Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Old Riesling and Chinese at Jai Yun

For a while, now, a few members of my tasting group have each been meaning to dine at what many consider San Francisco's most serious Chinese restaurant, Jai Yun, a non-descript address in the Financial district with a simple prix fixe menu; the amount one agrees to pay correlates to the quantity and variety of dishes. The menu starts at $55 for dinner, and goes up to $65 (our selected option); $85 (I think) and on up if you really want to sample some extravagant Chinese banquet type dishes. That having been said, for $65 five of us tasted what amounted to at least 30 different dishes. The dishes represented quite the array of colors, textures and flavors, and varied from impeccably prepared familiar favorites to more unusual dishes, many of which showed such a high level of attention to detail and harmony in flavors that I felt as though I had never before really experienced Chinese food as it's meant to be eaten.

Almost immediately after everyone and was seated, our server brought us fourteen cold dishes, each a tiny pyramid shaped mound of food. Bright, tangy cucumber salad; tender, garlicky enoki mushrooms; a few pieces of simply roasted duck; radish salad; smoked fish; marinated tofu skins; barbecued pork; braised meat; sauteed chinese five more I cannot recall.

At this point, let's discuss the first wine of the evening, a bottle of 1983 Weingut Graf Wiltinger Scharzhoffberger Riesling Kabinett. Delicate, wispy and in this case just a bit past its prime Saar Riesling. After 10 minutes in the glass Mark observed the structure firming up and gaining more intensity, only to peter out again shortly thereafter.

Next up a 1983 Reichsgraf von Kesselstat Josefshofer Riesling Spatlese. The Josefshofer vineyard lies outside of the village of Graach, in between the top sites Graacher Himmelreich and Graacher Domprobst in the middle Mosel. It was as beautiful and profound an older riesling as I've had since tasting a bunch of Prum two years ago. A deeper golder color than the Kabinett, there were intense aromas of apricots and mandarins, and a definite mark of botrytis on the palate. A golden elixir, this, whose sugar was completely resolved, leaving a delicious ripe mature Riesling, with a lot of detail and length. It's worth noting that Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt is serious about only using indigenous yeasts for fermentations, employing extended lees contact, and in their own words from the website, "we categorically reject the so-called new oenological procedures."

Another Spatlese would follow, this time from the terrific 1985 vintage, a Weingut Benedict Loosen Urben Urziger Wurzgarten Riesling Spatlese ***. If you thought that I would not be tasting at least one German wine with stars involved, do not not worry, this is the starred wine. More youthful in appearance and flavor than the von Kesselstat, this wine was lighter in weight but more agile, arguably less profound now but still pretty darn good. It was very heavily sulphured, from what I understand, to help encourage long-term aging.

OK, back to the food. There were five spiced morsels of rib accompanied by deep fried taro paste balls; orange beef totally unlike any other I've had, with very gamey and wild tasting (aged?) beef fried to a crisp and redolent of orange peel; spicy kung pao chicken; a wonderfully earthy dish of snails (chewy, but still tasty) with fermented black bean; abalone and egg whites. Butter soft, rich braised pork; fried whole grouper; Sauteed soy beans; and several other vegetable dishes to balance out the fact that we were being served such a wide variety of animal protein, probably more at a single sitting than I had ever eaten. Unlike with other shared dining experiences, each diner always had at least a couple bites of whichever dish was being served. It was quite the culinary display from Chef Chia Ji Nei, living up to all the high praise I had heard prior to dining at Jai Yun.

Rounding out the wines, we had a dull, disappointingly simple bottle of 1997 Schlossgut Diel Burgberger Riesling Kabinett, and a 2004 Albert Mann Pinot Gris Grand Cru which was so out of context that it showed like Rombauer Chardonnay. Well, that is a stretch; there was great depth of flavor, minerals, and rich, succulent pinot gris fruit, just that next to the more delicate, significantly lower in alcohol Riesling we had a tough time drinking it.

Jai Yun is a treasure. Go there with a group of folks and you'll go away not only sated, but with a sense of having been schooled as well.

The Thanksgiving Ingredients List

One 14lb BN Ranch heritage turkey
Red onion, red wine and thyme jam (thanks, Bittman)
8 lb potatoes
Half and half
Oregon white truffle oil
Parmeggiano Reggiano
Kabocha squash
pumpkin seed oil
sherry vinegar
pink lady apples
Cabot clothbound cheddar
1 pumpkin
Stuff that other people bring

2006 Raventos i Blanc "L'hereu" Reserva Brut Cava
2007 Domaine des Nembrets (Denis Barraud) "Les Chataigniers" Pouilly-Fuissé
1999 Lopez de Heredia "Viña Gravonia" Rioja
2008 Pascal Janvier Jasnières
2008 Evesham Wood "Blanc du Puits Sec" Willamette Valley
2007 Marcel Lapierre Morgon
2007 Domaine Cheveau "En Rontey" Saint Amour
2008 Benaza Mencía Monterrei
2005 Adega Algueira "Algueira" Ribera Sacra

LIQUEUR - Clear Creek Cranberry Liqueur (may mix with cava for cran-kir royale)

Friday, November 20, 2009


Now the subject of a Broadway musical backed by Jay-Z, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, Fela Kuti was one of the most important and influential musical talents in the latter portion of the 20th century, and a true original. Hope you enjoy this long clip of Fela performing.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The best wines that money can buy? EQUIPO NAVAZOS La Bota de....

If sherry is one of the wine world's few remaining under-appreciated values, then Equipo Navazos is its elusive crown jewel; a bit tougher to find, but worth the slightly higher cost and intensive search. Think of Equipo Navazos as the sherry equivalent of the criterion collection; just as CC carefully curates their classic films, Equipo Navazos is as choosy about the soleras with which they choose to work Fancy yourself a pop and world music re-release buff? Then EN is the Soul Jazz Records of sherry. They source the best quality product, put it in a classy package, charge a small premium but ultimately provide a most rewarding experience.

Equipo (translated as "team") Navazos is something of a sherry negociant. Their love of sherry motivated them to seek out the best, oldest soleras from their favorite bodegas and to bottle it for their own enjoyment. They expanded to the point where they had a small surplus to sell outside of Spain, and fortunately so for many non-Spaniards as we otherwise would have been deprived of such amazingly pure, rich, characterful interpretations of Sherry.

What makes these sherries so delicious and unique? Three key factors:

1. Relatively smaller, older soleras from smaller sherry houses
2. these smaller soleras are customarily used as reserve stock for the families who produce them (or alternatively, to improve the quality of the stuff in their larger soleras)
3. NO FILTRATION. Most sherries these days are filtered.

Here are the Equipo Navazos (La Bota de....) sherries I have enjoyed up until now:

Equipo Navazos La Bota de Manzanilla No. 16

This comes from a solera of Sánchez Ayala in the Pago Bilbaína. Color is a shade more intense and darker than most young Manzanillas, owing to the older average age of the wine. Delicious, brisk sea salt, marcona almonds and bright fruit aromas on the nose lead to a palate that is considerably more loaded than your basic, young, freshly bottled Manzanilla ( it's worth nothing that the most recent batch was bottled in January 2009, which is noted on the bottle). On the palate, the wine shows Manzanilla's classic salty quality, with a touch of smoke as well and initially, an unusual inner mouth chlorine aroma. I found that this dissipated after a day open in the fridge. In fact, whereas many Manzanillas fade after several days being open, this one seems only to gain more harmony and balance. It is a likely sign for future positive evolution in the bottle for at least a few years - unusual for a Manzanilla which usually is best drunk a year or so after bottling. Incidentally, I read on their website that this bottling is very lightly filtered.

Equipo Navazos La Bota de Fino "Macharnudo Alto" No. 15

This comes from a special twenty butt solera (compare with 143 for Lustau's current Almacenista Puerto Fino) from the venerable Valdespino, one of the best in Jerez. Macharnudo Alto is the most privileged section of the famed Pago Marcharnudo vineyard where the palomino grapes come from; it is one of the best crus in sherry country. This fino is the complete package: bright yet mouthfilling, bracing but substantial, a real beauty of a sherry that commands your respect. One of the best sherries and undoubtedly the finest fino I have yet to drink. The Navazos folks predict that this could improve in the cellar for a while.

Equipo Navazos La Bota de Manzanilla Pasada No. 10

This slightly rare style, the Manzanilla Pasada (aged Manzanilla) comes from a stellar solera at Hijos de Rainera Pérez Marín, producers of "La Guita" manzanilla, in the northwestern tip of the sherry triangle, Sanlúcar de Barrameda. By definition, any fino made in Sanlúcar is referred to as a Manzanilla. Beautiful, 18K golden hue, with rich nutty aromas, and a palate that is deeply satisfying in a way that very few wines, white or red, ever will be. The flavors linger on the palate a long while. This is a candidate for my favorite wine of the year.

Waiting in the wings is the La Bota de Palo Cortado "La Bota Punta" No. 17, a half bottle from a single butt which I look forward to enjoying at the appropriate time with the right company. More on that bottle later.

Thanks to Msr. Brooklynguy for his always insightful perspective on Equipo Navazos, as well as to Peter Liem, the noted champagne authority, riesling lover, and Chinese tea drinker, whose blog - over the course of several entries - first introduced me to a wide range of the inimitable Equipo Navazos sherries.

Monday, November 16, 2009

My 1/4 of a day spent at the Ten Bells in New York City

Shit is getting a bit boring over here. Yes, I'm calling myself out on the lack of excitement of late. There is no academic rigor a la Jules Chauvet discussion. No antagonistic comments back and forth between high profile NYC sommeliers and high profile blogger and wine forum participants regarding the merits of orange wine. Just a feeble bunch of weekly to twice weekly posts over the last few weeks about what I don't quite remember because me, I'm as bored as you probably are.

So, what better than a good old rambling post about that institution of natural wine bars in New York, The Ten Bells, enjoyed in the company of cool knowledgeable wine people, opinionated folks who love to drink. Incidentally, that's what it's all about - drinking. Food is good, potentially delicious. Ditto wine. Together they can either fight, exist in relative harmony, or fit hand in glove in a special, delicious, symbiotic existence. Most often the middle descriptor is apt. So, I say, let the wine speak on its own merits, and do not hesitate to drink wine without food!

Prior to the big Kermit Lynch tasting at Chambers Street, McDuff, Natalie and I attended a casual tasting of wines from the Loire et Cher imported by Louis/Dressner at the Ten Bells. Several producers were present to pour their wines. The event was probably the most low key, relaxed trade tasting environment in which I have ever been. Whether due to our arrival earlier on in the tasting, the relaxed demeanor (persistent jet lag?) of the producers, or the City's conservation of energy leading up to Halloween festivities, things were mellow. Which was fine- mellow works well for wine tasting. We started out tasting Sauvignon Blanc, Gamay and Cot from the Clos Roche Blanche, except they weren't made by Catherine Roussel. Rather, it was made by Noella Morantin, who rents some of CRB's vineyards. They were all tasty, though the 2008 Morantin Gamay Mon Cher was a particular favorite - I've a soft spot for tangy red fruit. Next it was off to Olivier Lemasson's table to taste Les Vins Contés wines. I do enjoy both of these, both the focused P'tit Rouquin Gamay and the deep, mineral Cot. Next, a new producer (I think) for Dressner in Cour Cheverny, Domaine du Moulin. OK, not great. Romorantin better than the Cheverny Rouge. From there we tasted a few Puzelat wines: the '08 "Rouge Est Mis" Pinot Meunier which was a juicy, fun drink to be sure. It was a wine I had a tough time spitting. Finally, we tasted the 2008 Clos Roche Blanche 'Pif,' the blend of Cabernet (Sauvignon and Franc) with Cot. It's a bit tough and tannic now, and needs at least 6 months to a year to show better.

Fast forward about two hours, after we had been to the Kermit Lynch tasting, when we returned to The Ten Bells to drink (not taste) some wine. With a few tasty bites on the table (salmon tartare, beef tartare, squid and seaweed salad, and others) we drank the following (all magnums, no "half bottles"):

2007 Puzelat "La Tesniere" Touraine (Menu Pineau/Chenin) - As fresh, cutting and palate awakening as ever. Perhaps a bit more generous than what I expected, compared to the piercingly acidic Brin de Chevre.

2006 Domaine Henri Milan Le Grand Blanc

A blend of Grenache Blanc, Rolle (Vermentino), Chardonnay, Roussane and Muscat, this is actually similar to the blend in the wine which I thought this was, the Chateau de la Tuilerie (thanks again for the correction, McDuff). There is a minerality and freshness to the wine (in addition to the nutty/sweet oak and fatty texture) that suggests some pretty excellent terroir here near Avignon, France. Marl and limestone in your soil doesn't hurt your chances of producing interesting wine.

2007 Dard et Ribot 'K' Crozes Hermitage Blanc
Fun and pure fruited, but I didn't give it a whole lot of attention. I suspect that it will never taste as good as it did with pig ears salad at La Verre Voleé.

2008 Puzelat Pinot Noir Touraine
I thought I had ordered "La Tesniere," but it in fact was this Pinot Noir. Competent and quaffable if a little bit lacking in excitement compared to the vinous company surrounding it.

2008 Houillon/Overnoy Ploussard (aka 'plou-plou'; 750ml)
Tense, tight berry fruit which I liked but clearly needs some more months and ideally years to show better. As this was only a "half bottle" it was not plentiful so it came and went fairly quickly amongst us eight.

1989 Olga Raffault Chinon "Les Picasses" (750ml)
Not the wine I wanted it to be. Don't you hate when that happens? Very softly textured, with fully resolved tannins and full on tertiary wet tobacco development. Somewhere there was some fruit but not with enough vibrancy to keep me interested.

Late night we headed to Casa Mono, Mario Batali's ode to the Spanish tapa, where it was packed and we were directed next door to Bar Jamón, something of a 'B' team designation amongst these two establishments. Especially given the quality of the tapas, which were mediocre at best. My memory of Casa Mono three years ago is that of a much stronger restaurant putting out much fresher and more lively food than what we ate at Jamón. Other than jamón, I don't remember what I ate at Bar Jamón, partially my jet lag, but more owing to the lackluster cocina. C'mon, Mario, the people deserve better.

Overall it was a fun night in the big city, though I don't recommend putting in a 20 hour day following the California to New York red eye.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

NYC Day 1 Part II - "Fancy Meeting you here in New York City"

Before handing over the twenty or so dollars for Kermit Lynch's classic homage to French wines and the people who grow them, I quickly glanced to see how Kermit signed my fresh copy of Adventures on the Wine Route.

"Fancy meeting you here in New York City," it read, a satisfying note and fine way to end what was an enjoyable, if crowded, tasting at Chambers Street Wines. Meeting Mr. Lynch was long overdue. I did not engage in small talk, industry chat, or even much in the way of wine speak. The man comes across like his wines: straight ahead and confident; relaxed, knowledgeable, and easily capable of relating a story. Whether he was discussing visiting his college aged kids in New York, his latest discovery in Burgundy (Domaine Cherisey in Meursault, whom he thinks is making some of the best Chardonnay based wine around) or his tastes in Burgundy ("Coche Dury ain't bad...Raveneau's pretty good...."), Kermit was adept at conversing with a wide range of his customers, and I was content to listen while I tasted.

The usual suspects were showing terrifically. 2008 Domaine Ostertag Les Vielles Vignes de Sylvaner was all pure, rounded citrus fruit. Softly textured, juicy and supported by vibrant acidity. 2008 Foillard Morgon Cotes de Py...well, enough said right there. Effortless focus, delectable tiny red berry fruit, well structured but not unyielding. If this wine were a lady I'd marry her after just a month of dating. 2007 Domaine Tempier Bandol is a very young pup, but already showing its neat trick of balancing such ripe, spicy and intense sun baked flavor with real structure not merely from fruit and tannin but acidity as well. Mourvedre is a low acid grape that somehow picks up a bit more acidic drive in the right terroir with the right stewardship, as is the case with Tempier or Pradeaux for that matter.

A few relative newcomers excited me less. White Graves from Chateau Graville-Lacoste? I'll pass. Ditto the 2007 Domaine de la Cadette Bourgogne Vezelay "La Chatelaine" from close to Chablis. 2006 Cedric Vincent Beaujolais for $20? Shave $5, take a look at the back label to remind myself of the importer and, well, it still seems to under-deliver.

There were a couple pleasant surprises as well, though. The 2000 Chateau Aney Haut-Medoc Cru Bourgeois was every bit of what a maturing claret should be - muscular but beginning to show good secondary flavor development and savor while still retaining some cherry fruit. And that 2005 Domaine Cherisey Meursault Blagny 1er Cru "Genelotte" ? It was very good - even a non white Burg lover such as myself could appreciate the breed and terroir in that wine. As well one should for north of $80.

It goes without saying that Kermit Lynch is a big reason why we have so many wonderful, characterful, imported wines available in the US these days. I suppose one could say he is also a reason why there are so many shitty imported wines as well. For every Joe Dressner there are a few __'s (insert any importer du jour of small estate bottled, unfiltered wines, though of simple and dubious character). Enough of that line of reasoning, though. Clearly Kermit Lynch is owed a great deal of gratitude for all of his efforts, even from an occasionally hypercritical, armchair importer, young whippersnapper soon to be grouchy old retail guy such as myself. It was a pleasure to meet the man who founded a company which imports into the Unites States wines made by so many terrific, benchmark and iconic French estates.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Governor Brown Redux?

With our mayor's dropout from the CA gubernatorial race, it's looking like a potential return to another era. While I never really got into the Dead Kennedys, I guess I'll have to wait and see about Mr. J. Moonbeam Brown. I've heard some stories, but did not really follow California politics in the 80's.

Monday, November 2, 2009

NYC Day One, part I: JFK to LES

[This post was originally drafted the good old-fashioned way, putting pen to paper - no typing, no blogger, certainly no thumbing it in on the mobile. Just a college ruled yellow pad, medium point blue pen, and hand movement. Writing is liberating, I highly recommend you re-visit it if it's been a while.]

After a long, unrestful red eye flight from San Francisco, my wonderful lady/ travel companion Natalie and I were happy to dump our bags and meet up with David McDuff, who was in town to attend a few of the Dressner and Kermit events taking place in New York last weekend, as well as to hang out with some like minded bon vivants such as the Brooklyn Guy, Cory, Guilhaume and me (more on that later). As McDuff pointed out, the east village is home to the city's greatest concentration of ramen spots. We agreed to meet at Setagaya. Small and casual, Setagaya consists of a small counter, some small tables and a communal table for eight (think high school cafeteria style communal table - not the large, handsome, solid piece of wood table you might find at your nearest locavore modern American eatery). We each ordered a bowl of the Shio ramen. Warming, translucent broth, simple but with terrific clarity of flavor, with perfectly toothsome noodles, a soft boiled egg adding richness and textural contrast, and the star of the dish, a few delicious, slightly fatty and smoky pieces of pork. Such a perfectly harmonious, satisfying bowl of nourishment has convinced me to partake in ramen more often. We also shared a small plate of kim chee, soft layers of thin cabbage (napa?) which represented a slightly vinegary, but spicy and tasty, vegetable addition to our meal.

After ramen, we headed to 9th Street Espresso for some excellent espresso drinks. I must have been due for my annual killer cup of espresso (I do drink espresso more often, just that it's seldom good). Jet lag temporarily stayed, we strolled over to the Essex Street market, where David introduced us to Benoit, who was manning the counter of Saxelby Cheesemongers. We tasted two cheeses from Vermont, our favorite of which was the Menuet from Laughing Cow Farms. In cheese speak, it's earthiness brought to mind a tomme de savoie, while the slight caramelized and nuttier notes reminded me of aged gouda. A delicious cheese, and particularly useful for late night soaking up of the wine we would drink later at The Ten Bells.

For a taste of something sweet, we consulted Natalie's list of food spots to visit, and headed to the famed Doughnut Plant. If you're a Bay Area doughnut fan, think Dynamo Doughnuts. The quality of the ingredients, which are organic whenever possible, as well as the terrific textures and intense flavors, make these some of the world's tastiest doughnuts, and elevates them to the realm of first class pastry. While the strawberry jelly doughnut with peanut butter glaze and the seasonal pumpkin cake doughnut were tasty, the tres leches and blackout were the true standouts. Each had a custard center (tres leches for the tres leches, liquid chocolate for the blackout), which I found to be cool innovations in the world of the cake doughnut. As the gentleman behind the counter proclaimed several times, in a classically proud New Yorker inflection, these donuts were truly "first rate." He also gently chided McDuff for his Phillies loyalties.

Up next: tasting Kermit Lynch wines with... Kermit Lynch; bookending a long and raucous evening at The Ten Bells.