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.