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TAPAS TO TZAKOLI--THE RICH BOUNTY OF
Part One: San Sebastián by John Mariani
NEW YORK CORNER:
Blaue Gans by John
THE WINE CELLAR: Don Melchor
Chilean Wines Can Claim Worldwide Bragging Rights by John Mariani
TAPAS TO TZAKOLI--THE RICH BOUNTY OF BASQUE CUISINE
One: San Sebastián
by Galina Stepanoff-Dargery
might well be said that the way people eat in Spain is the way the
rest of the world is now eating. Not that Spanish foods like salt cod,
paella, and garlic soup are showing up on every global menu, but that
flavors of Spain’s cuisine—sweet peppers, beans, ham, shellfish, and
the idea of tapas—have become part of the repertoire of chefs from
Portland to Paris. Spanish wines are now considered among the finest in
the world, and the explosion of media attention given to Spain’s
“molecular cuisine” chefs led by the highly controversial Ferran
Adrià of El Bulli in Roses has made stars of Spanish chefs, even
though such experimental cooking has little to do with the way
Spaniards actually love to eat, according to revered regional
view of San Sebastián from the Hotel Maria Cristina
is this more distinctive than in
the Basque country of Northern Spain, especially in the seaside city of
San Sebastián (called Donistia in Basque) and the surging
cultural capital of Bilbao. The
Basque country, stretching from the French border westward to Cantabria
and Burgos, is only 4,500 square miles of territory, and you can’t
drive more than three hours in any direction without crossing into
another province. It is richly indebted to foods from the
(baby squid), ventresca (tuna
(turbot), gambas (shrimp), merluza (hake), kokotxas (hake cheeks), bacalao (cod), almejas, (clams), txangurro (spider-crab), cigalas (langoustines), and
the famous—and very expensive--angulas
(baby eels), found in the estuaries of the Bay of Biscay.
The farms around Gernika provide wonderful
pimientos and kidney beans, mushrooms and potatoes. The sheep’s milk
Idiazabal cheese (once smoked in chimneys) has a distinctive wild
gaminess. Spanish hams are nonpareil, and the lamb is sweet as whatever
it feeds on. Oddly enough, few restaurants in Northern Spain
serve Spanish beef; instead it is brought in from Denmark!
go to old cider
houses to drink the fresh, slightly alcoholic apple juice. And the
regional wines, including the fine red Rioja Alavesa and the sparkling
txakoli, go perfectly with hearty Basque cooking.
The easiest way to begin sampling all
these foods and wines is at the ubiquitous tapas bars, here called tascas. Most
nights in the casco viejo
(old quarter) of the
gorgeous city of San Sebastián that straddles the Bay of Biscay, the bars are packed with
locals who come to snack on tapas—here called pinchos--and to drink red
and rosé wines, cider, Mahou beer, or txakoli. The prowl from
bar to bar is called el txikiteo,
referring to the squat, wide-mouthed
glasses drinks are served in.
The array of tapas at some bars may number three dozen or more, though
most places serve perhaps a dozen, some hot, some cold, and are quite
similar from bar to bar. You always find thin, silky slices of
Spanish ham on crusty bread (good bread is a distinguishing factor
among tapas bars); scrambled eggs and mushrooms; sardines and
anchovies; stuffed pimientos; fried croquetas;
and a potato omelet
called tortilla de patata.
Everything is unstintingly fresh: in a
good tasca those pinchos made in the morning and not
consumed by the
afternoon are discarded and new ones prepared for the evening.
best way to tell a good tapas bar from a poor one among more than
500 in San Sebastián is to measure the square footage you can
manage to occupy on the floor: Anything more than one square foot means
the bar is not very popular, and jostling for a position near the bar
itself is part ritual and part endurance test.
The best tascas offer a wider
variety and several house
specialties. One of the most popular is Gandarias
Jatetxea (right; Calle
31 Calle de Agosto 23),
which serves tripe, chorizo sausage,
several types of croquetas,
some with cod and a creamy béchamel
inside, and has exclusivity to carry Spain’s finest and most expensive
ham, from the producer Joselito.
My favorite tasca is La
Cuchara de San Telmo (Calle
31 de Agosto, 28). It is
also the one with the least wiggle room, so you will find yourself
cheek to jowl with locals who point to the cold tapas on the bar or
order the hot ones of the night, which on any given might include
shredded oxtail, a risotto with blue Cabrales cheese, even
The tradition among barmen at the tascas is to pour the wines by
holding the bottle a good foot away into the txikiteo glasses, and
rarely do they ever waste a drop. You get a short pour—maybe an inch or
two, the reason being that most people eat one or two tapas, slug down
their drink, and move on. My own preference is to drink the cold, fizzy
txakoli, whose alcohol
is only about 10-11.5 percent. That way I don’t
wobble (much) down the street after my third tasca visit.
are a few more tips about bar hopping in San
There are at least a dozen tapas bars (and restaurants) along the Calle
31 de Agosto, including those named above, along with well-known
examples like La Cépa, Martinez, and La Cueva. Many others dot
the streets of old town, and every hotel will provide a map of
them. Every hotel can give you a printed map of two dozen of the most
Cold items line the bar, while hot dishes are listed on
The barman totals up the bill merely by looking at the empty plates you
return. It’s an honor
There is no tipping required in a
Smoking is still allowed in Spain’s restaurants, but many newer tascas
now post “No Smoking”
The locals tend to eat late, but not nearly as late as they do in
Madrid. Start bar hopping after 8 PM and the tascas will be swarming by
9. During the week they start to close up
around midnight, later on
Tascas tend to stay open throughout the day, so you can eat pretty much
whenever you get
Prices for most cold tapas will run about 1.60 to 1.80 euros, hot
dishes 2.40 and up. Wines by the glass, including Txakoli, cost about
1.10 to 1.40 euros.
NEXT WEEK: DRIVING AND DINING ALONG THE BASQUE COAST
by John Mariani
139 Duane Street (near
The "Blue Goose" is
the more casual TriBeCa offshoot of Chef Kurt Gutenbrunner's Wallse,
specializing in Austrian and Eastern European cuisine. It is
located in what had been the premises of Le Zinc, but not much was done
to the basic décor, retaining the walls of old posters, many
themes, few having anything to do with eastern Europe. The arched
ceiling is comforting, and right now, during the Christmas season,
there is a true jollity in the place that might make you
believe for a moment you were in Salzburg.
Wooden floors and bare wooden tables do
nothing to tamp down the noise here, which was increased by pop music
that our party of six thrice asked to be turned down: it was, then
turned back up, it was, then turned up again, and so on. So much for
taking guests' requests seriously. Conversation was not
easy from then on.
The menu is relatively short, the
winelist is too, with a decent number of Austrian
rieslings, and spätburgunders well worth trying, many under $50.
I do not mean it as either
insightful or harsh criticism to say that the food Kurtenbrunner (below) is serving here is enticing
but not very exciting. It is, in fact, quite true to its origins,
but there's not a lot to go into a reverie about when you get a nice
plate of wursts or some boiled beef with horseradish.
Nevertheless, on a cold winter's evening there was plenty to like about
this food, which is easy to share with friends.
A generous plate of baked gnocchi was lavished
with crème fraîche and chives, the dumplings tender
and nicely chewy, the sauce pretty straightforward. Excellent in
every respect was a chestnut soup "Viennese mélange" with
Armagnac-soaked prune, the faint sweetness of the nuts enhanced by
the decided sweetness of the prune and cut by the brandy. Crispy
artichokes came with Speck
smoked bacon; smoked salmon with sweet
potato rösti and arugula made for a hefty starter, under the Heute im
Angebot (daily offerings) one night. Very bland however
starter of herbed spätzle with mushrooms, corn, and Brussels
that seemed more a side dish.
The sausages, $9-$10, include
frankfurter with potato-cucumber; pork-and-veal weisswurst with a big
fat, soft pretzel; cheese-filled käsekrainer
with sauerkraut, mustard,
and horseradish; bratwurst with
the same condiments; and currywurst
with excellent French fries. Too bad these don't come as a mixed
There are two schnitzels here--the usual
pounded pork in breadcrumbs and sautéed in butter, with
potato puree, and jäger
schnitzel, with mushrooms, bacon and that
herbed spätzle from the
appetizer side. Kavalierspitz
was similar to tafelspitz--boiled
creamed spinach, root vegetables, and apple-horseradish, which was just
barely satisfying in a dull way. My favorite entree was suckling pig
with braised red cabbage and brioche dumplings. The pig was
well-fatted, the skin nice and crispy, the whole a succulent and savory
Desserts were in the Austrian
style--crisp apple strüdel with ice cream, very good one-bite
lollipops like those Bon Bons you used to (still?) get a movie
and Saltzburger nockerl us a
creamy soufflé with
If you like, you may
end off with a selection of schnapps or a glass of
Bluae Gans is, no ifs,
ands, or buts, a cozy little place in TriBeCa, and if you are in the
for Austrian comfort food, this will do the trick.
Blaue Gans is open
nightly for dinner. Appetizers run $10-$16, entrees $24-$30.
FROM THE WINE CELLAR
Don Melchor Shows Why Chilean Wines Can Claim
Worldwide Bragging Rights
by John Mariani
decade ago the wineries of Australia and New Zealand were biting huge
chunks out of the global wine market. But in the sweepstakes for the
next decade of the 21st century, I’m putting my money on Chile for
turning out excellent wines smack in the affordable $8-$15 price range:
no wonder that in 2007 imports of Chilean wine increased by 13%, with
$207 million in sales.
But it’s not just volume that drives
Chile’s success: some of the great cabernet blends are now coming out
of the country’s vineyards, including Montes Alpha “M,” Apalta,
Almaviva, and one of the very best, Don Melchor, made in the Maipo
Valley. Blessed with an isolated mountain terroir protected from pests
like phylloxera and laws to prevent the importation of any foreign
plants, the Maipo is an Eden for winemakers.
Don Melchor is named after the founder
of its parent company and Chile’s largest wine producer, Vina Concha y
Toro, which dates to 1883 and whose sales now top 6 million cases
annually, shipped to 125 countries.
Don Melchor came into being after
Concha’s enologist visited colleague Emile Péynaud, a towering
in Bordeaux who has been called the “father of modern winemaking.”
Péynaud encouraged Concha to imitate the Bordeaux style of
blended with other grapes, and Don Melchor was established in 1987 in
the foothills (650 meters high) of the Andes on 114 hectares (above).
“The soil is actually poor and stony,
with few nutrients,” Enrique Tirado, 42, (below) winemaker at Concha since
1997, told me over a beefsteak lunch at Tutta Bella restaurant in
Scarsdale, NY. “Great wines have to
suffer, and we’ve had 21 years now to improve and refine Don
Melchor. At first we used 100 percent cabernet, then added
merlot, ripped that out, and now we blend in cabernet franc.”
The grapes are picked fairly late because the
winery is in the coolest area in the valley, with a cold wind that
keeps intense heat at bay. Still, Tirado contends that global warming
is both “evident and huge” in the region, which for the foreseeable
future is actually something of a boon to cool weather terroirs.
The wines spend 14-15 months in oak
barrels, then one more year in bottle before release.
Over lunch I was able to taste six
vintages, beginning with 2001, which was still tight on first sip but
loosened up into a wine clearly identified as a Bordeaux blend, but
just as clearly as a more lush Chilean wine, warm and layered with
fruit, vanilla, and good acids.
The 2002 was very intense, but with a
radiant balance of mineral and dark fruit components, while the 2003
had the added nuance of pepper and spice. All were ready to drink
right now, but each showed a stage of development that assured me the
wines would improve for the next few years.
The consistency of flavor and style in
the earlier vintages wines was much to my liking, so I began to have
concerns when I tasted the 2004, 2005, and 2006. The more usual alcohol
level of 13.6 percent was getting bumped up. The later vintages
seemed like much bigger wines—the alcohol volume of the 2004 was a
hefty 14.5 percent—with fruit far more forward.
2004 was very concentrated and then loosened up with the ferrous taste
of the beef porterhouse; the 2005 was, at this point, too plummy for my
taste, while the 2006, though possessed of enormous fruit aromas and
taste, seemed closer to the earlier vintages’ style. I’d love to
try them all again in a year or two. I feel quite certain that the
oldest will be even finer and the youngest should come into better
focus. The 2005 costs about $69 and the 2006 about $80.
I haven’t had a chance to taste Don
Melchor earlier than these vintages, Indeed, you’d be hard put to find
many vintages older than 2004, because the wines are snapped up pretty
soon after release. Those wine shops and online wine retailers I
checked were mostly showing the 2004 and 2005, with only a very few
offering anything from the 1990s.
But it’s not just supply and
demand that drives the price of Don Melchor, which I find remarkably
modest for a cabernet sauvignon of this caliber. It’s the kind of
red wine that shows Chile cannot just deliver plenty of good wine, but
is capable of making some great ones.
Mariani's weekly wine column appears in Bloomberg Muse News,
from which this story was adapted. Bloomberg News covers Culture from
art, books, and theater to wine, travel, and food on a daily basis, and
some of its articles play on the Saturday Bloomberg Radio and TV.
IT WOULD BE EASIER JUST TO TELL US
FEATURE: I am happy to report that the Virtual Gourmet is linking up
with three excellent travel sites:
WHAT WAS CORRECT IN THE
from the New York Times Food
"An article last Wednesday about the growth of breweries
in Brooklyn referred incorrectly to Sixpoint Craft Ales, which plans to
open a bottling plant in the borough. Brooklyn Brewery has bottled beer
in Brooklyn for about two years, and Park Slope Brewing Company bottled
beer there for a few years starting in 1997; Sixpoint would not become
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article also misstated the year Brooklyn Brewery opened and omitted one
of the locations where it brews Brooklyn Brown Ale. The brewery opened
in 1988, not 1986, and the ale is brewed in Brooklyn and Utica, N.Y.,
not just Utica."
"An article last Wednesday about Kallari, an Ecuadorean
collective that grows cacao and makes chocolate, misspelled the name of
the ethnic group whose members belong to the collective. They are
Quichuas, not Quechuas. It also misstated the cost to have
the Fair Trade organization certify that the collective treats growers
fairly, a fee the collective chooses not to pay because that would mean
paying for its own beans. It is 8 cents a pound of cacao, not 10 cents.The
article also reported that “people in the chocolate industry said they
knew of no other cacao farmers who were making and marketing their own
chocolate." But after the article was published, a reader pointed out
that the owners of the Grenada Chocolate Company, on the island of
Grenada, are also local cacao growers who make chocolate."
In Waukehsa, Wisconsin, Robert Farnam was arrested after
faking a heart attack at a local Applebee’s restaurant after running up
a $32 check. He was brought to a hospital where a doctor recognized him
from a previous visit. Farnam faces a 9-month jail sentence and $10,00
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A. Curtas., who since 1995 has been commenting on the Las Vegas food
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All You Need to Know
Before You Go
MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly. Editor/Publisher: John Mariani.
Contributing Writers: Robert Mariani,
John A. Curtas, Edward Brivio, Mort
Hochstein, Suzanne Wright, and Brian Freedman. Contributing
Photographers: Galina Stepanoff-Dargery, Bobby Pirillo. Technical
Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.
John Mariani is a columnist for Esquire, Wine Spectator, Bloomberg News and
Radio, and Diversion.
He is author of The Encyclopedia
of American Food & Drink (Lebhar-Friedman), The Dictionary
of Italian Food and Drink (Broadway), and, with his wife Galina, the
award-winning Italian-American Cookbook (Harvard Common
Any of John Mariani's books below
may be ordered from amazon.com by clicking on the cover image.
newest book, written with my brother Robert Mariani, is a memoir of our
years growing up in the North
Bronx. It's called Almost
Golden because it re-visits an idyllic place and time in our
so many wonderful things seemed possible.
For those of you who don't think
the Bronx as “idyllic,” this
book will be a revelation. It’s
about a place called the Country Club area, on the shores of Pelham Bay. It was a beautiful
neighborhood filled with great friends
and wonderful adventures that helped shape our lives.
It's about a culture, still vibrant, and a place that is still almost
the same as when we grew up there.
Robert and I think you'll enjoy this
very personal look at our Bronx childhood. It is not
yet available in bookstores, so to purchase
a copy, go to amazon.com
or click on Almost Golden.
© copyright John Mariani 2008