Seven little tips to keep you and your date in good cheer
You don’t need a fancy wine title to order a good bottle of wine at a restaurant. Although it doesn’t require a lot of skill to order the right bottle of wine at a restaurant, I have seen people completely mess it up. There’s no reason why that should happen to you, even if you’ve never, ever ordered a bottle of wine in a restaurant before. Here are seven simple little rules to navigate any wine list like a pro.
Rule #1: Always, always hear the advice of the sommelier. (Let’s go ahead and use the term som instead of sommelier so we don’t sound so stuck up and for brevity’s sake). Often the som can guide you to a sleeper wine on the list. And if the restaurant doesn’t have a som, ask the waitperson. If he or she doesn’t know, ask for the manager or get up and go. Really, someone in a restaurant should know its wine list.
Rule #2: Don’t be afraid to ask the som to have you taste some wines before you make a decision—especially when they’re available by the glass. In fact, I encourage it, as it helps you make a more sound decision.
Rule #3: if it grows together, it goes together. If you are having regional cuisine stick to that region’s wines and you will most likely have a natural pairing (think Northern Italian with a wine from the Piedmont). The beautiful relationship between wine and food is that they are designed to make each other taste better. Likewise, classic Spanish wines go well with racy, spicy foods; classic French wines enhance creamy, rich foods; and so on. It’s not fool-proof, but as a general rule, it hedges on the safe side.
Most importantly, Rule #4: pay attention to how the restaurant is storing their wines. Although you can certainly get your money’s worth with a finely aged bottle of wine correctly kept at a restaurant’s cellar, more often than not wine at a restaurant is not kept at 55 degrees with zero sunlight and the correct humidity. The wine is often kept (unfortunately) at the bar at room temperature for the reds, and at refrigerator temperature for the whites. The whites are usually ok once they thaw down for about 20 minutes, but don’t get a big, beautiful, expensive, red wine if it is kept standing up in an 80 degree room.
Rule #5: Don’t smell the cork, as it really only indicates what cork smells like, and successfully makes you look like a rookie. (Side note from editor: unless you’re in Italy. Italians always smell the cork as an indicator of whether the wine has been stored correctly. When in Rome, do as the Romans.)
Rule #6: Try not to be a wine snob. Whether you know less or more than the person who is taking your order, show some humility; the staff will appreciate it.
Rule #7: Above all, enjoy the company with whom you are sharing this wine and food! This will only enhance the entire experience.
Here are some great values around New York City: Quintarelli Valpolicalla at Blue smoke offers Quintarelli’s signature funkiness is perfect with bbq. To hell with California Zinfandel in this situation. A favorite of my wife and me is the Castello dei Rampolla Chianti Classico at Po. Priced just right, and with a zippy acidity, this wine pairs perfectly with several of the hearty dishes. Fontodi Flaccianello 1999 is a great value at Maialino. It is cellared correctly, decanted upon request, and it pairs incredibly well with many of their dishes. Whether you are wine pro or a beginner, and regardless of your budget, these simple rules and guidelines will maximize your wine experience.
Respecting the Product
Dynamic personality, cutting-edge techniques, great floor presence, and a sparkling TV presence: If these are the components that interest you in chefs, please stop reading now. If, like me, you believe that a chef should be a person who knows how to craft beautiful, honest food, then read on. For over eighteen years I worked in restaurants and was fortunate to meet many brilliant chefs. I also had the misfortune of meeting several who were legends in their own mind—and they were the ones who were spending less time around fire, mise en place and refrigeration and more time around cameras and lights. When I started at IWM, I was curious to meet the man who manned our stoves, and I was introduced to the ever humble Chef Kevin Sippel.
Sippel began his culinary career in his hometown of Buffalo, New York. As a teenager, he began washing dishes at a pub and then worked his way into the kitchen. His Sicilian grandfather later sent him to Italy to help him with his culinary inspiration. Over the years, Sippel has cooked in Italy, France and London, working in many fine restaurants. He spent his last few years in New York working with Scott Conant.
To say that Sippel is old school would be an understatement. Sippel doesn’t talk about his food; rather, it speaks for him. Where many of today’s young chefs are lacing their dishes with foams, deconstructing food and using laboratory devices to prepare their dishes, Sippel employs traditional methods in order to cook from his heart. His cuisine rests in his commitment to source consistently beautiful products. He uses few ingredients in each dish and allows the integrity of the ingredient to carry the dish. The result is something natural, and something beautiful.
One example of Sippel’s commitments to simplicity is where the chef looks for inspiration—for instance, winemaker Josko Gravner. This iconoclastic producer moved away from the ultra-modern techniques that he had championed, even mastered, in order to work with clay amphorae, and this producer’s adoption of ancient methods showed Sippel how a chef could move away from ultra-modern techniques to achieve a state of natural harmony. Sippel embraces techniques that are decades old and have stood the test of time. Some chefs impart their will onto the product, but the result is often something contrived—flavorful yet lacking finesse. It feels manipulated. Sippel’s food is very different. There is a delightful, subtle elegance to his execution. More importantly, he does not sacrifice flavor for technique.
Sippel has the magic in his fingers. His dishes show a profound respect for the integrity of the product. Fish is either served raw or medium rare, always. The delicacy of the tissue remains intact, and the accoutrement complements the flavors. His pastas are made in-house daily and served with traditional sauces with a few simple, seasonal components. This winter he made butternut squash pasta with bone marrow and sage. That crescent moon pasta slid into my mouth and melted, as the understated sweetness of the squash was matched by the herbal component of the sage. The bone marrow gave it the richness that made my toes curl, made my eyes close and made me silently give thanks for being alive.
Macho, as Sippel is affectionately known, handles meat with similar reverence. He lets the product speak for itself. This approach is one embraced by such acclaimed chefs as Eric Rippert from Le Bernadine, Patrick O’Connell at the Inn at Little Washington and Thomas Keller at The French Laundry. These chefs have moved beyond ego to create a sublime sophistication in their cuisine. I am proud to say the young man in our kitchen has discovered this glorious, simple magic at an early age. I’m even happier that I get to eat his food on a regular basis.
Or: The Night of Faux Risotto
I grew up around food; I grew up around amazing food, actually. My dad is an Italian-born chef and I’m now a trained chef. My expectations are usually high when it comes to food, and they’re even higher when it comes to white tablecloth restaurants. However high my expectations, I’ve come to realize that living in Westchester has made me understand that some restaurants are just average. Still, I believe in the conviction that if you charge $35 for entrees and serve your guests on white tablecloths, then it is your obligation to bring it!
Recently, my girlfriend Melissa and I went to a local Italian restaurant (for reasons soon to become clear, I’m opting against naming it). We’d been there a few times previously and enjoyed the food. The owner is a nice guy who’s really into wine. Naturally, he and I get along.
When we arrived, we were greeted by a nicely dressed hostess and a suited gentleman. We were seated right away, and our jackets were removed by the host and manager. We were presented menus by the server, and the manager followed with a wine list. The list was 100% Italian, a big plus for me because there’s nothing that bothers me more than going to an Italian restaurant that offers more Californian than Italian wines. The owner and I decided on a 1997 Giacomo Borgogno Barbaresco, an absolute steal at $50 a bottle. I was happy. Everything seemed to be going so well.
When dining at restaurants of this caliber, I usually don’t like to order; I generally leave it in the hands of the manager or server. This time was no different for me, and I told the manager, whose judgment is usually spot on, to order for my girlfriend and me.
The first course was Mozzarella di buffalo with roasted peppers and an eighty-year-old balsamic vinegar. This was fantastic—simple but fresh. The mozzarella was actually buffalo and the peppers actually roasted in house; the eighty-year-old balsamic was a nice touch. Nothing makes me angrier than going to a restaurant, ordering Mozzaralla di buffalo, and discovering that they’re calling Polly-O string cheese Mozzarella di buffalo! I was pleased to see the genuine article.
The second course was also wonderful: Prosciutto di San Daniele with baby eggplant salad. The Prosciutto was sliced thin and fresh. The eggplant was perfectly cooked with a little crunch to it. I love eggplant, though if it’s mushy, we have a problem. This eggplant was delightful in every respect.
I’m happy so far. The Barbaresco is starting to open up. The nose is beautiful. Bright rose petals and fall leaves start to blossom in the glass. The wine is perfectly balanced with a slightly sweet note of balsamic. Melissa and I are smiling; it’s a wonderful food and wine synergy so far.
The third course was risotto with wild mushrooms and truffle oil. And that was when the bombshell dropped.
As the waiter crossed the room with the risotto in his hand, I could see that the dish didn’t look right. Closer, closer he walked, and my apprehension grew. The waiter approached the table. I looked around in anticipation for the manager, hoping he would intercept the dishes and send them back to the kitchen. He was not to be found. Melissa loves risotto and looked at me with dismay. Disappointment showed on her face.
The “risotto” was not risotto. It wasn’t that gloriously relaxed ooze of Carnaroli, wafting truffle and glowing with a sheen of butter. Instead it looked like nothing as much as Uncle Ben’s cooked in a risotto style. I almost fell off my seat! I felt embarrassed, conflicted and anguished. Should I say something? Should I send it back? I didn’t want to make the owner feel bad or make a scene in this small restaurant. Everything had been going so well. And now… this plate of faux risotto. I was gobsmacked.
Melissa convinced me to eat it, and it actually tasted good for commercial boxed rice, though eating the dish did nothing to convince me that what was on the plate before me had any connection to risotto other than its name. The rest of the meal was a blur to me. I couldn’t get over the risotto catastrophe. I found myself looking around the restaurant seeing if anyone else ordered the faux risotto dish. There was a part of me that wanted to walk over to the table in the corner and tell them they were eating a box of Uncle Ben’s. Did they know too? I kept trying to make eye contact with them. The entire meal had become a punch-line to a really bad foodie joke.
The problem was that I liked the restaurant. I liked the manager. In fact, I still like both. I keep on wondering, should I have told him of this kitchen disaster? Is it possible he wasn’t aware? Or is it possible that even he thought that what the chef had sent out that night was actually risotto? Part of me cannot fathom the idea that a chef worthy of a salt grain of integrity could send a dish out like that, and another part of me can’t fathom the idea that a chef in an Italian restaurant would call that dish “risotto.” And then one last part of me still can’t get over the fact that they charged me $25 for the boxed rice disaster—and that I paid it.
Still conflicted, I wonder, what would you do? Would you go back? What do you do when you have a seriously mixed restaurant experience at a place you genuinely, and generally, like?
Plus, New York Wine Tips
At the recommendation of Melissa, our Creative Director, and in the service of finding Manhattan’s next amazing wine bar, I stumbled onto an even more elusive find: a great burger and an incredible red. It was an “OMG,” “WOTN” and “w00t” discovery, all rolled into one.
I experienced what many of us wine enthusiasts look for –that moment when a little patience is rewarded, and that time when the primary and secondary flavors of a wine have evolved and meshed to create a spectrum of tastes. The wine in question was a 1996 Sociando-Mallet, and thanks to Bar Henry’s new “Marketplace” approach, you don’t have to pay the full bottle price to have a glass of vintage wine. Typically, it’s prohibitive to enjoy a respectable thirteen-year-old Bordeaux by the glass at a restaurant. However, when you order half of a bottle of the Sociando-Mallet, Bar Henry opens a fresh bottle, pours half to satisfy your order and then places the remaining half on their “Marketplace” board for others to enjoy. In essence, you are sharing the cost of buying a full bottle of wine. It’s not a bad idea, especially if you are coming in to retrieve the second half after it has had a little time to breathe and open up.
To accompany this unclassified and often unsung wine of Bordeaux’s Left bank, we ordered the La Frieda Burger (named after Patrick La Frieda, the meat master behind some of Manhattan’s landmark burgers at joints such as Shake Shack, Minetta Tavern, among others). Bar Henry provided a tasty and sizeable burger: fresh, juicy, perfect for some vino, and a welcomed change from the 2:00AM Corner Bistro-Bud combo. From the Sociando-Mallet, we moved on to the 2006 Tempier Bandol, which could use a decade of aging, some German beers and more. However, this night belonged to Sociando-Mallet; it’s a wine that’s currently peaking and joins my list of value performers or “WOTN” for the month.
The WOTN List: Value Wines of the Night (December)
1. The 1999 Fontodi Flaccianello: While everyone is focused on buying the 2006s from this Tuscan estate—and with good reason—I have been pouring the 1999. With ten years of age, the wine can be better described as a masculine Brunello. I poured this wine in the company of aged Barolos and single vineyard Pinots for a group of eight enthusiasts two weeks ago. On tasting the Flaccianello, three of the eight stopped what they were saying, stared backed down in their glass for a second take, and then returned their attention to me to say, “I will take a case of that.” This wine is simply on.
2. The 2001 Castello di Cacchiano Chianti Classico Riserva: It’s the little wine that’s capable of changing the perception of Chianti. While most of us consume the Tuscan red within five years of the vintage date, this is a great example of a Chianti Classico showing maturity and providing tertiary notes of mushroom, underbrush, and cherry. We poured this wine at a tasting event for 100 guests outside of Philly, with emphatic responses like “what is that?” and “that’s Chianti?” I completely recommend this wine.
3. The 1996 Chateau Sociando-Mallet: Thanks to Bar Henry, I was able to share a half bottle of this with a friend without a premium, and I am now in the process of asking our Wine Acquisitions Director Christy for some bottles to enjoy at home. This is a classic Bordeaux blend and one of the great values in the overpriced region. I also think this 1996 is great example of how the rating and point system can dissuade enthusiasts from experiencing a great bottle. This wine over-delivers in price and reviews. Visit Bar Henry and try this wine while it’s in its moment, and be sure to ask Patric the bartender-sommelier for his well-prepared and seasonally appropriate Tom and Jerry cocktail. It’s the perfect ending for an evening of wine and burgers.
Champagne + Fries = Bliss
Avid foodies, my wife and I are trying to eat our way though New York City, and on the way we have found some really interesting food and wine pairings. A recent trip to a recommended restaurant brought us the simplest—and most surprising—one yet: really good Champagne and French fries!
The night was a scattered one. As usual, we were both running a bit late from work, so we had to rush to make it to our 7:30 reservation. We arrived at the restaurant to find that our table was not quite ready yet. As we were fighting to get to the bar to ask for menus and a cocktail, it started to rain heavily. I’ve been around restaurants and New York to know that this change in weather meant we’d have to wait even longer for our table.
As we waited, chatting and watching the rain fall, my wife and I also looked over the menu carefully and watched some of the food coming out of the kitchen. We divided and conquered: my wife looked at the food menu, while I pored over the wine list. We finished at the same time, looked up at each other and said completely different things.
She said, “I’m not sure what I’m going to order: nothing is jumping at me.”
I said, “I see something jumping at me, but it is a bit out of our price range.”
As we discussed food, I thought about that bottle a bit more, and I really began to suspect that it was grossly mispriced with the error in the consumer’s favor. As our waiter took us to the table I did some quick math and said to my wife that I’d handle the ordering. The waiter asked if we had any questions about the menu. I held up the wine list and asked if the price next to my bottle of choice was a misprint. He took a look and told me that the number listed was in fact the price. I was sure he was thinking that my choice, a 1996 Salon, was a lot of money. I did some more math, looked at the rain, looked at my wife, and said, “Fine, we will take the bottle. Can we also just have an order of French fries?” The waiter said, “Of course,” and he left to get the bottle, flutes and bucket.
My wife heard the name of the wine. “Are you crazy?” she hissed as the waiter walked away. I had anticipated her objection and calmly I explained my math. I told her the Champagne was under-priced by $200, and if we order three courses and a bottle we would end up spending the same money as this meal of fries and serendipitous Champagne. She sat silently for a moment, and smiled. I knew I’d won.
When the wine came with the French fries, I discovered that it was one of the most divine pairings that Kathy and I have ever had—mostly because of that bottle of Salon. I learned three things that night. The first was that 1996 Salon is one of the best Champagnes I have ever had; the second was that waiting for a table a bit too long can lead to unbelievable menu discoveries; and the third was that there is always a good pizza place on the way home if you drink, rather than eat, your restaurant budget.keep looking »