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Plat du Jour: How Should We Write a Wine List Label?

Of all the contentious wine list debates, there is one subject that I’ve almost never heard approached, yet almost always think about without realizing it. We often discuss how you should order wines on a list (Light to dark? By varietal? By region? Alphabetically?) and what is a fair mark-up percentage (Three times wholesale value? Four times?). We consider whether a list is better on an iPad or old fashioned book style. We ponder how much of a description we want for a wine compared to how much we want the sommelier to explain to us. Do we want appellation maps? Do we want suggested food pairings or is that far too detailed information?IMG_0935

Last night at a popular San Francisco bar/lounge known more for its beautiful setting and beautiful people in that setting compared to the decent wine, beer, and cocktail list, I was a bit flustered by the wine list.

Most people have probably never heard of the Blaufrankisch grape, commonly found in Austria. Repeat that again? The closest comparison I could give you is Mourvèdre, where it’s pleasantly light in tannins, light to medium bodied, and full of earth and spice. The listing on the wine list said:

blaufrankisch zantho 2010 burgenland austria

The entire wine list followed that same Varietal, Winemaker, Optional Vineyard addition such as Juvenile Vineyard for the 2011 Turley Zinfandel, Optional region like Toro, State or Country like California or Italy. Read the rest of this page »

Greetings From…Barcelona! Part II

Continuing where we left off in Part I:

Beautiful beach crowd

Beautiful beach crowd

The Concept of Barcelona: Comfort Molecular Gastronomy
Like the city itself, the rustic past meets the Star Trek-El Bulli avant-garde. You see the classic side from Fonda Gaig or the old lunch cantina Cal Boter. For seafood, Cal Pep is as highlighted in the guidebooks at the Sagrada Familia, and actually hasn’t indulged into becoming a tourist trip recent reports tell me.

Bar Pinotxo's tripe

Bar Pinotxo’s tripe

Every time I visit Barcelona, I need a decidedly not inventive, but still excellent lunch of tender baby squid over white beans with a generous aged balsamic drizzle and exemplary tripe from Bar Pinotxo in the Boqueria. It’s a cramped, hectic experience, but one of a kind. Do it. Read the rest of this page »

Wine of the Week: Fernando de Castilla Palo Cortado Sherry, Jerez, Spain

When traveling, I often slip into the “When in Rome…” philosophy at restaurants and bars without thinking about it. In Dublin, pints of Guinness become automatic at 5pm (or much earlier). A Kir for my apértif in Paris. Malört at midnight in Chicago bars. O.k., I don’t mind the first two examples, but I can’t lend my full support to Malört. Sorry Chicago.

Similarly, I found myself starting every dinner with a dry Sherry and concluding dinner post-dessert with the maple syrup of wines, Pedro Ximenez Sherry. It’s easy to love and hate Pedro Ximenez at the same time. Vintages are rarely complex. They are also rarely undrinkable if you have a sweet tooth and enjoy fortified wines.

Fernando de Castille Palo Cortado on right

Fernando de Castilla Palo Cortado on right

Dry Sherries, such as Fino and Manzanilla, are much trickier. Many of them are bone shackling dry and bitter as lemon juice. They certainly play the part of palate preparers for the upcoming meal where you need to get something to drown out the tartness. I’ve had too many dry Manzanillas that give far too much sharpness up front to be bearable and enjoy the usual nutty finish.

Yet, there’s something catchy about the drier Sherries that keep you wanting them when they’re restrained. Read the rest of this page »

Greetings From…Barcelona! Part I

With summer starting to wind down (no, winter isn’t quite around the corner yet), it’s time to start unpacking the suitcase and take stock of some of the exciting bites and lessons learned from dining journeys the past few weeks. Over the rest of August, we’ll look back on visits to Kauai, Madrid, Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Lisbon, Porto, Milwaukee, and Phoenix. Unfortunately I’m still looking for that excuse to visit Singapore or Istanbul. Today, we’ll begin in one of the great treasures of Europe: Barcelona.

Parc Güell, a Gaudi masterpiece

Parc Güell, a Gaudi masterpiece

I first laid eyes on Barcelona in my dorm room as a freshman at a college in small town Ohio. Our sparkling Mediterranean was Lake Erie and instead of having the prominent green urban mountain Montjuic overlooking our city, I used to have to run inside and out of sand bunkers on the golf course to get some sort of elevation change.

It’s fair to say, when I saw Barcelona in the film “L’Auberge Espagnole,” I was ready to go there. Or anywhere for that matter since I transferred after the year. Not to Barcelona, though.

The images of Barcelona’s sun, fun, and peculiar architecture never left me. They only grew stronger after seeing Woody Allen’s underrated “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” I figured when I’d visit the next year as a student living in Paris, I’d fall in love with ease, or at least go on a date with Scarlett Johansson. Well, at least I fell in love with the city. I didn’t find Scarlett or Penelope Cruz.

Mini hamburgers at Lolita Taperia

Mini hamburgers at Lolita Taperia

In both films, they kept talking about Gaudi. Gaudi here, Gaudi there. Gaudi in reality. Gaudi in my dreams. I kept thinking to myself, what’s the deal with this Gaudi? Is Gaudi a person? A myth? A religion? Read the rest of this page »

5 Lessons From SF Chefs Editorial Panel

Saturday morning as the fog rolled back towards the coast and the fog of the early morning dance-offs at the Rollin with the Red Carpet After Party at E&O Kitchen started to lift, a powerhouse quartet of food writers assembled to discuss the state of the American food journalism scene.

Sunset from SF Chefs Bar Bites

Sunset from SF Chefs Bar Bites

The answer is: because of the immense surge in popularity that the dining out culture has seen recently, it’s not as bleak as you’d might expect with the financial challenges facing print food sections.

That being said, if you want to be a food critic, then good luck. There aren’t many spots. You need to be creative and very skilled with social media.

As part of this weekend’s SF Chefs Festival, the “Editors Panel: Inside the American Restaurant Scene- Coast to Coast Opinions” brought together Miriam Morgan (The San Francisco Chronicle’s Food Editor), Kim Severson (Atlanta Bureau Chief for The New York Times and a former Times and Chronicle food writer), Tom Sietsema (The Washington Post Dining Critic and also a former Chronicle food writer), and Margo True (Food Editor of Sunset Magazine). Read the rest of this page »

Plat du Jour Tuesday July 30, 2013: Restaurant Websites

It’s usually the first part of the dining out experience. Well, most likely the review from a newspaper or magazine critic, or perhaps the recommendation from a trusted friend might be the absolute first step (please, please don’t say browsing Yelp).

When it’s crunch time though to start planning where to dine tomorrow night, where to go on that important second date next Thursday, or you’re just hungry and bored at the office dreaming of that Spain vacation down the road, you google for a restaurant’s website.

The restaurant website is critical for restaurants today. It’s no lie that the first impression of a restaurant is the website. The chef might be a genius. The atmosphere can be magical. But that website has the most annoying music possible with too many quotes praising the chef. O.k., skip it, on to the next one.

Unfortunately, an excellent chef or an excellent restaurateur doesn’t always translate into an excellent web site designer. There are two fundamental problems with restaurant websites that draw the ire of frequent visitors (yours truly certainly included): annoying graphics/ site design (definitely including music and video) and lack of information (don’t you love outdated menus or searching for hours of operation for…hours?).

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Generally I can look past a poor website if I’ve heard excellent reports from a restaurant. I’ll still give the restaurant a chance. Let’s be honest though, the restaurant website is very important from an impression standpoint and a decision making one as well. I’m happy to report that the art of the dining scene worldwide is in far better health these days than the art of the restaurant website. With how vital the website is now to the dining out process and the endless resources today in 2013 web design (don’t we all wish we graduated from college with a CS degree?), let’s hope that more restaurants see the (silver) light. Read the rest of this page »

Restaurants: Blackbird, Chicago

Aged meat and dishes merging surf and turf are two of the most challenging concepts for a kitchen to pull off without a hitch. Something almost always seems to go off the deep end for both.

That precious half year aged chateaubriand might taste more of provocative black garlic than sensuous, relentless meat. Raise your hand if you’ve ever had a lobster and filet mignon dish where the filet is grilled as long as the lobster is steamed, and you end up wishing you just ordered twice as much lobster? Or that pork belly and scallop concoction where the poor subtle scallop is dominated by overwhelming smoky bacon notes because that’s what pork belly does to everything?

IMG_1958For those who are weary about aged meat, surf and turf, and the state of 21st century fine dining in general, now is an ideal time to head over to Chicago’s red hot West Loop neighborhood for a visit with what must be considered one of the definitive restaurants of this generation, Blackbird.

Did I mention that Blackbird opened in December of 1997 and is just as engaging now as it was on that (probably very cold being Chicago) night back in the Clinton years. Back when Michael Jordan was in the midst of his final Bulls championship season and back when the Cubs had recently won a World Series. O.k., that last remark obviously isn’t so true, but come on, you can’t write a Chicago article without mentioning the Billy Goat curse. Hey, Sammy Sosa’s record home run year with Mark McGwire still hadn’t happened yet.

There is no Billy Goat or usual restaurant curse for Blackbird, extraordinarily defying the odds for restaurants to survive beyond a decade without becoming stale and irrelevant. Nor is there any goat on the menu currently at Blackbird, like at a certain nearby, just as popular, but much younger neighbor on West Randolph.

However, there is aged duck breast currently being served. It is majestic. There is also a handsome dry-aged striploin with the common pairing of chanterelle mushrooms, and the not- so common, seaweed pesto. Read the rest of this page »