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Cava goes upscale

01.24.18 Posted in Food by

A tasting by Codorníu of some of their more exclusive Gran Reservas.

I had a really fun time tasting through Codorníu’s line of cava over lunch yesterday. They poured their entry level Ann de Codorníu as we sat down but the highlights were the very high end Gran Reserva bottles. Each was very distinct, something to be savored outside of the normal ‘it’s a party, let’s have a cava’ environment. The three stand outs were the

Codorníu “Jaume Codorníu” Gran Reserva Brut 2013

I got some peach notes and a bit of that Sauvignon Blanc grassiness on the nose. This is a sparkler so the fact that my mouth was full of that sparkling sensation shouldn’t be a surprise but in comparison with the the following bottles it is remarkable.

Codorníu “Finca La Pleta” Gran Reserva Brut 2007

This one has a nose comparable to many Champagnes full of toasted notes but also something akin to a fresh oyster’s brininess. On the palate that toastiness continues but it’s amazing just how mellow the sparkling sensation is. Sure, there’s no denying this is a sparkling wine but it’s so full of flavor and the bubbles are so few that your attention swivels to the flavors that much more.

Codorníu “457” Gran Reserva Brut 2008

This one also favors toasty notes on the nose. And that continues over onto the palate but with a bit of  lemon zest. This bottle had the highest acid of the bunch which meant that it paired really well with our lunch and, most likely, would be a great food wine.

The contrasts between these bottles and the cavas I’ve tried before were categorical. These bottles belong in a different class and might be even doing a disservice to the brand exactly because they’re so distinctive and so far outside of the realm of the relatively simple sensations that the word cava now summons. Only the first really makes your mouth sparkle, the other two are very mellow so that you focus on the flavor rather than the sparkling sensation.  The vintage clearly matters; those latter two are ten year olds.

But this also raises the question of what this means for cava as a brand because they’ve worked incredibly hard to establish the idea of an inexpensive sparkling wine in all of our heads. So much so that no one expects too much from a cava because the price to sensation ratio is really clear. I bet most people have completely swallowed that idea that ‘sure these aren’t high end Champagnes but they’re perfect for a summer day’ or whatever marketing idea was originally designed for these wines. Now that Codorníu is intent on building a high end, high quality strata, what does that do for the entire category? Plenty of wines and spirits have made the transition, but standing right at the beginning of the process, it looks like an incredibly vertiginous climb.

Sadly, at least for the time being, my favorite of these bottles, the “Finca La Pleta” isn’t even available for sale. It’s part of a 300 bottle batch made in Codorníu’s “laboratory.” Clearly they’ve been working on this transition to quality and premium prices for some time so I’d expect more of these bottles to be available sometime soon. The market is seeded with events like this and I’m part of the process – maybe it really is a cava world and we all just live in it…

And that’s not such a terrible thing. Codorníu in particular makes for a better world. It’s a large, old, family owned winery which is carving out space for new viticultural expressions on a global market that thrives on novelty and great background stories. That “457” in the title for the third wine means, 457th bottling. That’s something to be proud of  as an independent company and augers much more to come.


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Finding that tasting room that counts

01.08.18 Posted in Food by

Birichino’s John Locke pulls some bottles for a tasting.

I first encountered Birichino wines through Gus’ wine selection and Local Cellar which are both great for finding gems in small production Californian wine makers. One thing led to another and I started following Birichino on Instagram which is spare but actually performed the role that I want out of social media for this sort of thing, it gave me a better sense of what they’re up to while actually telling me useful information viz that their tasting room just opened in Santa Cruz. High signal, no noise.

So I dragged my family there on this weekend’s visit. We were racing to beat the Santa Cruz traffic back to Monterey so the thought was, ‘a quick visit and out the door,’ which instantly vaporized once we walked into the beautiful tasting room and started chatting with John Locke, one of their wine makers. Hours later we dutifully inserted ourselves into the traffic and happily dealt with it, the glow from the tasting was more than enough to help us cope with the frustrations of that drive.

So well appointed that you’ll just want to lounge for a while.

Just go to the tasting room for the design sensibility. I’d like to make it my new reading room then conduct mezcal tastings and dinner parties. It should be a social hub with a bed in back so that I don’t have to drive home at the end of the night. Then stay for the wine to appreciate what individuality can do for grapes in California. I know Jon Bonne has been beating this drum for some time but we appear to be reaching a nice new normal where the baseline is anything but average.

The tasting flight du jour.

Birichino’s wines are all full of individual personality. The little flight this past weekend started with their pet nat malvasia which gives you a sense of what the grape can do and makes you instantly relax like a glass of sparkler should. Appreciate it on so many levels without the fuss because it’s both simple fun and worthy of a second look. Then there are the other whites like their Chenin Blanc which changes radically over vintages revealing all sorts of variables; the 2014 is lean and restrained, the 2015 voluptuous. And then there’s the red line up that features all sorts of Rhone varietals like a Cinsault from, in the California context, truly ancient vines from Lodi. Their lean Grenache and a really ephemeral Mourvedre which are all well worth tasting and bringing home. Our informal tasting panel agreed that these are all nuanced enough to be enjoyed alone but sculpted to be enjoyed along food which we’ve been doing for the remainder of the weekend.


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Gomorrah and Manchester City

01.04.18 Posted in Movies, Sports by

It’s been pointed out that Pep Guardiola and Ciro Di Marzio aka Il Immortale bear more than a passing resemblance.

Pep and Ciro

After watching too much football and the second season of Gomorrah in the past weeks I’m now convinced that Azpilicueta and Lino Musella aka The Dwarf continue the trend. Similar jaw line, missing mole…

Cesar Azpilicueta

Rosario O’Nano / Lino Mosella


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My newest Manhattan fix

01.03.18 Posted in Food by

I’ve been bopping around between ryes the past few months looking for something to really ignite that daily Manhattan. I’ve tried a bunch but I kept finding myself returning to High West’s Double Rye until I finally chanced upon Leopold Brother’s Maryland Rye. It’s sharp enough to define itself in a cocktail while adding plenty of distinctive rye flavors. The sweetness is there but more than balanced out by the rye which is really what you want from this sort of bottle. Chalk this up to Leopold Brother’s yet again, everything I’ve tasted from their production has been amazing. They say that it’s a limited release so I may have to stock up on a few bottles to tide me over.


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Getting it with Pizzeria Delfina

07.11.17 Posted in Food, San Francisco by

It’s pretty remarkable that a place that has been around for years and one that has branches across the city continues to knock out some of the best pizza in the area while offering the definition of a casual dining experiencee. Credit Craig Stoll or whoever he has managing this project. They know what they’re doing and anyone running or opening a restaurant should conduct a thorough study.

The trip that prompted this impression was nothing special, a quick lunch with my parents at the Fillmore location where we were seated expeditiously on a Sunday. It’s a clean well lit place for pizza – all of their locations give you that vibe – and the entire operation hums along around you. Good music, great people watching, a kitchen moving to the beat. Cooking as entertainment as well as consumption.

But the food is the thing and Delfina figured out how to maintain focus from the get go. It starts with the crisp breadsticks – lean, simple, a great intro to the meal. They really only cook a few pizzas, salads, and classic appetizers like tripe or fried anchovies that fulfill a longing for trattoria food. There are usually specials like spaghetti and meatballs that make sense even if you wrinkle your nose at their presence. I mean, who orders pasta at a pizza place?

And that pizza is a marvel. It’s chewy and charred, strong enough to hold some rather significant toppings like cream and guanciale. The toppings hew to tradition with some Californian variations. When in doubt order the lightest thing on the menu just to taste the wonder of the gluten in this dough. We always spend a lot of time watching the pizzaioli working in the back because the dough is so elastic and yet comes out so chewy that we know we have eons to go with our home pizza oven.

Lest we forget dessert the short list has always managed to find the traditional dish that resonates while being far too easy to overlook. The Zeppole are really fried pieces of pizza dough topped or slathered with creme anglaise which represent a nice compromise between the classic idea of fluffed dough stuffed with cream, interpretation, and ideal delivery in contemporary restaurants. The cannoli in the Mission location occupy the same position – I’m not an authority but I have yet to find anything as good in the U.S.

Then there’s the wine list which is admirably edited to a page while introducing Americans to still, lamentably, unknown Southern Italian wines. There are fantastic deals, incredible diversity of tastes, oh and they know how to run a wine program. If you don’t know what you want not only will your waiter give you a taste, usually they’ll give you two or three in order to compare. Just don’t be that idiot who insists on an unknown bottle, engage with and appreciate the experience of your wait staff.


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Sustainable business

07.10.17 Posted in Espresso, Food by

Sunday

A post shared by Scott Rocher (@rochers) on

 

I’m just catching up with my podcasts after a long vacation so StartUp‘s latest titled “Building a Perfect Cup of Coffee” really caught my attention. I really like StartUp because it provides such nuanced portraits of the business world which is a topic that really doesn’t get much of this type of coverage. Most business stories feel like promotional blurbs for CEOs, product coverage, or market reports while the real life of work and business doesn’t get its due. After all, we’re all engaged in this work thing day in, day out, so it does merit the attention! But the name – StartUp – is funny one. I suppose the term “start up” was hijacked by the technology industry over the past 20 years but even before then you’d hardly call any new business a start up. The real thing that unifies most of the business stories in this podcast isn’t that they’re classic scalable start ups but that they want to be.

I always feel that inherent tension between that name and subject but this episode made it particularly vivid because it profiles Port of Mokha, a coffee import business that is trying to grow fast with venture funding while remaining rooted in the Yemeni farmers who grow its coffee. You can’t get much more slow growth, traditional business, than importing coffee. It is quite literally a slow growing plant tended by farmers who are plugged into a very physical supply chain which ends up in your cup at places like Blue Bottle. That business story wouldn’t be out of place in Amsterdam hundreds of years ago, San Francisco’s port in the last century, or pretty much anywhere trade has ever flourished.

What’s different about StartUp’s story on Port of Mokha is that it unites an amazing founder story with venture funding pouring out of Silicon Valley investors – it really wants to explain why that cup of coffee costs $16 but never quite gets there. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great story, but there’s a huge missed opportunity here because the bigger story behind Port of Mokha is the iceberg, white whale, your metaphor for hidden giant here. Because the existential questions inherent in Pork of Mokha’s business are whether (and how) you can build a truly sustainable supply chain. I’m not saying this would be easy to report, Yemen is a war zone right now and this season of StartUp focuses on one business per episode, but it really feels like the bigger story is still sitting out there waiting for attention.

I want more because I’ve been working the same beat in the mezcal world at Mezcalistas. The questions of sustainability and sourcing really are existential for mezcal because if you can’t grow enough agave and plan on the crop’s maturity, you don’t have mezcal to sell 6, 8, 10 years down the line. Similar questions define the coffee world: The people growing coffee and agave share similar concerns while the baristas and bartenders serving drinks and the consumers buying them at high end cafes and bars across the globe are very concerned with making a conscious choice about their products. They want products that are produced sustainably in the belief that producers should get paid fairly and treated well in order to create a more stable and ethical world. The mezcal world has even had a version of this story.

This isn’t new, nor restricted to our little corners of the universe, but it is of growing concern. The real question isn’t simply ‘Is this coffee worth $16 a cup?’ it’s ‘How do I know that this cup of coffee is worth $16 a cup?’ Because that’s the real question about anything that has a high cost. The good news is that everyone wants to hear this story, there’s so much green washing out there that we’re in danger of devaluing it. But consumers remain concerned with this topic, producers want in on it as well, and business have been building incredible management strategies to comply. So, where’s that story in this episode? You get pieces of it but the focus is still on the company’s founder and the scalability question – ie can he grow his company to the valuation that his investors expect and not ‘how can you scale while remaining sustainable’ which is the really interesting one. Here’s an argument for more focus on the big questions behind the entrepreneurs!


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Tennis v food in Palm Springs

03.17.17 Posted in Food, Sports by

The amazing thing about our annual pilgrimage to Palm Springs is that this is the only Garrone family affair that’s not about food, this one revolves around tennis, the BNP Paribas Open, and everything else we can fit in recreationally. When I say it’s about the tennis I’m serious, we’re there for a week, at least four full days at the tournament with at least an hour of practice in the evenings under the lights. But you have to eat and might as well eat well, at least in style, which represents a conundrum because, to be close to the tennis, we always stay in one of those golf course housing complexes around Indian Wells which is at least half an hour away from downtown Palm Springs, the center of culinary action in the Coachella Valley.

Croatian classics hour at Indian Wells.

Croatian classics hour at Indian Wells.

For the first few years we really beat ourselves up about this. We actually drove down to Palm Springs to dine at Melvyn’s and to try the places on everyone’s lists. After getting exhausted by all the driving we started trying the strip mall and hotel places closer afield but the quality wasn’t really there. Punctuated evolution kicked in and we simply embraced the grill and never looked back.

The evening hit.

The evening hit.

That’s not a difficult thing because we’re a family of home cooks. Still, we love to dine out so that was a tough pill to swallow. But the more time you spend in the warm desert evenings, the easier it is to embrace the al fresco dining. Plus the closer you look at local supermarkets the more you find strange cuts and organs that reflect another era of New York or LA cooking, things like veal and liver are plentiful which makes for great contrast to the normal stuff we find at our local grocery stores.

Home cooking.

Home cooking.

That still leaves the days at the tennis. Over the years the culinary scene at the appropriately named Indian Wells Tennis Garden has evolved quite a bit. At first they just had the normal food stands serving hot dogs, rice bowls, and the like. Then a few years ago Larry Ellison decided to really spruce up the tournament so he built a whole new stadium and added Nobu, Chop House, and PizzaVino to it. When they opened it was a pretty amazing fan experience. If you splash out for Nobu you can dine while perched a few stories directly above the tennis. Choose pizza or chops and embrace the al fresco patio surrounded by tennis on TVs. Those innovations are now baked into most contemporary sports stadia like Sacramento’s new Golden 1 Center which features a huge Sierra Nevada Bier Garden up in the nose bleeds and not down where the rich people sit.

Once PizzaVino opened at Indian Wells it was a god send; suddenly you could get a pizza, salad, glass of wine and get back to the main event without breaking much of a stride. Given what we’d come to expect of restaurants from these trips, PizzaVino is yet another exception. In my daily life I rarely dine at the same place more than a few times a year. At Indian Wells I dine there daily. But given the alternatives at the tournament, there’s really only one sure bet. It’s not overachieving cuisine but as they say at the Zeitgest: Fast, Friendly, Service – Choose One. Adapted to this context PizzaVino is fast, friendly, have service, and decent food so it’s better than hitting the trifecta, especially given the culinary context. They’ve succeeded enough that, for good or bad, my daughter is now known there well enough that the staff recognize her after a year’s absence.

Then we got this year’s BNP Paribas Open announcement which prominently features new restaurants, namely LA’s epochal Spago but also Cassell’s Hamburgers, and B.S. Taqueria. Spago has been around longer than most of the competitors in the tournament so it should be long in the tooth but it did make significant contributions to Californian cuisine so it has to be worth something. And the other fast casual alternatives are right on target. I got excited because, you know, variety is the spice of life. So for the first time in years we ventured out of the PizzaVino bubble and caught out Spago.

Day one was a fiasco because they weren’t even open yet. Day two the same. Day three, finally they were open but in our own person Keystone Cops movie we managed to walk every level of Stadium One before finding Spago way up at the upper lip of the stadium. The view of the tennis is stunning: It’s perched at the upper lip of the main stadium so the view is straight down onto the court. Anyone suffering from vertigo should just skip it.

With vistas like this, why brave the 100 degree weather? With prices like that the answer is pretty obvious. It’s incredible to be up there, watching the line cook away, enjoy a nice glass of wine, plus you get to try something that’s not pizza. Hell, the man himself was there, Wolfgang resplendent in two day stubble, wandering the line with a smile but really devoting  quality time to working the room where everyone, including us, was taking selfies.

Wolfgang's shtick

Wolfgang’s shtick

It’s a strange scene, given the exceptionalism of the entire desert experience. It’s even more exceptional in that you need a separate ticket to access Stadium One during the tournament so you’re already paying a premium to be there, then you pay the premium for Spago’s food. And it’s not bad. It definitely hits all the right note for a high end chain like this. But it’s not perfect, nor inventive, nor really fun. It’s what you’d expect from Spago which is really why most people dine there. That’s the sad fact of the higher end corporate restaurant chains. It’s just what you’d expect. And you pay for it.

So, it’s back to pizza and wine for me where my daughter gets pampered and we don’t spend too much. After all we are there for the tennis. A fact my father never ceases to remind me of because he doesn’t even break for lunch, he just snacks in the stands watching the wild variety of playing styles. Still, I gotta eat.

Nothing like the desert.

Nothing like the desert.


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If you trust Europe with the standards, you’d have to trust America with your coffee

07.10.16 Posted in Espresso, Food, Italy by

We just returned from a luxurious trip through Italy, Southern France, and a lightning strike into London which revealed many things about the cultural stereotypes embedded in that old joke about how in an ideal world the Germans are the engineers, French the chefs, Italians the lovers.

Lesson 1 – You can still trust Italians with an espresso.

Paraphrasing James Freeman here but Italy really does have the highest median level of coffee preparation. You can walk into any bar across the country and get a decent espresso and a better than decent macchiato. But they’re still just decent. The national style is to over roast and make that cup of espresso incredibly hot. So, you’ll be ready to go in the morning but will just have to accept a degree of mediocrity.

But god forbid you depart the world of Italian coffee culture and head into France where the an espresso is just another name for watered down and burn coffee. The minister in charge of such things obviously has a great enforcement operation because compliance is near 100%.

Never fear, London has excellent coffee and little operations are starting to appear in Italy and France.

Lesson 2 – What you lose in espresso, you gain in bread

As soon as you cross the border into France the quality of bread rises vertiginously. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same thing about the average croissant.

Walk into any bakery in France and you’re going to find better than decent bread. Meanwhile across the border in Italy bakeries can definitely make decent bread, the foccacia is superior and there are definitely plenty of bakeries up to snuff. But the cultural norm is to make rather indifferent white loaves. Much of it is so insipid that I started to wonder whether the Wonder Bread conspiracy to eliminate flavor from all baked goods was actually hatched by a mad Italian.

But head west and suddenly all bread has a crust while bubbles take over on the interior of loaves and flavor multiplies. Of course the standard French baugette is mostly about texture but if you dig around in your local boulangerie you’ll find all sorts of entertaining loaves. Ditto in the bread basket at many restaurants.

But sadly the same can’t be said about France’s much deified croissant. The average level is fairly low wherever you go unless you really seek out a practitioner of the arts. By and large their soft and doughy, not many layers in side, that is, they’re the insipid counterpart to the baugette. They should have great crisp shells that shatter a bit to the touch.

Lesson 3 – Wine cultures create economies of scale

The cost of a decent wine in countries that have a long history producing it and including it in their national culinary cultures is nothing short of a revelation for citizens of countries without those production levels or traditions. To get a decent bottle in an American restaurant $30 would strain the imagination, $50 is more realistic. In France or Italy a very decent, even very good, bottle will run under $20 in many establishments. Even better, a liter of house wine will almost always put most of what we find in the US to shame.

 


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The Anderson Collection Remixed – De Kooning

05.19.16 Posted in Art by


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The Anderson Collection Remixed

05.18.16 Posted in Art by