Monday, April 26, 2010

Burgundy at the Sixteen Mile House

During these heady foodie days of hip, purveyor-driven food (Berkshire, Rancho Gordo, La Quercia, Farmstead, Marin Sun, Soul Food, etc.), molecular gastronomy, and small plate cuisine, the local steaks & chops joint is a total relic. Yet, there is something retro-comfort, if not retro-chic, about dining in these disappearing American gut-busting institutions.

One of the Bay Area's classic steaks & chops joints is the Sixteen Mile House. This historic location started out in 1877 as a hotel on the El Camino Real route, then afterwards a stagecoach station for Wells Fargo. Along the stagecoach run from San Francisco, mile houses used to dot El Camino; the surviving Sixteen Mile House was the 16 mile marker from the city.

I'm not sure when the building got converted to a restaurant, but it's been at least a few decades. I first laid eyes on the landmark in the late 1980s when it still had hitching posts on the front curb. About two years ago a local restaurateur took over and remodeled the place to its current glory.

Frankly, I was initially hesitant whether I should feel proud or scared about having this former gambling house and Prohibition-era speakeasy, now throwback restaurant, in our town, just some blocks from the wine store. I'd never set foot on the place. Somehow, the dark, noisy bar in the front room with smokers spilling out on the sidewalk just isn't my scene. When walking past the restaurant at night I usually quicken my pace, fearing either a brawl could break out among redneck patrons or a hairy-chested, tattooed, biker dude might take fancy on me, a scrawny, Asian kid.

But these silly fears proved to be all just my wild imaginings, perhaps from watching too much "Kung Fu" TV series and Quentin Tarantino movies. When I walked in with my bottle of red Burgundy on a recent night, the place was packed with families and polite, middle-aged couples enjoying a drink while listening to a three-piece jazz combo. I found my mates in the cozier dining area in the backroom

We started with plates of fried calamari, pan-friend sand dabs, crab cocktail, and crab cakes. I liked the sand dabs best, a dish that I somewhat regard as a San Francisco specialty, but sadly absent in today's trendy menus.

With these starters I enjoyed a glass of 1971 Remoissenet Pere & Fils Meursault "Cuvée Maurice Chevalier". Its color was deep gold, with a musty smell that gave way to marzipan and almond paste. Though past its prime, it still had good energy left. Soft pears, grapefruit, and creamed corn, still powerful and long.

Amy and I shared a 22-ounce Porterhouse steak with sides of rice pilaf and veggies. In my twenty-something days I put away this slab of beef myself but I'm less Rabelaisian these days. The steak was cooked precisely at medium-rare and attractively cross-marked but I found the taste dull and too chewy. I think the 22-ounce rib-eye sounded better. Anyway, it wasn't bad, but decent at best.

From a little-known négociant house, distant relatives of the more famous Bouchard Pere et Fils, the 1959 Paul Bouchard & Cie Bonnes-Mares had amazingly deep, dark color and a strong funkiness in the nose of metallic notes and onion powder, but in the mouth has nearly opulent black cherries and licorice, fleshy and concentrated with a lasting finish. Red Burgundy never ceases to surprise me!

Simply awesome was the 1995 Domaine Leroy Clos de Vougeot!. This wine exemplified the greatness of this vintage for reds. Magnificent concentration, powerful, and structured. But this Leroy was so well proportioned. Very, very youthful but totally luscious and seductive. I don't know if there's any Clos Vougeot that can exceed or even match a Leroy this good.

Finally, the 1993 Frédéric Esmonin Griottes-Chambertin. Hardly anyone knew the young Frédéric Esmonin at the time this was released, and so this was an obscure label and languished on the shelf. We used to sell it at not much more than $40! This was dark, rich, and powerful, with particularly firm tannins and very good freshness. Still drinking young, I agree with Clive Coates' assessment that this will easily evolve another ten years from today.

We shared a decadent, dark chocolate cake for dessert. I was full but the chocolate was irresistible.

Sixteen Mile House
448 Broadway
Millbrae, CA 94030
Tel 650.697.6118
Closed Monday, lunch Tue-Fri, dinner Tue-Sun

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Spoiler Alert! Bordeaux 2009 My First Impression

The 2009 Bordeaux en primeur campaign has just began. Our earliest offers at Vineyard Gate, very modest $30 and under wines from obscure petits châteaux, have been popular and a few even sold out within hours prompting me to scramble for more. Hopelessly.

So, almost by surprise, the campaign is off to a great start. But this is just the opening salvo of modestly priced, albeit high-scoring wines. I expect it to be a long, drawn-out campaign, a la 2000, when it stretched out all the way to June. Parker's inevitable scores would probably come out by the end of this month or early May.

Early posturings by Bordelais show almost uncontained elation about the quality of the vintage, yet taking pains to avoid any discussions of price. "We speak too much about money nowadays, let's just think about the wine at the moment, let's just try to tell people about how excited we are", said the winemaker for a top classed growth producer. Uh-oh, ka-ching! It's the old, if you have to ask the price...

For such a quality vintage an air of smugness is understandable among the Bordelais, but American wine traders are grumbling of being snubbed, of being treated less than uber class now that Asians, particularly, Chinese, have exhibited a highly disposable bent. But, hey, why whine? For centuries the Bordelais have been traders after all, money runs through their veins.

Anyway, I couldn't go to Bordeaux for the en primeur tasting but one of the negociants flew in about a dozen or so barrel samples to taste for a small group of us yesterday afternoon. I won't beat around the bush, 2009 is a really delicious vintage to taste even from barrel because of the big fruit concentration and ripe tannins.

As can be expected, right bank wines--St.-Emilions, Pomerols, Fronscacs, etc.--are big and very ripe, some are almost ringers for Napa Cabs! I favor the ones with more finesse and firmness like Château Canon and Figeac, but the Beau Sejour Becot is incredibly opulent and full and gorgeous. I'll be pouncing on these wines depending on the price.

But it seems to me the left bank produced the best wines. I'm very impressed with
Saint-Juliens like Leoville-Barton and Beychevelle--the latter probably made its best wine ever, certainly the best I've ever tasted, easily eclipsing its 1982 and 1986. Leoville-Barton appears to be one of the must-haves in this vintage, so seamlessly well-knit, really extraordinary class in this vintage, the best young Leoville-Barton I've ever sipped.

And 2009 is totally superb in the high-rent district of Pauillac as a whole. Pichon Lalande is gorgeous, sexy, and precise. Clerc-Milon should be a great buy, and Haut-Bages Liberal is stunning. I would go long on Pauillac but I'm scared of what the prices might be!

Margaux could be a notch below Pauillac and St. Julien, only in the sense that it doesn't have the concentration of the vintage like the latter two, but I need to taste more to be sure. But I very much like Rauzan-Segla, very Margaux, aromatic, rich, and so well proportioned.

The Graves may tout some of the most opulent wines of the vintage. The usual roasted quality is giving way to very ripe, right-bank like fruit, but with spicy aspects, as in the case of the blockbustery Pape-Clement.

There will be no shortage of very affordable wines--under $50--in this vintage. The only question is, how hefty would the prices be for the top classed growths? Hey, the 2008s are looking better and better!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Burgundy and Pomerol

Is it conceivable that hate would cease to exist and that Bordeauxheads and Burgheads shall make peace at the table? I admit the thought seems too Biblical. Yet, I snuck this agenda to friends with disparate preferences and made them cough up some precious bottles of wine to test my hypothesis.

I prefaced my call by saying that somewhere the wine critic, Robert Parker, wrote ecstatically that an outstanding Pomerol possessed Grand Cru Burgundy-like opulence. This resonated to the group, and so without much fuss, like we were all on a cloud, as if the peace that surpasseth all understanding had finally come, we headed to a neighborhood prime rib joint bottles in hand.

To start on neutral ground, a short bottle of Solera 1847 Gonzalez, Byass Jerez (Sherry) was uncorked. What a complex wine! I had difficulty deciding whether it was somewhat sweet or dry. The layers of caramel, walnut, and pecan were confection-like but there was no real sweetness. It had wonderful fruity freshness, with a hint of woodspice surfacing. The flavors had mouthfilling intensity, long and powerful through the finish. The thought crossed my mind, why even bother with Bordeaux and Burgundy? This old Sherry is clearly in a league of its own!

We started drinking the Burgundies. The 1998 Comte Georges de Vogüe Bonnes-Mares was a powerhouse, not taking long to reveal its treasures. Deeply concentrated, very rich, ripe, extracted black cherry, spice, licorice fruit wrapped in velvety tannins. Muscular and lengthy. Every bit a Bonnes-Mares. I love Roumier, but it seems overrated compared to Vogüe.

Side-by-side with the Vogüe was the 1996 Domaine A.-F. Gros Richebourg. I know the Gros wines can be confusing, this domaine is owned by Anne-Françoise Gros and her husband, François Parent. Anne-Françoise is daughter of the late Jean Gros, whence the main Gros estate emanated. She is the sister of Michel Gros, who inherited the Jean Gros domaine but doesn't own a single Richebourg. Anne-Françoise is a cousin of Anne Gros, who ended up owning much of the Richebourg of the Gros clan.

Back to the 1996 A.-F. Gros Richebourg, this was fresh, high-toned, with dark, tart fruit. Elegant in character, but lacking in Richebourg flamboyance. It does show breed, though it comes out awkward and is not cohesive enough. I hate to generalize, but 1996 Burgundy has fallen short of expectations for me. Let's wait another decade before passing final judgment.

A wine you don't have to wait another decade on is the 1971 Comte Georges de Vogüe Bonnes-Mares. While fully evolved, this was as fresh as a dewdrop and it showed off an ethereal elegance that comes only with time. Would the 1998 be this this excellent in, say 15 years? Possibly. Meanwhile, the scent of this Bonnes-Mares was intoxicating--exuding sweet cherry aromas, floral rose petals, and sage. It was sweet, intense, delicate and pure, mighty as a river, and long-lasting.

So now it was time for the Pomerols. Visitiung Pomerol is indeed like being in Burgundy, as it's a small commune, and the chateaux are modest, if not downright shabby farmhouses as Burgundy's, and their vineyard holdings are tiny, usually no more than a few acres. There is also the similarity that one grape varietal clearly dominates, in this case Merlot, though Cabernet Franc can have a significant presence in some of the wines. Finally, there are parallels with how the wine trade is conducted. Pomerol's center of business is Libourne. Though not medieval-looking as Beaune, Libourne is a small, old, bustling city, where the population lives and the negociants are based, like in Beaune.

The one Pomerol that rivals the iconic Pétrus is Château Lafleur. Lafleur is not so well known even among Bordeaux lovers--the rara avis among Pomerols--I seldom see it in collectors' cellars. Production is nearly half that of Pétrus, about 1,500 cases or so a year, so this severely limits its distribution. Yet, it sells for just a fraction of Pétrus. Lafleur is, indeed, for the discerning Pomerol collector.

The 1976 Château Lafleur, from a very difficult vintage, was impressive, attesting to the estate's greatness. Half Merlot and half Cabernet Franc (the high proportion of Cabernet Franc is unusual for Pomerol) it really reminded me of a well-aged Clos Rougeard from Saumur. Its nose has licorice and mint, some olives, and is very sous-bois. I very much enjoyed the wine's freshness, its display of flesh and power despite its years, and, of course, the length of finish. My empty glass had the haunting smell of decaying leaves.

Finally, it was time for the cult Bordeaux, Pétrus. I felt privileged to be drinking the two 1976 Pomerols side-by-side. The Merlot-driven 1976 Pétrus was equally impressive but clearly different from the Lafleur. The nose is more exotic, with cocoa and vanilla bean aspects and black truffles, layered with menthol, earth and some sous-bois. It's soft-centered, unlike the firmness of the Lafleur, and round and fleshy all around. It doesn't have the definition of the Lafleur but favors those who prefer something less rustic.

When the bottles were all emptied, it was as if we snapped out of a momentary reverie. We slipped back to our Bordeaux and Burgundy habits, flaming one or the other. I was scolded for instigating such heresy of putting Bordeaux and Burgundy together on the table. Hey, maybe it was just a dream after all.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Afternoon in Gratallops

While in Barcelona a few years ago, my wife and I took an afternoon trip to Gratallops, a mountaintop enclave in the Priorat region of Catalonia famous for its fantastic old-vine Grenache wines.

Rene Barbier Jr. toured us at his family's Clos Mogador estate, then hosted a long lunch at his ultra-modern wine bar restaurant, Irreductibles, in the middle of nowhere in the dusty, remote Priorat mountains. I got to give it to the Spaniards for their boldness in creating such contrasting settings. El Bulli in the Costa Brava is the same way. And so is El Celler de Can Roca, which we visited the next day, situated in the seedy outskirts of Girona.

Cases of Nelin in the Clos Mogador cave. The white from Clos Mogador. This was the first production. A complex and unique blend of mainly Grenache Blanc, with Viognier, Roussanne, Macabeo, and Pinot Noir, the Pinot gives a touch of color to the wine. I took home a bottle, the 2003, the first one to enter the US.

Rene Barbier Jr. checking out a vertical of Clos Mogador before I jump in. Clos Mogador is a Grenache based wine with Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Carignan. His father, Rene Barbier, is the pioneer winegrower in Gratallops. He was soon followed by Daphne Glorian of Clos Erasmus and Alvaro Palacios of L'Ermita. Rene Jr. is a meticulous winemaker and never stops studying his craft. When I visited he was experimenting with 20 different oak barrels to see which would produce better results. He told me his vacations are usually spent visiting wineries in other parts of the world to learn new things.

The menu at Irreductibles is a bit unusual, as it's encased in a chicken-wire frame.

The dishes are a modern take on Catalonian and Spanish cuisine with riffs on international cooking

Fredi Torres, the wine guy at Irreductibles. The cellar/wine store is filled with Grenache-based wines from all over the world and, of course, Priorat's top wines like cases of Clos Manyetes

Here I am in the Cims de Porrera section of the wine cellar

And speaking about Cims de Porrera, here is Adria Perez who runs Cims de Porrera and Clos Figueras with his sister, Sara Perez. Unlike Clos Mogador, Cims is a Carignan-based wine from very old Carignan vines (over 100 years-old) growing in the llicorella (slatey) soils of Priorat. The lunch at Irreductibles took almost the whole afternoon (Spaniards love long lunches) so my visit with Adria was short. He's a really cool, animated guy, really fun to be with. I fell in love with his Solanes, made from younger vine (about 45 years-old) Carignan, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah. They love to do lots of pigeage here, and I thought the Cims de Porrera Classic was a bit too extracted and opulent for me. The Solanes, on the other hand, was just right.

Note the tabletop resting on the barrels. Adria didn't have a tasting bar to host our tasting at this old, cooperative cellar his family owns, so he went to Ikea the day before to pick up this oak top just for my visit. I was touched. Catalonians are so hospitable.

Restaurant Vinateria Botega de vins
c. de la font 38
43770 Gratallops

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

San Francisco Chronicle Top 100 Bay Area Restaurants

I only need one word to review this. Crap! You are so better off consulting either Zagat's or the Michelin Guide.