It's a cliché that people with no imagination talk about the weather. My mother has banned the utterance of the word “humidity” in her presence because, she has declared, it leads to the most boring of conversations.
But there’s something comforting in talking about the weather — or cathartic if the weather has been quite bad. Everyone can participate, neighbors can reminisce. It’s a pleasant, non-controversial folk tune, part of the friendly chirping noises that knit the fabric of society, unless a winemaker is doing the talking.
“On July 3rd the sun came out in the late morning, but then it got cloudy and we thought it would rain, but no, the sun came out again. But then on July 5th it started to get colder than usual and we got a lot of rain, but then on the 9th...”
I exaggerate a little, and in fact I’m not exactly sure what they say, because as enthusiastic and attentive as I feel when a discussion on wine begins, soon I start to feel like Homer Simpson.
“Well then, on August 9th we got this breeze from the coast,” the winemaker says with a meaningful chortle. But my brain is going “dee dee dee, dee, de dee...” unable to concentrate due to lack of interest, unable to shut the winemaker out enough to think of anything else, I sit there and succumb to my brain’s own white noise.
Winemakers can be very nice people, and I love the fruit of their labors, but I don’t want to hear every last detail about their jobs any more than you want me to explain to you the positioning of each of my commas, or to have me reminisce about stories I’ve line-edited.
“Well, this one writer, he had the most peculiar beliefs about the use of the semicolon...”
Still, there I was, having lunch at the Beard House as a guest of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission. Actually, at that moment it was not yet a lunch but a grape tasting. A winegrower discussed the weather conditions that affected a particular grape variety, and then we’d taste it. We’d smash the grape with our tongues and assess the juice — there was room in our press booklet for us to write tasting notes — and then we’d chew on the skin, having been told that it was the skin, really, that gave each wine its unique charactersitcs. We moved on to Pinot Noir, then Zinfandel. Zinfandel clusters, it turns out, have grapes at different stages of ripeness on each cluster. Getting the right mix was essential, we were told, and I believed it. Why not?
That was followed by two different clusters of Cabernet Sauvignon, from different parts of the Sonoma Valley.
Really, much of it was rather interesting, and the lunch was beautifully put together and managed. But by the time we’d made it to the Cabernets I was done tasting. I was ready for lunch, which of course involved wine tasting, but I can manage to sample three glasses of wine per course. I’ll sample all three, maybe twice, and then pick a glass and stick to that.
The wine industry is masterful at bringing romance to its beverages. It’s fermented grape juice, after all, but its merchants have drawn us in, seduced us, and last Thursday convinced dozens of journalists and sommeliers and the like to sit and listen to a monologue about the weather.
Here in New York it has been unseasonably warm so far this October. But the calendar says it’s autumn, and so the autumn restaurant season has begun.
It’s as busy an autumn as anyone I’ve spoken to can remember, and autumns are always busy on the New York restaurant scene. But it seems to me there has been an unusual drought of fine dining openings, and other phenomena I can’t explain.
The night of the wine luncheon I went to the opening of the hotel Mela, not far from Times Square. There was a red carpet outside, and a velvet rope. That’s a little unusual, but not so much so. But there was a line of paparazzi outside. A few flashes went off as I walked down the carpet, much to my amusement.
(I was later told by a publicist that the paparazzi were there waiting for celebrities that might arrive. I pressed her and she said that maybe Beyonce would come, but maybe not. “You know how celebrities are,” she said. I don't but I let it go.)
I drank some Champagne, sampled some hors d’oeuvres, met a new editor of Travel + Leisure’s web site and was interviewed about bangs.
A couple of people were starting a web site about bangs — yes, the hair that droops down over your forehead. The Travel + Leisure editor, whose name I have forgotten, apparently had fabulous bangs and they wanted to interview her about them. They did a little video of her talking about her bangs, which she actually cuts herself.
I asked them if they wanted me to talk about bangs. It was a joke. I’m bald. I haven’t had bangs since I was 19. They turned the camera on me, so I told them that for me, bangs would have to be a really horrible comb-over.
If I were a woman, they asked, what kind of bangs would I have? They suggested some types that I didn’t understand, such as pixie bangs.
“What are pixie bangs?”
“Like Audrey Hepburn.”
“Anyone should do whatever they can to look more like Audrey Hepburn,” I said, trying to visualize her bangs, which I could not. But she certainly was beautiful.
Downstairs in the hotel’s restaurant, Saju, the room seemed to be filled with concierges, travel agents and travel writers. I don’t think I saw a single food writer. I was sipping Champagne and admiring the orchids (spiky and red, not the ubiquitous white ones which are elegant but, I’m sorry, boring), and struck up a conversation with some hotel guests from Atlanta, when a fake staff member took a microphone, announcing that it was his last day and that his colleagues wanted him to sing, which he did badly, until a fake manager took the mic away, yelled at him and started singing opera. Then the first guy grabbed the mic back and sang a show tune, but this time he sang it well, and then a woman joined in, and this singing troupe entertained us for a few minutes. I’d never seen anything like it at a restaurant opening. They were good singers, but what were they doing there, and couldn’t I talk to the other guests instead?
Then they stopped and salsa music began playing, until the DJ switched to ’80s music. I sipped more Champagne, ate some food on skewers and a lamb chop or two, and wandered off, wondering what had just happened.
Friday I understood. I had lunch at Matthew Kenney’s latest venture, Freefood. The name is perhaps a misnomer as salads are $11.25. It’s meant to indicate that there aren't any additives to the food. Chef de cuisine John McAllister explained to me that all of the ingredients except for the cheeses were organic. But I liked him anyway. Nice guy, smart, and good with food costs. At the Soho Grand, where he was executive chef for a number of years, he says he kept food costs down to 21.5 percent, owing largely to catering, of course, but it's still good.
That night I went to a reception at the residence of the British Consul General, where 60 some-odd Scotches were being served. I stayed long enough to catch up with bartender and beverage writer Naren Young, who has left Pegu Club and Public and is now at La Esquina, and food writers Nancy Davidson and Julie Besonen. I also ate a Scotch egg, talked with Scotch purveyors and drank enough Scotch to ensure that Ray Garcia's friends would continue to like me.
That evening was his poker night, you see, and I went to the apartment of Ray's friend Matt Parker and contributed to the winnings of others by losing at Texas Hold 'em.
Perhaps it’s disingenuous to blame the Scotch for my losses, but hey, it’s my blog.
It was 80 degrees out on Saturday, when I’d invited my friend Birdman to be my plus-one at the Beard House, where Sonoma chef (yes, back to Sonoma) Mark Stark was cooking.
With the possible exception of Kenyon Phillips, Birdman is my least formally dressed of friends (tivas are his footwear of choice all year long), except when he's not.
It being summerlike outside, he wore a seersucker suit with a knit bow-tie and the appropriate variety of white shoes whose name I have forgotten. He looked fantastic.
I looked at shoes today with my colleague Elissa Elan, who was my lunch guest at the newly revamped Cafe SFA at Saks. I had the burger, she had a salad topped with seared salmon, and I indulged her afterwards by commenting on the $700 shoes she was admiring.
I got a phone call this afternoon from publicist Stephanie Faison.
“You're not on my RSVP list for the opening of Grayz tonight,” she said, perhaps slightly confused. “You come to everything.”
Indeed, the opening had slipped my mind, but I was free.
The strange weather today — apart from the temperature, which was still in the 80s — was the nature of the venue that chef Gray Kunz was opening — not a high-end restaurant, but a lounge and event space. I’m torturing the analogy, I know, but it did seem like an indicator of the New York City restaurant climate.
Regina Schrambling, in a weather-appropriate sleeveless dress, pointed out that the food being served — sausages (weisswurst), brisket, pork belly, baked beans, goulash — was all autumn. Indeed it was.
I met Oceana’s executive chef, Ben Pollinger, whom I’d only spoken to on the phone before, and Buddakan’s relatively new executive chef, Lon Symensma, who took over when Michael Schulson left to do the TV show Pantry Raid (cute name, right?). Gotham Bar and Grill chef and New York restaurant icon Alfred Portale stopped by, and Chris Lee of Gilt with sommelier Jason Ferris. And others. We spoke of many things, which I will not reveal, because I think they will be the subject of my next column in Nation’s Restaurant News.
What I had at the Sonoma County lunch (food by chef Bruce Riezenman):
Drakes Bay oysters with sparkling wine sabayon and fennel Chiffonade
2000 Gloria Ferrer Royal Cuvée, Carneros
Whole corn and cauliflower soup with dungeness crab and coconut
2005 Baletto Pinot Gris, Sonoma Coast
2003 Murphy Goode Fumé Blanc Reserve, Alexander Valley, “The Deuce”
Liberty Duck confit, heirloom tomato & lavendar coulis and Merlot juice, with Tierra Farm marrowfat bean ragù and braised red chard
2005 Ravenswood Old Hill Ranch Zinfandel, Sonoma Valley
2005 Bucklin Old Hill Ranch Zinfandel, Sonoma Valley
1995 Ravenswood Old Hill Ranch Zinfandel, Sonoma Valley
What we ate from Sonoma on Saturday (Chef Mark Stark and his team):
Petite Maine lobster rolls with parsley and fennel
Crispy monterey squid with orange–chile gremolata
Oh! Tommy Boy potato spring rolls with caramelized onions and mint
Pomegranate-glazed CK lamb kofta
Dungeness crab tacos with aji amarillo
Wattle Creek Methode Champenoise NV
Bacon and Eggs — Pinot-poached Triple T Ranch egg and slow-braised pork belly with black truffle–bacon vinaigrette and crisp potato, pearl onion, and frisée salad
Wattle Creek Pinot Noir 2005
Sonoma veal cheek raviolo with popcorn sweetbreads, creamed corn, and mustard–tarragon jus
Wattle Creek Triple Play 2003
Arugula and endive with Manchego cheese, Meyer lemon, and avocado
Wattle Creek Viognier 2005
Liberty Farms duck four ways — cardamom and vanilla–roasted duck breast; duck confit and foie gras cabbage roll; and black Mission fig in a blanket with duck prosciutto
Wattle Creek Shiraz 2002
Caramelized Gravenstein apple financier with hazelnut crunch, Marin Farms Camembert ice cream, and wattle creek sparkling Shiraz and blackberry sabayon
And what I sampled at Freefood:
Raspberry, cacao, goji berries and almond milk
Banana, cacao bean, Thai coconut, espresso and cashew butter
Green tea, melon, nutmeg and candied ginger
Young coconut, spinach, agave and Super Green Food (a powdered additive made from leafy green vegetables)
Kale, cucumber, spinach, lemon and green apple
Pineapple, green apple and fennel
Five spice squash, dried orange zest and toasted sesame
Romesco soup with dharred tomatoes, roasted peppers, marcona almonds and sherry vinegar
Yukon gold potato, celeriac, roasted hazelnuts and oil spiced with cinnamon
Slow-roasted free-range chicken with sun-dried tomato, tapenade, arugula and mozzarella
Maple smoked wild salmon with herbed labne, mizuna and capers
Roasted portobello, macadamia hummus, preserved lemon and crispy artichoke
Various foods at the buffet that I wrote down somewhere but can’t find at the moment
Chocolate marzipan budino with sea salt
Cranberry tart with sage cream