Sunday, January 15, 2012

Mid-winter dreams

I'm sure there are Frenchies out there who would die at the idea: a group of Californian foodies attempting a Provencal feast, in the middle of January.

This endeavor was inspired by the dream-inducing Provence episode of No Reservations. One that has a million quotables about the area's beauty from an unusually gushing Bourdain. "It's like a movie, only better," he says, describing the lavender and sunflower fields, how the tomatoes burst with color. He talks about the virtues of small town life, one of simple errands in local shops and long meals in gardens.

One problem with this dream, as his guide points out: "No one sweats." Over several lazy outdoor meals, the locals address the romanticized ideal of Provence. In the past, before tourism, times where tough. The countryside is hot, dry and doesn't farm well, and their famous vegetable-based cuisine is a result of poverty, basically. They gently make fun of tourists for standing out in the streets, with the wrong clothes on and walking in the sun in the heat of the day, instead of hugging the shadows of the buildings the way the locals do.

Tony is supposed to cook for friends later in the show, and he is bluntly told not to attempt the classics, such as aioli and ratatouille; it would be like "spitting at grandma," as he paraphrases.

Such admonishments serve to inspire rather than deter certain personalities, however, and this includes my friend. And, unlike Tony, my friend did not have the "royal family" of Provence cooking in attendance to criticize any small misstep, just a few adventurous mouths to feed. Additionally he is a good cook, and owns about every kitchen gadget known to man, thanks to his wedding gift registry.

Most important among the required gadgetry: a mortar and pestle to make aioli. In the Provencal feast scheme of things, aioli is the life of the party, the condiment that enlivens the simple vegetable preparations. It is painstakingly prepared by crushing garlic, adding egg yolk, and drizzling in olive oil. Apparently, after 45 minutes of this incorporation process, our friend's arm was screaming. Though he described watching a video of a woman who was "a million years old," by his estimation, patiently stirring together this concoction for close to two hours.

Whether it was "perfect" or not, it was garlicky, eggy, creamy and pretty much made me want to bathe in it. Fortunately there was a full spread of roast veggies, baguette, and pork loin to put the condiment to better use.

For vino, we had a few things on hand:
Franciacorta bubbles from Majolini, 1994. A bit past its prime but lively enough to handle the food.
Etna Rosato (rose of Nerello Mascalese) from Scilio. A dry, pretty Sicilian rose similar to what is consumed widely in Provence.
Chateauneuf-du-Pape from Andrieux et Fils. A Grenache-based southern French red, peppery, smooth, and medium bodied. The best pairing for the food and apparently also a WWTD (what would Tony drink). In the show Tony admits he doesn't know much about wine, but he loves his Rhone reds.

So whether Frenchies would take issue with our attempt to recreate Provence, in the end we were all too full and happy to care.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Zombie apocalypse

     It was 3:30 on New Year's Eve. The front of house staff were hunkered down at the bar for family meal, taking a few moments to breathe before the longest night of the year commenced. It was rarity for us, a chance to eat together and get a detailed explanation of the evening's special menu.

     But not a few minutes into our meal we heard a clanging at the locked front door. Was it a lost, reservationless soul trying to sneak in, despite the clearly unlit "open" sign? Or possibly an employee?

     The noise continued. Against my better judgment I turned, and caught the confused gaze of a grey-haired woman. I quickly glanced away, and to the boss. He'd seen it too; being an extremely accommodating host, I expected him to jump up, to explain we were closed. I even thought he might let the woman in, and start service early. We'd sigh, put our food away and get dressed while people were waiting expectantly at tables. But I saw a lack of reaction in his face; maybe just the slightest twinge of "Aww fuck" before he went back to explaining his menu.

     Meanwhile the phone is ringing. Continuously ringing. Fortunately we had a manger with the phone at hand, next to her plate. "No we are booked, I'm sorry," she said over and over again. "People are so lame," she complained. "Who expects a reservation at the last minute?" 

     Something wasn't "right" with people this time of the year. The awkward holiday parties, traffic, busy malls, time with relatives, and over-indulgence of food and alcohol had made all sense and reason disappear. 

     I was surprisingly guiltless about not budging from my seat. Typically once I step foot in the restaurant, I feel a relentless sense of obligation to cater to people's needs, as being selfish is not a profitable option in customer service. But the last nerve had been fried. I was beat down after the non-stop onslaught of the last couple weeks.

     Opening dinner shifts had come to feel like a war zone. First off, it was like someone had set bombs off in all the breadbaskets by the amount of crumbs strewn all over the floor.  In the midst of bread-crumb remediation duties, I'd be running to finish regular opening tasks, answer phones and direct the stream of unusually early diners. The impatient stares, strange requests, out-of-town weirdos, and general bad manners made this thankless work.

     The clanging at the door started again. "Feeed ussss," I pictured them saying, mindlessly scraping at the windows. I looked at the boss again, would he finally cave?

     Nope, just a blank look.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

My happy place

  Avignonesi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva "Grandi Annate" 2006

     An aromatic beauty. The one wine I've felt like going to every person in the restaurant, putting the glass to their nose, "Ever thought a wine could do that?"

     Picture sitting in a rose garden, at dusk say, when the flowers are rocking their full perfume. From a kitchen window someone is cooking cranberry sauce, with the scent of cloves, nutmeg and orange peel gently intermingling with that thick rose fragrance. 

     A 91 for the '06 vintage according the Spectator, showing again how point scores are lacking. How do you quantify the "it" factor? I like the story my vendor told about this wine- upon opening it at a dinner party one night "everyone got really quiet." 

     Or at a recent Dalla Terra tasting, I had a chance to re-vist some Vietti, a crazy Barbaresco that didn't even have a price listed, among other things, but I went straight for the Avignonesi. I happily lounged with my tart, strange wine and nibbles of cheese.

     I had to do a little dance when a table finally ordered this wine the other night. No one orders stuff this cool very often. Admittedly, it was with my recommendation, but it was the right wine for the right people (they love awesome Sangiovese). The average California palate would taste the cranberry-orange thing going on and would be like, "What the hell did I just drop a hundo on?"

     Bottom line, luscious fruit but of the cranberry/raspberry variety, with an exotic, fragrant nose. A happy place for a sensitive, dreamer-type wino. 

85% Prugnolo Gentile & 15% Cabernet Sauvignon
Prugnolo Gentile is local to Montepulciano, Tuscany, and is similar to the Sangiovese Grosso clone grown in neighboring Montalcino. Yes, these clones do taste a bit bigger and more flavorful than common Sangiovese.