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A wine importer I know recently proclaimed that there are “no more than ten places in New York City where you can eat or drink really well.” At first that sounds extraordinarily hyperbolic, but let me point out that this importer focuses on artisanal, natural wines, and very, very good ones. So, he’s a snob.

I have no problem with snobbery — if you’ve got great taste, then stick to your guns and accept nothing other than the best, I say. Yet, I believe that there must be more than ten places in NYC where you can eat well and choose from a well-curated list of interesting, well-made wines.

So, here’s my first pass. Gonna see what he thinks.

1. Reynard – pretty much hands down bad-ass menus and wine list. Entirely unobjectionable. (Let’s include all Tarlow restos here as one list item, tho Reynard is my fave.)

2. Estela – haven’t eaten there yet but I suspect it’s a winner.

3. King Bee – Acadian food and natural wine in the East Village. Want!

4. Dirt Candy – have a res for Friday and high expectations; the list looks killah.

5. Gramercy Tavern – I personally can’t afford to eat there but can we agree it deserves a spot on this list?

6. The Dutch – OK, I know my importer friend would disagree with me re: the list, since it’s entirely domestic except for Champagne, and that’s fine — some people really only like Old World wines — but I am all about the food at the Dutch, and I also totally dig Cali wines. So there. (p.s. maybe inquire about leftover wines from pre-domestic!)

7. Trestle on Tenth – this was his addition to the list. Looks good.

8. Glasserie – let’s discuss whether having a very, very eclectic list that’s got “something for everybody” counts as good, but let’s also accept that the food at Glasserie is out of control insanely delicious.

9. Prune – when I ate there, we had a “cheap and cheerful” Jaqueres from Savoie for 36 bucks alongside a truly memorable meal of maitake mushrooms on toast, and lamb. Anything wrong with that?

10. June – guys, I love June so much, I have friends who work there and I find the space inspiring and inviting, plus, duh, the wine rocks. But having eaten there twice, I feel totally unmotivated to re-order anything I tried. So, that’s not good. Maybe the menu will get more exciting?

11. Maison Premiere – also iffy, unless you really only want seafood.

12. Contra – absolutely, fucking yes, was pretty much made for this kind of natural-wine-meets-innovative-food kind of thing.

13. Pearl and Ash – they should be on here just for the octopus and the chicken butter bread. And, yeah, the wine is not bad.

14. Semilla – if you are a living breathing human being and you occasionally read the food media, you are probably aware that Semilla is like the resto of the century, in terms of its food. And having seen Pam and Jose at a number of wine tastings, and watched them select wine before, I’m gonna say it’s a win-win here.

15. Cosme – word on the street is you want their stuff in your mouth, alls of its.

I MADE IT TO FIFTEEN. So, there. And I missed, like, so many . . . which you’ll probably tell me about? Go ahead, jump in! But don’t get mad because I forgot something. This is just a stupid blog post, after all.

short list:

Upland – no wine menu listed on their site but their home page shows pics of Steve Matthiason so, I’m on board.

Roberta’s – great wine, but I’ve never been thaaaaaat into the food.

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Originally published on Collectively.org. All photographs mine, copyright protected.

Making Roti

Only minutes after walking into Dolly’s house, taking off my shoes off and saying hello to her four kids, who were lounging on the couch and playing reggaeton videos on YouTube, I was holding a steaming mug of fresh ginger tea and swapping stories and recipes with my new cooking classmates. The whole atmosphere cultivated a kind of warmth and casualness you don’t usually encounter in a cooking class, for one main reason: most cooking classes aren’t in someone’s home.

League of Kitchens launched in early 2014 as a cooking school for people who want an intimate, culturally-rich food experience. It’s about much more than knife skills, or learning classic French sauces. These classes are for people who want stories, culture, and authentic, unguarded interchange alongside instruction. And the instruction itself is meant for the home cook, rather than the professional.

All over the Internet, there are platforms for communal dining experiences, outside restaurants. EatWith, for example, sells tickets to home-cooked meals with a cultural twist, all over the world; Feastly, similarly, allows you to support “an indie cook’s dream” by joining a meal at their house or a pop-up location.

The idea behind League of Kitchens started when New York City resident Lisa Gross realized that her family’s Korean American culinary heritage was at risk of disappearing.  Continue Reading »

Batard: Just So Tribeca

It wasn’t until I dined at Batard that I understood what had made so many of my previous restaurant experiences as special as they were.

Batard is a restaurant that gets basically everything right, on the surface. Every dish is plated with absolute stunning attention to detail and use of space. Each ingredient is cooked with evident precision. And of course, the service is fairly good, in that totally impersonal, very Manhattan, kind of way.

But appearances aside, Batard may be a waste of some very serious kitchen talent. The first mistake is a perhaps unavoidable result of an already existing structure, or it may be a design flaw: when you walk in, you enter into an immensely stressful clusterfuck. We had to hunt the hostess down amidst all the clamor, ducking people who were speaking unnecessarily loud about their coats and bags. It put my date and me on edge, right away.

More importantly, though, several of the dishes were rather underwhelming. I had been thinking about having the octopus “pastrami” (it’s basically a terrine) ever since it was featured in Pete Wells’ write-up. Well, Pete, this may be the first time you’ve let me down. The octopus was bland and unsalted, and the soft potatoes on the plate were a nicely saline companion but they were also boring. Oh, and it came with these these crazy, sort of airy crouton things, which I could have done without.

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My date had the tete de cochon, which was deliciously flavorful. Like the octopus, it was beautifully presented. Continue Reading »

Originally published in Food Republic

Hm, could it be . . . Syrah?

Hm, could it be . . . Syrah?

When someone hands you a glass of wine and says, “Here, try this Cali Chardonnay,” it’s hard to be objective. Without realizing it, you’re already judging the wine based on all the Cali Chard you’ve had in the past, or what people have told you about it.

That’s partly why, hands down, the best way to get to know wine is to blind taste on a regular basis. It’s easy. You don’t need a blindfold, though some ultra-literal types do, in fact, go for the bondage look. All you really need is some way to conceal the labels (wrapping bottles in foil is one method), so everyone can sip without any hints of what’s to come. This is how sommeliers train and educate their staff, and how wine retailers check their knowledge. Thomas Pastuszak, wine director of New York’s NoMad, uses blind tasting in two different ways with his staff. First, he conducts a weekly hour-long tasting with all the sommeliers on his team, where each of them brings a wine priced no higher than $200 on the menu. Then, he does a separate, “more approachable” tasting with the servers and kitchen staff. Ideally, your own tasting group has a fairly even level of knowledge.

Whether you’re a formally educated expert or just a normal guy or gal who likes grape juice, the results of tasting blind are usually pretty interesting. Even the most esteemed sommeliers get tripped up from time to time. And, that’s what makes it fun. “Sometimes you think it must be Chablis, definitely premier cru, super minerally — and then it’s Greek Assyrtiko,” Pastuszak says. “But it’s not like, ‘Oh, you suck, you didn’t get it right.’ It’s, ‘How cool! Now, we can tell our guests, if you didn’t know what it was, you might guess that it’s this.’”

Indeed, the general idea of a blind tasting is quite simple: mask the label, sniff and sip, then start guessing. But, as I’ve learned after several months of weekly blind tastings with a group of dedicated wine professionals, there are some “best practices” that will help ensure that the  experience is as educational as possible.

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Keep those corks hidden!

Begin Broad
Start with very general categories of wine, picking a different one each week. Start with, say, Italian whites, then move on to Italian reds. Italy has many varieties, so it’s good to split them up. French and Spanish wines each deserve their own week. But, staying within national borders doesn’t always make a good grouping. Alsace is a great example. Though the region is geographically part of France, the wine arguably has more in common with stuff from Germany and Austria. Likewise, New Zealand and Australia generally make a good pair. If regionality isn’t your thing, you could also group by style. For instance, devote one week to sparking and the next to rosé. Continue Reading »

Over the past few days, I traveled around the Finger Lakes in the company of various wine directors and retail managers from across NYC. I had never been, though I’d enjoyed several wines from Eminence Road and Bloomer Creek, both small and artisanal producers working naturally. The trip was educational in surprising ways, and it affirmed what I’ve already begun to understand over the course of travels through the wine countries of Oregon, Napa, and Burgundy: that wine is a product of culture and political economy, and every bottle tells a story.

Around Keuka Lake

Around Keuka Lake

Up until the Farm Winery Act of 1976, grape growers in the Finger Lakes (FLX) and other parts of New York turned their crop over to large corporations like Taylor and Constellation. The ’76 Act allowed people to start small winery businesses, and as a result the region now has a robust and diverse wine production economy.

Jim Trezise, president of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation, spearheaded the '76 legislation

Jim Trezise, president of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation, spearheaded the ’76 legislation

Cornell University also played a huge role in the region’s development. Not only did Cornell (the East Coast version of UC Davis) create cold-hardy clones of various vinifera grapes, but students and researchers there relentlessly study every aspect of viticulture, from the soil to the vine health to new technologies, and disseminate that information. As one winemaker, Marti Masinski of Standing Stone, said to our group during the visit: “We don’t have hundreds of years of experience, so we have to read about [wine] all the time; it’s the fast track. We can’t talk about what our grandfathers did.”

Marti showing us how to prune the Gewurtzaminer vines

Marti showing us how to prune the Gewurtzaminer vines

That period of diversification is now, as we saw, opening up to a tide of experimentation. And it’s exciting. People are making orange wine, playing around with yeast strains (alas, wild yeast fermentation is considered “impossible” in the minds of many wine makers we met there, due, they said, to the cold, although Eminence Road and Bloomer Creek sure do wild yeast fermentation quite nicely). Winemakers are looking for ways to make something new and different. As Jeff, the 38-year-old winemaker of Johnson Estate, told me: “My generation and younger than us, we’re not traditional anymore, it’s, hey, that looks cool, let’s try it.”

One amazing thing we did: the sparkling wine maker at Dr. Frank, one of the oldest wineries in the FLX, gave us a disgorgement demo. It was really instructive to see the methode champenoise production up close, step by step. They dose their vintage wines with previous vintages, and make vintage Blanc de Blanc, vintage Blanc de Noir, and a sparkling Riesling.

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There were a lot of culinary highlights of the trip, and in particular I enjoyed the cooking of a young chef named Tony Banks, who normally works at a place called the Stone Cat, but prepared a special meal for us at the Red Newt Winery. While we tasted wines, we nibbled at a plate of amazing local pâté and cheeses, including some of the best blue cheese I’ve had in my life. Nearly every ingredient in Tony’s three course meal was local, save for the olive oil, a few spices, and black pepper. It was all creatively constructed, perfectly cooked, and artfully plated. With every bite, it was obvious that there was serious passion in this cooking.

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But I cannot forget to mention what, for me, was probably the highlight of the trip: a visit to NY Distilling Company, where McKenzie whiskey is made. We were greeted by the distiller, Thomas Earl McKenzie (coincidence that the last name is same as company name), a surly man from Alabama who told us, in the most endearing way possible, that he felt sorry for us city folk. Thomas has his own opinions about whiskey making and they are rather, er, strong. He’s a proponent of the old-school Kentucky method, which for him means no automation, no tasting, continuous distilling rather than a copper pot.

The one and only Thomas Early McKenzie

The one and only Thomas Earl McKenzie

He designed most if not all of the distillery at McKenzie. We had a great time letting him show us around and listening to him diss other whiskey styles as “buuuullsheeeet.”

Another culinary highlight: bratwursts with endless house-made toppings at the FLX Wienery. Go. And rummage around in that “secret wine fridge” for some gems.

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After visiting so many wineries rapid-fire, and tasting Riesling after Riesling (and some Pinot Noir and Cab Franc, plus a really great Saperavi at Standing Stone), I was ready for a break from Finger Lakes wines. But the people I met, the winemakers and chefs and artisans, were totally captivating, and I think the region tells an amazing story of economic renewal. If I could make a wishful prediction: perhaps, twenty years from now, more and more people will have found through experimentation that it’s it is actually possible to produce organically farmed, naturally fermented, terroir-driven wine in the Finger Lakes. Wouldn’t it be great to enjoy sustainably-farmed Upstate meats, vegetables, and cheeses, alongside complimentary natural wines? I have no doubt that it’s on the way.

These days, we tend to take it for granted that women are more or less welcomed at the top levels of all industries. But the truth? It’s still really difficult to get in, and get ahead, and two industries where that’s especially true–but increasingly less so–are food and wine. Why do food and wine pose so many barriers to women? It’s funny, in a way, given that women are traditionally supposed to be domestic goddesses, slaving away in the kitchen for hours to feed the family or host a dinner party. In the professional realm, however, men have ruled kitchens, where they often hold court through aggression and short tempers (though of course there are exceptions), and they have dominated wine cellars and professional wine accreditation organizations. As to the latter, I can’t say I totally understand why the wine industry has long been an old boys’ club, but I suspect it has something to do with normative ideas of masculinity that are wrapped up in competitiveness; after all, being a Master Somm is about being the most knowledgeable about everything. (Of the 140 Master Somms in the world, 21 are women.)

Food & Wine has just put out an issue focused on the women who have made names for themselves in these respective industries, and I have yet to get my hands on it but there’s some interesting buzz online. It seems that media and service industry people have been waiting for something like this to come along. And it’s unquestionably due because I can think, off the top of my head, of at least six well-known and influential female wine directors, somms, and chefs (in the U.S., that is; when I was in France I noticed an extreme dearth of well-known female chefs).

On Twitter, F&W is asking people to use the hashtag #FOODWOMENWINE alongside suggestions of females kicking-ass in wine and food who the magazine should profile. I gave a shoutout to Lee Campbell, the wine director at Reynard (and other Tarlow restaurants) who sparked my initial interest in natural and artisanal wine (although perhaps she’s already in the mag! I’d be surprised if not). I also thought of Gabrielle Hamilton, but then it occurred to me that she has been uneasy with being identified as a female chef, as a marker of professional identity. Which is totally fine, in my opinion–no one says you have to champion feminism just because you rock at your job and happen to be a woman. But I love how many women are going beyond the Martha Stewart kind of role and becoming industry rock-stars.

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