Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Folk Off

So what happens when a toji and a vigneron meet?

Answer: A Folk Off.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Coachman Cometh

Bar restaurants are in in San Francisco. And the hub it appears is the SoMa. Here, the current bar restaurant model--offering a voluminous list of wines, spirits, and cocktails accompanied by an abbreviated food menu--was launched five years ago when RN74 opened. Today, this drinking-eating construct is a sprawl, with haunts like Bar Agricole, The Cavalier, TBD, Alta, The Willows, Terroir, 21st Amendment. And something tells me the trend will remain epidemic.* (see addendum note below) Modern bar restaurants are disruptive, fun, needed, and great for the economy. Everyone's happy.

What has caused this drink-eat trend to evolve is the perfect storm of a young and gainfully employed (read tech workers) crowd, a liking for unconventional affordable wines from near and far (read hipster wines), the rise of craft beers and craft whiskies, and modern bar fare that borrows heavily from tapas, izakayas, osterias, and UK pubs, and yes, even American fast foods.

This past week The Coachman, a UK-inspired bar restaurant, opened at the former Heaven's Dog space on Mission Street. I admit I had a soft spot for Heaven's Dog, though its Chinese-inspired food was uninspiring, the exotic Pre-Prohibition and colonial cocktails were heavenly. Plus it was a different era then about three years ago; the SoMa wasn't such a hive yet for the young and mobile, though I miss the easier parking. Today, The Coachman's timing is right on.

Robert Burn's Hunting Flask--with Redbreast 12 yr Irish Whiskey poured tableside over a massive block of ice.

Places like the The Coachman are for drinkers, while those who sip more water than alcohol may not be as intrigued. At a table next to me of twenty-something couples I overheard intense scientific discussions of the precise recipe for the Robert Burn's Hunting Flask, a traditional cocktail from the Scottish Highlands that I also happen to be nursing.

The drinks list at The Coachman is as long as a novella, while the food menu hardly fills a page. The cocktail selection alone (all $11) runs a full page, then there's a craft beer section, a craft cider list, and the full-blown wine list, which I happily noticed include many wines sold at Vineyard Gate. Yay!

Yet, the super compact food menu performs and belies the prowess of the kitchen. Just four mains are offered, two desserts, a couple of salads, five or six apps and a soup. And in case you're wondering, there is no salmon, at least not on this visit.

Three things I tried stood out for me. Fried smelt served with an awesome tartar sauce took no time cleaning up. Then there's the skate wing prepared in classic bistro meunière in brown butter and capers. It is comfort food for me and rarely, if ever, have I seen this dish in SF resto menus.

The bottle of Jura Poulsard I brought went swimmingly well with the skate as words fail to elaborate the genius of the pairing. The corkage is $25 for which I believe I got my money's worth as the sommelier whisked away the generic wine glasses set on the table and brought Burgundy glasses, cut the foil precisely then cleanly pulled the cork and poured.

The third winner on the menu is, of course, the sticky toffee pudding. Not only proper British but also really, really good. I don't think I've ever been this excited about pudding.

The Coachman was only six nights old on this visit, so if it could mend its opening woes asap-- primarily the kitchen taking all night to get our orders out--then success is inevitable.  The last time I went to opening week of a Charles Phan restaurant, Wo Hing in the Mission, I thought it was so flawed I couldn't imagine it could survive. And it didn't. But the signs are more promising for The Coachman as it's not only a good spot, it's riding on a cultural milieu in San Francisco and beyond.

The Coachman
1148 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
415. 813.1701
Open nightly 5pm-11pm

*Wine Yoda note: sure enough as of this writing, at least two more bar restaurants are reported to open soon in the SoMa area: True Normand on New Montgomery and Dirty Habit in the Palomar Hotel on Fourth Street between Market and Mission.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Izakaya Culture Rising

When I visit Japan, Spain, and Italy I'm fascinated to discover a drinking culture that is woven into the social fabric. Social drinking has been part of their everyday lives for centuries. Out of this civilized practice has evolved unique establishments for drinking and eating, where the eating part historically had a minor role as food's sole purpose was to encourage patrons to stay and order more drinks. Today, the cuisine that developed in izakayas, tapas bars, and osterias is as much of a draw as the drinks offered.

Versions of these venerable drinking establishments have been sprouting in the US. Only, of course, given the lack of a drinking culture Stateside, the drinking part is diminished and the establishment, notwithstanding the hype of a drinking atmosphere, is incarnated into an eatery.

Take the izakaya, which seems to be proliferating faster than sushi joints in the San Francisco Bay Area lately, and I would guess in other US metros as well.

At Izakaya Mai in San Mateo, CA, the owner built a train track for his model train to chug above the izakaya.

There is always a wait at Mai's so meanwhile you can be entertained by the train that goes round and round.

The wine and sake list at Izakaya Yuzuki in San Francisco's Mission District, plus colorful cloth napkins and bespoke cedar-wood chopsticks.

 A sake degustation of four to eight different sakes is offered at Izakaya Yuzuki by their wine guy.

The engine room of the izakaya, the grill station, where the grill master furiously fans the hot coals with one hand while turning the skewers with the other hand to cook the yakitori to perfection.

I like to start with crispy renkon chips and a cold sake at Izakaya Ginji in San Mateo, CA.

And fried garlic dipped in mustard sauce is a de rigueur start with an icy mug of beer at Yakitori Kokko.

Tsukemono is a classic izakaya dish. Humble and often overlooked, yet for drinkers it's perfect. This is a version at Izakaya Hashibiro Kou.

The pickled vegetables at Ippuku in Berkeley include an intensely smoked pile of sliced carrots. A surprise treat!

Perhaps my favorite yakitori is the shiso wrapped chicken breast. Done well, like this at Izakaya Ginji, it is a versatile foil for nihonshu or a mineral white Burgundy like Comtes Lafon's Meursault.

To drink with the Lafon I summoned the driest sake in the house. I don't have a problem pairing sake with wine or wine with wine, it's all about getting pleasure from flavor experiences.

Jura wines with their bone-dry, woodsy herbal flavors are just as delicious as Burgundy with izakaya fare. A riveting match was grilled tomatoes with Puffeney's Cuvee Sacha, a blend of Savagnin and Chardonnay from two different vintages. The acidity and minerality of the Jura proved splendid with the juicy, slightly charred, plumpy fresh tomatoes.

Though chicken parts are the stars, pork doesn't take a back seat on an izakaya menu. Skewered pork belly, pork jowls--they're all good.

Gulpable and fun tonkatsu sliders, one order of these suckers is usually not enough!

 Kou, I believe, serves the best tsukune (chicken meatball yakitori) in the big city.

People tend to think white when bringing wine to any Japanese eatery, including an izakaya. Well, I also like to think red. And I'm sure my Japanese drinking buddies would quickly concur, especially a bottle of Jean-Marc Brignot's Envol de la Fille, a chalky, bright Gamay grown in Morgon that was refreshing throughout the meal.

Just recently I opened a bottle of Cornelissen's flagship Magma Rosso 8 made from all Nerello Mascalese grown in a single parcel. Pure and mineral with tingling mashed red fruits that everyone enjoyed.

After a few, patrons insist on sharing the bottles they bring with the staff. The more the merrier. Here with my friends Henry and Jeff who was visiting from Shanghai.

More wine bottles shared, this time with my good friend Takeshi and his wife Satoko visiting from Osaka. Kokko's owner and chef, Kei, is a big fan of Napa wines so we toasted together with these La Sirena wines from Heidi Barrett that I brought.

A yakitori hat trick of chicken breast, quail egg wrapped in bacon (genius!), and shishito peppers. Must-haves in any izakaya.

Izakaya Yuzuki is unique for using koji in their food preparation. Here is their tasty grilled fish cured in koji salt and air-dried.

One of my all-time faves--hotaru ika (firefly squid)--starts appearing on menus this time of the year. Grilled or slimy raw in a soy, sake marinade as in this irresistible dish at Kokko. Awesome with sake!

Matsunotsukasa sake from Shiga, like this arabashiri (free-run), is one of the truest sakes. Amazing balance and depth of flavor. I visited the brewery recently so I can tell you that they make sake there in small lots manually with attention to detail by a dedicated hardworking team.

Another bottle of Matsunotsukasa given to me by my friend Kei Ishida, the brewery's toji or sake master.

Ippuku has a traditional vibe, very popular, and so it's not a place to linger as they turn tables here quickly.

The tatami room at Izakaya Kou is elegant and modern, you're isolated from the action, instead you and your friends can get lost in your own izakaya world, which is really fun for a change.

Often, my friends and I are the last to leave the izakaya. And I can't wait for the next time.

Late night at Nombe in the Mission, San Francisco.

Izakaya featured:

Ippuku - Berkeley, CA

Yakitori Kokko - San Mateo, CA

Izakaya Mai - San Mateo, CA

Izakaya Yuzuki - San Francisco, CA

Izakaya Ginji - San Mateo, CA

Izakaya Hashibiro Kou - San Francisco, CA

Nombe - San Francisco, CA

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

At the Feet of the Master: Tasting With the Brilliant and Zany Mike Weersing of Pyramid Valley Vineyards

This coming March 14 marks exactly a year the last time Vineyard Gate hosted a tasting with Mike Weersing of Pyramid Valley Vieyards. That's either ominous or just biodynamic forces at work. March 14th happens to be a Fruit day in the biodynamic calendar, the best day for tasting wine.

Mike Weersing will again join Vineyard Gate this year for an intimate tasting and walk-through of some of his monumental hits. He'll be accompanied by his new Managing Director, Caine Thompson, and their US import partner, Chris Terrell. It doesn't get better.

The following wines will be poured:

2010 Marlborough Pinot Blanc "Kerner Vineyard"

2009 Marlborough Riesling "Riverbrook Vineyard"

2009 Canterbury Chardonnay Home Vineyard "Lion's Tooth"

2011 Canterbury Chardonnay Home Vineyard "Lion's Tooth

2011 Canterbury Chardonnay Home Vineyard "Field of Fire"

2009 Marlborough Pinot Noir "Cowley"

2009 Marlborough Pinot Noir "Calvert"

2009 Canterbury Pinot Noir Home Vineyard "Earth Smoke"

This is a fantastic opportunity to meet one of the most admired winemakers today. Mike is a leading proponent of natural winemaking. His wines come from organic and biodynamically farmed vineyards and his winemaking philosophy is consistent to this, maintaining minimum intervention and allowing the wines to express themselves without the addition of yeasts and enzymes and the minimal use of sulphites.

The results of his efforts are wines of rare complexity and expression, totally delicious in the range of flavors they offer and in conveying the unique characters of their vineyard sites. They are wines for ultimate enjoyment!

After graduating from Stanford University, Mike studied oenology and viticulture in Burgundy, beginning at the Lycee Viticole in Beaune, and continuing at the Universite de Bourgogne in Dijon. He has worked extensively in the vineyards and cellars of Europe with producers such as Hubert de Montille, Domaine de la Pousse d'Or, and Nicolas Potel in Burgundy; Jean-Michel Deiss and Marc Kreydenweiss in Alsace; and Ernst Loosen in the Mosel. He has made wine in France and in Spain for Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards, vinifying in the Rhone Valley, the Languedoc-Roussillon, and Navarra. New world stints include apprenticeships with James Halliday at Coldstream Hills in the Yarra Valley of Australia, and with Russ Raney at Evesham Wood in Oregon's Eola Hills.

At Pyramid Valley, Mike and and his wife, Claudia, make some of the best wines from some of New Zealand's greatest terroirs. They are firm believers in both traditional and natural viticulture, and with winemaking consistent with this vineyard approach

Advanced sign-up is required. Tasting will start promptly at 5:30pm. Cost for the tasting is just $30 plus tax. Call us at 800.580.8588 to sign up. Limited seatings. Please note that reservation is final and non-refundable. You will be responsible for finding your own replacement if you cannot come. Don't miss this!!!