Monday, September 23, 2013

A Quick Drink: Sparkling Wine

If marooned on a desert island or a dessert island, I'd gladly choose sparkling wine to be my beverage of necessity. Sparkling wine isn't just for weddings and holidays; it is a fantastically versatile wine that gets along with most foods or can stand on its own. Let's cover some basics first. Basics, not an exhaustive history and production specs to bore a snob.

All Champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is Champagne. To be called Champagne, a wine must originate from the Champagne area of France. Where is Champagne? If you find Paris on a map and move your eyes right 100 miles or so, you'd be staring right at it. This area is cold and that lends the wines a distinct acidity. Plus, the chalky soil is perfect not only for growing grapes of character but for storing wine. Most Champagne comes from the juice of three grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. Champagne's bubbly personality comes from a secondary fermentation inside the bottle. It is a long process to make Champagne, one I am happy not to have to do.

Most Champagnes are produced by houses, who purchase grapes or wine from grape growers and create a house blend. My favorite Champagnes are grower Champagnes, meaning the guy who grows the grapes makes the Champagne.

All of which is a long way of saying, my favorite sparkling wine isn't a Champagne. It is that bottle of $14 brilliance you see in front of you. Saint-Hillaire claims to be the oldest sparkling wine in existence. Crisp and refreshing, this sparkler can be drunk on its own, with food, or in a mimosa without breaking the bank. I drink entirely too much of it.

And you should too.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Gautreau's: Is It Worth It?

Sadly the world has moved away from grand fine dining. The hottest restaurants now take few reservations or have some other Byzantine system to gain access to their dining room. The restaurant is likely located in an abandoned strip mall where your food is served by a disinterested English major with a penchant for ignoring you. To make the place hip, they've removed the tablecloths, pumped in synthetic pop, and added a slew of $12 cocktails. Or perhaps there is a food truck serving the cuisine of Ecuadoran Easter where you eat off of cardboard plates outside of an Electronic Dance Music club. Or a pop-up restaurant (guilty as charged) has taken hold of our energies and soon we are all piling into a bakery on a Monday night to eat Jamaican ramen.

Going to the dining destinations of the new Millennium requires the diplomacy, planning, and luck of a White House intern. The snobbery of the old French places have been replaced by the non-caring of today's hot new spots. The attitude of yesterday's sommelier or maitre d' is no match for today's hostess, mixologist, or chef who is convinced their restaurant is the height of a post-Roman civilization. You are lucky to get in, blessed to dine, and dared to complain.

Call me a snob, but sometimes I want the restaurant to actually give a damn about me.

When I want to be pampered, when I want service that matches a $30 entree, and when I want to actually dine in splendor, I head to Gautreau's. If you have been there and enjoyed it, you know what I mean. Behind the plain facade with no sign on Soniat Street and a slight trace of interior light, there is a serene dining room staffed by competent, professional staff. My favorite part of a meal at Gautreau's is perhaps the simplest pleasure of all. Upon being seated, you will not be barraged by a laundry list of specials or even the heft of a menu. Rather in a calm pleasant voice, you will be asked if you'd like a cocktail or perhaps a glass of wine.

Why don't more places do this? When someone comes to your house for dinner, you don't immediately shove food down their gullet. You offer them a drink; you sit; catch up; chat; relax. I love Gautreau's solely for this reason alone. And the act that they make a martini that could force Churchill to give up Scotch.

A drink down, your menu short and sweet shows up. I'm sure the desserts are worthwhile, but we made a decision to focus on Sue Zemanick's savory work. First up were tender and crispy baby artichokes laced with lemon that made one realize a stuffed artichoke is just a cover for bad technique. A plate of sweetbreads were soft on the inside, crispy on the outside, and surrounded by pearls of sweet crab meat, green spinach, smoky bacon, and a hard-boiled quail egg whose yellow interior blazed like a sunflower. A bite of this salad encapsulated the flavors of universal understanding.

Finesse is the difference between how you cook at home and how the great restaurants of the world cook. Witness a stack of just cooked lobster on top of crunchy, julienne vegetables surrounded table side by a coconut broth that evoked the joy of sharing a towel with to a beautiful woman on a Caribbean beach. Less successful was a duck confit, which while cooked well and tossed with arugula, blackberries, and almonds, lacked discussion besides, "Can I have another bite of your lobster?"

Gautreau's and Publican are the only two restaurants in America to give birth to three Food and Wine Magazine Best New Chefs. One reason for this continued success may be the simple roast chicken, the daiquiri of the food world. The skin requires a thorough whacking with a knife or fork to break the taut khaki crust. Underneath is a flesh whose salty, juiciness deserves a pair of shorts with words on the butt. A creamy raft of potatoes, a rich sauce with mushrooms, and crispy green beans round out one of the single best plates of food in America. A plate of grouper came forth gilded by green harissa and an eggplant, chickpea, and peppery hash. It was a tour de force of the cooking of the Mediterranean. All of the above got along pleasantly with an affordable bottle of rose.

Look, you can spend your time chasing down pop food trucks and eating a "chefs" idea of the comfort food of Indonesia. That food has a place in all of our diets. But if you really want to dine with a service staff that could give the Moscow Ballet a lesson on elegance and precision. If you want to eat food that is well-thought out and smart without being an inside joke. If you just want a solid drink, a good roast chicken, and a place to tell someone you love and appreciate them. Then head to Gautreau's.

Gautreau's: Is It Worth It? Absolutely.
1728 Soniat St.
Dinner Mon. - Sat.