20 April 2006

Christening the duck

The “offline” – a gathering of online wine buddies for the purpose of the overconsumption of wines that would probably have been better left to their own devices – has a distinctly regional component that goes beyond the character of its participants. It has, instead, to do with the nature of the venue. Privileged areas where BYO is encouraged – California, New Jersey, even otherwise wine-hostile Pennsylvania – have virtual free reign of the available cuisines and price ranges. But those who live where BYO is discouraged, or even illegal, must make do with either surreptitious “I know the owner” sneaking or the short list of dives and near-dives – usually Italian or Asian – that allow such bacchanals.

The benefit to the restaurants that allow, or even encourage, offlines are less than clear. Yes, such groups tend to tip very well. On the other hand, rowdy groups of drunks take up tables for hours, make a fearful mess, and often scare away potential drop-in customers. And the much-vaunted (by wine geeks) “word-of-mouth advertising” can’t amount to much; is there really a great clamor for BYO-friendly restaurants outside the oenophile community?

Thus, the venues that persist in their embrace of those who offline are often cherished by their habituates, sometimes all out of proportion to their objective quality. So it is with King Fung Garden, a dive to end all dives on one edge of Boston’s tiny Chinatown (the original venue, a former gas station and occasionally – if unkindly – known as “The Red Café” to certainly Old School MIT types, is a virtual paragon of wonderful dive-itude, with its shoebox size, red vinyl booths, and frequent lack of midwinter heating).

It’s not that the food is bad at King Fung. On the contrary: for dirt-cheap Chinese, it’s not bad at all, especially in the context of Boston (where Chinese food does not reach the levels of, say, San Francisco, or New York). A few Peking-style ducks, a few appetizers and sides (hold the spice, please) and most winos are perfectly satisfied. The focus, after all, is on the wine and the crowd itself. Dissenters exist, and even fans can get tired of the same food, over and over again. But for $17/head (the actual total of a recent bill; we left $30 each), how much quality and variety can one really expect?

So, when King Fung announced that they were opening a branch (cleverly named “King Fung Garden II”) in Brookline, eager offliners were all atwitter. (Or perhaps it was just MSG withdrawal.) One group of diehards was determined to be the first to break in the new digs, to blaze a new chow foon trail, to explore new horizons in lo mein.

That group: Joe “Rollbar” Perry, Charles “Hold Still & Cough” Weiss, Tim “Sure, Go Ahead, Blame Me” Tanigawa, Paul “Remains There Anyone On the Planet Who Has Not Heard My Lillie Von Schtupp Joke?” Winalski, David “Will Drive Anywhere For Riesling” Bueker, out-of-town guest Jake “Multi-faceted Geek” Parrott, Jake’s guest Martin (who wears a “what the hell am I doing here with these freaks?” expression for much of the evening), and me, your not-so-humble narrator.

The evening starts entertainingly enough, as we file into a bright white, hospital-like room notable for its near-absence of tables and chairs. In one corner, original King Fung stalwart Doris has set up a few tables of the folding variety (she adds a third when the wine payload of the first two renders them unstable and unusable), but otherwise we are just as much a sideshow for a steady procession of takeout customers as a hardy collection of wine dorks. One member of Boston’s finest even gives our table a long, amused look. We wonder if – shades of a well-known Tom Troiano Port-fest in days long-passed – he’ll be waiting for us when we emerge.

Along with Doris, our waitstaff for the evening appears to be the youngest member of the King Fung family. And I do mean youngest. Joe muses that the last time we saw him, he was in his mother’s arms and (he gestures) “about this big.”

“But Joe,” I retort, “at the time, so were you.”

Our young server takes our orders, then – despite being only five feet from the kitchen and despite the fact that there’s no one else in the restaurant at the moment – bellows a long rant in Cantonese, which eventually peters out to “never mind” in English. He then, rather sullenly, takes the order back to the kitchen himself. It’s adorable.

The wines start oddly and slowly, though we do break our usual King Fung tradition by having at least one white left to taste when the food starts to arrive. Must be the unfamiliar surroundings.

Baumard 1992 Savennières (Loire) – Drying and oxidized, with hints of stewed asparagus. Mostly dead.

“This isn’t dead,” complains Jake.

“I said ‘mostly dead.’”

Jake retastes. “OK, you’re right. Mostly dead.”

Gunderloch 2004 “Dry” Riesling 03 05 (Rheinhessen) – Under screwcap. Acidic and very tight, showing some slate and no little sulfur. I feel that this should be more interesting than it is.

Guido Cocci Grifoni “Podere Colle Vecchio” 2000 Marches Bianco (Marches) – Acidic butter. Something went wrong with this particular bottle, according to the person who brought it.

JJ Prüm 1999 Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Kabinett 15 00 (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer) – Overwhelmingly, undrinkably sulfurous. Holding my nose, I find a bit of minerality just beginning to emerge on the palate, but otherwise, this is like drinking a factory full of matchsticks.

Henschke 1995 Semillon “Louis” (Edna Valley) – That’s the Edna Valley in Australia, by the way. Fig jam, pear skin, and nice (if sweaty) minerality with a zingy top note. Very nice, and ultimately my favorite white wine of the evening…which is surprising, not just because it’s Australian, but because it’s Australian and I brought it. Well, there’s a first time for everything.

Nikolaihof 1997 Vom Stein Riesling Smaragd (Wachau) – Still difficult, showing chalky minerality, but otherwise tighter than a drum. Hmmm.

David muses that we’re an all-male group this evening. Joe responds, “well, Amy was supposed to come, but when she saw that we were all guys, she wimped out.”

This amuses both David (“she could have worn the bikini”) and me (“she could have been the center of attention…you know, like Theresa”).

“I told her that, but she said, ‘look, I know you guys, and there’s no way I’d be the center of attention. It’d be the wine, then obscure facts about the wine, then stories about people who aren’t even there, and only then would it be me.’”

We pause, agree that she’s probably right, and move on to a verbal subdivision of South Africa’s Stellenbosch region.

Talana Hill 2003 Chardonnay Paradyskloof (Stellenbosch) – Jake proves his outsider status by bringing a chardonnay. When he mentions having brought a cabernet as well, we’re about ready to boot him unceremoniously streetward, until he clarifies that he means cabernet franc. Oh, well, OK. All is forgiven. And for a chardonnay, by the way, this one isn’t bad at all: ripe red berries and Calimyrna fig. Pretty.

Edmunds St. John 2001 Los Robles Viejos (white) Rozet Vineyard (Paso Robles) – Thick, spicy peach and honeysuckle with minerality underneath. It’s in a pretty stage right now. However, I take the remnants home, and on the second day (despite sitting in the fridge) it has undergone a secondary fermentation in the bottle. So if you’ve got it, be wary…or at least, be quick about the drinking.Update: the winemaker informs me that this wine was sterile-filtered, which should have rendered a secondary fermentation an impossibility. I'm at a loss to explain this.

Heger 2003 Pinot Noir “sonett” 20 05 (Baden) – Also under screwcap, which causes Jake to double-decant the wine (“I don’t trust the Germans not to screw up the sulfur with a screwcap”). Strawberry, raspberry and gamay-like sprightliness with a little granite underneath. Like many German pinots, this would be a perfectly lovely wine were it half its actual price.

Jake chooses this opportunity to wax aphorismic: “I’ve been to the mountain, and I’ve seen all the people who didn’t make it to the mountain.” A few moments of confusion later, we all agree that neither Buddha nor Sun-Tzu are in immediate danger of displacement, and proceed to the next wine.

C&P Breton 1989 Bourgueil Grandmont (Loire) – Late-released, with the schmancy modern packaging. Gorgeous aromatics of earth and dried cherries, with a silky texture. Still youthful. Marvelous, despite the cult-Bourgueil pricing.

Ravenswood 1997 Zinfandel Teldeschi (Dry Creek Valley) – Glue. There’s heavy VA, but mostly this smells and tastes like glue. Sheesh.

Redondèl di Paolo Zanini 2003 Teroldego Rotaliano (Trentino) – Huge purple grape fruit with ripe mint juice. Completely lurid.

The wine is starting to flow fast and furious, and the conversation is getting more sub-referential by the moment. Here’s an example (identities excised to protect the guilty):

“I went to the funeral of one of the Seven Mules.”


“The ones that protected the Four Horsemen.”

“Of Notre Dame, or of the Apocalypse?”


“So who’s the Harlot?”

(several people at once) “Heidi Peterson Barrett!”

Amy’s reasons for absence have never been so clear.

Bouchard P&F 1995 Le Corton (Burgundy) – Dark black earth-encrusted truffle and blackberry with hazelnut and spiky acidity. Long and ostensibly still developing, but a little strange overall. Almost good, perhaps a victim of the bad Bouchard era, or perhaps just in an awkward stage.

Hudelot-Noellat 1994 Romanée St-Vivant (Burgundy) – Rough, rustic cherries with a strange, indefinable imbalance. Fun, but very much a country cousin of an RSV…not in a bad way, necessarily, but also not entirely what one might expect.

Boiron “Bosquet des Papes” 1995 Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe “Cuvée Chantemerle” (Rhône) – Smoky meat liqueur expanding to something a little fruitier on the finish. Still, the wine is a bit difficult at the moment, and might just need some time – or better company – to arrange itself.

At this point, someone pipes up with the following: “I had a nightmare where Pierre-Antoine Rovani was there in his stupid tan cap going ‘eygh eygh eygh eygh.’” This outburst presents a problem for the narrator, because its author wants no part of it, yet no one else is willing to take credit for it either. We resort to a game of chance, and Tim (to his dismay) draws the short chow foon noodle. So send your angry letters Tim-ward.

Marcarini 1998 Barolo La Serra (Piedmont) – Stunning from the first moment, showing the classic tar and roses alongside tart blackberry leaves and beautifully-textured graphite-like tannin. Still not entirely integrated, but promising much.

Bodegas Riojanas “Monte Real” 1994 Rioja “Gran Reserva” (Center-North) – Gorgeous, sweet-textured red fruit (cherries and plum juice) and gritty tannin. Pretty…no, make that exquisite. Finally, after zillions of attempts, Joe produces a Rioja that I like. I feel like marking the date on the calendar.

Charles brings forth a dessert wine that has David scrunching up his nose, apparently doing a Mark Squires imitation. “It smells like a melon that’s been pissed on by a cat.” What’s this marvel of varietal expression, one might ask? Mark would probably be the first to guess.

Köster-Wolf 2002 Scheurebe Alzeyer Römerberg Eiswein (Rheinhessen) – This wine is obviously the product of some sort of accident between several trucks, trains and carts all carrying a variety of tropical fruit, leaving a sticky residue of lime leaves and banana skin. It’s fun, but admits to no further exploration.

And with that, King Fung Garden II is duly christened. Joe packs up a few gallons of unwanted duck soup and enough chow foon to stuff a horse, Charles departs (once more foiled in his monthly attempt to demonstrate the use of his elbow glove), and Doris is left to glumly survey the mess that surrounds our table.

But for lacquered duck, we’ll be back. Oh yes. We’ll be back.

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