Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Gentlemen's Lunch

If it seems the return of Le Monstre is food based, you may be on to something. C.R.E.A.M (Cash Rules Everything Around Me, for those not familiar with the Wu Tang Clan) has been replaced by F.R.E.A.M. And while that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue or even make much sense, it allows me to mention the Wu in a blog post…which warms my heart.

Every once in a while our good client and better mate, Angus, will come to town to pick up some wine but more importantly, for us to have a proper Gentlemen’s Lunch. Angus is an Aussie, who officially lives in Manhattan but is constantly traveling the most remote places in the world. I will often get a witty reply to one of our 56 offerings from some micro-village in Africa or Asia. Angus is nothing if not witty, with a repartee that puts mine to shame. Also possessing a pro’s palate, he’s actually in the process of becoming an MW. He’s that good. Add it all up and you have a great guy to spend a couple hours dining with.

We’ve had four or five of these now, usually Chris and I along with my good friend, Doug. We’ll frequent the Pluckemin Inn or Restaurant 252, grab a few bottles and have a nice two hour lunch and just generally geek out on wine, food and life. A good, long lunch is something that has fallen by the wayside in our society. It’s understandable – busy schedules and the need to produce at a high level doesn’t usually allow for two hours of eating in the middle of the work day. Unless you are from Spain, in which case it’s expected. Hell, you can’t even find a business open during “Siesta” hours. But I’m actually working during this lunch (remember, Angus IS a client) so I’m doing my duty. I love my duty. Reminds me of my good friend, Manish Bardolia, and his blog post on combining work and passions. Anyway, for this Gentlemen’s Lunch we went back to the scene of the very first one, Sette Cucina in Bernardsville.

Allan Russo is the most under-rated chef in NJ. He doesn’t do nouveau cuisine. He doesn’t build skyscrapers on a plate or use chemistry or power tools to produce food. What he does is take you to the essence of traditional Italian cooking. He keeps it REAL. Want one of the best meals you’ve ever had and be transported to a trattoria in Campania without buying the plane ticket or getting crushed by the Euro? Just go to Sette and ask Alan to cook for you. No menu, no constraints…he will make it like in the old country with heart and passion. We’ve hosted many Italian winemakers at his restaurant: Gianluca Grasso, Christina & Isabella Oddero, Vinzia Novara from Firriato, Ivan Rapuzzi of Ronchi di Cialla. All have gushed on how amazingly authentic the food is. “It’s like I’m eating at home!” remarked Gianluca Grasso.

For the Gentlemen’s Lunch, we just had Allan cook. He started us with Bruschetta, homemade garlic bread, ripe red tomatoes, fresh basil and extra virgin olive oil. Angus is always good for bringing old Aussie wines and he supplied a mature 1991 Tyrells Semillon from Hunter Valley. Next up, Antipasto Fantasia, thinly sliced Prosciutto di Parma, sweet soppressata, “Cinque Stelle”, Gorgonzola, and Poached Bosco Pears. A simple yet utterly delicious plate that was devoured in a blink, we attempted to pair it with a bottle of 2001 Ronchi di Ciallo Ciallabianco but alas the bottle was corked. Back to the Semillon…

Next was Antipasto Caldo, an eye-popping plate of sweet and sour Yellow & Orange Peppers with Homemade Sausage. This was so simple and so flavorful, as well as appealing to the eye. You always see a dish first, setting your mind up for the flavors to follow. To me presentation is very important, never better illustrated than with this dish. We cracked open the 2004 Cascina Chicco Barbera d’Alba Bric Loira, a perfectly aged and delectable Barbera that is drinking brilliantly.

Then Alan brings out a plate that will remain in my mind for a very, very long time. Tortellini al Profumo di Tartufo, Baby Torellini sautéed with toasted Pancetta, touch of Cream and Truffle Essence…my God, this was orgasmic. I mean just look at it! I felt as if my body was leaving the planet and rising to the heavens. We uncorked the clear wine of the afternoon, the 1985 Emedio Pepe Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. Words aren’t really sufficient to describe the depth of this old Montepulciano with this magical mushroomy, salty, creamy plate of love.

Finally, we finished with another old Aussie wine that Angus provided, the 1996 Bowen Estate Shiraz Connawarra, a dark fruited, gamy wine that reminded me of a great Languedoc, a la Grange de Peres. It was fantastic with Vitello al Gorgonzola, Escalope of Veal, sautéed Crimini Mushrooms and Gorgonzola, perfectly picking up the earthy notes of the dish and melding with the Shiraz. One would never confuse this coolish Coonawarra with the sappy Shiraz that are mass produced today. Truly lovely stuff…

Much discussion by the Gentlemen of which I can’t divulge. For what happens at a Gentlemen’s Lunch stays there, only to be revisited at the next one. Not soon enough…

JCB the 4th

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Down & Out In Napa City Part II

Woozy with the simultaneous outrage of the prior evening’s meal and fortified with a little booze and a lot of wine still coursing through my system; I woke early from my beautiful room at Avia Napa seeking redemption, a little exercise and something to soak up last night’s exploits. Unshaven and unshowered, I wandered out of the hotel and began to walk Napa City. With the streams of disappointment still burning in my mind, I began to search for some silver lining. I mean, Napa is supposed to be going through a revival – a rebirth that is revitalizing the town and luring tourists by the droves. While this was no Shawshank, Gillwoods provided the perfect start to what was to become an unforgettable day of dining. I don’t really need to go any further than showing you this photo of a perfectly done Belgian Waffle with Fresh Mixed Berries and a side of Slab Bacon. Nuff said…

We jump in the car and head to Sonoma for an appointment with an old friend who had a lead for us that worked out brilliantly. I’m proud to announce that there will be a 2010 Pre en Pierre Chardonnay Russian River Valley and it is delicious! Terry Thiese once wrote that “delicious” is a word that is under-utilized in tasting notes. I agree and am here to reclaim the word and grab it from the world of pedestrian nomenclature. It encapsulates so much in those nine little letters. Who doesn’t like “delicious” foods, wines, people? I try to use “delicious” every day. If you do the same, your life will be enhanced no doubt…

Anyway, we find the “delicious” Chardonnay and plow through about 40 other really awful bulk wines. I mean thoroughly revolting wines! I’m talking about turning the cap to the bottle and having shitty, spritzy wine flying out at me covering my face with a thin film of grossness. Believe me, we taste a lot of poo before we find these little wine jewels. With that torture finished yet running a little late for our next appointment, I ask if we have time for a quick bite to eat, Lita and I leading the charge for some sustenance. The short answer was no but then on our way to the next meeting, we quickly swerve into a parking lot at what appears to be a sleepy roadside grill.

Henweigh’s Café was like an oasis among the scrubby landscape of Occidental. We walk in to this quiet restaurant with our typical New York City bluster informing the waitress that we need to order quick and leave quick to make an appointment. She smiles and says, “Sure, no problem. What can I get for you?” We order five Arnold Palmers and ask what’s good? Then a voice comes out of nowhere; a grizzled old guy looking slightly disheveled lifts his head up doing his best Billy Bob Thornton in Slingblade impression, “Get the pulled pork…” and then returns to his food never to be heard from again. Armed with the recommendation of a local (always a good idea) we all order Pulled Pork Sandwiches. In less than a couple minutes, the waitress brings five refreshing Arnold Palmers, a perfect division of iced tea and lemonade clearly evident in the contrast of colors. It struck me that she did this faster and with more care than anything that happened at the Napa Disaster the evening before. Then came the sandwiches…

Made by a transplanted Boston-ite chef-owner, who spotted our NY accent as easily as we spotted his Red Sawks drawl; this was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. Yes, I said it! So succulent, perfectly smoky, slightly sweet and melting in your mouth, it was like all the sins of yesterday washed away with that sandwich. Starting to nibble on them, we were powerless against the pulled pork accompanied with homemade potato chips. Thinking it was better to take in the “terroir” of Henweigh’s by eating this masterpiece at the counter than it was to be on time, we quickly devoured this heavenly delight. Thanking our hosts profusely, we barreled out of the parking lot like Starsky and Hutch chasing a coke dealer.

Two more appointments with lots of blending and tasting of more samples and the trip was officially over. The only thing left was the “out”, as in back to San Francisco for dinner and an early am flight back home. Hitting the normal maddening traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge, we arrive at Spruce in a huff. I hadn’t even had an opportunity to change clothes from the day’s tastings so I was wearing a white t-shirt, jeans, sandals with my sunglasses perched on my now tanned bald dome. Warmly greeted by the maître d, we were shown to our table in the gorgeously adorned restaurant. I couldn’t help but notice the elderly woman with huge glasses lock her gaze upon me as I walked by her table. Her eyes never leaving me with a look of disdain as if to say, “Morris, who let this riff-raff in OUR restaurant? What in the world is this negro wearing in OUR favorite place?!?” Chuckling as I took my seat, that is where the pretentiousness ended. We all took turns laying into the extensive and very well chosen wine list and decided to begin with a gorgeous bottle of NV Diebolt Vallois Champagne Brut Blanc de Blancs “Cuvee Prestige.”

Everything, I mean everything done at Spruce is top-notch. Not only the sommelier but each server, food runner and bus boy had an air of confidence that didn’t feel stuffy; something one would acquire from a) experience b) excellent training and c) confidence that you will do everything to make the customer feel welcomed and satisfied. A delightful amuse gave way to my first course, Seared Sweetbreads over Tagliarini with Foraged Mushrooms. Whoever came up with the name for the thymus gland as “sweetbreads” is a real joker…There is nothing sweet nor bread-like about them. Just the most tender, fleshy gift from the food gods that have richness and succulence to stand up to the perfectly al dente pasta and the earthy but subtle flavors of the champignon. A magnificently conceived and executed dish that set my weary brain ablaze with sensation. Surprisingly, the dish even worked with Brian’s selection of 2003 Raveneau Chablis Montee de Tonnerre 1er cru. The deux mille trois was in great shape, minerally and briny, fresh and vibrant and showing no signs of oxidation. Brilliant!

Finally, for the main course Chris ordered a sexy beast of a wine, the 1995 Joseph Roty Mazy-Chambertin Grand Cru. Expertly decanted by our sommelier, this wine was beauty personified in a glass. I knew some form of meat was in my future and went with the Honey Lacquered Duck Breast with Cinnamon Spiced Fois Gras, Watercress and Glazed Rhubarb. This sounds like its sticky sweet but the chef’s sensibilities here worked with smashing results. This is a rich dish for sure and not for those seeking to slim down, but my God was that fois gras melt-in-your-mouth good! I finished up with a cocktail, one of my favorites called The Last Word and off we raced to get half of our traveling crew to the airport. Many thanks to Brian DiMarco, Lita Rosenberg and Ted Wilson (and Chris Cree) for a great and successful trip.

The “out” more than compensated for the “down”.

JCB the 4th

Friday, July 8, 2011

Down & Out In Napa City

“Here’s a dime, boy…Gimme a shine, boy,

Down and out in New York City

Ain’t no way to be, but where can you go?

When you’re down and out in New York City”

James Brown, Down In Out In New York City, Original Soundtrack to Black Caesar

I know -- you probably thought I was gone for good. I’ve been busy, ok…

Just took a trip with Chris Cree to Napa/Sonoma to find new juice for the shop and experienced it all in terms of food service; the best of the best and the absolute worst of the worst. Stay with me on this one…

Arriving at SFO before the rest of my travel mates, I spent the am/afternoon hours exploring the Ferry Building and the magnificent, Slanted Door. Nothing unexpected here, just beautifully prepared food and attentive service as I sat at the bar alone soaking it all in with amazement. How do they feed so many people -- the place was packed – so quickly and at such a high quality? A funky-looking but tasty Vietnamese Crepe with Shrimp, Pork and Bean Sprouts was the perfect foil to a glass of Veuve-Fourny Champagne Brut Grand Reserve 1er cru. The lively bubbles caressing the delicate flavors of the crepe, I smiled a wide satisfied grin. Since I was eating alone, I’m sure my server peeped my face and thought I was missing a chromosome or two. Caramelized Wild Gulf Shrimp with Onions, Chili and Garlic was sublime with a glorious glass of 08 Donnhoff Kruetznacher Krotenphul Riesling Spatlese. Fat and happy, I waddled out of the Slanted Door and down Market Street, spending the rest of the afternoon wandering the city.

The next day held tons of tastings many of them notable and we found some magnificent wines. The Pre en Pierre label is in for some delectable stuff in the fall! As a confirmed Franc-Ital-o-phile, I sometimes forget that although California wines aren’t the first ones I personally reach for with dinner, there still are some very, very good wines being made. I was energized by the day which included a stop at Gott’s Roadside, the amazing 50’s style lunch joint that formerly was Taylor’s Refresher in St. Helena. I heart Gott’s…and fell head over heels all over again for my old standard, the Ahi Tuna Burger. It’s a solid brick of sushi grade Tuna, seared for just a moment per side and cool in the center. It is heaven on a bun. Opting to give wine a rest, I settled on a beer. It was good, refreshing but forgettable next to that lovely raw slab adorned with Asian slaw.

One constant through the day was the universal acclaim for the restaurant we planned to dine at that evening. I mean, everyone said it was fantastic. One person even told me it was the best restaurant in the valley (I’m assuming this person never had ventured to the French Laundry) so my excitement began to build.

I’m going to let this place go unnamed. As you would suspect, when anything goes unnamed, it ain’t a good sign, disaster looms. I know that everyone has a bad day, an off day and even a really awful day…myself included. This was a bad day, an off day and a really awful day combined to the tenth power for this restaurant. For a moment lets set aside the food – a serviceable for the most part yet innocuous meal with only one of the five dishes we tried (a beautiful braised rabbit) really making a mark in my mind. The service side is where the “down” began…

We’ll call my server Darren. Darren came up to the table literally shot out of a canon. “Ladies & Gentlemen, prepare yourself for one of the most amazing culinary experience of your life!” Wow, now that’s an intro! Now, I’m not saying I’ve eaten everywhere, but I’ve dined at some of the best in New York, DC, Philly, San Francisco, Los Angeles, etc. as well as a number of two star and three star restaurants in France, Italy and Spain. Places where the staff have the grace and elegance of ballet and the service moves in a concert-like rhythmic fluidity . Never at any one of these extremely memorable places have I had a server make such a wildly boastful claim. I’m a child of hip-hop. I’ve been known to throw around some MC-like braggadocio in my day. But can you imagine getting that kind of intro at Le Bernadin, or Le Meurice in Paris? They know they’re the shit…and so do you. They don’t need to make nutty proclamations. They just deliver the goods in every facet; quietly, assuredly, professionally, they allow you to have a great night with whoever you are looking across the table.

So Darren takes our drink order which takes a while because of his constant running commentary on every aspect. I mean, it literally took five minutes just to “order” the drinks. Ordering food took even longer, as Darren’s persistent chatter had us retool the order a couple times. The "process” ended with me ordering a bottle of 2005 Oddero Barbaresco Gallina that I asked to be decanted and then requested to see the sommelier. I’m in the wine biz, and am certainly capable of navigating a wine list. But I like to have the sommelier select wines for me. They know the food. They know the list. Might as well get that input, plus it is fun to bounce ideas off them. No sign of the sommelier…or our wine either. 10 minutes, 15 minutes go by. Our first courses arrive. We start to eat and I flag down Darren letting him know we have no wine. He apologizes (something he became proficient at throughout the night) and says its coming right up. “Here you are, Sir, the Jermann Pinot Grigio 2008", the sommelier says finally showing himself. Damnit! Nope we’re drinking Barbaresco. More apologies, more waiting.

The sommelier returns (although he never introduced himself) and begins to set the glasses for the wine we ordered 30 minutes ago. He sets my glass reaching over my left shoulder to place it in position. Then he takes the glass for Brian, who is sitting across from me, and slides it across the table as if we’re playing shuffleboard, resting pretty close to where it should be. I’m floored! When did this turn into Mel’s Diner? Actually, they wouldn’t even slide a coffee mug at Mel’s Diner. Flo has more sense than that! I look at Brian and he looks back at me like, “Should I go ballistic on this guy right now?” Nearly stepping on my jaw, as it was clearly on the ground a gasp at the glass toss, I think one of us began to smile breaking the tension a touch and onward we go. All told we order a very good 2001 Quintarelli Ca de Merlo followed by an even better 1999 Isole e Olena Cepparello Toscana IGT. I’m guessing we’re in for over $500 in wine alone.

Winding down, I was asked by Bex if I would like some more wine as there was about 1/3 bottle of the Cepparello still left. I respond, “I’d love some but they took my glass away!” Darren overhears this and about five minutes later apologizes for the fourteenth time stating, “I’m sorry we took your glass away too early, but since I don’t want you to go thirsty, here’s a Barbaresco that another table left.” He pours me a glass as I try to keep from busting out laughing, for now it’s getting comical. So the remedy to taking my stems away is presenting me with a leftover from another table? It felt akin to offering me up some uneaten French fries off a diner’s plate. Un-be-lievable!

So what is the final kick in the crotch? We order dessert…nothing comped despite the multitude of miscues. Oh, and I almost forgot – let’s not forget the 20% gratuity added TO THE ENTIRE BILL! Six diners equals automatic tip/screwing including paying 20% on the wine.

So that’s the “Down”, the next day brought a trip to Sonoma and then back to San Fran for the “Out”. Things got WAY better! Although there was nowhere to go but up, we went to the top of the food chain, first at a roadside grill in Occidental and then at one of the best meals I’ve ever had in SF. Stay tuned…

JCB the 4th