Caron and Louis Jourdan in "Gigi" (1958)
HAPPY ST. VALENTINE'S DAY!
NEW YORK CORNER: Umberto's Clam House by John Mariani
Notes from the Wine Cellar: 25 Years of Chateau Montelena by John Mariani
WHAT'S NEW IN WASHINGTON?
by John Mariani
So this time they're really going to pass laws to prevent lobbyists from wining and dining and winning over our elected officials at Washington's most expensive restaurants! Yeah, right. Whatever fear and anxiety affected DC's restaurateurs last time the pols piddled about restricting lobbyists from such activities, the effect was zero. As many restaurateurs in the city have told me, "There are always ways around the rules."
Notice how, back in Jimmy Carter's day, they cut the expense deduction to 50 percent for entertainment and dining, and it had no effect whatsoever on lobbyists, lawyers, and corporate bigwigs taking their favorite pols out to eat. Nor did the "No-More-Than-$25-Meal" rule of the '90s do anything to cut into the business at The Palm or Galileo. (How does that work? Does the lobbyist submit a bill saying the senator had only a green salad and a glass of San Pellegrino, then charge the rest of the meal off to the rest of the table?) Karl Rove didn't get to look the way he does eating miso soup at his desk. So don't expect there to be mass closings of restaurants in Washington in the near future. Rules made by politicians are crafted to bend to fit their greed.
Lucky for the rest of us, Washington's restaurant scene is as lively as ever, with fine new dining options, one of which is run by the same Passion Food restaurant group that has given the city the estimable DC Coast, Ceiba, and Ten Penh. Now, across from the convention center, comes Acadiana (901 New York Avenue, N.W.; 202-408-8848; www.acadianarestaurant.com), a Louisiana-style restaurant that opened right around the time Hurricane Katrina hit, which caused the principals of Passion Food immediately to start raising money for the devastated area--$27,000 on po' boy sales the day they opened.
Acadiana is not attempting to go the wobbly route of all those restaurants of the 1980s that tried to capitalize on the rage for Cajun food as popularized by bayou-born chef Paul Prudhomme at K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen in New Orleans. Almost all of those copycats faded fast, few of them having a clue what Cajun or Louisiana cooking was really about beyond "blackened redfish" and badly made jambalaya. The guys at Passion Food have done their homework, eating around Louisians--30 restaurants in seven days--sopping up as much food as food culture. They came back with the real deal, and at Acadiana are doing what I believe is the closest facsimile to the cooking of New Orleans and Louisiana I've encountered outside of the state.
Granted, seven days of research is no substitute for being steeped in a food culture, but pastry chef David Guas is a New Orleans native, Exec Chef Jeff Tunks worked for four years in Louisiana, and Chef de cuisine Scott Clime has roots in the South, born in Virginia with working stints in restaurants in South Carolina before joining Passion Foods. Now at Acadiana, he and the others seem to have mastered many of the techniques and approaches to the food of the Gulf, depending on the best regional ingredients he can find.
I can't say the dining room itself (above) reminds me much of any I've seen in New Orleans, with only a few touches and motifs that would suggest the design is inspired by the French Quarter dining rooms or small neighborhood restaurants. The bar area is (below, right) is handsome (with its own menu), and some of the tables in the rear, semi-private rooms have a bit of bayou imagery, but not much else. Nevertheless, what's on the plate here is respectful towards a cookery that is not so much sacrosanct as it is downhome good. Hell, you can readily get into a fierce argument in New Orleans as to just what constitutes a good gumbo or bread pudding, not to mention the socio-gastro-historical bases for Creole and Cajun cooking.
Just as the cooking has lightened up considerably in New Orleans over the past decade, so too the cooking at Acadiana eschews some of the lard-ier aspects of the cuisine, and there's definitely better presentation of many of the old traditional dishes that have always come on cheap china with paper napkins. And since winemaking hasn't really progressed much in Louisiana, Acadiana depends on an international list with a lot of sturdy reds, and several fine white wines under $40, although it might be argued that cold beer goes better with some of the food here.
One of the biggest surprises here is presented as soon as you sit down--a basket of the best biscuits I've ever have, big buttery ones, addictive on their own or for wiping your plate clean. If you're feeling dainty, you might order the deviled eggs (left) topped with crabmeat ravigote, shrimp rémoulade, and choupique roe, but I wouldn't want to miss the smoked chicken and andouille gumbo or the rich turtle soup splashed with sherry. There is also a platter of fried green tomatoes with the lagniappe of spice-boiled shrimp rémoulade.
Portions are generous enough to share almost everything on the menu, and sharing is a good way to go with food that encourages everyone at the table to taste it, from jumbo lump crabcakes with pickled okra, mirliton, and roasted corn relish to "barbecued" shrimp in plenty of peppery garlic butter and a shot of Worcestershire sauce. There's a crawfish bisque so rich, served with crawfish hushpuppies and Louisiana rice, that it, too, is listed as a main course, and for those who love Gulf fish, the grilled redfish with a seafood jambalaya risotto and smoked red bell pepper sauce is masterfully cooked. Grillades and grits is an item you don't see that often in New Orleans any more, and few do it well; Acadiana does it very well--sautéed medallions of flavorful veal with creamy grits lavished with jalapeño bits and sauced with wild mushroom gravy.
You just know they are not going to skimp on desserts here, from an ultra-decadent praline crème brûlée and warm white chocolate bread pudding with salted macadamia nut ice cream and butter rum sauce to bananas Foster and terrific, airy beignets with chicory pot de crème.
Food like this proves that Louisiana cuisine can indeed travel well, if the care for the ingredients and the appreciation for the traditions is adhered to day after day. Acadiana doesn't want to be a flash in the pan or on the tail end of a played-out trend. It intends to set some standards for an elusive cookery that should have a wider audience outside its home.
At dinner appetizers run $7-$14, main courses $21-$27.
As hard as I try to get to every new, significant restaurant in the U.S., the task is obviously impossible. Which is why I missed Restaurant Eve (110 South Pitt Street; 703-706-0450; click) when it opened in 2004 in Alexandria, VA, to great local acclaim. Now that I have visited, I'm happy to agree. Indeed, Eve is one of those restaurants that have about them the aura of personality and professional intensity, along with a commitment to doing everything as well as they possibly can to please the greatest number of people.
In that respect Eve is actually two restaurants, a 34-seat "Chef's Tasting Room" (left) and the adjacent "Bistro," both set within a charming 200-year-old historic former warehouse. Here Dublin-born Chef-owner Cathal Armstrong and his wife Meshelle (below) have created a very personalized style of dining, showcasing in the Tasting Room what they call "Modern American Cooking with Classical French Influences," a description that these days would fit about 4,000 restaurants in the U.S. Yet for lack of a better moniker, I'll go along with it, and feel confident you will taste the difference between Eve and the other 3,999 by sampling either the five-- or nine-course ($110) prix fixe menus here, with wine pairings for an additional $55 for both menus.
At the age of 22 Mr. Armstrong was owner of a Dublin restaurant named Baytree before coming to the U.S., where he began cooking at well-regarded restaurants like New Heights, Vidalia, and Bistro Bis before opening Eve.
Both rooms marry the genteel architectural traditions of Alexandria with excellent modern lighting and good polish in rooms with brick fireplaces, iron-and-glass skylights encased in cherry wood, and colors chosen to evoke the Garden of Eden, where, as Byron observed, "Since Eve ate apples, much depends on dinner." Incidentally, the restaurant is named after the Armstrongs' daughter.
The upscale Bistro (below), with 120 seats, where I have not yet dined, is designed to appeal to the neighborhood, with the kind of every-night classics people crave, like bouillabaisse, braised shortribs, salt cod fritters with rémoulade sauce, Prime ribeye with potato galette and lima beans, salt-baked prawns, and confit of cured pork belly with cannellini beans and tomato. Prices there range from $12-$14.50 for starters and $25-$30 for main courses.
The admirable thing about the 5-course menu in the Chef's Tasting Room is that while the price is fixed, you are not held to specific dishes; there are six options for the first course alone and 4 different desserts. The entitling of each course with New Age-y names like "Creation," "Ocean," "Earth and Sky," "Age" and "Eden" seems a precious conceit ("Age" constitutes a selection of cheeses and foie gras is tossed in with "Creation"). Since there were four people at my table, I got to taste a wide array of dishes in each category, beginning with an amuse of scallops graced with white truffles, a delectable idea, but one compromised by the addition of caviar that made it all taste fishy. Of the first courses I was delighted with a baby leek custard tart and a lobster crème brûlée with baby fennel and a tarragon vinaigrette. There was a slightly heavy hand with salt in the kitchen the night I dined at Eve that overpowered some excellent sashimi with sweet basil and acorn squash and an otherwise delicious starter of foie gras en croûte with fig jam (with a very hefty $25 supplement).
The seafood ("Ocean") courses included superb butter-poached lobster with baby fennel and tarragon and an even better olive oil-poached escolar with fingerling potatoes and smoked ham vinaigrette--a dish of impressive countervailing but complementary flavors and textures. Gnocchi, a bit soft, came with oven-dried tomatoes and arugula (none of which, as far as I know, came from the ocean). On the other hand, a fine, sweet pumpkin risotto with rich Saint André cheese fell into the "Earth and Sky" category, as did excellent, full-flavored wild Scottish pheasant with "Cheddar cheese cauliflower" and pears. Good, though salty that evening, was braised beef tripe with merguez sausage, a very rich but surprisingly not particularly heavy dish. I applaud the courage to serve tripe in any American restaurant.
Next came an array of artisanal cheeses, then desserts: a stunningly good upside-down pineapple cake with coconut sorbet, a dark chocolate warm soufflé, and lovely figs with honey and ricotta custard. It was quite a meal, so that the idea of nine courses, though smaller in portions, strikes me as too much of a good thing and something of an endurance test. I cannot think of a reason any meal should exceed four to five courses.
Eve's winelist is solid and building, currently with about 180 labels, including a section called "Chef Armstrong's Favorites" composed of wines from Domaine Zum-Humbrecht, as well as a selection called "Picaresque Reds," many under $50, all tended by manager/sommelier Todd Thrasher, who is nothing if not enthusiastic about his dominion (meaning he goes on a bit long about this or that bottle). But he knows his stuff and obviously loves what he does, as seems evident of everyone on the staff at Eve, a singular, very personalized, very serious, and very fine restaurant.
NEW YORK CORNER
by John Mariani
Umberto's Clam House
2356 Arthur Avenue
I was not particularly disappointed by my dinner at Umberto's Clam House in the Bronx because I didn't go expecting very much. In fact, I probably wouldn't have visited at all had it not been for the restaurant's legendary name, not for its food but for its notoriety: Back in 1972, when the original Umberto's opened in Little Italy, mobster Joey Gallo was gunned down there, and in a weird way that incident has ever since made the restaurant a requisite tourist stop in the area, so that , Umberto's has had to put up with busloads of idiots coming in to ask if the place is safe to eat in, if they have a table with their backs to the wall, and which of the guests are Mafia wiseguys.
All of which is patently ridiculous, as if mobsters regularly rub each other out in restaurants all over town. The fact is, since the Gallo incident in 1972, only two other bad guys ate their last meals at NYC restaurants--Paul Castellano at Sparks Steak House in 1985, and a low-level goombah named Albert Circelli at Rao's in Harlem in 2004. That's three restaurant murders in 34 years, and, as all the stats now show, NYC is one of the safest cities in America.
Nevertheless, the absurd aura lives on at Umberto's, and I thought a visit to its one and only branch, opened a few months ago in the Belmont section of the Bronx, might help change a few opinions as to why anyone should eat there. Unfortunately, Umberto's won't do much to change opinion. Four of us dined there on a Sunday evening and ordered extensively from the large menu, which is not by a long shot devoted wholly to seafood. It occupies the space that was a former live poultry market, then a pizzeria, and they've done a nice job with the casual decor in what is one long room. It has a vaguely maritime look, there's a big open kitchen, a bar to the rear, and at least three widescreen TV screens, usually turned to ESPN.
I never judge service on the basis of one visit, but that night at least, it was, shall we say, lax in every quarter. We had to flag the waitresses down, there were problems finding the wine we ordered, and other mishaps, but nothing actually to ruin the evening. The food did that, starting with spongy, seeded Italian bread--this on a block with several outstanding Italian bakeries--which gives an indication of how widely they seem to cut the corners at Umberto's.
We started off with what was truthfully described as a "huge" platter of fried seafood ($29.95)--scungilli, shrimp, flounder, and calamari--which was pretty standard issue, although the scallops were woefully overcooked to rubber. It came with crisp crinkle-cut (i.e., frozen) French fries. Baked clams ($10.95), though pretty burnt on the top, went over well with two out of the four at our table. The clams were not overcooked and not too bready. A New England clam chowder ($6.95), which you'd think a place like this would have down pat, was sludgy, floury, pasty and lacking in flavor. A Caesar salad ($10.95) was all right, if nothing out of the ordinary.
There are 21 pasta dishes listed, several with a marinara sauce unlikely to win any points in this Italian neighborhood. Linguine with clam sauce ($17.95) was close to inedible, the pasta way undercooked (not just al dente, way undercooked), as were the rubbery clams, and the garlic burned and bitter. There was something likable in a homey, Sunday afternoon-family way about a big portion of lasagna ($17.95), with plenty of ground meat and lavished with mozzarella.
For a place that attaches the word "CLAM" to its name, it is telling that the forlorn display case of lobsters and seafood on ice (left) was composed of little more than a few crab legs and shellfish. The only fish offerings on the menu--with no "daily catch and no indication from the waitresses that it was ever any different from night to night--were completely boring: flounder, salmon, and tilapia. Right next store is the wonderful Cosenza's fish market, where you can buy everything from fresh shrimp and branzino to octopus and eel, none of which seems to make it onto the menu at Umberto's. You can get lobsters here, from 1 1/2 pounds ($26.95) to three ($55.95). I ordered flounder with simple garlic, oil, and lemon ($22.95), and it was tasteless.
Of the meat dishes, we tried veal parmigiana ($21.95) no better or worse than you'd get at the average pizzeria anywhere in America, and a pork chop with vinegar peppers ($18.95), inundated with a thick, pasty tomato sauce, so tough we had trouble sawing through it--the tar baby of pork chops: the knife goes in but it doesn't easily come out.
Needless to say, we no longer had an inclination to order dessert here, which runs to the usual cheesecake, tartufo, and tiramisù. Curiously enough they list both "ice cream" and "gelato."
The winelist is composed entirely of very commercial bottlings, displayed in a book with photos of the labels, including cordials like Sambuca. Prices are fair enough, although a second, un-ordered bottle appeared on our check (promptly removed upon our alerting our waitress). The staff also has a disconcerting habit of pouring the entire bottle into people's glasses at one go.
It's really too bad Umberto's seems only to be going through the motions here. There's no reason that with better ingredients and more careful cooking, it couldn't be a good Italian seafood restaurant, if never a fine one. There's a lot better food on Arthur Avenue within a few steps to make anyone consider Umberto's a destination.
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
A 25-Year Retrospective of Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernets
by John Mariani
I really thought that tasting every vintage of a single estate from three decades would allow me to make some profound statements about that estate’s wines. But after sipping 25 cabernet sauvignon vintages of the illustrious
What the tasting demonstrated was that the wines of any estate, even respected, well-established ones like Chateau Montelena, can change so significantly over the years that judging more than a single vintage may well be futile. One can certainly say that Chateau Montelena produces full-bodied cabernet sauvignons at a consistent level of quality, but not much more.
The winery itself, two miles north of Calistoga and at the base of Mount St. Helena, dates back to 1882 but was abandoned for decades before lawyer Jim Barrett bought and restored the property in 1972, winning early acclaim for his chardonnay. With the 1981 vintage Barrett’s son Bo took over as winemaker and focused on a 100% Estate Grown Cabernet Sauvignon. (They also continue to make fine chardonnay, zinfandel, and riesling.)
“There are three kinds of winemakers: The artiste, the scientist, and the farmer,” says the mustachioed Bo Barrett, who looks like he’d be happier driving a tractor than speaking to
The changes over three decades have had as much to do with mundane factors as buying better de-stemmers as with the soil and weather. “In the early years the de-stemmers just chewed everything up, and that affected flavors.” said Barrett, “but the modern ones are much gentler on the vines.” He also made a strong point that, despite
In fact, Barrett set up the
In 1985 ideal weather led to wines of balance and finesse. In 1990 drought conditions reduced yields by 50% and led to a light crop of light wines. In 1998 a rainy spring and summer gave way to warm ripening weather in October, concentrating the grapes’ juices and sugars, making for big, rich, ripe wines.
With such variations, then, producing a wine that exhibits the same power and finesse year after year is impossible. After tasting my way through 25 of the Chateau’s wines, it became evident that there were some great years—I loved in particular 1983, 1984, 1989, 1994, 1995, 1997, 1998, 1999—though there was much variation among them. The 1983 was more like a fine second growth
What was most surprising was the number of wines that had either faded into oxidation (including the vaunted 1985) or, like the 1988, suffered from corkiness. Ironically, the oldest wine tasted—1978—was only a tad tired but still bold, vivid, and rounded.
The problem in assessing such wines is in not knowing if only the bottles tasted that day were tainted or if all the bottles from that vintage suffered the same fate. Barrett admitted that there was plenty of bottle variation in the tasting, which makes any assertions about one bottle or the other of the older vintages risky.
In the end I came away delighted to have tasted some great wines from a great estate. I also was puzzled that rancid, dead bottles had even made it to the tasting. But my main thoughts were on how to make sense of them all. In the end, I decided that the only sensible thing to say is that no one should believe numerical ratings based on a single tasting by one individual. Too many factors enter into such finite judgments, so watch out for those who would make them and trust your own palate to decide.
TONIGHT WE CELEBRATE OUR LOVE. HOW'S TACO BELL SOUND, BABE?
According to National Restaurant Association research, Valentine's Day is the second most popular day of the year to dine out with more than one-third of Americans visiting a restaurant. (The most popular day to dine out is Mother's Day.) Of those who dine out on Valentine's Day, 80 percent spend less than $100 on their meal, with an average of $62. Only 20 percent spend more than $100.
WRITING 101: LESSON 87.
“With a name like
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* Commander’s Palace Las Vegas unveils the Museum of the American Cocktail in Las Vegas on March 5 at a party that continues throughout the year with a bash for the Two Hundredth Anniversary of the cocktail in May and the First Annual American Cocktail Awards on May 13. Founded in late 2004 by Dale DeGroff, the Museum is the world’s first organization devoted to the American cocktail. The first dinner is on March 7 with Dale DeGroff. The next in the series will be on April 13, followed by a class on April 14 with Tony Abou-Ganim on “How to Make Classic Cocktails at Home.” $100 pp. For more info call 702.892.8272 or visit www.commanderspalace.com
* On March 4 the
* From May 9-21, food writers Jane Butel and Gerry Dawes will lead a food and wine tour of
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