Saturday, December 18, 2010

Wine of the Moment: Holiday Edition

The holidays are one of the best wine-drinking seasons of the year. The festivities and food demand it. Plus, it's a great way to counteract the artery-clogging effects of a Christmas roast. So in lieu of a Wine of the Moment, here are several quality examples, at varying price levels, of excellent holiday wines.

$10 to $20
These are good times to be a wine drinker. There is more value out there for consumers than ever before, particularly in light of the worldwide recession and recent strengthening of the U.S. dollar compared to a few years ago. The Las Rocas Garnacha, from Spain, runs about $10 and is a pleasingly refreshing, overtly fruity red wine that can stand up to the side dishes with a turkey or the richness of a roast beef. From Germany, the Dr. Loosen "L" Riesling is a spectacular deal, also around $10. This would stand up to a turkey dinner, but its slightly sweet, refreshingly acidic palate is a terrific day to kick off the day or wake yourself up after a food coma.

For a real treat, seek out some Siduri Pinot Noir Sonoma County. The 2009, available from the winery, is a special wine for about $20. You'll be hard-pressed to find a better in Pinot Noir from anywhere in the world these days. Winemaker Adam Lee, also a native Texan, has crafted appellation wines that are serious but immensely enjoyable in their youth.

$20 to $30
There are exciting things happening in Spain these days. While some of the wines are overly oaked and ripened to excess using an Australian model, there are a lot of good wines that have found harmony between the old and new styles. A top example is Numanthia Termes from Toro. At about $25, it has a plush palate, a healthy amount of oak, but a classically Spanish sensibility to the berry fruit. This is a tremendous choice for an all-day wine -- it would go great with food or by itself.

Back in the Pinot Noir camp, try something different with the Groffier Bourgogne Passetoutgrains. Available at Spec's for roughly $28, this is a bit different for a red Burgundy. Passetoutgrains wines are permitted to be a blind of Pinot Noir and Gamay, the grape of Beaujolais. Think of it as Beaujolais with an extra dose of aromatics and refinement. The Groffier is a particularly nice example, with the elegance and finesse of Burgundy from a top-quality producer and a slightly rustic, fruity edge of Beaujolais. It's like celebrating with high end Beaujolais Nouveau.

For a change of pace from the usual thinking regarding holiday wines, try the Nozzole Chianti Classic Riserva, which runs about $24. It's got the typical, quite refreshing berry fruit and floral flavors of good Chianti but is done in a style that is very approachable right away. The acidity can combat the richness of so many dishes on the holiday table.

$30 and up
If you really want to stay American with your holiday celebrations, the Robert Biale Zinfandel Napa Valley Black Chicken is for you. At about $42, it's not shy on price, but it's also a terrific, consistent example of the briary, jammy style of Zinfandel that has made the grape such a signature of California wine. It retains a solid level of acidity to make it pair well with food.

Two final suggestions are both Pinot Noir, both offering distinct and delightful personalities. The first is Joseph Swan Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Trenton Estate Vineyard. The day Spec's started carrying the Joseph Swan wines was a good one for Houston wine drinkers, and the Trenton Estate Pinot is a benchmark in California. It is a remarkable combination of hedonism and intellectualism: a wine you can drink with pleasure but also ruminate over. It evokes the classic cherry fruit of the Russian River Valley, along with the earthy baking spices that are a hallmark of the region. It'll run you about $50, and it's worth every penny, since it is one of the great California Pinots and a versatile food companion.

Finally, if Swan is a grand master and statesman of the U.S. Pinot scene, Retour Pinot Noir Willamette Valley is a flashy race horse. The winery's first vintage was only in 2006, but the wines have compelling texture and balance. They couple the darker, blackberry fruit expression of Oregon with earthy notes. With a velvety texture that has developed nicely with time in bottle, this would make an outstanding companion to standing rib roast.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Book Review: A dissatisfying Steak

Slate columnist Mark Schatzker published Steak: One Man's Search for the World's Tastiest Piece of Beef earlier this year, and one thing about the title certainly is true. It is the search of a single person; that is, profoundly limited. And, for the most part, uninteresting. Sometimes the book is even infuriating. Schatzker's book suffers from a lot of the usual bad food writing symptoms: overwritten with too much emphasis on adjectives, an inexplicable reliance on myth and slippery memories of the past, and the triumph of preconceived notions tested only against straw men.

Steak opens in interesting enough fashion, chronicling the hallowed place of steak on the dinner table when Schatzker grew up. But the introduction seems to drag. There isn't a clear sense of direction laid out, other than the amorphous "I'm going to scour the world for steak!" premise. Schatzker lays out no criteria, no benchmarks. He embraces anecdotal tales of great steaks from friends and family members, which, somehow gives rise to a definition of the perfect steak that is never fully explicated in the text. Sure, he says that a great steak should be ready to swallow when you are tired of chewing, otherwise it is too tough. But he undermines the notion of tenderness by acknowledging he prefers tougher, grass-fed beef.

In reality, Schatzker jumps on the grass-fed beef bandwagon late and clumsily sets up grain-fed beef as a second-class citizen. The first portion of Steak is devoted to his trip to Texas, in search of great beef. This assumption that Texas is home to the best beef in the world is the first example of Schatzker's continuous reliance on mythology rather than fact or methodical investigation. He goes to a large, industrial feed lot, only to find it disappointing (shocking). He tries a couple Texas steakhouses, with no explanation regarding why he chose them. His first stop is the Big Texan, motivated, it seems, solely by the existence of their cartoon-character 72-ounce steak. There is no evidence that Schatzker investigated where to get the best steak in Texas. He didn't even seek out a steakhouse serving USDA Prime beef. This lack of methodology is something that largely goes unexplained -- a fault that only occurs when it comes to eating grain-fed steak and stands in stark contrast to his relentless pursuit of grass-fed beef.

With grass-fed steak, Schatzker is meticulous, going to the far corners of the globe to locate the smallest, most artisanal producers of beef. They are in Scotland, remote Italian villages, and middle-of-nowhere ranches in Colorado. Even after a disastrous first taste of grass-fed steak, Schatzker persists in uncovering more. This luxury of a second chance is not afforded to "commodity beef," the curious term with which he labels all grain-fed steak. He waxes poetic about types of grasses and the terroir of steak. He delves into the lineages of various forms of cattle. But he leaves out or patently dismisses certain steak fundamentals that gut his arguments and analysis.

Schatzker spends approximately three sentences on dry aging, which he dismisses toward the end of the book as overrated, a trick to cover up poor quality beef. Yet he also, in the context of his beloved grass-fed steak, admires dry aging whole sides of beef for undetermined periods of time This contradiction isn't explained, leaving his dismissal of dry aging stand as a curious criticism of his belief that it covers up grain-fed beef's lack of flavor.

More damning to Schatzker's book and undermining any notion of him as a steak authority is his similar disdain for resting a steak after it has been cooked. Seriously? Have you ever cut into a steak -- or any piece of meat -- as soon as it comes off the grill, from the skillet, or out of the oven? The juices run everywhere, leaving the meat dryer than it would be if it had been properly rested. It also drains the beautiful color that the meat should have, leaving it more gray and listless than it should be. How Schatzker can summarily dismiss an essential component to cooking -- endorsed by the likes of Jacques Pepin, Julia Child, Cook's Illustrated, and, frankly, virtually every steak authority and chef on the planet -- without so much as an explanation is perplexing. Cook a steak to medium rare and don't let it rest? Within a minute or two you will have a tortured piece of meat that looks and eats like it's medium-well, plus a plateful of juice. Schatzker's strong stand against resting steak after cooking also contradicts his concern that cattle be relaxed and avoid tension prior to slaughter, so as not to contract their muscle fibers, causing them to be tensed and toughen the meat. Resting a steak might as well be called "relaxing." Just as cattle should be tension-free on their way to the slaughter to ensure tender meat, so too must that same meat be allowed to rest after cooking in order for the muscle fibers to calm down after tensing and contracting during the cooking process and allow them to retain more juice. The recommendation to skip resting is indefensible.

If you don't believe me, would you trust Thomas Keller? Here is what he had to say about resting meat in Ad Hoc at Home: "Equally significant is the resting period after the food has been removed from the heat. Everything continues to cook once it's out of the heat, an effect called carryover cooking. But, even more important, as meat rests, the juices can redistribute throughout the meat. The meat fibers also firm up a little as they rest and are able to hold more juices."

Despite Schatzker's baseless and conclusory statements on resting, the greatest flaw of Steak is the lack of a passionate pursuit of finding a great, dry-aged, grain-fed steak. This is, by the conventional wisdom, what should have the makings for a great steak. (Not to say that the conventional wisdom is or should be correct. But in order to debunk it, you've got to take its best shot and articulate why you reject it.) Schatzker's encounters with grain fed steak consist of (1) his first visit to the Big Texan; (2) a chain steakhouse in Texas not serving prime beef; and (3) occasional, derisive mentions of eating "commodity" steak from supermarkets. Why did he make no attempt to seek out small producers of the finest grain-fed beef? To read Steak, you would think that no such producers exist. But that is, of course, patently untrue. Just see Bryan Flannery to debunk that assumption. And there are others. Yet Schatzker made no attempt to do so or even halfheartedly try to articulate a case for grain-fed beef. He seems to rely on the notion that grain makes beef tender, and all the average, stupid carnivore cares about is tenderness, and flavor is not a consideration. He equates grain-fed beef with not merely a lack of flavor but being devoid of flavor. If he had taken the same, inch-deep method to his investigation of grass fed steak, he would have stopped after his first encounter. But he didn't, and the inconsistency is glaring.

On the whole, Steak is a dissatisfying read if you have any passion for or interest in steak. There is a certain amount of useful information -- did you know that Angus cattle in the U.S. are far from purebred? -- but the gaps in Schatzker's logic, reliance on an anecdotal rather than rigorous methodology, and failure to be truly comprehensive in his search for great steak make this book an easy pass.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Wine every day, part two (coda)

A valid criticism of the previous post was raised: there was a lot regarding what not to drink or what not to do, but what about some affirmative advice on what to do? Sometimes, it feels like there is so much to fend off and prevent from interfering with wine enjoyment, it is too easy to get caught up in negativism.

So here’s a follow-up to provide some positive advice. Where should you start drinking? Riesling. That’s the simple answer. Riesling is lower in alcohol, refreshing, and similar to other beverages you probably enjoy, like soda or iced tea -- a bit sweet. Riesling won’t overwhelm you with tannins, like Cabernet, or too much burnt-tasting oak, like many red wines. It is the polar opposite of such wines. It is light and eminently drinkable. The wines are clean, crisp, and mineral-driven. Riesling comes in any number of styles, from bone dry to sappy sweet and pairs phenomenally well with an array of foods, from spicy to dessert.

Another positive aspect of Riesling is its price. It’s relatively inexpensive. Top-notch German Riesling, which is now much more widely available in Houston thanks to the passion of Scott Spencer at Houston Wine Merchant and Zachary Pearson at Spec’s, will cost you $12 to $25. That gives you a lot of wiggle room to experiment. Look especially for producers such as J.J. Prum, Selbach-Oster, and Dr. Loosen here in town. (A quick note: German wine labels are notoriously confusing, so just ask for help to be steered in the right direction.)

Of course, Riesling isn’t in vogue. You aren’t going to find it at cocktail party fundraisers about town. So you might be hesitant to stray from the red-wine-drinking herd. Okay. Then Pinot Noir should help ease you into wine. It’s still hip from the Sideways bounce, but it also happens to be the most versatile of red wines and one of the most approachable.

Like Riesling, Pinot Noir is generally fairly light (particularly compared to Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot) and is an exceptional dinner table companion. In fact, between Riesling and Pinot, you can probably find a good pairing to any dish that makes its way onto your plate. Pinot also comes in myriad styles, from dark, jammy wines that can make a decent impersonation of Zinfandel or Syrah to very light, feminine wines that remind you of cherry pie and a bouquet of roses or violets.

Pinot, however, has a bit of a downside. It is a difficult grape to grow, leading to many watery or poor examples of the wine. More relevant is that it is extremely difficult to grow Pinot cheaply. You’ll be hard-pressed to find quality Pinot for less than $20 a bottle these days. But the good news is that quality and variety is better than ever. For $20 to $25, you can find terrific bottles from Burgundy, California, Oregon, and New Zealand. For example, check out the current release Bourgogne bottlings from Albert Bichot (a real steal at about $10), Faiveley, and Louis Latour. There’s also the delicious Joseph Swan Cuvee de Trois (actually about $30) and Calera Central Coast, two California wines routinely available in town. And the best Oregon value Pinot is made by Texas-native Adam Lee at Siduri. Available from the winery’s mailing list, their Willamette Valley blend sells for $20. From down under, both Oyster Bay and Nautilus are making solid Pinots that deliver quality at a value price.

These are merely a handful of tangible starting points. Maybe you go try one of these bottles and think they’re terrible. That’s cool. Wine is all about personal taste -- not points awarded by critics or impressing people. There is so much quality wine out there these days, it won’t take you long to find something that suits your taste. Before long, you’ll be jumping into wine with both feet.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Wine Every Day, part two

So you’ve decided to drink some wine. Excellent. You’ve taken the first and most essential step to a heart-healthy lifestyle. Now, how do you choose? Most of the time, when you pose this kind of question to a wino, they’ll give you a long, convoluted answer that gets into much more specific follow-up questions than you’re prepared to handle. Instead, stick to three things to ask yourself, which will help you on your way to experimenting with wine.

1. Red, white, or sparkling?
Not much is riding on this decision. Think of wine drinking as a long-term investment. At one time or another, you’re going to try them all, so what sounds good, off the top of your head, just for the heck of it? No, seriously, come on, just pick one. This is like the LSAT, there’s no penalty for guessing. There’s also no wrong answer.

This is another place where wine pros try to intimidate you (intentionally or not -- remember enthusiasm). They make you feel like you’re going to get it wrong. They’ll try to tell you at this point that you need to consider the occasion, what you’ll be eating with the wine (if anything at all), who will be there, and a bunch of other irrelevant stuff that helps prove to themselves that they know what they’re talking about.

You don’t need to give a good reason or even any reason at all. Maybe you want red wine tonight because there’s some red in the sunset tonight. Or you want white because it looks like the wine coolers you used to chug in high school. Or maybe it’s a sparkling you lean toward because it’s got bubbles and so does the beer you would rather be drinking instead of getting all this wine stuff. It doesn’t matter. This is about enjoyment.

Got your choice? Okay, good. Moving on.

2. How much do you want to spend?
You probably know this already, but you can buy wine for as little as $2 a bottle or as much as $4,000 a bottle — and we’re just talking retail price here. That leaves a lot of room for price variation. You need to decide how much you’re willing to spend, but don’t let anything other than your own budgetary allowances dictate that. You’ve got no one to impress with a label or a price tag. You’re in this for yourself, to see if this is something you’ll like. Why should you shell out a lot of money for a bottle of wine if you don’t even know you’ll want to finish it?

More expensive is not better when it comes to wine. The plateau on price-to-quality ratio comes rapidly. At about $50 per bottle, you basically pay a luxury tax on prestige or scarcity. There’s no reason to start at the high end.

If you decided you wanted to try out skiing, would you check into the fanciest resort, buy the most expensive ski equipment, and then test it all out? No. You would most likely go somewhere inexpensive, and you would rent your equipment the first time. Would you go buy a Corvette just because you liked the color? No, because your budget wouldn’t allow it. That’s the point: this is a testing phase for you. Start small, start slow. Get more adventurous as you go. It’s still going to be an interesting journey.

There is a lot of great value out there in wine. In particular, if you look for bottles from Spain, Argentina, Germany, and the Rhone, Loire, and southern France, you can make a killing on $10 wines. (California tends to do less well in the $10 range, where the market is dominated by bulk wines filled with residual sugar and flavored with oak chips.)

3. Where should you buy it?
This seems like a “duh” question. It’s not. There’s a huge difference between the $8 bottle of Australian Shiraz that you find at the grocery store and the one you’ll find at the best wine shop in town. It’s all about buying power and markup at the store you patronize. So do a little research. Find out who the best-regarded wine merchant in town is, then go to them.

When you’re dealing with less expensive wine, you want to minimize your price. A place like Spec’s, the mega-store here in Houston, has generally lower prices than a grocery store. They also beat the prices at smaller wine shops. If you can find a bottle that lists at $8 but only pay $6.50 or less, well, what price would you prefer? Buying power. Find the place that has it in your town. You’ll be rewarded with being able to drink more and fret a little less. Costco is another terrific place to buy wine, and they have a good selection for introductory drinkers.

It’s important to find the best prices possible, but not only because it’s easier on your wallet. If you buy a crummy bottle of wine at a supermarket, and it’s actually egregiously overpriced, you’re going to get a poor idea of what the market is like. You might begin to think you have to spend $20 to get even a mediocre bottle of wine, and that’s just not true. So go to the people whose passion is wine. They’ll sell it to you cheaper — which means you’ll get it at a reasonable price and are less likely to feel ripped off.

Putting it all together
So now you’ve got a basic plan of action. You want a red wine, for dinner tonight, that costs about $10, and you want to buy it at Big Choice Wine & Spirits. Good stuff. Should you walk into Big Choice, find the first red wine that fits your price range, and walk out? Not at all. But why risk information overload? If you have too many things to remember, you’re going to think there’s a right or wrong answer. There isn’t.

You do, however, have to face the reality that not all wines are created equal. If you’ve ever seen people order wine in a restaurant or buy a bottle in a liquor store, you’ve probably heard them ask about California Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, or Merlot. There are fine wines to be discovered there. But there are much better options for people just starting to cultivate an appreciation for wine. Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, is kind of hard to drink — it’s a grape that makes wine high in tannin (that’s the puckering, drying sensation you get in your mouth on the aftertaste; it’s extracted from the grape skins, stems, and seeds; it literally “falls out” of the wine over time in the form of a grainy black sediment). So, most of the time, Cabernet isn’t very pleasant to drink young. Merlot, as it’s made in California, can be the same way. Worse, it can be vegetal tasting. And when you were a young kid, just forming your taste for food, did you want to eat all your vegetables? Probably not. Why start with Merlot, then?

Some wines are more suited to easy appreciation. These are the wines you should target. They emphasize the fruitiness of the grapes, have good balance between the acidity and tannin, and will give you a good sense of what better bottlings might have to offer. The key, though, is that easy appreciation: wine is not something that should be difficult to enjoy. The Wine Spectator tasters and Robert Parker types get caught up in flowery (literally) descriptions of the wines that defy grounding in reality. If you think food writers are bad, try reading wine tasting notes.

You want to pick out something that’s good to drink, won’t give you a headache, won’t be unpleasant, and will make you think, “Hey, this wine stuff is okay by me. I want to try it again.”

So where do you go from here? Take a couple of the major points to heart — pick a color and a price, then go to the best wine store in town and go from there. You’ll have hits and misses. But just drink wine and enjoy. You learn what you like by drinking. You’ll quickly realize what fits your taste. Experiment. Be open-minded. And follow the advice of a very smart man who makes some very tasty wine in his own right. John Holdredge has said this: If you like it? Drink it. If you don’t like it? Drink something else. If you really like it? Drink some more. Maybe that is the silver bullet of wine appreciation. Follow your own taste, and before long, you’re not going to need advice from anyone but yourself.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A Glimpse at Houston Restaurant Week

Houston Restaurant Week is halfway over, and it's a great way to go out and try new restaurants that you just haven't found time for in the past year. Lunch is a marvelous way to sample some of the city's better places, like Mark's. It is well worth checking out this year. An interesting menu is particularly inviting at lunch -- $20 for two savory courses. And Mark's is home to an early front-runner for best dish of Restaurant Week: the corn souffle with caviar.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Wine Every Day, part one

Wine is most fun when it’s not relegated to special occasions or built up into a phobia. It should be part of your daily life. And now insert here the usual disclaimer about how there’s something here for everyone to appreciate, from the wine novice to expert. It seems like any wine writing must include that.

Wine enthusiast is a perfect term because these are people who tend to get inordinately excited when the subject of fermented grape juice arises. Give them a whiff of another person interested in wine, and settling them down is like trying to hold back a dog on a leash after it has picked up the scent of a hotdog. It’s hard to stop them, which leads to inevitable lapses into wine jargon and incomprehensibility.

But it is important to dispel the snotty attitude a lot of winos have. It’s also important to dispel the notion that writing about wine needs to be condescending. No jargon. No attitude. Just some simple, real information on wine that might be able to help you out in a liquor store sometime to impress the girl you’re cooking dinner for. (You do cook, right?)

Anyway, so the most basic question is, “Why wine?” Why not beer? Or vodka? Or rum? Or some other liquor? Why not mixed drinks?

There are five fundamental reasons wine is the ideal beverage. None of them will include flowery, complex descriptions that will mean nothing to you. If you want to start drinking wine, these are reasons you’ll stumble across all on your own. This isn’t to say there won’t be a place for Milwaukee’s Best in your lifestyle, but you might start to consider pushing aside grain alcohol punch, at least from time to time.

1. Flavor

This is obvious. Wine most likely won’t taste good or complex or compelling to you at first. It’ll probably taste like alcohol. What booze doesn’t? You have to show a certain amount of persistence to get beyond the alcohol taste, whether you’re drinking beer, liquor, or wine. As a society, we tend to manage this aversion through an ends-based approach: we want to end up drunk. But once you begin to discern a bit, you can realize the breadth of flavor available in even simple wines. There are five main types of wine: red, white, sparkling, sweet, and fortified. Yet within each of those five types are a variety of different styles because each comes from different grapes.

Wine stands out because of how closely the finished product winds up being to its source. It really is fermented grape juice, nothing more. You don’t have to go through complex chemistry to turn grape juice into wine. It’s a natural process that doesn’t even need the addition of yeast and, more importantly, one that changes the nature of the grapes very little. You can’t say the same thing about beer or spirits. In beer, the barley, hops, and other ingredients go through a heavy cooking process that changes their flavors dramatically. Distillation changes the fundamental chemical makeup of potatoes, grains, etc. to produce spirits. You don’t get nearly as pure a product in beer or liquor as you do with wine, which allows the characteristics of each grape variety — be it red or white — to shine through.

Good winemaking, as opposed to brewing or distilling, is largely a hands-off undertaking. You want the grapes to shine through on their own as much as possible. Beer and liquor, however, require a vigorous production process that tends to deaden flavor nuances.

2. Creation and variation

Beer and spirits are revered for their uniformity. This is a product of the processes used to create them, which is somewhat like a successful chemistry experiment replicated over and over again. It is admirable that Jack Daniels, for instance, can crank out barrels of whiskey with such consistency. The same can be said for beers, from microbrews to Budweiser. It’s comforting to know that, if you’ve tasted Absolut vodka once, it will taste the same two years down the road, but it’s not very interesting.

Wine, on the other hand, is admired for its variation. It is most frequently made from grapes grown in a single year (a “vintage”). A particular producer of wine may have a recognizable style or qualities in certain wines — like the minty smell often found in Heitz Cellars’ Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (that’s no bull; it really can smell like a fresh mint leaf) — but even wines made from the same vineyard in different years will vary is flavor and style.

There’s also the aging of wine, another variable that will change its taste and qualities. Hard liquor can go for years in the bottle and still be very much the same as it was the day it was packaged. Beer, after long enough, will spoil and is prized for its freshness. Without belaboring the point with too much detail, wine is like a favored pet: it has a precocious youth, steady period of maturity, and then moves past its prime.

Certain liquors are coveted for being aged, particularly whiskeys and rums, but that aging takes place in oak casks, not the bottle. Once capped off, liquor holds at a plateau indefinitely. And there is another way aged liquors are made: distillers simply change the chemical makeup of them and age them artificially. This is particularly common among rums, and tasters say the flavor of naturally aged spirits and their artificially aged counterparts is indistinguishable.

For wine, there’s no faking it. (Or maybe there is, as this excellent piece discusses.) Aging can be a good or bad thing. You never quite know what’s in store for you when you open a bottle that has been in the cellar for ten or more years. There’s a certain risk when you deal with variation, but the rewards can be so terrific it becomes part of the fun.

3. Moderate alcohol, light weight

Relatively speaking, wine tends to have moderate alcohol, ranging from eight-percent in lighter wines, such as Riesling (a white grape), to about twenty-percent in fortified wines, such as Port. More alcohol than that would destroy the balance of flavor. Less alcohol would give it a heavier, more fruit-juice-like quality.

Spirits, obviously, have much higher alcohol levels, generally in the range of forty to fifty percent. Alcohol itself is heavy; it weighs you down. That’s why a martini, for example, isn’t the ideal dinner accompaniment. Most mixers — such as fruit juices and carbonated waters — are heavier still because of their high sugar contents. Mixed drinks, without a doubt, can be deliciously refreshing. Who would say no to a good margarita at Hugo’s? But drink three or four, and you’re going to feel anything but light on your feet. Beer, on the other hand, has carbonation that makes it filling. It expands in your stomach and quickly gives you a somewhat bloated feeling.

4. Food companion

You’re going to be hard-pressed to find a beverage, other than water, that goes well with as many kinds of food as wine. Beer has its place, most definitely. Pizza and burgers and chili are great with a cold beer, and sometimes it just hits the spot. Even liquor, at times, does the trick as a food accompaniment. For example, rumjungle, at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, does an admirable job pairing rum drinks with Brazilian pit barbecue.

On the whole, however, beer and spirits don’t complement food as completely as wine does. The range of flavors found within a single glass of Pinot Noir can enhance you’re the full range of flavors on your plate. Enjoying a good food and wine pairing brings out all the best elements in wine — its range of flavors and its unique expression of the grape and place of origin. Plus, with wine’s balance, relatively low alcohol, and light weight, you can enjoy it throughout a meal.

It’s hard to describe in general terms why you should drink wine with food. The best thing is to experiment for yourself. Bordeaux with good lamb? It’s a magical fusion of tastes and textures that cannot be duplicated with any other beverage. The pairings don’t have to be fancy, though. Try Champagne with popcorn or macaroni and cheese -- these have become common “odd” pairings over the last decade. The guide just has to be what pleases your mouth. There is such a range of styles with wine that, chances are, you can find something that matches your taste and your food. It is with food that beer and liquor seem the most one-dimensional.

5. Wine, my buddy

You might not think about this, but if you get into wine, one of the most rewarding aspects is the relationship you build with certain bottles. If you decide you like wine enough to start building a cellar for yourself, you’ll wind up with bottles that will stay on your racks for years.

You will learn the pain and pleasure of agonizing over when to drink one prized bottle — will it be too young? Too old? You’ll probably end up talking to it from time to time, wishing it could pipe up and give you some wisdom about the development of the wine within. This is all part of the fun. It’s a somewhat similar rush to gambling. You hope you pull the cork at the right time, that your investment of time, money, and space will pay off. You’ll feel exhilaration and disappointment.

You can get intimate with a wine, if you really want. Go see the vineyards. When was the last time you felt the urge to check out the potato farm or corn field that feeds into your favorite vodka distillery? There’s something tremendously organic about wine, and I don’t mean that exclusively as a method of farming. It’s a unique aspect to a beverage that actually takes on a life of its own. Not to mention the fact that wine has held a romantic place in the human condition for centuries. Wine in parts is hedonistic, sacramental, exhilarating, and depressing, and it is never without passion.

But perhaps the most important realization to make about wine is the easiest to grasp.
Ignore wine enthusiasts, no matter how well-intentioned, who fill beginners with jargon and complexity, which they love to flash like it’s a membership card to some secret club. Having a good bottle of wine is always better with friends, but a tongue-lashing from a wine snob is the easiest way to ruin it. All you need to know is what you like, and drink that.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Friday Date Night: BRC Gastro Pub

Note: This is slated to be a recurring feature. Here's the idea: Date night should be dinner for two at a restaurant where there are enough options on the menu for you to have an excellent meal but not pay more than $15 for any single item (excluding wine). That gives you a strong measure of control over your final check. Sometimes it'll be somewhere romantic, other times it will be somewhere you can go with your honey and enjoy some quality people-watching. Whatever floats your boat. But it's good to get out of the house and spend a little time together.

BRC Gastro Pub generated a lot of strong reactions when it opened. Most of them related to the name. Big Red Cock. Forget that there's a big red rooster out front, reminding us of having fun with homophones. The name is probably funniest to those who are learning homophones in school right now -- what, seven- or eight-year-olds? Okay, it's a childish joke. But BRC is exciting. It comes from Shepard Ross and Lance Fegan of the Glass Wall, with Jeff Axline taking the reins at the stove on a daily basis, and this is what the Glass Wall does best. Bar food. (Read about that strength here.)

Initially, the kitchen had a few growing pains. The large potato chips served with the excellent pimento cheese dip were obviously prepared far in advance and came out soggy and soaked with grease. Subsequently, however, this defect has been corrected: the chips aren't spending as much time waiting around after they come out of the fryer. And, from the start, the kitchen has had more hits than misses.

The crab beignets are superb, fried skillfully, with a warm and gooey inside revealing plenty of crab. The boudin balls are a real treat. These are the not mushy, dense, nondescript boudin balls you find too regularly. These are light, delicious, and layered with flavor. Appetizers are a strength. The Glass Wall crab cake is slightly modified and as delicious as ever. But the Dr. Pepper fried quail came out with a chewy batter and cloyingly sweet sauce, though the quail themselves were excellent.

A handful of main entrees, although very solid, are not the star attraction. That is saved for the array of inventive sandwiches. There's the excellent and improbable flavor combination of the roasted brisket sandwich. On a thick piece of toast, the tender brisket is topped with mushrooms, caramelized onions, ham, smoked cheddar cheese, and gravy. It gets the right combination of smokey, salty, and savory.

The State Fair Griddled Cheese -- an unmistakably Texas interpretation -- has short ribs, cheese, and tomato inside. It works beautifully, although sometimes the tomato can intrude on the ooze you want in a grilled cheese. The chicken fried steak sandwich is an instant Houston classic, and Sheppy's Dogs might be the best pure hot dog in town. And, of course, the hamburger is very solid indeed. It's a steal on Mondays, coming in at $6.50 with fries.

On the side, the fries have been somewhat inconsistent but recently are better, obviously double-fried and crispy. The daily macaroni and cheese is beautifully executed, always faithful to the essentials of the dish: creamy, cheesy, and flavorful, without reliance on gimmicks.

Another high point is the dinners for four BRC features on Sunday and Tuesday. Sundays, you can get a fried chicken dinner for four for $60. For the same price on Tuesday, you get a Yankee pot roast dinner for four. It's a strong excuse to get together with friends and kick off the week.

The wine list is slim but smartly picked, with a couple real bargains. Given the food, though, you would like to see a few more Zinfandels and spicy reds on it. The selection of microbrews on tap is impressive, and the two sangrias are very pleasing. (BRC has a beer-wine license only; it doesn't serve liquor.)

There are only two downsides to BRC -- one potential and one very real that must be addressed. First, it's noisy inside. This noisy restaurant trend can't end soon enough. These places aren't sparing any expense, so why not invest in a couple acoustic panels? Second, and more importantly, service rarely has been good and too frequently veers into the woeful. You can only hope the service issues are a growing pain and will be corrected in short order. Given the extensive turnover among the wait staff, one can hope this is a kink BRC is aggressively trying to work out.

All told, though, BRC is a terrific date night place. It falls more into the people-watching rather than romantic category, but it's a great precursor for a night on the town.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

First Look: Phil's Texas Barbecue

Oh look! It's another wood-and-metal building on Washington Avenue! Wait, what? It's not a haven for the Ed Hardy-wearing, off-center-cap-sporting, woo-hoo-shouting people? It's a barbecue restaurant? This holds some promise.

Until you go inside and eat there. Phil's Barbecue actually fits into the Washington Avenue scene perfectly. It's immaculate inside. Polished concrete floors. Lots of shiny stainless steel. You get the distinct impression that if your next stop is Pearl Bar or the Roosevelt or any number of the shiny-shirt shops, this is the barbecue joint for you. It's trendy. You won't get your fingers dirty at Phil's. This is the antithesis of a genuine barbecue place. It doesn't even smell smokey inside.

Maybe these were just growing pains of a newly opened restaurant -- an unlikely event given the history of the owners -- but the brisket was dry and chewy. The ribs were dry and clung to the bone. The coleslaw, seducing you with the implication of a vinegar pucker, turned out to be oily and sweet. The macaroni and cheese tasted more of butter and cream than cheese, and it is slightly grainy as a result. The fries and onion rings looked good from a distance; maybe they were the key to happiness?

In any case, putting stock in a barbecue restaurants sides bodes ill. And there is nothing the sauce, sweet as dessert, can save. In the early days, it sure looks like Phil's is, at best, a place to be seen. Those looking for real barbecue are advised to head elsewhere.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Wine of the Moment: Inman Family Pinot Noir Russian River Valley 2007

Economists may be closing in on a consensus that the recession is over, but wine drinkers are not so quick to agree. Consumers are still looking for bargains, first and foremost. This continues to be especially true when it comes to wine. Back in the heady days of the mid-2000s, it was almost impossible to walk down a liquor store's aisle without tripping over the latest cult Cabernet priced at $150 or a new single-vineyard Pinot Noir for $50. Nowadays, wine drinkers demand value for their money in a way they haven't always demanded it from California.

On a recent trip to Sonoma, a shining example of a wine that presents good value and delivers exceptional quality stood out: the Inman Family Pinot Noir Russian River Valley 2007. It has a bright, juicy fruit to it that leaps out of the glass, giving classic Russian River expression of black cherry and spice. It has restrained alcohol (13.7%), excellent balance, and a terrific sense of class. At $30, it's worth seeking out for drinking with summer dinners. It's acidic structure makes it a great pairing for food, and the screw cap closure makes it perfect for picnics.

Full Disclosure: Kathleen Inman, the winemaker, and her family are friends, and this is a winery I've long supported. For full tasting notes on wines from Inman Family from numerous tasters, see here.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The French Laundry: A Photo Essay

A trip to the French Laundry is worthy of something. Each meal there is a treat, taking you to a plane of food ecstasy that is without equal in the United States. It may be redundant to have a second full-scale review in a year, but certainly a photo essay is in order. Bon appetit!