Saturday, May 26, 2007

Cocktail Competency: Eleven Madison Park

As a follow-up to my recent item that a good cocktail is hard to find in Manhattan, let me proclaim that competent bartenders can be found at Eleven Madison Park, Danny Meyer's elegant place in the Met Life building.

My waitress didn't even need to check behind the bar: she know they had rye, Herbsaint and Peychaud's bitters, and that the bartender had been schooled in how to make a Sazerac. The drink is listed under their "classic cocktails" list. By my mind, if they know how to make a Sazerac, they can make them all.

Sazerac fans, take note.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The New York Cocktail Idiocracy Strikes Again

A very kind friend invited me out to dinner the other night. The place was 44th and 10th, a swank joint in midtown Manhattan. I asked if they made good cocktails. He said yes, definitely, they made great cocktails. He told me he'd be a bit late, but to go ahead and order a cocktail while I wait.

I asked the waiter, a very friendly young man, "Is your bartender skilled? Does he know how to make many cocktails?" I was told yes, very skilled. I asked if he could make a Sazerac—always my test of a talented, knowledgeable bartender. No, he can't, I was told, mainly because the bar isn't equipped with Peychaud's bitters or Herbsaint. OK. I guess I was in a mood to mess with the waiter after that, because I asked for a Monkey's Gland, a cocktail from a century ago with gin, orange juice and grenadine. Of course, the bartender didn't know how to make this either.

So, I gave up and resorted to a Manhattan. But with rye, I specified. The waiter came back. They had run out of rye. Sigh. OK, a Gibson then, with Bombay. Finally, that they could make.

Now, I ask you, are bartenders required to be anything else but good-looking anymore?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

In the Cellar With Chanterelle

My lastest "In the Cellar" column in the New York Sun looks at Roger Dagorn and Chanterelle. I found Dagorn to be one of the kindest and most helpful sommeliers I've met to date, with an almost eerie instinct on where the wine world compass is going to point in the future. Here's the article:

Streetwise Sipping

In a restaurant community where sommeliers seem to come and go with the seasonal entrée, Chanterelle's Roger Dagorn amounts to a lifer. He has been faithful to David and Karen Waltuck's evergreen TriBeCa outpost of French cooking since joining in 1993.

"I tell my students that it's good to stay one year and then move on," Mr. Dagorn, who teaches one day a week at CUNY's New York Technical College, said. "My problem is I don't follow my own advice."

Mr. Waltuck called Mr. Dagorn 17 years ago, and asked if he'd be interested in becoming Chanterelle's sommelier. Happy at the 51st Street Mandarin restaurant Tse Yang, Mr. Dagorn passed, but recommended someone else the Waltucks ended up hiring. Three years later, the couple was again in search of a wine director. This time, Mr. Dagorn recommended himself.

He was given free rein to rework the primarily French wine list, and went straight to work. "I basically decided to redo the list to what I envisioned it should be," Mr. Dagorn, an elfin man of unfailing politeness and decorous manners, said. "I moved a lot of the more commercial wines out and started bringing in wines that were less known, but high quality. That was more my focus. It seemed to fit the style of cuisine here and the atmosphere created by Karen and David."

In recent years, of course, loading a wine list with small, artisanal producers has become de rigueur. But Mr. Dagorn did it in 1993. The cellar — which lies directly under Hudson Street, a cool layer of Manhattan bedrock acting as its ceiling — now features bottles from Hungary, Slovenia, Sardinia, Oregon, Austria, Greece, and points in between.

"Some of them are getting a little pricy," Mr. Dagorn said of the Greek vintages, which are becoming voguish and are drawn from such consonant-heavy, indigenous grapes as moschofilero and xinomavro. "They're developing modern techniques and modern techniques don't come cheap." He is particularly pleased to have landed a Greek cabernet sauvignon, Tsantali Mount Athos Agioritiko Abaton, which happens to be the state wine served at the Kremlin. "It's from Greece from Mount Athos, which is a peninsula for Russian Orthodox monks," he said. "No women are allowed, including many female animals. Which makes me wonder, because they have wild boar in the peninsula and the population is growing."

Mr. Dagorn was well ahead of most of his colleagues, too, when, in the late 1990s, he began to explore artisanal sakes. "I'd always been fond of sake, but I've never been thrilled by the quality of it. About 10 years ago, I was invited by a freelance wine writer to his apartment to taste some sakes — small producers — being brought in by this small company called Nishimoto. I tasted through them. There were some that were just remarkable. They tasted good and they had many characteristics that I find in high quality white wines."

He began slipping a sake beside early courses in Chanterelle's tasting menu.

Then in 1999, he put together Chanterelle's first annual sake dinner. The event was covered by Japanese television. There has been a sake dinner each year since, and the wine list is freighted with roughly 15 different sakes by the glass. Mr. Dagorn has visited most of the Japanese distilleries he features and he pronounces the complex sake names with confidence — even though he claims the only Japanese phrase he knows is "I don't speak a word."

It's perhaps only natural that Mr. Dagorn should be ahead of the curve on wine matters. He was, after all, raised that way. Born in France, he spent his childhood in Le Pont Neuf, a French bistro his father and cousin founded on East 53rd Street. "I basically grew up there," he recalled. "It was very much a wine restaurant destination. We would have winemaker dinners constantly. We were probably one of the first to do so. I was always there working those parties, whether I was at the kitchen or the dining room. When others were out partying on Saturday nights, I was busy tasting wines."

That Le Pont Neuf played a large role in Mr. Dagorn's life is evident in the way he rattles off the bistro's last day of business — "December 31, 1979" — without a second's thought. New Year's Eve, eh? Must have been some party. His eyes crinkle in a mournful smile. "A little sad."

The restaurant business still runs in the family. His brother-inlaw, Richard Hollocou, is general manager of Café Gray and is a sommelier in his own right. In one awkward year, both of them were nominated for the James Beard Award for outstanding wine service. Mr. Dagorn won.

"A Generation, Lobotomized by Vodka"

My favorite quote of the year. It came from Audrey Saunders, the owner of Pegu Club, the high end cocktail emporium on Houston Street in NYC.

She said it after a few martinis, as part of a tasting panel in a New York Times article that ran on May 2. She and Eric Asimov and a couple others tasted 80 (!) martinis to find out which gins worked best in the classic drink. I wish I could provide a link, but the Times has started charging for the article.

Anyway, Asimov started off smartly, assigning all vodka martinis to the dustheap, calling them abominations and not martinis at all, but some other drink. A martini is made with gin and vermouth he degreed, and his co-horts agreed, except for Saunders, who at first struck a diplomatic note and said she had to respect the proclivities of her customers. Later on, however, she let fly with her true feeling in the above quote.

It's just how I generally feel about vodka drinks. They're tasty, sure. A few are classics (Moscow Mule, Bloody Mary). But vodka drinkers don't really like to drink, they like to get drunk with the least trouble possible. So they choose vodka. It had minimal flavor, offers no resistance as it travels down the throat, and is a great whore, coupling up with almost any liquid partner you throw at it.

So, come up with your own drink names, vodka. Stop riding gin's coattails, hoping it will lend you some class.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Weingut Glut

I know I should be writing Part Two of last week's New Zealand tasting, but I've just come back from a German Riesling tasting (also at the ever-popular Puck Buidling, always afloat in vino) and it's fresh in my mind.

From the NZ and German tasting, I've learned that these exhibitions don't always feature the top vintners. Donnhoff, J.J. Prum, Willi Schaefer, etc., were not there. I guess they're too big and established to need to trot their wines before the press and purchasers. Instead, we got a lot of stuff from the Rheinhessen—not exactly the hottest region in Deutschland.

I did however get to taste one of the most famous wines in Germany—nay, the world—at this event: Dr. H. Thanisch, whose small, select holding in the Mosel valley include the fabled Berncasteler Doctor. The Auslese of this vineyard, 2005, was spectacular, I must say, rich and dripping with fruit. A dream. The presenter, Barbara Rundquist, also slipped some Beerenauslese 2000 from the good Doctor to me under the table.

The Germans, it should be said, come as advertised. The tasting was efficiently run and the pourers were unfailingly polite and upright. A couple of presenters from the uncelebrated Franken—Burgerspital and Max Muller—couldn't have bent over further backward if they tried. Interesting efforts on both sides. Burgerspital has a way with Silvaner. And Mullers know how to make Germanic summer sippers with its MAX line.

The folks at Fitz-Ritter, in Pfalz, gave me the chance to taste a superior Sekt, that fizzy, citrus-y white the British like so much, though I'm not sure it's my cup of tea. Better was the exotic decadent Eiswein riesling 2004 Durkheimer Hochbenn, which has so many fruit strains going on I couldn't identify half of them.

Rappenhof was the Rheinhassen that impressed most, and not just because the blonde woman from the holding family was so pleasant and complimentary of my pronunciation. The dry and off-dry stuff was fair, but the Niersteiner Pettenthal Auslese and Beerenauslese, both 2006, were superior stuff.

Johannishof from Rheingau also showed well with its Auslese and Beerenauslese, from Rudesheimer Berg Rottland. Honey and mineral on the first, petrol and smoke on the last. Wineseller, Ltd., taught me was a clean, fresh, mineral style Dr. Fischer of Saar can do with a Spatlese riesling. And Rudi Wiest Selections allowed me a taste of a 1993 Zilliken Spatlese, giving me a hint of the firm structure of balanced fruit and petrol that awaits me when my 2005s are ready for drinking.

The best wine I drank all day, however, may have come from Balthasar Ress of Rheingau. The table was overseen by Christian Ress, the fourth generation in the winemaking family. Dressed in handsome mossy tones, and polite and accommodating in a dry, slightly haughty way, he saw me through his six wines, finished with the knockout punch of his 2005 riesling Beerenauslese Hattenheim Nussbrunnen. I wrote down just one word: wonderful.

I don't think I was alone. Jamal A. Raayis, the author of Food & Wine's handy annual wine buying guide, was just ahead of me. I'd watched him all afternoon making his way through the tables, dressed down, solemn, unsmiling, a man at work rather than at pleasure, never uttering a word or praise. After the Ress Beerenauselese, he said "Very good," and moved on.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

New Zealand Tasting: Otago, O Boy!

I attended the New Zealand Wine Fair at the Puck Building on May 9. Thank God, it's wasn't one of those overwhelming affairs that take up the ground floor ballroom. It was snugly fit into a seventh floor hall, with only four rows of pourers. Nonetheless, there was a lot to get through.

New Zealand affairs can get rather monotonous. You try a Sauvignon Blanc, then another Sauvignon Blanc, then a Pinot Noir, and, oh look!, here's another Sauvignon Blanc. It's gets to the point that if you sniff another tropical nose, you'll run screaming out the door. This tasting broke up that pattern a bit by presenting a strong showing of Pinot Noirs from the Central Otago region on NZ's south island. This area has been touted for its Pinots for a few years, but now seems to be coming strongly into its own, the vines finally developing the age necessary to produce great wine.

I tasted many good Pinot Noirs, but it was the few bottles ready from the recent 2006 vintage that made the biggest impression. This looks to be a landmark year for Otago, and most of the reps I talked to agreed. Full, commanding, with strong fruit and good depth, they're drinking great already. I had an Amisfeld, Felton Road and Carrick which really stood out, the Felton Road in particular.

Otherwise, the Otago table had sample bottles from the 2005 and 2003 vintages. 2005 was pure havoc, weather-wise, in NZ and the wines were variable, though there were good ones that might improve with age. The 2003s were more interesting, offering the opportunity to see what an Otago Pinot tastes like after a few years. A Domaine Jaquiery was particurly complex, and an Akarua was also extremely nice.

I'll blog about the rest of the fair offerings in the next post. In the meantime, look out for those 2006 Otago Pinots. They'll be in stores in the next few months.

Monday, May 7, 2007

The Cheap Date of the Loire Valley

The Loire valley gets fairly ignored by the average wine drinker. Other regions of France interest him more. But the Loire wine that is ignored even by Loire wine lovers has to be Muscadet. This is a shame, because its the best value of the region, and one of the best values of the world. Chosen carefully, a Muscadet will cost you $11 and provide much pleasure.

It's reputation seems to be of a wine of little potential and narrow range. I remember a wine instructor once dismissing the grape by saying the variation in taste from one bottle to the next is about .01 percent. "Indistinct" and "grapey" is how she described Muscadet flavor. I sort of thought this, too, until my attitude was completed upended by a bottle of 2002 Domaine de la Louvetrie Muscadet Sevre et Maine. (It sort of goes without saying that, for a quality Muscadet, you buy a Sevre et Maine.) This wine was as close to perfection as any I've drunk. The array of flavors were awe-inspiring. Insistent artichoke, grass, and various medicinal, chemical and metallic impressions.

I know, I know
—who wants to drink medicine, metal and chemicals? But wine makes seemingly unpalatable thing taste wondrous. It was crisp, briney and amazingly complex. Since then, I've been a convert. You can still get a neutral bottle, that's for sure. But know your makers, and find a clerk who likes his Muscadet and you won't go wrong.

Friday, May 4, 2007

I Bought Me Some Wine

I'm a poor soul. I can only afford to buy a small portion of the wine I write and read about. This is probably a good thing, since I can't afford the cellar I would need to put the wine in. But every now and then I make an investment and lay some bottles down. Last December, I bought some Merry Edwards and Gary Ferrell Russian River Valley pinot noirs and I'm trying to be a good boy and not drink them for a few years.

This week I made another small contribution to moi petite collection. I've been driven made with desire ever since reports came out about the superlative 2005 German riesling vintage. I wanted to rush out and buy case upon case of Donnhoff, J.J. Prum et al. But, alas, the wallet would not allow such extravagance. A few bottles, yes, but no cases.

So, I went to Crush, which has a great German selection and bought a few bottles. And wine vampires had already snatched up all the Donnhoff. But others remained, and, really, you can't lose with the 2005s, if the wine is from a quality producer. Crush likes Zilliken and Willi Schaefer and J.J. Prum, and what's not to like? I claimed an Auslese from the under-celebrated Zilliken and a Spatlese from the tiny Schaefer. They're mine,I tell you, all mine!

A staffer also talked me into a 1989 Auslese from Bert Simon. Most were spoken for, but he had one to spare. And I couldn't complain about the price ($38). So, three bottles. What can I say? It's what I can do. Now begins the long waiting process. I'll be drinking fine in 2017.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The Chenin Found!

I found the Moulin Touchais 1971 that I raved about on this blog a few weeks back! I was trolling about at Crush, the Upper East Side wine shop, looking for things I had seen at the recent Polaner spring tasting. I saw the 1998 of the great sweet Chenin Blanc from the Loire. Great, I'm sure, but the 1971 preyed on my mind. Nonetheless, I set a bottle of the 1998 aside to buy and then went into the back room where the rare wines were.

Looking through the stacks, a staffer suddenly raised a bottle out of nowhere and said, "Look." It was the 1971. They didn't even know it was there! It wasn't reserved for anyone. I bought it. I am a happy man. I may open in ten years or so.

The Crush folks also told me they had gotten ahold of some cases of the new vintage from Sancerre producer of distinction, Andre Vaton. The old guy threatens every year to retire forever. He's done so again this year, and Crush believes he may be on the level. Why take chances? I put myself down for three bottles.