This piece was originally commissioned by American online magazine who, on receipt of said piece, produced a tightly-typed six-page freelancer contract with words like ‘power of attorney’ (eh?), ‘indemnification’ (wah?), waiving of moral rights (a big no no for freelancers, see here for why), a statement that they could reject any commissioned piece without payment (er… no), and other choice phrases.
Life’s too short to sign contracts you feel queasy about. So here’s the piece, free for your perusal instead. Happy drinking!
It’s all wine to me…
It happens to the best of us. You’re peacefully perusing the menu – you’ve narrowed down the starters, had a minor tussle over the mains (“Come on, people, we can’t all order the sea bass”), and are now engaged in a pleasant daydream concerning the dessert menu – when a waitress, all tip-hungry smiles, makes her stealthy approach. Would you like anything to drink?
Ah. You look around wildly. There, in the middle of the table, sits a leather-bound tome worthy of George R. R. Martin himself. For some unknown reason, your friends/partner/date are looking at you expectantly. The cowards.
You look up at the waitress. “Can you give us a minute?”
An ice age might be more useful, you think, as you pick up the wine list with both hands, trying not to strain your lower back.
You riffle through the thick pages. Names, countries, vintages, all fly past. You might as well be reading the Slovenian telephone directory. Eagles Eye, Chateau Pants-de-Cotton, Blue Jean Valley, 2012. Is it a grape? It is a plane? Is it a flying winemaker? You wish you’d paid more attention back in Geography class.
By now, you’re dying for a drink.
It doesn’t seem fair. You’re a moderate wine lover. (Moderate in knowledge, that is. The less said about last Thursday night’s debacle, the better.) You know your Chardonnay from your Merlot; you know Napa is a region, not someone who’s perennially dozy. But faced with a list like this, you have the sudden urge to turn teetotal.
But here’s the dirty little secret: almost everyone finds wine lists a bit of a nightmare. Only those who work in the wine trade, or own cellars large enough to require a GPS map, can claim even partial mastery over an average restaurant wine list.
So how can you, the average wine drinker, expect to choose from dozens (or hundreds) of wines that you don’t know the slightest thing about?
Continue reading Dragon Drinks: Newbie Guide to Ordering Wine in Restaurants »
Finding your way to Grain Store sounds simple enough: get yourself to the road that runs between St. Pancras International and King’s Cross, and walk north until you hit the snazzied-up Regent’s Canal and a set of pavement-level fountains designed to soak absent-minded tourists.
Only problem is, the amount of recent building work at King’s Cross means that the station layout seems to change every five minutes, so your best bet is to get out into fresh air and grab a passing arty-looking student and ask them the way to Central St. Martins, housed in the same building — incidentally, a grand old brick storehouse which used to store, yup you-got-it, grain.
At first, the menu at Grain Store — is it me, or does the name cry out for a long-lost ‘The’? – appears worryingly vegetarian. There’s an abundance of words like ‘chamomile braised heritage carrots’, ‘cauliflower ‘couscous” and the thoroughly wholesome-sounding ‘bean & pototo salad’. Sprouting seeds, millet and ‘multi-grain porridge’ also make appearances befitting of the restaurant’s name.
But carnivores, fear not. After a careful reading, various seafoods and meats can be picked out of the jumble of multi-ethnic combinations. There’s squid, hake, roast rabbit saddle, even some lamb. In fact, only two of the eleven main dishes are vegetarian, and only one of these vegan: the somewhat unexcitingly named ‘chilli con veggies with mixed grain rice, sour cream’. The meat is there; you just have to wade through a long list of vegetables to get to it.
Continue reading TigerBites: Grain Store, King’s Cross »
Hurrah of the week for this Thirsty Dragon: I came runner-up, along with Mike of Wine Philosophy, at the Young Wine Writer Award 2013, sponsored by Pavilion Books and in association with the Circle of Wine Writers and Wine Australia.
Congrats to Mike, and of course the winner Hugh, who won a two-week wine tasting trip “of a lifetime” to Australia with his piece on busking to save up for a very expensive bottle of wine.
You can read Mike’s piece here and Hugh’s piece here. And, should you want to read mine, I’ve supressed the urge to edit it further and pasted it below. Happy wine week, all! Continue reading Young Wine Writer Award 2013 »
Wish this was my mantlepiece at home.
Wine education is a lot like high school education. The only way to teach complicated things is to re-express them as simple things which are, you later find out, actually wrong. Quite a bit wrong.
But it’s still worth wrapping your head around these untruths, just so that the slightly-more-true untruths that you learn the next year will make bit more sense. (At least, that’s what my friends who made it through to A-level sciences tell me.)
So, at wine school, you learn the untruth that Chablis is unoaked Chardonnay. The truth: “Many Grand Cru and Premier Cru [Chablis] wines receive some maturation in oak barrels, but typically the time in barrel and the proportion of new barrels is much smaller than for white wines of Côte de Beaune.” (Source: Wikipedia, citing Jancis Robinson.)
You learn that Rioja’s vanilla notes come courtesy of American oak. The truth: “In recent times, more bodegas have begun using French oak and many will age wines in both American and French oak for blending purposes.” (Source: Wikipedia, citing Jancis Robinson. Again.)
And recently, I had the chance to overturn another untruth: that the Champagne region makes their high-acidity cool-climate grapes into sparkling wines because they taste rather awful as still wines.
Truth: after tasting the various base wines that go into making the Moët & Chandon Rosé Impérial NV, I had to concede that they were actually rather scrumptious. The acidity was high, for sure, but there was ample fruit in the young base wines, and gentle complexity in the older vin de réserve.
Three of the several base wines and the final (still) assemblage blend
Unfortunately, due to a French air strike — aside: I thought someone was bombing France when I heard this, until it turned out to be a typically French case of la grève – the white base wines didn’t make it to London for the tasting, but the pinot meunier (which makes up around 10% of the final blend as a red wine) and pinot noir (again making up 10% of the final blend as a red wine) were definitely pleasing and rather intriguing.
The other untruth combatted by Benoît Gouez, Chef de Cave at Moët since 2005, was the relative lack of regard we (or I?) generally have for non-vintage Champagne. We’re told: they blend over the years to ensure ‘consistency’ — a word we associate with mass production, conveyor belts and the decidely non-artisan.
Yet, come to think of it, a mark of a great restaurant is the ability to perform consistency at the very peak of culinary effort. Perhaps we should extend the same acknowledgement to NV Champagne. The ability to produce a consistent blend, three times a year (at Moët), through the up-and-down years of frankly nail-biting weather in northern France, is no mean feat.
Hats off to them, then.
We also had the chance to taste the Grand Vintage Rosé 2004 and the non-available (I think) Moët Grand Vintage Collection Rosé 1990 in magnum.
Which backed up one of the few truths we did learn in wine school. That vintage champagne, rosé or not, is really rather special.
It probably says something about my over-developped cynicism gland that, having been invited to one of the Innocent Inspires talks — runby those funky smoothie-sloshing folks at Innocent Drinks — on the subject of ‘Good Taste’, I expected to have a good time, be fed, but I didn’t really expected to be inspired.
As much as I admire chefs (Florence Knight and Ollie Dabbous, though sadly the latter did not feed us), supper clubs (the irreverant MsMarmiteLover), jellymongering (Sam Bompas of Bompas & Parr) and whatever ‘food design’ is (half-French half-American Emilie Baltz, who fed us ripe figs and made us sniff vanilla with ear plugs in), none of these are key inspirations in my life.
And yet. Bit by bit, the speakers opened up to the crowd and, lo and behold, inspiration reaches its wafting tendrils into the night. Here’s some nuggets from the evening:
1. Have Fun
It was highly obviously listening to MsMarmiteLover that she has bags and bags of fun. Oodles of fun. Whether foraging (“I’ve actually got food out of bins” – this story wasn’t, I think, related to her supperclubs), dissing Italy (“A sea of good taste beige”) or increasing her guests’ waistlines (“I’m a feeder”), she’s having a good time. And doing things a bit differently while she’s at it. Which makes things even more fun.
2. Go Ahead and Bite Off More Than You Can Chew
Bompas & Parr (jellymongers extraordinaire) wouldn’t be where they are today without buckets of ingenuity, a ridiculously zany sense of fun, and the audacity to wing it whenever the situation calls for it. From saying yes to catering a twelve-person Victorian breakfast (with no catering experience), offering to make ‘anything’-shaped jellies (without knowing anything really about jelly) and almost accidentally selling 2000 tickets to a jelly exhibition, these boys have gotten themselves into situations that would shoot a normal person’s stress levels sky-high and gotten out the other end covered in praise and glory (and jelly).
As that sports brand says: Just Do It.
3. Believe in Yourself, and Others Will Too. (And, When Called For, Tell Very Big White Lies.)
Ollie Dabbous, as he tells it, had no backers, no restaurant site, and nothing to show for his 10 year ‘working like a dog’ climbing the cheffing ladder. Humble wasn’t working, his business plan wasn’t getting him anywhere. Then one day, he finds a great restaurant site. He puts in an offer, without a single backer (Lie No. 1). He does the rounds of the most slightly-interested potential backers, claiming to have most of the money in the bank, he just needs their input too (Lie No. 2). A few days to go, he raises over half a million quid, and gets his site. The rest is history (with a very long waiting list).
He wasn’t afraid to fail. “If you look at what your competitors are doing, you’ll only ever be a little bit better.” Get outside that box and think.
As Thomas Edison said: “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” But we all still need that one percent in our lives.
So what are you waiting for?
It took me a long time to put two and two together and realise that the restaurant ‘Barbooloo‘ that everyone kept going on about and Daniel Boulud could possibly be linked. I’d read his short book Letters to a Young Chef while at cook school and was suitably in awe of this veteran Frenchman-made-good-in-NYC.
Bar Boulud, the London outpost of his NYC bistro of the same name, is famous in foodie circles for one thing: the BB burger. Here’s how the website describes it:
beef patty, foie gras
red wine braised short ribs
truffle, frisée, horseradish mayonnaise
confit tomato, black onion seed bun
‘Nuff said, really.
Continue reading TigerBites: Bar Boulud, Knightsbridge »
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. In the case of some food blogs, this equation is a bit of a moot point, when the pictures are so blurry / orange / flash-exposed that you feel sorry for the chef, and the words are a listing of What-I-Ate peppered with adjectives in the vein of ‘delicious’, ‘tasty’, ‘yum’ and ‘nom-ilicious’.
Previously tiny sushi bar Sushi of Shiori has re-opened in a new incarnation, The Shiori, with at least double the seats and a rather elegant minimalist interior. The menu has been completely reworked, with just two evening kaiseki menus (for £65 or £105), and a choice of three lunch menus. We opted for the Mini Kaiseki Set (£50) for lunch.
Suffice to say, it looked absolutely beautiful and tasted just as good.
Highlights: soy sauce made by the chef himself, winter soup with monkfish in a delicate broth, lightly grilled oyster with red miso dengaku, top-notch sushi including melt-in-the-mouth scallops and home-made smoked tea (hojicha) ice-cream.
Give yourself plenty of time to linger over the meal’s delights – we were there for 2.5 hours – and don’t eat too big a breakfast.
The prices are definitely in the special-occasion bracket (for us outside the gilded 1%), but nicely exceed expectations. Can’t wait to return.
45 Moscow Road
London W2 4AH
020 7221 9790
I do like a good offer. And what could be better than a wine club, voted National Wine Merchant of the Year (2012 & 2011), which I’ve been meaning to join for ages, offering half-price lifetime membership if you join before 31st December 2012?
I hastened over to www.thewinesociety.com to buy my ‘share’ in this co-operative company whose aim is ‘to buy wines direct from growers to ensure their authenticity and quality and to offer them to members at fair prices’.
I joined up, and waited a few days for my welcome pack and £20 to be credited to my shiny new account.
The small print that’s not (as far as I could see) on the site:
- You have to use up your £20 in the first three months. No biggie.
- A nice surprise: you also get free delivery orders of 6 bottles or more for the first six months. (Usual free delivery conditions are 12 or more bottles or an order of £75+.)
I had to pick up my pack from the Post Office, as it was slightly too large to fit through my under-sized mail slot.
Given the 6 bottles delivery offer, I decided to delve into the cheaper (okay, near cheapest) end of the Society’s offerings, on the look-out for some solid ‘every day’-type wines — you know, the type you pop open with a bowl of pasta, or for a large group of self-professed non-wine-lovers (“I really can’t tell the difference, apart from red and white”) when you know you’ll still have to drink the stuff you brought along.
Here’s what I ended up with:
- The Society’s White Burgundy (£7.50) — I picked four wines from the Society’s ‘own’ range, which are chosen to be a ‘pleasure to drink, classic in style, reliable and, above all, good value for money’
- The Society’s Rioja Crianza (£6.95)
- The Society’s Vin D’Alsace (£7.95)
- The Society’s Ruppertsberg (£6.25) — 55% silvaner and 45% riesling.
- Bordeaux Rouge, Special Wine Society Bottling, 2010 (£7.25) — a 50/50 merlot/cabernet sauvignon blend, from the blockbuster 2010 vintage.
- Etna Rosso Fondo Filara 2009 Nicosia (£10.95) — the only sub-£15 bottle from the Trophy and Gold-medal winning wines from the recent Decanter World Wine Awards. Skates on next year, people.
That’s Christmas sorted.
Any recommendations from other members and/or thoughts on the Society’s Exhibition range?