Welcome, 2011!

Time flies when you’re living in two countries and raising three kids under the age of 6, not to mention working at a small company and trying to fit in things like wine, cooking, and motorcycles into any spare cycles.  That said, I can’t believe it’s been nearly 11 months since I last posted something on this site.  I wouldn’t be doing one now except that I got an email from WordPress showing me the statistics from the site in 2010.

I hope to post a bit more regularly–I certainly attend enough dinners or drink enough good wine to warrant a little more introspective pen-to-paper activity.

I saw a post on another site that suggested sharing wine-related resolutions.  While I chose not to participate (or even think about it at the time), now that I’m sitting down with a few moments I have some thoughts.

  1. Continue my trend of not posting as many notes–they tend to get in the way of enjoying the wine.  I like to talk about wine, but breaking away from a conversation to jot down descriptors isn’t as easy or fun as it seemed to be in the past.
  2. Continue to purchase less wine.  I have plenty, and buying 450-500 bottles/year when I only drink about half of that (in a “good” year!) creates storage problems which I’d rather not address.
  3. When posting/writing, try to post more regularly, and more thoughtfully (I confess to being in the camp who tends to post things like “yeah, I liked that wine, too!”).

All the best in 2011!

Allocation time

This is one of the most expensive periods of the year, when allocations seem to come in droves.  In the last few weeks, I’ve been hit by Aubert, Marcassin, Kosta Browne, Turley, Linne Calodo, Saxum, Carlisle, Rivers Marie, and Outpost.  Sine Qua Non is probably right around the corner.  It usually evens out for the next several months until the rush come August/September.  I kind of wish I could commit to the wines in advance, but pay over the course of the year–it sure would make it easier on my credit card :-)

Many people are asking themselves why the would buy allocations, given the ever-increasing prices, the terrible economy, and the fact that often, previously hard-to-get wines can be had for less-than-retail prices in shops.  For me, however, the mailing lists are mostly worth it.  Don’t get me wrong–I get frustrated if I pay $X and hear that the same wine is available for 10, 20, or 30% less.  But I like knowing that I’m going to get the wine for sure.  I like the fact I do not have to chase the wine, running from shop to shop, begging for a bottle here, and a bottle there.  I used to do that, but life has gotten busy enough that the small premium I pay is worth the time I don’t have to spend.  Not to mention that I am assured of provenance.

I do wish the prices would come down, however :-)

Time flies

I’ve consumed 64 bottles since the last post–something that my non-drinking friends would likely consider excessive, but consider it has been over 100 days, that means there have been way too many days without wine in the last three months!  I have some good excuses (for not posting and not drinking).  I’ve made three trans-Atlantic flights, spent far too much time away from my family, and, speaking of family, we have added a new one–Sarah Jane!

I have had some great meals (and some not so great ones), and look forward to trying to keep on top of the posts a little better this year!

Marcus and Marcassin

Made an awesome dish from Marcus Wareing’s “Nutmeg and Custard“–Scallops with Pistachios, Parsnip Crème, and Crispy Prosciutto.  This was one of those “big name chef” recipes that turned out better than expected–which rarely happens for us.  Honey and curry in the parsnip crème were a great combination of sweet and savory, and the scallops themselves were dusted with curry and salt before cooking.  The wine we cracked was the 2004 Marcassin Zio Tony Chardonnay.  The wine was initially a bit disjointed, showing good acidity, some nice tropical and citrus fruits, and a strong backbone, but those things all kind of hit the palate by themselves, leaving me wanting more.  Well, enter the food, and the wine was suddenly knit together, with the fruit and the acid and the oak and butterscotch all blending together in a seamless, delicious nectar.  It was seriously transformational.  Tried a glass after the meal and it was back to the same thing as before–somewhat disjointed, needing some time to hopefully come together.  Interesting experience, and so glad that we had plenty of scallops!

Superlative wines

I vacillate between wishing I could drink wine like this every night, and being glad that I don’t.  I’m afraid that drinking wines of this quality on a daily basis would eventually leave me desensitized to their brilliance.  And it was kind of fun sharing this with a friend who enjoys wine, although he knew nothing about Sine Qua Non before tonight.  My only crime opening this bottle was not giving it enough air. I thought about having Carolynn decant it during the day, but then before I knew it we were home and scrambling to put on some food for our friends. It was interesting, sharing this with friends who enjoy wine, but are not wine geeks. I didn’t say anything about it until we were halfway through the bottle, then I mentioned that this was a Parker 100-pointer. My buddy said “really?” I think it was one of those moments when a person can’t reconcile their own experience with that of a professional. Not that he didn’t enjoy it, but I believe he was expecting it to do something transcendental. Interesting perspective on points. As for the wine itself, I had another bottle of this about 18 months ago (also popped and poured), and it hasn’t budged much. Intense nose, meat intermingling with perfume and black, black fruits. The palate got better over the course of a couple hours with air–it was just too tight at first, although still delicious. Tannins are quite noticeable, but there’s plenty of fruit and other stuff going on to help you forget about them. The finish lasts and lasts–more of the fruit, the meat, some licorice. The problem I have with this wine at this point is that it’s good, and I enjoyed it quite a bit, but I think it will be so much better when it hits its peak.

Fig, cheese, and prosciutto tart, excellent wine, and…Scottish beef.

We have a recipe for a tart that is fantastic.  In addition to the ingredients above, it has a reduced balsamic/brown sugar sauce and is topped with rocket which cuts through the richness.  Served on a puff pastry base, this is always a crowd pleaser and certainly a family favorite.  I wasn’t going to drink wine tonight, but ended up grabbing an ’02 Phelps Insignia, one of my favorite wines.  Both of these were tremendously enjoyable (the wine, to be honest, slightly less-so than in the past–maybe it’s going into a shut down phase?!?).  We also had Scottish filet mignon.  Once again, I’m left wanting with the beef we can get here in England.  We go to a good butcher shop–family-run, always fresh (or aged appropriately), etc.  But there isn’t a grading scale (Prime, Choice, Select) like that which exists in the US and I think it shows.  Thankfully, they offer great lamb, and that is usually what we get, but it is a bummer not to be able to get “90 point” beef here.

Breakfast out

Carolynn loves eating breakfast at restaurants–it is one of her favorite things.  This morning we went to Côte, a little bistro just over the bridge.  We’ve been there for dinner several times and it is always just okay, but they know how to do breakfast well.  Their croissants in particular are amazing–just the right blend of flaky, buttery and fluffy.  I wish I knew if there was a way to eat them without leaving so many crumbs on the plate.  And the table.  And my lap.  Carolynn and I both had the Eggs Benedict–how awesome.  The Hollandaise was light on its feet–not the normal, ponderous, gooey stuff that seems so common.  It was a bit underseasoned, but a touch of salt and it was fine.  The café crème was awesome–I don’t drink a lot of coffee, but this is rich and thick and soooo much better than what they serve at Starbucks :-)  I ordered an orange juice halfway through–fresh-squeezed, with the right balance of sweetness and tartness.  Too bad they don’t do dinners like they do breakfast!

Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley

Celebrating our first date night in many weeks, Carolynn and I went to the restaurant formerly known as Petrus.  Head chef Marcus Wareing was the man in the kitchen when Petrus was awarded its second Michelin star, and when the lease with the hotel expired, they chose to give it to Wareing.  The new restaurant, now named Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley, is arguably the same place without Jean-Philippe Susilovic as the mâitre d’hôtel and without answering ultimate to Gordon Ramsay Holdings.  While I never dined at the restaurant under the old name, my guess is that the food continues to be at the same level if not higher, given that Marcus is now working for himself.

The restaurant is not large (the dining area doesn’t seem to have much more square footage than the kitchen, which I’ll discuss later), and seats about 70 people.  There is a table for up to eight people in the kitchen, and a private room off the main dining room than can hold up to 14 people.  The decor is dark, fairly conservative, and even when the restaurant was full, it was still an enjoyable dining experience in terms of being able to converse.

We seemed to wait a fair amount of time between being seated and having anything such as a menu or a drink.  Eventually the Champagne cart guy came over and I started off with a glass of 1999 Bollinger Grande Année.  Carolynn’s pregnant so I was going to be the only one indulging, and she ordered a cranberry juice.  (In one of the few service missteps, this didn’t arrive until I asked for it again 15 minutes later.)  We waited quite a while again before the first amuse bouche came, but it was quite good.  There were three items–a pâté sandwich, a crab meat tartlet, and a smoked tomato spread served with croutons.  The pâté was silky, the tartlets were intensely “crabby”, but the spread was truly amazing.  Not the kind of thing that sounded appetizing, but I could have eaten a bowl of the stuff, using the honey potato bread to sop it up.  The bread, by the way, was fantastic on its own, and even better with the butter, but when the butter first arrived it was rock hard and unspreadable–this was the second big gaffe we encountered.)  We were next served a nutmeg velouté with some nutmeg breadsticks.  Sipped, it was warm and flavorful, with just a hint of nutmeg, and the breadsticks, over a foot long and pencil-thin, were fun to eat with our fingers.

The first course was pan fried foie gras, peach, fresh almonds and honey, amaretti and black olive.  There was an olive meringue on the side which was amazing, and it was an interesting pairing with the foie gras.  As Carolynn said, it’s pretty hard to beat a piece of seared foie gras by itself, but I don’t think people go to restaurants such as this one to get a simple slab of foie slapped on a plate.  The chef finds himself in a tough position (we discussed this same issue during the meat course later on) in that the main ingredient is arguably best by itself, but he would be lambasted for serving it so in a restaurant.  This was paired with an Austrian TBA the producer of which I did not write down (like the other wines of the evening), and it was a perfect match.

This was followed by honey soused sardines, burrata, Piquillo peppers and heirloom tomato.  The fish was fairly strong by itself, and not the typically oversalted stuff you’d find in a can, but rather dense and meaty, with a fresh taste of the sea.  Combined with the other ingredients on the plate I thought it was an amazing combination, that elevated every element to something higher.  The Gruner Veltliner was a great match, with the food bringing out some of the fruit in the wine, and the wine helping to meld the food together even more.

The next wine was a red Burgundy (yeah, yeah–not exactly narrowing it down much, am I?) and it was awesome with roasted and marinated quail, white onion fondue, courgette and basil, and baked potato.  The bird and the Pinot were wonderful together, and I made the mistake of enjoying these two that I ended up with the “leftovers” to eat without the benefit of the quail.  They were very good, however, and I’d imagine, if this plate worked like the others, that all the flavors together would have been even better.

At this point, the sommelier had mercy on me and stopped bringing wine pairings.  Carolynn and I think that it may have been a misunderstood question on my part and that I actually said I don’t want anymore, when I thought I was simply being asked about a nearly-empty glass being taken away.  Nevertheless, I had some of the Burgundy still when the Scottish scallop, dressed with sweetcorn and chorizo and drizzled in a red wine vinaigrette arrived.  Not a good match, but wow, what a great dish.  This was the dish that helped me see what this kitchen is about.  Unlike the theater and whimsy of the Fat Duck, or the incredible precision and propriety of Gordon Ramsay’s Royal Hospital Road, this has a bit of adventure without being off the reservation.  Some of the dishes on paper and with the staff’s explanation seemed to be pushing the envelope, but everything really worked in harmony together.

The “main” course was a choice between two, so we each had one and shared.  Carolynn had the Cumbrian lamb, smoked aubergine, black beans, braised belly, and crispy lamb bacon.  The lamb bacon was another taste sensation that should be its own meal.  Incredibly small and crispy bits of lamb that taste like bacon with a bit of game that sets the flavor apart from the rashers you would find at the store.  The braised belly, too, was incredible.  The main bit of lamb was completely fine, but this gets back to the point we discussed earlier.  It is hard to beat simple rack of lamb, done at home, with the perfect red wine and the ability to eat it in ones pajamas.  But going out to a restaurant of this caliber, I think we would scoff if that preparation was placed in front of us, so we have essentially created a no-win situation for the chef.  The other dish during this course was Anjou pigeon, poached and roasted, with summer truffle and pigeon casserole.  The pigeon casserole was like a bit of sausage, and I would have traded the rest of the tender, medium-rare pigeon for one more bite of this savoury-sweet nibble.  I’ve only had pigeon a few times, and this is arguably the best preparation I’ve had–it didn’t suffer any of what I consider a bit of off flavor that seems to come through in this bird.

As always, we were more than full at this point.  A bit of a break and we had a “pre-dessert” consisting of passionfruit jelly underneath a lime ice.  I love passionfruit, and the citrus of the lime ice made for a nice counterpoint.

Dessert was again a choice between two, so we were able to have both.  Carolynn took the warm chocolate and salt caramel moelleux, with banana jelly, and banana cacao ice cream.  Hard to argue with this or say anything other than yum.  I took the one that I would have never ordered otherwise–Granny Smith apple crème with spiced brioche chips, popcorn, and salted caramel ice cream.  I should state that it all sounded good except the apple part–I’m not a huge fan of green apple flavors.  Thankfully, Wareing’s pâtissier made this a dream to eat.  The apple flavor was there, but in a crème it was softened and sweetened, the toasty, nutty discs of brioche gave a nice structure, and the crushed popcorn and salted caramel ice cream further played the foil between sweet and salty.

We finished with some homemade chocolates.  After we paid the bill, I asked for a copy of the menu, and the mâitre d’ said sure, and would we like to have a tour of the kitchen and meet the chef?  The kitchen was quite large, housing not only the aforementioned dining table, but also a hot pass, a cold pass, and a stairway leading to another cooking area.  It was a bit noisy, with 8 guys still sitting around the chef’s table, clearly enjoying themselves.  Marcus was working the pass, coming up with creations for the chef’s table (by this time, the main room was working on desserts), and he graciously signed our menu and thanked us for coming.

I had high expectations, and they were met on a food level, and very close on a service level.  I will say that every single person we came into contact with was very pleasant.  When I left to use the restroom, the door for the restaurant was opened on my way out, and on my way back, impressive given that it’s a frosted door.  Even the valet service was outstanding–I gave my key to a guy with an umbrella and 4 hours later he remembered me when I walked outside.  I think this has 3-star potential if they can dial in things like the butter temperature, the service, and if Chef Wareing is able to address things like providing what is expected from 3-star food without overdoing the simple pleasures.

Back in London

We’ve been here a week, and I think we’re about adapted to the time.  We’ve had some decent meals and wine so far, too.

Tonight we had chicken breasts stuffed with basil, mozzarella, and sun-dried tomatoes.  Opened a 2003 Aubert Chardonnay Ritchie Vineyard.  This recipe has a lot of potential, although I totally underseasoned it, so it was a bit bland.  Also, I think using something like chèvre would have made it a bit tastier as well.  I love mozzarella, but it needs a supporting cast when cooked.

A couple days ago we had roast cod with Parma ham and red pepper coulis.  This was a really tasty dish.  I should have paired it with something else, but we opened a 2006 Rudius Cabernet Sauvignon.  The wine was really, really good, although a poor match for the dish.  Not that the meal was ruined, but it was one of those meals where you enjoy the food by itself and wine by itself, and they don’t really meet in the middle.

Trying to be a chef

Okay, that might be a bit of an ambitious title.  But knowing that Carolynn was going to be gone tonight, I invited my buddy Steve Williams up for some Bryan Flannery meat (filet tails and hangers).  We got a little geeked up and made a “constructed caprese” which turned out pretty darned good.  Small diced some fresh mozzarella and concasséd some heirloom tomatoes (which Steve got from Vons!).  Mixed with some fresh basil, a bit of Maldon salt, some white truffle oil, and served in a ring mold with reduced balsamic drizzled on top.  Tried it with golden balsamic as well, and while I preferred the golden balsamic reduction by itself, with the dish the additional acid in the regular balsamic proved the better match.

One of us (that would be me) completely jacked up the Chinese long beans which were a bit mushy, but the flavors (shallot, garlic, ginger, and toasted sesame oil) were a good match had I not screwed up the beans.

Steve also brought some awesome jamón ibérico de bellota–at two bucks per slice, it wasn’t cheap, but man, was it good.  He also brought the 2001 Numanthia which was a good match with the ham as well as the Flannery beef.