Friday, January 18, 2008

BNO Year-End 2007: T’was A Very Good Year

Given all the remarkable get-togethers that we treated ourselves to during the year, setting up the year’s BNO (boys’ night out) finale was not going to be easy. After many ideas were tossed around, the most appealing was taking it again on the road like last year's, though this time a neighborhood restaurant, instead of a distant commute to Las Vegas, was the immediate consensus—to everyone’s relief!

We owe Eric a debt of gratitude for liaising with the restaurant and astutely negotiating the most beneficial terms on the date, table, menu, and, most importantly, corkage. 231 Ellsworth in downtown San Mateo is a Bay Area foodie institution that has managed to remain relevant and cutting-edge despite being in business for the past two decades. My first visits to the restaurant were in the mid-1990s, including a memorable 1996 K&L Wines-hosted dinner featuring a vertical tasting of Pichon-Lalande, with the château’s patronne May-Eliane de Lencquesaing herself presiding. I have enjoyed many meals at the restaurant since then, mostly wine-related dinners like the Vineyard Gate-hosted California Cabernet Sauvignon wine dinner in 2000 immediately after the restaurant re-opened and the Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüe wine dinner in 2005 attended by the domaine’s general manager, Jean-Luc Pépin. Like Patina and Spago in L.A., 231 Ellsworth is the Bay Area’s venue of choice for ultimate wine dinners.

The reason why many obsess with food and wine pairings is that these offer the most profound dining experience. We mulled over the food and wine possibilities before selecting the following menu, and even still there were last-minute adjustments:

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The 1970 Sauternes Premier Cru Classé, Château Suduiraut paired with the Foie Gras 3 Ways was like game-over and a total knockout. We could’ve stopped after this first course and it would’ve been a memorable dinner already. The ’70 Suduiraut was deep red copper color; still a whiff of new oak emanated; delicately sweet, hinting of pear poached in mild spices, a touch mineral, and possessing a feathery lightness that was so lovely. One can say this wasn’t a perfect wine, and I wouldn’t argue with critics’ poor assessment of it as it lacked botrytis power and there was some bitterness on the finish that exposed the shortness in sugar. These are minor quibbles, though, as it was a magnificent wine! And with the foie gras the whole experience was fantastic. Many wine enthusiasts seek that 90-point or 100-point scoring wine, overlooking these score-defying imperfect gems. This ’70 Suduiraut is a perfect example of what New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov clamors for: “wines that offer a little resistance”.

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Another view: Lenny: “Sauternes was eye-opening, though i would have liked a bit more weight and sweetness. I think the dish was constructed around that expectation, especially the flan-like portion…” Gary: “as to my favorite pairings-foie gras…favorite wines… 70 Sauternes” Steve: “the Sauternes and foie gras. Politically incorrect (yes a goose was harmed) and unbelievable in my belly” Kevin: “I echo Alex on the 70 Suduirant. Great call. HUGE surprise. What a way to begin!”

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Foie Gras 3 Ways a la 231 Ellsworth

The next flight featured a most dynamic Champagne duo, but it was marred by the food-pairing. The Matsutake “crème brûlée”, in itself a delicious dish, was a bit sweet resulting in a taste mismatch with the Champagnes. Yet, Veuve Clicquot’s awesome 1996 Grande Dame was my favorite wine of the night. I couldn't believe how good it was; displaying raw, youthful powerful and remarkable precision as it moves through the palate with perfect timing. The acidity was almost searing, jolting the palate with nervous tension, and at the right moment the sweetness of the fruit breaks through. This is a Champagne if cellared well should evolve for many decades.

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Scallops in Matsutake “crème brûlée”

Another view: Kevin: “My take was very different than Alex on the champagne. The 96 Grand Dame is a highly respected wine. I thought this bottle was not balanced--far too acidic, lean. I know, it is a long vintage, but it is usually more pronounced with fruit. It just wasn't there.” Steve: “I side with Kevin on the champagne, the 96 kept trying but was to austere. Both were hurt by the dish pairing, tough to match.” Lenny: “Yes, GD was ‘austere’, I think that's part of what keeps me coming back. But I'm new to vintage Champ., so I'll now be in search of wines that are just a tad more mellow.”

Gosset’s 1990 Celebris was a contrasting statement as it presented luscious red fruits, delicious bread toast, a nutty oxidativeness, and a round, lush mouthfeel. I enjoyed this Champagne, too, and everyone gave it a nod.

Another view: Kevin: “The 90 Celebris was not showing like the world beater it has been in horizontal tastings. Excellent three and a half puff, but maybe not seemless anymore. One off note--a drop of something not jointed.”

A fillet of Mediterranean Rouget worked out beautifully with two very different whites. The 1982 Laville-Haut-Brion (the white of Château La Mission-Haut-Brion) exuded resin and pine scents, cedar and papaya. An exotic tasting white Bordeaux with verve and elegance.

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Another view: Kevin: “82 Laville HB I loved, but I love semillon. The nose had a powerful lemon fig with a dash of petrol. Steve mentioned bacon fat I thought. Powerful, exotic sexy beast. This maybe wasn't as well matched with the food as the terrific 86 Meursault.”

Maison Leroy’s 1986 Meursault was a powerhouse white Burgundy. Unbelievable intensity, depth, and length. What a rich, concentrated wine! I can easily compare this experience to a great premier cru. I think it totally caught us by surprise. We were in awe, particularly Matt and John.

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Another view: Kevin: “Spectacular for a village wine, the Leroy had great balance. The classic nuttiness that personifies Meursault not as strong a Meursault style as I prefer---but the balance makes for long finish. These 2 were my favorite flight.”

So on to the most toothsome course of the night: the seared squab breast. Now the squab is a tiny bird, but you wouldn’t know it gazing at the hefty chunk of boneless, tender meat on my plate. Bravo, to the chef for making the most out of this noble bird!

My excitement with the squab still did not overshadow my anticipation for the two red Burgundies of this flight. But the 1985 DRC Echezeaux was heartbreaking for it showed whiffs of TCA amidst a mighty concentration of fruit that was in a see-saw battle against the taint. At times the wine seemed to be winning, yet moments later the TCA still reared its ugly head. Ah, so near and yet so close!

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Fortunately, the 1957 Gevrey-Chambertin Les Cazetiers Maison Leroy snapped me out of my Burgundy depression. “It’s what great old Burgundies ought to be”, said Steve. The antithesis of a SLH fruit bomb Pinot Noir. Age has dried up all but a sliver of fruit at its core, baring the wine’s sheer elegance and essence of terroir. Aubert de Villaine, in Natalie MacLean’s book, describes old Burgundies like these as having “lost all the body of the fruit. They gain a spirituality from their long meditation in the bottle. It is the spirit that speaks and no more the flesh.”

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Another view: Kevin: “85 DRC Echezeaux--nose initially spectacular. On palate opened with pretty violets clean fruit. Then it shut down. Then it started to come out. Then it didn't. Oy vey. If I could make a case for drinking a fine wine in shots, as a prosecutor, this would be my first witness. In contrast, the 57 Gevrey-Chambertin was right there. 50 year old premier cru going great at 50 years!!!??? I enjoyed this wine very much. For me the wine of the evening. Lovely smoky Pinot with all that great old burgundy funk. By the way, even though 57 not much of a vintage in Bordeaux, underrated and very good DRC and Leroy Burgundy vintage. Steve tx for sharing birth year and special bottle.” Steve: "The burgundy and squab. Perhaps my favorite of all time. Everything that was right about food and wine pairings showed up in those two dishes. The Burgs were sublime. Home court bias, the 57 was my favorite wine of the night. The DRC was a perfect compliment - so different, yet so classic.”

The Italian reds that came up next were paired with juicy beef short ribs that seemed to enhance the fleshiness of the wines. Gaja’s 1997 Sori San Lorenzo was dense, sweet, and soft; an opulent wine packed with very ripe, very tender Nebbiolo. Lacking some elegance, yet the fruit is irresistible. This is in very good drinking form right now. Another 1997, Villa Poggio Salvi’s Brunello di Montalcino, smelled promisingly of Hershey’s milk chocolate yet on the palate was flat and lifeless. No tartness or fruity taste, not even astringency. The wine gave off no off-flavors or flawed scents, so what has happened? I really would’ve liked to try another bottle.

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Another view: Kevin: “Gaja 97--very nice wine-delicious. I was wanting more structure and Nebbiolo profile. This is the vineyard that is supposed to be austere. I didn't see it. Seemed more California in style. The other 97 is a great wine. I had it a year ago. Eric you were valiant to get it for us--this was in my opinion a bad bottle. It had a dirty component. Matt might be able to tell us what it was.”

For the final course of roasted lamb the pairing was a flight of two 1997 Napa reds. I’ve had the 1997 Pahlmeyer Merlot several times and it always shows very well, and this night was another stellar performance. Powerful, lush blackberry, licorice flavors. Tannins are ample and velvety. Very well balanced for this style. Based on how it’s developing over the number of times I’ve tasted it in the past several years, I’d say many more years of life ahead. There may not be a Napa Merlot that could touch this. On the other hand, the 1997 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon showed the vintage’s very ripe character, with the eucalyptus/mint scents that’s the signature of the vineyard. However, this lacks backbone and depth; hence I thought it was merely good.

Another view: Kevin: “The Pahlmeyer was very good. Tasty yummy Cal merlot. We thought the 97 Heitz was off balance.”

The “’55 Graham” was consumed off-site. Actually, as Kevin revealed next day he mistakenly opened the ’63 Fonseca! Heck, no complaints here. Frankly, by this time I was pretty much wined out, though I still enjoyed sips of this great Port. Juicy, tobacco leaf-infused red fruits, with Musigny-like elegance, and a finish that was so velvety and pure. I could drink this Port all night.

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