Pret-a-Boire

As a wine director, working at a restaurant affords me the luxury of tasting several wines from different importers whose portfolios reflect a certain sensibility towards winemakers. Often I have a chance to taste older vintages which can prove useful in understanding how wines evolve with time. This is especially important in wines such as Barolo or Gran Reserva Riojas which require extensive cellaring.

One very large negative as a wine director is that I go out to restaurants less and less. The opportunity is just not there, and I often prefer the comfort of a home cooked meal than the same old scene. When I do choose to go out, I am ready to drink some serious wine, eager to see what my fellow wine directors are putting on their lists.

Herein lay the pitfalls of knowing too much. Wine is directly responsible for the financial stability of a restaurant, especially today. Almost no money can be made from the food, because chefs today use very high quality ingredients. All the profit is pinned on the alcohol, and as a consumer you should understand that. Rather than lamenting that a twelve dollar bottle has been marked up to forty-two, round out the cost with the entire package. If the atmosphere, service, and food met or exceeded your expectations, the mark up was well executed.

The problem arises when you know the price of a bottle and there is veritable price gouging. Just recently I scoured a list at a high end Madison Avenue Spanish restaurant and found a bottle of wine selling for fifty-two dollars. I serve the same wine at the restaurant for twenty-four dollars. I know what we both paid for the bottle. What’s up with that? It’s an insult and an abuse.

For the most part, wine directors offer some values on their lists. Even if you have no idea how to navigate a wine list, just ask the sommelier where the values are. Sommeliers are supposed to be helpful, and wine directors love to sneak in great deals like programmers like to include secret codes. If that fails, just ask your server, who undoubtedly has favorites as well.

Finally, beware of the younger vintages. The great thing about an extensive wine list is the opportunity to try hard to get wines, wines that are summarily snapped up by collectors before it ever reaches your local wine shop. Just order a 1964 Barolo to understand exactly what I mean. You have to pay for this, of course, but at least this is an available option to you as a foodie and wine lover. All too often great wines are offered on lists, albeit too young. For instance, I have been noticing on more Spanish wine lists the inclusion of the 1998 R.Lopez de Heredia Vina Bosconia. I have tasted this wine on several occasions this past year, and this wonderful effort from the Rioja Alta is a superb value, except for it being absolutely not ready to drink. Yet it is popping up on lists everywhere. What gives?

The same is true for many wines, like CDP’s (Chateau-neuf du Papes) which should not be uncorked for at least seven years after release. And barolos, brunellos, barbarescos, bordeaux, gran reserva riojas. The list goes on and on. Why do restaurants offer these wines?
These wines offer prestige to a list. Caché. A degree of excitement to the wine lover.

Another solution is that the wine can be decanted and aerated, thus exposing the young volatile juice to oxygen, promoting the aging process at your table. Is this a substitute to bottle aging? Quite frankly, the answer is very often a resounding no. My good friend el capitan uses a technique he learned from a Barolo master. Uncork the wine four hours before drinking, and transfer the liquid from decanter to decanter to promote accelerated aeration. Repeat several times. Something you would never do with the older vintages. I’ve seen this work with my own eyes and palate, but I’m not convinced just yet.

One thing you can do if you have an established relationship with the sommelier is to call ahead and ask him/her to decant it for you in advance. If there is a fee involved, this is well worth it, and if needed provide your credit card for insurance. That way when you arrive to the restaurant, all of your wine is prêt-a-boire (ready to drink). This may seem like obsessive planning, but it will be worth the effort, especially for young, tannic, closed wines.

Next time you scope a wine list for the treasures, be careful, ask a lot of questions, and drink the best wine you possibly can afford for the meal. Remember, life is too short to drink bad wine.

Spanish Mazel Tov

The quality of kosher wines has improved steadily over the years, although the options for good, quality bottles have remained limited. This holiday season opt for the Capcanes Peraj Ha’abib, Flor de Primavera 2003. Cellar Capcanes has been quietly growing old vines garnacha (Grenache) in the northeastern Montsant appellation of Spain, next door to the prestigious Priorato region since 1933. This cooperative was petitioned by the Jewish community in Barcelona to create a kosher wine, a task the Catholic winery was unequipped for, according to strict Jewish code. An enormous upgrade and consultation by rabbis brought Capcanes up to code, resulting in a magnificent effort regardless of religious denomination. Flor de Primavera means spring blossom, but don’t be fooled by its dainty name. Aged in French oak for over one year, this wine boasts a ton of black fruit, smoky aromas and juicy spice. This wine exudes the true finesse and power of Spanish wine.

Spanish Picnic

Just before you head up to the attic to bring out those fall sweaters, Mother Nature has left us just enough sunshine to enjoy a scant few picnics at one of the big apple’s many parks. Barbecue if you can, but as many a Texan will chide you with a stiff upper lip, most New Yorkers mix up this religious practice with grilling. A trip to Despana store on Broome St. for some jamon y queso is all that you require, and of course a proper bottle or two of wine.

Start with a rosé, move on to white, and twilight in style. This summer, time and time again, I reached for a Spanish wine, as Spanish winemakers are in the midst of a renaissance. More and more producers are stepping up to the plate, led by trailblazers such as the Palacios brothers. My favorite rosado (rosé) this summer has been the Artazu Artazuri, a dry, crisp, clean 100% garnacha (Grenache), full-bodied, versatile and yet another example not to dismiss rosés. Jean Leon of La Scala fame continues to produce world class wines. Try the Muscat blend, with parellada and a touch of gewurtraminer. This honeysuckled wine gives tickles and surprises.

The indigenous Spanish whites have also seen better production. Albarino, the famous grape from Rias Baixas, has always been the pride of Spain for white wines. Don Olegario crafts a delicious albarino which is easily the best I’ve tasted here in the U.S. market. Verdejo, from Rueda, is also making a splash. The wines are crisp and apply, with plenty of acidity, making it easy to pair with all types of seafood. Bodegas Nieva produces a baseline blanco and a complex Pie Franco, easily the best white wine I’ve tasted this summer. The vines are ungrafted and are over 100 years old. For a comparative blend, pick up Las Brisas from Bodegas Naia, a mixture of sauvignon blanc, verdejo, and viura. This summer sipper delivers aromas of citrus.

Palacios turns in the Placet, a 100% viura that’s just summer peaches. The wine is organically crafted and elegant. If you are looking for a more serious white wine, pick up a bottle of As Sortes, a Chablis-like wine with minerality, racing acidity, and broad-textured balance.

So bid farewell to the summer with a proper glass of wine, a good spread, a memory of the sunset, and a loved one(s) next to you.

Little India, Singapore

by William Lychack

Eggplants are, apparently, either male or female, Kali getting us up to our elbows in these great bins of eggplants, explaining in her sing-song voice how females will have more meat, less seeds, and will be less bitter for us. She shows us the way males don’t have dimples under their fat end and explains how we’ll be candy striping the skins later and dressing them with salt to draw the water out before cooking. We are, by the way, in Little India, in the middle of one of Singapore’s many wet markets, Kali having started our education in her native Tamil cooking by teaching us first how to choose the best produce and then how to dicker the best prices with the stall owners. “You must be willing mongers. Kali holds each fish by its tail to test its freshness. She opens the gills, which need to be bright red, and strokes each tiger shrimp to be sure they’re slippery to the touch, which means they’re fresh. There are great baskets of slow-moving spider crabs and, above us, scissor swallows swoop back and forth under the ceiling. Kali argues over the price, has the fish wrapped in newspaper, and tells us that she doesn’t know about us, but she already has the most important ingredient for any meal—hunger.

Outside is Serangoon Road, the walkways strung with rally flags and colored lights—it’s the day after Ganesh’s birthday—and bright red shrines to the Elephant Boy and his mother, Sati, stand on every corner. Bollywood music warbles under the awnings of a music store. One of Singapore’s most famous fortune-tellers happens to be at the corner and we stop and sit in the shade of his sidewalk booth, his bright green parrot looking,” she says, “to walk away.”

We’re winding a path through this warren of dry goods and flowers, fruits and vegetables, making our slow way toward the musky smell of lamb, then poultry, and then the slick-wet concrete and tiles and smell of the fish at us and choosing our card from the deck before him, the man reading our hands and numbers, Kali translating the what has been and what will come.

Singapore has been home to my wife’s family for more than seven years now—and we’ve planned a feast before returning home to New York. Our final evening in Asia will be tandoori prawns, chicken curry, eggplants, lentils, chutneys, yogurt cucumbers, yellow spring rice, papadam bread, chocolate carrot cake… And as soon as we get home from the market, Kali has us cleaning the prawns, as they’re the quickest to spoil. She talks in a kind of Singlish, a derivation of what most native Singaporens speak, and she tells us how rinsing the shrimp after we peel and de-head them will remove all the flavor from their flesh. We are new to cooking like this, my wife and I, and we just do as Kali does.

“How did she learn to cook?” we ask.

“As a little girl,” she says, “learning to cook, watching my mother, she’d always let me help prepare with her. ‘Chop the onions,’ she’d say. And I’d take up all the little bits and pieces and put it all behind and wait for lunch to be over and for my mother to disappear for a nap. So then I’d go and take all her ingredients into the backyard and, with a little stove and a little pot, I’d cook all the ingredients and try to remember how she did everything. Then I’d call my neighbors, take banana leaves for plates, and make the children sit and serve them. Sometimes my mother caught me, but the more my mother said, “No, no, no,” the more I said, “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.”

Not a single ingredient goes into the meal that isn’t connected, in some way, to a story for Kali—the medicinal uses of young ginger, the way she learned to make the mango chutney, how her husband worshipped her lentils leading to why and how they divorced. “I told him I couldn’t go on like we were,” she says and smiles and chops the chicken with a heavy butcher’s cleaver, “and he either had to leave or kill me.”

She describes her cooking as somewhere between the traditional, spicy food of her grandmother and the hawker-style food of her mother. “I cook for health,” she says, “health and presentation.”

KALI’S NAN PURI

½ Cup Milk (warm to the temperature of blood and add ½ teaspoon of sugar in a medium-sized bowl)

Add 1 Tablespoon of yogurt to Milk

Add 1 teaspoon of yeast (sprinkle on top)

Cover with clear-plastic wrap

Ready when foggy (yes, FOGGY—difficult to believe or explain, but after about 10 minutes the bowl will have a fog over it and will be ready for the flour)

Add 3 Cups of flour

1 teaspoon salt

Knead dough always toward the middle, using a light oil on your countertop to avoid sticking, adding touch of warm water

Turn dough over and let rise a second time

Make a log of the dough and cut into 2-inch pieces (approximately the size of a golf ball)

Roll out into a 1/4–inch pancake

Cook in very hot oil (the bread will puff up), turn when golden brown, and let drain

Soup’s Ahoy

The original Soupman is now in Harlem, just in time for September breezes and rains. Made popular by that famous Seinfeld episode, the Harlem store is smack dab on 130th street on the wide boulevard known as Lenox Avenue, and has everything the Yemeni is renowned for, minus the attitude.

You can sample many of the soups before you order, and this may only serve to confuse matters even further, as they are all hearty and tasty. There is a sandwich/salad and soup special too, although you’d be better off just sticking with the sublime soups.

Of the revolving choices, there is mushroom barley, turkey chili, seafood gumbo, five bean chili, jambalaya, broccoli and cheese, crab bisque, shrimp bisque, and lobster bisque. The bisques are crafted with just a touch of cream and cost a bit more, but deservedly so. The average meal will run you about ten dollars. There’s even soup to go, at alarming rates, especially for the seafood options, but this may be a better alternative to six foot hero sandwiches for the Sunday football game.

The store has a few tables and resembles a chain, what with the founder’s painted portrait and logo plastered over the rear wall. Delivery is also available if you just can’t bring yourself up to 130th street, but for neighboring Harlem residences only.