Frontera Grill – The promised 45-minute wait is only fifteen or so, which has to be better than the justifiably promised 45-minute at Xoco, our intended lunch destination. Fun décor, pleasant enough food, but honestly there’s as much or more interest in the cocktails than in the food. My huitlacoche torta, for example, is – to the eye – loaded with fungus but certainly doesn’t deliver as much smutty taste as is promised by that visual. The wine list seems impressive, but I don’t partake, instead working my way through a series of distilled agave exotica blended with other things.
Webster’s Wine Bar – A casual, downscale-but-not-really hipster vibe not unlike the sort of wine bars I tend to prefer (the ever-growing number of places ‘round the world named Terroir, for example), but with a more suburban ethos. While it’s not actually suburban, I do wish it was closer to downtown, because I’d visit more often. The by-the-glass options, all thematically flighted or available on their own (in multiple portion sizes), are a little timid in comparison to the by-the-bottle list, and since I can’t talk my companions into a bottle despite the fact that we will drink more than enough to have had one, some of the most intriguing wines go unexplored. So here’s a tip: bring thirsty friends. Also worth noting are the unusual number of wines with a reasonable amount of age on the by-the-bottle list, most very fairly priced. I’m pleased to see that txakoli is poured in the traditional fashion here, from spout to jelly-jar glass rather than stem, and from a great height. Nice touch. As I’m only passing through on the way to a largish dinner, I avoid the menu of bites, plates, cheeses, and so forth, but one companion who’s not pronounces the bacon-wrapped dates worthy.
Bulfon 2008 Cividin Valeriano (Friuli-Venezia Giulia) – A little aromatic (pressed flowers), a little waxy (the paper as much as, say, beeswax), and a lot dry. Makes one come to it, and then still won’t give everything up, but the mystery holds a certain intrigue. (9/10)
Shady Lane 2007 Pinot Noir (Leelanau Peninsula) – Prematurely fading, very light, and a little green…all signs of a place, or at least a house, that might not quite have a handle on pinot noir. Whether I should append a “yet” or suggest the terroir isn’t right for the grape isn’t possible to know after just one sample, of course. It’s not bad by any means, and though the autumnal aromatics are already quite advanced, it’s quite drinkable. But the “…for Michigan pinot noir” tag is going to have to be appended to any positive description of this wine for the time being. Who knows what the future will bring? (9/10)
Preisinger 2008 Zweigelt (Burgenland) – Extremely aromatic, with a dark, purplish needling quality to the juicy blackberry fruit and a lot of succulent floral stuff chasing after it. Black pepper, too. A lack of density and crisp acidity remind the wine that it’s zweigelt rather than something lusher. Extremely appealing. (9/10)
L2o – In one mood, I would describe the service here as nearly perfect…and in fact quite obviously striving for that perfection. It’s certainly a quiet ballet of unobtrusive excellence, which I love. On the other hand, it’s not entirely perfect. For example, we request a tea menu at the end of the meal and it never arrives. But that’s minor. Here’s what’s very slightly more major.
The wine list is extensive, way overloaded with both reds (it’s a fish restaurant, folks) and upper-class white Burgundies (I’ll cut them some slack here; the chef is French, after all), and very pricey. Nonetheless, there’s no lack of appealing options for those of pretty much any stylistic bent, and after some online previewing and at-the-table scanning, I narrow my choices to three. One, the most intriguing, is a white from Movia that I haven’t had before. Thus, I’ve two questions: is it oaked (the problem I have with most non-“Lunar” Movia whites is that they’re pummeled into anonymity by wood) and is it orange (that is, will it be too structurally abrasive for what I know is a procession of sometimes-austere piscatoria)?
The sommelier is fetched. And fetching. She – and it’s worth noting that pretty much everyone on this floor, male and female, could work as a model in their non-restaurant time – is maybe 5’11” without the heels, draped with luxuriant blonde curls, and is quite frankly gorgeous. Do I somehow not remember Larry Stone looking like this? In any case, she’s not (according to L2o’s web site) the sommelier, but rather the floor representative of same for the night. And look, I’m still a guy…she could probably tell me just about anything, at this point, and I’d be inclined to be agreeable.
Unfortunately, what she tells me is stuff I could have read on Movia’s web site, because I’m fairly certain that’s what she’s just done in the space between my question and her answer. Yes, yes, I know the Movia story. I don’t want their backgrounder, I don’t need their bio. I have very specific questions. Can’t she answer them? It turns out: no, she really can’t, other than to tell me the wine does see some wood. And it’s sur lie. Well, great. That’s not a whole lot of help. O, lovely blonde goddess of wine, how quickly you’ve let me down. Oh well. I order the wine anyway.
The food is as extraordinary as advertised, marrying a stark Japanese sensibility for fish to the European urge to cook, season, flavor, and sauce with a different sort of precision. Blessedly, the cooking styles that come into play are not strictly Eurocentric, but rather South American, pan-Asian, North American, French, Italian, Spanish/Basque/Catalan/etc., and so forth. It’s a brilliant, nervy ride on that fine edge between punishing reverence and sloppy fusion, and while the ride is thrilling it never loses sight of its destination.
Expensive? Why yes, it is. But not, I think, overvalued. This is a truly great meal.
Thierry Fluteau Champagne Brut Blanc de Noirs (Champagne) – Delicate. Strawberry, perhaps a little clover, with a very fine bead. Initially appealing, but it sort of vanishes into itself in response to attention. Pleasant. (9/10)
Movia 2004 “Veliko” (Brda) – A blend of ribolla gialla (or, I guess, rebula here in Slovenia), mostly, with chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and pinot noir as potential partners; the blend apparently varies, and I don’t know the specifics of this vintage. The mélange bring some light and shade to the heavier, waxier notions provided by the dominant grape. Lemon and molten silver, silken texture and fine-polished exterior wood, with everything in balance. I have no idea where this is on its evolutionary curve, but it’s drinking beautifully, if simply, right now. (9/10)
Metté Marc de Gewurztraminer (Alsace) – So much spice, smoked meat, and coriander whipped up by raw distillate. Very easy to hate, and I almost do…but in the end, it’s just so gloriously weird that I love it. Marc can be appealing or it can be challenging, but I think marc de gewurztraminer is the post-graduate examination of marc; so, so difficult without proper preparation. (9/10)
The Purple Pig – Small-plate dining, alternating between market-based and pre-packaged tapas (that is to say: lardo, high-quality canned tuna, and so forth), and a lot of fun. Wine, from a pretty decent list, is offered in multiple sizes over a pretty large percentage of the available bottles, which is an excellent touch that I wish more restaurants would pursue. And the food’s good. What more could one want? Well, perhaps consistency: on a second visit, near the end of the lunch rush, it’s more hit-and-miss. Not so much so as to discourage a potential third visit, but it seems the kitchen can get overwhelmed and hurried, and that appears to be when the problems start.
Lini “Labrusca” Lambrusco Rosso (Emilia-Romagna) – Sharp, pins-and-needles red fruit lashing and slicing its acidic path through the palate, cleansing everything and taking a layer of something or other with it. There’s some dirt and pepper, too. Really pretty glorious. (9/10)
Montenegro Amaro (Emilia-Romagna) – Decidedly on the sweet, mellow side of amaro, showing caramel-based complexities more like a brandy than something more traditionally bitter. A simple pleasure. (9/10)
Callabriga 2005 Dão (Portugal) – From a bottle opened a day earlier, and already showing signs of fading. There appears to have been some nice black fruit at one point, but it’s lost to history. (9/10)
Ramazzotti Amaro (Lombardy) – Pleasantly bitter, but dominated by licorice-espresso caramel. This might be the best of the commonly-available brands (my opinion changes, often based on what’s in the glass in front of me), but there’s more complexity (and, you know, bitterness) in other brands. (9/10)
Alinea – There’s probably nothing I can say about this transformative restaurant that someone else hasn’t already said. Perhaps the most important thing that needs to be stressed and re-stressed is that it’s not, and will never be, for everyone; you either like this sort of thing or you don’t. I do, when it’s done well (and I hate it when it’s not; I’m looking at you, Mr. Dufresne). But I do need to say this: for all the reputation it has as a stuffy, dictatorial establishment in which instructions outnumber dishes, I don’t find it to be anything of the sort. Yes, there are instructions, but they’re fun: eat with your hands, dump your dessert all over the table and slather it together with your spoon…and here’s your high-thread-count wet-nap, sir. Etc. Yes, the food is extraordinary, the service excellent, the technique overwhelming, the price throat-constricting. But I not only enjoy the food (and that very, very much), I have a smile on my face all night, and there are more than a few moments of out-loud laughter. Who knew Alinea was a barrel of laughs?
I never see the wine list, instead choosing the suggested pairings for the current menu. Some of the matches are inspired, a few don’t work as well, but when there’s a problem it’s usually much less the pairings than the wines themselves. And to be honest, while I appreciate the motivation and good business sense behind Alinea’s elective refill policy (in brief: empty your glass, get more; don’t and you won’t; you pay for what you drink rather than what you order or what arrives unbidden), I find it a little distracting to have to think about the consequences of the size of my sips. The wine service itself is predictably and consistently excellent, and so all this amounts to much less of a complaint than it might read, but next time I’ll order from the list.
Fernão Pires “Quinta do Alqueve” 2008 Ribatejo Blanco (Portugal) – Elusive, but deliciously so. Fades away in isolation, tasting of null space and absence, then returning with thousands of atom-thin layers of something I can only describe as succulent dryness. There are hints and rumors of fruit and nut, but they never rise to anything identifiable. The entire taste of this wine is its structure…except, not really. It’s hard to explain, obviously. (9/10)
Abbazia di Novacella 2009 Valle Isarco Kerner (Alto Adige) – Starts bracing, then falters somewhat into an unfocused sort of refrigerated fruitiness. Something like lemon, apple, tomato…in that wide realm, a palate wandering around looking for clarity. There’s good structure and certainly interest, but the wine is as meandering with food as without. I like it, but that’s as far as I’ll go. (9/10)
Lucien Albrecht 2007 Pinot Gris “Cuvée Cecile” (Alsace) – Brilliant shattered-glass minerality, the kind that one almost never finds in Alsatian pinot gris anymore, and vibrant acidity lacing illuminated pear and brittle structure. Exciting. Yes, there is a bit of residual sugar, but it’s so well-compensated that it doesn’t matter. (9/10)
Deiss 2002 Burg (Alsace) – Like drinking fruit-flavored lead. A completely limp, lifeless, neutron star of a wine, showing ponderous (and, it must be noted, not insignificantly oxidized) fruit that might, once, have lived somewhere in the strawberry realm…if strawberries were made of fissionable material. This has far more in common with the grossest offenses among New World pinot noirs than it does the sugary offenses of Alsace. So, um, congrats to Deiss? And the much-vaunted terroir-over-variety concept? Unless it’s Deiss’ argument that Burg is a shitty terroir unworthy of the respect of competent winemaking, he’s not making much of a case for it here. (9/10)
Cedar Knoll 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley) – Weedy and underripe, with nasty green tannin suffused with stale cigarette ash, then treated to a burnt licorice overoaking and nasty, rancid buttering. I can’t get this out of my mouth fast enough. (9/10)
Anima Negra 2005 “An” (Mallorca) – Internationalized sophistry well-executed and warm, lush with anonymous fruit and coconut-ized into splendid tropicality. Give it a bowtie, a snazzy briefcase, and a cocktail umbrella, and we’re good to go. Not a bad wine, but – not having sampled any of the island’s other wines – I suspect it says fuck-all about Mallorcan terroir. (9/10)
Elio Perrone 2009 “Bigarò” (Piedmont) – A brachetto-moscato blend, which is kind of a goofily wonderful idea if it works. Which it does, mostly. Frothy strawberry, leaves, slushy orange blossom perfume, sweetness and foam. Nothing unexpected. It’s fun. Don’t ask questions. (9/10)
Rieussec 2002 Sauternes (Bordeaux) – If I remember correctly, Rieussec was my first “good” Sauternes. I’d had a few cheapies as a run-up, but this was the one that lit the bulb over my palate; “oh, I get it now!” Since those exploratory days I’ve learned that the botrytized and wooded style is far from my favorite way to consume liquid sugar, and so I mostly drink other things. In a way, then, this was as much a Proustian pleasure as it was an actual pleasure…though it was that, too. Good? Yes. I wouldn’t call it great, though, and that may well be the aforementioned stylistic preference at work (which is why I mentioned it in the first place). All the expected elements – bronzed and preserved fruit, caramelized apples, toasted spices, a warming mélange of bakery aromas – are in place and in balance. There is acidity, but as my preferences run towards sweet wines with a lot more of it, it seems slightly insufficient to me. And it’s not particularly deft with food, either; it can wage (and may win) a battle of richness, but it does not envelop nor allow itself to be enveloped. Still, I don’t want to over-criticize; there is almost no situation in which I would turn a wine of this quality down. (9/10)
Ferreira “Duque de Bragança” 20 Year Tawny Porto (Douro) – One of the two ways I like my tawny: not so much tawny. Still quite fruity – in fact almost primary – with dark, chewy, still-tannic berries and wild (that is to say, tart) plums. Spice, amber, and haze lurk in the background, which is how one differentiates this from an actual ruby port, but they are still not the lead actors, merely understudies. A very nice wine, sweet but with so many contrasts to that sugar that it operates well as a “table wine” of sorts. (9/10)
Quinta do Noval 1968 Colheita Porto (Douro) – The trick for colheita and my palate is finding that balance point in which the wine is no longer a simple collection of brown-hued sweetness and spice, but hasn’t yet flatlined into its long, oxidative decline. This is sometimes made trickier by the apparent fact that a lot of dedicated colheita-heads want that latter stage, or at least wish it to be more prominent than I do. So, preferential disclaimers aside, how about this one? It’s marvelous. Less spice and thinned-out molasses than a collection of molten metals…bronze, copper, iron…in whorls and gentle curls. But yes, there’s spice and sweetness as well, and lingering memories of fruit, and a confident persistence. It’s rather beautiful, really. (9/10)
Mercat a la planxa – It’s perhaps a little odd to be seeking out a Philadelphia chef’s Catalan restaurant in Chicago, but it’s proximate to where I need to be, and so why not? On a very brief sampling from the limited lunch menu, it’s good but not great, with interesting wine (available in multiple glass, pitcher, and bottle configurations) and a very casual vibe. Worth a second look to learn more, perhaps.
Itsas Mendi 2009 Bizkaiko Txakolina Txakoli “Aihen” (Northwest Spain) – Heavy. I know, it seems absurd to say that about a txakoli, and of course I mean it contextually, but it is heavy. A little heavier than I’d like, frankly. Whitewashed fruit (citrus? lime and grapefruit, maybe, but so blanched it’s hard to tell) and white-walled beachfront housing – yes, I’m aware that isn’t such an easy description to understand, but it’s what this wine makes me think of – blasted by sandstone and empty wind. But it’s just too gravitic for its own good. In a lineup of, say, chardonnays, it would be biting and crisp. But in its own context, I’d prefer a little more zip. Zing. Life. Fun. Any of the above. (9/10)
The Publican – Oh, if there was ever a restaurant that was dangerously pointed right at my weakest points, this might be it. Shellfish, pork, wine, beer? Raw stuff and ridiculously heavy meat preps? Hams? Cheeses? God help me. Were it no so ear-punishing they’d have to build me a bedroom upstairs, because I might never leave.
They don’t try to mess with the food too much, which not only works but allows them to get a lot of food out of the kitchen very quickly…necessary in a place of this (surprisingly expansive) size and with this turnover rate. And it’s probably unwise of me to order fideus (which is, here, the neutron star of dishes, offering a good 50% of the animal kingdom atop a completely unnecessary pile of starch) as a third – rather than only – course. But despite being bent with culinary double-stuffing as I leave, I enjoy every moment. It does not, in my personal affections, trump the conceptual brilliance of Avec (with which it has much in common) in this culinary mini-empire. But it’s way more fun, and frankly better, than Blackbird.
There’s a wine list, and it’s fair enough, but the thing here is beer. And they know their beer, too; unfamiliar micros are a subject on which one can have a quite involved conversation, which is not always the case even in places that have interesting lists thereof.
Two Brothers “Atom Smasher” Oktoberfest Style Lager (Illinois) – Heavy. Good heavy, but heavy nonetheless. I’ll admit that no matter the tradition, this is the sort of style I always feel is (or at least should be) implied by the autumnal name, but is rarely delivered by most beers of similar designation. Weighty, somewhat bitter, somewhat refreshing, and definitely seasonal; one can almost taste the leaves crunching underfoot. Molten rocks. Definitely leaves an impression. (9/10)
New Holland “Pilgrim’s Dole” Wheat Wine (Michigan) – A barley wine-style brew made, as the name indicates, with wheat. And – here’s a warning – a beverage for those who think barley wines are watery and light. Holy crap is this dense! Nearly opaque, as well. Comes as near as I’d want to drinking pure molasses (without the sugar). It’s fascinating, frankly, but I don’t think I’ll ever want this much of it again. Stylistically, it’s closer to the old Seppelt “Para Port” Liqueur wines than it is any beer of my acquaintance. Worth the experience, at least. (9/10)
Hanssens “Oude” Kriek Lambic (Belgium) – Oh, yes. Beautifully tart, but not so iconoclastically acidic that it becomes an Olympic-level challenge to struggle through. Here I suppose I reveal my long-time struggle with the Cantillon style, in which I have to warm up like a beer athlete to deal with the fierce lash of puckering sourness, and which even with said warmup I don’t always warm to. This is less aggressive, and maybe it’s less authentic as a result, but it’s far more to my liking. (9/10)
Topolobampo – Can any restaurant live up to this sort of hype? Not hype that it’s the best of all restaurants or anything, but the hype that it has changed the entire perception of Mexican food in this country, and that it will change the diner’s perception as well? I think it’s important to not have unmanageable expectations for such a transformation when approaching an establishment with this much fame. Why not just go and try to enjoy the meal?
And I will say that, with one exception (see below) I have an absolutely marvelous time here. The food on my plate and stolen from others’ is extraordinarily good. It perhaps doesn’t challenge the very foundations of my western palate, but then I’ve dabbled in Mexican cooking myself, so it probably wasn’t going to anyway. But surprise? Delight? Absolutely. In our group, we sample each of the various tasting menus on offer, and despite our token Brit struggling a bit with the peppers in a not-very-spicy dish, there’s not a single course that isn’t pronounced somewhere between very good and terrific. From conception to execution, this is a kitchen operating at a very high level of skill, and since this restaurant is so famous and there are so many other income sources for the Bayless empire that it probably doesn’t have to do more than push competent food out the door, I’m even more impressed.
Service is engaging and flexible; I hear our principal waiter in patient cajole with a nearby table of more tentative diners, while with us he’s delving into minutiae and esoterica as we shift our interrogations from plate to waitstaff. Noise levels are high, but decently handled by the separation of the restaurant into smaller rooms.
And then there’s the wine list. It’s very long. Parts of it are very good, but it’s clearly attempting to be all things to all people, and there’s a stylistic incohesion as a result. Further exacerbated, of course, by the unavoidable fact that a good number of the dishes really aren’t easy wine matches at all, and some are downright impossible. One is faced with several choices: to just drink what one wants, to accept guidance, or to attempt very difficult pairings which, unless one has extensive experience with this cuisine, are likely to fail anyway. It’s not an inexpensive list, either. To the list’s credit, however, there has been a clear attempt to hold some wines back for a time, and the older (not mature, usually, but at least not ultra-primary) wines are often the best buys on the list.
One of our group is a habitué of the restaurant and friends (he has a lot of “friends,” quotes not meant pejoratively but to distinguish between them and confidants, which is one of the benefits of his acquaintance) with the sommelière. And unfortunately, while he’s made a big preparatory play of the fact that I’m a wine guy and that she and I are going to have a great conversation about wine, it turns out to be one of those relationships that just doesn’t work. I want to offer a written shrug here, because sometimes these things just happen, and they’re nobody’s fault. But despite a promising beginning (she grabs an off-list German riesling, right in my palate’s wheelhouse, for us), the conversation starts to go wrong very early, and completely fails halfway through the dinner…to the extent that, by that midway point, she’s patently and obviously upset with me, but everyone at the table (having been very disappointed in her suggestions thus far) is in agreement that I just should order the wines and stop consulting with her. After which we do drink better. It’s largely the fact that I can’t seem to get her to understand what I don’t want, and thus I keep getting offered wines more woody, modern, and internationalized than I want. Her argument would be – and in fact is – that the wines I’m mentioning don’t “go with” the food. And she’s not entirely wrong about that, but since we don’t want to – in any context – drink the wines that she thinks do go with the food, it’s an intractable problem. There’s also a confusing palate misalignment, made clear to me when I query after a Dashe Zinfandel and she informs me it’s “too light” for the food. I think that may be a first, at least in my hearing. Of course, the Biale and Turley wines she offers in its stead (which are, I agree, less “light” than the Dashe) range from painful to undrinkable for my palate, so there’s no way to come to a détente.
(I should note that, as a result of this, I am going to do something counter to my regular practice and leave a wine that we drank – or, more accurately, were served – out of the list that follows. It was her counter-suggestion after my attempt to order a Rioja, it was a Washington State syrah, and it was horrible. Absolutely wretched. Seeing it lingering, mostly unconsumed and to all of us virtually undrinkable, in our glasses, she whisked it away and did not charge us for it. Since I never would have ordered it in the first place and very much wanted a different wine, I see no reason to go ahead and trash the wine just out of spite at my few unpleasant moments with it. So I won’t. Besides, I have enough problems in Washington.)
It’s the only flaw in the evening’s festivities, and I do my best to repair the relationship while retraining control over my own wine ordering, but I don’t think I’ll ever be the wine director’s favorite diner, nor she my favorite wine consultant, and I suspect she will allow me to go my own oenological way should I return. Which is fine. The food more than makes up for everything.
Brander 2007 “Cuvée Natalie” (Santa Ynez Valley) – Weird, but one approaches this wine knowing that weirdness is on offer. Leafy greens, pale citrus, lurid pink weirdness, and then sort of washing out in a shallow pool of salinity. Did I mention that it’s weird? (9/10)
Leitz 2002 Rüdesheimer Berg Schlossberg Riesling Spätlese Trocken (Rheingau) – The ever-so-slight touch of cream is a little surprising in this wine, given that it’s so young, but it works wonders in terms of textural cohesion. Everything else is still primary…gravel and dried white flowers, weight and presence, steel under lidded eyes. Surprisingly approachable, and yet nowhere near what it will become. (9/10)
Santo Tomas 2003 “Duetto” Cabernet-Tempranillo (Baja California) – I expect Baja wines to have a dried out, baked character, and this bottle does not disappoint in this regard. Is this a fair assumption, or have I just had the wrong wines? The fruit’s not shy, but it’s limp. And yes, there’s heat…both in the wine and showing its effects at the wine’s creation…with a premature desiccation that doesn’t bode well for the future. It’s important to say that none of this was unexpected, and I don’t want to overcriticize a wine I purchased specifically for the experience of having Mexican wine with Mexican food. It is what I thought it was, as Dennis Green might say. How often does Dennis Green turn up in wine notes, anyway? (9/10)
Dashe 2007 Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley) – Dark little berries, each one offering a tiny explosion of slightly tannic fruit, in a twisted-vine broth of surprising structural lightness; the overall effect is thus one of heft without overt density, of strength without force. Aside from a little dusting of black pepper, it lacks the further complexities one expects from the very best zinfandels, but it delivers everything – fruit, acid, just enough structure – one wants from the grape, without the baggage of booze and volatility that so often hitchhikes. I think it will age for a few years, if one is so-inclined. (9/10)
R. López de Heredia 2000 Rioja Reserva Viña Bosconia (Center-North Spain) – Not, I think, the best Bosconia of my lifetime. That said, it’s still compelling enough, gentling into its soft, tanned redness enveloped by old wood, then fading away to show its smooth, polished bones. It should be noted that my dining companions, who have never tasted an LdH of any vintage or designation, are utterly fascinated by the wine. So those of less jaded palates may enjoy this more than I do…though I do enjoy it. (9/10)
Leydier “Domaine de Durban” 2005 Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise (Rhône) – I keep waiting for someone to show me a better example of this wine, and year after year I come back to Leyder/Durban as the pinnacle. (I’m open to counter-suggestions, though.) The key, since my very first taste, remains a vibrant foundation of quartz-like minerality. Lots of wineries can do the perfumed sweetness, the orange blossom, the fun. The rocks are something special. And I can only guess that it’s terroir or some sort of particular cellar technique, because I find the same incredibly appealing quality in the winery’s Beaumes-de-Venise red. (9/10)