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 TheSatelliteShow.com.)

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.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

HFF On The Scene: Silver Lake Jubilee

Editor's note: Okay, so apparently I have the memory of a gold fish. I also don't read my own blog very closely, so.... Wow.... This post's better anyway.

I know this is two weeks belated, but the damn festival would've been over regardless so it's not like you missed out on anything you would'n't've had to wait another year for anyway.

First, some serious props to the Silver Lake Jubilee folks for putting on a great festival. Fun, relaxed and very mellow. A few blocks of Myra Avenue below the Sunset Bridge were blocked off and stages were put at both ends, each with a Firestone Walker beer garden. In between the stages were two rows of local vendors and roughly thirty food trucks. Inoccuous-to-good live music, good more-or-less reasonably priced beer, food trucks. A nice combination. Plus it wasn't crazy crowded, just crowded.

Even now, 2+ years post-Kogi, the food trucks were still the main draw and I'll confess, despite seeing a newly-unemployed and re-bearded Jeremy Sisto in the beer garden while a pretty cool band was playing, the food trucks were the main draw for me too. As someone who is ambivalent to the whole food truck scene, it was nice to have an opportunity to taste multiple vendors without having to exert too much effort. My report follows.

Calbi: I'd been curious about this Kogi rip-off, especially since Kogi apparently doesn't want to come Downtown anymore. I don't count the weekly residency at Market Lofts in South Park. That's not Downtown. I had a spicy pork taco and it was a reasonably good facsimile, though lacking the full richness and depth of Kogi's marinades and sauces. But Calbi parks a few blocks from my house and Kogi's definitely not drive-across-town better.

India Jones: My personal favorite of the day. A really good paneer "frankie," basically paneer cheese, egg, onions, and a cilantro/tamarind chutney rolled up in a fresh roti. It was nice to find a modern food truck actually serving real street food. Warm and fresh and perfectly snack-sized.

Coolhaus: Okay, so this was pretty good, don't get me wrong. I had the bacon brown butter ice cream in a snickerdoodle sandwich. But, the line was ridiculous. It's just ice cream folks. And even though LA isn't the Bay Area (there you can't swing a dead cat with your dick without hitting a crazy gourmet ice cream shop with weird flavors), but it's still LA and shmancy iced cream is still somewhat readily available. And, to be honest, standing in line for (literally) 45 minutes for the privilege of paying four bucks for an ice cream sandwich was embarrassing for me. The eleven-year-old me being thrown naked into the girls' locker room at my middle school would've been less embarrassing (and I didn't grow pubes until my second year of grad school!). Plus, if I had to listen to another hipster douche ask to taste every fucking ice cream flavor before committing to something I was going to beat him with his own Vans and strangle him with his own moustache. Christ. No wonder your girlfriend dumped you for an ugly lesbian. Next time Coolhaus, at an event like this why don't you pick like three pre-made ice cream sandwich combos instead of doing the choose your-own-thing. Also, don't have only ONE FUCKING GUY TALKING ON HIS CELL PHONE making the ice cream sandwiches. But the ice cream was good. Still, doubtful I'll be back.

World Fare: As LA's only "bustaurant" (as far as I know), World Fare is pretty cool. Kitchen is on the first floor and there's seating on the top of the double-decker bus. Though it has many global rotating specials, World Fare is known best for its "Bunnies," which are a South African street food dish consisting of chili or slow-braised meats served in bowls made from scooped out bread rolls. Smaller than what you're imagining, the Bunnies are perfectly sized to be able to enjoy a couple different flavors for your meal. I didn't have one though, instead I had the smoked cheddar mac and cheese balls. The verdict on those was "meh." They lacked enough cheese and salt to be interesting and tasted mostly like breaded and fried macaroni.

My basic impressions of food trucks were generally reinforced: the vast majority are slightly poorer quality versions of your basic neighborhood go-tos for slightly less money. I'd rather pay the slight premium to sit in a nice space and support my neighborhood businesses. And the cult of the food truck has reached the point where some have a miniature Grateful Dead-type followings, defeating the point of the food truck: fast cheap and convenient. The trucks that stand out, the Kogis and the India Jones' of the world, work because they remain true to their roots, offering upscale and/or innovative takes on what is, at its core, your basic global street cuisine.

But do go to the Silver Lake Jubilee next year. It was a grand time.