Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Return Visit: Stokes - Monterey, Ca

What do you do when you return to a restaurant that you love? Why is it never as good as the first time? Dining out is nothing like sex, where the first time is painful and awkward, then it gets really good for a while before it gets boring and rote and you have to bring sex dwarves and tranny grapefruits into the relationship just to spice things up.

Do restaurants obey the laws of thermodynamics? Is entropy at work making it impossible for a restaurant to ever be better on subsequent visits and can only hope they can hold constant against it?

Or maybe we just idealize our first visits? Everything is interesting and new--flavors we haven't tasted before and on subsequent visits we taste the same quality, but it just doesn't hit us as strongly....

Nah, my vote's for entropy.

On that topic, HFF returned to Stokes, site of the inaugural review just over a year ago, and I figured we had no choice but to review it again.

Entropy was hard at work here.

The menu is just as expansive as before, with small bites/small plates/large plates/simple sides which is a great way to operate, giving customers the ability to decide how they eat without being committed to appetizer and entree versus tapas style.

I ordered a bottle of white rhone which was excellent--aromatic, crisp, and complex. Stokes' wine list, for all its selection, seemed strikingly lacking in diversity. French and California heavy, and within that very pinot noir and chardonnay heavy. Not uncommon for wine lists in general I know, but it just felt a little bit dated, given the contemporary style of the menu. I know a couple dozen Spanish, German, and Austrian wines (not to mention Italian and funkier domestic wines) that'd serve well with the Mediterranean-tinged menu.

We kicked off with two small bites and a small plate for our first course. Caramelized onion and olive flatbread was a glaring disappointment--the flatbread was room temperature and had about two pieces onion on it, though the olives were fabulous. Smoked trout with dill crostini was good, but the smoked trout was served with so much seasoning that it overwhelmed the smoked flavors. If you're going to take the time to house-smoke your trout, why the fuck would you want to overpower that flavor? The parsnip soup with spiced pumpkin seeds and guanciale was the highlight of the evening--rich and creamy without feeling heavy. The pumpkin seed allocation was generous and contrastingly complimentary and with cured pork being at the root of anything good the guanciale was the perfect addition.

Entrees were pretty good. My steelhead was overcooked for my tastes but not overcooked in the abstract sense. The marinated roasted beets and fines-herbes hollandaise sounded weird on paper but played with the fish in a good and funky way. Charlie's crispy pork shoulder was excellently prepared with anise reduction and a tiny dollop of apple puree. The only problem? Too much pork, not enough anything else. Given the mammoth of swine on the plate, a bit more sauce and sides would've been welcome.

We also got an order of braised fennel which was soft, tasty, aromatic and just a touch too oily. But good.

Last time we went to Stokes we got two desserts and made pigs of ourselves. This time, only one--a caramelized pear upside down cake that was not too moist, not too dry. Excellent closer paired perfectly with a glass of Bonny Doon framboise.

So there it was--nothing like the rave-inducing first visit but solid nonetheless. Still, there was a sloppiness that wasn't there a year ago (perhaps because it was a busy Friday instead of a lazy Sunday? Still no excuse.) and the same "problem" as before: too much protein, not enough everything else.

Stokes is still good, but growing increasingly disorganized.

Entropy ho!

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Fear and Loathing in Dry Creek Valley

I'm blazing down a potholed country road in Sonoma county buzzed and raging, three knuckles deep in a wine tasting excursion in the Dry Creek Valley.

In the passenger seat is C, she's the brains (and legs) of our operation. A wine tasting first-timer, she keeps the rest of us grounded in the real world, not spewing forth nonsense about the ephemeral green olive notes we pick up on our sauvignon blanc. In the back seat are S and A, two gallant gentlemen with more sense than money--a trait I wish I exhibited more often.

As I downshift hard in my VW I'm struck by the phenomenon that wine tasting inevitably involves drinking and driving on some of the most dangerous roads in the state. I firmly support this phenomenon.

I've been to most of the major wine growing regions of the state, but I hadn't hit up this stretch of Sonoma county before. Our first stop is Christopher Creek, a boutique hilltop winery (not technically in Dry Creek) spewing out what would prove to be a theme: zinfandel(s), syrah, petite sirah, and an obligatory chardonnay. All are big, jammy, spicy, and tannic. Universally.

Christopher Creek was good if unremarkable. Some of the wine would've been worth buying but they all started at close to $30 a bottle. In Napa and the Anderson Valley I found consistent quality in the $15-$20 bottle range (not to mention consistent industry discounts) on wines that were comparable and/or superior to the wines I tasted in Dry Creek. Irritating. Not a single waived tasting fee or industry discount on purchases either.

Doesn't make a professional want to recommend the wines, does it?

Nevertheless, whore that I am, I bought a bottle of their Deux Barriques Cuvee--a 50/50 blend of a single barrel of petite sirah and a single barrel of zin, aged separately for 18 months and then aged together for another 18 months.

Next stop was Ridge's Healdsburg tasting room. The standard bearer for zinfandel, Ridge proved to be a couple heads above any other zins that we tasted. Four different zins, four different vineyards, all different, all great. Ridge is Dry Creek's gatekeeper. They should put up those severe tire damage strips to keep people out. No need to go any further.

Optimistic after our satiety at Ridge we piled into the VW and tore the road up deeper into Dry Creek. We blitzed through the wineries with names like tranny hookers--Bella, Quivira, Preston, Zichichi. And just like with tranny hookers we found ourselves cockslapped with same tits and balls combo of zin/syrah/petite. That's all that anyone made. It was all competent or even good. It was all significantly too expensive.

Robert Parker must take particular pleasure in how wineries bend over backward to make wines to match is palate. He could probably rub one out just thinking about the wines from Dry Creek.

Not to say it was bad! The wineries were nice and the tasting room workers were friendly, if rather coked up and undressing me with their eyes, erect nipples on sagging withered dugs staring conspicuously through knit sweaters. Nothing I can control. I've come to accept it.

We decided to cut our losses and hightail it out of there, speeding out of the valley like a a bat out of some place worse than hell. I was fuming, A was banging his head on the window, S was bellowing profanities like a sodomized sailor, and C just wept softly as she clutched her knees to her chest.

All was not lost, however--we zigzagged our way through town and ended up at Landmark Vineyards (not in Dry Creek) where, despite having closed early, we were treated to a private tasting by the winemaker himself. Here we found nuanced chardonnays and pinot noirs--some of the most burgundian that I've had in California--coupled with informative discussion of the winemaking process. Tasty, intersting, subtle, and priced comparable to the jammy clusterfucks from Dry Creek.

Our final stop, a good final stop for anyone working their way back to the east bay, was at Cline in the Carneros area. What's this? Marsanne! Roussanne! Carignane! Amazing! Solid, interesting wines showcasing a variety of varietals at competitive prices. Redemption at last.

I don't want wines that are palate abusers. We've lost our taste for nuance in California wines, whether they're jammy reds or buttery whites. If we're not punched in the face with flavor we don't think it's good. There are so many varietals that grow great in California but our under-utilized because nobody's willing to be experimental. Nobody's willing to try new things. And I love zin--it's my favorite red varietal overall--but I Dry Creek wasn't doing anything interesting with the grape. It was rote.

So do us all a favor and make a point to dry new varietals and exciting blends. It'll be worth it.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

HFF Talks About Fish

Fish is good for you. Fish is tasty. Fish is overfished. A recent study suggests that the world's fisheries will be commercially extinct in less than 40 years.

So that sucks.

What then to do? You have to know your fish. There are two major myths:

1. Wild is always better. Simply false. Smaller fish, freshwater fish, and most shellfish are better for you and better for the environment when farmed. Farmed shellfish are harvested from controlled aquaculture sites instead of dragged up from sensitive wild ecosystems. Freshwater fish like catfish and trout are farmed inland in large concrete pools instead of in fenced off ocean coves--making the likelihood of escape into the wild population virtually nil. Additionally, farming isn't a cut and dry thing--there are better farming methods. Loch Duart in Scotland is a notable example and there are new developments in biodynamic farming in Hawai'i and Canada. We should encourage these practices because this might be our only hope for a consistent seafood supply into the future.

2. Bigger fish are bad for you. Sure there are mercury problems with tuna, swordfish, and ot.her big predator fish but these aren't significant issues unless your pregnant, nursing, or a child. Or you eat a shit ton of tuna every week. But 2 or 3 servings a month for a healthy adult isn't going to make you mad as a hatter. In many instances bigger fish are more likely to be pole-caught from better managed fisheries.

The best thing you can do when picking fish is to find out how it's harvested and where it's from--these factors are much more significant in most instances than the fish itself. Farmed Atlantic salmon bad. Wild California salmon, better. Wild Alaskan salmon, best. Bluefin tuna bad, yellowfin tuna from the Phillipines, still pretty bad. Yellowfin from Hawai'i good, in particular if it's pole or troll caught and not longline caught. Unfortunately this information is not readily available (beyond wild vs. farmed) in most cases. Seek out fishmongers that do provide this information--or ask.

It takes some legwork but if you plan to keep eating fish, eating as responsibly as possible is important and more nuanced then you think.

Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch is a great starting point.

Most importantly, don't be a douche and be all snide and picky at a restaurant unless you know your facts. Farmed trout is okay folks! It's okay!