Tuesday, June 26, 2012

long time no see


last june found me in aarhus, interloping at a press event featuring several progressive chefs from denmark and northern europe. mads refslund was one of the participating chefs and he presented a course of wood sorrel leaves, white walnuts, and nearly uncooked lobster dressed with foie gras and an oil infused with roasted lobster shell. the walnuts were white in that a small army of volunteer cooks had spent five hours paring and tweezing every bit of the bitter papery skin from the nutmeats.

this resoundingly quiet, outwardly austere and cool dish was not much appreciated by the many people at the dinner who had come for a taste of fancy, showoffish food and did not get much of it.

it was the first time i was able to detect and articulate what—other than the use of unusual high-latitude ingredients—was distinctive about the sensory profile of progressive cooking in the north. it uses few aromatic spices, instead achieving nuance and variation with a diversity of raw plants that produce fresh green, herbaceous, and vegetal flavours. seed and vegetable oils are rarer and more used for low-temperature cooking and finishing than they are for frying or confit, animal fats (butters and lards) are more prevalent. foods are more often served cool or cold.

most distinctively, the sugar/acid balance tilts strongly in favour of high acidity, often derived from ingredients containing a wide range of acids with different flavours. there's not much of the citric or succinic acids that come from citrus and other tropical fruit, but plenty of puckery acetic acid from vinegars and soft lactic acid from a wide range of soured dairy. and there is more extensive use of grassy-tasting malic acidity (from unripe fruit, including grapes and apples), the violent astringent acidity of quinic and caffeic acids (from sea buckthorn), and the fresh, quickly dissipating lemony flavour of oxalic acid (from sorrels and rhubarb). a bracing, austere cuisine.

refslund recently took over the kitchen at acme in new york city, to which i went this weekend. we got there early and shared the warmly lit wood-paneled room and tin-topped tables with a handful of happy people exclaiming softly over the food. later in the evening, the crowd evolved to become more beautiful and, perhaps, less interested. the food was distinctly northern, translated to east coast ingredients and the east village context.

room-temperature raw mackerel filets came with with slices of meaty, crunchy uncooked porcini mushrooms and bitter young dandelion leaves, sauced liberally by a warm pool of an intentionally split, much lighter version of a lemony hollandaise. a pale summer cabbage had been par-cooked, halved, its cut face given a slow char on the plancha, then the spaces between the leaves filled with pine nuts, a cloud of microplaned gruyere, and shaved summer truffles. a generous and loose pile of chopped clams, scallops, and artichokes arrived topped by slender pea shoots and a foam supposedly made from sunflower seeds, everything bound together by creamy-textured pearl barley that had been hydrated and cooked in a series of broths to preserve the free starches on the surface of each grain. we barely finished a thoroughly satisfying and over-generously filled clay pot of gently cooked chicken, fried poached eggs, and roast new potatoes. the sauce at the bottom of the clay pot was the best kind of gravy: deep roast chicken flavour, with a fine-textured, flowing consistency.

throughout, many glasses of a 2010 AOC morgon from georges descombes. it started out light-bodied and austere, with a coppery flavour then, after an hour, my glass filled with the scent of peonies and cool stone fruit, and the smell of a temperate deciduous forest after a short rain.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

a short lunch at the bar


last june, a pleasant and generous surprise: what, for noma, counts as a short lunch at the bar. an unusual and thought-provoking meal, both the food and the service. this was most evident at meal's end. sweet courses at noma are light, to the point of seeming austere to those used to dessert as a soothing, unchallenging combination of richness and sweetness (and often chocolate). instead, a bowl of perfectly ripe strawberries with cylinders of barely sweet hay-flavoured gelled cream and a scattering of young chamomile buds. and a pile of shaved fresh carrots, rehydrated dried carrot chips, marinated carrot slices, bronze fennel, lemon thyme, carrot greens on top of a mound of whipped buttermilk. dazzling stuff.

there were many "snacks," an amusing description considering many of them had more fiddly components than your average main course. at the time, each diner would receive over a dozen snacks to open the meal. enough to dedicate one station (with a chef de partie and several stages) in the unusually organized and extraordinarily low-temperature kitchen to making them.

the food was outwardly simple—the art that conceals art—but nudged me nonetheless to attend, to eat in the moment. a few snacks in, rené brought a plate on which a napkin lay, a variety of fresh, dewy flowers nestled in its folds. in his other hand, a saucer.

a plate of undressed flowers and a saucer of unmixed dressing left on a table with no place setting forces the eater to use his hands, but also gives him the opportunity to eat the flowers either dressed as the kitchen intends or unadorned: no-choice and choice. a nasturtium flower, peppery and papery at the edge, with crunch in the middle. an umbel of yarrow flowers, bitter, green-tasting, yet pure white and sweet-smelling. eating the flowers alone emphasised the differences in their flavours and textures. eating them by hand highlighted their delicacy.

eating the flowers dressed was more curious. the saucer contained a spoonful of pumpkinseed emulsified in its own oil, surrounded by a bright orange sea buckthorn reduction sweetened with honey. the flowers were the only tools at hand to mix the dressing with. combined with a flower and then eaten, the sea buckthorn's intense acidity met the fat from the pumpkinseed, leaving a rich green note in the background and the floral aroma of the honey riding clear and distinct over ... a flower.

just a plate of flowers if you don't pay attention; a discovery, a private joke, a meditation, if you do. the kitchen team had spent a week, maybe more, figuring out what the dressing would be and how to present the flowers.

bright, acid food, needing a light touch with the beverages. the bar poured a flute of "entre ciel et terre" from francoise bedel, a glass of olivier horiot's riceys rouge "en barmont" (2003), and a bottle of noma novel (a belgian strong ale brewed for noma by mikkeller), each a brilliant working contradiction in terms.

everything at noma, food or drink, is brought to you by someone who knows it well. often it is a chef, sometimes even the chef who made it. meeting the people who are cooking for you is usual in a home, and an unusual experience of hospitality in a restaurant. even in a kitchen of enormously competent chefs, this style of service is demanding. it takes tremendous investment of time and energy, not to mention money, by a restaurant and its staff to reliably reproduce the rare and magical experience of eating at the table of a good friend who cooks well and wants to make you happy (and maybe impress you a little as well).

Sunday, June 17, 2012

the right drink at the right time

rendezvous is a gem hidden in plain sight. right there in central square, a restaurant with reasonable prices, creative but unflashy food (more on that to come), and a quiet bar that's always comfortably full but not too full. there are no douchebags. added plus: if you go tuesdays through saturdays at the moment, scott holliday is behind the bar ready to make you what will likely be an excellent drink.

i went there late last thursday (with lucy from voltage, who has Big Plans which cannot yet be Revealed). i felt a cold coming on and was thinking of something with traditional prophylactics—scotch, citrus, something bitter—and an oxidative note. in response, scott came up with what is undoubtedly the best drink i've had so far this year, a drink in the same category as the unjustly obscure classic, the bamboo.

this drink, which appears to have no name, is:
4: la cigarerra manzanilla sherry
1: luxardo triplum triple sec
1: cocchi aperitivo americano
1: fresh lemon juice

combined and stirred with ice, then strained into a cold lowball rinsed with ardbeg.
let's not mince words: this is a great drink. low in alcohol, high in nuance. it has the balance, mild fresh walnut and hazelnut flavours, floral notes, and briny minerality of a bamboo made with manzanilla and a good dry vermouth. it has a more bitter citrus aroma and sweetness from the triple sec, a bit of bite from the cocchi, balancing acid from the lemon, and smoke from the ardbeg. not what i expected but precisely what i wanted.

after a brief email conference, jake (my beverage advisor) and i extended the hypothesis that the drink would be very different and also tasty with rinse of talisker or the right mezcal. i have not yet met a mezcal that i liked, but jake notes that "Del Maguey San Luis Del Rio is like a young Islay malt." clearly, this bears further investigation.

Friday, June 8, 2012

wines for a lot of sri lankan food

note: many people seem to find this page when they're looking for wines to go with sri lankan food. we didn't do such a great job, what with that 16.3% verdelho. better would have been some low-alcohol wines, a little off-dry with good acid: kabinett rieslings (perhaps an urziger wurzgarten), crisp gruner veltliners from austria, and possibly even a perfectly clean chenin from the coteaux du vendomois. northern european rose also would work. it occurs to me that sri lankan food particularly—and indian food generally—are about the only things i wouldn't drink sherry with.

i was going to not write about beverages non-rigorously consumed, but why succumb to this variety of pettifoggery? so.

last night, we went again to biryani park, malden's temple of sri lankan food concealed in back of a grocery store. you know you're close when you pass the giant ice cream cone outside the everett dairy maid, a soft-serve hut that appears to date from at least the 1960s.

prices appear surprisingly high, but the food is honest and good and the meats are carefully sourced (and halal too, if you care about that kind of thing). various reviewers with misplaced priorities grumble about long waits for food. good food takes time; eat with interesting people you like. we had our act together enough that i finally got a chance to see a lamprais IRL (the lampraises sit, tantalising, in a section of the menu headed "24 hour advance notice required"). the chef had just returned late in the afternoon from portland and had come straight from the airport to make it.

but what is a lamprais? wonder no more: at least at biryani park, the fish lamprais is saffron rice, fried spiced potato cutlets, a catfish curry, fried hardboiled egg, a sweet condiment of caramelised red onion and maybe dates, fried eggplant, and fried ash plantains. these items are purportedly baked together in a banana leaf but the cutlets were so crisp that they might have been added after. (ideas do get around: cutlets = frikkadels = frikadeller)

we got other stuff too. a plate of coconut rice with scattered shreds of toasted coconut and green chili, each grain distinct. a bunch of bone-in goat cubes stir-fried in a vinegary, slightly mustardy sauce with curry leaves and whole chilies covered in a pile of raw white onion shavings. a pile of spiced potato, chutneys, nuts, and probably a lot more stuff wrapped up in a crisp rice and semolina dosa was too tasty to analyse and deconstruct. a jaggery-flavoured pudding with candles in it for the birthday girl. a dense, mildly sweet, brilliant pistachio khulfi. but the roti kotthu was the best thing ever: pieces of torn-up roti fried with chicken, mixed vegetable shreds (carrots, onions, etc) and curry leaf, then packed into a bowl and unmoulded for service. not pretty to look at but viscerally satisfying and deeply savoury. it vanished fast.

spice, fat, flavour on the table. what to drink? we surreptitiously consumed a scholium project naucratis (2008; 16.3% alcohol, flabby and green-tasting), a rooster hill gewurtztraminer (2010; off-dry, juicily tropical), and a domain lafond rosé (2010; strawberries, black cherries, exactly what you'd expect and perfect). what with everything else going on, the wines were not the main point. and that, in the end, is ok.

Monday, June 4, 2012

muri-gries, lagrein rosato, 2009

muri-gries lagrein rosato 2009

this was not a remarkable wine, though it was pleasant and not cripplingly expensive. the producer is cantina convento muri-gries, an old benedictine abbey very close to the austrian border. before this, i'd never had a lagrein, which the internet suggests is a tannic and acidic red grape. a rosato (a rosé wine) can be made by crushing red grapes and leaving the pulp and skins floating about for just enough time for some of the skin pigments, aromatics, and other delicious things to transfer to the juice. a rosato of a tannic, acidic red grape is smart: light enough to be refreshing, enough acid and tannin to remain interesting. this appears to be the strategy of the spanish monastrell rosados, or the mourvèdre rosés of bandol (ampelographers classify monastrell and mourvèdre as the same grape variety).

poured fairly cold (around 45F). in the glass, a deepish pink, very clear. didn't smell like much to start, then an unexpected but pleasant fresh mushroom aroma after warming up a little. in the mouth, it was off-dry and extremely crisp, with drying tannins and a fat sort of minerality, like licking a piece of limestone clay. (good party trick.) on the table, there was a large slab of perfectly grilled steelhead salmon accompanied by a bowl of grilled fennel: this was a great pairing. the bowl of grilled anaheim peppers, not so much. at the end of the night, there was still some left in the bottle — perhaps the best indicator of all. i put it out of its misery.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

vinibrato, "envol de la fille," NV

envol de la fille

at the wine bottega, they said: "you like jura reds? you gotta try this one!" still, i was dubious about this $35 bottle of table wine with the mysterious labeling. (vin de france is the relatively new fancy name for table wine, the stuff you quaff with your coq au vin, or whatever. no vintage can be listed on a bottle of vin de france.) i took it home, then forgot about it for about 6 months. last week, cleaning out the basement, it hove back into view. hot day = perfect for beaujolais.

jean-marc brignot is a jura winemaker who apparently now mostly purchases grapes from other regions and vinifies them through vinibrato, his négociant operation. from patchy information found on the interweb, i deduce that brignot generally works with a light touch. according to this source, vinibrato wines will not repeat names across vintages. an interesting approach. the grapes in "envol de la fille" ("flight of the daughter") are grown by cathy and jean-luc gauthier in morgon (an appellation in beaujolais).

upstairs, i popped it open. there was a rush of tiny bubbles, suggesting that fermentation had continued in the bottle. the first sip was at cellar temperature, probably in the low 50s. a pronounced dark sour cherry aroma, with the barnyard in the background (by which, of course, we mean poop). light red with purple lights, light bodied, yet tastes warmish and as if there was more alcohol than the labels claim (11%, the back label says; the front claims 12%).

i let a glass of it sit out for an hour or so. the barn vanished, replaced by camphor and sandalwood. the nose on this wine was extraordinarily powerful. for the longest time, it smelled like the stereotype of asia: the heavy perfume of roses, precious woods, exotick resins (myrrh, mastic), honeysuckle, a mediterranean hillside covered in scrub aromatics on a hot day. eventually, the resinous aromas converged into the scent of a powdery shellac cut with ethanol. was this the ethyl acetate of which wine geeks speak? not, perhaps, entirely pleasant.

on the second day, i started it very cold. the aromas were dramatically different and more austere: strawberry candy (like these morinaga hichews) and fresh-cut cedar. when it warmed up, the nose was less opulent than before, a little quieter. no longer completely distracted by the nose, i began to be able to taste it in the mouth: transparent in flavour, water-sweet like birch or maple sap, with much bright acidity. a few hours later, the cedar and candy had also gone away. no longer funky or resinous, the wine was extraordinarily clean with a bit of sparkle in the mid-palate.

then i forgot about the remaining half-bottle. when i remembered it again, it was the sixth day. i poured it cold, just for kicks, and the nose was back! but this time, powerful without being hot. in fact, it was the essence of sugary cool: blackcurrant leaf, coconut, cilantro (in a good way), fennel seed. in the mouth, the taste of fresh sweet cream and lightly cooked soft wheat. finishing it on the spot was not a problem.

a remarkable wine. and one which makes me wonder: why do i try to drink through whole bottles mere hours after they're opened? envol de la fille was way, way better on the sixth day than on the first. and why do i so often drink reds warm when they change so much as they come up through a range of temperatures? clearly more morgon (and beaujolais) is in order.

Friday, June 1, 2012

domaine brazilier, "tradition," 2010

brazilier tradition 2010

after DRINK RIBERA, DRINK SPAIN! at taberna de haro, i stopped into the wine press across the street to see what there was to see. the selection was divided between unremarkable stuff and some promising options. i picked up a bottle of lagrein rosato from cantina convento muri-gries ($12.99, on which, more later; also see this nyt article on lagrein) and the dry chenin blanc "tradition" from domaine brazilier.

chenin blanc can be grimly ascetic, sweet with no character, or, when done right, really beautiful. in the relatively newly minted coteaux du vendômois AOC, compliant white wines must be made with at least 80% chenin blanc and no more than 20% chardonnay. the brazilier blanc sec is a 100% chenin blanc wine at the good end of that spectrum. made with native yeasts, in the glass it is a pale gold with orange tints. full of acid, but balanced with richness and sufficient residual sugar to taste vinous and delicious.

the bottle label says it has "un nez frais et complexe, avec des arômes de pêche blanche et de poire bien mûre." to this untrained nose, it was not particularly aromatic and had an unsophisticated note even after it warmed up to the recommended service temperature (50 to 54F). however, it is true that the aromas were  light, cool, and fresh, and that in the mouth it had the particular juiciness of a ripe packham's triumph pear (combined with the mild fat sourness of dried apricots). this wine's flavours were less distinct than its sensation in the mouth: a mellow and pleasant tartness, hitting at the top middle of the mouth. the kind of delicious acidity that makes me want to sip and keep on sipping.

i kept it open for 4 days and experienced not much change. i liked it best when i started it out very cold (in a chilled glass) and tasting very dry, acid, and austere, then becoming more full-bodied and balanced as it warmed up—this way of drinking wine is admittedly heterodox. particularly nice with ripe pears and comté. a great deal, especially on sale.
producer: domaine brazilier
name: "tradition"
colour: white
country: france
region: loire (coteaux du vendômois AOC)
grape: chenin blanc
vintage: 2010
price: $11.99 (discounted retail at the wine press)
drunk over: 4 days. resealed with the cork and stored cold.
starting temperature: approx 40F
alcohol: 11-14%

availability: this bottle is imported and distributed in massachusetts by vineyard road (selected by thomas calder) and available for retail at the wine press in brookline.