Squash, Upper Michigan" by Galina Dargery (2013)
IN THIS ISSUE
NEW ORLEANS, Part Two
By John Mariani
BARE NAKED TABLES
By John Mariani
NEW YORK CORNER
THE RED CAT
By John Mariani
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
The Wines of Veneto
By John Mariani
By John Mariani
I was no fan of the
modernist pretensions of Chef-owner Phillip L.
Lopez (below, in
the middle) and partner Maximilian G.
Ortiz’s first venture, Root, of which the Times-Picayune
critic wrote, “To fully appreciate the cooking of
Root’s chef-owner, Phillip Lopez, it’s necessary
to surrender yourself to his ambition [and] to the
crosswind of exhilaration and mystification that
is both the price and reward of eating here.”
Anyone who has dined out with me knows that, unless I’m eating at the proverbial hole in the wall, I tend to groan over the lack of what was once the simplest amenity in a restaurant: a tablecloth.
In the past, even a pizzeria or Chinese eatery would have tablecloths, and not just because it’s a nicety. There are very good reasons for it: as any epidemiologist will tell you, you can catch other people’s illnesses through skin contact as much as through sneezing or even kissing. So a barely wiped bare wooden or Formica table is a festering point for germs.
A tablecloth also provides brightness (unless it’s black) and a bonhomie that bare, cold, hard wood or plastic will always lack. Your hands don't stick to cloth; drips and spills seep into it, not onto your clothes; a tablecloth also soaks up noise in a restaurant, while a hard surface bounces noise around; and a tablecloth is easily cleared and crumbed by a waiter, while cleaning a hard surface is awkward and ineffective.
Esthetically speaking, a tablecloth is itself a
design statement about the degree of luxury a
restaurateur wants to manifest, whether the cloth is
simple cotton, damask or embossed linen. And,
as the photos below show, a restaurant need not be
"fussy" to have them. But, over the past five
or so years, the absence of tablecloths in
restaurants has been hailed as signaling the place
is not “fine dining,” meaning pretentious, even if
the cloth-less restaurant charges a small fortune
for its food.
Such restaurateurs call it a “design
statement” when, in almost all cases, it is nothing
more than a matter of trying to save money. And I
admit that such laundry bills can mount up--tens of
thousands of dollars per annum. But not using
tablecloths doesn’t seem in any way to reduce the
price of a meal at such restaurants. Believe me, your dinner
cheaper because the restaurant doesn't use
those restaurateurs who have yanked the tablecloths
from their tables, while insisting it’s part of
their design statement, I respond that colorful
plastic cups, knives and forks, and patterned paper
napkins might well be a design statement too and
would save them a lot more money,
but we haven't descended that low yet, except,
maybe, on airplanes.
Peruse The Daily Meal’s list and you’ll find that tablecloths are but a minor item in the details that make these places so respected: great chefs, great service, fine décor, good silverware and wine glasses, beautifully printed menus, well-dressed staff, great wine lists. These are the things that make them great.
Now, of course, if the readers of the foodie media are the kind of people who feel ill at ease in a fine dining restaurant--remember Lucy ordering snails in Paris on “I Love Lucy”?--that’s their problem. For, if they learned a little more about fine dining and its attendant pleasures, including the softness of a thick tablecloth, they might well be converted. And get less splinters in the bargain.
NEW YORK CORNER
by John Mariani
THE RED CAT
227 10th Avenue (near 23rd Street)
I’m afraid the once gentle term “laid back” has come to mean a restaurant where no one puts any thought into the comfort of its guests and where service means little more than sticking a plate in front of you.
For an elementary course on what “laid back” should mean at its best, a visit to the fifteen-year-old Red Cat in Chelsea is in order. There the first sign of civility may well be the greeting by owner Jimmy Bradley (below), whose sincere interest in your well-being while under his care has been amiably bred into his entire staff. That’s just one of the reasons why Red Cat always has a large percentage of regulars among its guests; the other percentage is filled by those whom the regulars have brought. Bradley also runs the equally pleasant restaurant The Harrison in TriBeCa, and both share a desire to please.
I did once think the dining room was very loud, but compared with many of the new restaurants opening south of Red Cat, the noise level is tolerable (and Bradley says he’s thinking about buffering it further).
The Red Cat’s scarlet-colored banquettes and simple slatted walls might put you in mind of New England rather than New York. Cozy seems too feeble a word to describe a place people find so truly lovable. It’s the kind of place where you feel entirely comfortable asking the person at the next table what it is she’s eating.
There’s a new chef aboard, Michael Cooperman (below), formerly of The Modern, and while his menu doesn’t stray from the original contemporary American style of The Red Cat’s past, he has brought a finesse that shows exactly just how much he learned from master chefs like Gabriel Kreuther (formerly at The Modern). Seasonings are in balance, textures are delicate, sauces enliven rather than mask fine ingredients, and the ideas are clearly all his.
Diver’s scallops ($18) had the same quality of freshness, quickly seared on the plancha griddle just to give the outside a texture, then served with sweet avocado, cherry tomato, and a sprightly bacon vinaigrette. Pasta, so often over-engineered in non-Italian restaurants, was treated with proper respect at The Red Cat in the form of housemade cavatelli with summer’s corn, a swirl of ricotta and some spicy-hot ‘nduja condiment, all graced with parsley butter ($15). Just as good and smack in season was a plate of trenette with golden zucchini flowers ($15). These are the kinds of dishes that make eating anything out of season seem utterly ridiculous.
Of the entrees, I most liked the skate with Swiss chard, raisins for sweetness, the crunch of walnuts and a tomato-bread sauce ($26). The best of the main courses was a well-spiced pork chop--and a hefty chop it was--with orzo, chorizo, roasted broccoli and green onions ($28). Tender and pink, the chop never lost its flavor under the spicings. An all-natural chicken with arugula, radish, grilled lemon and salsa verde ($27) was fine enough if not out of the ordinary in NYC, but I was disappointed with grilled calf’s liver with braised Romaine lettuce, pancetta, onion compote and tomato vinaigrette ($24), because the inherent flavor of the liver didn’t trump the other ingredients. The herbed French fries ($9) were further testament that making excellent French fries like these should now be mandatory in all restaurants.
The desserts (all $10) keep in line with summer’s bounty, evident in a blueberry crisp with corn ice cream, mint, and streusel topping, and in a peach crostada with buttermilk sugar dough, luscious huckleberry ice cream and crème fraȋche. If you love chocolate and hazelnuts, the gianduja dessert here is going to make you deliriously happy.
I’ve noticed, looking back over recent reviews in this space, that new restaurants like Bacchanal and Batârd are trying hard not to try too hard, and The Red Cat has been achieving that delicate balance for a long, long while. There’s every reason to think that a lot of other places are just catching up.
The Red Cat is located at 227
10th Avenue; 212-242-1122.
Open nightly for dinner, Mon.-Fri. for lunch, and Sat. & Sun. for brunch.
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
THE WINES OF THE VENETO
I’ll grant that feasting on fish caught that morning in Lake Garda, Italy, and served at the delightful Trattoria Pompiere in Verona can have a powerful effect on one’s objectivity. But I was also able to overcome such distractions to focus on the fact that the wines of the region, the Veneto, get better and better all the time.
The Veneto is Italy’s largest wine producer. The wines with D.O.C. and D.O.C.G. appellations alone come to more than 300 million bottles annually. The principal Veneto exporters are Bolla, Bertani, Allegrini, Anselmi, Maculan, Tommasi, Zonin, and Masi.
The best known wines, many made in tremendous bulk, are soave, bardolino and valpolicella, this last in particular showing more consistent quality than ever before. The most interesting of the modern valpolicellas have the word “ripasso” (re-passed) on their label, which means the wines spend time in contact with the dried grapes, a technique long used to make a much bigger, red wine named Amarone della Valpolicella, whose grapes dry on straw mats in order to concentrate their sugars and flavors. Ripasso valpolicellas take on some of Amarones’ fleshy character but are not as massive.
This summer, during the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience, I was on a panel called “Fresh and Dried,” on the subject of Veneto wines, led by Tony Apostolakos, brand manager of Masi Agricola, whose wines I’ve long admired. Masi has a 200-year history of innovation in the region, having refined the traditional technique called appassimento, by which grapes are dried to concentrate their flavors and give them durability. Masi dries corvina, rondinella and molinara grapes on bamboo racks to give maximum airflow around the bunches (right). They even semi-dry pinot grigio grapes, mixing
their juice with 25 percent verduzzo to add a honey-like flavor.
Apostolakos was quick to point out, however, that, contrary to some assertions, the grapes are not dried to “raisin shrinkage.” Rather, he says, “They resemble more a party balloon that has lost its air and deflated” (below).
Masi is not alone these days in making Amarone della Valpolicella in a more drinkable style that does not take decades to develop. In the past, Amarone was expected to be a massive, high-alcohol, Port-like red wine, with a leathery taste and, more often than not, a bit of oxidation. A few producers, like Bertani, still go with that style, which still has its fans, but Masi and others have maintained the wine’s richness while removing the oxidation and high alcohol, allowing the wine to be drunk earlier and with a wider range of dishes.
And, when Masi determines that the vintage is not up to its standards--which apparently happens every ten years, in 1962, 1972, 1982, 1992 and 2002--it doesn’t make Amarone. The great vintages, said Apostolakos, are 1990, 1997, 2006, 2007 and 2011. I would still wait a couple of years for the 2011 to mature, but mod ern Amarones can age for a decade or more and still be sound and robust.
Masi also has been proudly promoting a wine named Campofiorin Rosso del Veronese, which, since its debut in 1964, was its first ripasso, for which fresh corvina, rondinella and molinara grape juices are blended, with about 25 percent of the same grapes dried for about six weeks. This causes a re-fermentation called a malolactic. The result is a bigger, richer wine than regular valpolicella. Though it is not a legal classification, Masi calls Campofiorin a “Supervenetian.” And, at under $15, it is an amazingly good buy.
The bigger, brawnier brother of Campofiorin is the company’s Riserva di Costasera Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2009 ($60), which is classified as a prestigious D.O.C.G. In this blend the corvina actually develops a bit of botrytis, a fungus that shrivels the grapes and concentrates the sugars, adding body.
Masi’s Bonacosta Valpolicella Classico D.O.C. ($12), on the other hand, is made exclusively from fresh grapes, going through malolactic on its own.
It’s a range of wines from the same grapes that shows how different--and differently priced--they can be, yet still remain their essential character and terroir.
HOW ABOUT ANOTHER 25%
OFF FOR SINGING "KUMBAYA"?
“On this most Brooklyn of streets—one of those blocks in the Heights that looks dreamt up by Auden, or perhaps Dunham—there could be no Manhattan. `We’re out of sweet vermouth,' the waitress explained. “How about an Old-Fashioned?'"--Amelia Hester, “Iris Café Store #9,” The New Yorker (8/4/14)
Wine Column Sponsored by Banfi Vintners
by Cristina Mariani-May
Wine is part of my everyday life, both as a profession and as a passion. But this month in particular, one grape varietal has really taken center stage in my daily activities – that most Italian of grapes, Sangiovese, and its ultimate expression – Brunello di Montalcino.
Sangiovese is on my mind more than usual for a number of reasons. First, we are approaching the days when the first Sangiovese grapes will be harvested. From mid-September through mid-October, the Sangiovese grown for our various styles of red wines will be harvested, culminating with the top selection for Brunello di Montalcino.
Second, cooler weather here means it is time to start enjoying more red wines and especially Sangiovese based wines. That includes our cru of Brunello, Poggio alle Mura, literally the cream of the crop of our Sangiovese vineyards. Alongside our Poggio alle Mura Brunello di Montalcino, this year we introduced two more wines from the cru Poggio alle Mura – a Rosso di Montalcino and a Riserva of Brunello. Rosso is sort of like the younger brother of Brunello, also made from 100% Sangiovese grapes but usually a selection from younger vines and the wine is aged only two years compared to the four required for Brunello. The Riserva, on the other hand, is an even more selective harvest of Sangiovese, and ages for an additional year before release.
What is so special about this cru Poggio alle Mura? Well, it is the result our over 30 years of ongoing research at my family’s vineyard estate, Castello Banfi. When we first began planting our vines there in the late 1970s studies from the University of Bordeaux indicated which strains of many varietals we should plant, based on the soil type and microclimate of each vineyard. But when it came to the region’s native Sangiovese, there was only local lore, no scientific research. So we took it upon ourselves to figure out this vine, and set off on three decades of incredibly detailed research.
We started with 600 apparent variations on Sangiovese, because it is so susceptible to variations in weather and soil, and narrowed that down to 160 truly genetically different clones. We planted a vineyard with two rows of each type, made wine from each of them, and charted the differences – remember, you only get one chance a year to make wine, so this took time.
It took about ten years to get some concrete results, though we continue to experiment today and always will – you never stop learning in science and nature! Once we determined which were the best, complementary clones that could be planted together to make the best Brunello, we chose to plant them in what we determined to be the optimal vineyard sites. Coincidentally, the best soils and climate conditions are in the slopes surrounding the medieval fortress today known as Castello Banfi, known since Etruscan times as Poggio alle Mura – the walled hilltop. Hence the name of our most special “cru” of Brunello, representing a synthesis between tradition and innovation.
Though the focus of this study was our Brunello, all of our Sangiovese-based wines, including the super Tuscans SummuS, Cum Laude, and Centine, benefitted from this work. And that’s the third reason for celebrating Sangiovese this month, for the range of wonderful reds that usher us into autumn! One wine in particular was inspired by our research – the BelnerO, a Sangiovese dominant blend with what I like to call a kiss of Cabernet and a whisper of Merlot. We grow the grapes a little differently for BelnerO than for Brunello, make the wine with less oak aging and released it earlier from the winery, providing a counterpoint to Brunello and a lovely terroir-driven wine in its own right.
I am finding that despite all this focus on Sangiovese, I never grow tired of it. I earlier referred to Sangiovese as a most Italian varietal, and that is part of the reason. If you know Italians, you know that by nature we are multi-faceted, varying in mood, and always passionate. As a nation, we span from the hot sunny beaches of Sicily near the African coast to the rugged mountains and Alpine ski slopes of Trentino-Alto Adige in the north. Sangiovese is grown in almost all of Italy’s regions and reflects the unique nature of each; it is most famous (rightfully so) in Tuscany, yet even there it reflects the nuances of each hilltop, valley and subzone. It has something a little different to say in Brunello than Chianti, Morellino than Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Rosso di Montalcino than Super Tuscan blends.
Here is a
smattering of Sangiovese-based wines that you may wish
to get to know better, reflecting a spectrum that
appeals to every occasion, every taste, and every
can assure you that the conversation will never become
Recommendations for Celebrating Sangiovese
BelnerO Proprietor’s Reserve Sangiovese – A refined cuvée of noble red grapes perfected by our pioneering clonal research. This dark beauty, BelnerO, is produced at our innovative winery, chosen 11 consecutive years as Italy’s Premier Vineyard Estate. Fermented in our patented temperature controlled French oak and aged approximately 2 additional years. Unfiltered, and Nitrogen bottled to minimize sulfites.
Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino – Rich, round, velvety and intensely aromatic, with flavor hints of licorice, cherry, and spices. Brunello di Montalcino possesses an intense ruby-red color, and a depth, complexity and opulence that is softened by an elegant, lingering aftertaste. Unfiltered after 1998 vintage.
Castello Banfi Rosso di Montalcino – Brunello's "younger brother," produced from select Sangiovese grapes and aged in barrique for 10 to 12 months. Deep ruby-red, elegant, vibrant, well-balanced and stylish with a dry velvety finish.
Poggio all’Oro Brunello di Montalcino Riserva – A single vineyard selection of our most historically outstanding Sangiovese, aged five years before release, the additional year more than that required of Brunello including 6 months in barrel and 6 months more in bottle to grant its “Riserva” designation. Incredible elegance and harmony. Intense with lots of fruit and subtle wood influence. Round, complete, well balanced with hints of chocolate and berries. Unfiltered after 1998.
Poggio alle Mura – The first tangible result of years of intensive clonal research on Montalcino’s native Sangiovese grape. Estate bottled from the splendidly sun drenched vineyards surrounding the medieval Castello from which it takes its name. The Brunello di Montalcino is seductive, silky and smoky. Deep ruby in color with an expressive bouquet of violets, fruits and berries as well as cigar box, cedar and exotic spices. The Rosso di Montalcino is also intense ruby red. The bouquet is fresh and fruity with typical varietal notes of cherry and blackberry, enriched by more complex hints of licorice, tobacco and hazelnut. It is full bodied, yet with a soft structure, and a surprisingly long finish. The Poggio alle Mura Brunello di Montalcino Riserva is deep ruby red with garnet reflections and a rich, ample bouquet that hints of prune jam, coffee, cacao and a light balsamic note. It is full and powerful, with ripe and gentle tannins that make it velvety and harmonious; this wine is supported by a pleasing minerality that to me speaks soundly of that special hillside in southern Montalcino.
SummuS – A wine of towering elegance, SummuS is an extraordinary blend of Sangiovese which contributes body; Cabernet Sauvignon for fruit and structure; and Syrah for elegance, character and a fruity bouquet. An elegant, complex and harmonious red wine.
Cum Laude – A complex and elegant red which graduated “With Honors,” characterized by aromas of juicy berries and fresh spices.
Centine – A Cuvee that is more than half Sangiovese, the balanced consisting of equal parts of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Vinified in a firm, round style that easily accompanies a wide range of dishes, this is a smooth and fragrantly satisfying wine with international character, and a perennial favorite at my own dinner table.
Banfi Chianti Superiore – The “Superiore” designation signifies stricter government regulations regarding production and aging requirements, as compared to regular Chianti. An intense ruby red wine with fruit forward aromas and floral notes. This is a round wine with well-balanced acidity and fruit.
Banfi Chianti Classico – An enduring classic: alluring bouquet of black fruit and violets; rich flavors of cherry and leather; supple tannins and good acidity for dining.
Banfi Chianti Classico Riserva – Produced from select grapes grown in the "Classico" region of Chianti, this dry, fruity and well-balanced red has a full bouquet reminiscent of violets.
Fonte alla Selva Chianti Classico – This is our newest entry into the Chianti arena, coming from a 99 acre estate in Castellina, the heart of the Chianti Classico region. The wine is a captivating mauve red that smells of cherry, plum and blackberry with hints of spice. It is round, full and balanced with very good acidity.
Col di Sasso – Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon. Luscious, complex and soft with persistent notes of fruit and great Italian style structure.
Mariani is not related by family or through business
with John Mariani, publisher of this newsletter
Mariani is not related by family or through business
with John Mariani, publisher of this newsletter
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