Wine Lesson #12 – Gewürz-a-what?

We’re in the midst of quite a hot summer, and don’t we all occasionally feel the need to reach for a cool, refreshing glass of white wine?  My question is, though, what do you usually reach for in these most dire and critical of circumstances?  Chardonnay?  Sauvignon Blanc?  Perhaps even a Riesling?  My, how adventurous of you!

Well, after this brief lesson I hope you’ll add one more delicious, though difficult to pronounce white wine varietal to your summer list.  Behold: Gewürztraminer!  It’s a mouthful, I know, but let’s break it down: gah-vurts-trah-mee-ner.  Or, even easier, you can call it Gewürz for short (all the cool people do it).

Why is the Gewürz grape so interesting that I’m writing an entire lesson on it?  Well, for starters, variety is the spice of life and limiting your wine spectrum is truly a gastronomic crime–there’s a whole world of new experiences just waiting for you!  More to the point, though, Gewürz is an excellent summer wine because its primary aroma is lychee, that delicious Asian fruit that is becoming a de rigueur ingredient for hip New York mixologists.

Gewürz is German for “spicy”, and it truly doesn’t disappoint: be prepared for a rich, spicy white with a mouth-filling texture that is reminiscent of the buttery richness of a Chardonnay while remaining light on the tongue like a Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc.  It also lends itself well to thirst-quenching summer libations because of its low acidity and high alcohol.

Gewurz grapesBy now I’m sure you’re saying to yourself: well, yea Mark, that all sounds  good, but when I’m chugging 4-7 bottles of wine every couple days just to stay sane this summer, how can I afford such a wildly exotic grape?  You’re right that Gewürz is exotic (it’s native to the Alsace region of France), but you’re wrong about the price.

The best part about Gewürz is that because it’s relatively undiscovered, or at least under-hyped, the prices are quite reasonable for the amazing quality you’re getting in each bottle.  Expect to pay only between $10 and $20 for a quality bottle, but also expect to search a little longer for it than you would for your fallback butterball Chardonnay.  Trust me, though, it’ll be worth it.

Mark posted this on August 4, 2008 in Quips n' Tips and it has no comments |

Wineworks — indeed it does

Wineworks for Everyone 
26342 Oso Parkway
Mission Viejo, CA 92691
(949) 582-0026

I’ve always envisioned myself living in a cozy neighborhood with a local wine bar which I can walk to, relax, perhaps listen to some jazz, and pass the time with some small but delicious morsels.  Unfortunately, such an idyllic establishment rarely presents itself in the cultural desert that is Orange County.  Walking is impossible, and "neighborhood" is such a loosely defined term that it loses basically all meaning.

I was pleasantly surprised, then, when I found out that a new wine store, bar, and bistro opened just down the road from my house.  Pinch me, I must be dreaming!  But it was no dream–Wineworks has managed to firmly establish itself in a niche I wasn’t aware Orange County could provide for.  It is at once a small, personalized wine store, a local wine bar with countless wines by the glass, and a delightfully cozy bistro with precious few tables but overflowing hospitality.

Looking out towards the storefront

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Mark posted this on August 3, 2008 in Restaurants and it has no comments |

All those restaurants…

Today, dearest loyal readers, you bear witness to the commencement of my newest ambitious endeavor: cataloging every restaurant I have ever visited.  Yes, the list will grow long and unruly, and yes, it is both excessive and perhaps unnecessary, but I see it both as a way to share my broader adventures that I’m unable to write in detail about with you, as well as for my own memory, or lack thereof.

In my initial list, you can find all restaurants I’ve traveled to as of today going back about five years in four convenient geographic locations: Orange County, New York, Providence, and France.  I’m only listing restaurants where the average bill per person amounts to more than $15 per person, because there’s no way I’m listing all the In-’n-Outs and Wahoo’s I’ve been to.  Sorry.  Also, I hereby charge you readers with a solemn duty: if you’ve been to a restaurant with me that is not listed, you must notify me in a comment post-haste and forthwith!

You can find the list in the navigation bar as a new page named “Restaurants” at the top of BlackNapkin.org next to Photos, or you can click here to be brought there directly.  Enjoy!

Mark posted this on July 28, 2008 in Manningham's Jabs and it has no comments |

An afternoon of tea and crumpets

I’m half British, so it should come as no surprise to any of you that I’m a big fan of afternoon tea.  I love allowing a pause during those otherwise frantically busy days to relax and enjoy a good cup of tea and miniature-sized foods.  Today, in celebration of my mom’s birthday (again), I ventured to the St. Regis hotel for their once-a-week afternoon tea buffet–yes, you heard me right, an afternoon tea buffet. Strange, I know, but it was eye-opening.

Afternoon tea usually consists of a selection of small, light sandwiches, scones with jam, jelly, and clotted cream, then some assortment of cakes and pastries.  Sometimes I take issue with afternoon tea service because the sandwiches are typically my favorite part yet you may only get one chance to choose just a handful.  Not being able to choose your exact quantity when it comes to finger foods is a bit annoying, but another quandary I often face is timing.

A relaxing afternoon break should ideally be set at a leisurely pace, but as restaurants do I’ve been rushed through my sandwiches and scones much to my chagrin.  Fortunately, a buffet fixes all that: you choose what you want, when you want it, and how long to wait in between courses.  Unfortunately, though, I have little to no self-control, so I plow through those sandwiches and sweets like there’s no tomorrow.  I’m not a model student when it comes to learning the art of pacing a languorous meal, but you see my point.

I’m happy to report that the St. Regis did not disappoint at all.  Beginning with the sandwiches, there were six different types and all of them were as good or better than any I’ve had elsewhere.  The cucumber with creme fraiche and dill was my favorite, followed by the roast beef (though it was well-done and a bit dry) and the salmon (the bread could have been more complimentary to the fish).  All were classics, so the smiling face of innovation did not make an appearance, but afternoon tea isn’t really about innovation is it?  It’s a classic experience on the face of it, and should remain so through its soul.

Breaking from tradition, though, the St. Regis did have an assortment of salads that were quite out of place (caprese and Waldorf salads come to mind), as well as hummus (always good) and spring rolls (what?).  The food quality was excellent across the board, but since the St. Regis has a well-attended and absolutely fantastic Sunday brunch with all of those items, I question their choice to include the seemingly random assortment of Sunday food along with the classic Saturday afternoon tea.  Pick a theme and stick with it, I say.  If I wanted shrimp and dumplings, I would come on Sunday.

I must say that it was an interesting dynamic to be able to serve myself my small sandwiches and scones, since the foundation upon which afternoon tea is built is a relaxing seating.  However, given the buffet format, I found myself standing up every 10 minutes or so to move to the next course or get seconds of the current one.  Perhaps this was because I’m not very good and strategically planning my buffet trips, but either way I found that it disrupted the normal flow of the experience where moments of tranquility are punctuated only by nagging calls of nature.

Regardless of this relatively minor bother, the St. Regis truly shined in its dessert selection.  Beginning with the scones, a staple of any proper afternoon tea, I was quite pleased with them.  They were firm, but crumbly in the right places.  They were fresh and soft, and buttery to the core.  I appreciated the inclusion of authentic Devon clotted cream, but I was a bit disappointed by the homemade strawberry jam, which was really just sliced strawberries in a sweet sticky goo.  Maybe that is somebody’s definition of jam, but the texture was distracting and the taste was overly sweet.

And the rest of the desserts?  Well, what can I say, just look at the pictures!  All in miniature format, I tirelessly (and thanklessly I might add, you’re welcome) sampled creme brulee, chocolate mousse, blueberry muffins, carrot cake, lemon-almond cake, vanilla mousse, and chocolate truffles and ganache.  All were superb, if a bit sweet, and were as always an overwhelmingly unnecessary end to an entirely satisfying meal.

As for the tea itself, the St. Regis got it 90% right.  My problem with their tea service was that they brought the teapots with the tea leaves still in the pot (and not visible).  Without alerting us that we can (and should) remove the tea leaves soon, all too often the tea will be completely overbrewed, bitter, and unpleasant.  The best afternoon tea purveyors I’ve visited have waited the extra three or four minutes to allow the leaves to steep the correct amount of time, and then have brought over the teapots at the perfect balance.  This had the potential to make the experience slightly less exquisite, but fortunately my mom noticed and I promptly saved my blessed tea.

In sum, afternoon tea at the St. Regis hotel in buffet format exceeded my expectations.  I entered thinking that a “true” afternoon tea had to be served to you, possibly on multi-tiered silver platters, but definitely in a set order and a set pace.  Turns out, that’s not true.  Buffet-style, at the quality of the St. Regis, has become a new favorite of mine, and I hope to return on another Saturday in the near future.

Check out my photo gallery to see all the pictures of the tea, because some of the dishes were remarkably beautiful and they make my amateur photography skills look a lot better than they are, such as the macaroons pictured below.

Mark posted this on July 26, 2008 in Restaurants and it has no comments |

A tantalizing teppan tour…

Tonight I had the distinct pleasure and joy of dining at my favorite teppanyaki restaurant named Ichibiri, and my was it a feast both for the eyes and my now-humbled stomach.  For those of you who don’t know what teppanyaki is, it’s a Japanese method of combining dining with entertainment.  8 guests sit around an elevated table-top grill, called a teppan grill, and watch as their veggies, rice, meat, and fish are grilled to perfection by a sometimes dangerous, though always exciting chef.

Since the teppanyaki experience is so photogenic, I thought I would keep this post brief and cut right to the good stuff: the photos.  Above is a photo of the classic onion-ring-volcano, and trust me there are quite a few more golden shots where that came from.

You can find the full photo tour of the visually compelling experience in my photo gallery, or by clicking here.  Enjoy!

Mark posted this on in Pics and Videos and it has no comments |

The great fro-yo showdown

Whether we like it or not, we’re living in an age of unbridled enthusiasm for frozen yogurt.  Some say Pinkberry started this wildly popular new craze of culture-infused yogurty ice cream coupled with a smorgasbord of delectable toppings ranging from freshly diced pineapple and mango to Captain Crunch cereal and Japanese mochi.  I’m not sure if Pinkberry can rightfully claim that title (I hear Red Mango might be more responsible), but nevertheless it seems to be the most widespread of them all and is on the tips of everyone’s tongues.

And rightfully so.  I’m indescribably happy that frozen dessert establishments the likes of Cold Stone and Marble Slab are on their way out and are being supplanted by ostensibly healthier options.  Frozen yogurt is typically fat free, and many of these Pinkberry-esque shops have no-sugar-added yogurt as well (don’t even ask me what that means, but I figure it denotes less sugar…).  Not to mention that I would sooner take fresh pineapple and strawberries as a topping long before crushed oreo or cookie dough, though they offer those too for any of you who feel otherwise.

Yes, overall, I think this is a good fad in the food world.  I’ve eaten at three of these new-age desserteries recently, and I’d like to share my comparative thoughts on them.  I’ve visited Pinkberry and Yogurtland in Orange County, and Juniper in Providence, Rhode Island.  I’ll skip right to the point–my favorite by far is Yogurtland.

Read on to find out why…

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Mark posted this on July 24, 2008 in Restaurants and it has no comments |

A fascinating conversation with David Chang

No, I didn’t actually talk to David Chang myself, but Charlie Rose did.  Below is a video of his hour-long, in-depth interview with Chang that talks about everything from why he doesn’t believe he’s anything special to how he quit golfing because of Tiger Woods.

I’ve written about David Chang before in the context of his uniquely egalitarian reservation system for his white-hot new restaurant in New York named Momofuku Ko.  He’s definitely an integral part of this young, popular, and inspiringly different New York chef crowd, and hearing about his life’s adventures was telling to say the least.  At 56 minutes, this is a long interview, but if you’re at all interested in restaurants, cuisine, or even golf, it’s certainly worth watching.

[Via Serious Eats]

Mark posted this on July 23, 2008 in Pics and Videos and it has no comments |

Family BBQ and Opus One

What a wonderful evening I had last night!  My family and some friends celebrated my graduation from college (how weird is that: I’m a graduate!) as well as my mother’s birthday under the beautiful setting California sun.  While the occasion would have been special regardless of the menu for the evening, I feel compelled to share our libations with you because they have permanently implanted themselves in my mind.

We began our evening by opening a bottle of champagne almost as old as my sister: a 1992 Dom Perignon OEnotheque, after requisite chilling time in the ice bucket (slightly colder than the fridge, slightly warmer than the freezer).  As best as I could tell from my research, OEnotheque champagne is a particular type of bottle that is aged longer at the vineyard before being bottled and sold.  Meaning, a standard 1992 vintage Dom Perignon might have been released in 2000, the OEnotheque 1992 would not have been released until 2004, for example (I don’t know the exact dates, these are just illustrative).

Regardless of the dates, the champagne was excellent.  It had no sharp finish that might have otherwise left the tongue dry and recoiling in an attempt to reach additional saliva backup.  Instead, its fruity overtones were balanced by a powerful acidic finish that was clean on the tongue and light in the mouth.  To be honest, though, I’m not sure I could honestly say that I tasted a difference between this 16-year-old bottle and a non-vintage Dom Perignon (or Veuve Cliquot for that matter) from 2006.  Maybe my palate just isn’t refined enough to taste the differences…who knows.

Our next indulgence was by far the star of the night: a bottle of 2001 Opus One.  The Opus One vineyard is the result of an inter-continental and groundbreaking collaboration between Baron Rothschild of Bordeaux fame and Robert Mondavi of the ubiquitous Mondavi vineyards and brands throughout Napa Valley.  I’m happy to report that their product is stunning.  After an hour or so of letting the wine breath in a decanter, we dove into its flavors and scents with the accompanying steaks, potatoes, and veggies.

At first, the taste was powerfully of summer berries, then transitioning on the tongue to deeper tones reminiscent of chocolate and coffee.  The velvety mixture completes its wondrous excursion by leaving a long, pleasant finish on the throat that manages to both warm and cool simultaneously.  There were no bitter tannins, no sharp acidity, only a perfect balance of complex flavors, scents, and mouthfeel.  In short, a remarkable wine, one which I’m proud to call the best I’ve ever had.

To cap off the night, we went a bit wild with a 2000 bottle of Dolce, a dessert wine from Napa Valley.  What I’ve heard is that Dolce can hold its own against the best of France’s Sauternes region, including the famed Chateau d’Yquem.  This was my first dessert wine, so I unfortunately can’t provide any comparisons, but I can say that it was quite delightful, though perhaps a bit strong.  At over 14% alcohol, each sip packs a wallop, but one is also greeted by a pleasant and refined sweetness, allowing strong tastes of honey and vanilla through, along with what I basically describe as the tastes of spring. Dolce provided an excellent end to an outstanding evening.

If you’d like to see more photos from the BBQ, then check out my photo gallery here.

Mark posted this on July 22, 2008 in Quips n' Tips and it has 1 comment |

Pad thai, oh my!

Thai This
24501 Del Prado
Dana Point, CA 92629
949-240-7944

If there’s one thing in life that I really want to be able to count on, it’s a perfect dish of pad thai.  I’ve made it my personal mission, my duty if you will, to order pad thai in every Thai establishment I set foot in so that I can better judge what “perfect” really means.  Because, really, without diversity, there is no perfection is there?  And without my abundance of experience, I wouldn’t really have much to say here either (nor would I expect you to read it).

Pad thai achieves its status as a simple, satisfying, and mouth-watering dish because the raw sweetness of brown sugar dances playfully with the tang of fish sauce while succumbing to the dominating texture of fresh ground peanut.  The peanuts’ earthiness and rich full flavor gently support the stir-fried noodles’ leading role in the play of the plate, while the crisp bean sprouts play a supporting, though critical, role by injecting a buoyant mouth feel into the mixture, without which the tongue might lose itself in the delightfully smooth swirls and twirls of soy, sugar, and salt.

Read on to hear about my most recent encounter with the tasty devil…

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Mark posted this on July 18, 2008 in Pics and Videos, Restaurants and it has no comments |

What a photo! Reptiles and berries

Look at that turtle go!  I’ve definitely never been that happy when eating a strawberry, so good for him.  That strawberry is definitely going to get it.

[Photo taken by Gwen Turner-Juarez, via Serious Eats]

Mark posted this on July 17, 2008 in Pics and Videos and it has no comments |