Thursday, October 29, 2009

Galician Treats

This morning I went to my EarthBox and picked a bunch of Pimientos de Padron. I should've harvested a week ago, now they're a bit overripe and overgrown. But they'll still be tasty roasted in a skillet, sprinkled with coarse sea salt and drizzled with extra virgin olive oil.

Pimientos de Padron is classic Galician tapas treat. Ten years ago it was a rarity in the Bay Area, a small bag would set you back fifteen to twenty bucks. Happy Quail Farms in East Palo Alto was the first source I found locally. Soon, seeds and seedlings were being sold and given out (my friend Dan--aka Mr. Heirloom Tomatoes--gave me a couple) so I just started to grow my own. Hey, it's legal!

As the name indicates, pimientos de Padron originated in the historic town of Padron in the province of Galicia located in northwestern Spain above Portugal and off the Atlantic coast. It has been a great delicacy there for centuries, and it made the town famous throughout Spain for such an invaluable contribution to tapas. The folks in Padron celebrate their great capsicum with an annual gastronomic fiesta every first Saturday of August. 3,000 kilos of the celebrated peppers are cooked by the townspeople and served with corn bread and chorizos, washed down with copas of Rioja.

But what's the big deal about these chili peppers? Well, aside from tasting great, there's a burning surprise that awaits you when you munch on these. Most taste mild, but one in a few will set fire to your mouth. So the pleasure in eating these peppers is a kind of devious or kinky gastronomy. Of course, terroir is everything. The peppers that come from Padron is really intense in flavor, but the ones we grow here locally is milder but still delicious. My EarthBox sitting on the porch, with a southwest exposure, filled with organic soil from Sloat provides good terroir.

Aside from pimiento, Galicia produces marvelous wines from local grape varietals. This being a cool-climate area, Galicia produces Spain's greatest white wine in Albariño. An Albariño that knocked my socks off is the Leirana from Forja del Salnes. It is made from vines 40-years-old planted on a ridge of sand and granite soils. The vines yield an extremely small crop, just 2 kilos per vine for a total of 500 cases of wine! We are fortunate to sell a few bottles of it at Vineyard Gate.

Mencia is the great red wine of Galicia. In Bierzo, Alvaro Palacios has made this wine world famous, and almost as expensive as his legendary Priorat wines. However, it is in Ribeira Sacra, specifically in the subzone of Amandi, where Mencia verges on the sublime. Pedro M. Rodriguez Perez of Guimaro crafts elegant Mencia wines from steep terraced vineyards that he restored from antiquity. His flagship Mencia from old vines (viñas viejas) is another rarity that we sell at Vineyard Gate. This exalted wine offers fabulous concentration and graceful, layered flavors that cascade endlessly like the breathtaking terraces of the mountain vineyards.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Swiss Movement

Fall days are perfect to enjoy a late lunch at a new restaurant in San Francisco's Castro/Mission neighborhood. Below the perimeter of Market and 16th Streets--in the neighborhoods of Castro, Noe, and Mission--are some of the trendsetting, tastiest restaurants, bars, and cafés in the city, sandwiched between abandoned storefronts, taquerias, sleazy hotels, and cheap apartments. These are places like Bar Bambino, Contigo, Flour + Water, Beretta, and Starbelly.

Starbelly opened just a few months ago. I would describe the food as "contemporary Americana as imagined by a San Franciscan"--downscaled Lark Creek mixed with Bay Area Cal-Euro, whatever the heck this means. To illustrate, on the menu you'll find corn dogs next to salumi, pizza Marherita side-by-side with BLT, tapenade and pimientos de padron together with Prather Ranch burger. What is going on?! Is this how many of us eat in the Bay Area these days?

To further complicate matters, my friends and I brought a bunch of Swiss wines to Starbelly--yes, Swiss, as in watches and banks--to have with this new take on American comfort food.

Switzerland's Valais region is where the Rhône River originates. In its hills and valleys below the Alps lies one of the most fascinating wine regions. The warm and sunny microclimate combined with the mountain terrain produce fabulous wines with complex, mouthwatering flavors and minerality.

The 2007 Caloz Heida-Paien (pictured above) easily seduces with a scent of wildflowers and flavors of ripe pear, sweet spice, and fresh herbs, all held together by a crisp acidity and crunchy minerality. Heida-Paien is the Swiss name for the Savagnin grape grown in the Jura region of France. Anyway, this wine was absolutely tasty and refreshing with Starbelly's Caesar Salad. Eric, Raj Parr's assistant at RN74, tells me that they go through a bunch of this at the wine bar. I wasn't surprised.

From the restaurant's wine list we ordered a 2007 Simcic Sauvignonasse from Brda in Slovenia bordering Italy (same region as Movia), it was rich and interesting but no match with the gorgeous 2007 Cave du Vieux-Moulin Petite Arvine de Vetroz. Petite Arvine is a white grape that's also grown widely in Italy's Valle d'Aosta. Romain Papilloud of Cave du Vieux-Moulin crafts this suave Petite Arvine, dry and vibrant, redolent with citrus, green apples, and sweet herbs. A great match with the Fried Clam Poorboy sandwich with a side of fries that I had.

The last wine we opened was the 2007 Cave des Tilleuls Pinot Noir de Vetroz. Pinot Noir, of course, is a cool-climate grape varietal and well at home at the Valais region's mountain terroir. Bright, juicy cherry flavors with hints of spices like pepper and cinnamon stick. Prorpietor/winemaker Fabienne Cottagnoud make this mountain Pinot Noir with beautiful purity, exactly what it deserves.

A small plate of caesar salad with avocado and croutons. A refreshing meal by itself with the 2007 Caloz Heida-Paien

Having lived in New England for years I can't resist ordering this fried clam poorboy sandwich. I washed it down with the 2007 Cave du Vieux-Moulin Petite Arvine de Vetroz. Heavenly!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Dinners at the Fifth Floor

Last Tuesday, I found myself happily back at the Fifth Floor Restaurant (my fourth visit in the last six weeks) with friends who've been eager to check it out after I told them something good and exciting is going on there.

By coincidence, the Michelin's 2010 San Francisco Bay Area & Wine Country Guide was released earlier that day. I bantered with Jennie Lorenzo, the Fifth Floor's executive chef, who smiled giddily and seemed relieved that her restaurant retained its Michelin Star. She took over the kitchen early this year. Last year, when she was assisting then head chef, Laurent Manrique, Michael Bauer torched the Fifth Floor, rating the food a measly 2 Stars for the San Francisco Chronicle, a plunge from the 4 Stars it previously held. Meanwhile, Aqua, where Manrique went and recently left, lost its two Michelin Stars and is rumored to be closing. So as in fashion, in the restaurant business, one day you're in and the next day you're out.

I find Jennie down-to-earth and maybe quite humbled by finally being in charge of a high-profile restaurant. Jennie was born and raised in the Philippines and never went to cooking school. Yet, she's certainly no stranger to Michelin Stars. She has cooked for chefs with a total of 9 Michelin Stars: Marco Pierre White in London (3 Stars), Gordon Ramsay in London (3 Stars), Seiji Yamamoto at Ryugin in Tokyo (2 Stars, and expecting another Star), and Lissa Doumani and Hiro Sone at Ame in San Francisco (1 Star). An impressive achievement for someone self-taught and still youthful.

The Fifth Floor has been a bastion of contemporary French cuisine since it opened. A parade of some of the best chefs the city has known cooked there: George Morrone, Laurent Gras, and Manrique. And it was also where Rajat Parr, the well-known sommelier, first presided, when Morrone opened it back in 1999.

I haven't been to the Fifth Floor in years, but I bolted for a reservation last month when I received word they were blowing out the wine list. The Fifth Floor wine list has always been one of the best in the city if you love classic French wines. I knew the restaurant has been in decline in recent years, so I never checked the menu or who was manning the stoves, I was there to attack the Burgundy list. Food was going to be background.

I picked out the five-course tasting menu, which at $65 has got to be the city's best priced among restaurants of the Fifth Floor's order. Sign of the times, I'm sure, but to bargain-hunters like me, a find.

Jennie's cuisine is contemporary European cooking with a mixture of Japanese, no doubt picked up during her stages at Mirabelle in London, Ryugin, and Ame. But like I said, I never even inquired about the food initially. My two requests were that the Stuffed Quail and Roast Duck Breast be substituted for items in the standard fare. I needed some dishes for the red Burgundy. They obliged without resistance. Again, sign of the times.

When the first course was brought, the Smoked River Trout--a kind of deconstructed version of New York lox-bagel-cream cheese, presented in a colorful palette of orange, yellow, white, and green (the smoked trout, mango chutney and corn-chip twirl, dabs of cream on the plate, and slices of cucumber as garnish)--I got a bit distracted from my 1993 Domaine Jean Grivot Vosne-Romanee Les Beaux Monts (more on this later).

Next up was the hedonistic Crab Cappuccino. Its aroma of vanilla, truffle, crab, and ginger was intoxicating. The foam was sweet, delicate, and fragrant; and when I dug deeper into the cup to scoop up the crab broth, the flavors exploded. What a surprise, it was like tasting pure essence of crab. The complexity of this simple course blew my mind!

At this point, the food was taking over. I couldn't wait for the next dish to arrive. The quail, stuffed with sausage and drizzled with a light, creamy madeira sauce, was so good I had the urge to lick my plate. And the roast duck breast was perfectly medium-rare, tender and juicy. The dinner was dazzling, and it was the wine that provided adequate background for the food.

The meal starts with an innocuous amuse on a spoon

A Fifth Floor classic, goat's milk butter

The popular Crab Cappuccino...

...the flavors explode with pure crab essence

Big Eye Tuna, a tuna sashimi garnished with cha soba in a yuzu vinaigrette. Absolutely perfect with the toasty, citrusy 1999 Corton-Charlemagne, Domaine Tollot-Beaut

Seared Scallops, with crispy tater tots, crunchy, juicy, perfect with the vibrant 1983 Meursault-Poruzots, Domaine François Jobard

Huckleberry soda shot, surprisingly good palate freshner

Slow Roasted Pork Belly, fatty pork like pork belly and porchetta is ubiquitous in Bay Area restos these days

1999 Domaine Tollot-Beaut Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru. Toasty, bright, sharp, and laser-focused.

1986 Domaine François Jobard Meursault-Poruzots. Superb freshness. Deep gold color. Honeycomb, toasted nuts, honeyed pear, nectarine, apple, and grapefruit, laced with spice and minerals. It gained more energy after two-and-a-half hours!

1993 Domaine Jean Grivot Vosne-Romanée Les Beaux Monts. Fascinating as this was made during the Accad years of the domaine. Fragrant cherries. Deep, dark ruby color. Still backward, but not too hard, the tannins are velvety but the fruit is sharp, high-toned, mineral, and infused with tart cherries, red licorice, and black pepper. Showing a lot of Vosne character.

Back label of 1998 Domaine François Lamarche La Grand Rue Grand Cru (monopole). From a little-known grand cru vineyard wedged between Romanée-Conti and La Tache. A terrific vintage. Seductive as a Romanée-Saint-Vivant but more powerful and masculine. Crushed berries, game, meat, and fur scents. Pure. Wonderful tannins that accentuate the bright black cherries, cherry liqueur, aromatic herbs, and pepper. A great match with the quail and duck.

1969 Domaine de la Pousse d'Or Volnay Clos de la Bousse d'Or (monopole). I brought this to toast a friend born on this vintage. Impeccable provenance as it was from a batch that came directly out of Nicolas Potel's cellar, son of Gérard Potel who was gérant and winemaker at Pousse d'Or. Amazingly pristine. '69s have unbelievable power. Darkly colored and fragrant. Structured, concentrated, firm, elegant, and sturdy fruit. Volnay with muscle. Bags of life.

I'd be amiss if I don't mention this playful and delicious dessert. Fifth Floor Sundae. Warm Valrhona dark chocolate pudding topped with popcorn-flavored ice cream and coconut foam. The popcorn aroma was decadent. A fabulous finish.

Fifth Floor
Hotel Palomar
12 Fourth Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
Phone: 415.348.1555
Monday-Saturday 5:30pm-10pm, closed Sundays

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Who's Buying California Wines?

It was bound to happen. Since the 1990s, California wine producers have been without any great inspirational winemaker or visionary as it did in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, with pioneers and leaders like Andre Tchelitscheff, John Daniel, Fred McCrea, Joe Heitz, Robert Mondavi, Warren Winiarski, Burt Williams, Paul Draper, and Randall Grahm.

Instead, since the 1990s, California wine producers take their cues from wine critic scores, eager to pander to unsophisticated palates who are easily swayed by such scores.

Today, with a more experienced and independent-minded wine drinking public, empowered by the Internet ("We're All Wine Critics Now"), California wines are losing favor in the market. High alcohol, overripeness, and lack of interesting flavors make many California wines hard to enjoy with food, especially with the pure, ingredient-driven dishes we love to eat these days. And frankly, during these belt-tightening times, the high prices of California wines have turned many drinkers off.

A pair of news articles published today on the state of Bay Area restaurant wine lists are getting much attention because they bring such trends to light. Jon Bonné, wine editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, was brave enough to write this enlightening piece titled "Do our wine lists ignore California?". I say "brave" because writing for a paper in close proximity to the very wineries whose toes he steps on can elicit a palpable wrath to him and his employer.

The other news article, or series of reports more accurately, was penned by Eric Asimov, the wine columnist of the New York Times, whom I regard as the most enlightened American wine writer today. (Okay, I'm biased; like Asimov, I love orange wines and Jura wines and wines made by Lopez de Heredia and Movia, as I do any great Burgundy). His column today "Eat Local; Drink European", and twin blogs posted this week, "Ripeness Isn't All" and "Favorite Wine Lists in the San Francisco Bay Area" talk about the hottest Bay Area restaurants and wine bars that are packed with customers every night, despite the economic slowdown, and with every table graced by a bottle or a glass or two of every sort of wine, but seldom California.

Despite such dismal trends there are many California wine producers whose souls are intact and have never sold them to the highest scorers. Foremost is Edmunds St. John. By dint of recklessness, relentless experimentations, and not bowing to wine critics, Edmunds St. John has achieved what has escaped most California wineries: consistently producing wines with soul, balance, and expression of the California terroirs.

Steve Edmunds, owner and winemaker of Edmunds St. John, makes the most pleasurable California wines to drink. His 2007 Bone-Jolly Gamay Noir, for example, doesn't take a backseat to the outstanding Morgons of Marcel Lapierre and Jean-Paul Thevenet, both imported by his close friend and fellow Berkeley native, Kermit Lynch.

If more California wine producers would take their cue from producers like Edmunds St. John, then I would easily expect Bay Area wine lists to be filled with their graceful wines.

Friday, October 16, 2009

What's All the Talk of Orange Wines?

To wine bloggers and to many of their ardent fans the hippest, coolest, and most desirable wines seem to be those that live under the big rock of wine critics. Inasmuch as it helps liberate our palates from the hegemonic lock of wine critics, I'd say more power to the wine web.

Lately, the most titillating talk in the wine blogosphere has been on orange wines. Eric Asimov, wine columnist of the New York Times and one of my favorite wine writers, appears to be the instigator in his posts here and here. Other popular wine bloggers have chimed in here, here, and also here. And most recently my favorite local wine blogger, Jon Bonné of the San Francisco Chronicle, could no longer resist, hence posted his thoughts on the subject here.

I don't like the term "orange wine". Amber I prefer. Orange is misleading and just plain wrong, but everyone seems to struggle to come up with a catchier alternative; hence, this name sticks maybe not just for the time being. A word of caution for those who are hearing about orange wine for the first time: I'm compelled to point out that it is certainly not this nor this.

I do love orange wines. The best ones I seek out for sure as they offer incomparable flavor surprise, combined with amazing texture, freshness, and complexity. Yet for wines that have spent an extended time immersed in their fruit, it's incongruous that orange wines aren't overtly fruity, most only have a hint of fruit. You really have to love minerality to enjoy these wines. And I do!

I can say without hesitation that Paolo Bea's 2007 Santa Chiara ($49 at Vineyard Gate) is most amazing. And both the Coenobium and Rusticum wines ($23 and $30, respectively, at Vineyard Gate) that Giampiero Bea crafts for the Trappiste nuns of the Monastero Suore Cistercensi are also incredible. All these wines are made with extended skin contact for a number of weeks, then are aged on the lees without temperature control for about a year--significantly more for the Santa Chiara.

Domestically, there are just a handful of winemakers dabbling in orange wine. However, with all the recent hype about it, I wouldn't be surprise if we see a growing trend, much like we did on rosé when the buzz spread.

Yet one orange wine from Oregon achieves almost cult status among the natural wine cognoscenti: Francis Tannahill's "Jack".

Sam Tannahill takes his time to make it and he doesn't release right away. Two years ago I received just a case of its 2004 debut release of which only 37 cases were produced. The winery sold out right away, much of it was hoarded by their distributors and merchants. It's a good sign that a wine is good when its distributors and merchants are keeping it for themselves, instead of selling to their customers.

After a two-year wait, the 2005 "Jack" finally got released earlier this year ($21 at Vineyard Gate). It's a blend of one-third each Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and Chardonnay. Skin contact was done for about six months at low temperature, then it was aged for sixteen months in neutral barrel before being bottled unfiltered. Almost two years passed before Sam decided to released the 2005.

Why it took so long to release, I never really got a clear explanation. Either Sam was preoccupied about more pressing matters or he deemed it wasn't ready yet. Not that it really matters. This 2005 "Jack" is not only again terrific, but being an orange wine there is no rush to drink it--it can age for decades.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Dry Lambrusco and Salumi. Yumm!

I was really enjoying myself the other day at Bar Bambino in the Mission District of San Francisco having one of the most heavenly pairings that's a tradition in Emilia-Romagna, a cool glass of dry Lambrusco and Prosciutto. But the latter was not from Parma but La Quercia Farm's superb American Prosciutto.

Similar to Spain's Jamon Iberico de Bellota, La Quercia's Prosciutto is from acorn-fed, free-range pig (100% Berkshire not the black-hooves of Spain). Robert Parker (yes, the wine guy) compared it favorably to Spain's best Jamon de Bellota, Joselito's Gran Reserva. I've had Joselito's Gran Reserva a few times, but to my taste Sanchez Romero Carvajal's Cinco Jotas Jabugo is the best jamon. But I digress.

Bar Bambino also features house-cured salumi, which totally surprised me by how good they were. Even next to the La Quercia Prosciutto, I found myself picking on the house-cured salumi more. I was told they're made from scraps of meat! Goes to show that left-overs taste better.

But what really enhanced the salumi and elevated my nibbling was the spectacular 2008 Lambrusco-Emilia IGT from Mauro Zini. So it is not your grandfather's sweet, mass-produced Riunite Lambrusco. This is the dry Lambrusco made from Lambrusco Salamino di Santacroce, with a bit of Malbo Gentile. Appropriately, the tiny berries of this particular Lambrusco is said to resemble a salami, hence Salamino. It is made with skin contact for over 72 hours for a deeper extraction of color and flavor. Served on the cool side, not chilled, this Lambrusco's distinctive scent of iron and rust, slight fizz, bright black cherry flavor, and hints of mineral and plums marry so well with the assortment of salumi.

Watch for the arrival of the 2008 Mauro Zini Lambrusco-Emilia at Vineyard Gate soon!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Mooncake Festival

Last night's eve of the full moon was the Mooncake Festival or Mid-Autumn Festival, a traditional celebration of the harvest moon in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, and among the Chinese in Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines. 2009 is looking to be a vintage-of-the-century type year in the wine regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy, California, and Piemonte, and so this year's harvest moon is truly auspicious.

As expected all the best Chinese restos in the Bay Area were booked solid last night and we had no reservations. But luck smiled on us as my friends and I found a table at the Crouching Tiger Restaurant in the old downtown of Redwood City. Nothing could have been more heartwarming on a chilly, blustery night than the spicy Sichuan and Hunan dishes of eastern China that the resto specializes in.

We started with a plate of Sichuan Cold Noodles ($6.45) dressed in chili oil and Sichuan peppercorn, and also ordered companion plates of cold Spicy Beef Tendon ($6.95) and warm Spicy Pork Dumplings ($6.95). Together these fiery starters were numbing and irresistible to the palate! Relief came in the cool and refreshing Domaine François Jobard 2001 Bourgogne Blanc that I brought. A genius pairing: white Burgundy and Sichuan food.

By this juncture we could have ended the meal, as we were quickly getting full, and paid the resto a little over $20 plus tax and service for four people! But we forged on, determined to explore other dishes and to discover how a couple of 2000 red Bordeaux tasting-left-overs that I also brought would pair with the food.

The tasty Hunan Preserved Pork ($8.95), stir-fried slices of ham and cabbage, together with a half-order of house-special Tea Smoked Duck ($9.50) paired gloriously with the garagiste 2000 Château de Valandraud ($248.00 at Vineyard Gate). I found the velvety, dark ripe fruit and oaky flavors of the modern-style St.-Emilion complementing the sweet, smoky, mildly spicy duck and pork dishes.

But one of the clearest reasons for returning to Crouching Tiger is the Xingjiang Lamb ($10.50). Another fiery dish that's fragrant with cumin. What a perfect pairing with the powerful and elegant 2000 Margaux from Château Palmer ($195.00 at Vineyard Gate). I savored the long, graceful finish of the Palmer while gazing at the old painting on the wall of Shaolin monks practicing wushu, then I understood. These unexpected and clever wine pairings are what "crouching tiger, hidden dragon" is all about.

Crouching Tiger Restaurant
2644 Broadway Street
Redwood City, CA 94063
Monday thru Thursday 11:00am-9:30pm
Friday thru Saturday 11:00am-10:00pm
Sunday 11:00am-9:00pm
Phone: (650) 298-8881