Sunday, December 19, 2010

Some very good wine writing!

There's a very interesting article from the UK-magazine The World of Fine Wine that's circulating on Twitter. It's the first insightful article I've read in a glossy magazine that takes on the current relevance of pioneering wine critic Robert M. Parker, Jr that is not from a position of "is he under attack?" or "is he still influential?" but rather "he is under attack" and "he is influential but his influence is decreasing rapidly every year."

This is something I've been writing about a lot recently, so I won't bore you with rehashes of my arguments. It was simply refreshing to hear this from not only a Legitimate Wine Critic but a writer who has written one of the definitive Parker biographies.

Ms. McCoy writes about the self-evidence of Parker's decline in influence as inevitable and then outlines why: the proliferation of other critics using the 100-point scale, the rise of a younger wine consumer not concerned with the "imprimatur [of] an aging guru," the dilution of his own brand through score inflation and hiring additional tasters, and the expansion of the global wine market beyond something that is comprehensible by even the most thorough reviewer.

I also appreciated the reference to perennial wine douche bag W. Blake Gray acknowledging that he "admitted in an interview that he uses it (the 100 point scale) instead of awarding stars as a way of marketing himself." That's like buying a first-class ticket for the Titanic while it's sinking, isn't it?

Most telling is her analysis of Parker's "circling the wagons," first by deleting critical comments from his forums, then by putting all of his message boards behind a pay wall. It would appear that Parker recognizes the viability of the assault on his role as critical monolith and is shielding those who still drink his Kool-Aid (Flavor Aid, actually) by walling in his garden. He doesn't want those lawyers and ibankers who've been going to him for their holiday gifts every year to start questioning the value of his ratings.

So cheers to Ms. McCoy for a thoughtful and informative piece of writing. It's not just about Parker, it's a very astute and succinct analysis of the current power relationship in the world of wine media.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Umami Burger Redux

So I went to Umami Burger again recently. That burger is still really damn good. It's so good, that I don't even object to it winning "Burger of the Year" accolades from GQ--even if such an assertion is dubious on premise.

I also think Umami Burger is unfairly maligned. Typically there are two inevitable responses by a gourmet burger-hater. Either: 1. it's just a burger or; 2. In-N-Out is better.

First, to the "It's just a burger" assertion--you're right. It is just a burger. It's ground meat on a bun with toppings. And lobster's just a bug on the bottom of the sea and caviar is just cured sturgeon eggs. To assign the burger any higher or lower state in the culinary world because of its nature is absurd. You can make a bad burger, you can make a good burger. Is it perhaps a bit easier to make a serviceable-to-good burger than it is a steak? Probably. But it's just as hard to make a great burger as a great steak, and the burger as to be less expensive and made at higher volume (typically).

Second: No, In-N-Out is not better. Not even for the price. In-N-Out makes a good burger, for the price it's a great burger. But Umami Burger is better. It's 3-4 times better. It's 10x better. The meat is better quality. Every patty is handmade on site, the meat is hand ground and hand seasoned. The flavor combinations are thoughtful and interesting. It is, in my estimation, a step better than all other premium ($8+) burgers on the market that I've had.

Why is the burger lesser privileged? There's no inherent reason why we happily pay $20+ for an 8oz steak but balk at paying more than $6 for a burger other than that we are used to burgers being cheap. And a frozen, grey patty that's made from random cuts of meat and is 20% oatmeal should be cheap. But good meat is good meat and should, theoretically, command the same price.

I like Umami Burger a lot. It's one of my go-to's if I need a good, filling lunch for less than $20. And by always coming up with new combinations and patty variations, they give customers a reason to come back. Get Umami Burger and leave your presumptions aside, at least until you take a bite.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Crappy Service

I recently dined at a local favorite of mine here in Los Angeles. I won't name names because I do like the restaurant and plan to return. It's a restaurant, in fact, whose service I've defended to others in the past. It's a restaurant that has been lauded for its food and maligned for the quality of its waitstaff, which I'd never found wanting. Until, well....

Unfortunately, I had very shitty service there last night.

I'm lenient when it comes to service. As long as I feel modestly taken care of, I let a lot of things slide. Casualness. Harriedness. I don't really care as long as I feel that I'm being maintained--I'm being checked on, well recommended and not hurried.

Our server made zero appearances at our table except to 1. take our order and 2. refill our wine. That's it. Only things that could directly earn him revenue.

Sure, food can be dropped by a runner. I don't mind. I've worked at restaurants where that was the case. I did, however, always go by the table shortly after they'd taken a few bites and checked on everything. Not the case. And he wasn't particularly busy. We had a late reservation and, although still full when we arrived, by the time our food arrived there were only a half dozen tables and at least two waiters still working.

The problems went deeper than an inattentive waiter, too. The bussers--who admittedly did a good job keeping our water glasses filled--were very eager to clear our plates. On one occasion we were practically forced to take food off of the platter and move it to our share plates so that they could, inexplicably, clear the platter for no end other than to clear the plate or slightly accelerate our departure.

For dessert, we also had a very bad creme brulee. I blame this on the service because it was bad due it obviously lacking brulee-ness. This was plainly visible as soon as it was dropped. We would've said something but, again, the server was gone. The top was barely cooked and the dessert, although full of excellent flavor, was annoyingly bad because of it. The custard was cold in parts and, again, the bruleed top was barely browned. That's the type of thing that a server or food runner needs to notice and rectify before it's served. I've done it numerous times as a waiter and, sure I've been yelled at by chefs and cooks, but in the end I've never served an inferior product to a customer. I get it. It was late. Maybe they'd put the blowtorch away. But that's never an excuse to offer a poorly-executed dish. If you can't adequately serve the creme brulee, then 86 it after 9PM.

The last egregious error on the restaurant's part was that, despite there being 3 or 4 tables still left in the restaurant, the back waiter staff began rolling out the brooms and dustpans and sweeping up. That's completely unacceptable--it hurries your paying customers and makes them feel uncomfortable. It's not worth it. In another 30 minutes everybody would've been out of there. Every restaurant I've worked at have contracted with an overnight cleaning crew who takes care of the heavy-duty cleaning well after closing.

(Yes, we had a late reservation but it was for 9:15 and the restaurant closed at 10PM. The place was packed when we arrived and we were not the last table to leave. If you want to have everyone out the door at 10PM, you need to close at 9PM.)

Will I be back? Probably. But if this happens again I might not be.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What happened to California Cabernet?

I was visiting my parents for the Thanksgiving holiday and, in what has become a holiday tradition, I raided their wine cellar.

My parents have long been wine enthusiasts. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of being dragged to tasting rooms on family camping trips in Napa or the Sierra Foothills. They have an extensive collection of small production California wines (from some wineries that don't even exist any more) that generally weren't available anywhere but from the tasting room or in restaurants. On my last few visits, I've been going through their wine cellar and pulling out wines that are ready to be enjoyed or nearing past-the-peak-ness to drink with our holiday fare. We've been drinking a lot of circa 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon.

These wines largely pre-date the advent of mass Parkerization, when California wine makers manipulated their wines to increase alcohol and concentration so as to appeal to the Wine Advocate's palate, a process that reached its peak in the early 2000s, when every new boutique winery strove for a 90+ to justify its existence to investors. As a result, these wines are lower in alcohol--13% or less, virtually unheard of in Cabernet from California in recent years--and showcase more lightly steeped tannins, better integrated cedar and spice aromatics, and actual blackberry fruit flavors instead of candy and cough syrup.

(And any asshole who tells you that California can't make lower alcohol wines because our climate is too good and warm and hot is full of shit. 1998 was still one of the hottest years on record and I've had Napa Cabs from that year that were 12.5% alcohol. Zins that were 13.5%.)

Are they great wines? No. They're wines that probably sold for the mid-to-high teens out of the tasting room. But they're largely estate-grown wines made in an honest, straight-forward way. No manipulation. Moderate oak. And while admitting that it lacked a certain heft that I've come to expect from my California red wines, after 10 years in the bottle, it had a level of balance and, well, pleasant-ness that I've never had in California Cabernet that was under $30 a bottle.

I found these wines to be in the same mode as the inexpensive imports from Spain, Portugal and Southern France that I enjoy routinely--the wines I buy for $15 a bottle at a good wine shop and drink with a simple evening meal. Medium to medium-full bodied, moderate tannins, acidity, and earthy characters to balance out the fruit. It's a style of wine I haven't encountered much from California in my 6 or so years of earnest, serious wine drinking, let alone at the price that these wines originally sold for.

So what happened? I'm not sure exactly, other than that we started manipulating wine instead of making it. The good news is, we still have excellent fruit and if we just picked good grapes and let good wine come into being, we can start producing something that's honest and interesting again in California.

Monday, November 29, 2010

HFF Quickie: Starry Kitchen, Los Angeles, Ca

Starry Kitchen is that age-old tale of "local underground illegal restaurateurs make good." Husband-wife team Nguyen and Thi Tran began running a sort of speakeasy-style restaurant out of their apartment, serving their guests modern pan-Asian comfort food gratis on their patio, but with a recommended $5 donation. Though several attempts were made to shut them down, they toed the legal line well enough to avoid censure. In the mean time, the owner of a struggling downtown sushi restaurant decided to revamp his concept and invited the Trans to essentially take over his business with no upfront capital investment.

Preparation meets opportunity, no?

So now, in a small restaurant store front on Bunker Hill, the Trans are serving their signature pan-Asian mindfuck cuisine to bankers and lawyers, offering a welcome respite from Panda Express and all the generic soup and sandwich shops on the hill.

Every day, Starry Kitchen offers your choice of proteins, usually the signature free-range lemongrass chicken, an additional chicken option, a beef or pork option and a vegetarian selection. Sometimes a seafood choice turns up. You can then get your selected protein served as either a wrap, a banh mi (Vietnamese sandwich on baguette with jalapenos, cilantro and slaw), "Thai" Cobb salad, chopped salad or as a lunch plate over rice. Everything comes with one selection from the rotating side dish offerings (the lunch plate comes with two side dishes). Starry Kitchen also typically offers at least one stand-alone dish--a seared tuna salad on my visits--and some additional a la carte sides and desserts. Dishes are always rotating through and when one comes off the menu it doesn't return for several months.

The kitchen has no oven or microwave, so everything is prepared in either the deep fryer or on the large precision cook tops (the same kind used at the French Laundry). In my three experiences with Starry Kitchen (twice in the restaurant, once at the food truck) the food has been impeccably prepared. The Krab Cake wrap was fresh and tasty, as was the pork belly banh mi and the Japanese Kara-ge banh mi. On the side dish front, the kim chee fried rice was a highlight, but the fresh cilantro-y glass noodles and crispy fried tofu balls were also hits. An unusually sweet and earthy steamed pandan flan was a great dessert and quelled the heat from the house pickled jalapenos. Seriously, those fuckers got me high, I think.

Starry Kitchen offers interesting, honest and uncompromising cuisine at a very fair price--everything is under $9. Some folks might be turned off by their no-substitutions menu of weirdness, but honestly if you can't get in to something on the Starry Kitchen's menu, you really should just give up on life. Luckily, Panda Express is around the corner should that eventuality arise.

Starry Kitchen is open weekdays for lunch from 11-3 and for dinner on Thursdays and Fridays from 6-9:30.

Starry Kitchen
350 S. Grand Ave. D-3
Los Angeles, Ca 90071

Sunday, November 21, 2010

HFF On The Road: Washington, DC

From a food standpoint, Washington and Los Angeles are very similar. Both cities benefit from and are restricted by a customer base that is affluent but also incurious and unadventurous. They are cities where fine dining restaurants rely upon expense account lunches and show-off dinners to support their bottom lines.

As a result, you have a collection of very good restaurants serving predictable food: steakhouses, trattorias, bistros and brasseries. You have a slew of high-end chain restaurants as well, places like Fogo do Chao and Morton's. They're destination restaurants where a clientele coming from all over the world can be indulged comfortably and not be challenged--you'll spend a lot of money but it'll be on a New York strip and a bottle of Cakebread, so it's okay. It's one of the main reasons, in my opinion, that Los Angeles lags behind cities like San Francisco, Chicago--even Portland--in being an innovative dining environment. Too much of the dining-out money wants to dine at boring, predictable places. I mean Morton's is simply TERRIBLE and how many of those are there in LA--and the DC area, for that matter?

(Five and five, respectively.)

But DC, like Los Angeles, has fantastic diversity and a lot of young professionals and there are neighborhood haunts to be found that are worthwhile. Some highlights from my recent trip to DC:

Meridian Pint: A very fun gastropub in the transition Columbia Heights neighborhood. Referred there by a friend, at first glance Meridian Pint looks much like a straightforward sports bar, loaded with flatscreen TVs. The menu, however, revealed a more adventurous culinary spirit with a mix of updates on sports bar classics (nachos topped with braised brisket) and modern New American entrees (grilled trout with fried polenta). If you come in without a reservation you can dine in the downstairs lounge which offers the full menu in a more casual seat-yourself bar environment. GREAT beer selection, focusing primarily on mid-Atlantic and New England microbrews.

Liberty Tavern: Across the river in downtown Arlington is Liberty Tavern, another New American gastropub. We went for brunch and opted for the buffet so I can't speak to the quality of the a la carte menu, but it's populated with an interesting array of New American dishes and wood oven pizzas. The Sunday brunch buffet was one of the best I've had in recent memory. The chafing dishes were being perpetually replaced and everything was quite fresh. Highlights were the fresh carved roast pork loin (one of at least a half-dozen pork dishes), baked trout, potato gratin, and fresh biscuits, ham and gravy. Come hungry and its an excellent value at under $20. The only thing lacking was my Bloody Mary, which was mixed in advance and very heavy on the cheap vodka and lacking in flavor beyond that.

Spider Kelly's: Okay, so apparently we only ate at gastropubs. Sorry. The World Series was on. Located in Arlington, a door or two down from Liberty Tavern, Spider Kelly's was heavier on the "pub" and lighter on the "gastro," offering more straightforward pub grub with a few gourmet twists. I was looking forward to having a crab cake sandwich--I ordered that 99.99% of the time when I visited Virginia and Maryland as a kid. Spider Kelly's version surprised me as it consisted basically of a pile of lump crab on a bun--which was great in a way but I kinda missed the slutty mix of crab and breadcrumbs that makes for a good cheap crab cake sandwich. The food here was nothing worth returning for, but it was solid inexpensive bar food in a good environment to watch the game.

I hope to get back to DC soon and when I have more time I intend to visit some of the city's flagship restaurants. I'm particularly curious about Jose Andres' projects in DC as well as Wolfgang Puck's The Source.

Any current or ex-DC area readers have other recommendations in the capital?

Sunday, November 07, 2010

HFF Quickie: Toddy G's, Los Angeles, Ca

After lamenting a dearth of good pizza in LA, I was pleased to discover Tomato Pie in Silver Lake a few months ago. Now, adding a second quality pizza establishment to LA's Eastside is Toddy G's in Downtown's Arts District. It's located next to Tony's on 7th at Santa Fe in what used to be an old Chinese restaurant. I'd heard a while back that Cedd Moses' 213 Group was involved in this project too, but I haven't found any corroborating evidence for that. Regardless, it's a welcome compliment to it's upscale dive bar neighbor.

It's more-or-less New York in style with big 18+" pies with a thin chewy crust. They offer eight or so regular standards like Margherita, Soppresata and Spinach pizzas with a few daily specials including homemade meatball and homemade Italian sausage pizzas.

I've tried several of the pizzas and the two standouts are the White Pizza and the Spinach pizza with feta, red onions and kalamata olives.

Pizza's available by the slice--either dine-in or from the pick-up window--and by the whole pie (currently dine-in or pick-up only, but delivery to the eastern half of Downtown coming soon).

Toddy G's
2019 East 7th St.
Los Angeles, Ca 90021

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Crab Cakes!

Dear anonymous restaurant in Arlington, VA:

A pile of canned crab on a bun is not a crab cake sandwich. It's a pile of fucking crab on a bun. Here I was trying to relive a love of my childhood, the Mid-Atlantic crab cake sandwich, and you give me a pile of (admittedly lump) crab meat on a crappy role with some jarred tartare sauce on the side. Lame.

Your onion rings were good though.


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

On Food Trucks: Starry Kitchen LA

Do we need dedicated food trucks? Meaning, that is, do we need a truck that is 100% devoted to one business and one concept?

Food trucks have a lot more overhead than you might initially think--a tricked out modern truck can cost will north of $100K, sometimes as much as $200K or more. Plus there's gas, insurance--not to mention the actual food cost itself. Permitting is a little bit easier than a restaurant, but that's about it.

And competition is steeper, not only because you're competing with dozens of other high-end trucks, you're competing against the myriad lonchero trucks and street corner food stands. With most high-end trucks serving food in the $7-$10 range, they're also competing with hole-in-the-wall restaurants offering a sit-down experience for the same price. You're better off saving a bit more money, picking a good spot and opening up a brick and mortar restaurant. The food truck bubble will burst and it will burst soon.

So what, then, is the appropriate role of high-end food trucks in our ever-changing food world?

I think the Mandoline Truck and Starry Kitchen are on to something. Starry Kitchen, the modern Vietnamese restaurant that started as an illegal underground restaurant and has now gone semi-legit on Bunker Hill in Downtown LA, is taking a "residency" in Mandoline's slick Vietnamese food wagon for a few weeks. They're cruising around LA, slinging their specialties and promoting the hell out of their business.

A brick and mortar restaurant using food trucks as a promotional tool is genius, I think. If the restaurant is in business then the truck just needs to break even and if it brings even one new diner to the restaurant, it's a success. There's money to be made in someone investing in a small fleet of food trucks that he or she then leases out to restaurants and/or pop-up chefs (think Ludo) for short or medium term leases. Bring the restaurant to the people, promote your business and gather new customers.

The Starry Kitchen has some rockstar food and its food truck model was excellent. Like most successful trucks, they offer limited options in a couple different combinations. At the truck you have the choice of pork belly, curry chicken or fried tofu balls served either in a banh mi (Vietnamese baguette sandwich) or over coconut rice. And unlike almost every other food truck, the food came up very quickly.

I had the pork belly banh mi. The meat was delicious, flavorful, sweet and spicy, and sliced thin. The vegetables were interesting: sauteed more fajita-like than the fresh veggies I've had on past sandwiches. The only hiccup was the baguette, which was a little stale. I was envious of the chicken curry banh mi eaters dipping their sandwiches in the curry sauce. I also had an a la carte side of tofu balls. They're on to something here-- the balls are formed pretty small and then fried so they're crispy all the way through, not soggy in the middle like larger pieces of fried tofu.

I enjoyed the food quite a bit and the vibe even better--the Starry Kitchen team has a lot of fun and doesn't take itself to seriously--and I'll make a point to check out the restaurant itself. I guess you'd call that food truck a success.

LA only needs about 20 non-lonchero food trucks and just let a couple hundred restaurants use them over the course of a year. Those that do well can keep leasing them, those that do really well can buy their own, and those that only do okay will at least have gained a little extra business.

Starry Kitchen
350 S. Grand Ave.
Los Angeles, Ca 90071
Twitter: @StarryKitchen

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

HFF Quickie: LudoTruck

I had a rather lukewarm response to LudoBites' first pop-up at Breadbar a couple years ago, but I was intrigued by the many good reports on Ludovic Lefebvre's fried chicken truck.

My ongoing complaint about food trucks is not that the lines to order are long (that happens) but it's that the food takes too long to prepare and you're then forced to wait in an amorphous blob that slowly bleeds back into the line that others are standing in to order for 15 minutes or more. LudoTruck fixes this problem by having a very small menu of three different chicken options (wings, strips, balls) either alone or in combination with cole slaw and fries (sides are also available a la carte). By sticking to just a few things, the food is always cooking and my order came up promptly--two or three minutes.

I ordered the Provencal chicken balls and they were delicious. The classiest chicken nuggets on the planet, they're made from thigh meat that has been marinated for several days in herbes de Provence, then rolled in seasoned breading and fried. They're perfectly moist and permeated with herbal flavor.

The accompanying "perfect" fries are quite good, crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. I also liked the piquillo pepper sauce for the chicken. I wasn't crazy about the slaw, which was very vinegar-y and uneven with alternating cabbage-y blandness and jalapeno spiciness. Small complaint.

Avoid the truck at food truck festivals since the lines will no doubt be long. In fact, avoid food truck festivals in general, but seek LudoTurck out on its many one-off outings throughout Los Angeles.

The LudoTruck

Sunday, October 03, 2010

A Really Good Tomato Sauce

Here's my recipe for a really good tomato sauce. It's something I make about once a month and it typically lasts me a week or so. Sometimes I'll freeze half of it for later. It's simple, easy and delicious. It's also way better than any store-bought tomato sauce you can get. The steps:

1. In a large pot (I use my Le Creuset French Oven) heat enough olive oil to cover the bottom.

2. While the oil heats, dice a medium onion. Add the diced onion to the pot and saute for a few minutes.

3. Chop 3 cloves of garlic and add to the pot. I cut corners here and use Dorsot frozen chopped garlic cubes from Trader Joe's. Authentic? Nah. But I'm not Italian and this is a lot easier and gives a good result.

4. Chop about two tablespoons of fresh basil. Add to the pot. Here I also use two cubes of Dorsot frozen chopped basil.

5. Add one pound Italian sausage (casing removed). Break it up with a wooden spoon. Eliminate this step for a vegetarian sauce.

6. Add a healthy dose of salt (about a tablespoon), about a tablespoon each of dried oregano and dried basil as well as several cranks of fresh ground pepper. For a spicy sauce, add a teaspoon or two of crushed red pepper. Stir the contents of the pot to coat the sausage with the herbs and oil.

7. Let simmer for 5-10 minutes.

8. Add a quarter cup of dry white wine, deglazing the pan if necessary. Let the wine simmer with the meat for another 5 minutes.

9. Add one large (28 oz) can of either tomato sauce, crushed tomatoes or diced tomatoes. Add two medium (14 oz) cans of ready-cut tomatoes. I like to do one can each of fire-roasted and "Italian-style". Add one can (6 oz) of tomato paste. Stir.

10. Let the sauce simmer for at least 30 minutes or as long as 90+ minutes. The longer the better. Taste before serving and adjust seasoning as necessary.

11. Optional additions: 1/4 cup chopped olives; 3-4 chopped anchovy fillets; 1 can cannellini beans; 1/4 cup chopped parsley.

The beauty of this sauce is that it's hearty enough to stand on its own with just a little pasta. It's also excellent with rice or quinoa or as an accompaniment to grilled chicken or pork. You're welcome.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

HFF Quickie: Nick's Cafe - Los Angeles, Ca

Finally made it to the venerable cop-owned Northeast Downtown/Lincoln Heights institution, Nick's. The breakfast and lunch dive is right across North Spring St. from the Los Angeles State Historic Park ("The Cornfield") in the midst of poultry wholesale warehouses and light/medium manufacturing.

At Nick's, your seating options are either at the u-shaped counter or at one of the outside tables and since this was an oppressively hot day we opted for the slightly cooler inside counter option. The young, friendly staff is quick and attentive, going against my immediate presumptions based on Nick's superficial similarities to Westwood's The Apple Pan where, great burger aside, the staff is old and not particularly spry. But on to the food.

We only went for the breakfast options so a lunch discussion will have to wait. Most of the breakfast options are some combination of eggs and ham (their signature), bacon or chorizo along with a few different pancake and French toast combinations.

I had the chorizo breakfast burrito which was enormous and delicious. Eggs, potatoes, jalapenos, and a load of chorizo stuffed into a giant tortilla. The whole burrito was quickly griddle before serving, a nice finishing touch. The eggs were of good quality, as was the chorizo. The jalapenos were a nice addition to the typical "egg-potato-meat" make-up of lesser breakfast burritos.

My companion had the French toast combination which was also quite good. Thick, hand-dipped slices of French toast with scrambled eggs and ham. The ham earns its reputation as the best cheap ham in town: thick-cut from whole ham steaks and crisped up nicely on the griddle.

Sure it's simple and cheap (our entire giant meal with coffee was $20) but virtually everything is hand made to order. No Sysco to be seen. It's the best diner dive breakfast I've had in LA period. Check it out.

Nick's Cafe
1300 N Spring St
Los Angeles, CA 90012

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Can't we all just get along?

Our national wine dialogue is at a very adversarial stage right now. On one side, you have the "Natural Wine" et al faction that is staunchly advocating for wines produced as simply as possible with minimal human interference.

Because this styile is advocated by a young, hip set and because it stands directly opposed to the wine styles that have been popular in the major wine journals of the last decade, this has provoked something of a backlash from The Establishment.

Essentially we've pitted young wine geeks with black plastic eyeglasses and ironic pocket squares against overweight attorneys swilling Bordeaux from Riedel crystal while sitting behind a Commodore 64 running WordPerfect. Unfortunately, the conversation has ceased to be a discussion about quality wine making and has become a shouting match between two firmly entrenched sides.

This boiled over recently when Robert M. Parker, Jr. wrote this about his recent experience at a restaurant. The Twitter-sphere took umbrage to this particular part of his comments:

"Add the BYO and no corkage....and better precious sommelier trying to sell us some teeth enamel removing wine with acid levels close to toxic, made by some sheep farmer on the north side of his 4,000-foot foot elevation vineyard picked two months before ripeness, and made from a grape better fed to wild boar than the human species..."

I was not particularly shocked, as I already assumed Parker to be an out-of-touch ass when it comes to his understanding of the modern wine world, but the severity of his tone does reflect his frustration at the idiot level of wine hipsterism on the other side of the spectrum where, yes, some wines are selected purely for their absurd level of naturalism over all other criteria. Though I can't think of what real-life wine Parker could possibly be referring too.

My tastes do run toward the "natural," terroir-driven style of wine advocated by the wine Twitterati, but there can be excellent, well-made wines that do skew to the higher end of the alcohol spectrum. Also (d0n't shoot me) the presence of new French or (even) American oak in the right kind of wine can improve it. I promise it's true. Take, for instance, Ridge Zinfandels or the red wines from Paulo Laureano in Portugal.

It's not an all-or-nothing proposition and if you become so entrenched in your wine ideology that you're not going to even begin to entertain the validity of wines which exist outside of your vinous fiefdom you're going to miss out on a huge chunk of the world's wine and you'll miss the opportunity to try some gems.

(The only wines I would say to avoid on principal are giant production factory-farmed wines, the types of generic-labeled bottles on the bottom shelves at grocery stories and BevMo. These are character-less wines produced using destructive farming practices.)

And, really, what are the stakes in this game? You try a wine you might not like, have a few sips, and if you really don't like it then just move on to something else. That's it. Your world won't come crashing down, your balls won't retract into your abdomen and your wife won't leave you for her personal trainer. You just might have a mildly unpleasant taste in your mouth that'll go away quickly.

(And if you explain that calmly to your wife, maybe you'll stop arguing and find a new common ground in your marriage, too. I'd still recommend firing her trainer though.)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

HFF Quickie: Daikokuya Ramen - Los Angeles, Ca

Perhaps my greatest personal flaw is my contempt for groupthink. When I drive past a restaurant and I see a big line outside, my first thought is "look at those suckers, standing in line for THAT! Come on!" My internal monologue sounds like GOB from Arrested Development.

For unknown reasons, I do make exceptions for Japanese restaurants, which is how I ended up in a (rather short) line for Daikokuya Ramen in Little Tokyo for lunch on a Monday afternoon.

I fell in love with real ramen on my trip to Japan several years ago. It's simple, quick and delicious for an easy lunch and it's the absolute best at three in the morning after a weird and wild night at a Tokyo dance club. I'd heard from reputable sources that Daikokuya was among the best in Little Tokyo, so I checked it out with a friend from out of town.

The restaurant itself was exactly like most storefront ramen houses I went to in Japan: long and narrow with a long row of barstools bordering the kitchen and a row of small booths against the wall. The staff is quick and attentive and food is served promptly.

It was fucking delicious. The broth is made fresh daily from Kurobuta pork and is dense and redolent without being too salty. The thin-sliced pork strips melt apart in the broth, the egg is perfectly just-barely hard boiled and the noodles are firm and fresh while still being just Top Ramen-y enough to be charming.

Since it was a hot day, I opted for the tsuke-men deconstructed ramen where the noodles are served cold with the hot broth and accompaniments (pork, egg, bean sprouts, green onion) on the side and you dip the ingredients in the broth. (My dish was actually the kichi-men, which added shredded seaweed on top of the noodles and had a spicier broth.) As soon as the slices of fatty Kurobuta pork touched the broth they disintegrated into the soup. It was awesome.

My friend had the classic ramen and, based on his tasteful slurping and periodic moans, loved it. He also ordered the tsukemono pickles, which were tasty but largely ignored in our voracious attacks on the noodles and broth.

Prices are reasonable (about $9 for a big bowl) and on a Monday around 1PM the wait for two was less than 10 minutes. Well worth a visit.

The menu is fairly extensive with quite a few other soup, rice and appetizer options to be tried, but get the classic ramen on your first visit for the best introduction to real ramen I've had this side of Honolulu.

Daikokuya - Little Tokyo
327 East 1st St.
Los Angeles, Ca 90012
(Other locations in Costa Mesa, Monterey Park & Hacienda Heights)

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Fogo de Chão - Beverly Hills, Ca

I'm not an opponent of chain restaurants in theory, merely in practice. Actually that's not entirely true: I'm mostly ambivalent toward inexpensive chain restaurants as they have a clear-cut valuable role in providing consistent cheap meals. I've also spoken mild praises of certain higher-end chains like Fleming's Steakhouse.

My only particular contempt is for the upscale casual chain restaurants like Cheesecake Factory or Buca di Beppo, where you get a very poor product in a faux-chic atmosphere for prices only marginally less than going to a solid neighborhood restaurant. They have no purpose in this world and should quietly tumble into the sea.

But this post isn't to report on an upscale casual chain restaurant that succeeds but rather to praise another fine-dining chain that does it right and does it well.

Fogo de Chão is a Brazil-based international chain of churrascarias, a type of steakhouse where roasted meats are served tableside, hand-carved to order from large skewers. This being my first trip to a churrascaria, chain or otherwise, I can't personally speak to its authenticity, though my Latin dining companion said it was fairly authentic.

For one flat price (around $40 for lunch and $60 for dinner) you have access to an excellent salad bar with selections ranging from mixed greans, Caesar salad and grilled asparagus to smoked salmon, potato salad and thin-sliced ham. At the table, you're given hot side dishes of mashed potatoes, cheese rolls, rice, sauteed bananas and fried polenta. Only the mashed potatoes were mediocre, with the grainy texture of instant.

Each diner has a small disk with a green side or a red side. Much like at a stoplight party in college, the color on the card indicates how much meat you're ready to take. Green side up means the passadores dressed like Brazilian cowboys will come to your table with any one of about a dozen different cuts of meat on spears and carve strips off on to your side plate. Flip your card over to the red side when you've had your fill (at least for the moment).

Like any good Latin American steakhouse, beef was king. In particular, the bottom round was excellently prepared as was the picanha. The sausages and chicken wings were only so-so and the leg of lamb was gamey and dry. The pork ribs were quite good, however. I didn't try the lamb chops or the pork tenderloin.

The wine list is well-selected and reasonably priced, and not just by Beverly Hills Restaurant Row standards. They could have more Portuguese and Latin American wines on the list, however, so as to be more authentic to the cuisine.

Desserts (not included in the price), with the flan and the tres leches both being excellent takes on those classics.

Overall, Fogo de Chão is a bit too intense of an experience both on the wallet and the colon to make a frequent habit, more so if you're a light-to-moderate meat eater like myself, but it's an excellent spot for a nice meal out, especially with a group of friends. It is somewhat vegetarian-friendly as Fogo de Chão offers a salad bar-only option for significantly less than the regular all-you-can-eat price.

Check it out, especially for lunch, when the lower price presents a significant value.

Fogo de Chão
133 N. La Cienega Blvd.
Beverly Hills, Ca 90211

Monday, August 23, 2010

Why Mainstream Wine Criticism Will Soon Be Obsolete

I'm continuing to ponder why it is I despise most mainstream wine journalism so much. The scores, ratings and articles loaded with misinformation and manufactured controversy do a disservice to, well, pretty much everybody.

When I say "mainstream wine writing," I refer to the major national magazines (Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast, Decanter and Wine & Spirits) and, to a lesser extent, the wine writing in major national newspapers like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. I also get annoyed at the LA Times, but only because I have to read it regularly and it appears to be staffed by writers whose critical thinking skills are marginally better than a baby entranced by peekaboo but worse than a Tea Partier who knows Obama's a Muslim "just 'cause." I do not, however, consider the LA Times to be of particular national wine importance, not least because of their continued insistence on publishing writing by W. Blake Gray. I also group in major independent wine writers, however I view their influence as being largely insular (i.e. limited to professionals, collectors, and wine geeks) and even more on the wane than that of national media.

The San Francisco Chronicle does have the best food and wine section in the country and is, in my opinion, the only newspaper worth reading on that topic. They even stopped doing star ratings in their wine reviews. Progressive!

So why do I hate it? I like wine. I like reading. I like writing, but 90% of national wine writing is either duller than your mom in bed or so poorly conceived that it makes me want to gouge my eyes out with a Vinturi.

Most importantly, it fundamentally misunderstands the 21st century wine market.

I think it's because wine writing has remained largely unchanged for the last 30 years, back when Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator came on the scene and moved wine writing from the cerebral-abstract world of the British writers who dominated at the time toward the more visceral American style of criticism.

In 1980 the wine world was a very different place. Most American consumers of high-end (i.e. not jug) wine were a small, well-to-do elite. Wines on offer, both domestic and imported, were a fraction of what is available today and the sales of which were dependent almost entirely upon the reputation of the producer. The whole wine world was more easily navigable then and its audience largely homogeneous: upper middle class white professionals, drinking wine largely from California, France and Italy.

But in 2010 the wine world is an incredibly diverse place, with the number of wines and wine regions available in the United States having expanded exponentially. Premium wine is also consumed by a much more diverse cross-section of the population, including a sizable younger demographic that prefers to make its own decisions or make decisions based on personal recommendations rather than deferring to any institutional authority on matters of taste.

The idea that a national publication can attempt to effectively report on the real wine world is absurd. It reminds me of when my family first got AOL in 1996 and they actually sent an "internet yellow pages" with the software. It was a printed phone book listing several hundred URLs. I'm sure even at the time it was an absurdly quaint idea but now it looks absolutely ridiculous. A monolithic media entity for something as diverse as wine is equally ridiculous.

It's also incredibly limiting. An editor at one of the aforementioned magazines once told me that they generally don't write about wines if they aren't distributed in at least 30 states. The problem with that is that very few of the wines of true uniqueness or distinction are available in that many states. That's because unless it is one of a handful of ultra-rare expensive wines from wineries that only allocate a few dozen cases to each state, most wines, in order to be profitable in that big of a chunk of the country, needs to have a production run in the thousands of cases. There are many great wineries that produce fewer than 5,000 total cases, let alone of a single wine. They'll never make it onto the radar of the national wine media and therefore that wine will never be exposed to wine consumers who don't already know the winery locally. These magazines are akin to a food and restaurant magazine that only reviews restaurants with locations in multiple states. Those are the wines that these magazines review, the Morton's Steakhouses and Cheesecake Factories of wine.

(It's particularly troublesome given how easy it is to obtain wine now. Maybe twenty years ago it made sense to only review well-distributed wines because how else could the average reader get the wine if it wasn't reliably available in most of the country? But now, as long as the reader lives in one of the 35-odd states that allow for wine delivery, any wine that's written about can be obtained in a few mouse clicks.)

So what does that mean? It means the national wine media of 2010 is exactly the same as the national wine media of 1980 and it's still writing largely to that same audience: the casual, adventure-phobic wine connoisseur who wants to consume a score, not a wine. They want wines they can reliably find at their local big box wine shop and that they can open for their other wine-loving friends who will immediately know the brand, the reputation and the perceived quality: ironically the very behaviors in wine selection that the Wine Advocate originally helped dispel with its then-revolutionary 100-point rating scale.

Because this demographic, despite aging rapidly, still represents (for now) a significant chunk of the wine buying power they still have a massive economic effect on the wine industry. As the wine consumer has become more diverse, the wine critic remains largely middle-aged, male and white. Ipso facto, the mainstream wine media has ceased to be relevant to the vast majority of wine drinkers, while maintaining its relevance to the older minority who spend the most money. It makes perfect immediate economic sense but it's a recipe for obsolescence in a matter of, oh let's say five years or so.

I've grown up my entire wine-drinking life completely outside of the 100-point wine world. I worked at a wine shop that didn't give a flying fuck about scores (even if we did have a handful of perennial favorites on our shelves). When I worked as a wine shop clerk and as a waiter I never once had a guest who asked about wine scores. Did it help that I worked in Berkeley, perhaps the most progressive wine market in the country? Sure. But even in Los Angeles, with a few notable Westside exceptions, most reputable wine shops don't care about scores and don't use them to sell wine. These shops are quite successful. I mean sure they actually have to do their jobs and hand sell their wine to customers instead of relying on shelf-talkers and magazines to do their selling for them, but if you really love wine you wouldn't want it any other way. These are the places that will be in business for the next thirty years. The new consumer is adventurous, value-oriented and makes his purchasing decisions based upon personal recommendations, not from the authority of a distant group of stodgy white men--and yes, I consider Karen MacNeill a stodgy white man.

And so that's what it is: mainstream wine media is boring middle-aged white people writing for boring middle-aged white people and that's why it sucks. It's a holdover from an era when the WASP was the only American culture that mattered for selling high-end goods and they're still desperately clinging to that illusion.

As we move forward, the wine consumer who makes his decision based upon the recommendations of the wine media will continue to miss out on a majority of the world's unique wines and the wine shops that make the majority of their buying decisions based upon 90+ point scores will continue to lose market share and alienate the younger wine buyer.

Keep up the good work.

Monday, August 16, 2010


Many years ago when I ran a fancy little humor magazine, I wrote the following, in reference to "mythical places" that ought be explored by Leonard Nimoy and his "In Search Of..." crew:

Chick Fil-A: This chain of restaurants, referenced in Ben Folds songs, supposedly even sponsors a college bowl game, yet a thorough search of any Bay Area phone book is fruitless. Where are they? What do they serve? Why does it sound like the name of a South Indian porn star? Chana Masala and Chick Fil-A star in Dharma Does Delhi. But I digress....

Racism aside, I can happily say that this is one mystery that has been fully explored by myself without any assistance from Leonard Nimoy or his army of elf fetishists. I went to Chick-Fil-A, specifically its new location that opened up last weekend on Figueroa down by USC.

This was an unique opportunity to experience a cult fast food phenomenon as an outsider. California is home to most pilgrimage-worthy trashy cuisine, pizza and bagels aside, and my visit to Chick-Fil-A reminded me of my earliest pre-expansion visits to In-N-Out Burger, when they were still confined to Southern California and family trips down I-5 always meant several stops for burgers and fries.

Just like In-N-Out, Chick-Fil-A is a hyphenated, quirky family-oriented fast food restaurant (though not family-run, it's a franchise) with mildly off-putting but innocuous religious undertones offering a limited menu. Chicken breast, fried plain or spicy, or grilled.

It was pretty good. The chicken was very moist and had the texture of an honest, plump chicken breast as opposed to the airy chicken-flavored sponge quality that other sandwiches have. The breading is light and crisp. The bun is nondescript but not bad and the not-too-sweet pickles were a good addition.

The sandwiches are accompanied by cross-cut waffle fries, which had good texture and were clearly cut from whole, skin-on potatoes, and an array of dipping sauces. Honey mustard was good and the secret "Chick-Fil-A Sauce" was odd and intriguingly addicting. The buffalo sauce worked well to amp up the heat on the spicy chicken sandwich. Additional sides are available, including carrot and raisin salad, cole slaw, fruit cup and chicken soup, but I don't much see the point: the sandwich and fries make a pretty perfect combination.

Will I make Chick-Fil-A a habit? Nope, but I see the appeal.

Chick-Fil-A USC
3758 S. Figueroa St.
Los Angeles, Ca 90007

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Why I Don't Like Wine Writing

I'm going to be a little bit all over the place here, so bear with me.

I don't like most contemporary wine writing. I think that's been pretty clear. It's almost uniformly humorless and often reads like a self-important pissing contest of adjectives and a bragging match over trophy wines like they're college sexual conquests.

Wine is booze. Wine is fun. Wine can be beautiful and transcendent and wonderful and weird. Just like sex. If we described sex in the manner of wine writing, it'd be the most un-arousing prose on the planet.

And I think that's the issue. Wine writing is either cold and clinical or it's the flowery puff of romance novels and the trite sensuality of Bible Belt missionary sex. It fails to capture the nuance, intimacy and situational spontaneity that is inherent to wine tasting. Tasting and fucking are unique in that they are intensely personal while simultaneously requiring the willful participation of another, whether that be a winemaker or a leather-bound gimp tied up in your basement. Or something in between.

Wine writers are, generally, too indulgent in themselves to care that there is a wine or a reader involved. Most wine writing is the equivalent of mindless, violent masturbation where nobody is enriched but the actor. Your adjectival calisthenics do not impress me sir!

Strangely some people do care, but in the same way that people care about vanilla pornography featuring skinny bleached blondes with bolted on tits and muscular gentlemen with nothing to recommend them but one qualification, a sort of over-ripe high alcohol extraction of the penis. It's immediate, simple and easily accessible. Gender is obvious. Roles are clear. The viewer isn't muddled by questions like "Hey that short-haired girl is kinda cute, does that mean I'm gay?" or "What's that woman doing to that man in the harness? Isn't that against the Bible?" It's what we're "supposed" to find sexy. It's how we're "supposed" to write about wine.

When a writer pretends objectivity in wine writing and criticism, what he does is mask that this objective writing is writing for the lowest common denominator for mass consumption. It fails to actually stimulate or enlighten. It's the airport novel as opposed to literary fiction. It's comforting predictable prose and superficially titillating plot twists, not a challenging and provocative foray into history, culture, taste and odd personal perversions.

I get much more pleasure from reading the distinctive, idiosyncratic and eloquently personal ramblings of a passionate wine enthusiast than the rote critiques of the most organized, rational wine writers.

Perhaps this is cynical, but I think that mainstream wine writing is so poor because its ranks are filled largely by journalists who, writing ability aside, are little more than wine hobbyists. They are not wine professionals. Their connection to wine is that of an enthusiast and a tourist and they're writing for other tourists. They do not produce the product nor do they select products for import. There's a disconnect because they do not understand the passion required to be foolish enough to want to produce and sell something so weirdly personal and bizarre as wine.

Who are the major wine writers? Jancis Robinson? Travel writer. Robert Parker? Lawyer. Eric Asimov? National news journalist. Wine came later and wine came from a perspective of an elite consumer. Their first loyalty is to the writing and the idea of wine, not to the wine itself. They're out to sell themselves and their philosophy first.

The wine writers I like, people like Thierry Thiesse and Randall Grahm, are winemakers and importers. They're not writing about wine because they need to make deadline or want to sell some sort of safe Club Med package-tour idea of wine, they're writing because they are passionate about the business that has become their true vocation and, recent publishing success for Mr. Grahm aside, is the source of most of their income.

And as annoying and unwatchable as I might find him, most of the time Gary Vaynerchuk has done more to democratize wine since, well, Randall Grahm. And Gary Vee literally grew up in a wine shop. Wine is his life-long vocation and he wants to share all good wine with everybody, not some expensive wines with the initiated few.

So seek out those wine professionals who also write. Many restaurant sommeliers have wine blogs, as do wine shops. Sure these are going to be opinionated and biased, but that's what all writing is. It's just the wine critics who try to hide their bias by perpetuating the adjective-industrial complex where there is a "right" and a "wrong" way to describe wine; where wines can be quantitatively judged on its qualities and that the judgment of the Wine Critic, through some miraculous fiat, carries a declarative value somehow greater than one man's opinion.

In the immortal words of legendary wine enthusiast Thomas Jefferson: "That's some bullshit right there."

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

HFF Quickie: Tony's Darts Away

Good things beget good things. You open up a successful Korean BBQ taco truck, shitty frozen yogurt franchise or beer-slinging sausage kitchen and there will be competitors. Most of these competitors will be craven imitators or third-iteration Michael Keaton facsimiles, but the best will build upon the initial idea and make it its own. Such is the case at the old Burbank dive bar-cum-suds and sausage eatery Tony's Darts Away.

Sure the basic premise is nearly the same as Wurstkuche. There's a broad selection of both conventional and esoteric sausages with your choice of fancy or quotidian toppings and washed down with a broad array of craft draught brews. But Tony's distinguishes itself in a few ways. First, it specializes in American, specifically Californian, micro-brews. Second, the sausages tend a bit more toward the conventional chicken and pork based varieties and less toward the rattlesnake and rabbit end of things. Third, Tony's deliberately targets the vegan and vegetarian crowd with four different vegan sausages and numerous vegan-friendly toppings including veganaise and meat-less chili. Fourth, and most notably, Tony's doesn't do Belgian fries. They make up for this lack of frites with very nice house-made potato chips and the ubiquitous LA sweet potato fry.

The Tony's vibe is still 100% Valley dive bar, albeit cleaned up a bit as opposed to Wurstkuche's post-apocalyptic industrial chic. The friendly staff is well-versed in its beers and readily offers up tastes from the rotating cast of Golden State brews. The sausages were excellent and well-prepared. My pork andouille was plump and moist with pretty respectable heat. My two "small toppings" were Creole mustard and garlic paste, my "large toppings" were sauteed onions and sauteed peppers. I wanted to try the more atypical toppings but I couldn't imagine enduring the mental somersaults required to eat an andouille with mango-melon salsa. Ah well.

For lunch, Tony's packages a sausage with a side salad and potato chips for a very reasonable $8.75 (fully loaded sausages are regularly $6-$7) and the beers start at $4.50 for that rare, elusive LA beast: the proper pint.

It's unfortunate that Tony's is so damn far away from my usual grazing pastures, but it's a nice stop before or after a trip to the airport or if you find yourself stuck in Burbank after your pitch meeting at Nickelodeon.

Tony's Darts Away
1710 W. Magnolia Blvd
Burbank, CA 91506
(818) 253-1710

Thursday, July 29, 2010

And Now For Something Completely Different

I stutter. It's a speech impediment I've had for as long as I can remember speaking. The nature of the stutter has shifted over time. Originally it was mostly the letter "L" but now it's more often the letter "V" and "N." "D" has always been a tricky one which, given my name, has posed unique problems.

Since stuttering is both physiological and psychological, the severity of my impediment fluctuates and, while never fully absent, it has been in a manageable state since I was a teenager. It's least prevalent when I'm drinking and around friends, most prevalent when I'm in stressful environments. The great joke about stuttering is that it is almost always more pronounced when one is stressed out and nothing stresses the stutterer out more than a fear of stuttering and the fear of the reactions of others to the stutter. I will also say that I have known severe stutterers and fully acknowledge that mine has never been more than moderate and has never inhibited my ability to communicate significantly nor did it impede my academic success. It did, however, greatly inhibit my willingness to communicate greatly during my childhood and adolescence.

I hated to speak. I was terrified to speak. I knew that if I opened my mouth in any institutional situation, I would stutter and as a child I wasn't able to rationally comprehend the relative meaningless of a blocked consonant or prolonged vowel here and there. You stutter, everyone laughs at you. What's more terrifying to a nine year old than everyone laughing at you? At restaurants, I remember, I would slip away to the restroom and I would tell my mom or dad what I wanted to order "just in case the waitress came," neither wanting to suffer the embarrassment of asking outright for them to order for me nor the embarrassment of stuttering out "crab cake sandwich." I never introduced myself to people. I never struck up conversations with strangers. I did somehow manage to get through a summer theatre camp and be my middle school's spelling bee champion, however.

As a result of my fear of speaking, I learned to listen. I learned to listen very closely. Speech was my most precious commodity, when I did have to speak I wanted it to be as quick and effective as possible. I didn't have the luxury of being a recreational talker, bullshitting and gossipping and yammering on. I also cultivated a massive vocabulary and learned how to use it. If my tongue's getting caught on the "c" in "comprehend," let's try "understand" instead. "Requirements" tricky today? Let's go with "exigencies." English and its massive, flexible vocabulary drawing from several different linguistic traditions might be the most friendly to the stutterer.

Because of the preciousness I have for speech, I'm left sometimes with a feeling of contempt for those who waste it. Talking without meaning, words signifying nothing. Boilerplate nonsense and non-answers to questions. Conversations that are words into the ether, not true intercourse. Or my least favorite, answers that serve not to further the conversation but to push the respondent's own agenda. Dialogue is the only way to truth and dialogue doesn't exist without thoughtful question being met with thoughtful answer.

Because of my early life as 90% listener, 10% talker I'm left with a contempt (sometimes seething) for those who don't listen; for those people who latch on to three or four words and formulate a non-relevant response in their head before the speaker is even done asking his question. The art of conversation, the crucial give and take, doesn't work if people are in a hurry to speak and have an interest in only speaking their agenda, relevance be damned.

I ended up managing my stutter because I matured and realized it wasn't that big of a deal. The willingness to (mostly) not worry about it and plow ahead greatly reduced my stress over my stutter and therefore greatly reduced its prevalence. I had reversed the stuttering feedback loop and used it to my benefit.

While reviewing some recent videos of myself I realized that my stutter is still very much there and I'm sure at times it is distracting to others, but in the end there's little I can do about it. There's no cure for stuttering and of all the various (sometimes lengthy and expensive) treatments, acceptance has been shown to increase fluency the best. And it's totally free. So I'm happy and content in my current world of mild stuttering that I've been living in for about thirteen or fourteen years now. I'm told some girls think it's cute.

But I've maintained my respect for speech as well as the value I ascribe to it. Articulate speech communication is what sets us apart from the animals: utilize it with attention and care. Also, speech is meaningless in a vacuum so unless you're engaging another you're not actually speaking. I would encourage everyone to think about what they're saying and why: Are you talking for yourself or for others? Are you advancing discourse or just repeating known facts? Discourse in America has devolved largely to non-existence and it's time to take it back. As someone who has spent his entire life listening, there's a lot to be learned and it's the most powerful weapon you have.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Luis Pato, Leitao and Six Foot Baga Vines: Fear & Loathing in Bairrada

“It’s leitao.”

I stared at the plate in front of me. Crispy red skin. Gooey oozing fat. Moist, dripping meat. Was that a snout? No. Wait? No. At least, I don’t think so. Maybe?

So this was the legendary leitao of Bairrada, a balmy region of red clay and sand landscapes twenty kilometers inland from the Atlantic, an hour and a half south of Porto and four hours north of the Algarve, where pasty pudgy British tourists disembark every July to quickly turn a seared bright red, a modern sort of invading Lobsters replacing the Redcoats of colonial America. But what is it? It’s more than food. It’s a lifestyle. It’s regional pride. Every restaurant we sped past on the winding unnamed roads advertised “LEITAO” in massive letters. Or minimal letters. Or letters in between, but mostly massive letters. The dish is consumed with a religious devotion reserved for only the finest of the world’s regional dishes: okonomiyaki in the Kansai, poutine in Quebec, vodka and Red Bull in West Hollywood.

But what is leitao?

It’s a baby pig. A suckling pig. A piglet, sans striped singlet. It’s a six-week old pig, slaughtered and dressed fresh: the larger purveyors have pens of piglets on the property where the squeal and scurry contentedly before being zapped unconscious and disemboweled. Its body cavity is rubbed with a proprietary mix of lard and spices which vary from purveyor to purveyor but all involve some combination of salt, garlic and lots of pepper (both black and white). Some assaderos (as Leitao specialists are known, basically Portuguese for “grillmaster”) also inject that spice mixture between the skin and flesh. The piglet is unceremoniously skewered on a spit and suspended in a hot clay oven. The best leitao is fired in an oven made from the local red clay, whose temperature is judged by the color of its heated glow. Village gates in Bairrada are adorned with statues of young pigs. Should an uninitiated traveler barrel down the highway and notice such glorious homage to such pre-pubescent swine he might be concerned that there was some odd Wicker Man-esque shit going on here and virginal policemen best stay away, or at least avoid the bees.

The roast pig is then cut into numerous small pieces and served on a plate with boiled or fried potatoes, an obligatory side of green salad, and slices of orange to cut the fat after you’ve consumed a few pieces. Every piece is cut to preserve meat, bone, skin and fat. The skin, puffed from meat by the layer of fat, crackles like, well, like the best pork skin on the planet. Underneath the mostly liquid pork fat oozes around the flesh which was always moister than a nun on Easter; that’s no small feat considering the tiny-ness of the pigs and the heat of the oven. My favorite bits were the meaty squares cut from the flanks, though the pieces from around the rib cage were tender and flavorful.

Our host for this particular porcine excursion was Luis Pato, one of the “three popes” of Portuguese wine making. Not my term. Luis has been producing wine since 1980 when, then working as a chemist, he made wine from his father’s old Baga vines, aged them for four years in concrete vats because he couldn’t get a bottling line together, and then entered it into a Bairrada wine competition in London where it was promptly declared the best red wine in the region--not bad for a first effort. So Luis quite the chemistry game and entered the family business full time. He’s built a reputation not only as the pre-eminent vigneron but as one of Portugal’s most ardent ambassadors, embracing nearly forgotten varietals like Baga and Maria Gomes and turning them into some of the world’s best wines.

And if there’s a wine to drink with the delicious, crackling ripping obscenity of Leitao it’s Baga, either as a vinho tinto lightly chilled or the traditional accompaniment of cold espumante tinto, Portuguese red sparkling wine. The shining acidity and sturdy tannins cut through the fat and the wine’s cooked cherry fruit flavors compliment the peppery meat in the same way a good cherry compote rounds out a nice tenderloin. We visited Luis’ local where the massive piles of meat were neverending and the rotund diners left smiling back out to the vineyards to ensure there’d be grapes to replace what they’d drunk.

Luis was such a staunch proponent of Bairrada at a time when the grape was about to go extinct that he earned the sobriquet “Mr. Baga” which he wears with great pride. His vineyards are scattered throughout the region, including his Quinta do Ribeirinho grapes from vines planted by his father almost 50 years ago and a small plot of Baga vines he acquired that are well over 100 years old. This vineyard is located off the main thoroughfare down a rutty dirt road where, while en route, we passed a pair of policemen on horseback who had just scared away a prostitute. She had driven her car off the road with a john in tow to presumably get down to business, a common practice we were told for roadside “car prostitutes” in rural Portugal. After being forced to get out of the Suzuki 4x4 so it could clear a particularly nasty bump in the road, we found ourselves surrounded by the gnarled, ancient vines, some of which were well over six feet high.

In one sandy corner of mostly clay soil Bairrada, Luis has planted some Baga and Touriga Nacional on original European rootstock: because it is difficult for the phylloxera aphid to maneuver in sandy soil the vines are able to resist the pest. The very low-yielding grapes produce concentrated wine with more brambly fruit notes than the grafted vines.

Despite being Bairrada’s shining star, Mr. Baga didn’t use the DOC on most of his wines for a number of years, fighting the region’s administrators over its overly legislative attitude, which he believed was restricting many producer’s abilities to bring Bairrada wine making into the 21st century. Because of Luis’ efforts, the DOC made extensive revisions to its regulations and beginning with the 2008 vintage all of Luis Pato’s wines again bear the Bairrada DOC label.

Whether the regular “Casta Baga” Tinto 2007 or Baga Vinhas Velhas 2005, give the grape a try and uncork what is as much one iconoclast’s story as it is the history and culture of his region. And if you can, enjoy it with delicious, fatty, crispy, spicy leitao.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Lovely Leitao

In the center of Portugal, both in the granite towers of the Dao and more famously amidst the clay soils of Bairrada, is a signature regional dish. A signature regional dish among all the signature regional dishes of the world. A dish that is more ubiquitous in Bairrada than fat people in Mississippi and technical virgins at a Twilight screening. That dish? That dish is Leitao. Leitao is so ubiquitous that (honestly) every single restaurant in certain villages had "leitao" in the name.

So what is Leitao?

Leitao is a young suckling pig, no more than two months old. The skin and internal cavity is rubbed with a proprietary blend of salt, garlic and white & black pepper. A lot of white & black pepper. The pig is skewered on a spit and roasted in a hot clay oven, traditionally made from the local red clay of Bairrada (its name comes from barro, Portuguese for clay). The leitao is then chopped up and served on a platter with potatoes (traditionally boiled, more commonly now fried) and fresh oranges. The sweetness and acid of the oranges cuts the peppery fat of the pig.

The piglet's skin is crisp and puffed off of the flesh, which is rich, moist and tender with a serious black pepper spiciness. My favorite incarnation was served with peeled, thin sliced potatoes fried into a status somewhere between french fry and potato chip. The lesser versions of leitao did suffer from rubbery skin syndrome, but most of the time the skin was crunchy buttery crisp and the perfect vehicle for deliciousness.

In the end, despite the deliciousness of leitao, I was more inspired by the regional devotion to a classic dish that nearly every restaurant did expertly. It's something we miss out on. California is bigger than Portugal yet, other than a carne asada, nacho cheese and french fry burrito from San Diego, we have no significant ubiquitous regional cuisines. We should fix this problem and do it with great haste.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

HFF Quickie: Highlights from Portugal

I'll write a more extensive essay about my travels, but in the mean time here are some culinary highlights from Portugal, an absolutely fantastic country.

Leitao: The signature dish of central Portugal, Leitao is a young (6-8 week) suckling pig rubbed heavily with a proprietary blend of black pepper, white pepper, and salt and then roasted in a special oven. Its crispy skin, tender meat, and copious fat paired with roast potatoes and sliced oranges is simply fantastic. Traditionally paired with tinto espumante, a red/pink sparkling wine made from indigenous Touriga Nacional or Baga, it's a delicious colon-clogging adventure.

Migas: Not a damn thing like the Spanish version, Portuguese Migas is peasant food cum laude. Stale bread crumbs sauteed in olive oil and/or pork fat and then mashed with cauliflower, garlic, and any of a number of vegetables, the texture takes some getting used to but the flavor is rich, dense and transcendent.

Perceves: The fabled gooseneck barnacles of Galicia, perceves are a distinctive regional treat. The barnacles themselves bear more than a cursory resemblance to iguana feet. You pinch the rubbery sheath, twist and pull it off to reveal the sweet white flesh underneath. Its texture is similar to lobster with a simply salty freshness.

Bacalhau: Fuck the Spanish, the Portuguese have salt cod fucking pwned. I had bacalhau only three different ways (they say there are over 300), but all three were delicious. First, we had a pretty simple bacalhau roasted with tomatoes and garlic--very tasty. The next preparation was pretty esoteric but really fucking good: the cod was topped with ham and pineapple and then baked in a rich cheese sauce. That might've been a particularly unique dish as no other Portuguese person we talked to seemed to know what that preparation was. Last, there was a bacalhau side dish consisting of shredded bacalhau baked in a cazuela with fried potatoes and cheese. Pretty much the best mac and cheese ever.

Black Pig: The same Iberian pig as the Spanish jamon iberico, when made into the Portuguese presunto it is the bomb. Tender and fatty, it's some of the best ham in the world. The black pig can also be roasted (impossibly tender)or fried with clams for the southern Portuguese dish porco a alentejana.

So yeah, some highlights. More detailed analysis to come.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Biodynamics & Nazism, Two Peas in Different Pods

Biodynamics, as I've mentioned, is a trendy topic in wine making. It's also a term whose specifics are pretty much unknown by the unwashed masses. Even wine purveyors belie their lack of knowledge when they say something to the effect of Biodynamic being "organic on steroids" or "extra organic."

That's patently false. Biodynamically farmed wine means that the vineyard's farming practices have been certified by the Demeter Association. In turn, the Demeter Association draws its criteria from a series of lectures and writings by Austrian Rudolf Steiner in the 1920's. In a broad sense, Biodynamics involves treating your vineyard (or any crop field) holistically as a self-sustaining entity with interdependent organisms. You farm so as to maintain that balance, through crop rotation, cover crops and natural pest abatement. Where Biodynamics starts to become questionable is in its use of geomantic soil preparations whose science is dubious at best. You can read about Biodynamic soil preparations here.

What Biodynamics do is require the farmer to pay closer attention to his crops and that, regardless of motivation, is a good thing. But Biodynamics is not organic, even if all Biodynamically grown grapes are effectively organic, since organic farming is based at least in part on legitimate scientific research, not the pseudo-scientific ramblings of a traumatized mad man.

Speaking of traumatized mad men, it's no wonder that Biodynamics came about in the 1920's, hand-in-hand with the emergence of Fascism, Futurism, Psychoanalytics and an increased attention to Communism and free-market Capitalism. These are all frameworks for understanding a confusing, dangerous world and all propose convenient but impossible solutions. Europe was devastated after World War I. Empires were destroyed, power dynamics shifted, and cities were devastated, entire villages razed. This left a strong psychological impact on the survivors that forced them to question the belief structures that they had so firmly believed in yet had led to such destruction. In these philosophies are one of two broad solutions: the world is flawed, let's go back to a better time or; the world is flawed, let's work toward a flawless future. Either way, existence and practice as we know it was irretrievably broken.

The common thread that these philosophies share is their purported foundation in legitimate science which is actually little more than unsupported conjuncture and steadfast faith. In the right balance in the right hands, most of these philosophies can be progressive and productive and in the wrong balance in the wrong hands they can be utterly destructive. Germany's bankrupt, let's blame the Jews. Modern farming is broken, let's bury some cow horns filled with manure in our field on a full moon.

They're all examples of the self-destructive and inauthentic adherence to "Bad Faith." They're philosophies that purport to understand the incomprehensible through comforting ritual and in most cases a hoped for Deus Ex Machina revelation.

As an entertaining academic and intellectual engagement, Biodynamics is a fun and interesting exercise. As the key to better grapes and better wines, however, it's substantively meaningless.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

HFF Returns: Vino Volo - Philadelphia, Pa

I'm traveling again and I was pleased to find another Vino Volo location at Philadelphia International Airport, where I was waiting before my connecting flight overseas. As I wrote about a while ago, Vino Volo is a growing chain of high-end wine bars located in airports throughout the country. They've expanded quite a bit since I visited the location in Dulles, with new locations in Oakland and Philadelphia, among others.

There's nothing exceptional about Vino Volo, but it is quite solid. The wine lists are well put together given the limitations and prices are reasonable, not just by airport standards. And the food menu, served in two different portion sizes, is some of the best and fairly priced airport food I've ever had. Everything has been solid-to-good which, by airport standards, is commendable.

Plus, every location has ample outlets and very cushy chairs, so the opportunity to sit, have some good food and wine, and plug in and get some work done is quite welcome. Beats sitting on a filthy carpet and jockeying for outlet space with a pouting tween and her MacBook.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

HFF On The Road: New York, NY

I went to New York City with girlfriend Charlie last week for the first time and we ate and drank our way through the city. It rocked. Despite my skepticism, New York really is a city apart from the rest of the country in terms of culinary excess and diversity. The food is not necessarily any better than the best that the rest of the country has to offer, but the concentration of quality is unsurpassed.

We had the pleasure of staying at the Ace Hotel in midtown (a beautiful, quirky and reasonably priced hotel) and our first night we hit up the Breslin restaurant located in the hotel. Named after the historic hotel on the same site, the Breslin is an upscale gastropub from the same folks who brought NYC the Spotted Pig. The food was pretty damn good, though a few dishes were bordering on oppressively salty. The speck tart was very good, layered on puff pastry with crescenza cheese. The brandade with bread salad was one of those oppressively salty dishes I mentioned. The appetizer highlight was the "Scrumpets," essentially lamb fish sticks, served with mint vinegar. On the entree front, the lamb burger with feta was delicious.

This proved to be our only fancy pants dinner we did in New York, the rest of our trip being spent at street vendors and neighborhood joints.

We made a point of trying some New York classics. Pizza was tasty: the crust had a great texture though it lacked salt. Bagels were particularly amazing, with their moist chewy interior and light crisp exterior. The legendary Seinfeldian classic, the Black & White Cookie, was something of a revelation, more like a flattened cupcake than a cookie. It was very moist and not overly sweet, most of the sugar coming from the frosting. Good bagels were found at Izzy & Nat's in Battery Park and great pizza was found at Bleecker Street Pizza in the West Village.

Another highlight was arepas, a South American dish popular in Venezuela and Colombia, consisting of something like a fried corn pita stuffed with spicy seasoned meats and vegetables.

One of the best wine bars in the country, Terroir, has two locations in Manhattan: its original storefront location in the East Village and its new, expansive digs in TriBeCa. Great global wine list that doesn't pander to the world's major players. A well-publicized recent feud with the Village Voice food critic recently raised its profile amongst food and wine hipsterati.

In the end there was far too much to eat and drink in the city for just one long weekend, but it's definitely a food wonderland with unique, quality ingredients and fresh takes on regional standards.

As an aside, the binge drinking culture of New York is pretty epic too. I don't know if its the lack of cars, the ubiquity of subways, or the general miserableness of the weather year round, but New Yorkers drink until they pass out, wake up, and drink some more. It's kinda crazy.

New York's decidedly not a city you can experience food-wise in a week and will reward regular visits. Go New York.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Rethinking Terroir

There’s this fancy pants word in the wine world and no, it’s not “spats.” It’s terroir. Anyone who uses the word terroir is quick to mention that it is A: French, B: Untranslatable, and C: Has no specific meaning. Near as I can tell terroir is defined as “a sense of place” which is about as specific as referring to a woman as a “living thing with a vagina.”

But the blowback from the descriptor “a sense of place” is that many wine-reviewing douche bags have come to decide that this means the sense of a specific place in the world and therefore any wine that is not 100% from a specific place lacks any “sense of place.” I’ve even read reviews from wine writers who decried a wine for lacking even 10% fruit from one particular location. Asinine.

What, after all, is a place? Sure it can be a place in geography but it can also be a place in time, a place in thought, a place in emotion. It can be a place in an individual’s mental index that is irrespective of any geographic grape growing location. I’ve had Sauvignon Blancs from many different geographic places in the world that all smell like very specific cat pee. That’s evocative. That’s terroir.

Terroir is a tasty wine with friends in a dive in Tuscany. Terroir is a juicy red blend you had with dinner after a marathon day of Sonoma wine tasting. Terroir is a cheap Champagne toast to a friend after she completed her Ph. D. Terroir, despite its French pretension, I would argue is not specifically about geography. Terroir is about all that a wine stimulates in the senses in any specific place and time.

In this way, wines made from a blend of fruit from disparate regions can be a terroir-driven wine, while at the same time some shitty over-oaked 100% Napa Chardonnay can be a shit box stored in a feces locker. Terroir is a mental space–it is that sip of Rheingau Riesling or it’s that gulp of Vin de Pays. Chances are if you had sex in the Rheingau or you had sex all over France, your association with either wine would be similar.

I won’t argue and say that different wine-growing regions don’t have specific grape characteristics, but I will argue that the quality of a wine is uniquely defined by that in all cases. The wine world is too full of multi-region blends that kick the latex ass-less pants off of 100% regional varietal wines.

So what are your terroirs? What are the “senses of place” that drive your taste buds? Hot dogs at a high school picnic? The perfumed lotion of an early girlfriend? The smell of your dad’s pickup truck on a summer day? If the structures of a wine give you evocative pleasure, that wine is expressive of terroir, regardless of its literal make-up.

It’s no fluke that terroir-driven wines are most evocative for the consumer who has traveled in the mentioned wine’s terroir. Because it’s not merely taste that defines the term, it’s taste synthesized with experience.

If I wanted to taste a specific place, I’ll go there and lick the dirt myself. I want to taste good wines.

(Originally published at

Monday, June 07, 2010

HFF On The Road: San Francisco, Ca

I love LA. I really do. It's a weird, sprawling, schizophrenic ex-girlfriend of a city. It's a blank page, a blank canvas. It's smog and implants swaddled in a warm Art Deco blanket. It's stupidity of the second-highest order but charming in its own shambling ineptitude. And it just might be the largest city in the developed world utterly devoid of true geniuses. It's not LA's fault, it's just that LA doesn't reward genius. It rewards beauty, sycophancy, and (in rare instances) legitimate talent.

By all of which I mean to say, LA is not San Francisco. San Francisco is proud, brash, arrogant and intellectual. It's frustratingly closed-minded at times and even more frustratingly almost-never-actually-warm. But its citizenry knows how to dress and knows how to eat. San Francisco's culinary world runs circles around that of Los Angeles all the while generally charging a lot less money (even with mandatory health care).

I was back up in my old pretend stomping grounds (I never actually lived in Baghdad by the Bay, preferring to stay instead on the western shore of Alameda County) a few times last month and revisited some of my favorites and also hit up some new spots.

Maverick: Perhaps one of my all time favorite restaurants of all time, Maverick is nothing fancy but does everything right. Doing New American right as the movement was being defined, Maverick does great modern takes on American classics. I visited them twice and they're still going strong. The fried chicken was delicious: crisp, moist and a little spicy, paired with greens and mashed potatoes and the vegetarian pasta dish also rocked. The chicken liver toasts are a must-get appetizer.

Sea Salt: The Berkeley organic/sustainable seafood restaurant hasn't lost its touch either. A whole grip (hyphy) of new brunch items in particular were great: Hangtown Fry (oysters, bacon, eggs), steak and eggs, and some other stuff I can't remember because the website is down and I can't look at the menu. Curses.

Limon Rotisserie: Located in what used to be a grungy part of the Mission but is now spectacularly clean, the Limon Rotisserie is the casual family-dining spin-off of famed Peruvian/Nuevo Latino hot spot Limon. Specializing in killer roast chicken, the Rotisserie also has some of the signature ceviches and sides. Delicious and inexpensive with a great wine list.

Tacolicious: Terrible name, great restaurant even if they do inexplicably sell their tacos by the one or the four. Why by the four? Everyone knows tacos are sold by the three! All the tacos were good, the beer-and-a-shot braised chicken and the potato and chorizo tacos were particular standouts. The other killer dish was the tuna tostada: seared albacore on a crispy tortilla with avocado and chipotle mayo. Fun, busy place for a reasonably priced meal. Sucks that it's in the Marina though.

Elixir: One of SF's OG "mixology" bastions. The cocktails were pretty good (if a bit steep--approaching LA prices) but I was more intrigued by the diverse beer selection and the general dive-y vibe of the place.

Som Bar: This place sucked. If I wanted a shitty club I'd go to SoMa. Is this what happens when Google moves into your neighborhood? A bunch of over-paid under-experienced nerds go out on Saturday nights in douche-y clothes and turn your Chicano tranny bars into sorry excuses for Berkeley sorority invitationals? Fuck that.

Which does bring me to this one "back in my day" moment. Back in my day the Mission was still a little bit scary. And there definitely weren't bars where fucking ass clowns in Banana Republic wearing too much cologne spit game at a bunch of sixes-who-think-they're-tens who need to stay in the fucking Marina District. Or Walnut Creek. Where were the homeless addicts? Where were the true dive bars? Where was my fear of being jumped if I went below Mission St? Gone in a tea bag of Forever 21. Blergh.

Still, great city though. Highly recommended.