Those who prefer that purity might not like this as much. There’s a delicacy along with the usual heat that’s not often found, either. (3/11)

Donna Summer

Hot Stuff – Exactly the sort of downmarket curry joint one wants. We, as is recommended, just let them feed us. And it’s good. Very good. And stupidly cheap (for London). We – the other party to which I keep referring is London-based wine writer and Barbera 7 co-conspirator Stuart George – bring wine, of course.

Sainsbury’s Sauvignon Blanc (Central Valley) – A whole orchard full of grapefruit, lemon, lime, with just a hint of pith and bitterness. Good flavor for the money. (3/11)

Sainsbury’s Cabernet Sauvignon (Valle Central) – Why the language switch for the appellation between this and the sauvignon blanc, I don’t know. I’m sure some focus group, somewhere, knows the answer. Sweet green pepper, synthetic and sticky fruit. I rarely think the cabernets are ideal candidates for cellar-dwelling price points, and sauvignon even less so than franc. This wine demonstrates why. An underripe festival of pyrazines would be one thing, but to add the sticky, plastic sugar element just to make things “more palatable” is triply wretched. No bargain at any cost. (3/11)

Edmunds St. John 2000 “Los Robles Viejos” Rozet (Paso Robles) – Undoubtedly much-victimized by a transatlantic voyage and then a good shaking from hotel to subway to restaurant, so when I mention the muted elements to come, they’re only partially due to a wine in its midlife crisis. But that’s a factor, as well…though the eventual signs of a more mature life can be very clearly glimpsed through the haze and miasma. Beefy, dark, scowling and broodish, with the mourvèdre taking a very prominent role (my drinking companion complains of mild brett; without lab work it’s hard to know for sure, but I feel it’s the animal stink of the grape rather than the animal stink of a yeast) and the other grapes of this southern Rhônish blend pacing around in the background. Structure is still fulsome and enveloping, and so while the fruit is well along its development curve, there’s still softening to be done. In another wine, I might caution about the future, but my experience with ESJ wines is that they always go longer – and often much longer – than my initial instinct suggests. So I’d say, more based on experience than the possibly traumatized state of this particular bottle, there’s absolutely no hurry, though given the right culinary conditions this could be coaxed into a state of reasonable enjoyability right now. I’ll wait on the rest of mine. (3/11)

Rasoi – I’ve done upscale Thai, and now here’s upscale Indian. It’s not quite as overtly striving as was nahm, until the plates arrive. This is decorative, modernized, Westernized Indian food in presentation and, on occasion, in ingredients. But not, I’d say, in flavor, which is just as rich and complex as one expects. Service is more the upscale norm, and there’s a quite fine wine list to match (if anything actually matches Indian cuisine). I had my doubts about this concept, unsure if the soul of the food would survive the upscaling, but I needn’t have worried. This is a vibrant success.

Sula 2010 Chenin Blanc (Nashik) – I’ve watched this particular bottling over seven vintages now, which is kinda fun to say about an Indian wine. Interestingly, while it has gotten cleaner over the years, it has not necessarily gotten better, which might indicate that it’s coming up against some sort of externally-imposed limit. Maybe vine age, maybe terroir, maybe something else. It’s still a bright, light-fruited quaff, still tastes less like chenin (either the Loire style or the fruit-blast South African style) than something more innocuous, still has just-bright-enough acidity, and still goes pretty much nowhere on the finish. In other words, its primary quality remains a delight at drinking a pleasant wine from India. (3/11)

Neumeyer 2007 Pinot Gris “Le Beger” (Alsace) – The label says pinot gris, there’s a little hint of pear-ish fruit done up with wintry spices, and the particular sort of (very) light off-dryness is carried in a very pinot gris-like way. But otherwise, this has about a foot and a half firmly in the riesling camp, in that its structure is metallic, cylindrical, and firm. The overall effect is to pretty much dry out the residual sugar, leaving a fine, steely minerality dominant over the restrained fruit. The finish is long and firm-fisted. While it will not be to the taste of those demanding lushness from their Alsatian pinot gris, for me it’s almost an historic resurrection of a much-missed style. A style that is, though it’s hard to remember in this era of dessert-y pinot gris, very appealing with food. (3/11)

Lab rinse

Maze – My dining companion is unwell. Exceedingly unwell, in fact. Against our better judgment, we go ahead and attempt to keep this (sometimes difficult) reservation, made ages ago and reconfirmed twice. It might be our only chance.

As soon as we walk in, I know we’ve erred. We order a few small plates, hedging our bets despite the increasingly green face across from me. Fifteen minutes later, we’re out the door. In an act of kind generosity, they rebook us for two nights hence.

In between the greenness and the hasty departure, here’s a bit of an aborted mini-meal on my part, which I scarf while paying the check and hastily draining a few glasses of already-delivered wine. The delicious-sounding poached duck egg with Jerusalem artichoke velouté and a persillade of porcini (which initially presents itself, somewhat unfortunately, as a giant bowl of foam) is terrific at bite one, tedious by bite four. There’s no balance here, just incredible richness. I like richness, a lot, but there’s no respite, and this dish needs one. On the other hand, there’s also tea-smoked salmon with cauliflower, radishes, and apple vinaigrette. Here’s all the spare crispness that the other dish lacks as its counterpoint. The flavors are clearly delineated, though of course a plate like this relies much more on quality shopping than it does on high-skill kitchen techniques.

Anton Bauer 2009 Grüner Veltliner Rosenberg (Donauland) – Open, but it’s a small opening, spreading tiny white petals to show the (nicely) vegetal greenness within. There’s just a touch of the lurid to the aroma, but it’s a luridness that exists mostly in a nearby room, rather than right in front of the taster. Simple, nice, not really more than that. (2/11)

Josmeyer 2008 Gewurztraminer “Les Folastries” (Alsace) – Off-dry, with its minerality delivered in a waterfall of crystallization. Sweet lychee verging into peach, but with a clementine counterpoint, even a little mirabelle as it lingers. There’s power here without overt weight, and also without relying too heavily on the common crutch of sugar. Extremely nice. (2/11)

A few nights later, take two. More small plates to start, this time starting with a rabbit and foie gras terrine with accompaniments from both the porcine and dried plum genres. It’s very good, if just a touch dry. Next are quail, kohlrabi, and cauliflower with the spice of the souq and a burnt onion reduction. The combination is extremely flavorful, but suffers from the same issue as the poached egg: too many intense flavors in the same narrow band, which ends up (due to a longer-lingering aftertaste) being dominated by the onion char. Even the kohlrabi doesn’t help. Again, it would be preferable in a smaller quantity than is offered here, and this isn’t exactly a big plate.

The only unmitigated brilliant dish I’ll have here is the next: daurade atop squid Bolognese and garlic, with some sort of citrusy counterpoint and a lump of chorizo. The squid Bolognese is a brilliant idea, frankly, bringing land and sea together, and though I’d have preferred better integration of the chorizo into the dish, everything works in both isolation and tandem. After this, the better-sounding (on the menu, anyway) pork cheek and belly mini-choucroute is a bit of a letdown. I expect the choucroute concept to be taken somewhere individualistic, but other than the meats used, it’s really not. I like choucroute, and I like this. But I wouldn’t have to come to a Gordon Ramsay restaurant and pay this much to get one I like equally well, and this isn’t exactly an Alsatian-sized portion.

Rice pudding with mirabelle finishes. It’s quite fine, but at this point I’m suffering from a bit of palate fatigue, so I’m not sure my faculties are in session.

Rereading the above, I see more carping than the restaurant really deserves. It’s good, service is attentive if a touch quick (they turn tables here, and it’s a huge restaurant with a lot of ground to cover), and while it’s expensive it’s not larcenous. But it is not, to borrow the Michelin parlance, worth a special trip. It’s more an “if you’re in the neighborhood” place…though it’s not a bad neighborhood to be in, for sure.

As for the wine list, it holds quality options for both conservative label-drinkers and wild-haired seekers of the alternative (naturalia, not so much), with the former of course being soaked for the maximum number of pounds, and the latter getting the better end of the deal. In other words, the normal state of affairs. Special note goes out to a more than decent by-the-glass selection.

Gosset Champagne Brut “Grand Rosé” (Champagne) – Simple and a little heavy, full of red-berry flavor but extremely linear and literal. Solid. (3/11)

Keller 2005 Spätburgunder “Selection” 38 07 (Baden) – Light-minded, with soft red fruit both yielding and a little plush despite an enveloping tan minerality. Just a touch of brett. Really quite beautiful and approachable, though it’s not blessed with much complexity. Maybe that will come. (3/11)

Trimbach 2008 Riesling “Réserve” (Alsace) – Sulfurous, though mildly so. Yet it does obscure. Underneath that sulfur there’s a heck of a wine…powerful, iron-cored, bracing…but I think this has been treated for the long haul, which it should have no problem enduring. Now, it’s just sulfurous. (3/11)

Disznókő Tokaji “Late Harvest” (Hungary) – Concentrated sweetness, copper, bronze, brass, molten candle wax, and amber. Some extremely concentrated apricot, as well, perhaps more as a honey flavoring than an actual fruit experience. Very clean, devoid of the style’s typical issues with volatility, and delicious. (3/11)

Ledaig 20 Year Scotch Whisky (Isle of Mull) – As broad a peat aroma as I’ve smelled in a Scotch. Not strong, just broad. Drinking this is to experience the sensation of consuming a Scottish woolen blanket. That, since it’s probably not clear, is a compliment. I really love this. (3/11)

Om nahm nahm

nahm – Upscale Thai. I know this exists in the States, here and there, but I’ve never heard anyone get particularly passionate about it. The Thai that foodish ’merican people love, in its restaurant form, is downscale, or at least midscale. And there is, of course, the plethorama of goopy, Americanized Thai places with the four-color-curry pick-your-meat menus, at which everything after the coconut soup is more or less a disaster.

Not here, though. David Thompson’s beautiful boutique hotel restaurant is as classy as any joint, albeit with a bit more wood-toned warmth. (Caveat: the music is excruciating elevator world-jazz, but no one’s perfect.) As for the service, it’s efficient more than warm. Normally, I would prefer this, but part of the game this restaurant plays is that there’s no hand-holding…you’re expected to know, or to not know and guess, rather than be gently guided through a menu that will, for non-Thai-fanatics, be largely unfamiliar…and one can always feel somewhat at sea aboard the truly unfamiliar. In any case, if there’s a question of construction or detail, there’s always Thompson’s parenthetically exhaustive, obsessively pedantic, and fussily brilliant cookbook.

I’ve been warned off the tasting menu, which would be my usual choice at such an establishment, by my frequent-guest dining companion as it apparently over-relies on dessert…rarely the strength of an Asian menu. So we trade off a hand’s worth of choices (i.e. five), covering what feels like a pretty wide range of styles.

And wide-ranging is what we get. First, the crusty caramelized chicken hash (I don’t have a better way to familiarize it) on sliced fruit that serves as an amuse. Then, pigeon larp with thinly-sliced bitter melon, bracingly scudded and about as far outside Western flavor norms as anything I’ve ever eaten. It’s very difficult to eat, to be honest, and yet it’s so different that the intellectual exercise is enjoyable in its own right. (The post-larp burn, however, is a companion for the rest of the night and well into the next afternoon.) Squid with snow peas, each black with the former’s ink, is so much more delicate than what’s preceded it, and perfectly cooked to two entirely different textures. A pair of soups follow, one a rich oxtail broth that plays familiar Thai melodies in a very rich, almost French-reminiscent broth, the other a frankly brilliant gourd soup that dances a very appealing flavor tango between the familiar and the unusual. Finally, there’s a massaman duck curry rich with what I call “baking spices” in the West – this is as close to dessert as we’ll get – and a clarion combination of briefly-seared venison slices with chiles and other Thai aromatics that cleans everything up and ties off the bow with its precise, almost spare, yet intense flavors.

All that sounds good, right? Well, not so much in toto. There are, frankly, way too many flavors in this meal. It’s our fault, not the restaurant’s, but the churning confusion on the palate is very difficult to deal with; rather than the satisfaction of a frontier explored, I’m left with organoleptic disarray, bewildered and a little overwhelmed. Next time, whether or not I choose the tasting menu, I’ll ask for some help with focus and linearity.

The wine list is extensive, and appears to be pretty decent (given the sort of food we’re eating, I scan the rich and aromatic whites, make a quick choice, and ignore the rest), albeit quite expensive. What I choose is a cultish Antipodal wine that I never see in the States.

Dry River 2008 Gewürztraminer (Martinborough) – Sneaky. Starts off very shy, then gradually opens; the ideal temperature, at least from a “cold” opening, is somewhere a little higher-temp than might be ideal for most gewürztraminer. Is what appears to be a lowish alcohol vs. the gewürztraminer norm a factor? It might be. The aromatic range includes rambutan and some stone fruit, nut oils, and roses, but everything is nicely restrained…even delicate…in comparison to the weighty power of which the grape is capable. Off-dry, but just that; this is in no way overtly sticky. Finishes long and a little tingly, with the promise of minerality to come. As the gewürztraminers of Alsace get heavier and sweeter, this is a nice respite. (2/11)

Weinbach Eau-de-Vie Poire William (Alsace) – Extremely intense, round, and fulsome, as stylistically befits any beverage from this house. Ripe pear, salt, minerality, sweat (an oddly regular component of this particular spirit, across producers and appellations). So much going on that the heat, which is not inconsiderable, actually takes a step back. I like this a lot. (2/11)