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.

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