21 September 2007

Memory, cheapened


Years ago, I had a favorite restaurant in Boston. I don't know if it was the best restaurant in Boston (that honor has, for a long time now, belonged to No. 9 Park), but it was most certainly my favorite. I not only went every chance I could get, I sent all and sundry there whenever I received a request for advice. (Which, in those days, happened quite often.) And I'd take as many guests there as I could, every one of whom was exceedingly impressed.


The restaurant was one of a (then) very rare breed of authentically Italian outposts in the overtly Italianate (but even then gentrifying) North End of Boston...one that didn't just rest on the easy profits of overly-familiar red sauce, pasta, veal scallopini and the like. The chef had a point of view, and also a hook: he eschewed butter and cream as foundations for his cuisine, which lightened it sufficiently for him to work an authentically Italian, yet also fundamentally modern and experimental, magic with his food.


But while the food was excellent, it wasn't what kept me coming back.


The wine list, too, represented a particular mindset (it was also constructed by the chef). Missing were the mainstream but ever-so-boring Chiantis and pinot grigios of most of its neighbors. In their place were obscure bottlings from DOCs even the reasonably wine-savvy had never even heard of, much less tasted...wines often made from grapes virtually lost to history save for the fanatic traditionalism of a few growers.


But it wasn't the wine list that kept me coming back, either.


On nights when it wasn't too busy -- in other words, not on weekends -- the chef would gleefully participate in what is my absolute favorite kind of dining: the surprise tasting menu. Diners would tell him what they didn't eat (or, in some cases, enter a special request for something...rabbit, for instance), and he'd construct a series of dishes and matching wines that were regularly astounding in their perfection. Not "great" cuisine with all the cultural baggage that implies, but food and wine perfectly-executed with both art and passion.


I used to love those meals. I used to live for those meals.


But, as tends to happen, one day the restaurant closed. Insiders and recipients of insider gossip (I was one of the latter) saw it coming for a while, due to factors pretty much unrelated to food or customers. And so I made sure to go back one more time, to pay a sort of homage to a chef who'd fed me so well for so long.


One of the biggest quirks on an already very quirky wine list was that the most expensive wine on it was not an old Chianti Classico Riserva, not some rare Amarone, and not some cultish Gaja. It was from Piedmont, but it was no prestige Barolo or Barbaresco. Instead, it was the Coppo Mondaccione, made from the increasingly obscure but wonderful freisa, and often considered the most "serious" among all the grapey and boisterous expressions of the grape.


So on my last visit, as the restaurant's consistent brilliance drew to a close, the chef gave me a gift. Whether it was a thank you for the scores of diners I sent there, or for my own patronage, or from a sense of wine and food camaraderie, or as a gesture of friendship, or maybe just because he didn't want to carry the inventory to closure, I was presented with a pristine bottle of Coppo 1995 "Mondaccione." I put it in the cellar, and waited. Because it needed time, and because I hoped that maybe I could drink it with the chef who gave it to me.


Years passed. The chef moved on, and eventually re-entered my dining life in another role. But I forgot about the wine. One night, many years later, we managed to have the chef over for dinner, and while getting the dime tour of the cellar, he identified the wine as the one he'd gifted so many years ago. I moved it to a different rack, thinking that I'd open it for him the next time we got together.


But then, other friends -- excellent, close, wine geek friends -- decided to leave Boston for the Southwest. And so, we hosted a little blowout dinner for them, and the Mondaccione got opened.


Inevitably, it was corked.


When people ask me why I'm so passionately anti-cork, this is the sort of thing I tell them. Because this wasn't just a (reasonably pricey) wine, twelve years old and theoretically definitive in its idiom. That, though at some cost, could be replaced. This was a wine that meant something to me. It had aged...at Coppo, at the importer's and wholesaler's warehouses, in the restaurant's cellar, and finally in mine...for a long time. And it was full of memories. And from the moment of bottling, it was ruined by a faulty piece of tree bark that cost the winery a few cents, at which price the scandalously indifferent cork producer managed to make some sort of profit.


This morning, as I poured it down the drain, the memories smelled of moldy cardboard, and the meaning was choked off in a wringing tourniquet of fungal nastiness.


Damn you, cork. Damn you.