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