It’s not easy being green
A short-form San Francisco travelogue; part 1
by Thor Iverson
9 April 2005 – San Francisco, California
The Palace Hotel – Conference rates are a great thing. We’ve gotten to stay in some pretty swanky digs thanks to Theresa’s regular speaking schedule, and this is no exception. The much-photographed interior garden courtyard is every bit the gilded-age opulence that one expects, though while the hotel showcases bygone-era masculinity in its public spaces and comfortable, quiet rooms, there is just the faintest patina of decay; service that’s a little more downscale than one would expect at these rates, a check-in procedure that must be accomplished via abacus given its ponderousness, and a general (though mild) satisfaction with studied disinterest among the hotel staff. Still, these are mere quibbles; it’s a fantastic hotel in a great location.
Taylor’s Automatic Refresher – I’m assured that the Napa original is better than this one, located in a busy arm of the stupendous Ferry Building Marketplace. Well, fine. It certainly doesn’t live up to its reputation among certain wine critics as the maker of the unquestioned best burgers in the world, but it’s high-quality nonetheless. Anticipating a big meal a few hours hence, we restrict ourselves to gut-busting sandwiches (Western Bacon Blue Ring for Theresa, Bacon Double Cheeseburger for me) and shakes. Everything’s quite good, especially taken on a sunny bench along the water-facing side of the Ferry Building.
But that’s not what this is about. This is about one of those only-in-San Francisco moments that make us adore this city. On the specials menu today is a green tea milkshake; a rather heavenly concoction that manages a surprising sugar/bitterness/aromatic balance. It is, to be honest, better than the burger. So while I’m slurping away on this delicious cup-o’-dairy, a man pushing a stroller slows alongside me.
“Excuse me. Is that a green tea milkshake?”
“Did you get that at Taylor’s?”
“Wow! I have to get one of those!” And indeed, he makes an immediate right into the Marketplace in search of his own creamy goodness.
Where else in the milkshake-making world would a cup of green ice cream be thought of as anything other than mint? Only in San Francisco. One has to love it…even if one can’t afford it.
Seafood Harbor – Bryan Loofbourrow has gathered a geographically-diverse bunch of people for another attempt to indoctrinate me into the glories of the Chinese banquet. This time, he’s gotten us to BART our way down to Millbrae, on a rather restaurant-laden strip of businesses of which our destination takes a rather large horizontal swath. From the exterior and to the untrained eye, there’s no way to separate this establishment from a hundred other suburban outposts of mediocre Americanized Chinese food. But…we have Bryan.
We hang around a while for the latecomers, a bit longer for the no-shows, and then decide to start with who and what we have. And thus begins a procession of remarkable tastes, some with the pure clarity of the sea, the land, or the fire, others with the more subtle nuances of combinations in balance. Particular standouts include “crystal prawns” in a mayonnaise-like coating (it’s not really mayo…it achieves more of the effect of turning something crisp and sweet into something creamy and slightly briny; an “oysterization” of the shrimp, if you will), deep-fried balls of what tastes like – but Bryan insists shouldn’t be – coconut milk, and a mixed plate of single bits of animal flesh; some barbecued in the classic Chinese fashion, crisp and intense, and some not. It’s the “not” that intrigues me the most. Jellyfish, a sea creature that skeeves me out more than almost anything other than millipedes and giant cockroaches, is a revelation of taste and texture that I could eat for much longer than this particular feast allows. The meal starts to wind down with a truly excellent rendition of Peking duck, an old standby at Boston offlines, and a plate of pea parts (the table teeters back and forth between “shoots” and “tendrils”) that almost…almost…makes me agree with Bryan’s contention that they are the supreme expression of green vegetableness in all the world.
The problem – and this has been the same at nearly every high-quality Chinese place I’ve eaten, with or without Bryan, and whether two courses or a dozen – is the pace. Food comes out so fast, one barely has time to enjoy and savor anything. Add wine, note-taking, and conversation to the mix, and the pacing becomes extremely problematic. Though even given the ultra-rapid arrival of each dish, we still linger so long the restaurant essentially kicks us out at the end of the evening (still well shy of 11 p.m.). It’s a problem without a real solution, except maybe to start at 5 p.m. or so, which will work for almost no one.Bryan has encouraged us to bring certain grapes, appellations and wine styles to pair better with the cuisine, but one suspects his recommendations lean just as heavily on his (and our) preferred tipples. Well, ulterior motives or not, it’s a heady lineup…here, interspersed with the best quotes of the night.
Bründlmayer 1997 Riesling Zöbinger Heiligenstein “Alte Reben” (Kamptal) – Bright banana dusted with light chalk, and intertwined with sour corn silk and starchy tendrils. Is there a light touch of botrytis in this wine? It’s big, anyway, with a touch of alcohol on the salt and pepper finish, and still has a lot of time yet to go before maturity.
Boxler 2001 Riesling Sommerberg L31D (Alsace) – The “D” is for something like Dudenstein, but holders of the secret Boxler decoder ring know that it really means “Boxler’s old-vine plot on the Sommerberg.” This one is starting to close up (compared to a tasting closer to its release), showing lemon sorbet and a light palate impact, then opening up a bit with ripe and spiced granular apple, spiced pear, iron flakes, and a long, very lightly sweet finish. Time to put these to bed for a decade or so, but the wine was, and will again be, extraordinary.
JL Wolf 1996 Wachenheimer Gerümpel Riesling Spätlese (8 97) (Pfalz) – Gas-drenched Granny Smith apple, lime juice, and zingy, high-tartness grapefruit with a shorter, lighter finish than one might want. Probably it just needs to not be poured after the Bründlmayer and the Boxler, but what it possesses in verve it somewhat lacks in oomph.
“You should title these notes ‘nobody’s Pfalz but mine.’” – Larry Stein
Trimbach 1990 Riesling “Cuvée Frédéric Émile” (Alsace) – Wind-blown iron dust, dried sandstone, and lemongrass. Very dry at the moment (it hasn’t always “felt” so dry), like silk brushing across the palate, then finishing extremely long with emergent particulate-smoothed texture. Incredible wine, and though it’s ready to go for those that prefer the upside of maturity, there’s absolutely no hurry either; more complexity is yet to come.
Alzinger 2000 Loibner Steinertal Riesling “Smaragd” (Wachau) – Cured orange peel, dried potato skin, spice, and starch in a dense, full-bodied wine with a long, thick finish. It’s playing a terrific melody, though it’s playing it a bit too loudly. Still, it’s an enjoyable listen, and it certainly has the potential to grow into it’s artistic potential.
Schmitges 2003 Erdener Treppchen Riesling Kabinett “No. 7” (12 04) (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer) – Lightish melon drizzled with clover honey, sweetly ripe apple, and a friendly, fruity, low-acid aspect. Decent, and in that context probably very good for 2003, but I probably wouldn’t go long or deep with this wine.
Trimbach 1979 Riesling “Cuvée Frédéric Émile” (Alsace) – Alas, this wine’s better days are behind it. I’ve had ‘79s that were a bit fresher than this one, so chalk it up to bottle, cork, or storage variation. Slightly oxidized creamed corn and molten steel with a long, dried-out finish. It actually improves with air, but it’s not a fully-intact bottle.
R. Chevillon 1990 Nuits Saint-Georges Les Cailles “1er Cru” (Burgundy) – Morel and black trumpet mushrooms, dark and dense cherries, and a light soy note dominate this still-youthful wine, which finishes with dark, coal-studded earth and walnut foam. If there’s the slightest quibble, it’s that the finish is a touch short. But this is gorgeous Burgundy.
Foreau “Domaine du Clos Naudin” 1995 Vouvray “Moelleux” (Loire) – Wet chalk, white plum, and dried honeycomb with wet apple skin and an elusive papery texture, this shows incredible intensity that grows from start to finish, and a striking balance that will hold it for decades to come. Terrific wine.
Boivin “Château de Fesles” 1989 Bonnezeaux (Loire) – I’ve been holding onto this bottle for about as long as I’ve been collecting wine. The rampantly uncertain quality of Fesles kept me from opening it on big wine geek occasions, yet the possibility that it was as ageworthy as chenin should be made me fear opening it too early. Finally over these opposed neuroses, here it is…and, ultimately, it didn’t appear to matter much. The nose is incredibly floral, showing honeysuckle and a soft, salty aspect, with a long, growing finish that eventually is dominated by botrytis-spice and pine needles, and turns from delicate to fragile in just a few minutes. It’s good, it’s fine…but to be honest, it’s more than a bit disappointing; I’m not much for inter-appellation comparisons of this nature, but the Foreau is a dozen times the wine that this probably ever was. In any case, it’s one less thing taking up space in my cellar.
“I asked a question. I didn’t want a big God-damned embellishment.” – Lou Kessler
Black Cat Vineyards 2003 “Miel” (San Mateo) – Ah, the great vignoble of San Mateo, world-renowned for its…uh…. Actually, this is John DeFiore’s homemade wine. I guess sauvignon blanc, Larry guesses muscat, and we’re apparently both right. It’s a pretty good effort for homebrew, showing the expected volatile acidity, clear botrytis notes, pear, sweet saccharine, and good acidity. Quite credible.
Copyright ©2005 Thor Iverson.