I admit it, I was not looking forward to Taconic on Bedford. I mean really, in our precious world of hipster Brooklyn dining, this place is the very hippest, the most precious of all. But you know what - Taconic on Bedford pulls it off, and I highly recommend that you try it.
Taconic, as the locals call it, is named after New York State Route 987G, the Taconic State Parkway. Owners Abraham and Fenton Percival moved from 1870's Wyoming to Williamsburg in early 2010. Fenton worked for a while as Bee-Keeper at Egg Restaurant, and Abraham was Director of Body Art at Cafe Grumpy. One spring weekend in 2011, the brothers attended the chemical-free soap and candle making conference and expo in the town of Ghent, NY. They fell in love with the Hudson Valley and decided to bring the rustic vibe and food back to Williamsburg. And so, we have Taconic on Bedford.
The Percivals found a wonderful spot for their restaurant. Set just off the street on a lovely corner of Bedford Avenue, the place feels like it is of the woods.
And the view from the main dining room is utterly gorgeous, emphasizing the bucolic beauty that can still be found in the part of Williamsburg near Newtown Creek.
There are a few problems with Taconic on Bedford, and I'm going to get those out of the way first. Taconic does not take reservations. If you or someone in your party can present a valid hunting or fishing license you will get priority for a table. Otherwise, go for a stroll in Williamsburg and Fenton will send a telegram when your table is ready. Secondly, it can take a long time to be noticed by the staff at Taconic, even after being seated. I felt so grateful to be there, though, that I didn't mind the fact that 45 minutes went by before someone came to take a drink order. That said, the servers, most of whom are former rodeo clowns, are not entirely adverse to being interrupted as they socialize, and will take your order if you are a little pushy about it.
These are minor problems, though, and there is a lot to love at Taconic on Bedford. All of the wood that went into building Taconic was reclaimed from Home Depot, and the place looks great.
Taconic offers a convenient and enviro-friendly valet service, and your car will be parked in a bed of local dried leaves while you dine.
And the wait for food is made more palatable as you sip mixologist Lleyton Pembrickson III 's signature hand-made cocktails. Lleyton came to Taconic from Dow Chemicals and she has since created many delicious libations for the Taconic crowd. My current favorite is the Irish Spring, a captivating blend of Tullamore Dew, rendered duck fat, house-made quinoa syrup, and hand-shaved green soap.
Wine is served in deerskin pouches, and there is an innovative hydration program, offering diners a variety of hand-poured waters. I usually go with the over-sized watering can, and the water is fresh and cold, very impressive indeed. You can enjoy it plain or with house-pickled ice cubes - I find both to be very satisfying.
And how about the food at Taconic? I cannot profess to have tried everything, but what I've had is excellent. Most of the vegetables and grains served at Taconic are locally foraged, and in a truly innovative touch, foraging is outsourced to a small team of Siberian Husky pups. The above photo shows Amaranth, the current leader of the pack.
Taconic adheres to strict nose-to-tail vegetable practices, and every part of the plant is used. Pictured above is the Cabbage, Celery, and Carrot ($17), a delicious melange of the whole vegetables, sliced and served with a light and tangy "mayo-vinegar jus."
Moss salad ($23) is served on the rock it grew on, and is woodsy and redolent of chlorophyll. It is pleasantly textured, but I felt that a dressing of some sort might have improved the dish.
There are a variety of meat dishes made from locally sourced animals, but if you order these dishes you must be willing to actually butcher the meat before the kitchen staff will prepare it. I was initially put off by this, as I don't know how to butcher, but in the end its a nice opportunity to learn. The butchering station is next to the bar and the first-aid area so diners can watch and learn from each others' mistakes.
After one lunchtime visit Abraham Percival took me into his office so we could chat. He is a lovely guy, his brother too. I asked about future plans and he said that the Percivals just opened a general store next to Taconic.
He gave me a quick tour and so far it seems to hold a wide array of soda. Abraham said that there will soon be a variety of very expensive pickles and candles, and also Hellman's mayonnaise.
I could probably grow old drinking exactly what's in my cellar now and be perfectly happy. I mean really - Burgundy, the Loire, Sherry, Champagne...what's not to love? It's important also to drink things from time to time that are outside of the comfort zone. I do not do this very often, and I need to do it more. There is no deep thinking behind this - it's just good to experience new things, to explore a bit, to practice being open-minded.
So, I am making a conscious effort to drink wines I don't know. Nothing major, just making an educated guess on wines here and there, nothing expensive. It's funny - I used to do this all the time maybe 5 years ago. Now I've gotten to a point where I feel like I understand what, for me, is the optimal way to spend every wine dollar, and maybe too much so. I never find myself saying anymore "Hmmm, that looks interesting, I'm going to give that a shot." So I'm trying to do this again.
This past month I bought two wines that are new to me and both, I must say, were excellent wines, things I would definitely buy again. I drank an Oregon Pinot Gris and I really liked it. Now, if you've been following this blog for a while, you know that I used to drink a lot of Oregon Pinot. My tastes changed, I stopped buying and drinking the wines. But one day in February I was browsing in a large Manhattan store in which I don't normally shop, and I saw bottles of 2010 Montinore Pinot Gris on sale for just under $11.
I haven't liked a lot of Oregon Pinot Gris, but I remember hearing that Montinore is a good producer, and the back label says the wine is 12.6% alcohol and the wine is made using Demeter certified biodynamic farming methods. I bought one bottle. Honestly, the wine was really good. It was clean and bright tasting, relying on a lean intensity. There is ripe fruit - spiced pear and apple, there is a definite mineral sensation, and the finish is long and pleasingly bitter. This is delicious wine, and not because it resembles an Alsace Pinot Gris - it doesn't. It's an Oregon wine, no mistaking that. And it's a really good one. It didn't hold up well overnight - probably not meant for the cellar, but it is a quality wine, and it would be nice if there were more Oregon wines like this, where the producer doesn't try to do too much in the vineyard or the cellar.
Another new one for me, this time a red wine. It was during the Super Bowl, I think, when my pal poured me a glass of something that looked like rosé. It wasn't rosé though, it was Grignolino d'Asti. Wow, so good - fresh and vibrant and eminently drinkable, red fruit and flowers, and complex too. I'm talking about the 2010 Montalbera Grignolino d'Asti Grignè. When I looked for it at the store I saw that Charlie Woods of Bonhomie Imports brings in this wine, and I wasn't surprised at all. In keeping with his other wines that I know, this is very reasonably priced ($15-18), and it feels old school, and very pure.
I've had a few bottles now and I really like the wine. I like to drink it cool - cellar temperature, as you would a Beaujolais. The floral and spicy characteristics come out best that way. It's great with charcuterie or lentil soup, or most anything really, and it does drink well on its own. I had a bottle with a spread of Middle Eastern food and it was an excellent partner for the chickpeas and spinach, and also the Merguez sausage. This is a very light colored wine, like a Poulsard, and as with good Poulsard, the wine has great structure and sneaky intensity. Supposedly this is what you drink while you wait for your Barolo and Barbaresco to mature. I can see that when I drink this wine, and although I've not had even one other example of Grignolino, I'm not sure that I need to because this one is so very good.
Forcing myself out of the comfort zone...so far so good.
The New York Botanical Garden in The Bronx is a real gem, as honestly are each of NYC's botanical gardens. I'm obviously partial to the Brooklyn garden, but Staten Island's is not to be missed, with its one-of-a-kind-on-the-east-coast Chinese Scholar's Garden. The garden in The Bronx also has its charms. It has what I understand to be the very last bit of old growth forest in New York City, for example.
Spring is a great reason to visit any of these gardens, but on top of that there is an absurd orchid show at the garden in The Bronx, through April 22.
I'm telling you, this is worth the trip.
Some of the orchids will make you blush.
These cannot be possible. But they are.
And it's not all orchids. There are orange-haired flowers.
I'm not fully convinced that these are real flowers.
There are space alien flowers, too.
And because we are people whose real reason for doing anything is actually the eating and drinking part, after the garden you can walk (maybe 20 minutes) to Arthur Avenue, the main drag in Belmont, the Little Italy of The Bronx. This place blows away the Little Italy in Manhattan, which at this point is not much more than a tourist trap. The bakeries, the delis, the cheese and antipasti shops, the restaurants...oiy vey!
A buddy and I took our daughters on a recent Saturday to see the orchids and then to Arthur Avenue. We ate lunch at Dominick's.
Calamari were among the very best I've had. Fried perfectly, so tender, served with the best "red sauce" I've encountered. The calamari were seasoned beautifully, just the right amount of salt - they didn't need the tomato sauce. But the tomato sauce was so very very good, it was hard to know what to do.
Linguine with shrimp and marinara sauce was also excellent.
Two of the three meatballs vanished in the 4 seconds that it required to take this photo.
If you go, make sure to visit Mount Carmel Wine & Spirits on 187th Street. Chambers Street Wines, this isn't. All I'm saying is that you'll be surprised and excited by what you find in the Piedmont section.
This video, about 3 and a half minutes long, shows Sandro Piliego of Palo Cortado slicing Jamon Iberico, and discussing Jamon and Sherry. I shot the video on my phone and of course forgot to turn it sideways, so sorry about the rather narrow picture.
I want to tell you about my favorite place to drink Sherry in NYC, a tapas bar called Palo Cortado. Palo Cortado is actually a restaurant with a full menu, and it serves a wide and interesting selection of wine and beer. You can go there and have a "normal" restaurant experience, with an appetizer, an entree, and dessert. But I'm going to talk about Palo Cortado in the way that I experience it, as a tapas bar.
Let me start by saying this: Palo Cortado has as good of a by-the-glass Sherry list as anyplace I've seen. There are about 20 Sherries on the list at any time, and wines rotate in and out.
This is a place where you can drink interesting wines in each category of Sherry, wines that can be quite difficult (in some cases, impossible) to find on retail shelves. There are lovely Finos and Manzanillas, interesting Amontillados and Palo Cortados, and several examples of Moscatel and Sweet Pedro Ximenez wines too. The most expensive wine I've seen, I believe, is the Bodegas Tradición Amontillado at perhaps $20 a glass. That's right - you can drink things like Bodegas Tradición Amontillado, by the glass, at Palo Cortado. The least expensive is the extremely delicious Emilio Hidalgo Fino at $6. Think about it - you can sample Sherries of all types for very reasonable prices, play around, try new things, expand your understanding of this forgotten (but perhaps now re-discovered) great wine of the world.
The wines are served in Sherry glasses and this is a great decision, particularly with the brown Sherries. I think Amontillado and Palo Cortado wines show best in these copitas, benefiting from the focus the glass confers. I prefer the way Fino style wines smell and taste out of white wine glasses, but copitas are fine too, and it certainly feels more like a tapas bar that way. Alessandro Piliego (pouring, above), who goes by Sandro and is one of the owners of Palo Cortado, is a true believer, and will be happy and excited to pour various wines for you, to talk about them with you, to support you in exploring the bottles he offers. If you go, you should talk with him - you will feel as though you have been well taken care of.
Palo Cortado is a destination place, it's worth traveling to because of the great Sherry selection and the great service. The food can be good too - there are dishes that I love to eat at Palo Cortado and I always enjoy my meals there. But the reason to travel to Palo Cortado is the great Sherry and the great service, and there are also some good things to eat. And I should say that I've never tasted even one of the main dishes. I order tapas, that's it.
To me, the most delicious and very best thing to eat at Palo Cortado is Jamon Iberico. Sandro simply does this right, no question about it. High quality jamon, aged two years, cut by hand into thin (but not too thin) toothsome and highly perfumed slices. A plate of jamon is served with large caper berries, Marcona almonds, fig bread, and pickled Basque peppers. A little bread on the side, a nice glass of Sherry...what could be better? I usually drink Palo Cortado with the jamon, like the wonderful Emilio Hidalgo Marqués de Rodil, but Sandro recommends Fino, and I tried this last time and it was great.
The other tapas that I always enjoy at Palo Cortado include Pulpo a la Gallega (tender octopus and potatoes with vinegar and lots of pimenton), Empanadas, which are completely home made and stuffed with delicious flank steak and melted Tetilla cheese, Patatas Bravas (fried potato chunks in pimenton and aioli, the Tortilla a la Cazadora (mushoom and potato omelet), the Albondigas de Cordero (lamb meatballs) and a frequent special of fluke crudo with grapefruit. And if you think about it, along with the spectacular (I would say, best in NYC) Jamon Iberico, that's plenty of tapas. Order a plate or two with a copita, and when you and your friend finish, order another plate or two and another copita, and continue until exhausted or the bar closes.
Another thing I appreciate about Palo Cortado is that it actually reminds me of being in Jerez. Okay, every tapas bar I can think of in Jerez and surrounding environs shows you many of the tapas you can order - they sit under glass and are served from troughs as you order them. That's not going to happen here, and that's fine. But the decor is right at Palo Cortado. Not too dark, not bright at all, some interesting paintings around, and they perfectly hit that critical mix of giving you enough space and somehow maximizing the hum of conversation from other tables.
And there is tile. Tile at the bar.
Tile on the tables.
You can always walk around and look at the paintings if you like.
Or sit at a table near the sultry painting in the back.
If you are interested in Sherry, and want to go beyond La Bota, go check out Palo Cortado. It might be a bit of a trip for you, yes. But you like Sherry, you're interested and curious. It's more than worth the trip.
Got home late at night from a business trip. Tired, malnourished, mal-slept, dirty from airplanes. Hungry, very hungry, and thirsty too.
In the fridge - leftover spaghetti and meatballs. I made this, but it was four days earlier. Still pretty good. Served with the final third of a 375 ml bottle of 2003 Chateau Rieussec. This was opened three days earlier when a friend brought it over for dinner, and since then it sat in the door of the fridge, uncorked.
That's right...spaghetti with meatballs and Sauternes. Perhaps the worst wine and food pairing in history. If you think you can do better, let's hear it.
Probably the spaghetti would have benefited from being warmed up.
I like to travel within New York City, to explore the far away neighborhoods, and the not so faraway. There are so many ridiculously good things to eat here, we really are very lucky.
Just look at this bowl of Bun Rieu, the Vietnamese crab paste soup with vermicelli noodles that I recently ate in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. At Thanh Da, this soup is served with fried tofu, chunks of pork rib, tomatoes, and lots of mint. Pure savory satisfaction.
Not too long ago a good friend and I went on walkabout to explore the Forest Hills Gardens section of Queens. This is a neighborhood designed by Frederick Law Olmstead's son, and its streets are privately owned. They have their own garbage collection and security services, if I'm not mistaken. Anyway, I couldn't help but point out to my pal that Rego Park was within walking distance, and its incredible Bukharian restaurants.
We ate a memorable and very large meal at Restaurant Salute (108th street and 63rd Road). This is a kosher restaurant owned by Uzbek Jews. We began with a gorgeous plate of expertly made pickles, and two kinds of dumplings.
These are Uzbek dumplings called manti, filled with ground meat (lamb?) and spices. I love them at Salute. If they remind you of certain Chinese dumplings, that's because there was a lot of mixing of food and technique as people traveled along the silk road a long time ago.
On the Salute menu these are called "Juicy Crimean Dumplings," and I think the real name for them is Cheburek. They were delicately spiced with cumin, and were indeed very juicy and delicious.
We ate pilaf, rich with chunks of lamb, carrots, and cooked onions. Not a powerfully flavored dish, but savory and very comforting.
And we ate kabobs, of course, a skewer of lamb ribs and another of ground lamb and beef spiced with cumin. Both were expertly grilled and a with a little bit of the "sauce for meat," made of plums, dill, onions, chilis...wow, that's just good stuff.
I love to have a pot of green tea at Salute. Beautiful colors, delicious tea, and another reminder of how complicated the mingling of food and culture is all over the world.
Get ready for this last bit because if you live in New York, you're going to freak out a little. I was in Chicago recently and a colleague who lives there took me to a place for dinner in his neighborhood, called Humboldt Park. He had no idea that I'm into wine, he just likes this place called Rootstock. Whoa - what a find! This place simply couldn't exist in New York. There would be twice as many tables squeezed into the same space, and everything would need to be at least twice as expensive.
The food was delicious. A salad topped with pickled squash and sunflower seeds ($8) was refreshing and bright. I guess Portland and NYC are not the only places where anything can be pickled.
Chicken liver mousse with pickled cranberries and pink peppercorns ($6.50 !) was truly excellent, although served with rather uninspiring bread. But the mousse was so good that it almost doesn't matter. And that bottle you see there...it is the 2009 Alzinger Riesling Steinertal, and it cost all of $60 on the wine list!! This is a wine that typically costs more than that at a retail shoppe in NYC, if you can find it. The wine list was excellent, really really great. There were so many things that I wanted to drink, and the prices were great, from my NYC viewpoint. This is a place that serves Bernard Baudry Chinon Blanc by the glass. There are loads of interesting beers to try, the shelves were stocked with great spirits, and to top it off this place serves Sherry by the glass too - Gutierrez Colosía's lovely Oloroso called Sangre y Trabajadero, and El Maestro Sierra's Amontillado. I mean really, folks, this place is a gem and I would go back 10 times.
And by the way, the Steelhead Trout with lentils and grilled scallions ($13 !!)...not bad with Steinertal, not bad at all. Yes, it's probably 15 years too soon to get the most out of this wine, but a good decant and two hours in, this was singing a lovely tune.
The other night I had dinner with 7 other people in Manhattan, a dinner featuring 12 vintages of Marcarini Barolo Brunate. Three wines each from the 60's, 70's, 80's, two wines from the 90's, and the 2007. I had never before had such a broad array of Barolo vintages in one night. It was amazing to experience the evolution of such finely pedigreed Nebbiolo, to feel the changes as it gets older.
We drank the oldest wines first, and ended with the 1990, the 1996, and the 2007. We began with the flight from the 60's - the 1964, 1967, and 1969. There was some discussion at the table - is this the right way to do it? Some felt that we should have started with the young wines.
I appreciated drinking the oldest wines first, in that I was as sharp as a taster as I would be that evening, and perhaps best able to appreciate the fine subtlety of the grand old wines. Or maybe I should say, the young wine tannins hadn't yet affected my mouth. That said, when we got to the 80's flight (1982, 1985, and 1989), the wines seemed very young, nowhere near as thrilling as their older cousins. Perhaps a great 1982 served after a great 1964 just cannot shine as brightly as it would on its own.
This is not the first time I've gone oldest to youngest in the past few months. Not long ago at a Noel Verset dinner, we began with the older wines. I'm not sure how I feel about this yet (although clearly I would drink these wines in any order and enjoy them).
And at my Burgundy Wine Club dinner, I decided to put the flight of Comte Armand Clos des Epeneaux (1989, 1991, and 1993) before the de Montille Pommard Rugiens flight (1998, 1999). My thinking was that the younger brawnier more tannic de Montille wines, if served first, would obliterate the Comte Armand wines.
Curious to see if anyone has an opinion they'd be willing to share on this.
You know this to be true. You can get the best ingredients, prepare ahead of time, have great music on and be in the right mood and still, things don't always work out in the kitchen.
Last week I saw Tipo 00 flour sitting on the "fancy food" shelf in the food coop. I had only recently learned of Tipo 00 - a very finely ground flour that apparently makes the best pizza dough and pasta. I don;t bake much (read: never), but it seemed like something worth trying. Why not make pizza dough and have fun with the daughters? We could each make our own pizza. How hard could it really be?
I emailed an Italian friend who is a good cook and has made pizza dough on many occasions. She said to use good yeast, not the kind that comes dry in the packets. She said that in Italy pizza sauce is not cooked, it is simply pureed uncooked tomatoes. She also said that the oven must be as hot as possible so that the dough cooks quickly, and the mozzarella should be warmed and melted, but not browned. She described the process of making dough as a craft, not a science. "Use 300-500 grams of flour and about half that weight in water, mix in the yeast, some salt, a tablespoon and no less of good olive oil, kneed it and add more flour or water as needed." Loose directions, but I like that - get the feel for it by doing.
So I bought fresh yeast. and I dissolved half of it in a bowl of warm water. I added about a half teaspoon of sugar to the bowl.
Bought a box of tomatoes, planning to puree them, but they came out of the box basically pureed already. That was it for the sauce.
I mixed about a cup and a half of flour and the salt, added the yeasty water (after giving it a few minutes to activate), added the olive oil and about 3/4 cup of water, and was thrilled to feel the mixture get doughy in my hands. But it was too sticky, so I added some more flour - maybe another 1/3 cup, and it integrated easily and was no longer very sticky.
Covered the bowl with a wet towel and left in on the counter near the stove. Two hours later it had doubled in size. It worked - yeast works!
The girls came home, we washed hands and got ready to stretch out some pizza dough. We could have used a rolling pin but I like the idea of working with our hands here. I took the dough out of the bowl and learned lesson number 1: dust the bowl with flour before leaving it to rise. Very sticky. And it was immediately clear that I had not used enough flour. The dough was elastic, but entirely too sticky, too moist, and just not of the right consistency. I was tempted to ditch the plan and make something else quickly, but there were two daughters standing on footstools at the counter who were quite intent on working with this dough and putting sauce and cheese on top.
So we worked the dough and lost at least 20% of it because it stuck to our hands. But we shaped those pizzas. I decided to cook the dough for a minute or two in the 550 degree oven, just to firm it a bit before adding sauce. It was too moist otherwise. This helped, and they spooned some sauce on their pizzas, and then added cubes of cheese. Slices of cheese would melt quickly and then burn quickly in a 550 degree oven.
Their pizzas came out okay and they ate them, but the dough was just wrong. It smelled good but it didn't really crisp up, even though I cooked them long enough for the smoke alarm to blare. And the taste was more like a bread roll than pizza dough.
It says a lot that the daughters were more excited about the broccoli and peas with sliced radishes and garlic than they were about the pizza. Pizza is one of those very simple foods in which the quality of each element must be right - there is little room for error. The dough just wasn't right, and even a three year old could tell.
I decided to make a sliced fennel and dry sausage pizza. I rubbed my pre-baked dough with olive oil and a sprinkle of salt, and topped with slices of fennel and dry fennel sausage. This actually tasted very good, although again, it was like eating a fennel and sausage bread roll.
I feel good about this, in spite of the bad dough. Next time I will use more flour and I think I have a better idea of what the dough should feel like before leaving it to rise. And if not, if I mess it up again, I'm sure the daughters will be cheerful either way.
Not long ago Joe Salamone and Levi Dalton put together a Sherry dinner at the wonderful Prune on the lower east side, and I was lucky enough to attend. Peter Liem was there too, and he indirectly helped to make this happen, as last summer Peter pointed Joe in the right direction when Joe visited Jerez. Joe drank some wines that he loved, some of which were not available in New York. He decided to import them to NYC so the rest of us can buy them. On this night Joe wanted to share some of these finds with a few friends, lucky us. This was a merry situation, we were feeling the love. Good friends, good food, and absolutely world class wines, wines that until recently were unavailable here. Joe and Levi opened the brown wines at least a day in advance and they showed incredibly well, the wines were stunning as a group.
Sherry is far more versatile with food than is commonly thought. I think that we in this country are still familiarizing ourselves with dry Sherry, and we tend to think that Fino style wines are for garlicky shrimp and other tapas. Fino wines go well with all sorts of food, actually. And brown Sherries - Palo Cortado, Amontillado, and Oloroso - I don't think there is a stereotypical pairing idea here because these wines are still so new to most of us. The brown Sherries we drank on this night, these are Sherries that can complement even the richest of meat dishes, as we proved to ourselves at this dinner.
Here were some of the highlights for me:
We drank Valdespino Amontillado Tio Diego, a great wine that is quite unusual as an Amontillado in that it shows a very pronounced Flor character - buttery like a Fino. Tio Diego is what happens when Valdespino Fino Inocente becomes an Amontillado and then ages for a bit longer. This is a young and fresh Amontillado, it is refreshing and delicious, not expensive at all, and in Jerez it's everywhere - on grocery store shelves. Frustrating not to be able to buy it here. But now in NYC, finally, you might be able to buy this wine at Crush, as Joe is bringing it in.
We then drank the Fernando de Castilla Antique Palo Cortado. This is just a beautiful wine. Focus and intensity, grace, detailed aromas and flavors, and a satisfying and complex finish. Pure pleasure, and improves over several days open. This wine goes so well with basically anything on the table. At this dinner, I loved it with shrimp in anchovy butter, and also with thinly sliced roast pork and kale.
We drank Valdespino Palo Cortado VORS Cardenal, a fine old Sherry that represents the end of the line for Inocente - it contains wines that long ago were part of the Inocente solera before the cellar master selected them out to become Palo Cortado.
We also drank Valdespino Amontillado VORS Coliseo, an equally rare and fantastic old Sherry that begins its life as a Manzanilla, actually. Imagine going to a dinner where you drink DRC Richebourg and La Tâche. That's what we drank, but in Sherry they're called Cardenal and Coliseo. These are such grand old wines and trying to describe them by naming aromas or flavors is silly. For me, they are show-stoppers, wines that make the table go quiet for a while as people take in what it is that's in the glass. Wines that achieve the pinnacle of complexity and character and deliciousness, things that you should find a way to taste, the way you should read Shakespeare's sonnets at some point in your life.
They were brilliant with an amazing dish of braised short ribs and Yorkshire pudding, something that used to be on the menu at Prune a while back. Braised short ribs and Yorkshire pudding...that's a rich plate of food, and I found these two grand old Sherries complemented it perfectly. Honestly, even though these are expensive in an absolute sense, maybe $140 for a 375 ml bottle, Cardenal and Coliseo are worth every penny. They are wines that expand and improve for a week after opening and you only need a small bit at a time, so your pleasure is spread over many evenings.
We also drank a vintage Sherry. That's right, a vintage Sherry. The 1975 Bodegas Tradición Oloroso. Imagine that - the solera system is part of what makes these wines so great, and here is a Sherry wine that never sees a solera. It is vinified and put in barrels, and that's it, as a wine would be in most of the world. I had a few sips of this rare wine at the Bodega in October, but it was at here at this dinner with this food when I understood its charms. This wine had such impeccable balance and harmony, and such clarity and focus. And although its been aged in barrels and exposed to oxygen without Flor to protect it for almost 40 years, it had no rough edges, not at all. Pure class, all silk, just amazing.
Valdespino Moscatel Toneles is, with Cardenal and Coliseo, the third wonder of the Valdespino Bodegas. There is one barrel of this wine in the solera row, another in the first criadera, and so on. There is very little of the wine and it is very old. Many serious Sherry devotees can tell you about why it is so special, and although I enjoyed drinking it, I will admit that I do not yet understand the wine and cannot easily differentiate between the old black sweet Sherries. i know there is something to it, I just haven't figured it out yet...
Keep your eyes open for these wines as they should be available here and there, whereas previously you had to go abroad to buy them. This was a truly amazing dinner and reminded me again that at this point in my drinking experience, I think that great Sherry is as great as wine can be.
If I may say, I've become rather adept at the frugal practice of making one whole chicken stretch for many tasty meals. I buy a very high quality chicken - these days I like the White Feather chickens from Bo Bo Farms. My idea is to roast the chicken, but jut the thighs, legs, and breast. The back, neck, feet (yes, you get the feet when you buy a Bo Bo chicken), and other parts go into the stock pot. I could roast the whole bird and then put everything but thighs, legs, and breast into the stock pot, but these days I prefer the taste of stock made from un-roasted bones and meat.
So I emerge with meal number 1 - roast chicken dinner. Last week my daughters and I ate this with fregola pasta with broccoli and turnips. But two small children and I will not finish two legs, two thighs and a whole breast. I tend to serve the dark meat at roast dinner, and save the breast for things when chicken isn't the star of the show, when it's just the protein delivery system.
Meal number 2 - daughter's lunch of shredded chicken breast, Chinese cabbage, and red pepper roll-ups. A drop of sesame oil and soy, and they gobble these up. The chicken is protein, the flavor and aroma comes from whatever else you add to the sandwich.
The point of this post is meal number 3 - soup. I make a simple stock using techniques from various conversations and cook books. I start with the aforementioned uncooked chicken parts, a whole onion in quarters, a carrot or two cut in half length-wise, a celery stick cut in thirds, and then, depending on what's in the kitchen, add things like a sliced knob of ginger, a bay leaf, a bunch of parsley or other herbs, a Parmesan rind, whole black peppercorns, and so on. Bring gently to a boil (Alice Waters, I think, said that stock should be made gently at all stages) and then simmer very gently for at least two hours, skimming the top at least once. I add salt after straining it and tasting, and not too much - anything I cook with the stock will also get salt.
My kids are very good eaters, but I haven't found too many soups that they'll eat with gusto. I want to change that - soup is a meal filled with potential. I can put all sorts of vegetables in soup, things that they might not eat if served as a side dish, soup is relatively easy to digest and is good for kids in that way as the evening meal, and soup tastes good and can be fun to eat. The version I made last week, on paper, seemed destined for failure. But ate it they did, and happily (alphabet pasta is my new secret soup weapon). Here's the recipe:
Chicken Soup with Bok Choy, Lentils, and Alphabet Pasta
Warm your stock in a separate pot while you cook 1 chopped medium onion in a small bit of oil over medium/low heat for a few minutes until the onion softens. Add chopped carrots and celery and cook some more, adding a little salt. Try to cook these aromatic vegetables as long as you can without burning them - they are the base of flavor and aroma for the soup. Add the chopped bok choy stems and greens and stir frequently. Add the washed lentils - I used only about a half cup for the whole pot here, because I wanted a soup that had lentils in it, not lentil soup. Stir some more, coat the lentils in the vegetables and their juices, add a little more salt.
Now add the warm stock and bring to a boil for about 1 minute and then reduce the heat to a simmer, cover the pot almost all of the way and let this simmer for 20 minutes, and then start checking to see if the lentils are done.
Meanwhile, take what remains of the chicken breast and shred it so that it will be nice in the soup, small shreds are easiest to eat. The alphabet pasta are tricky. Cooking them in water separately, for me, always results in soggy pasta (I need a brand for alphabet pasta that's better than Ronzoni, but have not yet found anther brand). I've started adding the dry pasta directly to the simmering soup about 8-10 minutes before I want to serve it.
So this is the finished soup, and let me tell you, it feels good to watch them devour something like this. I'm eating the soup too, mind you, and daddy wants a glass of wine with dinner. So please, you be the sommelier - what would you serve with chicken soup with bok choy, lentils, and alphabet pasta?
And by the way...if I can get away with not using all of the stock for the soup, I have meal 4, which lately has been turnips and their greens braised in stock - delicious! And meal 5 is leftover soup. Dare I strive for a meal number 6? Time will tell.
The other night I did something that I have never done before, and most likely will never do again. I drank a Marius Gentaz Côte-Rôtie. Gentaz is the revered traditionalist farmer and wine maker whose Côte-Rôties are considered by many Rhône cognoscenti as the greatest of all the Northern Rhône wines, the greatest Syrah in existence. Gentaz never made large quantities of wine, and he stopped making wine after the 1993 vintage - he retired and his nephew René Rostaing took over the vines. From what I hear, Rostaing immediately ripped them up and started over, which is a tragedy of epic proportions.
There simply isn't a lot of Gentaz Côte-Rôtie out there, and whoever has the wine is jealously guarding it. I've never seen a bottle on any of the auction sites or on restaurant lists - I've never seen a bottle, period. And for the past few years, I've been keeping my eyes open. Honestly, fugedaboudit, it's not going to happen. The wines have skyrocketed in price and become more rare every year as people drink what they have. I remember a few years ago a friend told me that he was going to have dinner at some place in Manhattan where Gentaz was on the list at the bargain price of $800. Sounds like a lot, right? What would a bottle of 1993 DRC Echezeaux cost at a restaurant? That is a bottle that you will never have a problem finding, if you want it - there is nothing rare about DRC. But Gentaz Côte-Rôtie, an incredibly rare and superlative wine? Maybe $800 is not such a terrible price. Get 8 people together and you each get a glass each for 100, a glass of something that will never again exist on the planet, something truly glorious.
I've wanted to drink Gentaz for years, ever since hearing my friend Peter talk about the wine in hushed and awed terms that he uses only for only a few wines. Well, the other night I was incredibly privileged to drink Gentaz. Ten bottles actually - an embarrassment of riches. This is what happens when a few generous collectors decide to hold a Gentaz tasting and dinner. Why did I get to go to this dinner, you might be wondering. Because I discarded any sense of decorum and I begged, pleaded, and begged some more, that's why.
Wow, what a night. The wines and the food were absolutely amazing, and that's an understatement. We drank 10 vintages of Gentaz, but we were many people and we drank the wines slowly over several courses of food. I took notes but they don't come close to the experience of drinking the wines. I'll try to share some notes and experiences, but maybe before you read on, take a look at this lovely article by Eric Asimov from this week's Dining section - he writes about Gentaz and offers more context for the wines.
The first wine we drank was the last Gentaz vintage, the 1993. May I tell you that I was rather excited as the wine was poured into my glass? My first sniff of a Gentaz wine, and it was thrilling. It reminded me of a wonderful wine I drank a little over a year ago at a ridiculous lunch at Neal Rosenthal's house, the 1985 Ferraton Hermitage. The '93 Gentaz was pale in the glass, but it offered such intense and crystal clear aromas, it was such a vivid and electric wine. My notes say "black peppercorns, very spicy, rose petals, iodine, broth, flowers, so complex and lovely." All of that is true, and more. The wine was the epitome of grace and detail on the palate and its incredible harmoniousness made it seem less potent at times than it actually is. I loved this wine, as much as I loved any of the wines we drank. Some of that has to be because it was my first, but I also think it was legitimately a great wine.
The 1992 was corked, alas. The 1990 was not. It was more dense, with musky notes mingling with the flowers, pungent and gorgeous. The wine was very different from the 1993 in character, but they shared the same incredible grace and harmony, something that apparently is the hallmark of Gentaz. The wines are seamless, so much so that it can be shocking.
The 1977 I thought was absurd in its harmony and grace, its perfect mingling of spices and rocks and flowers, and hints of bloody meat. My notes say "there is no way to improve this wine." The 1987 was delicious and very drinkable, but not as memorable to me as many of the other wines. The 1989 seems like it will be as memorable as many, but it was still hard and tannic on this night, a wine that probably needs another 10 years of relaxation.
And then there was the 1988. Utterly gorgeous. Wide open, seamless, complex, as delicious as anything I can remember drinking. I felt like a 15 year old at the high school dance with this wine in my glass, hard to know what to do with myself, awkward, in love but not understanding the object of my desire, mystified and elated, covered with pimples and just a total mess.
And after that the 1985! Just as good! Spicier, more meaty and of the bacon, and still perfectly harmonious. How did this guy do it? These wines are perfect. Some people loved the 1983, others thought there was something off, not TCA, but some sort of cork taint. I appreciated the wine but definitely sensed the taint. That's okay, because then we drank the 1978, the most exalted of Gentaz vintages, from what I am told. The wine was mature and perfect, gamy and pungent, finely grained, meaty, fresh as a daisy, just ridiculous. Wine for a time capsule.
Then we did an interesting thing. We drank the 1991 Gentaz Côte-Rôtie with two other 1991's, also made by great producers, you know, just to compare. The 1991 Noel Verset Cornas was not showing so well, there was volatile acidity. The 1991 Chave Hermitage, though, was truly excellent, and taught me something very important. The Chave had such an effortless power and it was so very refined on the nose. I cannot say that it was better than the Gentaz wines, but it was most certainly playing at that level. It was different, in the end. More of some things, like power and richness, and firmness of structure. I remember thinking about how the Chave wine seemed to effortlessly do what the Gentaz wines had to struggle to do, if that makes any sense. There is plenty of beauty in the struggle, it's just a different kind of beauty, one that it a bit more raw. Peter said it was the grandiosity of the Hermitage terroir shining through. That, to me, is something to ponder.
This was an incredible experience, once that would be near impossible to repeat. I am so grateful to have had the chance to experience these wines, this bit of history.
Been busy and not able to write as often, but please don't think that means I've been starving and not drinking anything interesting. Oh no, my friends, I've been a very lucky Brooklynguy lately, in large part due to the generosity of friends. Here are some tidbits, things from the past few weeks that are worth mentioning:
Slope Farms sells pork now. I cannot tell you how excited I am about this. Ken and Linda Jaffe (former Brooklynites who moved to the Catskills) are dedicated to farming healthy cows, and theirs is my absolute favorite beef. I'm not sure of the details on this new pork venture, but I hear they have an elder and respected neighbor who advised them as they set up their farm. This neighbor raises pigs. The Jaffes now sell their neighbor's pork. Look at the marbling on the meat, and the beautiful color. I've tried the chops and a rib roast so far, and WHOA, this is very very good pork.
And on the other end of the food spectrum, processed food, I've discovered what I now believe to be one of the finest canned food products - Heinz baked beans, the kind they sell in England. These are done in tomato sauce, not in that cloying brown sugary sauce that our baked beans swim in. If you see these, try them. Okay, they're canned, but they're actually not that bad for you. And they taste so very good.
Some wine too...
2001 was not a very good vintage in Champagne. Not many vintage wines from that year - it was rainy, especially in the weeks leading up to harvest, there was a lot of rot, and it was a challenge for the grapes to ripen. I know from reading ChampagneGuide.net that this is considered to be one of the most challenging vintages of the past 20 years. So it was fascinating to have the opportunity to try a vintage wine from 2001, Jean Vesselle's Brut Prestige. This wine is all Bouzy, a blend of 70% Pinot Noir and 30% Chardonnay, but it reminded me of a wine I tasted a few years ago by Moutard that is made with the obscure grapes of Champagne, things like Arbanne and Petit Meslier. The wine had overt notes of green herbs and leafy vegetables, and I think it would have benefited from a few grams more of dosage (it was dosed at 3 grams, I believe). But really, it was good wine, well balanced and particularly lovely on the nose. I cannot say that it is what I dream of when I want Champagne, but it was a very good wine, and a reminder that it is possible to enjoy well-made wine from bad vintages.
I had dinner with a few friends and we each brought wine to the restaurant. These were good wines, on paper anyway. We arrived at 7:00, opened everything, and it was clear that nothing was showing very well. After a little while, I don't know how long exactly, but probably an hour or so, all of the sudden everything was fantastic.
I'm talking about a bottle of 2000 Vincent Dauvissat Chablis Les Clos that was butterscotch pudding for a while, and then turned into this detailed and focused thing of beauty. Some caramel notes, but also a bunch of freshly picked white honeysuckle. Pungent, long, and intense with a saline edge to the finish, this was a beautiful wine, a very special treat.
And the 1990 Robert Ampeau Volnay Santenots, a wine that began better than the others, but still was a tangled mess. And an hour later it was gorgeous - a complex and beguiling nose that had that vibrant mature-wine-pungency thing. Flowers, musky and gamy, but in the end, very much about stone. And it is the texture that gets you - the wine couldn't be more silky, and this silk surrounds what essentially is a wine about rock. Textbook Volnay, and a truly compelling and lovely wine.
And the 2002 Paul Bara Bouzy Rouge Coteaux Champenois, a wine that was probably the messiest of all when we first opened it, all bramble and pitch black fruit and very disjointed. But later on, I swear this wine was the freshest and most detailed wet stone basket of ripe strawberries, so pure and elegant, light as a feather. And the 1999 Eric Texier Côte-Rôtie, a wine that fooled all of us. It was a red fruit mash at first - I would have guessed a Grenache heavy wine from further south had I tasted it blind. This one took the longest to come around, but when it did it was a classic old school bloody, meaty, black olivey, and very mineral northern Rhône Syrah.
Can I tell you that the next day I learned that our dinner occurred on a flower day...but only after 8:00 PM. Why do these annoying coincidences keep happening with the confounded biodynamic calendar and the way wines taste?
At a restaurant in Boston I drank a bottle of 2007 Didier Dagueneau Blanc Fumé de Pouilly. The wine was beautiful, a perfect mingling of freshness, tension, elegance, and quiet intensity. It was not in any way showy, and was amazing in its perfect harmony, not for any one particular characteristic of aroma or flavor. Wow, I wish I had more experience with Dagueneau's wines. They are awfully expensive now.
I recently drank an Emidio Pepe wine for the first time, the 2001 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo. It had been open for hours before we drank it with dinner. I loved it, really loved it. Such interesting and delicious wine. Jet black fruit, very brawny, but detailed and fresh, with cooling herbal aromas, and a streak of something like tar and leather. It was lovely with the aforementioned Slope Farms pork roast, and I must find a way to drink this iconic (and expensive, and apparently very variable) wine again.
Lastly, look at this nice list of white wines by the glass. This is at the restaurant Herbsainte in New Orleans. I was down there recently for work, and stopped in to have a cocktail before retiring to my hotel room. But before I could order, I overheard the bartender telling another man that there was a buttermilk fried Louisiana frog legs special that evening. Hmmm.
Forget the cocktail - I ordered a glass of El Maetsro Sierra Fino (!) and the frog legs. Well that whole situation was so delicious, that I decided to keep going, and drank a glass of the 2010 Domaine du Closel Savennières La Jalousie with a little plate of Gulf shrimp and grits with okra. Even more delicious! You know, I used to love Closel but I kind of gave up on the wines after not liking anything after 2002 (and after the last of my 2002's showed oxidized). I told friends that I was done with the wines. Well, I have no idea what's really going on with Closel, but honestly, this 2010 was just excellent - fresh, pure, balanced, showing typical wooly and waxy notes and lots of minerality. A reminder to me not to make pronouncements about wine. I just don't have the years of drinking experience to make pronouncements.
Much has been written and many debates take place about how to rate wine. It seems now that the 100 point scale is seen as "old guard," that it has not been effective at communicating a wine's quality. There are of course other rating systems, and their effectiveness is also debatable. I don't want to spend time here summarizing the various arguments, and I don't have a definitive opinion on the best rating system for wine. But I do have some thoughts that I want to share.
I think that some wines are better than others. That might sound silly to say, but there are folks who think that endeavors in the world of art and craft cannot and should not be measured in an absolute sense. They point out that one person's Mozart is another's Black Sabbath, and that both are equally excellent to the individual beholder. And it is true that we each have our own preferences regarding things like paintings, film, music, wine, roast chicken, and so on. It's romantic to say that "the perfect wine is the one you drink with your lover at sunset in a cafe overlooking the ocean." But there is a difference between personal preference and objective quality, and this is the whole point of professional criticism. The critic is supposed to be able to put their personal preferences and experiences aside and evaluate based on a set of established criteria, and then tell the rest of us something definitive about objective quality. What I'm saying here is that DRC is better than Yellowtail. It is higher quality wine. There may be people who prefer the smell and taste of Yellowtail, or who cannot distinguish between then two, and those people are welcome to their preferences and should go forth in peace and be happy. But one is a better wine than the other, regardless of personal opinion or the cafe at sunset context.
If you agree that there is objective quality to wine, then you probably agree that there must be some way for a critic to measure a wine's quality and communicate this to the rest of us. This is the hard part.
Some things are easy to rate - things that can be expressed finitely in purely mathematical terms. If I wanted to know which brand is the best AA battery available on the market, I could find out the average number of minutes each one lasts, determine the average price of each brand, and create a statistic that tells me how many minutes-per-dollar-spent I can expect from each battery.
Rarely is it this simple, however, even when things can be expressed purely in mathematical terms. Think about rating cars or schools or baseball hitters. How do we know which hitter is the best? Batting average is a start - some are higher than others, and there is a highest each year. But is the person with the highest batting average the best hitter? Is someone who hits 10 singles in 20 trips to the plate a better hitter than someone who hits 8 doubles in 20 trips to the plate? What about someone who hit only 5 singles in 20 trips to the plate, but those singles came at crucial points in the game and scored runs for the team. It is possible to determine which hitter has the highest batting average or hit for the most total bases in a season, but determining which is the best hitter requires more than statistics.
Painting, film, cooking, making music, wine...those things don't easily lend themselves to measurement in mathematical terms. But we have inherited a system of wine criticism that attempts to impose a mathematical framework on wine evaluation. The 100 point scale requires us to accept the idea that it is possible to measure something about wine, to assign a numeric value to one or more of its traits and arrive at a finite conclusion. That there is an objective qualitative difference between a 93 and a 92 point wine. Perhaps there is, but I'd like to see the rubric used to arrive at such a conclusion - how are those points generated?
To me, it makes sense not to try to impose finite mathematical rating systems when the subject matter does not itself generate outputs that can be measured using numbers. Why not relieve ourselves of the burden of ordering wines in such tiny groups (87 points, 88 points, 89 points, etc.) and instead work within larger groups, accepting that there are no exact measurements for wine quality. I would prefer a system in which the professional wine critic tells me which wines are of the highest quality, which are of high quality, which are above average, and so on, without attempting to distinguish between wines within each group.
Which are the highest quality wines of Meursault? For me, it would be enough to read a critic who tells me (and I'm making this up) that Coche-Dury, Comte Lafon, Pierre Morey, and Roulot make the highest quality wines of Meursault; François Jobard, Pierre Matrot, Pierre Yves Colin-Morey make high quality wines, and so on. I also would like to read about which wines by Comte Lafon, for example, are the best. And I'm frustrated with the fact that Perrières gets 94 points, Charmes and Genevrières get 91-93 points, Gouttes d'Or gets 90-92 points, and Clos de la Barre gets 89-91 points. From that I understand that the critic rates the wines generally in that order (and every year, they all do), but I still don't understand the value of one point. Perrières is 94 points and Charmes is 93 points, so Perrières is one point better. But what generated that extra point? I accept the idea that Perrières might objectively be a better wine, but not the idea that the critic who awards the additional point experienced something in drinking the wine that can be measured and expressed by a 94 as opposed to a 93.
My guess is that Perrières, Charmes, and Genevrières are all highest quality wines. Perhaps we don't need to take it any further than that - they are all highest quality. There may in fact be some objective truth - one of them might be better than the others in a certain vintage, but it seems to me that the sensations the drinker experiences in coming to this conclusion are not quantifiable.
How, then, should the professional critic explain the criteria for "highest quality," "high quality," and so forth? Sorry, but I'm asking questions and don't have answers. Here, though, is one that makes a lot of sense to me (from Peter Liem's ChampagneGuide.net):
* One star denotes a wine of particular quality and distinctiveness of character, one that stands out among its peers in some significant way.
** Two stars means that this wine is outstanding in its class, showing a marked quality, expression and refinement of character.
*** Three stars indicates a champagne of the highest class, demonstrating a completeness and expression of character that places it among the very finest wines within its context. Needless to say, these wines are uncommon.
This sort of system puts wines in large groups and requires me to do some thinking on my own, and I like that. Really he's just telling me the groups of wines that he thinks are best - which are very good, which are good, and which are not as good - the rest is up to me. There are over 1,000 wines reviewed on Peter's site, and 61 of them are awarded three stars. I'm sure Peter could tell me his favorites among those 61, but would laugh at the idea that there is one "best" wine within this three star group, that it is possible to construct a strict ordering of those 61 wines. That said, he could explain what it is about each of those 61 wines that merits it being in the three star group, and why each of the 251 two star wines is not in the three star group.