Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Three Classics

I find myself constantly seeking out new experiences: a new ingredient to add to heavy cooking rotation, a new Jura bottling, the latest from an electronic music producer.

A few things this week reminded me of the value in taking comfort in the classics.

Palacios Chorizo

I love the balance of smoked paprika (pimenton), oily meat and fat globules in this inexpensive Spanish staple.

Gonzalez Byass "Tio Pepe" Fino

Sensing a Spanish theme here? I had three finos open in my fridge last week. This is the last bottle standing and, incidentally, my least favorite of the bunch. Nonetheless, it is still a damn fine drink. And the memory of the neon Tio Pepe logo, lighting up the side of one of the buildings in the barrio of Triana along the banks of the Rio Guadalquivir, clearly holds some sentimental sway.

Steely Dan Can't Buy a Thrill

Fuck, this album is so many things at their very best: classic rock, songwriting, session player performance, recording...listening to Steely Dan, I'm reminded of one of my former rabbis who presided over confirmation classes following my Bar Mitzvah. Rabbi Camras respected the Dan. When he shared that fact, I think that we cool 14 year olds either ignored him, rolled our eyes, or responded, "huh?" Anyway, this is the record with classic rock radio staples "Do it Again," "Dirty Work," and "Reelin' in the Years," as well as memorable album cuts such as "Midnite Cruiser" and "Turn that Hearbeat Over Again."

Last night, on the car ride back from a spectacular hike overlooking the Pacific and Tomales Bay, my brother and I eventually cued up this album and sang along during portions of most of these songs. The ladies in the car did not seem to mind.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Author Robert Camuto in Bay Area

I first met Robert Camuto at a reading he was doing at 18 Reasons, promoting his last book, Corkscrewed. Camuto's debut wine book was an entertaining page turner about visits made to some of the more interesting domaines throughout French wine country. Robert's background is not that of an industry insider, or longtime wine guru, but rather is in journalism. In particular, Camuto published and wrote for an alternative weekly for a number of years, and perhaps not surprisingly a similarly casual, informed yet witty and slightly irreverent tone is one of the stylistic hallmarks of his last book. Though he takes his work seriously, he does not take it or himself so seriously so as to make reading it a chore. Through a combination of research, personal experience, and an engaging writing style, Camuto's writing is likely to appeal to a broader range of readers than the usual wine book fare.

Camuto's most recent book about wine, Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey, has a more specific focus. It has recently garnered glowing reviews from the likes of NY Times wine critic Eric Asimov as well as several others. Here is where Camuto will be in the Bay Area:

Monday Oct. 25

6p.m.Reading/ signing at Books Inc. Marina (2251 Chestnut St. 415-931-3633)
.....directly followed by...

6:45 p.m. **Palmento Sicilian wine/food evening at A-16 Restaurant** (2355 Chestnut St., 415-771-2216) with Robert Camuto, Shelley Lindgren and A16 staff. Sicilian menu. Wines featured in Palmento.

Wednesday Oct. 27th

7 p.m. **Palmento Sicilian wine/food evening at Locanda da Eva** (2826 Telegraph Ave. 510-665-9601). Special Sicilian menu and a selection of wines from Palmento. $75 ($50 for designated drivers.)

And for those of you in the Pac NW:


Oct. 29 5-7:30 p.m. Palmento presentation signing and wine tasting at Cork: A Bottle Shop. (2901 NE Alberta St., 503-281-2675).


Nov. 1 5 p.m. Reading and book signing at Elliott Bay Book Company (1521 10th ave. 206-624-6600) .
...followed by.....
6:30 p.m **Palmento All Saints Day Sicilian soul food and wine evening at La Medusa** (4857 Rainier Ave. So. 206-723-2192). $25 includes wine and food.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Drunk at The Ten Bells

"Drunk," I should note, refers to the past tense of the verb "to drink." Not to a state of intoxication, as I rarely drink to excess while hanging out at one of my favorite wine drinking spots during vacation.

No notes were taken as I have a tough time being the guy with the notebook in a social gathering. Enough of an impression was formed with these wines to describe them in general, if occasionally abstract, terms. If some nuances go without mention as a result of my lack of notes, then so be it.

2007 Houillon/Overnoy Chardonnay Arbois

A bit reductive, salty jurassic chard fruit without the piercing beam of acidity of his Savagnin, nor the richness and depth of flavor that I was hoping for in a chard. In other words, this was something of a disappointment.

2009 Frank Cornelissen Contadino

Vibrant red fruit, up front acidity and a bit of a spritz of CO2, made this bottle a real palate refresher and a joy to drink. If memory serves, I was ready to call it quits after this second bottle of wine (split 3 ways) during night one of The Ten Bells visits. However, its deliciousness encouraged us to go for one more bottle and close out.the bar

2008 Les Champs Libres Foufoune Crozes Hermitage

This was the "one more bottle" referred to in the note above. A drink young Crozes that was certainly tasty, a bit smoky and spicy, if not quite as much of a vin de soif as the Etnaean beauty above.

2009 Domaine de la Pepiere Gras Mouton (1.5)

This is a bottling from Ollivier's recently purchased parcel on the Gras Mouton, a vineyard composed of gneiss, clay and a scattering of "amphibolite" (thank you, David Lillie). It is not as rich, dense and fruity as the Clos de Briords, instead a bit lighter, softer, more lemony. It has a gentler sense of minerality than the Briords. It was a great way to ease into an evening of lots of wine.

Frank Cornelissen Munjebel 5

Deep cherry and red plum fruits showed more of a tannic edge, certainly more extract, than the lighter Contadino bottling. Though I respected it, I enjoyed it less and therefore drank it less. Of course, we were also splitting the bottle with more imbibers, as well. Since I have minimal experience with this wine, I do not pretend to know where it is heading, though I suspect that there is enough of a core of fruit and balance to improve over several years before it heads south.

2006 Cos Pithos (1.5)

Ah, this one I'm glad we had a magnum to linger over a while. There is a combination of immediate succulence and weighty intensity, freshness and earthy savor, that makes Cos wines (when they are on) so good. Though this bottle is young, I found it to be on. It should be fun to follow over a decade.

1995 Francois Cazin Cour-Cheverny Cuvee Renaissance

If I recall correctly, most people really enjoyed this bottle, though there were some dissenters who found it to be over the hill. Creamy and appley aromas reminded me of middle aged Mosel riesling, though the sugar/acid/fruit/mineral balance did not seem to be as pitch perfect as it can be in those wines. While I enjoyed drinking this and learning a bit about where the '95 is in its evolution, the '02 vintage of the same wine (the only other Cazin CCCR I know) seems to be a superior wine at this point.

Thanks to everyone for coming out and partaking in the fun: Pam, John, Chris, gypsy jazz guitar Ben, Desor, even JP aka 'El Diablo de Tiburon.' It was good fun to meet many of you for the first time and to hang out to do what we do best....

Monday, October 18, 2010

Mission Chinese: My New Favorite Restaurant in SF

My most recent post was a bit of a rant on why I seldom go out to wine bars. I could probably cut and paste elements of that rant, and with a few deletions and additions, make the same case for why so many restaurants are boring, overpriced, and utterly fail at exciting the discerning diner, or even the intrepid eater who merely wants an honest taste of something authentic at a fair price. More often than not, restaurants are poor examples of the cuisine which they purport to purvey, or simply offer yet another unoriginal, expensive take on whatever it is that "New American" cuisine is. Thank you, but I'll pass on that $75 meal and instead use the cash to head to the excellent Mission Chinese for a much more satisfying meal at a quarter of the cost. Owners Danny Bowien and Anthony Myint are to be congratulated for not only creating a spectacular new Chinese restaurant which pays homage to Szechuan, Taiwanese and Islamic Chinese food traditions, but for establishing such reasonable price points, thus encouraging menu exploration and multiple visits.

Mission Chinese is a small restaurant where the former restaurant Lung Shan still offers their more traditional, exhaustive, American Chinese menu. Upon reviewing the new, tidy, 15 item menu, however, I do not doubt that it is here where you will set your sites. Here are a few terrific examples of the traditional Chinese delicacies, often times re-imagined with top notch American ingredients:

Slow Cooked Char Siu Pork Belly

Thrice Cooked Bacon

Sizzling Cumin Lamb

A few notes about the above entrees. They all are very robustly flavored, with the first one perhaps being the most accessible to the largest number of people, given the more rich and savory (not hot and spicy) quality of the dish. Thrice cooked bacon uses bacon from Benton Smoky Mountain Country Hams in Tennesse, the same place that David Chang of Momofuku fame (as well as many other restaurants nationwide) sources his pork. This is my favorite dish here. Finally, the Sizzling Cumin Lamb is not at all shy with the cumin! Or onion. Or jalapeños. These entrees average a modest $10 each.

In addition to what I mentioned above, be sure to order the szechuan pickles: salt fermented cabbage, cucumber, roasted peanuts, chili oil, sichuan peppers and cilantro. Also, the chicken wings, which are coated with salt and ground sichuan pepper, buried beneath a layer of charred dried red chilies, will literally make your lips buzz - an unusual, but very cool sensation.

For beer, there is Tsingtao, Heineken, and something cheap and domestic, forget if it's Pabst or MGD. The wine list is short and, while you can do worse many other places, corkage is only $5 per bottle. I would suggest that you bring some Riesling and go crazy.

After my first visit, a lunch about six weeks ago, I could not stop thinking about the meal. I returned for a quick dinner a few weeks after that, followed by four more visits, three in the same week. In other words, Mission Chinese is that rare restaurant so good, so memorable, that you begin to plan a return visit as soon as you finish your meal. Fortunately, because it is so reasonably priced, that is exactly what I have done, and will continue to do, time and time again. They serve amazing food - for my money amongst the best in San Francisco.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Ten Bells is as close to perfect as wine bars get; or, why other wine bars suck.

I love wine. I hate most "wine bars." Surprisingly, in our wine obsessed culture, a good wine bar - that ideal place where you can drink wine with friends, make new acquaintances, learn something from the proprietors and listen to interesting, carefully chosen music in a warm, personality soaked and laid back environment - is a rare breed, indeed. I admittedly don't get out much, perhaps because when I do go out I blow my monthly wine and entertainment budget in a night or two at one of my favorite go to spots (read: The Ten Bells or Terroir SF). However, I do occasionally venture outside my comfort zone for trade events, meet-ups whose meeting spots are outside of my control, or very occasionally, just out of sheer curiosity. What I continue to notice is a complete and utter lack of what I would describe as good wine bars in the US. Rather than define what a good wine bar is, I think it is easier to describe what a good wine bar is not:

A good wine bar is not a handsome bar area in a fancy 2.5-4 star, 60-200 seat, French, Italian, Spanish, "Mediterranean inspired new American," "Locavore," mixologist's lab, Indian, Chinese, or Vietnamese restaurant. A good wine bar does not have a buildout creeping comfortably into six figures or more. A good wine bar does not serve 40 wines by-the-glass, regardless of their wine preservation system. A good wine bar does not serve any export label garnacha imported by Sr. Ordoñez, Mr. Solomon, or, with all due respect, Mr. Steve Metzler. A good wine bar does not have a PR person on retainer for $5,000 or more a month. A good wine bar does not concern themselves too much with labels or their perception of what their customers may feel "comfortable" with.

For any people in the industry who would argue otherwise, that to run a business you need to take into account one or more of the above, I would freely admit that you may be correct. However, know that in so doing your successful business venture is likely a shitty wine bar. Or, to be generous, a mediocre one at best.

The Ten Bells, located in the lower east side of Manhattan, is an examplary wine bar. Above all, the wine selection, though not extensive, covers many bases, at least if you enjoy a primarily European wine list. A list composed largely of small production, family estates whose reputations for producing extremely interesting, minimal intervention, highly drinkable, and often benchmark examples of their styles. These selections will not likely lead you astray, regardless of whether you choose a glass, bottle or magnum of wine. The wines (both whites and reds - so often served too warm elsewhere) are stored at proper temperatures. Your decanter may be a beaker and the stemware may have thick walled, smallish tulip shaped bulbs, but know that they will be clean. Do you prefer good wine in cheap glasses or bad wine in Riedels?

There are other factors, of course, which make The Ten Bells a destination for both wine geeks and people who simply want to catch an alcohol buzz somewhere. The place is a perfect size - small enough to be intimate but with sufficient table and bar space to accommodate a good crowd. The music is usually upbeat; good salsa is a mainstay, as is dancehall reggae, pop and other genres of music. It's not the most experimental or adventurous play list in town, and you may have to suffer through a Bob Marley "Legends" selection like I did with "Buffalo Soldier" last week, but generally you could do much worse for bar music. Much worse. And as I mentioned earlier, you are not likely to find a more carefully selected and focused list of wines at any other wine bar in the city.

Up next will likely be a quick summary of some wines drunk at The Ten Bells last week. Cornelissen Contadino 7, Houillon/Overnoy Chardonnay, Ollivier Gras Mouton, and more.

Monday, October 11, 2010

A recent trip to New York City, in Pictures

While there may well be a cohesive post or two about a specific activity (read: eating or drinking excursion) engaged in during a few most enjoyable days spent recently in the Big Apple, I thought that I might take the easy way out (at least initially) and post some photos. Captions are included for your contextual as well as comedic appreciation. Enjoy.

Though some may balk at the idea of going to a Battali/Bastianich restaurant these days, Otto Pizzeria is still a great value, as this trio of contorni will attest.

My girlfriend was tough on these pizzas, these pies with the super thin, crisp, sort of tough crusts. But I just think it's a style thing; these are not Neapolitan. Maybe Roman, or fancy New York, with an element of shmorah matzoh (the hand baked, slightly charred round matzos you cannot source in the supermarket). This particular version had delicious pecorino cheese melted on tomato sauce and an egg on top.

A guy further down the bar from us ordered the carbonara. Though I had consumed at least a pizza at this point, there was no way that this could go unordered. McDuff and Natalie split the dish with me so it wasn't too much of an overindulgence.

I strongly recommend eating at the bar at Otto. Behind the bar on this super quiet Monday lunch shift was a guy named Eric, who immediately suspected us of being in the business because we were "quite critical of the food, but in an intelligent way." The delicious glass of Coenobium pictured above he gave us each on the house to accompany the carbonara. How could we turn that down? It was a terrific regional pairing, with the cidery freshness providing a terrific counterpoint to the creamy, guanciale laced pasta. Thanks again, Eric. Batali, Bastianich, give that man a promotion!

The walking sign means walk...down the side of a building.

To be more precise, that is Elizabeth Streb walking down the side of the Whitney, performing a 1970 Trisha Brown piece entitled, appropriately enough, "Man Walking Down the Side of a Building."

Anyone care to hazard a guess which movie these quotes are referencing? Easy, I know.

Pork delivery to a prime-time ramen destination.

From Philly and Morgon to the world

Yesterday I learned that soul legend Solomon Burke passed away. It took a collaborative effort of top-notch musicians (amongst them, the organist at Solomon's church) and songwriters including Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Van Morrison and other, to make most of the listening public (myself included) aware of his talent, but what talent it was. If you have not already done so, then I would strongly recommend listening to the record that re-introduced the world to Solomon Burke, Don't Give up On Me.

This morning, I discovered on Manuel Camblor's blog that the legendary vigneron Marcel Lapierre also passed. Anyone who loves Beaujolais loves these wines. If Morgon is amongst the most distinctive, consistently impressive crus in Beaujolais, and Lapierre's Morgons are amongst the truest, most effortlessly delicious examples, then it is easy to understand the magnitude of his passing. All our best to Marcel's family, friends and colleagues.

I understand through Joe Dressner's blog that The 10 Bells will host a tribute to him this Tuesday night at 7pm. If you're in New York City or close by, I cannot think of a more fitting tribute than drinking good Beaujolais and raising a glass.

Here's a video.