Saturday, November 27, 2010

Clos des Pape's 2008 White Châteauneuf-du-Pape

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White Châteauneuf-du-Pape is that rare white in an ocean of red wines in the southern Rhône. Few producers make it, and the ones that do only devote 10% or less of their production to it.

Clos des Papes, the superstar producer of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, makes only one red and one white Châteauneuf--no special cuvées. Their wines are highly sought-after and can be very hard to find, particularly the white, as it accounts for just 10% of the wines made at the domaine. Out of the 32 hectares of vineyards it farms, just 3 hectares are planted to white grape varietals--Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Bourbolenc, Clairette, and Picpoul.

The last 3 vintages--2007, 2008, and 2009--produced terrific wines for Clos des Papes. And though both 2007 and 2009 get the hype and acclaim, it is the 2008 vintage that produced the most balanced and precise wines for the domaine. One of the keys to the quality of the wines of Clos des Papes is the low yields. Among these last 3 vintages, 2008 had the lowest yield, at 17 hl/ha, while 2009 was 19 hl/ha and 2007 was 25 hl/ha.

The 2008 Clos des Papes white Châteauneuf was vinified in stainless steel and aged in cask for 6 months, with lees stirring, and did not go through malolactic to retain good acidity. A rich wine with amazing depth of flavors and structure, this is capable of aging for over a decade like white Burgundy. It's enjoyable year-round for its freshness and versatility, but particularly great in the fall with rich dishes, especially those with wild mushrooms or truffles.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

My Favorite Kitchen Tool

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"Scissors are an underrated kitchen tool", tweeted Chef Daniel Patterson of Coi, and I couldn't agree more.

My kitchen scissors are the Joyce Chen 6.25-in with red handle. I've been using them for the past 20 years to cut whatever needs to be cut in the kitchen--anything from meats to vegetables and packages that need to be opened. I trim poultry skin with it, shear off ligaments and bones, snip off the stems of tomato, parsley, and basil from my kitchen garden, and cut pieces of parchment paper. I make sure these scissors are always handy in my kitchen drawer. And though I've used them constantly for two decades, they've kept their edge without any sharpening.

These Joyce Chen scissors are still being sold for $19.95, but I think I paid much less than that for mine.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Fine Dining at Commis

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Commis is a fine dining place that makes do with less. In that sense it is quite au courant. Foodies may be in a frugal state of mind these days but some still look for a fine dining experience occasionally, though not at French Laundryesque prices. Commis provides the answer.

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The $115 nine-course tasting menu I had at Commis delivered the kind of eats that felt almost double that price. How is this possible? The restaurant has a Zen-like economy and simplicity. And most of all Chef James Syhabout’s skill and imagination transform modest ingredients into sublime dishes.

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Mr. Syhabout (see-ha-boot) serves up his refined, conceptual cuisine in a spare, gallery-like space. Everything is casual and relaxed. The restaurant's bare walls and plain black-and-white décor—broken only by the blonde wood table-tops and counter—create a contemplative atmosphere that is conducive to the compositions that the kitchen presents.

Each of the dishes is a delicious sketch of a scene. The halibut tartare floats below kelp and sea plant-like flowering coriander. A salad of green tomatoes is a verdant vista with twin upright basil leaves standing like trees in the middle of a garden. The watercress soup appears like a tide pool hemmed by the rocky edges of shaved shiso ice complete with a growth of colorful nasturtiums and sorrel.

My senses are totally engaged by the dishes, and my mind is as well. The experience is like gastronomic meditation.

Mr. Syhabout runs a neat, efficient kitchen. Aside from just two cooks, a pastry chef works alongside him. They operate together harmoniously without fuss and in silence.

Not knowing what menu to expect, I was fortunate that the two wines I brought matched the food marvelously. Both bottles were 1969s kept since release in cold storage. One was a Burgundy, a 1969 Domaine Coron Beaune Clos du Roi 1er Cru. It drank fresh and clear, filled with red fruits and subtle spices, still dense and powerful. But the other bottle qualifies as one of the most amazing wines I've ever drank, a 1969 Beaulieu Vineyard Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon "Georges de Latour Private Reserve". It had stunning finesse and complexity, and a most surprising delicacy. It was hard to believe this was a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, much less from forty years ago. Its persistence and length was very satisfying. Wine is indeed full of surprises.

Commis Restaurant
3859 Piedmont Avenue
Oakland, CA 94611

Friday, September 24, 2010

Churrera de la Noche

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I was in La Rioja two years ago and I stayed in Ezcaray, a sleepy village about 40 minutes drive south of Haro, Rioja's wine center. After a late supper of jamon and a glass of the exquisite 2000 La Rioja Alta Viña Ardanza Reserva I decided to take a stroll in the cold night to explore this compact village a little bit. When I reached a dark empty square surrounded by residential buildings, I was jolted by the sight of a brightly lit churro stand all alone in the deserted square. I couldn't believe what I was seeing--it was like a mirage.

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It turns out I happened to be there a bit early, the churrera was just opening and soon the square will be filled by late-night snackers making a beeline for the churro stand. Lucky me was the first in line.

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I love churros, or almost any kind of fried dough for that matter. Traditionally it's dunked in hot chocolate but I immensely enjoy it by itself. Costco sells my favorite churro for a buck apiece. I wonder why years ago, when Costco opened their food court, they put churros on the menu. I mean, doughnuts or sugared pretzels would've been a natural. But churros?! Anyway, churros are now ubiquitous in the Bay Area as a result. I would say there's almost a cult following. I guess we can thank Costco for that.

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But over in La Rioja on a cold spring night, Costco was the farthest thing from my mind. I stood transfixed on the churrera, patiently waiting for her first churros of the night.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Summit's Start-Up in The Mission

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San Francisco seems to be getting smaller. The more I go out to the city these days, the more I realize that if it's not in The Mission then it's not really happening at all. The Mission is what defines San Francisco right now: it's the "new" San Francisco.

And in The Mission, you can't get any newer, both literally and conceptually, than the eclectically named The Summit.

So what is The Summit? Well, I went to the private soft launch a few Saturdays ago (public opening is scheduled on Sept. 30) and I walked away still not entirely sure if I got it. Maybe Desi Danganan is just light years ahead that I'm still about a year away from fully comprehending his start-up, er café.

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Desi, arms stretched out, in the universal gesture for "I did it!"

So let me take you through what I observed from Desi's quick tour. Essentially, The Summit is part of an integrated café and crib for tech start-ups known as i/o ventures. Okay, you with me? Only in San Francisco, or more pointedly, in The Mission.

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The cavernous 780 Valencia space is shared between The Summit (the café) and i/o ventures (the tech start-up incubator business). i/o ventures is the angel funder for The Summit, but curiously I find it hard to tell which of the two is the tail and which is the dog. Just seems a little blurry, especially because of the porous physical layout. Time will tell, I guess, then again, this might be the genius of the project. A vision of a "third place" for everyone, particularly hipster folks.

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So when are we going to eat? Enough of the start-up talk and let's turn our attention to the café. Service is cafeteria-style. You walk up to the front counter. Read the wall menu. State your order. Pay. Take the table number handed to you. Settle down on one of the communal tables, sit in the couch in the lounge area, pull a stool at the counter, or just stand around while you wait for your order to be brought to you. At times I felt like being a guest in the living room of a very large house. The minimal decor of concrete floor and wood stain counter and tables create a contemporary, sleek look.

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Eddie Lau, the chef, prowled behind the counter, stepping in and out of the enclosed kitchen and the open prep area and drinks bar. There is no gas running in the kitchen so it's fully electric. Desi pointed out that the advantage is that the kitchen cooks cleaner with less smoke and burning odors--very key in this integrated café/office environment, I guess. I asked Eddie if cooking all-electric pose any limitation, and he confidently replied, not at all. Except that he does prep some dishes off-site, like his slow-smoked pastrami. More on this later.

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The Summit menu perfectly fits the format. Delicatessen cuisine-inspired, updated with local ingredients and good, honest cooking. Servings are moderate, not heaping, so I got an almost spa-like feel, especially with the tea and chai selection. One thing my friend, Max, noted about the service is that the order is not coursed out--everything comes out together, the salad, soup, sandwich or mains. Maybe he's right, coursing out the order could be a key refinement.

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I started with the Summer Corn Soup ($5) that was slurpalicious! Eddie said it was just corn with some dairy. But this is why it's so good!

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My Red Pastrami Sandwich ($7.50) was also very good, though the slaw topping was under-seasoned. Eddie slow-cooked the pastrami off-site for 3.5 hours using cherry wood at a downright glacial 130-155 F. My teeth just sank in to it with each bite.

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Max opted for the Hot Pork Sandwich ($8) with melted Gruyere on grilled toast. He scarfed it down before I even had a chance to ask him for a taste bite. It did look good, and Max said, indeed.

No alcoholic drinks were on the list but my Iced Lychee Black Tea ($2), perfectly sweetened, was refreshingly delicious! A classic pairing with my pastrami.

Eddie said he's working with Alex Fox (ex-Myth sommelier) on a wine list. I can't wait to see what they'll come up with. Maybe I can nag Eddie and Desi for a Vineyard Gate wine dinner soon.

The Summit
780 Valencia Street (cor. 19th)
San Francisco, CA
(target opening is Sept. 30th)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Pork for All!

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What a neat idea! A friend and his wife, along with their friends, have taken to roasting pig on a patch of open land in the Potrero Hill/Dogpatch neighborhood. What could be more civilized, more God-given, and more liberating than a communal pig cooked on public land? I must say this kind of social networking is more real than hours spent Facebooking.

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The La Caja China portable pig roaster cooks a whole pig conveniently. Whether it actually evolved from the Chinese Cuban community, I'm not sure--most likely a tall-tale to lend the contraption a certain exotic mystery, as well as be a conversation piece to while the time away waiting for the pig to cook.

And if you get bored talking about the pig, well, the neighborhood park might just offer bizarre entertainment.

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Best Cookbooks

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Yet another list of the "best cookbooks" was revealed by the UK's Observer Food Monthly in a suspense-filled two-part series last Friday and Sunday. Numbers 50 to 11 were listed here, and the the top ten finale appeared here.

In any ambitious list like this, what stirs me more is not what are in it, but what were left out. Yet, there were several titles that made me go, "huh?" And there were a few that prompted me to clap my hands, as they are obscure but genius choices.

The ones that made me go "huh?", include (and I only mention the ones I'm familiar with):
46 CATALAN CUISINE Colman Andrews
42 HOW TO EAT Nigella Lawson
5 ROAST CHICKEN AND OTHER STORIES Simon Hopkinson with Lindsey Bareham

And the titles that made me clap my hands at the sheer genius of the selection (again, I include only the books that I've perused):
50 MOMOFUKU David Chang
35 THE RIVER COTTAGE MEAT BOOK Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
9 SICHUAN COOKERY Fuchsia Dunlop

In the pantheon of cookery literature Elizabeth David has a hallowed place, but I would have chosen Mediterranean Classics, as it contains not one, but three of her best works.

I'm pained to critique the top pick of Richard Olney's The French Menu Cookbook, as I'm an ardent Olney fan. Not only do I have this book, but I have almost a complete library of his books, including Reflexions, Provence: the Beautiful Cookbook, Romanée-Conti, Yquem, and Lulu's Provençal Table (autographed by him). Nevertheless, in terms of impact and gravitas, I would place Fernand Point's Ma Gastronomie and Jacques Pepin's The Art of Cooking Vol. I and II ahead of Olney's

Another favorite that didn't make the cut is Teresa Barrenechea's The Basque Table. A groundbreaking book that was published well before nueva cocina exploded in the food scene. Even Ferran Adrià is a fan of Barrenechea's book.

The Observer list includes quaint titles such as English Food, Action Cookbook, and The Book of Jewish Food. My own personal preference in a category such as this is a small book that's long been a companion in my kitchen: Galing Galing. A collection of traditional Philippine cuisine recipes by the Dazas. My copy is thumb worn, a survivor of many cooking adventures.

Going over the Observer list a few times I can't help but notice Alice Waters' overarching presence, as well as that of her chums. Both David Tanis and Deborah Madison cooked at Chez Panisse. And, of course, the Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook made it to number 11. Waters is also closely associated with Elizabeth David and Richard Olney, and together they formed a kind of cooking clique. Interestingly, a good number, maybe even half, of the cookbooks chosen in the list have authors with ties to one of these three food icons!

Now, I really would like to see Daniel Patterson weigh in on this list.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Benu: The Ink Isn't Even Dry Yet on the Menu

The most anticipated restaurant opening of the year: Benu opened Aug. 10th, well before its target date of Aug 22nd. The restaurant is already booked solid for the next 8 weeks, says Open Table. So you if you're not lucky enough to score a reservation, mid-October might be your best bet, which may not be a bad thing, as by then any needed tweaks would've been done.

Not that ex-French-Laundry-Chef-de-Cuisine, Corey Lee, is prone to glitches. It's been well-documented by the food press that he's a pretty exacting dude.

I'm excited to see how this new fine dining space would fly in the face of food trucks and the dozens of casual eateries that have sprouted in the Mission and elsewhere in the Bay Area since the Great Recession started.

Anyway, wish me luck I'll try to get in asap. Meanwhile here's the a la carte menu and the tasting menu.

22 Hawthorne Street
San Francisco CA 94105
Open for dinner Tues-Sat 5:30pm-10:00pm
415.685.4860 (call 10am-4pm Tues-Sat)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Ben & Jerry

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Collecting wine requires many things--wine knowledge, of course; money, for sure; and enough storage space to make the collection interesting. But these assets wouldn't matter much if one isn't an optimist. Collecting wine is believing that wine will last and taste better with the passage of time, and, above all, that one would live long enough for this experience.

This point was recently demonstrated when two wild optimists I know, Ben and Jerry, organized a wine dinner for Jerry's friends at his home. From their wine cellars, they opened old wines, which I would fondly describe as in a state of optimistic decay.

Bold optimists as they are, what they did takes cojones. Why? Instead of focusing on highly acclaimed vintages, the wine theme was a tribute to the birth years of everyone present. Of course, not everyone's birth year coincided with a great vintage; in fact, about half the people present were born in challenging vintages. Ultimately for Ben and Jerry, optimism in their wines trumps vintage ratings.

During the run-up to the dinner, I noted to both Ben and Jerry the reputation of the vintages they picked out for the wines. I must admit, though I've had nothing but flawless results in the provenance of these wines, I feel uneasy when the vintage is pushed to the edge. 1968 in Bordeaux, 1962 in Germany, and 1950 in the Douro are simply dreadful vintages. What life inhabited these wines had long been snuffed out after decades of delay. Or so one might assume.

Yet, all too often in my experience, good wines from favored sites have shown an infinite capacity to surprise. And I've long observed that wine critics and wine experts frequently get it wrong--a case of hubris and a lack of humility, I would think.

A break in the rainy spring weather allowed a great afternoon start. We immensely enjoyed sipping Champagne on the sunny veranda that offered a picturesque view of the vineyard garden against the bright Santa Clara Valley skyline.

The Bollinger Special Cuvée in magnum, sporting a new label, is a coup de couer from this great Champagne house. I couldn't imagine a more fortuitous start. Electric, full of flavor and yeasty energy, it provided a rousing front act to the 1964 Bollinger RD that followed.

The 1964 Bollinger RD in magnum started life at the time of Madame Lily Bollinger, undoubtedly the most colorful figure in Bollinger's centuries-old history, and, I would think, the one who catapulted the house to greatness. She created the RD (recently disgorged) Champagne in 1961, as well as the house's prestige cuvée Vieille Vignes Françaises Champagne in 1969. Both bottlings are regarded by Champagne enthusiasts as must-haves in practically every vintage they're released.

Champagne ran in Madame Bollinger's veins it seemed. Yet, she's mainly remembered not for her brilliant innovations that made her company successful, but for her famous quote about when to enjoy Champagne:
“I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it—unless I’m thirsty."

From the beginning, the Bollinger RD has defied the dictum that many Champagne enthusiasts cling to, that Champagne must be consumed soon after being disgorged, especially old vintages. Well, this 1964 Bollinger RD was disgorged almost twenty years after its vintage, then aged for close to 30 years post-disgorgement! It was as fresh as the young Bollinger Special Cuvée and was a totally mindblowing Champagne. Flamboyant and more obviously in the RD style than the 1961 we drank last January, yet it's just as elegant and youthful. Expansive and full of vigor. Its bubbles shimmering as they rushed to the surface against a palette of pale gold. An awesome treat!

At the table we got right into business with a couple of old Rhineland marvels. The 1959 Graacher Himmelreich "feine" Auslese, Fuder #13, J. J. Prüm was made prior to the Pradikat system's establishment in 1971. At that time a "feine" designation by a respectable producer such as J.J. Prüm meant a special selection of high quality grapes that were harvested late. 1959 is one the greatest vintages in the Mosel, and the wines have been long-lived. Prüm's Graacher Himmelreich is broader in taste compared to their other prized vineyard, the Weltinger Sonnenuhr. This was just so vibrant and youthful, with layers of flavors that further intensified as it opened up. Beautiful purity, finishing very clean, without a hint of botrytis.

Owned by the Matuschka family since the 12th century, Schloss Vollrads is the oldest existing family-owned winery in the world. This famous estate in the Rheingau has produced many of Germany's greatest Rieslings over the centuries, but the 1962 Schloss Vollrads Auslese comes from a poor vintage for German Rieslings. The cool weather slowed down ripening, producing thin wines lacking substance. It wasn't a complete disaster. Parts of the Rheingau were dry enough for a prolonged hang time, and grapes that were harvested very late produced overachieving wines such as this Auslese. This Riesling was simple, especially next to the 1959, but well formed and still fresh and sweet, with a distinctive rich caramel taste. The finish didn't last long and the wine soon faded in the glass, but it served its purpose well on the table. Impressive for a 1962er!

With the Beef Wellington, two legendary 1958 Napa Cabernet Sauvigons were served--the real deal, the real Napa classics--a Beaulieu Vineyard Napa Cabernet Sauvignon "Private Reserve Georges de Latour" and a Inglenook Napa Cabernet Sauvignon "Cask". Sadly, such exquisite Napa Cabernets have long been extinct, buried and forgotten after the 1970s. It puzzles me why the work of André Tchelistcheff, John Daniel, and George Deuer--the great, pioneering California winemakers behind these wines--are never looked back on by current California winemakers--preferring, instead, to make exaggerated, homogenous wines. Today, Inglenook and Beaulieu Vineyard exist as legacy brands.

The 1958 BV Napa Cabernet Sauvignon "Private Reserve Georges de Latour" (12.5% alcohol) is unmistakably Napa with its dark berries and soaring notes of mint and eucalyptus. What purity and freshness for a Cabernet over half a century old! I love the fruit's focus and precision, sharp and edgy, and really quite forceful and intense on the palate. I wouldn't think of this as a finesse wine, though its character is quite refined. It shows no subtlety, but expresses masculine rawness, directness and openness. I can't imagine this wine to come from anywhere but California.

Inglenook's 1958 Cabernet Sauvignon "Cask F-10" (13% alcohol) is Inglenook's famous Cask Cabernet, its flagship wine. Inglenook made its best wines between the 1930s and early 1960s under John Daniel. The heart of the Cask Cabernet was the Napanook Vineyard in Oakville. Later, John Daniel sold all the Inglenook vineyards (the bulk, the Home Vineyard in Rutherford, now belongs to Coppola's Rubicon Estate), except this property as he always wanted to keep it in the family. But after he passed away, his daughters sold the heirloom vineyard to Christian Moueix of Dominus Estate. Moueix, of course, is famous for the Bordeaux estate Pétrus that he has run for decades. And I guess it's only appropriate that he ended up with the vineyard because this 1958 Inglenook Cask Cabernet Sauvignon offered Gironde-like class and finesse. It has that haunting autumnal fragrance and sleek lusciousness. Over half a century has passed and this is still clad in fleshy fruit with generous concentration and length. Only the elite Bordeaux wines achieve such sheer glory, and clearly this Napa Cabernet Sauvignon is in that crowd.

We weren't through with the reds (not counting the Port to follow and a stray bottle of Live Oak Pinot Noir from Livermore, which was never drank). A magnum of 1968 Château Latour, Pauillac was opened to honor Jerry's birth year. 1968 is a forgettable year for claret. None of the first growths did anything really notable. Some say 1967 was worse, yet I had a good '67 Margaux and an outstanding '67 Haut-Brion last year, both from Ben's cellar. Wine has taught me to expect to be surprised always. And so I would add this '68 Latour to my voluminous collection of wine surprises. The fruit was still singing--the deep flavor of currants was distinctive, sweet, and remarkably fresh. Ample and sleek as a first-growth should be. The vaunted l'Enclos vineyard certainly came through for this vintage. What caught my attention was its taste on the finish--the autumnal leaves of the '58 Inglenook Cask! One of wine's surprises is its unexpected affinities.

Last on the agenda was the 1950 Quinta do Noval Vintage Port. From a so-so vintage in the Douro, but houses bold enough to declare a Vintage Port usually produce something better than so-so. Quinta do Noval, one of the great Port houses, has a good reputation in this vintage. Indeed this Port was very satisfying. Light and Tawny-like, with a sweet, fruity freshness and a trailing scent of taffy candy. Though it lacks richness and depth to be classic Vintage Port, I do find this 1950 Quinta do Noval desirable for its winning elegance and remarkable freshness. Ben's impeccable cellar comes up aces as always even in some of the bleakest vintages.

As it turned out, we were not quite done yet after the Port. Jerry surprised everyone with an impromptu tribute to Ben and his wife, Mayon, by opening a magnificent wine from their birth year: a pristine bottle of 1929 Château Filhot, Sauternes. '29, of course, is one of the greatest vintages for Sauternes. For Ben and Mayon, this Sauternes also carried a personal note. They are good friends of Alexandre de Lur-Saluces, whose family previously owned not just Château d'Yquem but also Filhot.

How the Lur-Saluces family came to own Filhot is a bit interesting. During the French Revolution, the Filhot estate was sequestered by the state and the head of the aristocratic Filhot family was guillotined. But not long afterwards, the daughter of Filhot, who happened to be married to a Lur-Saluces, managed to get the Sauternes estate back, thus bringing Château Filhot into the Lur-Saluces fold, which included Yquem, de Fargues, Coutet, and others. After more than a century of ownership, the Lur-Saluces family unloaded Filhot in 1935, when phylloxera ravaged the vines, making it a burden to tend to several wine estates.

So like the great Yquem the '29 Filhot is a Lur-Saluces wine, and it definitely lived up to its pedigree. The color still a bright amber. Intensely botrytised. Rich but just ripe and not so unctuous. Its brightness flashing youthful elegance and highlighting the delicious precision. Caramel, poached pear, and orange liqueur. The flavors linger like fresh flowers. Compare this pristine bottle that Jerry opened (above) to the one below from Château Filhot, and you'll get an idea how unbelievably fresh the former is. The maxim--"there are no great old wines, only great old bottles"--is most true.

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Jerry and his buddies have been enjoying each other's company and wines over the past ten years. I'm fortunate to be invited on this occasion. When it was his time to host again, Jerry pulled no punches: he teamed up with Ben. The rest, as they say, is history.

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Friday, June 25, 2010

Lunch at Ramen Dojo

Yesterday, a massive power outage struck in the downtown area of Millbrae around noon. A construction truck backed into an electric post causing high voltage wires to get tangled up, hence knocking out the power for hours. Drats! I had a ton of work to do! But the place was dark, the computers were down, and the alarms were going off. Before stress overcame me, I thought there was only one thing to do. Lunch.

Friends have been telling me about a new ramen place that opened very recently in San Mateo, where the old Santa Ramen used to be. So this opportunity to check it out is like a gift from heaven. If you are a ramen enthusiast like me, you don't head to San Francisco or anywhere else in the Bay Area, except to San Mateo. With ramen outlets like Santa Ramen, Himawari, Izakaya Mai, and others, San Mateo is ground zero for the best ramen around the bay.

Typical of ramen houses, each one has a specialty. I like the Okinawan salt flavor and the wonton ramen of Himawari. Santa Ramen has a cult following because of its fatty stewed pork ramen. Years ago at Kaimuki Grill along El Camino, when Okada-san still owned the place (he also started Ramen Club in Burlingame), I enjoyed the al dente, ramen noodles that he made himself from flour milled in Japan.

This new ramen joint in San Mateo is called Ramen Dojo. To cut to the chase, it's a winner and I can't wait to get back!

The style of ramen here is very different. Obviously, it's spicy, as it says clearly on the front signage this is a spicy noodle house. You can order the optional non-spicy, but why even come to this place then?

I sat at the counter and ordered the garlic and pork flavor--as far as I'm concerned the only option--regular, plain without extras ($8.95). I thought there were plenty enough toppings when the bowl was set in front of me just minutes later.

Immediately I noticed the garnish of fresh red-leaf lettuce, instead of the customary sheet of nori. A healthy touch, I thought, and quite San Francisco. There were also sprigs of spring onions, boiled quail egg (very nice and totally Asian), strands of red pepper, slices of kikurage mushrooms (wood ears), fried whole garlic cloves, and the all important char-siu pork. The char-siu pork here is really special, full of roast pork goodness and without any off smells. Clearly they use high quality pork and barbecue it perfectly. I think this char-siu is what makes this place stand out.

The soup itself is mild in terms of pork taste, which I prefer to the milky, fatty broth; highlighting the char-siu flavor and the intensity of the spice. It is served piping hot. Resting underneath, the noodles are what I noticed last. Again, very distinctive, as they are flat, almost like linguine, and, to my satisfaction, quite al dente. I was told the noodles are ordered from Los Angeles, which has some of the best noodle houses this side of the Pacific.

Good thing I don't have to go to L.A. for a slurp. San Mateo has some notable ramen houses, and Ramen Dojo is definitely one of them.

Ramen Dojo
Japanese Spicy Noodle House
805 South B Street
San Mateo, CA 94401
Mon-Sun lunch and dinner
Closed Tues

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Saké and Small Plates at Izakaya Sozai

Izakaya Sozai in the Sunset district of San Francisco opened just last February and is already packing it in nightly. On a lark, Amy and I walked in tonight without a reservation, jostled against the waiting crowd and got a table without a wait! It was meant to be.

Bamboo carafe of extra dry saké ($17) served chilled. Excellent start!

We can't resist this pair of yakitori specials. Grilled Pork Jowl with miso paste ($5.50) and Grilled Duck with port wine sauce ($6.50). Very tasty bar food. Gone in seconds

Ritsu Tonkotsu Ramen ($8) with pork belly ($2) and spicy miso ($1.50). Good, but we expected better, so a bit of a letdown.

Maitake Fritters with truffle salt ($7). Crunchy, rich, perfectly seasoned. Delicious, especially with the dry saké!

Yaki Onigiri ($3). We never fail to order onigiri when we see it on the list, this version is very good, already seasoned and tasty.

Tofu "steak" and Assorted Mushrooms ($7). Served on small sizzling plate. A brilliant concoction. Intense and "meaty".

Interesting restaurant, pretty hip. A Japanese take on the aperitivo habit, though izakayas have been doing it for a while. I'll be back for more. The Sunset corridor is a threat to the Mission scene. All good for sure!

Izakaya Sozai
1500 Irving
San Francisco, CA 94122
5:30pm - 10pm Sun, Mon, Wed, Thurs
5:30pm - 11pm Fri, Sat
Closed - Tues

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Barolo Lessons

We celebrated a good friend's birthday last night with a Piemonte theme at a most Piemontese restaurant in San Francisco, Perbacco Ristorante.

To start, we uncorked a 2004 Spumante Extra Brut from Barolo legend Bruno Giacosa. The all Pinot Nero sparkler was magnificent, bone dry and full, it unfolded with a Chablis-like finesse. This was another side of Giacosa's greatness.

The evening's highlight, though, was a side-by-side treat of Giacomo Borgogno's Barolo Riserva 1958 and 1961. Both were great vintages and drank beautifully. We debated which was better. I initially preferred the '58, it was sweet, rustic, superbly elegant, and altogether just charming. At 52 years-old, one couldn't hope for more. But my fondness for the '61 grew, it was a completely different wine. More muscular, structured, upright, with the fruit showing a youthful brightness. Our sommelier pronounced it, "bello".

I flip-flopped between the two wines. In the end, I thought, no matter how great each wine is, it doesn't have what the other has. But together we had a complete experience! So the moral then is, don't drink just one great Barolo, drink two.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

California Cherries

Today I got very excited to see the first cherries of the season arrive at my local farmers' market in Millbrae. I always look forward to these two women, hardy cherry farmers, park their truck on Saturdays during spring. They don't have a lot of cherry trees so their crops sell out only after about five weeks or so.

The first ones out are the Burlats. Then the Rainiers and Bings follow. The sweet, golden Rainiers are the crowd favorites, but mine are the Bings--big, crunchy, and tart--I guess this reflects the same preference I have in wine, as I go for the crisp, mineral, high-acid Chablis, rather than for the buttery, oaky, sweet Rombauer-type Chardonnay.

After picking up my weekly ration of cherries, I head to my favorite vegetable farmer to grab sugar peas, fresh-cut onions, bokchoy, chinese lettuce, upo, and bunches of lemon grass, cilantro, and kangkong. What supermarket would have all these?!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Heirloom Café: The Mission's New Wine Bistro

The foodie-driven gentrification of San Francisco's Mission neighborhoods shows no letup. In the past century, it was writers and artists who colonized blighted urban corners at places like Greenwich Village, SoHo, and North Beach. Today, in San Francisco, young, inspired restaurateurs flock to the Mission to open up hipster food joints.

The latest in this parade is Heirloom Café, a project by Matt Straus, a young sommelier from L.A. who cut his teeth at Wilshire and Grace. I was there last night at a closed-door soft opening, and he mentioned that the new 48-seat bistro will open Tuesday, May 11th. What sets off Heirloom from other trendy food establishments in the Mission--Flour + Water, Bar Bambino, Beretta, Delfina--is it's definitely not, yet another Italian joint, but a wine bistro with a cuisine that's decidedly Californian-- fresh, local ingredients that are simply cooked. The menu recalls an Il Cane Rosso or even a Chez Panisse-light, with prices that are very, very reasonable. Apparently, the bistro's model is, whip up some nice, simple food but priced them low and make up the margins with the wines.

The main draw will be Matt's cellar, reportedly numbering over 3,000 bottles and consisting heavily of Burgundy, California, Italian, Loire, and German wines, with vintages stretching back several decades. He told me that it took him the past eight years to put together the collection for his dream restaurant. I didn't have the chance to look at the list of the collection but the regular list is not too shabby, with bottles and by the glass selections of Vineyard Gate faves such as the 2008 Muscadet, Pepiere ($34); 2005 Pouilly-Fuisse "Les Menetrieres", Ferret ($80), 2003 Carema "Etichetta Bianca", Ferrando ($81); and 2008 Coenobium, Monasterio Suore Cistercensi ($39) the luscious "orange" wine by Bea.

And speaking of Bea, Giampiero Bea was with us last night as we tasted his spectacular range of avant-garde wines (more on this in a separate post). Actually, I think us folks in the wine trade where the main crowd.

Curiously, the bistro's corkage policy is slanted: $25/bottle for 2003 vintage and younger, but just $10/bottle for 2002 and older! I may have to bring a few bottles from the old stash to this place. However, there's a two-bottle limit per party. Sigh.

My starter plate of "roasted asparagus, salsa rustica" ($6) was crunchy and tasty, perfect with the 2008 Santa Chiara from Bea. If you're not sure about what to pair with asparagus, I guarantee you an "orange" wine like this from Bea is a perfect match.

My main was a mound of "orechiette, sausage, rapini, yellow eye beans, parmesan" ($7). I love it for the generous portion of well-spiced sausage. It's a meal! I definitely favored the earthier and less lifted 2005, than the 2006, San Valentino from Bea with this dish. The wine is a blend of 70% Sangiovese and 30% Montepulciano and Sagrantino.

Owner Matt Straus and Giampiero Bea. And by the way, that's the plate of "roasted halibut, ramps, English peas, cauliflower puree" in front of Giampiero. It's part of the $25 3-course menu, with matching glasses of wine for the starter and the main.

The kitchen, tidying up after the first night of service.

I like the vibe of this new bistro. Casual and airy. The place, in a corner spot, where Folsom Street and 21st Street meet, has high-ceilings and plenty of room for just 48 seats, but it's definitely a noise chamber, especially if you're at the long table in the middle of the room. Parking is a challenge in this mainly residential neighborhood, but when you do get to the bistro all that is forgotten.

Heirloom Café
2500 Folsom Street (at 21st Street)
San Francisco, CA
Opening for dinner on Tuesday May 11th