Monday, December 31, 2012

Simple Things and Complex Things

It was a holiday evening and I was at my good friend Peter's house for dinner. You already know that he is one of very finest wine writers and critics, and that he is the author of, and that he recently published a long-awaited Sherry book. But did you know that he is a wonderful cook?

Peter can cook anything but prefers to cook in the Japanese style. And on this Christmas eve, I hung around his kitchen while he prepared dinner. We talked about how his book is selling, how my work is going, about our plans for travel in the coming year, about how I miss my kids on the Christmas holidays, and all sorts of other things that good friends talk about. We drank Champagne. Good music wafted from the sound dock speakers.

Peter made several dishes but the centerpiece of our meal was rice. He uses a Donabe, a Japanese clay pot, to cook rice. The particular Donabe Peter uses is made of a special porous clay from the bottom of Biwa Lake in Iga, in Mie Prefecture. It is prized for the way it retains heat.

He used Koshihikari rice from the Niigata Prefecture in Japan. This is thought by many to be the finest rice of Japan. Peter rinsed the rice many times, massaging it with his hands, until the water ran almost clear. Then he spread it evenly in the bowl and let it dry. Then he combined water with a dash of fish sauce, sesame oil, and sake, and soaked the rice for about a half hour. He placed quartered Shitake mushrooms and large whole scallops on top of the rice and cooked it over high heat for 15 minutes and then let the rice rest for another 20 minutes. The whole process took about two hours from start to finish. As the rice rested, the kitchen and the living room filled with this intensely savory and gloriously appetizing aroma.

Peter opened the Donabe, coarsely chopped the scallops with a wooden spoon, fluffed the rice a little, and served it in bowls topped with scallions and mitsuba, a Japanese herb. This was the very best rice I have ever eaten, without any question. One of the best foods I have ever eaten. I will not try to describe the flavors because I'm not good enough with language to do so.

Since watching this preparation and eating this rice, I've thought some about how simple things can be so complex. I can enjoy the rice at a Chinese restaurant, or the rice I cook at home, and it tastes good. It is nice to eat with whatever other food I'm eating. I do not need rice to be the finest rice Japan has to offer, prepared in the finest of Donabes by an expert hand in order to appreciate it. But I'm glad that I now know a little tiny bit about this - about what is possible to achieve with rice. It's not that I will now look down upon all other rice, it's about the fact that there exists a complex set of tools and techniques for growing and cooking rice, and being aware of this makes me a more educated person. We mostly think of rice as a simple thing, and that doesn't reduce the pleasure we take in it. There is an elevated form of rice too, and that is also pleasurable, I would say immensely so. These two things are not mutually exclusive.

The same is true with so many things that we eat and drink - think of roasting a chicken! There are a million variations, including the chicken itself, temperature, type of pan, and other issues. People who care about roasting chicken have opinions on all of these things. Roast chicken is a simple thing that is also quite complex, should you choose to approach it that way. And although a decently prepared roast chicken is always enjoyable, some are finer than others. I think that experiencing and trying to understand things in their most elevated forms allows us to better understand the pleasures (and flaws) of their more common versions.

I hope that in the coming year I learn more about the complexities that seemingly simple things have to offer. And I hope to spend more time in the company of great friends, enjoying these things together. I hope the same for you, and happy new year!

Friday, December 21, 2012

A Wine Service Pet Peeve, and Perhaps, a Solution

Ready for a little complaining? It's the holidays, I know. But indulge me.

I was in Stockholm recently and ate dinner at two different restaurants. In both cases I found the wine service to be excellent. I remarked to my dining companions, who also are wine lovers, that I appreciated the service, in particular the fact that the servers were in no hurry whatsoever to pour our wine. Instead they would open a bottle, offer a taste, and then pour a small glass to each person. Then, they would walk away.

This might not sound terribly special to you, but I very much appreciated it. I find that in many restaurants, servers are in a rush to pour wine and they pour very large glasses, filling the vessel more than halfway. Filling the glass that high is just annoying - it's hard to handle the glass when it's so top-heavy. And I find it hard to enjoy the aromas when there is so much liquid in the glass sloshing around, and so little room left within the glass for air.

If I order wine at a restaurant I want to let it unfold and change in the glass, and I want to experience and enjoy those changes. It's hard to do that if before I've even come close to finishing what's in my glass, the server pounces and re-fills me. 

That said, I can understand why servers do this. It comes down to tips. When people sit down and order a bottle of wine, the server anticipates selling a second bottle, so pouring high and quickly should lead to a higher bill and a bigger tip. Maybe this works some of the time, and some customers don't mind the quick and high pour. But I think it's a misguided strategy, even from the server's point of view. Here is why:

1) Happy customers leave bigger tips.

2) Two people dining together rarely order two bottles of wine. Sometimes they do, but I'm guessing very rarely. So when there are two people at the table, pouring fast and high typically results in the sale of 1 bottle of wine, the same number of bottles that sell when the server pours at a relaxed and leisurely pace. But those two diners will feel happier when they are allowed to enjoy their wine at a leisurely pace, their experience will be better. They are likely to tip more.

3) If a table of four or more people is inclined to order multiple bottles, they will do so because they want to drink wine, not because the server rushes them. Okay, sometimes people will say "what the hell" and order another bottle when the first disappears quickly. But the table that orders another bottle because they are rushed is probably not ordering expensive wine anyway, so the impact on the tip won't be huge. Allowing a table of four to be relaxed about enjoying their good wine encourages them to order more wine.

Here is an example of how a restaurant and a server lose revenue when they pour high and fast: I was with a friend at a popular Manhattan wine bar not long ago. We decided to splurge and ordered a bottle of Champagne. It was a wine I'd never tasted before and I wanted to take my time, to explore the wine. Our server essentially poured the whole bottle into our two glasses within minutes. We couldn't take a sip without having our glasses refilled, and poured way too high. We drank our wine, paid, and left. We might have ordered more wine, but the experience of drinking the Champagne was not so pleasant.

Here is an example of a relaxed pour leading to a good experience: A restaurant in Stockholm called Rolfs Kök ('Rolf's Kitchen' in English, I believe. Get your mind out of the gutter). There were four of us, and as we looked at the dinner menu I selected a bottle of 2002 Hirsch Riesling Heiligenstein from the wine list. The server tasted it and decanted the bottle at a side station, returned to the table, poured me a taste, and then each of us a small glass. He left the decanter at the table and went off to do other work. We talked, chose our dinner, enjoyed our wine. The few Austrian wines I've had from the 2002 vintage have been weird, and this one was too, but it opened nicely and was lovely to follow over an hour. Yes, we drank that wine over the course of about an hour. But by then we had decided upon our dinner, which would include Elk, and we ordered a bottle of 2007 Fourrier Gevrey-Chambertin. The server decanted that too, and left the bottle at our table. He returned to pour small glasses as our main courses arrived. We refilled sometimes, he refilled sometimes, and it was relaxed. The wine was very good, strikingly pure and crackling with energy. One friend thought it needed another two or three years in the bottle, I thought it was lovely as is. We enjoyed having the opportunity to see how it changed in the glass. We left a very nice tip.

One of my dining companions in Stockholm commiserated with me on this pet peeve of mine, the high and fast pour. His wife laughed and agreed that the high and fast pour drives him crazy. My friend is an economist, however, and he often finds simple and efficient solutions to life's little problems.

"You know what I do about this now," he said to me. "If I order wine at a restaurant, when the server brings the wine I smile and very politely say to them 'If you don't mind, we will pour our own wine.'"

Wow. Simple and polite, perfectly reasonable. Can it really be that easy? I've thought about this now since my friend suggested it and maybe it is that easy. Sure, there will be times when I'll miss out on good wine service if I preempt the server and say that I'd like to pour my own wine. But more often, I think I will have a better experience (and leave a better tip because of it). I'll try this in early 2013 and let you know how it goes, because I know you are waiting with bated breath.

If this is a pet peeve of yours, how do you deal with it?

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Dinner of the Year, 2012 (Stockholm)

I recently had the occasion to be in Stockholm, Sweden (!), a trip for work. The whole trip was amazing, but I want to tell you about one meal I had there, what easily for me is the dinner of the year in 2012. What made it so good? Well, the company, for starters. I work with really nice people. And the wine. The list was interesting and smart, and there were a few gems that are quite difficult to find back home. And the food was wonderful, showing an honest dedication to local ingredients and typical Swedish cuisine, and also prepared with a modern sensibility.

The restaurant is called Volt, and if you ever have the good fortune to be in Sweden, I strongly urge you to eat here. Not cheap at all, but one of those expensive meals where there is no doubt that you have gotten your money's worth.

While looking through the menus we were served this amuse, a plate of thinly sliced cured, spiced pork belly.

And this plate of lightly pickled pumpkin topped with pumpkin seeds. Both were appetizing and delicious.

The bread service was wonderful - crusty, airy, fresh bread, served with tangy local cultured butter and chicken liver paté. We had a 6 course meal coming, and yet we couldn't stop eating this bread.

I saw a few special bottles on the wine list, and we decided not to select from among them, instead ordering them all! And we got the 6-course tasting menu too. We were in Sweden, near the holidays. Why not splash out a little?

First we ordered this beautiful bottle of Cédric Bouchard 2006 Roses de Jeanne Le Creux d’Enfer Rosé. This wine, Bouchard's single vineyard rosé, has become essentially impossible to find here in the US.And it is very expensive. Oddly, in Sweden, one of the most expensive countries in the world for an American, and at this fancy restaurant, the wine was no more expensive than it would be on the shelf at a NYC retail shop. Except it will never again be on the shelf at a NYC retail shop because almost none is made and it is snapped up by collectors before it hits the shelves. It is a wonderful wine and a few years of age amplified the savory tones. After a few hours the wine showed clear bitter herbal notes that you might find in Campari.

We ate langoustine with seafood broth, thinly sliced turnips, caviar, and langoustine crackers.

At about this time I realized that we needed to submit to how good everything was going to be, and we ordered two bottles of Overnoy wine - the 2010 Chardonnay and the 2011 Poulsard. Our gracious and incredibly competent sommelier decnted the Poulsard for us and we enjoyed the beginning of the Chardonnay with the Langoustines.

And then came scallops, with raw cauliflower crumbles, gooseberries, and several "sea-lettuces." Excellent with the bright and expressive Chardonnay. Overnoy bottles are never uniform, and this bottle of Chardonnay was different from the bottle I drank in July. Not as perfect, not as focused. But it was lovely nonetheless.

We returned to Bouchard's Champagne for this fantastic dish of beef carpaccio with almond and parsley puree. Two summers ago I was at a ridiculous Bouchard dinner and we drank the 2007 Rosé and it was suggested that rare beef would be a great pairing. Well, on this night I was able to verify that indeed, this is a wonderful synergy of flavors.

Then we ate Pike Perch from the Baltic Sea, local waters. It was perfectly cooked, meltingly tender, and served with roast cabbage, fresh cockles, and capers fashioned from elderberries. Whoa, this was delicious and expertly prepared. And great with Overnoy's Chardonnay, which was becoming more and more detailed as time went by.

The sommelier appeared with the decanter of 2011 Overnoy Poulsard. "Like raspberry juice," he smiled. And he poured. I've had great bottles of Overnoy Poulsard, and also completely uninspiring bottles. If you drink the wine outside of France, there will be variation. This bottle was amazing, among the best Ive had. Such intense aromas of dried roses, so detailed and complex, such delicate texture and such presence in the mouth. As perfect as Poulsard can be, I would say. A wonderful and moving wine. My companions had never before had an Overnoy Poulsard and they were swooning. It was fun to watch.

We drank it with a dish of "fallow deer," a small variety of local deer. Very lean, it was served with Jerusalem artichokes and topped with fresh juniper berries. Yes, fresh green juniper berries. I've seen only the dried black ones here. These were vibrant and pungent and herbal and very compelling, and they amplified the forest undertones of the Poulsard. What a meal we were having!

After that dish we took our time finishing our wines, reveling in our good fortune. And then we had dessert. The best restaurant dessert I've had in years. An oval of green apple sorbet, tart, not sweet, served on a dollop of white chocolate pudding, white chocolatey but not sweet, topped with shards of frozen green apple and young pine needles. Absurdly delicious. And with this, a glass of sparkling wine from Anjou that smelled like pine needles, something the sommelier selected for us.

An incredible meal that I will remember for a long time. I hope that as 2012 comes to a close, you are enjoying delicious food and wine too, with good friends.