Thursday, December 27, 2007

Me and the $25 Cocktail

Talking to James Meehan of PDT recently for an article, he mentioned to me the possibility of his introducing a list of "premium cocktails" using high-end liquor. One of these would possibly be a concoction called the Staggerac (hope I'm getting the spelling right), which, as you probably guess, is a spin on the old Sazerac using George T. Stagg, the prized, pricey, 137-proof bourbon.

I like rye in my Sazeracs, of course, but any drink that has anything to do with that classic cocktail excites me, so I took my earliest opportunity to try the new libation. Just before Christmas, I took a seat at the bar and asked for the Staggerac, which I saw was not yet on the menu. The bartendress was a bit surprised, but knew what I was talking about. She went to consult with her fellow bartender on the construction of the drink, as well as its price. She came back and said, "I can make it, but it will be $25. So you have been warned."

I accepted the terms and she went to work. I'm not sure on the other ingredients, but I know the requisite Absinthe was used, and a lemon peel was employed at the end. I've never spent $25 for a cocktail; never more than $15, really, and most people think I'm crazy to pay that. I'll say this, though: PDT didn't skimp on the product. The drink was fairly king-sized. Plus, the drink was strong. I ordered a cocktail after the Staggerac and I really shouldn't have. Because the Stagg left me hammered. I've rarely had such a potent cocktail.

So, be warned if you go into PDT for this treat. It's good, but remember: the Sazerac is meant to be a sipping cocktail, and so is this. Sip it over an hour. Take your time. And then maybe go home.

The Ribolla of Napa

Ribolla Gialla. If you know this grape at all, you know it's grown almost exclusively in the Friuli area of Italy and thereabouts.

I saw a cute little 500 ml bottle in my local wine store with the words Ribolla Gialla on it, so I picked it up, being a fan of the grape and of Friuli. Then I saw the words below it: Napa Valley. Huh? Only one other word was on the label, "Vare," the producer, so I looked them up and sure enough: This bottle represented the first and only planting of Ribolla Gialla in the United States.

George and Elsa Vare are in charge of this small-production vineyard. No surprise they grow Ribolla; their wines are patterned after the practices of Friuli winemakers. The wine is left on the lees for a while, whole cluster pressed and had a long, cool fermentation in once-used French oak barrels. Only 237 cases of 500ml bottles and 36 cases of 1.5 liter bottles were made.

They have a section on their website called "Heroes." Among the named are such Friuli greats as Josko Gravner and Stanko Radikon. Hey, they're heroes to me, too.

I finished the wine in one night. (It is on the small side.) It's a good drink. It has a strong nose of lemon, petrol and tropical notes. Drinking, it's steely and mineral with a core of fruit, notably banana and lemon. The finish is long and rather metallic, though I don't mean that in a bad way. Very enjoyable. And very like its Friuli cousins, if a bit more mellow.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

In the Cellar With La Pizza Fresca

One of the best things about writing my "In the Cellar" column for the New York Sun is it causes me to discover restaurants that I otherwise might pass by. Several people had recommended La Pizza Fresca to me as a destination not only for superior pie but great wine. But I didn't make it there until I assigned myself to cover it. The wine list is as impressive as everyone says, and goes startling well with the pizza, jacking up my already high opinion of that food.

One thing I didn't get into in the article is the actually cellar. (Ironic, no?) That's because the owner, Brad, is a little sheepish about it. The place is an endearing mess, boxes upon boxes piled on each other, unpacked, with almost not place to walk. It would take half a year to sort it out. "I don't even show it to my friends," he told me.

Eating Pizza, Sipping Sassicaia


The owner and managing director of the Flatiron district restaurant La Pizza Fresca, Bradley Bonnewell, was staring across the room at a dark-haired man in an expensive-looking suit. The diner, seated at a table near the bar, was lustily enjoying his meal. Mr. Bonnewell had never met him and didn't know his name, but he recognized the face — and for good reason. "The guy comes in at least twice a week," he said. "He spends maybe $100 on food and $1,000 on wine."

If you possess the wherewithal, this spending ratio is easily achieved at La Pizza Fresca. The restaurant is known for having forged an unusual, yet happy, symbiosis between excellent, inexpensive Neapolitan-style pizza and superior, quite expensive top-drawer Italian wine. The suited big spender's taste in pizza was quite common — Pizza Marinara and Margarita. His taste in wine, however, skewed toward premium Barolo and Brunello.

La Pizza Fresca (31 E. 20th St. at Broadway, 212-598-0141) is made for the lover of Italy's finer culinary achievements: coffee, pizza, and red wine. Mr. Bonnewell, a onetime advertising executive, fell under the spell of these three delicacies in that order. He entered the food world as the owner of the Manhattan Espresso Café in Midtown East. While on a coffee-buying trip in 1993, he followed a visit to Naples' Kimbo Coffee with lunch at a local pizzeria. "It was just 11 a.m. or 11:30 and they were just getting the fire going and getting the dough out," he recalled. "It was so theatrical. You see all the fresh ingredients and the whole set-up. Finally, you taste your pizza and it's unbelievable. I thought, 'What the hell.'"

He gave up the idea of expanding his café empire, and set his mind on opening a Neapolitan-style pizza restaurant in New York City. La Pizza Fresca opened in 1996, complete with a new brick oven built by an Italian pizzaiolo-bricklayer (a hyphenate profession that could only have been hatched in Naples). One thing Mr. Bonnewell didn't copy was the Italians' habit of eating their pizza with beer or soda. The newborn La Pizza Fresca featured a small wine list.

So, then, how did that list grow to 750 selections, including multiple vintages from the top Piedmont and Tuscany producers? Mr. Bonnewell shrugged, as if the circumstance were the most natural thing in the world. "If you like quality, it's just easy. You drink the cheap wine and then you drink the great wine, and you say, 'Hey, why am I drinking the cheap wine?' I just kind of progressed."

Progressed is one way of putting it. Three-quarters of the list's Barbarescos come from Angelo Gaja, arguably the most famous and highly lauded winemaker in Italy. There are three densely packed pages of Barolos. The famed Super Tuscans Sassicaia and Tignanello are also here in force, as well as a nice selection of wines priced under $75. All this to accompany food you eat with your hands.

The seeming dichotomy doesn't faze Mr. Bonnewell in the least. By now, he's had years of practice defending his particular food and wine-pairing mission. Still, he's willing to prove the argument's validity one more time for a skeptical journalist, opening a bottle of 2004 Moccagatta Barbaresco to wash down a Pizza Savoia topped with mushrooms, pancetta, Fontina cheese, and bufala mozzarella. The bottle and pie, both brimming with Piedmontese character, went amazingly well together, existing in a kind of class-neutral epicurean harmony. The humble meal and heralded wine clearly deserved each other's company.

Mr. Bonnewell's wine world is basically one of beautiful Italian reds. He knows there are people out there with differing palates. He's willing to cater to them, but only just so much. "We're not trying to be so democratic," he said. "We basically buy what we like to drink, and I personally am not a huge white wine fan. With the brick oven, we're pretty much a winter place. We're pretty dead in July and August. Also, I've never had a complaint that we don't have enough whites."

As for people who — ahem — insist on drinking something not produced anywhere on the Italian boot, there is a last resort. Mr. Bonnewell calls it the "Rest of the World List," and it's not immediately shown to guests. This list is where you'll find the wines made in Spain, Argentina, California, and elsewhere. La Pizza Fresca's owner admits that not even he is completely immune to the charms of these wines: "Of course, I love some of the great wines of the rest of the world, but I'm not satisfied."

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Best Drinking Block in Manhattan?

For my money, E. 20th Street has become the best place to take your thirsty self in Manhattan.

I'm talking in particular of the single block between Park Avenue South and Fifth Avenue. On the south side, you have Gramery Tavern, one of the most elegant spaces in the city with one of the best wine lists and array of cocktails and spirits by the glass. Next door is Flute, the bar dedicated to Champagne.

Across the street is vino temple Veritas, where the storied wine cellar of Bordeaux and Burgundy forever shoved the food in the back seat. Down the street is La Pizza Fresca, home of a surprisingly deep collection of first class Barolos and Barbarescos. Next to that is Moore Bros., one of the best wine stores in the City.

Though they are not specifically on that block, I include in this geographical constellation Fleur de Sel, a nice French bistro with a respectable list, despite its tendency to capriciously fire good sommeliers, and Flatiron Lounge, the top-notch cocktail lounge on E. 19th.

There are few cravings that can't be assuaged on this street.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

A Dickens of a Drink

I'm always happy when I can work Charles Dickens into a story, so a recent piece I wrote for the New York Sun about holiday drinks was a pleasure to compose. Someone yesterday asked me, "What's a holiday drink?" Good question. And that's why I wrote the article. For years, the category has been occupied by a single beverage: egg nog. But the cocktail police have blown the whistle on that situation, and have been bringing out more options, including old-fashioned punches, the one-time classic Tom & Jerry and Hot Buttered Rum, as well as various mulled wines and ciders.

For the article, I talked to people at PDT, Death & Co., Flatiron Lounge and Pegu Club. Here's the piece:

Houses Of Spirits

In the final pages of Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol," Ebenezer Scrooge, newly embracing goodwill toward men, raises the salary of his long-suffering clerk Bob Cratchit and declares: "… we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop!"

Smoking bishop was a punch, of course. This convivial category of alcoholic beverage — typically composed of water, sugar, lemon, spice, and wine or spirits — was, for nearly 200 years, as popular in America as it was in England. By the mid-19th century, however, it had been supplanted by the "short drink" and cocktail. Still, even as it waned in popularity, the punch retained a grip on the drinker's imagination, particularly around Christmastime. The image of a circle of friends or family gaily ladling out elixir from a bowl, and toasting each other's health, all but screamed yuletide. Ditto such cold-weather drinks as the Tom & Jerry and Hot Buttered Rum.

How holiday imbibing has changed! Until recently, a thirsty reveler was as likely to encounter the Ghost of Christmas Present in a bar as a bowl of decent punch. The movers and shakers of the current cocktail renaissance, however, are doing their part to ensure that the season of giving will once again mean hot and shared drinks.

Co-workers, pals, or strangers who wish to bond over a bowl can now head to Death & Co. (433 E. 6th St., between First Avenue and Avenue A, 212-388-0882), an East Village drink emporium that boasts a punch section on its cocktail menu. The inspiration for the brews came from merry olde England itself. "We went over to London in March, just to drink," one of the bartenders at Death & Co., Philip Ward, said. "There's a good bar scene in London. One bar we went to was doing punches. The punch wasn't any good, but it was a really cool service. We decided to do it and actually make really good punch. This is something that is good for holidays. It's very communal."

Though the punches have been available at the saloon for some time, the management recently added some new concoctions geared toward the cold-weather months. These include one called Jersey Lightning, composed of Laird's Applejack (which is made in New Jersey, hence the name), Harvest Moon Tea-infused Carpano Antica vermouth, fresh lemon juice, and a dash of Peychaud's Bitters. Another punch is the Spread Eagle, contributed by cocktail historian David Wondrich, and based on a recipe by 19th-century drink master Jerry Thomas. It's made of Rittenhouse rye whiskey, Compass Box Asyla scotch, fresh lemon juice, and muddled lemon peel, and topped with fresh grated nutmeg.

All of Death & Co.'s punches are served cold, but the tavern can fix you up if you're in need of a steaming cup. One option is the Hot Buttered Rum, a beverage many have read about or seen downed in old period films, but never tried. In its version, the bar uses its own spiced butter.

The owner of the Flatiron Lounge (37 W. 19th St., between Fifth and Sixth avenues, 212-727-7741), Julie Reiner, said she always brings out a couple of hot drinks when the temperatures dip. (Seasonal menus are rather a point of pride among newer cocktail mavens.) This year, she'll feature a Glögg — which is a Swedish mulled wine, made, in her version, with a red wine base, port, and spices — and a hot apple brandy that brings together apple cider mulled with brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and clove, Cognac, and spiced butter. (Take note: These attractions are likely to hit the menu later this month.)

At PDT (113 St. Marks Place, between First Avenue and Avenue A, 212-614-0386), the meta-speakeasy where you enter through a wooden phone booth in the neighboring hot dog joint, winter will be greeted not by traditional cold-weather drinks, but new creations using lustier, heartier liquors. "As the seasons change, the spirits get darker, a little more savory, and somewhat more spicy," a bartender there, James Meehan, who helps to manage the East Village bar, said. Debut creations will include the Black Flip, a spin on classic egg-based flips that combines Cruzan Black Strap Rum, Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout, and a whole egg. Also on the menu will be a Benton's Old Fashioned, a cocktail that can give you a warm feeling just thinking about its ingredients: bacon-infused George Dickel whiskey, Grade B maple syrup, and Angostura bitters.

One potation that was once as closely associated with the holidays as eggnog is the Tom & Jerry. This egg-loaded, heavily spiced meeting of rum and cognac reigned supreme throughout the 19th century, and even today can be found in homey bars in the upper Midwest. (My Wisconsinite parents still break out the Tom & Jerry drink mix every December 25.) But in New York, it's a rare bird, even in the most luxe cocktail dens — and for good reason. Preparing a Tom & Jerry is a pain. It takes time and room, as it involves mixing a complex batter with several ingredients, and heating liquids.

One place you can bank on booking a bowl of the creamy stuff is Pegu Clubon Houston Street, where Audrey Saunders's recipe is legendary. The drink seems to hold a special place in mixologists' hearts this time of year. "Last Christmas when I got home from a party, I made myself a Tom & Jerry," Mr. Meehan said.

Mr. Simonson maintains the wine and spirits Web log "Off the Presses."

Jersey Lightning Punch

Courtesy of Death & Co.

12 sugar cubes
3 oz. fresh lemon juice
3 oz. Carpano Antica sweet vermouth infused with Harvest Moon tea*
9 oz. club soda
6 oz. Laird's Bonded Applejack
6 to 8 dashes of Peychaud Bitters
Ice, cubes and one large block
Apple slices, for garnish
Cinnamon sticks, for garnish

1. Dissolve sugar cubes into 3 ounces of club soda. You may have to muddle them a little.

2. Stir in lemon juice, infused sweet vermouth, Applejack, and bitters.

3. Add several ice cubes and stir until cold.

4. Strain ice cubes from mixture.

5. Add 6 more ounces of club soda.

6. Pour over a large piece of ice.

7. Garnish with apple slices and cinnamon sticks.

Serves 2 or more, depending on thirst.

* Harvest Moon tea is available at Sympathy for the Kettle, 109 St. Marks Place, between First Avenue and Avenue A, 212-979-1650.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

What's Wrong With Most Cocktail Joints?

This is what's wrong with most cocktail joints. Or, rather, the places that fancy themselves cocktail joints.

I was on the Upper West Side and I pasted by a bar called The Evelyn Lounge. Being a New York history buff, I knew immediately what they were talking about: chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit, who used to perch on a red velvet swing in the altogether to please libidinous architect Stanford White. When her husband found out, he fired a gun into White's head at Madison Square Garden. Big scandal 100 years back.

So I was naturally attracted and came in close to eyeball the cocktail menuu. I very nearly threw up. I mean, just look at it. This isn't a cocktail menu. It's a recipe for intoxication for people who don't know anything about spirits and don't like the way alcohol tastes. It's candy for would-be grown-ups. The drinks are even named after soda pop and ice cream: Orange Crush, Pink Lemonade, Creamsicle. Vodka and juice, vodka and juice, with a little rum thrown in for variety.

And the drink named after Nesbit? Absolute ruby red vodka, peach schnapps, tonic and lime juice. I doubt the real Evelyn ever encountered vodka in her life. Gin, yes, and plenty of it.

The only cool thing about the place is the address, 380 Columbus. After Harry Thaw, Evelyn's jealous husband, shot and killed White, the couple retired in this buidling.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Me and Tom & Jerry

In terms of cuisine, my family had a strange relationship with Christmas. The night before Christmas meant my father's preferred meal of oyster stew, a tradition he carried over from his childhood. I never did understand its origins and never met another soul who celebrated the night that way. Christmas Day could mean anything from lasagna to chicken breasts stuffed with cheese to chicken curry; we never once had ham or turkey.

And when it was time for a libation, nobody every suggested egg nog. It was Tom & Jerrys all the way. Growing up, I thought everyone drank Tom and Jerrys on Christmas. I only learned different when I went away to college, and when I moved to New York City shortly after, I discovered that most of the population not only abstained from the drink, but didn't even know what the hell it was. The cartoon, they knew. The drink, no.

The Tom & Jerry dates back the stone age of cocktails, going back nearly 200 years. Many are under the misconception that bartender extraordinaire Jerry Thomas invented it (Jerry himself was one of them). Whoever did come up with it, the thing was a smash. No yuletide throughout much of the 19th century was celebrated without bowls upon bowls of the egg-laden, spice-haven, rum and brandy-laced concoction. You can still find Tom & Jerry bowls and cups on eBay and in antique stores.

The Tom & Jerry waned with the rise of the cold cocktail and pretty much died with Prohibition. But for some reason, it retained a grip on the upper Midwest, including my home state of Wisconsin. Can't say why. It may be because hot drinks remain attractive in cold climates. It could be Wisconsin's strange attachment to brandy. Anyway, my parent never did without their Tom & Jerry on Dec. 25. Neither did their friends. It was so popular that Tom & Jerry "mix" could be purchased at any grocery store or liquor shop.

I never remember liking the drink. It just seemed like hot water laced with bad booze and milk, topped with cinnamon. It's very possible my parents didn't make a top notch Tom & Jerry. (Very possible.) Ten years ago, I found some Tom & Jerry mugs at a stoop sale, and honored the occasion by trying to mix up a batch of hooch on my own. Again, it was awful, but, in fairness, I recall having bought fairly cheap rum and brandy. (This was before my spirits re-education.) After that I gave up.

In researching a recent article for the New York Sun about holiday drinks, however, my curiosity has again been aroused. I know what should be done, now, and will give it a shot again this X-mas. First, however, I may drop by The Pegu Club where, I'm told, Audrey Saunders mixes up a bad Tom & Jerry. I obviously need instruction

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Good Idea, Bad Source

The other day I was headed toward the Union Square subway station, minding my own business, when a group of folks duded out in vintage attire accosted me and encouraged me to celebrate Repeal Day. The day Prohibition was repealed, they meant, that day being Dec. 5. The men had overcoats and fedoras on and the women lacquered hair and flapper outfits. Some acting stunt, I thought.

Upon quizzing them, they expressed their zeal for their cause, saying Repeal Day should be made a national holiday. But who was behind the movement?, I asked. No one, they said. Just a good cause. For a second, I believed them. A lark, I thought, and not a bad idea. Repeal Day would make for a nicely irreverent holiday.

But then, looking at the button they handed me, I noticed at the bottom in small print was the web address for Dewar's. The whole exhibition was a marketing scheme, one small part of a national campaign. And the well-dressed barkers were just some yahoo actors for hire. OK, fine, good. But say so! Don't pretend you're really into it and Dewar's ain't paying the check.

Now, to find some people who really do want to make Repeal Day a holiday and not just sell a bottle of blended whiskey.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

A Lost Cocktail?

I don't want to jump the gun here, because there are so many cocktails out there, and so many cocktail experts with encyclopedic memories. But I think I may have discovered a lost cocktail.

It's called a Dreicer Special. I think I'm safe in assuming that it was lost to time for a few reasons. One, it was probably never exceedingly popular to begin with. Two, it was invented by one Maurice Dreicer, a true New York character of the 1940s and 1950s who, beginning in 1942, devoted his life "to the search of the perfect steak." Few remember Dreicer today. He spent thousands of dollars in this quest, and ate at thousands of restaurants, eating steak at least once a day. The man was an extreme epicure, but of a very narrow focus. However, Dreicer did on occasion eat other things. Shrimp cocktails were in his repertoire, as was alcohol. He is said to have invented two cocktails: the Dreicer Daiquiri and the Dreicer Special. (He actually made a bit of a splash in the cocktail world, having recording a popular album titled "How to Mix Them." He died in 1989.))

My third reason for believing this cocktail to be lost is it was published only once to my knowledge, in a collection of profiles, long out of print, called "It Takes All Kinds." The book was written by one Maurice Zolotow, who published many biographies, and was prone to writing about the obscure and the eccentric. The book came out in 1952.

I haven't tried the Dreicer Daiquiri yet; it required some ingredients I didn't have on hand. But I did test the Dreicer Special, and found Maurice to have been a man of simple but refined tastes. It's an easy mix:

2/5 Pimm's No. 1
2/5 Grenadine
1/5 lemon juice

Stir with cracked ice and strain into a cocktail glass. The resultant libation is distinctly refreshing, on the sweet side and light in alcohol. The Pimm's comes through most strongly, and the lemon juice nicely cuts through the Grenadine. I'd say it's ideal for summer drinking, or when you want something light. It certainly deserves to be put back in circulation.

Again, the drink may be out there under a different name. But my search turned up nothing. I welcome people to write in with any knowledge they may possess about this potion.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

In the Cellar at Capsouto Freres

My November edition of the "In the Cellar" column in the New York Sun appeared on Dec. 5. (Don't ask. Scheduling problems.) I was attracted by Capsouto Freres when I heard of the Tribeca restaurant's emphasis on Israeli wines, which, to my knowledge, is singular outside kosher establishments. I spoke with Jacques Capsouto, the world-weary but warm wine director. Here is the article:

An Ambassador of Israeli Wine

Read the wine list at any high-end restaurant in Manhattan and you'll get a good idea of the wine director's likes and dislikes, and perhaps a hint of what kind of food is being conjured in the kitchen. The wine list at Capsouto Frères, the breezily elegant TriBeCa restaurant, however, could be interpreted as a compact biography of its creator, Jacques Capsouto, who, along with his brothers Albert and Samuel, in 1980 installed the restaurant in a remote, former spice warehouse at the corner of Watts and Washington streets.

Jacques and his brothers were born into a French-speaking Jewish family in Alexandria, Egypt, fled in 1957 to Lyon, France, after the Suez War, and then immigrated to New York City four years later. Fittingly, the Capsouto Frères wine list is made up of bottles from only three countries: France, America, and Israel.

American and French wines can be found in almost every restaurant cellar in town, of course. It is Mr. Capsouto's collection of Israeli wines that has caught the attention of critics and imbibers. He doesn't just have a token red and a token white, as is often the case. His 150-bottle selection includes 20 wines from Israel, such as a Yarden Brut Blanc De Blanc sparkler and a Yarden muscat sweet wine, as well as a Dalton sauvignon blanc and Yarden Merlot. (In case you haven't noticed yet, Jacques Capsouto is a passionate advocate of Yarden, whose role in the Israeli wine boom he likens to that of Robert Mondavi Winery in California.)

"I actually had a Yarden on the list, a chardonnay, when it came to the New York market in the early '80s," Mr. Capsouto, who still retains an Old World accent and a certain air of charming Weltzschmertz to go with it, said. But it wasn't until a 2004 trip to Israel — his first in decades — that he discovered the strides the country's wine industry had taken in recent years.

When Mr. Capsouto talks of Israeli wine, he talks of "two evolutions." The first was spurred on by Edmond Benjamin James de Rothschild, a Zionist member of the famous French wine family, who traveled in the 1890s to Palestine and began buying plots of land from the Turks. The acres, mostly along the coast, were then given to local farmers, who planted vines. (Carmel was one of the wineries born at this time.) The second big movement came during the 1980s and continues to this day, paralleling similar drives toward higher quality wine in other countries across the world. Among the newer, generally smaller Israeli wineries now garnering praise and attention are Margalit, Domaine du Castel, and Bazelet ha Golan.

Mr. Capsouto makes it clear that, by supporting the country's vineyards, he's expressing his enthusiasm for the region's wines, not the particular style of wine for which that region is best known. "I'm representing Israeli wines," he said. "I'm not representing kosher wines." He points out that a number of the Israeli bottles on the list bear no hecksher, or kosher certification. "Of the boutique wineries in Israel, about 70 to 80% are not kosher."

The restaurant isn't the first business to bear the name Capsouto Frères. A sign with that legend once hung above a small women's accessories shop in Alexandria. It was run by the siblings' father and his brothers, who specialized in such delicate sartorial luxuries as silk stockings and scarves.

"When we were opening the restaurant, we were trying to come up with a name," Mr. Capsouto said. "My mother came out with this picture of the store and said, 'Why don't you call the restaurant Capsouto Frères?' That's why it's called Capsouto Frères instead of Watts on Washington." Black-and-white shots of the old shop now sit on a table near the restaurant's entrance; the store's wares are advertised on the façade in English, French, and Arabic.

Another bottle on the Capsouto Frères list betrays yet another chapter in the family's story. It's a wine from Gundlach Bundschu, a Sonoma Valley winery with an unwieldy Germanic name and a long history.

"Seven or eight years ago, the Bundschu family was looking at their records and they were trying to figure out where their New York warehouse had been," Mr. Capsouto said. "They had abandoned the warehouse after the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, when their winery got burned." The ancestors of Bundschu (a Bundschu married Gundlach daughter, thus the name) came to Jacques armed with a couple of king-size blow-ups of old documents and the conviction that the home of Capsouto Frères was none other than their long-lost warehouse. One of the documents was an etching of the 1891 landmark neo-Flemish building. Albert Capsouto pointed out a horse and cart laden with boxes in the foreground of the picture. "That looks like wine to me," Albert said.

Jacques Capsouto was convinced enough to host a tasting that re-introduced Gundlach Bundschu to the New York market a few years ago. He also put one of their wines on his list. Was he, perhaps, being sentimental? He pursed his lips ever so slightly, and replied: "If it wasn't good, I wouldn't put it on the list."

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

W. And "21"

I don't know what it is about the "21" Club, but I love writing about the joint. Maybe it's the rich history, the clubby decor, the ghosts of it famous patrons of yesteryear (Welles, Bogart, Hemingway, etc.), the storied wine cellar, the fact that it's the only restaurant left in New York to require a coat and tie—or all of these. But the place is rich in material. I've penned features on it four times in the past three years. The angle this time is that George W. Bush has yet to visit the place, and is threatening to break "21"'s streak of hosting Presidents. It ran on the front page of the New York Sun today. As loath as I am to giving W. any kind of publicity, here it is:

White House Says There's Still Time for '21'


American presidents have little in common aside from the address 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., an oddly shaped office, and a tendency to inspire midterm election losses. But, since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, they've shared at least one other experience: They've all visited the "21"Club, the jacket-required restaurant and former speakeasy on West 52nd Street.

John Kennedy dined at "21" the day before he was inaugurated. Richard M. Nixon frequented table 14 so often the management affixed a gold plaque with his name on it to the ceiling above it. Jimmy Carter held a luncheon there before the commencement of the 1976 Democratic Convention. Indeed, every president from Franklin Delano Roosevelt on has paid a call while occupying the White House, according to general manager Bryan McGuire.

But nerves are a little raw and feelings are a trifle hurt at "21" these days. Since taking office nearly seven years ago, President George W. Bush has made himself a stranger. Not one lunch. Not one dinner. And now time is running out. "We'd really like it if he comes while he's still president," Mr. McGuire said.

A spokeswoman for the restaurant, Diana Biederman, added: "He's going to break our streak. He's got a cook at home and I understand that, but we just take it so personally."

There's clearly no Bush family bias against the old saloon at work here. The first lady has been to eat many times. In fact, during the 2004 Republican convention in New York City, she was quoted by the New York Post as saying "21" was her favorite restaurant. The Bush twins, Barbara and Jenna, have been seated there, both with and without their mother. The canteen has also enjoyed the patronage of President George H.W. Bush and his wife Barbara.

The current president's administration is likewise fond of the eatery, with its checked tablecloths and $30 hamburgers. "Condi's been here," Ms. Biederman said. "Cheney's been here. Everyone's been here but him." What's more, the place is catnip to would-be Presidents. Senators Kerry, Biden, and Clinton, as well as Mayor Giuliani — they've all passed through the establishment's famous wrought-iron gates.

When this reporter called the White House to see if the president himself had any plans to visit "21," a press office spokesman, who asked not to be named, replied: "There are no updates in his schedule at this time. Obviously there's a lot of time left in his term."

"21" has never been forced to extend formal invitations to the White House before; presidential visits just seemed to happen as a matter of course. "How do you do it?" Ms. Biederman said. "I could send a letter to the White House, but it would be like 'Who's this stalking girl?'"

However, personal inquiries have been made. "I mentioned it to Mrs. Bush and I mentioned it to the daughters several times," a former manager and host at "21," Bruce Snyder, who retired in 2005 after 36 years on the job, said.

The reply: "He doesn't like to go out to dinner," Mr. Snyder said.

So if the president is a homebody, and won't come to "21," why not bring "21" to the president? Perhaps, during his next visit to Manhattan, the restaurant could deliver food to his doorstep — the way Grace Kelly served Jimmy Stewart a "21" dinner in his Greenwich Village apartment in the 1954 film "Rear Window." The restaurant has thought of it, and ruled it out, Ms. Biederman said. "The problem with sending food to him is the Secret Service would be all over that," she said. "When Dick Cheney was here, they had tasters."

Moreover, Ms. Biederman added, the point is that "we want him here."

Past presidents have seemed less averse to eating out, according to Mr. Snyder. "I remember President Nixon the most," he said. "He came before he was president, while he was president, and after he was president." During one of Reagan's visits, Mr. Snyder, just to be on the safe side, escorted him to the bathroom. "I wanted to see that thick hair in the light." President and Mrs. Clinton celebrated daughter Chelsea's 17th birthday at "21" — staying so late that the family was given a tour of the saloon's famous wine cellar at 2 a.m., with Hillary herself pushing open the 4,000-pound cement door.

But if President George W. Bush doesn't make it to the "21" Club during his time in office, will the storied restaurant be diminished — just a little bit? Mr. Snyder laughs at the idea: "Guess what?" he said. " '21' is stronger than he is."

Monday, November 19, 2007

Treasure in Plain Sight

I really shouldn't give away my secrets, but...

Sometimes great wine treasures are sitting right there in plain sight, cheap, accessible, waiting to be purchased. Francois Cazin's Cour-Cheverny Loire Vally white is one such undeserved wallflower.

Cheverny is a fairly recent appellation in the Loire Valley. It was formed in 1991. It's in the Touraine area, due east of Vouvray. They plant a lot of stuff there, but this wine is made from the rare Romorantin grape. One of the only wines you'll find made from this grape.

The first time I had this wine—either a recommendation from Smith and Vine or an industry tasting—I thought, "Well, that's a very nice, well-made wine, very nice indeed, for $15," not realizing I was condescending to the wine. Last weekend, I bought a bottle of the new vintage and opened it with a friend. His eyes lit up. And I thought, "Damn! This is a great wine! And at $15? What am I doing? Why don't I have a case of this? It's perfect for everything."

The Cour-Cheverny is a light to medium-bodied wine, with great acidity and minerality. A clear, steely yet welcoming wine that knows its mind and doesn't try to impress, yet does impress with its quiet greatness. There are vegetal and eucalyptus notes, with citrus and grape tastes up front. It's an unshowy, suberb piece of work. And it's right there. I see it on the shelf of more fine wine stores in NYC. Easy to get. $15! But it has an unfamiliar name and no varietal on the label, so people pass it by. Don't. Get it.

East Village Tikis

One of the most high profile (and only) tiki drink places in Manhattan is a small space called Waikiki Wally's on E. 1st Street near First Avenue in the East Village. Learning that tiki expert Jeff "Beachbum" Berry was coming to town, I made a date for us to check out the place. Alas, scheduling did not allow our paths to cross. But I still had a curiosity about Wally's. So, a couple nights afterwards, being in the area with an hour to spare, I stopped by.

Having been to the superior Forbidden Island in Alameda, California, just last month, I was in a spoiled frame of mind, I admit. So the decor inside Wally's seemed a little cheap. The thatch roof about the bar was a bit rote, the waterfall too kitschy. But, overall, it was a pleasing enough attempt at tropical design.

I sat at the bar. The bartender admitted to being a newbie, having only worked a handful of shifts and not yet used to the menu. But he was friendly and companionable. I scanned the menu. There were "Frozen Grogs" and "Maui Martikis," a couple of which called for vodka. I didn't approve of this at all. When I go to a tiki joint, I want rum. I ordered a Blue Hawaii, which, according to the menu, contained dark rum, coconut rum (specific brands were not named), blue curacao, pineapple juice, peach juice and peach schnapps. (This diverges notably from Berry's recipe in "Surfin' Safari," which asks for sweet & sour and vodka and has no peach juice or schnapps or coconut rum.) It was served in a simple tumbler, the kind you might get your tap water in, with a wedge of pineapple. It was perfectly pleasant, if not exactly exciting, and the coconut rum dominated too much.

From there I went to a Hibiscus Heaven, which is a signature drink for Wally's. It contains vanilla rum, creme di cassis, red passion Alize, mango juice and peach juice. Same glass, same pineapple wedge. It began to feel like musical cocktails. I remembered how distinctive each drink at Forbidden Island had been, each in its own glass with its own garnish, each possessed of a singular look. This was another placidly pleasant drink, but devoid of zip.

I was sort of glad I hadn't dragged Berry there, though I would have loved to have heard his opinions on the drinks. Perhaps I'll take him to Otto's Shrunken Head on 14th Street.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

In Praise of Movia

I just polished off a bottle of Movia's Lunar 2005 and was reminded how much I like this maker's wines. They are pungent, mineral-laden, rich and full of character. Oh, and did I mention I'm talking about the whites?

Movia is a Slovenian winemaker that has been in business since 1820, but which in the past 10 or 20 years has raced to the forefront of the winemaking revolution in and around the Friuli region in northeast Italy. (Yes, Movia is strictly speaking across the border in neighboring Italy, but it possesses vineyards in Italy and is almost always grouped with the Italian makers of Collio. The wines are even carried at Italian Wine Merchants.) Winemaker Ales Kristancic keeps it natural and biodynamic. He leaves his whites on the lees for two years inside small Slovenian oak casks, and never racks the wines. The result is wines so dark and rangy and of the soil that casual wine drinkers don't even recognize them as white wines.

But they are wonderful wines. The Ribolla Gialla has a superb minerality and chalkiness. The Lunar, which is also made from Ribolla and is not filtered or tainted with chemicals, was so potent it shared characteristics with cider (the color) and beer (more than a hint of hops on the nose and palate). It is a ripe wine is ways other the fruity, which is what we tend to think of when we hear the word ripe.

I wonder sometimes why Movia wines are not more popular than they are. They're easy enough to find, at least in New York. It could be the price. They start around $25 or so. Perhaps the unusual grape varietals put people off. Or the fact that it comes from Slovenia, which must sound like a joke to some folks. Then again, the wines are so unusual there's no telling if the masses would take to them if they did try them. Americans have progressed a lot over the past 10 years, but they still don't seem ready for the the steely, mineral Friuli wines. Ah well. More for me.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

"Nick and Nora on That Prince of Wales"

That's what I heard a bartender say to another on my recent visit to PDT in the East Village. And a choicer bit of counter lingo you won't find outside the oldest greasy spoon truck stop on Route 66.

Translation: The Prince of Wales is a cocktail, the Nick and Nora a specialized Martini glass that PDT employes. The bartender wanted the drink in the compact Nick and Nora glass, which is smaller and rounder than a typical Martini glass, because otherwise the champagne in a Prince of Wales overwhelmed the cocktail. Thus, "Nick and Nora on That Prince of Wales."

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Two With Champagne

The East Village near Tompkins Square is turning into a little warren of boutique cocktail havens. In addition to Death & Co. on E. 6th between First and A, and PDT on St. Mark's between First and A, there is The Bourgeois Pig on E. 7th between the same blocks.

The Bourgeois Pig is owned by one of the same people who run Death & Co. It was for some years in a small space on the south side of the street, but very recently moved to a larger space on the north side. My heart received a jolt when I first approached it as I saw the address was precisely that of the bygone Tompkins Square Books, a beloved used book store of my youth. To see a bar installed where stacks once stood was disorienting.

The interior in on the louche side: red light, silvery tin ceiling, an ornate chandelier of blown glass pieces which look like something between deer antlers and exploded champagne flutes. A curving bar dominated the left side of the room. At present, BP is more a wine bar than a cocktail joint, with an emphasis on French vino. There were, however, sections for champagne cocktails, wine cocktail and, uh, beer cocktails, as well as a couple champagne punches.

While the wine cocktails intrigued me, I was in the mood for something light and refreshing, so I chose the Violetta, a combination of 3/4 ounce each of Creme de Violette, lemon juice and Maraschino liqueur, topped with Champagne (they used Pol Roger). It was piquant, mildly tart, refreshing, a romantic drink. Wish I could have seen the color, but it was dark.

From there I walked a block to PDT, which is hidden behind a fake telephone booth door in a hot dog joint called Crif Dogs. (A telephone booth in an East Village hot dog place! You can't find a telephone booth at even the high-end places anymore.) Like Death & Co., like PG, it's a small, intimate place dominated by a beautifully lit bar and ringed by booths. The novelty of the bar is that imbibers can order franks from the low-rent Crif Dogs and eat them with their cocktails. (Hey—salty food and beer have always been a drinker's staple.)

I was hungry and ordered one such dog, wrapped in bacon and topped with kimche. (I kid you not. And it was good.) I then asked my extremely helpful and friendly bartender to point me in the right drink direction. He suggested an off-menu concoction called a Jimmy Rutledge, which was a riff on an old drink I'd never heard of called a Jimmy Roosevelt, and was named after the master distiller at Four Roses Bourbon, who is celebrating 40 years on the job this year.

The drink was a fairly complex little ditty. The champagne glass was coated with syrup. Then in went a sugar cube dotted with bitters, Four Roses, champagne and a thin layer of Chartreuse on top. I find champagne-brown liquor mixtures hit my palate in an odd way. Still, the brisk, mature cocktail stood up nicely to the dog. The man knew his cocktail-food pairings.

I must have passed the bartender's test as a curious and learned gentlemen, because after that he asked me to test a bourbon they had been working on. It was infused with bacon! They planned to use it in a version of an Old Fashioned. I was hesitant, but it was delicious, the bacon very subtle and marrying well with the meatiness of the bourbon. Can't wait to taste the drink.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Three's a Charm

I visited the Silverleaf Tavern at 38th and Park the other day. Dale DeGroff had a hand in the cocktail list, so I thought it was worth a try.

I was having a hard time choosing my cocktail. The Silver Leaf Manhattan intrigued me, even if it was made with bourbon and not rye. And the traditionalist in me cried out for the Stork Club Cocktail. I mean, at how many bars can I order that? And then I saw the answer to all my problems: a flight of three cocktails for just $18. Just like flights of wines. Why hadn't I heard of this before?

One problem: the choice of the three was up to the discretion of the bartender, not me, and I still wanted my Stork Club and my Manhattan. But I was in luck, because my bartender was a mindreader. He selected just those two drinks. The third was a tequila based thing which he called Formula No. 4, or something like that, and insisted was on the menu. (It wasn't.) Each was served in a miniature glass.

Funny—I liked the wild card best. Wish I had paid attention when he told me the ingredients. Lime juice, Cointreau and something else, along with the tequila. Piquant and refreshing. The Stork Club and Silver Leaf Manhattan both had something going for them. But the Stork I found a tad too tart and strident, with it mix of gin, orange bitters, Cointreau and fresh Orange juice. I have a feeling that the oranges were underripe. As for the Manhattan, DeGroff had been infusion crazy on this one. The Woodford Reserve Bourbon was infused with vanilla beans and the sweet vermouth infused with chai and brandied cherries. (No really cherries were employed.) The result was interesting, but too much on the woodsy side, like the mix had been aged in root-infested soil before arriving in my glass.

The flight in and of itself, however, was undeniable fun.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

What Dead Celebrities Like to Drink

There's an interesting item on the Lost City blog about a trove of special reserve bottles that are being held for long-dead celebrities in the wine cellar of the famed "21" Club in Manhattan. Apparently, in the past, the restaurant had a policy where it would hold wine for favored guests until they were ready to drink it. But many people either waited too long or forgot the bottles were there. And so the wine sits untouched.

There are more photos of old bottles at Lost City. Worth a look

Friday, November 2, 2007

Jerry Thomas Gets His Due

Jerry Thomas, the 19th century cocktail wizard who has become the Joseph Smith of the religion called Mixology, was recently the subject of a massive article on the front page of the New York Times Dining Section. Or, rather, he is the subject of a new book by cocktail expert David Wondrich, and that book was the subject of the Times article.

The piece was fascinating—particularly the ways in which Wondrich translated 19th century ingredients and measurements into 21st century language—and I'm sure the book will be equally fun. I personally can't wait to read it. Here's the article in full for those who missed it:

The Bartender Who Started It All


IN 1863, an English traveler named Edward Hingston walked into the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco and stepped up to the bar. There he beheld a magnificent figure wielding two mixing glasses and “all ablaze with diamonds,” a jewelry display that included a clustered stickpin in his shirtfront, diamond cufflinks and an array of diamond rings. Just as dazzling were the drinks, unheard of in Britain: strange mixtures like crustas, smashes and daisies. Here was something to write home about.

Hingston was looking at none other than Jerry Thomas, “the Jupiter Olympus of the bar,” to lift a phrase from the bartender’s own drink book, the first ever published in the United States. In a cocktail-besotted era, Thomas was first without equals, an inventor, showman and codifier who, in the book known variously as “The Bar-Tender’s Guide,” “How to Mix Drinks” or “The Bon-Vivant’s Companion,” laid down the principles for formulating mixed drinks of all categories and established the image of the bartender as a creative professional.

Like Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone and Buffalo Bill Cody, he was the sort of self-invented, semimythic figure that America seemed to spawn in great numbers during its rude adolescence. More than a century after his death, he still casts a spell, a palpable influence on Dale DeGroff, chief animator of cocktail’s new wave, and his many progeny, from Eben Klemm of the B. R. Guest restaurant group to Audrey Saunders at the Pegu Club.

Thomas finally gets his due in “Imbibe!” (Perigee Books, $23.95), a biography and annotated recipe book by David Wondrich. Mr. Wondrich, a former classics scholar and the drink correspondent for Esquire, was intrigued by the often-puzzling recipes in Thomas’s book, and frustrated by Herbert Asbury, whose fancifully embellished version of Thomas’s life, presented in a reprint of the 1887 edition of “The Bon-Vivant’s Companion,” wraps sparse facts in a thick layer of myth, conjecture and purple prose.

Mr. Wondrich puts the drinks in context, with their ingredients explained, their measurements accurately indicated, and their place in the overall cocktail scheme clearly mapped out. At the same time, Thomas himself appears, for the first time, as a living presence: a devotee of bare-knuckle prize fights, a flashy dresser fond of kid gloves, an art collector, a restless traveler usually carrying a fat wad of bank notes and a gold Parisian watch. A player, in short.

“Before, especially coming from Asbury, I had a sense of Thomas as a magisterial, godlike creature,” Mr. Wondrich said in a telephone interview. “Now I see him as a sporty, Damon Runyon type.”

The sporty types can be hard to pin down. “Bartenders, then as now, were itinerant, and the sporting life was not big on documentation,” Mr. Wondrich said. “There’s only one bartender’s diary for all of the 19th century, and most of that consists of the author drinking a lot and being sick the next day.”

Mr. Wondrich tracked Thomas from his birthplace in Sackets Harbor, N.Y., to California, where he worked as a bartender, gold prospector and minstrel-show impresario, and back to New York, where he presided over a series of bars before going broke — probably, Mr. Wondrich theorizes, after buying bad stocks on margin. Along the way, Thomas plied his trade, by his own account, in towns as various as St. Louis, New Orleans, Chicago and Charleston, S.C. One newspaper obituary placed him, improbably, in Keokuk, Iowa.

As he wandered, he picked up on the latest developments in the art, inventing new cocktails and building a serious following for his particular blend of craftsmanship and showmanship, epitomized in his signature drink, the Blue Blazer, a pyrotechnic showpiece in which an arc of flame passed back and forth between two mixing glasses. At the Occidental, Thomas was earning $100 a week, more than the vice president of the United States. When he died, in 1885, newspapers all over the country observed his passing in substantial obituaries.

Thomas’s most celebrated bar was at Broadway and 22nd Street, occupying the basement and one bay of what is now Restoration Hardware. “They really ought to put some sort of plaque there,” Mr. Wondrich said.

On the walls of Thomas’s saloon hung caricatures of the political and theatrical figures of the day, many of them executed by Thomas Nast, including one, now lost, depicting Thomas “in nine tippling postures colossally,” as a newspaper reporter described it. Customers could look at themselves in fun-house mirrors that made them look fat or thin. By this time Thomas was middle-aged, with a wife and two daughters, and at 205 pounds one of the lighter members of the Fat Men’s Association, but still, undeniably, a sport.

Thomas’s life spanned the three great ages of the cocktail, the archaic, the baroque and the classic, a helpful chronology proposed by Mr. Wondrich.

In 1830, the probable year of his birth, the main American mixed drinks were punches, toddies and slings — nothing more than brandy, gin or whiskey sweetened with a little sugar. Thomas found his professional footing in an age of flamboyant creativity, when bartenders experimented with a bewildering array of ingredients and styles, and by the time of his death in 1885 he had seen the birth of the more streamlined modern cocktail typified by the manhattan and the martini.

It is the baroque cocktail that occupied most of Mr. Wondrich’s attention. Thomas, however, could be maddeningly vague in his recipes. Mr. Wondrich was able to determine that a wineglass, as a unit of measure, equaled two ounces. He also discovered that most of the gin recipes envisioned the strongly flavored, malty Dutch gin, not the style known as London dry, which did not take off until the 1890s. Sugar, in Thomas’s age, came in a dense loaf and was less refined than modern white sugar but not as raw as raw sugar (Mr. Wondrich compromises by using Demerara or turbinado sugar, pulverized in a food processor.)

Ice was an art. Bartenders, working deftly with a pick or shaver, went to work on a solid frozen block and, depending on the drink, extracted fine shards or large lumps or any size of piece in between.

Bartenders did not use cocktail shakers. Instead, they tossed their ingredients back and forth between two mixing glasses. They also used gum Arabic, an emulsifier, in their simple syrup, which added a velvety mouth-feel to certain cocktails. “It really smooths off the edges in all-liquor drinks,” Mr. Wondrich said. “They just slide right down.”

The universe of drinks, in the middle of the 19th century, did conform to certain patterns, reflected in the organization of Thomas’s bar book. The old-fashioned punches, often hot and mixed in large quantities for communal consumption, gave way to a variety of individual drinks, all of them iced, and all involving fruit: the Collins, the fizz, the daisy, the sour, the cooler and the cobbler. The punch, too, began appearing as an individual drink. The daisy, a sour sweetened with orange cordial or grenadine, merits special attention because in Mexico it encountered tequila. The Spanish for daisy? Margarita.

The sling developed complications, incorporating ice and bitters, and became the cocktail, which Thomas made in three styles, plain, fancy and improved.

To make an improved brandy cocktail, for example, you strained the plain version (brandy, bitters and gum syrup, plus one or two dashes of Curaçao) into a fancy wine glass, moistened the rim of the glass with lemon and added a twist of lemon to the drink. (Thomas’s book was the first to mention the twist, which replaced grated nutmeg as the final flourish to a drink.) In the improved cocktail, maraschino liqueur was substituted for Curaçao. Add fruit juice and the cocktail became a crusta.

From the basic cocktail repertory of Thomas’s youth developed the myriad mixtures that Mr. Wondrich calls evolved cocktails. Their name is legion, and most of them, in the inspired early decades of the baroque age, came from the West Coast, source of the zany drinks that astounded so many foreign visitors — cocktails like the fiscal agent and the vox populi. Thomas, a young man on the scene, picked up the new recipes and carried them back East.

Toward the end of Thomas’s glorious reign as king of the bar, a new kind of cocktail was emerging — lighter, less alcoholic and usually involving vermouth, a key ingredient in the manhattan and the martini.

The final, expanded edition of “The Bon-Vivant’s Companion,” published two years after Thomas’s death, trembles at the dawn of the cocktail’s modern age. The manhattan makes its appearance, as well as a cocktail called the Martinez, which has caused no end of confusion, since it looks like “martini” but calls for maraschino, sweet vermouth and the sweetened gin known as Old Tom. On the other hand, the original martini, often made with gin and vermouth in a 50-50 ratio, and almost always with orange bitters, does not look very much like the mercilessly dry vodka martini of the present day. But here we step into a world that Thomas never lived to see, even if he built its foundations. As Mr. Wondrich justly observes, Thomas, by departing from the code of the bartending fraternity and sharing his secrets, earned his place as “the father of mixology, of the rational study of the mixed drink.”

Dale DeGroff, who has done more than anyone to bring baroque standards back to the bar, encountered Thomas for the first time in the early 1980s, when Joe Baum, who wanted a different kind of bar for his new restaurant Aurora, directed him to “The Bon-Vivant’s Companion.”

It was a revelation. At a time when bartenders relied on powdered mixes, canned fruit juices and a narrow repertory of perhaps a dozen drinks, Thomas imparted a lofty sense of the bartender’s vocation. The recipes, embracing categories of mixed drinks and exotic ingredients not seen since Prohibition, opened up a dizzying range of possibilities that Mr. DeGroff explored at Aurora and, most influentially, at the Rainbow Room.

Mr. DeGroff, now a consultant, no longer tends bar, but the little revolution sparked by Thomas’s book continues to shake things up, carried forward by a new generation of bartenders inspired by his example and by a book written when Abraham Lincoln was president. Out of the remote past, Thomas’s finger still points the way to the future.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

What Cocktailians Like

By now, I have been to nearly every one of the important, high-end, ballyhooed cocktail haunts in New York City—Pegu Club, Little Branch, Milk & Honey, Brandy Library, PDT, Death & Co. And though I was drinking each time I visited these establishments (duh), I was cogent enough to collect some observation about the Ways and Habits of the Modern Cocktailian.

These places are very like one another. I don't mean that as a slight. I'm just saying the owners seem to think alike; their minds are on the same track. If they all played musical chairs and suddenly traded places with each other tomorrow, I think they'd be quite happy wherever they landed.

After some thought, I've compiled a list of things that 21st century cocktail lounge owners cotton to. That is, things apart from finely honed libations, fresh ingredients, masterly bartenders, a deep knowledge of cocktail history and a fully stocked bar. Those go with the territory. Other aspects of the Vida Cocktailia are less readily apparent, but are seemingly, secretly agreed upon by all and sundry in the industry. They are:

*A love of speakeasy-like secrecy. Many new cocktail lounges are hard to find, lack signs, and have secret phone numbers.
*Low lighting.
*A abhorrence of standing patrons. Reservations are usually required, and often every patron must have a seat or be gone.
*A code of etiquette, sometimes found as a framed document hung in the bathroom.
*A distinct dislike of dancing.
*Booths and stools. Free-standing tables are only rarely seen.
*Addresses below 14th Street.
*Color schemes ranging from dark brown to deep umber.
*Old-fashioned, vaguely egg-cup-shaped cocktail glasses.
*Stylish lavatories.
*A prohibition on cell phones.

Again, I only observe. I do not poke fun. In fact, I approve of most of the above.

The Assumption

A couple weeks back, on my trip to Sonoma County, I stopped by the Hop Kiln Winery. I was standing at a table, being poured a taste of HK Generations Pinot Noir when the man behind the bottle purred, "This just got 90-something points from Parker."

Robert Parker, that is. This refrain haunted me throughout Napa and Sonoma. Pourers rather impudently assumed Parker's opinions would mean something to me. I imagine that, most of the time, they got some mileage out of that pabulum. But they don't seem to take into account that Parker is a divisive figure and has plenty of detractors. Maybe not in California. But elsewhere. The chances are that pretty fair that by quoting Parker's ratings they will piss off a potential patron.

This prattling mantra is depressing for many reasons. One, the winemakers seem to think one critic's opinions are the be all and end all for wine lovers. Two, if the winemakers do not buy into the Parker dogma, they nonetheless cynically preach his numbers, thinking it will result in sales and approval. Three, , by delivering a pre-conceived evaluation of the wine, they encourage drinkers to stop thinking for themselves. Four, that they cause wine lovers like myself, who do not necessarily love Parker's taste, to adopt a subconscious bias toward their wines—a reaction to their patronizing attitude toward our assumed inability to make up our own minds.

The Pinot Noir, by the way, was big enough to knock out Sonny Liston in the second round. It cost $50. I was assured that Parker's rating would result in its being sold out within weeks. I didn't buy it.

Monday, October 29, 2007

When Is a Davis Bynum Not a Davis Bynum?

When it's a Rodney Strong.

On a recent trip to the Russian River Valley, I sought out the Davis Bynum winery. The night before, I had enjoyed one of his well-known Pinot Noirs and was suitably impressed. I thought I'd get me some myself to bring home.

But when we passed the place on the map, there was no David Bynum Winery. Just a place called River Bend Ranch. A local told us that, yes, this indeed was the Bynum place. We ventured into the tasting room and got our explanation. Last summer, Bynum, who is in his 80s, sold his "brand" and inventory to winermaker Rodney Strong, who will now bottle wine under the Bynum name. Bynum did not sell the winery itself, and will have nothing to do with the wines that will now be made under his name. Rodney Strong owner Tom Klein plans to make the Bynum wine from a number of
vineyards in Russian River Valley that he owns, along with "additional
negotiated grape contracts within the AVA." Rodney Strong Vineyards "luxury winemaker" Gary Patzwald will actually make the wine for the brand. To all of which my reaction is: WTF?

I don't know about you, but selling Bynum wines not made by Bynum and not even made on the Bynum land sounds kinda fishy to me, like someone's pulling a fast one. I asked if the new Pinot Noir made under the River Bend Ranch name was made by Bynum with Bynum grapes and was told "yes." So that's the wine I bought. And, what's more, is was a steal at $26, about half of what Bynum's wine cost last year.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

A Claar Winner

It's not often I go on about an American Cabernet. Most are too extracted and huge for my tastes. So Claar Cellars' 2001 Cabernet-Merlot blend came as a surprise to me.

Claar's located in Washington's Columbia Valley. Washington's not a state you associate with Cab, making this wine's success even more of a surprise. It's beautifully understated, the way Napa Cabs would be if everyone down there weren't so insane for fruit and power. The palate shows currants, purple grapes, spice and broad tannins, with a touch of candy in the background. The 13.7% alcohol level keeps everything at an agreeable level and makes the wine a welcome addition to dinner, as opposed to bullying all the food off the table. And it's only about $15.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

A Trip to Forbidden Island

In my recent interview with tiki drink expert Jeff Berry, he mentioned three places in the U.S. where you can sample the original concoctions conjured up by Donn Beach of Don the Beachcomber's. As one was in L.A., one in Ft. Lauderdale and one in Alameda, CA, I figured my chances of getting to any of them soon will next to nothing. (I'm not a warm climate guy, preferring the gloomy, intemperate East Coast.)

But life's full of surprises. Last weekend, I went out to visit my brother in San Francisco after he proffered an unexpected invitation. I mentioned Berry and the tiki drink world and Forbidden Island, the authentic place located in Alameda, and he grew intrigued. "Do you want to go there?" he asked. Turns out Alameda was less than a half hour drive away from where we were staying. And so on Saturday night we journeyed on the long, low-lying Richmond-San Rafael Bridge across San Pablo Bay, skirted Berkeley and Oakland and went through the Webster Street tunnel to Alameda, a large island community east of San Francisco and known primarily for it Naval Base.

Alameda is an interesting place. It looks like a slice of middle-class California, circa 1940, held in time. Americana. Forbidden Island is located on Lincoln Avenue, the island's main drag. It's not a big place, but it looks like you expect it to—basically, a faux hut, colored dark brown.

The interior is dimly lit. The long room has a bar stretching along the left side and a series of thatched-roof booths on the right. Further back are some tables and chairs. A jukebox is stuffed with tropical-themed music; nothing from after 1960 that I heard. There are tikis here and there, and various posters and album covers on the wall of artists in Hawaiian or the like. The walls are made to look like dark wooden beams and thatch is everywhere. The lamps about the booths are made up like tiki versions of jack o'lanterns. No question, they've got the mood right.

The menu was a pleasure to peruse. It was divided in a series of categories: house specialties, grogs, bowls and Don the Beachcomber specialties. Mr. Berry was listed among the "thanks yous" at the bottom. I was hard to decide. There are so many classic tiki drinks that I have never tried. The drinks have anywhere from one X to fives Xs next to them to indicate their potency. I concluded I should start with a classic, and ordered a Navy Grog, supposedly Frank Sinatra's favorite drink. Strangely, the grogs were the only drinks on the menu where the ingredients weren't listed. I talked my brother into ordering a lost Donn Beach classic called Missionary's Downfall, made of fresh mint, lime, pineapple, and a dash of peach.

A young, cheerful waitress took our order. Interestingly, the bar staff was populated only by women that night, including the bartenders mixing the drinks (which they did expertly and more speedily than I had expected). I asked if the owner, Martin Cate, was in. Sadly, he was not there that night. I would have liked to have spoken to him.

The Navy Grog was excellent, a more mature drink than I expected, balanced with just a touch of fruit. The Missionary's Downfall was a surprise. The mint and lime dominated, making for a slightly bitter beverage, though not in a bad way. It put the lie to the idea that tiki drinks are all about strong rum and sweet fruit. Everything was served in clear glasses, not tiki mugs or coconuts, so you could enjoy the color of the drinks. The waitress said people can bring in their own tiki mugs, which the bar will keep and bring out whenever that patron comes in. But, she said, they may discontinue the practice as they've already got a shelf of mugs and are running out of room to keep them.

For the second round, I ordered a Painkiller, which the waitress said was the bar's most popular drink. According to the menu, it was invented at the Soggy Dollar Bar on the tiny island of Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands. It's made of a "creamy blend of pineapple, orange and coconut with a hint of spice. Made the authentic way with Pusser’s Navy Rum!" Creamy it was, and frothy and delightful. Like a tiki milk shake. And it came with an paper umbrella! I thought those things were verboten in today's tiki world.

My brother ordered the Classic Mai Tai, and I know it must sound boring to say that the most famous tropical drink in the world is the best one we had, but, well, it was. It was fantastically delicious! I beautifully integrated mix of fruit flavors and fine rum. A masterpiece.

That was all we could handle, leaving so many tempting drinks on the menu left untried. Forbidden Island was a completely satisfying experience from every point of view: taste, aesthetics, service, professionalism, atmosphere. I recommend it. We went early in the evening. I guess it gets crowded later on and there are lines. I recommend arriving at 6 or 7 PM.

Now, how do I manage a trip to Ft. Lauderdale?

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Out West, They Grow Them Big

A week or so back, when I was trolling wine stores looking for some Sonoma Coast Pinot Noirs, I had a most pleasant chat with a distributor who was pouring some fetching wines at Morrell Wine. I liked her opinions, so I pulled a Sonoma Coast Flowers Pinot off the shelf and asked her if she enjoyed the winery's products. "Not really," she said. "I've never really liked them." Why? Too big? "Yeah. Too big."

I then asked her what Pinots on the shelf she did like. She pulled down the Arcadian Pinot Noir 2004 from the Santa Rita Hills. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was one of her own wines. But she said, with seeming sincerity, that it was being underrated, was as good as any of the more touted west coast Pinots, and at $30 was a steal.

I was curious, so I took one home. Arcadian's winemaker is Joe Davis and the winery's credo appears to be low production and wines in the Burgundian model. OK so far. The wine's alcohol level of a whopping 15.8%, which didn't thrill me, but I liked the honesty of the back label description, which mentioned the many hot days the vintage endured and admitted "we find this wine to be much different in texture and balance from anything we have produced previously."

The wine was tight and meaty upon opening and needed a good hour to breath. Tons of concentrated blackberry-like jammy fruit was right there at the front but right under it was a carpet-thick layer of tannin. My tongue had to stand up to this boy with every sip. At times I liked the roughness of the wine, other times I felt like yelling "uncle." After a few hours, it really broadened out. I had to admit it had character to burn. But I also felt I would enjoy it more if I laid it down a few years and let it mellow and integrate itself.

I'll look for Arcadian again. But maybe not in such a hot year. Any of those coming up, I wonder?

A Spin on Pimm's

Pete Wells' New York Times article about the appeal of Ratafias continues to occupy my mind, some two months after it appeared in the New York Times. After my initial attempt to make a nectarine version of this homemade beverage—made from wine, vodka, vanilla bean and fresh fruit or vegetables—I went on to experiment with mangoes and cucumbers.

The mango brew was fine. The mangoes could have been riper (you really need ripe fruit for ratafias), and my experiment to use less vanilla bean didn't really succeed in making the potion take less strongly of vanilla. But the cucumber ratafia was a marked improvement. I opted for cucumbers because of something I read in Wells article. He mentioned a restauranteur from the Southwest who used a cucumber ratafia as part of a special recipe for a Pimm's Cup. Now, they didn't mention the details of the recipe, but I love me a Pimm's Cup, so I decided I'd act first and figure out the drink later.

The cucumber ratafia was more subtle in flavor than the fruit ratafias; somehow, the vegetable was less affected by the vanilla than the fruit was.

I didn't know how to integrate the ratafia into a regular Pimm's Cup, so I had do some guesswork. The recipe I typically use calls for 1.5 oz. of Pimm's and 4 oz. of ginger ale, with a cucumber slice for a garnish. Nice and simple. I figured the Pimm's ratio should remain the same—it is a Pimm's Cup after all and the liquor shouldn't be shunted aside. I decided to lessen the ginger ale dossage by 1 oz. and fill in the cavity with 1 oz. of ratafia.

Damned if my first guess didn't do the trick. The drink was beautiful. The ratafia added a new layer of complexity to the drink, without complicating things too much. I'll probably experiment with ratios a bit more, but my feeling is that this is the right mix.

For anyone who's interested, I made the ratafia this way:

1 bottle dry white wine
1/4 cup vodka
1 cup chopped cucumber (peeled)
1/4 vanilla bean

Put in a jar, cover and store in fridge for 3-4 weeks.

A Talk With the Tiki Master

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Berry, the Tiki Drink expert nonpareil, for I found Jeff to be among the most personable, easy-going and funny cocktailians I have met. That is fitting, I suppose, since his field of expertise are tropical drinks associated with a life of laid-back ease. You can check out the piece here. Or, if you like, here's the complete text:

"Sippin' Safari"

By Robert Simonson

Oct. 23, 2007 | For many years, so-called tiki drinks were the punch line of the cocktail world. The quasi-Polynesian tropical concoctions served in the kitschy mugs and adorned with paper parasols couldn't get any respect in a world of elegant martinis and stately manhattans. Not anymore.

In recent years, as the cocktail revolution has gathered steam, mixologists and drink historians have taken the time to reexamine the zombie, the mai tai and their brethren. What they discovered was a lost universe of finely honed drinks boasting complex flavors and requiring as much skill to execute as any libation in the bartender's lexicon. Leading the charge has been Jeff Berry, aka Beachbum Berry, a former screenwriter-turned-cocktail expert who has gone to great lengths to uncover the lost recipes and bar histories of one of the defining drinking trends of the mid-20th century.

In his most recent book, "Sippin' Safari," Berry relates the origins of a bygone rum-soaked world, including the lives and adventures of its pivotal figures and cocktail creators, such as Donn Beach (aka Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt), founder of the once phenomenally popular Don the Beachcomber chain, and Trader Vic (aka Victor Jules Bergeron). Berry talked to Salon about his life as a South Seas alcohol archaeologist.

Q: You explain the phenomenon of umbrellas in drinks in "Surfin' Safari." Hawaiian bartender Harry K. Yee used them instead of sugar cane sticks, because they were easier to clean up. Do you approve of them as garnishes, or do you find them silly?

A: Here's my thing. I'm trying to be an evangelist for these lost drinks that were actually worthy, that could actually hold their own against all the other alcoholic inventions in this country. Then, someone has a visual image in their mind and says, "Are you talking about those drinks that come in those mugs with the umbrella?" It kind of works against me.

As much as I love tiki mugs -- and I have a whole collection -- I don't serve drinks in them. I want to see the drink in a glass. It's a legitimate drink in the same way a manhattan is. I want to see a zombie in a nice, tall, frosted glass where I can see the color of the drink.

Q: How did you develop an interest in tiki drinks?

A: I grew up in the San Fernando Valley in the late '60s and there were a ton of these places. My parents liked Chinese food so they would go to this place, Ah Fong. It had opened in the early '60s as the Bora Bora Room, but whoever opened it spent so much money on decor that they went broke soon after they opened. There was this guy named Benson Fong, who was a Chinese restaurant magnate back then; he would move his Cantonese crew into Polynesian places if they couldn't recoup their costs, and rename them Ah Fong.

Anyway, as a 10-year-old I'd walk in the door and it was just completely all-encompassing and enveloping, this Hollywood-art-directed Polynesian theme. It was amazing to my young eyes. You just wanted to live there. And these people around me were drinking these exotic drinks. When I got old enough to drink, I sought these places out. And of course they had all disappeared at that point.

Q: Yes, most of the tiki palaces are gone now, aren't they?

A: In L.A., there were so many of them for so long that a few have survived. I couldn't afford to go to any of them when I got out of school. Trader Vic's Beverly Hills location lasted right up until this year. Don the Beachcomber, the original, was there; it lasted until 1984. I lived around the corner from it at one point, but I couldn't afford to go until their last year, when they were advertising an all-you-can-eat lunch for $4.95. I finally got to go in and see that celebrity chopstick case.

Q: Why do you think there isn't a major tiki bar in New York, which is supposed to be the cocktail capital of the U.S.?

A: Doing all my research, I found out that that cliché about New York thinking the tiki trend was tacky, and being above it all -- that's not true. New York had a ton of these places. It had the Hawaii Tai on Broadway, the Luau 400, which was very expensive, and they had a Trader Vic's in the Plaza Hotel, which Donald Trump famously got rid of when he bought the hotel. I think New York just burns through trends faster than other places.

Q: The most famous tiki drink is probably the zombie. But my chances of going into a bar and getting an authentic zombie are pretty slim, aren't they?

A: Slim to none. The problem with the zombie is nobody knew how to make it. Donn Beach was a victim of his own success in keeping it a secret. Everybody says, "Oh, the zombie, that's an awful drink. It's just eight different kinds of rum. It's just a gimmicky, crappy drink." And the reason for that is because people were guessing. They were all just trying to guess what was in this thing, because Donn wouldn't publish the recipe. The reason we know that Trader Vic's mai tai is a good drink is because, despite the fact that there were a million awful mai tais out there, he printed the recipe himself.

Q: Most tiki drinks have a rum base. What do you think of the theory that rum's place in the drink world today has been supplanted by vodka? So many popular fruity drinks are now built on top of vodka.

A: Yes. Not only that, but the rum market has been trying to become vodka for so long, that vodka has not only supplanted rum, but it's changed rum into becoming blander. It's "Bacardi: The mixable one." Rum really did have its day, though, from the 1930s, when the Don the Beachcomber thing got going, all the way into the late '70s, because even after the tiki bars died, there was still the piña colada and the frozen daiquiri. Cruise ship drinks, I guess you could call them.

Q: You sought some of the tiki master bartenders who worked at the classic bars to get their stories. I bet they were surprised that anyone cared about their experiences.

A: Yeah, they were. For most of them, it was just a job and when the Polynesian thing dried up they just moved on to something else. Very few of them had a sense that this was anything else than just a way to make a living.

When I was writing the first books, it was incredibly difficult to get any information out of them. Their whole life was based on not giving these recipes out to anyone. They wouldn't give recipes out to anyone. I'd ask, "What's in this?" and they'd say, "Fruit juice." None of these guys had made one of these drinks in 40 years, but they would not part with the recipes.

Q: Over the course of the years, you pried the secrets out of them.

A: It gets easier with every book.

Q: You've said that there are only three places in the United States where you can still drink Don's original concoctions.

A: The Tiki-Ti in Los Angeles -- you can still get Don the Beachcomber drinks there. You have to know what drinks were served at Don's in order to pick one off the menu. A rum barrel or a panang or a montego bay.

The Mai Kai is in Fort Lauderdale. And the reason you can get Don's drinks there is the owners of the Mai Kai, when they built it in 1956, they poached a bartender from the Don the Beachcomber in Chicago specifically so they could get Don's recipes. They just tweaked the names of the drinks a little bit. The Navy grog became the yeoman's grog, like that.

The third place is a new place. I have not actually been there yet, but I've met Martin Cate, the guy who runs it. It's called Forbidden Island [Tiki Lounge] and it's in Alameda, which is in the San Francisco Bay Area. They're real Don drinks -- which he got from my books mostly.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Cocktail Incompetency: Patsy's

One would think that a restaurant and bar that has been around 60 years—stretching way back to the days when cocktails were king—would know how to mix a drink.

But if I've learned anything in recent years, it is to assume nothing when you belly up to a bar. I entered Patsy's, the old Frank Sinatra hangout in midtown Manhattan, thinking I could get a decent old school cocktail. After scanning the not-too-impressive collection of bottles behind the bar, I decided not to challenge the rather dim-looking bartender too much and requested a Manhattan. But I like my Manhattans with rye, so first I asked if they stocked any rye.

He pointed to Canadian Club and said, "This is rye." Uh, no it isn't. It has rye in it and I know a lot of people use it as they would use rye. But that ain't rye. Then he pointed at an anonymous bottle I didn't recognize that didn't feature the word "rye" anywhere on the label. "This is rye," he said. I was suspicious that he didn't know his ass from his elbow at this point. Then he pointed at a bottle of Cutty Sark and said "This is rye." Yikes! Mayday! Bail out!

I resorted with a bourbon Manhattan, made with Wild Turkey. It was OK.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

In the Cellar at Tommaso's

With my October "In the Cellar" column at the New York Sun, I decided it was time to verture out of Manhattan. And so I took to subway to deepest Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, to pay a visit on Tommaso Verdillo, owner of Tommaso restaurant and perhaps the finest wine collection in Kings County (River Cafe would be the only real competition).

Tommaso was a joy to talk to, and continued to chat with after the interview was over, while my wife and I enjoyed dinner at this place. The wife immediately took a shine to the place, which gladly lacks the glitz and pomp of most Manhattan restaurants. We may return for our anniversary with some dollars, so we can raid his low-priced collection of Barolos and Barbarescos.

Here is the text:

In the Cellar: Top Wines, Rock-Bottom Prices

Not every bottle in the three cluttered cellars of Tommaso's Restaurant, the improbably epicurean Bensonhurst haven of fine wine, is on the wine list. Owner and chef Tommaso Verdillo has received far too many gift bottles over the years to make a complete tally possible. Many of the presents have come from the winemakers themselves — offerings made during one of Mr. Verdillo's numerous tours of Italy and elsewhere.

Other estimable oenophiles have also been generous."Want to know who gave me this wine?" Mr. Verdillo said, pointing to a 1970 and a 1978 Barolo from Pio Cesare, the great Piedmont producer. "This is left over from one of Robert Parker's dinners. He just left it. I let him bring his own wines. He couldn't drink them all, and said ‘They're yours.'"

Mr. Parker, the world's most powerful wine critic, is a friend of Mr. Verdillo. "I used to meet him in Paris every January," Mr. Verdillo, a jolly figure of effusion and affability who has been known to serenade his clientele with operatic arias, said. "After he did his annual tastings in Bordeaux, we'd go on eating binges."

The critic has said Tommaso's serves possibly his favorite Italian food in America. Fairly often, the Maryland-based writer, with friends in tow, heads north for a night of choice imbibing at the eatery's windswept perch on 86th Street and Bay 8th Street.

Mr. Parker does not eat at Tommaso's simply because he is a loyal friend to the owner. He knows the same thing a lot of wine industry folks do: For top-shelf wines at rock-bottom prices, Tommaso's can't be beat. Long before the rest of the world hopped onto the Bacchus bandwagon, Mr. Verdillo decided his restaurant needed a serious wine program. He educated himself with courses in viticulture and vinification and attended early editions of Vinitaly, the Italian wine fair held every year in Verona. One by one, he befriended the great vintners of Piedmont, forging friendships with the likes of Bruno Giacosa. At a time when few people in New York cared much about Italian wines, Mr. Verdillo was investing deeply in fine vintages of Barolos, Barbarescos, and Super Tuscans.

Mr. Verdillo could charge steeply for his bottled treasures, but has chosen to keep the markup around 100% of what he initially paid (as opposed to what the wine is worth now). Thus, a magnum of Gaja Sori San Lorenzo 1990, which goes for $1,200 at the wine-centric Manhattan restaurant Veritas, can be found for less than half that amount at Tommaso's.

"If it cost me $50, I'd sell it for $100. I'd rather people drink," he said. "I'd rather share it with people. The Giacomo Conterno Monfortino 1990 for $400? That's an absolute steal! You won't find that for that price anywhere."

Of course, the bargains Mr. Verdillo uncovered in the '80s and early '90s are gone now, leading him to invest more selectively in recent vintages by his favorite makers. "Once they're gone, they're gone," he said of his cellar holdings. "I'm not buying them anymore. I don't have the clientele for it. Conterno doesn't need me to sell his wine, and I don't need to sell them at those prices."

Sometimes he despairs of the current runaway wine market. "I'm almost hurt by it. You can't share this stuff with people, it's so expensive. Wine was meant to be drunk! How can I say, You should drink this fabulous bottle of wine. But you have to give my $600 for it. It's a bargain, but you have to pay $600?'"

Even if Mr. Verdillo scraped together the money to buy a case of '89 Petrus, he said it wouldn't sell at Tommaso's. "Who's going to come here in Brooklyn to buy it?" he said. "Cru and Veritas, those are the places where people would go and spend $7,000 on a bottle."

While the customers at those restaurants may be willing to spend that kind of money, the people who work there know better; they grab the D train to the 18th Avenue stop in Bensonhurst. "The guys from Cru come here to drink," Mr. Verdillo laughed, referring to the Burgundy-rich Greenwich Village restaurant. "They raid my cellar quite often."

There is no end, in fact, to the list of wine-world heavyweights who have made the pilgrimage to Bensonhurst. Piedmont wine titan Angelo Gaja has been there many times. Bruno Giacosa's daughters have visited; one daughter roomed upstairs for a month one summer. Legendary Barolo wine producer Aldo Conterno has been a guest. The maker of the cognoscente's most favored wine glasses, Georg Riedel, dined there with his son. "He was very autocratic with that boy," Mr. Verdillo said of the Austrian glassmaker. "That kid sat up straight. Very dignified. And I'm the opposite of that. I'm not a dress-up kind of guy. Very casual." And then, of course, there are Tommaso's numerous less-celebrated regulars. "People want to drink old wines at reasonable prices," he said. "They come here for that."