Monday, May 30, 2005

Our Wine Route, Part I

The Gounder-Sandersen-Wahl wine route started in Chablis, before moving to the Cote d'Or, Beaujolais, and finally, the Northern Rhone. The first half of the wineries we visited:

William Fevre (Chablis)

In 1936, the land in Burgundy was divided into several classifications, which are still upheld today by law. Grand Crus produce the best wines, and Premier Crus produce the second best wines. Most Burgundian wines fall in neither of these two classifications. Generally speaking, Grand Crus and Premier Crus are from the steepest slopes. The rationale is that grapes' roots struggle more to find water the steeper the land. The more the grapes suffer, the more complex the wine.

This steepness factor points to a big philosophical difference between French wines and the wines of Napa. Traditionally, French winemakers have tried to make wines that are representative of their terroirs (the land). While a good Napa winemaker believes in the quality of the grape, he also believes that he should play a large role in what to do with the grapes once they come off their vines. Hence, the obsession with new oak in Napa -- while a Frenchman growing Chardonnay in Chablis would likely let his wine take the minerally, more subtle taste of the terroir, an American is more likely to try to infuse the Chardonnay grapes with the oaky/buttery taste that we love. Perhaps the difference stems from Napa's newness and our lack of knowledge about our terroir. Or, perhaps American tastes (bigger = better) account for the philosophical difference.

William Fevre has vines that cross all the various classifciations. While the terroir classification could seem like a governmental ploy to protect the French wine industry, it's pretty right on. That's not to say that a Grand Cru can't produce a bad wine or that a non-cru terrior can't produce a good one. From our experience, however, we enjoyed the Grand Crus we tasted to the lesser classifcations.

Chablisienne (Chablis)

Wine Spectator grants high ratings to many of the wines produced by Chablisienne. Given this, we were surprised to notice boxed wine stockpiles when we arrived for our tasting. Moreover, unlike the other wineries we visited, Chablisienne relies on mechanical picking due to the high labor costs that would be incurred with hand picking.

How could this be the same acclaimed winemaker we had read about? We soon learned that Chablisienne is a cooperative of over 200 vineyard owners. With so many grapes to choose from, Chablisienne is able to produce everything from Grand Cru wines to, well, wine in a box.

Alex Gambal (Cote de Beaune)

Alex Gambal is an American who embraced the classical French philosophy behind winemaking, producing quality wines that reflect their terroir. He doesn't grow any of his own grapes, but works as a negotiant, buying grapes from others. He, however, maintains a close relationship with and eye on his suppliers to ensure that he only uses quality grapes.

I very much enjoyed the wines we tasted. My sister suggested that if we were to ever want to enter the wine business in France (very wishful thinking), Alex's negotiant, small scale approach might be a good one to follow.

Louis Jadot (Cote de Beaune)

Louis Jadot is a label easily found in the US. Given this, we were skeptical about how much we'd enjoy our tasting, fearful that the wines would be Americanized and commoditized.

The sommelier leading our tasting addressed this exact issue without our prompting at the beginning of our tour. He explained that Jadot's aim is both in producing excellent table wines, those commonly found in the US, as well as more complex wines.

We tasted more wines at Jadot than at any other winery, tasting unfinished wines from the barrel and finished wines, as well as wines across various terroirs and of different classifications. I came away with a 1998 Premier Cru Chassagne-Montrachet. 1998 is well-known as a horrible year for wines, but the sommelier had discovered that with a couple years, the wine had turned into something quite good. My taste buds agreed.

Maison Joseph Drouhin (Cote de Beaune)

Joseph Drouhin is located in the heart of Beaune (it's vineyards are obviously elsewhere). Its caves are an ancient labyrinth of paths stretching beneath the city. Totally cool.

Drouhin's vision moving forward is very different from Jadot's vision. Our guide explained the Drouhin wants to focus entirely on high quality, complex wines from the Premier and Grand Crus. He believed that focusing on the more attainable, table wines would only hurt Burgundy's ability to compete in the world market, since such table wines are not Burgundy's core competency.

Stay tuned for Our Wine Route, Part II.

Paul Bocuse: A Love Story Between the Man and Himself

Our second hall of fame restaurant after Lameloise was Paul Bocuse's place, located in Lyon by the Saone River:


Paul Bocuse's is fun and colorful on the outside. The restaurant's interior is very regal and spacious, making the restaurant feel less warm than Lameloise. The restaurant itself was cold for me temperature-wise, but my pashmina and our wine warmed me up over the course of the evening.

Bocuse's infatuation with himself became quickly evident to us. The exterior of the building includes a larger than life mural of the chef and every piece of china is emblazoned with his name. Near the restroom, there is a photo of Paul with other chefs that is a very unsubtle reference to the last supper painting.

Early in the evening, we noted that the only black member of the restaurant's staff was the doorman, who was also the only member of the restaurant wearing a little red get-up. Later, towards the end of the evening, the staff brought a chocolate birthday cake to a woman seated near us. As the cake was presented, the black staff member came in to turn an organ grinder. It was awful -- I was totally flabbergasted. I feel awful even repeating what image the scene reminded me of (ends with a "key"). Overall, the food was more impressive than Lameloise's, but this incident really spoiled a lot of its tastiness for me.


I don't have much to say, good or bad, about the service. When my brother-in-law ordered Johnny Walker black for his aperitif, he was told that it was fine for him to order red as well. This was obviously insulting, but I'll give the staff the benefit of the doubt and choke their comment up to some language awkwardness.


The amuse-bouche was a creamy cream of pea soup with a single gougere (a cheesy cream puff). It was excellent. I ordered a la carte:

Foie gras de canard maison en gelée au Sauternes Antonin Carême

Cassolette de homard à l'Armoricaine

Cheese Course

Pruneaux à la cannelle et au beaujolais

The creamy lobster stew main course was incredible -- it was very rich, but the restaurant served the right (a small) portion to be pleasurable but to not finish you off for the evening (the cheese course tends to take this role for me, even though I always manage to plow through dessert).

A pre-dessert dessert (a small creme brulee) and the typical plate of pre-dessert sweets (nougat, chocolates, meringue, etc.) were served to us. Then, a dessert cart appeared from which we could select as many desserts as we desired. Since I was so stuffed, I only had the beaujolais-soaked prunes, but could have chosen chocolate cake, a fruit tart, eggs in snow, baba au rhum, amongst many other items.

I went home happy and full, but also bewildered by the restaurant's birthday tradition. Of the three *** places we tried, I'd put Bocuse in last place, partly because of this incident and partly because the colder atmosphere which doesn't suit me well.

Oh, Celine, I need our wine selection from you!

Lameloise: A Restaurant For Dogs

We're back from the family, food, and wine fest that we spent with my sister and her husband in France. Blogging about the trip in one or two sittings seems rather daunting, so I'll blog about the trip in a series of posts. I'll cover the three, *** Michelin-rated restaurants at which we dined (these restaurants represent 12% of the *** Michelin restaurants in France), as well as the wineries we hit up and other memorable details, culinary or not.

Lameloise was the first of the three stars we visited:


Lameloise's atmosphere is intimate, yet elegant. We were seated in one of several rooms, all of which were occupied by an older crowd. The ceilings were low, which made for a cozy atmosphere.

The most out-of-place piece of decor at the restaurant was the dog seated with its owner at a table near us. When the lady and dog pair appeared, the servers said nothing, but I noticed an annoyed expression on at least one of their faces. I was certainly annoyed by the woman's arrogance. Would it be acceptable to bring Fido to The French Laundry or Fluffy to a White House dinner?! At least the dog was well-behaved -- perhaps its owner ordered it its own plate of foie gras to keep it happy and quiet.


The service was very good, but not the best I've seen (The French Laundry wins this contest for me). We were waited on by perhaps four men, and I enjoyed their explanation of the breads at the beginning of the meal and of cheeses at the end. The service, however, was not seamless -- plates did not appear out of nowhere, as the staff would crowd into a corner to organize plates before serving them to our table.


As I did with almost every dinner in France, I started off my meal with a Kir Royal. We brought back a bottle of Creme do Cerise to try a twist on the classic aperitif at home. My sister was in charge of the wine selection, so I'll update the blog with the excellent, luxurious white bottle she selected when I talk to her next (or perhaps she can add a comment to this post).

Knowing that the restaurant focuses on the hearty, Burgundian style of cuisine, we all went for the smallest menu, the Menu Affaire. Before my actual selections I arrived, we were served a plate of small tastes (a delicate shrimp, a cheese-filled square of puff pastry, and something on a spoon). Our amuse-bouche of avocado mouse topped with two sardines was creative and refreshing. As for my meal:

Gâteau de foies blonds aux langoustines de Bretagne, sauce coraillée

Daurade royale cuite à basse température écrasée de pommes de terre
sauce légèrement parfumée aux olives noires

Cheese Course

Soufflé chaud aux fruits de la passion

Everything was good, except for the souffle which was awesome. For those of you who don't know, daurade is a white fish. I ordered the souffle at the beginning of the meal. The waiter gave me the option of the passion fruit sauce on the side or infused and buried in the souffle. His description of the latter presentation was rather animated, and he seemed happy when I chose it. The main dessert was of course surrounded by a series of desserts -- pre-dessert sweets, post-dessert chocolates, and an espresso mousse with the coffee. We left fuller than full.

All in all, Lameloise is really quiet good. We, however, all felt a little disappointed. With the exception of the souffle, nothing stood out. Plus, I think souffles always stand out for me. To some extent, I think the problem is my getting spoiled -- my theory is that there is diminishing enjoyment to the world-renown restaurants at which you dine.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

French Three Ways

We've recently dined at a French bistro, a French-Pacific Rim spot, and an upscale French restaurant. It has occurred to me that the food I grew up with falls at the intersection of these three cuisines. Growing up, I ate simple but hearty bistro fare such as coq au vin, and my brown bag lunches often included pate-smeared baguettes. My Indian father also influenced my mother's cooking -- for example, a typical dinner might be ratatouille scooped up with pori. My mother gave me my appreciation for elegant food presentation. Every Christmas, she makes an amazing bouche de noel with knots covered in rich chocolate and painstakingly created meringue mushrooms. Enough about my mom and time for my reviews!

Rather than stick with our favorite French Bistros, we decided to give Bistro Aix in the Marina a chance. It was ok. We went through two warm baskets of focaccia, which, unlike the rest of the meal, was truly outstanding. I started with a mesculun salad with warm goat cheese, proceeded to a cracker crust pizza, and ended with a creme brulee. All very so-so. During the meal, I kept comparing Aix to our favorite French Bistros. The creme brulee was maybe 50% the deliciousness of Chapeau's. Do not, however, fear -- the rest of this blog is much more upbeat.

Last weekend, we hopped on the Muni to visit the Castro's Ma Tante Sumi, which blends Asian ingredients with French preparation and presentation. The restaurant has about 15 tables and is quiet and intimate. I had a green salad with fried tofu croutons, a beautiful piece of bass, and a caramelized pineapple cake. Our waiter suggested a nice Pinot Grigio for the table, which was light and perfect for my meal. The food was simple and elegant and the evening leisurely and cozy. Ma Tante Sumi has made my top restaurant list, which currently consists of Chapeau, Bistro Jeanty, and Zuni (I've purposely excluded French Laundry from this list, since it's way more than a restaurant and more of a once or twice in a lifetime experience).

Who would be presumptuous enough to name itself The Dining Room? The Ritz Carlton, that's who! The restaurant, however, does deserve the title. Before showing up for our 9pm reservations, Aren and I stopped by the lounge of the hotel for drinks. Rather than only semi-insult us and ask us for our IDs, the server asked if we wanted some water or soda. I of course berated him, but calmed down once I had my Kir Royale. The atmosphere and service were stellar. We were seated side-by-side on the cushioned-seat side of a four person table, elegantly decorated with white tulips. The very Versailles decor made as feel like royalty. We had about five male servers at our service. One server bumped into me when we were first shown to our table. He later found me to apologize. I had read great things about Sommelier Stephane Lacroix, so we had him describe the five German Rieslings on his wine list to us. We picked a Kabinnet, which was perfectly sweet but had a nice, dry finish (I foolishly forgot to write down its name). We were quickly but not too quickly served rolls from a silver tray and presented with an artichoke soup amuse-bouche. We mmm'd until it was all gone. We went with a three course menu. I had chilled foie gras with apple jam, sauternes gelée, and thinly sliced brioche. A+! My sole entree served on top of I-forgot-what with lobster tortellini was very disappointing. I am, however, trying not to hold this against the restaurant, since the taste of Aren's duck that I had was divine. My dessert included a lemon tart with orange sorbet and fruit topped with bergamot ice cream. The meal really ended with a cart of sweets. I selected a piece of nougat, a macaroon, a milk chocolate truffle, and an almond caramel. The Dining Room isn't a once-a-month type place, which is why I'm not adding it to my top restaurants list, but definitely worth trying when you're in the mood to be food-pampered.

17 days to France!