Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Notable eats... Buddakan

Stephan Starr, the company behind Buddakan and Morimoto (yes, as in Iron Chef Morimoto) restaurants in Philadelphia has recently opened up Buddakan New York. Situated in the corner of the Chelsea Market building, the space and scale of things is physically impressive. At over 17,000 sq. ft. and with a capacity for over 400 guests, it was not a shy venture.

Appropriately, it has been divided into a collection of connecting spaces. There is a bar area with communal tables where diners choose from either a smaller bar menu or the full restaurant menu – which isn’t really much more extensive. Numerous other darkly lit rooms host tables, but the main dining area is a sight to behold. In the middle of the entire layout, a doorway opens up to a cavernous room, with tables one floor below and the roof a floor higher than the main level. It is an incredibly ambitious space – complete with giant 40ft table in the centre - but somehow has been worked to conjure up a French-Asian royalty look, with rich maroon and gold colors. Eating downstairs must make one feel like being invited to dine at a palace.

The atmosphere inside hums with a casual yet trendy energy, and the crowd is full of good looking, successful types and ‘foodies’ trying out the latest venture. More importantly, the Asian-inspired menu pulls off some impressively flavorful dishes. We ate at a communal table in the bar area that comfortably sat twelve people, a more relaxed way to dine amongst such regal settings. Notable were the Tuna Tartare dumplings, Lobster Dumplings with truffle soy, and the Sea Bass rolls with ginger. According to our waitress, the pastry chef is “an inspired man” (though she couldn’t name him!), but we did not leave space in the end to confirm this. I do sense I will be back though.

Overall, Buddakan offers an opulent dining experience and pleasing menu that tries hard to impress as much as the restaurant’s presence does. However, you’ll probably remember the experience more than the food itself.

Buddakan, 75 9th Ave at 16th St
Tel: 212.989.6699

March 2006 wines...

March is the first of the "3 wines-that'll-knock-you-out per month" format. I managed to throw in one of my all time favorites... which one? Ahaa... go out, try them and judge for yourself...

Domaine Hippolyte Reverdy Sancerre 2004
Varietal: Sauvignon Blanc
Region: Loire Valley, France
Price: $23.49
Importer: Kermit Lynch

The world of wine has changed for the better over the past decade, yet remains rather full of ratings-obsessed owners, egotistical winemakers and manufactured wines. However, there are still producers out there that do most of the work individually, couldn’t care less about ratings and consider themselves a modest part within the process that creates a great wine. Michael Reverdy, part of the rather large Reverdy winemaking family, fits squarely into the latter category. And it is noticeable in this wine.

The best word to describe it would be “beautiful”. It has beautiful floral, lime and apple notes on the nose. Beautifully fresh citrus flavors abound on a slightly weighty palate. There is beautiful minerality and impressive acidity. And the finish is beautifully clean with a touch of spice that lingers around. This wine can be seen on lists at some of the top restaurants in the country (including Californian food Mecca, Chez Panisse), yet it has no ego about it. This is the supermodel that somehow retains her modesty.

Just southwest of Paris, the Loire Valley is home to wines that are always elegant. Sancerre is the original Sauvignon Blanc, and as much as New Zealand and South Africa make some delicious examples, this wine shows why there will always be demand for the classic French style. The acidity and minerality give this wine serious aging potential. Though it drinks very well now – it would slowly change in composition over the next ten to fifteen years, and reveal an impressive range of flavors. Many Sauvignon Blanc’s at the same price would lose their flavor and character within 2-3 years, when this wine would still be an infant.

I wouldn’t recommend sitting on this wine for long, unless you decide to buy a case and enjoy a bottle a year for the next 12 years – a nice way to get to know a wine! Rather wait until the next spring day comes along and enjoy it then. If you’re feeling special, take some freshly shucked ‘oysters on the half shell’ home from the fishmonger and enjoy with nothing but a few drops of lemon juice and a few glasses of Hippolyte Reverdy. It makes a good brunch wine, along with some crispy toast, smoked salmon, capers and Crème Fraiche. Alternatively, pair it with a goat’s cheese tart, seared tuna with soy and chives or as an aperitif with assorted antipasto. Mmm, now I’m hungry…

Flowers Sonoma Pinot Noir 2003
Varietal: 100% Pinot Noir
Region: Sonoma County, California
Price: $44.99

It was a Monday night at Montrachet in Tribeca, and we were taking advantage of the prix fix dinner menu with no-corkage BYO. It turned out to be an appropriately named restaurant for my first great pinot noir experience. During dinner we bumped into a wine industry friend who sent over a mystery glass of red wine. Not particularly dark in color, it had more of a ruby tint to it. The nose however…whoa! It almost smelt like Riesling at first! So floral! Okay, so our table had finished off a fair share of wine already, but this was remarkable. Beautiful, sweet perfumery overcame each of us as we passed the glass around and took the nose in. As soon as it came back to me, I took a big gulp of the velvet-soft knockout of a wine, and savored the moment - before someone snatched the glass away. This was the Camp Meeting Ridge Pinot Noir 2001, my first taste of wine from Flowers Winery.

Sonoma County, along with Mendocino and Monterey, offers conditions suitable to making some of the finest Pinot worldwide. However, the reputation for Pinot Noir is built solidly on the wines of Burgundy, which has a history of high quality wine longer than perhaps any other region. Wines from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti regularly sell at auctions for tens of thousands of dollars per case and rare Burgundy is often more prized by collectors than the vintage ‘First Growth ‘Bordeaux wines. A 1978 Montrachet from Romanée-Conti fetched $23,929 per bottle at a Sotheby’s auction a few years ago. Thankfully, there is a good selection of down-to-earth Pinot Noir grown elsewhere.

So there is more expensive Pinot Noir. There is Pinot Noir that is harder to get. And there is Pinot Noir that gets better ratings. But I think Flowers Pinot Noir trumps them all. Flowers has a number of single-vineyard wines, but this Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 03 uses grapes from a selection of all their prime Sonoma vineyards that are basket-pressed and sent straight to French Oak barrels after fermentation for a year of maturation. Distinctive black cherry and plum aromas jump from the glass, and on the palate the acidity and dark Pinot fruit flavors are perfectly balanced.

Enjoy a glass or two on it’s own to get the full spectrum of flavors. Food-wise, I’d love to pair this with salmon sautéed with bacon and shallots, fresh-herb covered roast quail, pork chop with balsamic glaze or just some prosciutto and warm bread.

Wine & Breathing
Flowers Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir would certainly develop if allowed to breath. What does this mean? When wine comes into contact with oxygen, it essentially starts to release aromas, usually along with some unwanted bitter tannic flavors. If a wine is left open for too long (usually 3-4 days, though some wines can show miraculous longevity) it loses its flavor and you’re left with nothing worth drinking. A wine that has been aged (kept around under good storage conditions for a length of time) has slowly been interacting with the oxygen in the bottle to soften and release unwanted flavors. Thus when you open a 1978 Bordeaux, you won’t need to decant it or let it breathe – it has already done so. A younger Bordeaux just a few years after release might benefit from breathing, thus you’d be better off decanting an hour or two before drinking. You don’t need a decanter to let wine breather either. Simply pouring into a glass and letting sit for 20-30 minutes is the equivalent of decanting the bottle.

One of my favorite things to do is see how a wine changes over time once opened. Try open a bottle of wine and have a glass a night for four nights. You’ll see how the character can often completely change. Some of the young wines lose their appeal, but rich and denser reds and mineral-heavy whites can start to show amazing aromas and a softer palate after a day or two.

A note on rare wines…
There have been some amazing bottles of wine purchased in auction houses over the years. However, the money is poorly spent if the wine is not correctly stored once purchased, as famously occurred in the mid 80’s when Malcolm Forbes paid $160,000 for a bottle of 1787 Chateau Lafite Bordeaux. Sadly it was stored in a warm room in bright lights and within a few years the cork fell into the bottle and the wine was ruined…

Avignonesi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 2002
Varietals: Approx. 85% Sangiovese; balance of Canaiolo & Mammolino grapes
Region: Tuscany, Italy
Price: $22.99
Importer: Dalla Terra Inc.

I first tasted this wine over dinner at a little spot in Greenwhich Village that I’m rather fond of, where it was the perfect accompaniment to a very satisfying Hamburger with Roquefort Cheese. The wine surprised me with its almost sweet nose and overwhelming burst of ripe fruit flavors. I’ve since heard it described as “Italian sunshine in a bottle”, which is very apt. You can almost taste the warmth of the Tuscan sunshine and imagine the bright purple grapes being plucked from the vine - it made a fantastic opening red for the dinner. Okay, I was at The Spotted Pig (yes, again!) that night, and maybe I’m just in a permanent state of delirious happiness when I’m there, but the wine struck me as remarkably soft and luscious for a Tuscan. The wine label might have a classic look, but the wine is full of “New World” soft and jammy fruits and is just so thoroughly enjoyable.

Avignonesi, pronounced “avee-oh-naysi”, is a prime Tuscan estate that produces wines highly praised by the critics (they have had a 100 point Wine Spectator wine previously). Interestingly, the family estate is of French (from Avignon, Provence) descendents that followed the Pope’s move to Rome in the 14th century. Since then, they’ve been producing wines in this most picturesque region, most notably the dessert wine known as Vin Santo.

The classic Tuscan wines are Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino, both made from (mostly) Sangiovese. Wines made in the small town of Montepulciano itself are bottled as Vino Nobile di Montepulciano such as this, and since it doesn’t carry the name equity (and thus cost!), the wines offer similar style and quality to a Brunello but often at significantly lower prices.

Made from mostly Sangiovese (although the grape is known as ‘Prugnolo’ here) and a small amount of indigenous grapes that aren’t worth trying to remember, the fermented juice spends a full 24 months in oak barrels to soften the tannins and develop structure, with an additional 6 months in the bottle to allow further integration of flavors before release. This Avignonesi with its ripe cherry fruit flavors proves that while Chianti and Brunello wines may steal the spotlight, as in so many other wine regions the lesser known wines offer no less pleasure.

I would suggest it as an opening red wine at the dinner table – scrumptious to enjoy on a cold winter evening before moving onto something a little drier and subdued with the meal. Otherwise, it would do beautifully well with rich, meaty dishes like barbecued ribs or brisket, grilled flank steak, a rich, aged-cheddar ‘macaroni and cheese’, pasta with olive oil and spicy sausage or with some firm, sharp cheese (Parmigiano, Irish Cheddar or Piave).

Friday, March 03, 2006

Notable eats…Mary’s Fish Camp

A restaurant that began as reminiscence on childhood memories of a camp in Florida, Mary’s Fish Camp must have some of the most deliciously fresh and tasty seafood eats in Manhattan. The small and rather cramped little spot takes on a New England clam house type feel, but with the Greenwich Village ‘bohemian upscale’ touch. They offer the usual dishes like freshly delivered fish and lobster grilled or fried on request, oysters on the half shell, steamed clams and clam chowder, but with some interesting additions and a well-chosen wine list to match the fare. Lobster Pot Pie and Lobster Knuckles are two highlights, the former served in a soufflé dish with a broad pasty topping, and the latter served cold as an appetizer. The lobster rolls have a legendary following, and are probably delicious – if they’re still available when you get there. The restaurant isn’t a secret anymore. It did happen to be Valentine’s Day when we were there, but we put our name on the list and had a few drinks at nearby establishments before being seated - shortly under an hour and a half later!
Mary’s Fish Camp, 64 Charles Street at the Corner of 4th Street, New York, NY 10014

Wine Nerd February selections

February is perhaps the worst of the winter, so nothing like a few smokin' wines to help cheer one up...

Domaine Lafage Blanc 2004
Varietal: 45% Grenache Blanc, 48% Grenache Gris, 7% Macabeo
Region: Roussillon, France
Price: $9.99
Importer: European Cellars

The Roussillon is a great area for value wines. There are some superbly skilled winemakers crafting a few hundred bottles of something amazing and then several wineries that produce crisp, fruity whites and soft, supple reds that make great everyday drinkers. In the far Southwest, close to Spain, the region considers itself independent almost, and more Roussillon that French!

Stellar importer Eric Solomon, whose company European Cellars brings in some of the best wines from Europe, imports Domaine Lafage. The estate is home to winemaker Jean-Marc Lafage, who has a hand in several of Eric Solomon’s winery interests – a testament to his talent and knowledge. His Lafage Blanc is the epitome of a crisp and fresh white from Southwest France. The wine bursts with citrus and floral notes on a backbone of clean minerality. A touch of sweet peach on the finish acts as the hook to lure you in for another sip.

Makes an excellent aperitif wine, served with antipasto like olives, mixed cheeses and hummus-like spreads. Would be delicious with baby-octopus salad, steamed mussels, lightly seared tuna or a fresh garden salad.

Boggy Creek Pinot Gris 2002
Varietal: Pinot Gris
Region: King Valley, Australia
Price: $15.99
Importer: Bouquet du Vin

I discovered this at Wine Australia – a tasting of several hundred Australian wines held in New York in January this year. The event was well done, with the wines laid out alongside appropriately designated foods prepared by various New York City restaurants. A good evening! Check for information on future events.

Pinot Gris is known mostly by the name Pinot Grigio used for the popular-selling Italian wine. Those accustomed to Pinot Grigio will be a little surprised by this Pinot Gris from Australia. It is not light, crisp and simple. Instead, the Boggy Creek Pinot Gris is exceptionally rich and full-bodied for this varietal. This profile is mainly due to fermentation and maturation in old French oak barrels for up to 10 months. With a dark hue and a nice sweet kiss on the finish, it reminded me more of a good Chenin Blanc or Alsatian Pinot Gris than any Pinot Grigio.

Because of the rich, mineral and slightly smoky character, this wine would be delicious with grilled firm fish like swordfish, monkfish or grouper, or with a smoked chicken or duck salad. An herb-roast chicken or simple pasta with olive oil, garlic and sage would be delicious with this too.

Snoqualmie Naked Riesling 2004
Varietal: Riesling
Region: Washington, USA
Price: $ 10.99

Washington state has some of the best wine country in the US. Contrary to what many believe, most of the state is dry and very suitable to wine production – since the Cascade Mountain keeps all the rain in the Seattle area. Hence it is now the second biggest wine producing state, and has over 30,000 acres of vineyards. Areas like Walla Walla produce coveted Syrah and Pinot Noir that competes with the best California has to offer.

Situated in the Columbia Valley, Snoqualmie released their first wine in 1984, with female winemaker Joy Andersen at the helm since 1991 and has gained a following for her elegant approach to showcasing true varietal style. The Naked in this wine’s name comes from the fact that they’re grown by organic practices, something Joy is a strong believer in. The wine is fermented in stainless steel to keep the freshness of flavor and preserve natural qualities.

The Riesling has a lovely off-dry palate with some green apple and floral flavors. Overall it is rather soft in style, and doesn’t have the bracing acidity like some of its counterparts from Germany or France, but is a good buy. Enjoy with some soft cheeses, cured meats or Asian inspired fusion dishes like soy-ginger chicken.

Kanonkop Kadette 2003
Varietals: Merlot (39%), Cabernet Sauvignon (27%) Pinotage (26%), Ruby Cabernet (6%) and Cabernet Franc (2%)
Region: Stellenbosch, South Africa
Price: $12.99
Importer: Cape Classics

Here’s an interesting wine. It’s a Bordeaux-style red blend with Pinotage. Pinotage is an indigenous grape varietal found only in South Africa. It was actually first created as a hybrid by a South African crossing Pinot Noir with Hermitage(Cinsaut), way back in 1924. This new vine was planted at relatively few wine estates and only gained recognition with the first commercial release, the Lanzerac Pinotage 1959 vintage. After this it has enjoyed mixed success and still only occupies a tiny portion of plantings (approx 7%), with relatively few high quality examples. Within South Africa, the wine has a steady following, but the frequently tannic and slightly bitter style doesn’t appeal to international palates, and only a few have met success in foreign markets. However debate continues amongst winemakers whether it should be embraced as “South Africa’s wine” or dropped so the focus can be on more international varietals.

One solution to the dilemma is the Cape Blend. Such is the name given to a red blend that contains Pinotage. By blending the Pinotage with Cabernet, Merlot and other reds, it allows the flavors to be enjoyed while keeping any unappealing elements in check.

Kanonkop makes the most highly regarded Pinotage in South Africa. The winery focuses exclusively on red wines, and their flagship Pinotage is one of those that wine-lovers around the world appreciate. They have mastered the art of coaxing the juicy, delicious flavors from the grapes, while minimizing anything that would negatively affect the end wine. They ferment the wines in open cement tanks that allow ample contact with oxygen to soften the tannins. Such an approach seems to work magnificently for them and has proven results.

The Kadette is the wine the winemaker made “to enjoy himself.” It has become very popular, since the blend offers a good amount of fruit-forward, soft fruit and red berry flavors, while retaining a classic, balanced style. Not quit austere, but not entirely New World either, the wine appeals to many.

It also makes a fantastic wine for food pairing. Crack a bottle open when you’re grilling some steaks, digging into a beef roast or ideally with game birds like pheasant or quail. Would also be good with some Manchego or other hard cheeses.

Castell del Remei Gotim Bru 2002
Varietals: 65% Tempranillo, 20% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon
Region: Costers del Segre, Spain
Price: $12.99
Importer: European Cellars

I first tasted this wine at a wine show last year in Rhode Island and was amazed at how ripe and concentrated it was. Many Spanish wines can be a little too dry and unexciting, but this wine hit the mark! Another star from the European Cellars portfolio, and a great example of a value wine from Spain that puts many wines from the US and France (at up to twice the price) to shame.

The Gotim Bru could be considered a modern Spanish red. Like the “Super Tuscans” in Italy, it is a wine that blends an indigenous varietal (Tempranillo) with international varietals like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon to create something unique. The wine is certainly Spanish, but with a modern edge. Castell del Remei is located southwest of Barcelona in a temperate area primarily devoted to growing olives. Bordeaux varietals from France were planted in the early 1900’s, and this a part of the estate history, and reflected in the wines today.
The wine has a generous mouthful of fruit, with dark plum and cherry flavors and a luscious, warm sensation on the palate. Good acidity ensures a balanced finish with some Green pepper notes. Enjoy this wine with wholesome winter dishes like osso bucco, lamb curry or steak frites. Serve it slightly below room temperature to accentuate the spiciness.

St. Hallet Faith Shiraz 2002
Varietal: Shiraz
Region: Barossa, Australia
Price: $21.99
Importer: Paterno Wines

Ahaa! Finally a big and juicy Barossa Shiraz!! This is the stuff that has truly put Australia on the map, though not always justifiably - at least in my view.

Barossa Valley is a region of rolling hills, varying soils and microclimates that offer a multitude of opportunity for winemakers to create their own unique expression of a wine. Most recognized wineries have several flagship wines, each from specially selected vineyards that consistently produce top-quality grapes. There is also a fairly large amount of older vines in the region, so seeing “Old Vine” on a Barossa Valley wine label is not uncommon. (The Yalumba wine from an earlier Wine Nerd month was from 100 year old Grenache vines) The style of wine is most commonly lush, fruit-forward, ripe and rather chunky! An impressive drinking wine that does best alone in my view.

St. Hallet makes some of the best Barossa wines. Their Faith Shiraz is a great introduction to the region and style, and is very satisfying to drink. Winemaker Stuart Blackwell puts approximately 60 separate parcels of fruit through the fermentation process separately, and then identifies the most unique for special bottlings. His Faith is as he describes, “the quintessential Barossa wine.” It displays dense, rich blackberry and black cherry flavors, a sticky mouth-feel and a peppery finish.

This heavy-hitter needs bold food to match. Try it with St.Louis style BBQ ribs, spicy sausage and Tandoori lamb kebabs. For perhaps the best results, drink after these dishes as your dessert!