Sunday, July 20, 2008

Wine Morons

Last winter we were dining at Restaurant LuLu in the Village at Mammoth Mountain. It was just my husband and I enjoying a nice dinner without the kids. We've been to this Californian/Mediterranean bistro a few times before. They specialize in family sized servings from their wood-fired oven, grill and roaster. They also have a wonderful selection of wines with loads of California, French and Italian selections. They even offer a few flights of interesting wine types such as Burgundian style whites and Rhone style reds.
A group of six arrived and was seated next to us. They were around our age and discussing their children. It soon became obvious that these people were dating each other, singles, not married couples.
When the waitress arrived, the three men deferred to the one among them deemed the wine expert. He was expected to order in a way to impress the ladies. He ordered a bottle of Opus One. They hadn't decided on starters or main courses, they just ordered the wine.
The overpriced Cabernet Sauvignon blend arrived, was opened and then poured out into the six large wine glasses. Soon they were sipping it up quickly. The men exclaimed with gusto - "Ah, that's the stuff" "Yeah, great cab." and the like. The waitress was busy and took a while getting back to their table. They were a bit rude to her as they ordered their appetizers.
The bottle of Opus One was finished before a morsel of food arrived at the table.
Is it just me who thinks this behaviour is ridiculous?
Is it only the price tag of the Cabernet (because it always is a Cabernet) that implies wine knowledge?
Doesn't a big tannic red deserve to breath?
Doesn't a Meritage of that magnitude and over-hype need food, fatty rich food, to be enjoyed fully?
In the wine classes I've taken the first rule we learned was, drink what you like. I take this to heart, fully. Sometimes a $10 red is all a meal needs. The company will appreciate the value, the food is simple enough to shine with something basic but flavorful.
Still other times a wine needs to impress. If it's very important to pair a wine with a meal, I ask for help. I know my limitations and I also know that the sommelier or wine merchant is never used enough and is complimented by a directed inquiry. By directed I mean - know what you like. Heavy or light? Fruity or dry? $20 or $200?
If I was under the pressure of the single rich guy next to us that night, I too may have ordered the Opus One. It certainly impressed everyone at the table. But I also would have been sure to order a wood fired flat bread topped with a few cured meats and cheeses, a platter of grilled vegetables and perhaps even something beefy rich to really pull the flavors out of that bottle.
The quick slurping of that bottle made me sad.
Sad for the guy who missed the other half of his opportunity to impress.
Sad for the bottle, it wanted a slow enjoyment, to be savored and appreciated fully.
Sad for my husband and I for we had to witness their showy stupidity and it was very distracting.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Gardena Adventure

Just east (~5 miles) of the bucolic beach town where I live lies a wondrous melting pot where the ethnic foods are genuine and the architecture shockingly diverse.

On a recent family outing we venture to Gardena with a few specific goals in mind:

  • Scout Shop for Cub Scout Supplies (Gardena Department Store)

  • Korean Tofu Lunch (Lee's Soon Tofu)

  • Japanese Groceries (Marukai)

  • Handmade Sausages (Eschbach)

On our drive to Gardena we pass through sedate suburban neighborhoods with sun-baked front yards. Some are well kept with family members working tirelessly on well clipped hedges. Some have fences surrounding the entire property and bars on all the windows. Still others seem to be neglected entirely with dirt yards, unpainted trim and dilapidated front porches.

We know we're close when we get to the Donut King 2 (My children always ask where Donut King I is located). This is one of the iconic buildings in Los Angeles with a 25' donut on the roof of a small shack of a donut store. We make a few turns and arrive in the central shopping district of downtown Gardena. The buildings have the faded facades of 1940's-50's architecture and give you the distinct outdoor shopping experience of the same era.

The Gardena Department Store is a discount clothing store which houses an amazing array of items. Most people come to the store for the scouting items, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, you name it. But they also carry every type of uniform you may need including most gang uniforms. Yes, I said Gang Uniform. You need a bandanna, do-rag, wallet chain, trucker hat, belt buckle, or pair of low-riding Dickies? This is the place for you! The selection of goods fascinates me and I usually find myself wandering through looking for a bargain because I usually find one. Last year I was in need of a tropical dress for an upcoming Hawaiian party. I wandered through the women's clothing and found the perfect all cotton, spaghetti straped, black and white flowered print, made in Hawaii dress and it was $19.99! Fits like a dream as well! I highly recommend the Gardena Department Store for your basic clothing needs, they sell all types of Levi's and a rainbow of Hanes t-shirts. This is cheap boy clothes heaven.

With the cub scout uniform updated and patches sewn on securely we venture towards lunch. At the corner of Redondo Beach Blvd. and Western Ave. there is a blue tile roofed mini-mall with a bounty of Asian food choices. Sushi? Noodles? Pho? Tofu? All this and more in one mall. We've tried most of the places but our favorite for lunch is Lee's Tofu. The hot pots of tofu soup are basic Korean fare done well, with all the vegetable trimmings to munch on as the blazing hot soup cools down. The kal-bi (bbq ribs) are excellent as well. My sons make a meal out of the ribs, rice and seasoned seaweed sheets. My husband and I add the wicked kimchi directly to the soup which adds a nice fiery flavor.

With lunch out of the way, it's time to get more errands out of the way. We drive down Western to Artesia Blvd. to the flagship Marukai market. Marukai is more than a Japanese grocery store, it also houses mini-stores featuring everything from cell phones to furniture. There is also a food court and we've had a decent lunch here as well. Usually we are on a mission for specific ingredients: rice, udon noodles, miso, and fish cake, lots and lots of fishcake. My oldest son can eat an entire fishcake loaf in one sitting. It's always fun to search the aisles for an adventure. Most labels are in Japanese so you'll need to know what you are looking for or be bold enough to ask a Japanese speaker to help you out.

We leave Marukai and again head further South on Western Ave. On a previous outing I had spotted a very interesting site. A place called Eschbach's Meats and Sausages. This tiny Sausage company seems to have been here since the 1940's. The building certainly has. It's cinder block construction is a bit off-putting from the parking lot. They usually leave the door to the back room open and you can see all the large stainless steel equipment used to make sausages there on the premises. The meat counter has everything from Bratwurst to ground beef, but the sausages are obviously the star. Many people swear by their inexpensive and tasty sandwiches and according to chowhound the place gets quite the lunch rush crowd. We are there on a mission - Brats for a birthday party. They have four types, regular and Hungarian both raw and smoked. We pick up 20 regular, 10 Hungarian (which have extra garlic and the spicy kick of hot Paprika), and one smoked Hungarian (for me to eat on the way home). The recipe for the Bratwurst is fabulous. They are flavorful and not too fatty. The smoked Hungarian one I snacked on was like the ultimate Slim Jim, except it wasn't slim, it was fat, chewy, spicy and smokey. Heaven in a meat stick.

Our adventures in Gardena usually end there. At this point our car has perishables that need refrigeration and we need to get our kids home. The adventure is always a success, bargains found, great lunch enjoyed, more sights and sounds that we have time to process. Gardena is a unique Southern Californian city/town that truly can boast a few very genuine ethnic experiences. A large population of Japanese have called it home for over 100 years. In the past 30 years Latinos have moved in to create a unique mix of people and place. If you get a chance, go explore.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Lena's Wine Cooler

Our Swedish friends were visiting last month. We organized a picnic lunch at a beautiful spot for a warm sunny day. Lena and I made a special trip to the Farmer's Market in Santa Monica for the ingredients and then we couldn't carry all we wanted to buy. We ended up making loads of food - Grilled Asparagus with Blood Orange Sauce, Marinated Cucumbers with Dill, Mustardy Potato and Green Bean Salad, Tarragon Chicken Salad, Fresh Peach Cake and there may have been a few other items I have forgotten.

The hit of the day was the wine cooler I devised based on Lena's suggestion of Cucumbers and Green Apples as substitutes for the citrus I usually use. I happened to have a few sprigs of Lemon Verbena in my produce drawer, left over from the previous week's farmer's market outing. I can't resist the smell and taste of Lemon Verbena it's just about the best one leaf breath freshener there is and the beautiful bush is easy to grow in our Southern Californian climate. Usually I don't find a good use for what I buy, but simply eat it leaf by leaf for the experience. But this time it made the perfect infused sugar syrup to go with the cucumbers and apples.

I choose to use a wine called Colombelle. It has a purply lavender label and a screw off top. It's under $10/bottle and comes from the Southwest of France made from Colombard and Ugni blanc grapes. If I didn't use the Colombelle I would have used a Sauvignon Blanc as you want a light citrusy wine with no oaky overtones.

Here's the recipe:

Lena's Cucumber and Apple Wine Coolers

Makes 2 - 1/2 gal batches

1 Cup Sugar
1 Cup Water
3 sprigs Lemon Verbena

2 750ml bottle Colombelle
2 liter bottles of seltzer water

1 cucumber, peeled, seeded, thinly sliced
2 granny smith apples, sliced thinly off the core

In a small saucepan combine the sugar, water and lemon verbena. Bring the mixture to a boil and then simmer for 10 minutes to infuse the syrup with the lemon verbena. Take it off the heat and let cool for several hours or overnight.

In a one gallon pitcher place the apple slices, cucumber slices and a few cups of ice. Pour in 1/2 of the sugar syrup, one bottle of wine and one bottle of seltzer. Stir gently. Serve over more ice with a thin slice of apple or cucumber as garnish.


BLT in One Step?

At the start of our fabulous meal at Le Cinq in Paris we were offered several types of freshly baked breads. Most were the usual choices, brioche, olive bread, a crispy roll. But one choice stood out from the others. Thin slices from a loaf of bacon bread. Yes, cooked bacon lardoons strewn throughout a rich buttery white bread loaf. Each of us had to try it. We had never seen anything like it.
It was amazingly good. (I'm sure they wouldn't have served it if it wasn't.) The smokey taste of the bacon permeated each bite and the chewy bacon pieces added interesting texture and flavor which was hard to resist.
The bread sparked a discussion about the joys of a BLT sandwich and how interesting it would be to toast up a few slices of this bread, slather it in a fresh mayonnaise and then top it with a slice of fresh tomato and crisp lettuce. The idea was intriguing.
Two nights later Bruce and I started our evening with a cocktail at the beautifully posh hotel bar at the hotel (Four Seasons George V). We were brought a small tray with a dish of warm assorted nuts. A few minutes later the bartender brought out two small muffins, hot from the oven. He said that they were arugula muffins. What?
They were delicious. Somewhat like a zucchini bread or carrot bread, but less sweet, not quite savory. We devoured them and the discussion regarding the unique BLT began again.
Not only can you make bread with bacon in it, you can also add the greens into the mix as well. Well then, why not add some slivers of plumped up sun dried tomato as well?
Wouldn't one need only to toast a thick slice of this creation and slather it with some fabulous homemade mayonnaise, perhaps an aioli, to make just about the most simple and creative BLT sandwich ever made? Add a sliced avocado and now we're close to simplistic perfection in a sandwich.
I have yet to experiment with a recipe. I may consult my baking friends on the idea... when I get closer to making this dream a reality, I'll address the subject again.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Paris Eats III: George V

A year ago my husband and I were at the annual ginormous fund raising event for the local school district. We've attended each year since moving here. It's a fabulously entertaining event with great food, lots of wine, and the best people watching venue of the year - everything from casually clad beach trash to skimpily dressed packs of cougars roam through tennis courts filled with food and wine booths and hundreds of silent auction items. The live auction occurs toward the end of the event, when everyone is sufficiently drunk enough to feel comfortable bidding on the ultra high end lots of goods. Last year's auction was sluggish. Each item was taking an excruciating amount of time to be sold off at a decent price. I wasn't paying much attention until the business class round trip tickets to Paris with four nights at the Four Seasons hotel came up on the block. The bidding started around 5k and my husband's hand shot up. That caught my attention. In the past we had sat silently watching the auction, never really bidding on anything or even caring what was going on up there, but here he was with a serious and determined look on his face (as serious as he could be after drinking a few bottles of wine). "What are you doing?" I asked. "As long as it's under valued I might as well bid!" was his reply. And he was right, we were planning a trip to Paris with friends for the following Spring and business class seats would be a fabulous catch, not to mention a few nights at one of the best hotels in the world. The bidding continued and his hand stayed put in the upright position. 7,8,9k "Are you sure?" "Why not?" 10, 11, 12k gulp 13, 14, 15, 16k and we got it. Wow! It was below value and we were thrilled - vibrating with excitement. My husband refers to that night as "The night we pretended to be rich."

Fast forward a year and now you'll understand how we found ourselves checking out of our tiny Montparnasse "hotel" and into the Four Seasons Georges V HOTEL for our last four nights in Paris. The George V is not large by any standards but the luxury and class of the place hit you as you walk in the door. For the first day or so the level of service and attention to detail keep your attention. Each and every person on staff says hello or bonjour as you walk past. Every corner of every room is cleaned and polished, all the time!

We have a posh Parisian breakfast the morning we check in and watch a team of workers, we referred to them as the "water boys", roll a low flat cart in through the lobby restaurant and into Le Cinq (the high end dinner restaurant) and retrieve all of the tall, and I mean tall, 3-6', cylindrical vases which are filled with water and orchids. They carefully roll them out of the restaurant to refill them and then return them. This is done each morning and is quite a chore taking well over an hour to complete. The staff are endlessly busy.

We love our room without a view. It's beautifully decorated and has every amenity one could wish for. We spend time resting there between Parisian adventures, just soaking up the beauty of the place.

Our finest meal during our Paris trip was at Le Cinq in the George V hotel. It was the last meal we shared with our friends who travelled with us in Paris. Our reservation was for 8pm and we were the second party to be seated for the night, a woman and her grand-daughter had beaten us to the dining room by a few minutes. We are sat in a corner, overlooking the hotel's courtyard, at a round table. It was raining and continued to come down more and more steadily as the evening progressed.

The menu offered items a la carte as well as two types of tasting menus, a chef's menu with five courses and a menu de la gustation offering eight courses. The entire table would have to order the same tasting menu if one was chosen. As we noshed on the wonderful fresh breads that were offered with the Normandy butter we had become addicted to, we pondered the tasting menu question. There wasn't much discussion... we had to do it. When would we be here again? When would again have the stamina to persevere through such an undertaking? Of course we'd have to have wine paired with each course as well, doing without was out of the question. This decision was easy for me as the menu had no pricing on it all. I had almost forgotten the old fashioned practice of not allowing the women to see the cost of the meal she was ordering. So quaint and so helpful because I'm not sure I would have pushed for the larger menu if I had known the extravagance of the price.

I won't list out the entire menu giving descriptions of each dish. It's not my style and the truth is I wouldn't be able to remember enough detail to give justice to the chef's work (Eric Beaumard). I do remember morels, sorrel, asparagus, a truffled parmesan crisp, lamb that was a bit too gamey for my taste, and then... the cheeses.

The service was impeccable as well as friendly. I'll never forget how a swarm of waiters would circle our table delivering each course under a metal dome placed at each setting "un, deux, trois" and the domes would be lifted simultaneously.

The wines paired with each dish were incredibly well thought out. And of course they were as the head sommelier (Thierry Hamon) at Le Cinq has won top sommelier of the world awards - so he knows his stuff. We saw him walk by a few times, but for the most part we had a few of his minions serving us. You could tell the sommeliers by the little grape cluster pin on each of their lapels - the fancier the pin, the more respected the sommelier - the head guy had gold with diamonds, which made his position obvious!

The highlight of the wines was the fun of a blind pour. Black wine glasses were brought to our table before our roasted langoustine and fennel dish. I perked up right away and began chatting up the wine guy asking if we were to have a blind tasting. He said yes, yes and we won't know if the wine is red or white. But a minute later another wine guy was removing our black glasses and we asked why. Weren't we doing the blind thing? Yes he explained, but we need to pour the wine away from the table or else you'd see the color of the wine is as it goes into the glass and he finished his explanation with a deriding remark in a thickly French accented English about the newby guy who had put the black glasses at our table "Pierre!". Poor Pierre! Unfortunately the wine was not too mysterious, there were no tannins to speak of and our guess of white was confirmed when one of our guests poured a drop onto her white napkin (CHEATER!).

During the lamb course I had eyed the cheese cart across the way. I didn't let it out of my sight... anxious for my turn to choose a few delicious bits. It seemed to take forever to come our way. We had to finish our main courses, have a bit of sorbet to cleanse our palates, and then wait patiently for it to be rolled over to our table. Each person at the table was able to choose a few to try. Our dining companions have somewhat less adventurous taste than my husband and I and we did our best to pick out a few standard favorites we knew they would like. The cheese guy was very knowledgeable and picked up on the differences between each of us and made sure to give my husband the stinkiest of all the cheeses and me the most interesting and rare, things I may not have tried before. They were all lovely, I rarely meet a cheese I don' t like. In fact the cheese was so good that when our waiter came to ask which dessert we'd like, the chocolate souffle or the something or other... I chose more cheese please! They couldn't believe it, no dessert? No, just another glass of that fabulous red we had with the cheese course (Chateau Chalon 1996 Domaine Pichet) and a few more slivers of the fatty rich aged dairy product please!
Besieds, I knew that any fancy restaurant worth it's cheese is going to put out a plate of sweets after the dessert is served and these few slivers of chocolate would be more than enough sweet for me. And they were!

I so impressed the wait staff with my love of cheese that one of them suggested a restaurant he knew of that paired a cheese with each course it serves. I asked him to please try to get me the information for this place as it sounded like an adventure made just for me. A few minutes later he came to our table with a page copied out of a restaurant book with the contact information for the restaurant. I wasted no time at all in making a bee-line to the concierge desk on my next bathroom break to ask them for help in obtaining reservations anytime over the next few days, please! (A note slipped under our door overnight regretted to inform us that the restaurant no longer exists. What a disappointment!)

We rolled out of the restaurant after midnight. We were the last people to leave. We were tipsy and still reeling from the sensory overload of the place, food, wine, service, expense and experience. We wandered out in front of the hotel and smoked cigars in the rain before saying a fond farewell to our friends as they were leaving for home the next morning. What a send off they had!