March 31, 2005
Stocking cap chef disappears back into the kitchen. Then he comes around the bar into the dining room and says, “No charge for the show, folks.” He leaves. I figure for a smoke, but it appears he doesn’t smoke. He just stands at the back door.
Sean is chuckling. “I handled that like a god!” he says.
The Pompano is undercooked. The rest of the meal is great. There was no charge for the entertainment.
Chef-brother begins screaming from the kitchen. Curses. Oaths.
We begin to pay attention. The curses grow louder with some slamming and assorted snarls. Sean is looking away. Finally chef comes out of the kitchen and grabs Sean by the ear. Growling. The oaths become personal.
Mamma Zu’s is odd in a cool way; a blackboard with pizzas, varied fish names, and items of sundry appetizer provenance, things hanging about, faded newspaper clippings, odd photos and knickknacks. A cross between an Italian deli, a country gas station and a old geezer’s barbershop. Without the geezers. Dreadlocked chef. Some tattoos. Numerous educated, bourgeois customers on the way to/from the theatre.
Sean and his brother seem to run the place, although the mildly amiable bearded guy (let’s call him Mr Unidentified) probably has a set of keys too. Sean’s brother is a skinny wisp cooking in the tiny but rollicking kitchen. He wears a stocking cap. In the kitchen. That should say enough.
Have to explain that this meal was at a Richmond, Virginia spot called Mamma Zu’s. A conch salad, scungilli, was perfectly poised between rustic and elegant, between real and imaginary, if you will. Lots of olive oil, red pepper flakes and god I don’t know what else because I don’t want to know, I just want to eat it. And I did. With my glass of Pinot Grigio.
Treated to wine advice from the nearly ill-mannered but merely and sincerely ill-informed. At an otherwise wonderful restaurant, I asked for the wine list. “There’s no wine list,” someone unidentified from behind the bar (his choice to be unidentified) told me. “Go look at the rack and pick your wine.” Okay. The rack has only red wines.
A waitress grabs a bottle next to me. “Where are the white wines,” I ask. “We’ve got Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay”, she says. “Nothing else?” “No, white wines don’t go with our food here.”
Oh, reeeaaally. Baked Pompano, Grouper, shrimp, fried oysters, scungilli, shall I go on?
Why do people assume that THEIR taste is THE taste for everyone else?
More Chardonnay notes. If nothing else, I figure it ticks off those that complain about Chardonnay (they tick me off, after all) and it’s proof that I actually drink the stuff, as I claim.
Gloria Ferrar Chardonnay Carneros 2001 – Gloria Ferrar is always a Chardonnay I look forward to. This is not off the mark, though there’s a caramel/butterscotch note that makes me think of ill-timed malolactic fermentation. It could also be heat damage in shipment, but no other evidence of that is here. It’s still crisp and appley.
Rosemount Giant’s Creek Chardonnay 2002 always proves my complaints about the Hunter Valley as shallow and stubborn. These are the wines of a true craftsman; but it should be understood that in some senses that is an unkind statement.
The Hunter Valley is uniquely unsuitable for white winemaking. It’s hot through the season and rainy at harvest. Hunter Valley Semillon has always been the best response; harvested early, it retains some acidity. A drinker deals with that by laying it down for ten or more years. I love that stuff with a fixation.
But Hunter Chard? Well, every time I taste a Giant’s Creek Chardonnay I find myself making sullen excuses or justifications like these here. Face it, Phillip Shaw is an amazing winemaker. He crafts rich Chardonnay out of a region that is unlikely to offer any hope of balance. He always finds refreshing crispness.
A simple and relatively cheap bottle of Syrah 2001 from Washington Hills was a nice balance to the spicy, barrel intensity of the Stella Maris. While it carries a Yakima Valley appellation, it seems decidedly fat and high of pH for a Yakima wine, even one from this ripe vintage.
The wine is pretty, ripe, seemingly a trifle sweet and definitely chocolate flavoured in the finish. If I were blinded, I would have thought it was a Merlot with the attributes of simple Merlot – delicious, but drink it now!
The lead pencil aroma, if I may digress, is soooooo over-rated. Lead-pencil is not really an attribute of Mouton Rothschild, in my poor opinion, as wine writers love to intone. Lead pencil is an attribute of the oak barrels in which Mouton is stored. Lots of other wines exhibit this characteristic; they happen to use oak barrels too.
The Stella Maris is just the setup for the Northstar Merlot, for which I’ll have notes later. The 2001 Stella has unknown quantities of Cabernet in it – though I wouldn’t guess it to be much more than a third Cabernet and the rest Merlot. I gave it a few days of rest after tasting half of the bottle. Time brought out the lead pencil oak and didn’t greatly hamper the fruit. But it began to taste a bit like a second wine, although the retail is $30.
After covering the Walla Walla scene for the San Francisco Chronicle a few weeks ago, I received some unhappy responses from a few folks who felt left out. No one was more surprised, I’ll venture, than Northstar. I simply hadn’t tasted their new releases and they haven’t ever responded to my queries for samples.
Well, I guess my evil plan worked. Two bottles of Northstar arrived at my doorstep Saturday and I popped open the Stella Maris bottling, Wow. This is why I like Washington – even with lashings of young, pencil shaving laden oak, the fruit and structure shines through. It’s very elegant, even the note of American oak I detect. Juicy red fruits with clove and cherry skin finish.
A well-priced ($18) Cotes du Rhone Villages called Melodie d’Amour Chusclan 2000 went down very easily. The story goes that the owner named the wine after his girlfriend, Melody. Then they broke up. Maybe that’s why the wine is so cheap for the quality. The dominant grape, Grenache, is attractive and easy and goes down without a trouble at all.
Geyser Peak is one of the standards for affordable California wine and their Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 is cut from that cloth. Geyser Peak is always a source of excellent values and overall the 2001 vintage is offering its share of values as well. So put the two together and you have a plummy, spicy, stylish Cabernet with just a couple of years needed to show what’s it got.
Typically cheap Aussie fare comes from warm to hot vineyard sites. But Ferngrove Shiraz 2001 Frankland River hails from one of the cooler spots in Australia, Frankland in Western Australia and this sort of climate makes for more elegant Shiraz based wines than that Yellowtail you’ve been drinking. Consider it time to step up. Ferngrove is chewy and peppery, just like the cheap Aussies, but unlike them, it has length and earthiness. This is real wine.
Redbreast is an extraordinary Irish whiskey. It’s a great way to celebrate St. Pat’s. I plan to chase it continuously with Boulevard’s delicious Irish Ale. If you don’t live in the Midwest, then you’ll just have to imagine the combination.
The Old Forester Bourbon that won however was not your dad’s Old Forester. This is the Small Batch Bourbon carries plenty of nutty, even creamy oak-aging. There is a crisp peach-tinged note, with a classic Bourbon cherry and ash finish. It’s got delightful balance for a dramatic whiskey.
The real battle royal at the World Spirits Competition was over the Bourbons. Old Forester (yes, you’ve read that right) won, though I think that the Pappy Van Winkle Special Reserve should have prevailed. As well, I was mystified as to why Grand Marnier 100th Anniversary Bottling was overlooked for the best brandy. Indeed, my favourite brandy was the Montesquiou 1965 Armagnac; it was one of the best brandies I’ve tasted in some time.
Bowmore 25 year old won as usual for the best brown spirit overall. How could we do otherwise?
The World Spirits Competition was even more fun than in previous years. I think we’re all becoming used to working together and a lot more comfortable around the stresses of the event. Carol Siebert, who organizes the event for Andy Dias-Blue, certainly was a lot less stressed than in the past.
The results were just as interesting as in years past. Tanqueray prevailed among the white spirits, but this time it was the straight Tanqueray, not the brilliant Tanqueray Ten, that was voted the top white spirit. I figured it was the straight Tanqueray and, as a voter, I’m decidedly biased. I have spent years tasting a glass of Tanqueray first thing in the morning at my spirits classes. So this tasted just perfect to me. But most of the other judges agreed, so maybe it’s not just a bias.
I wouldn’t want to leave aside my other cocktail at Bix. The Porch Swing is a forgotten cocktail: Bourbon and Orange Juice essentially. In this version, the barman used blood orange juice with some lime and simple syrup, and served it up with a sugar rim. I found it delightful with foie gras. Yes, I did.
I’ve flown back to San Francisco for the fifth (?) annual San Francisco World Spirits Competition. For dinner, I thought it appropriate to stop in at Bix, that mecca for cocktail lovers. I have no doubt that it was a handmade Sidecar I drank at Bix fifteen or years ago that reawakened my love of cocktails.
So I had to start with one again. With America’s own Germain Robin as a base, Cointreau (ugh, but a good mixer nonetheless) and fresh squeezed juices and simple syrup, it’s one of my favourite cocktails, to be honest.
I matched it up with Bix’s Firecracker Shrimp, which are the usual very lightly battered and fried shrimp with a tangy, not garlicky, aioli. Very nice match.
We’re back in San Juan for a great meal at Wilo Benet’s Pikayo that included some great little one and two bite (my favourite size) appetizers. Arroz Pegao with spicy tuna tartar – the pegao is a little rice cake scraped off the bottom of the pan when you cook rice. Crispy, sweet, spicy, tuna and a glass of Albariño. The same Albariño stuck around long enough to go with some conch spring rolls with orange sofrito sauce.
My main course was broiled lobster with julienned chorizo; it has drama and flavor. And we also had the best Cod Brandade I’ve tasted. And I’ve had a lot, so I should know. In fact, I’ve had it far more often than I’d like.
For sheer entertainment, I’m not sure I can top my visit to the Sugar Factory on Antigua. We grabbed a taxi from the docks after half a day of snorkelling and followed our noses to the stinkiest place we could find. That would be a rum distillery.
Our taxi driver had a friend along who obviously either trying to sell me some ganja, or trying to find out if I had any he could buy. No help.
The inside of the distillery contained more bizarre aromas than I’ve ever discovered between four, er, walls. Are they still walls if they’re just posts holding up a, er, roof? Kinda of a roof?
The entire place looks to be a cross between a ghost town and a landfill. Then again, the problem with living on a island is that you don’t really have lots of places to put your trash. So here, the concept is simple. When you don’t want it anymore, push it to the side and put the new one next to it. And so it goes, seemingly forever.
Clarke’s Choice, the rum brand made here, is perfectly acceptable and Old Grog, the top of the line, is harmonious and friendly. Where do all those weird aromas at the distillery go?
As we were leaving the taxi driver’s friend fell behind as he was trying to buy ganja from one of the distillers. As he hurried to catch up with us he went headlong down the stairs. Somehow I’m sure he found what he was looking for.
A visit to Mount Gay’s visitor center was far less enjoyable. Mount Gay is perfectly good commercial rum, don’t misunderestimate me, as our Chief Executive likes to say.
The visitor center however is a little laughable. The well-meaning guide shows us a movie of an unknown date that made me momentarily nostalgic for Billy Idol. Only for about a second. My favourite part of the tour was stopping at pictures tacked to a bulletin board and pointing at various elements in them to a crowd of neck straining optimists. One of the pictures kept falling down.
A visit to Jonathan Simpson at R. L. Seales doesn’t yield much information. David and Richard Seales are unavailable (sigh) so we take a twenty minute cab ride up to the Foursquare Distillery.
I really like the rums being produced here. Foursquare is a wonderfully balanced and endearing spiced rum. A lot of people think spiced rum is somehow beneath them, but it’s a style that is centuries old and, when well executed, needs no mix. Although it’s pretty cool in rum punch.
The top line rum produced by the company is Doorly’s XO. That, like Foursquare, is something you simply need to go out and taste. Indeed, one of my favourite tricks is to put it in the middle of a Cognac tasting and see if anyone spots it. No one ever does.
We had dinner at a little enclave in the relatively impoverished town of La Romana in the Dominican Republic. La Casita served us some of the best river prawns I can recall eating, along with some other great lobsters and prawns, including spiny lobster. Had another relatively tired Italian white wine, this time a Greco di Tufo 1997 from Feudi di San Gregorio, but this had more fruit than the Gravner had showed.
The ride home was of a different picture. The streets were flooded with bodies in T-shirt and short summer dresses. Doors were open and through the smoke, swinging light bulbs and shouting. Buzzing scooters and a few rusty cars belching smoke, lots of loud music and rum drinking.
There’s something so bloody about “fine service” restaurants. Ocean Liners, the top spot on this particular boat, offers the kind of food normal people expect from a “fine dining” establishment, which is to say, this food was fussy in all the wrong ways. I’m not pinning blame anywhere, but so much time and effort was spent on useless details, and little attention paid to the most important aspect – pleasing guests.
A gentleman who had attended my first rum seminar, Jerry Horner, was kind enough to drop off a very interesting, though controversial, bottle of Italian white wine. Gravner, a cultish producer of white wines in Friuli Venezia’s Collio Goriziano region, is making amphora wines. As such, he is not merely toying with oxidation in wine production, he is seemingly embracing it.
One of the chefs at my table pronounced it undrinkable. I drank a bit and decided that a couple of glasses were enough for me. Primarily made from the Ribolla Gialla grape, the nutty and aldehydic character of the wine was compensated for by the citrus fruit. But no at the table was buying it. To me, Gravner’s ideas are still works in progress. I am unwilling to reject the wines just because they show some aldehydes and oxidation, but I wouldn’t expect many to share my interest.
The Caribbean trip was part of a rum tour sponsored by Bon Appetit Magazine, and each week during its eight week run, a different rum expert presented seminars (some would call them parties) on the boat. The other speakers included Ed Hamilton (he has the greatly recommended Ministry of Rum web site), Steve Olson (a great wine/spirits teacher/mentor/friend), Dale DeGroff (if you don’t have his The Craft of the Cocktail, go buy it now), David Wondrich (Esquire writer and all around good guy), John Hansell (editor of the must-have Malt Advocate magazine), Paul Pacult (the legendary spirits writer and yet another great guy), and Audrey Saunders, a New York hotel beverage director who left behind a short but excellent primer on the basics of spirits and cocktails. As a short primer, I don’t think anyone has ever done better than this little piece she created for the guests.
Steve and I along with our respective wives (and his baby daughter Maya) met in San Juan at the fun spot The Parrot Club for a massive lunch before my wife and I sprinted to the boat. Roberto Trevino, the chef there, also owns the excellent AguaViva. If you’re in San Juan (and who wouldn’t want to be), consider this wonderful seafood spot. If they’re full, go next door to Roberto’s take on Asian cuisine, Dragonfly.
Bob Bath and I conducted a Master Sommelier class on Sea Island, Georgia, but I was delighted to find myself not at the Cloister. I like the Cloister but I still think it feels more like a retirement community than a resort.
Instead we were ensconced at the Lodge at Sea Island, which has to be one of the best resort hotels I’ve stayed at in a while. Highly recommended. I brought with me a bottle of one of Merry Edwards’ first rate Pinot Noirs. It was the 2001 Sonoma Coast bottling and was so delightful that I’m eager to get home and taste the Windsor Gardens Vineyard bottling – a now grubbed-up vineyard that has continually made stellar Pinot Noir for Merry.
I’m in the middle of a three week jag. With stops in places like Nashville, maybe I can whine to a sympathetic ear. But with a week in the Caribbean also on that agenda, I will assume that no one cares about my “problems”.
Nashville hardly needs my recommendation, though I’d bet a few readers would argue that point. Let’s put it this way; I tasted some ten year old Ramonets, as well as a number of Leroy wines at the house of Tom Black, a Nashville collector with a famously deep cellar. A tasty dinner at F. Scott’s, followed by a free-wheeling late night tour that included a set by the Mavericks at Exit Inn (Tejano is so very in); well, I hope you get the drift.
The other wines for the DC Wine Expo were particularly new concepts in Spanish wine. The first, Ribas de Cabrera Mallorca 1999, is from a very old wine producing region, the island of Mallorca. Ribas de Cabrera is definitely hot climate wine, but atypically has far greater breed than any Mallorcan wine I have yet tasted. Its new wine styling is in keeping with the re-thinking of hot climate, old vineyard winemaking in Spain
Marques de Grinon’s Valdepusa is one of the two Vinos de Pagos, Spain’s newest designation for single, highly-regarded estates. The other bottlings from this vineyard are respectable, but I’m taken with this Syrah. It seems to carry Aussie intensity and hot climate cooked fruit character, but with Spanish structure. The Cabrera is expensive ($65 or so), the Valdepusa is not ($18).
Laurona 2001 and Cellar Capcanes 2000 (both from Montsant) hardly deserve that left-handed praise I’ve just dispensed. They are extremely well-balanced, but it must be said, balanced for their region. Montsant lies in the shadow though wrapped around the region of Priorat. The wines of this area taste more like wines from California’s Sierra Foothills than they taste like Spain’s traditional output. In that regard, these are very well balanced.
Morlanda, poured in DC as well, is more prototypical Priorat. Immensely rich and powerful, it carries a surprising amount of acidity – the result of Priorat’s elevation and proximity to the ocean. It may be built for girth but it’s like a bodybuilder training to run a marathon.