Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Drink (and eat) French at Brasserie Les Halles

I first learned about Brasserie Les Halles when I read Anthony Bourdain’s riveting memoir, Kitchen Confidential. While Bourdain has moved on to bigger things (his TV show No Reservations), the Brasserie where he got his groove on, cooking-wise, is still a staple of the New York restaurant scene.
I dined at the Park Avenue location (there’s also one downtown) on a recent Friday night and was immensely pleased. The large wine list is printed on laminated, broadsheet-sized paper: whites and by-the-glass menu on one side, reds on the other. The bar is beautiful white marble and, trés français, there is a silver punchbowl filled with icy water chilling bottles of champagne on it. Their menu includes some wonderful wines that aren’t usually featured in single pours. I choose the 2003 Louis Latour Puligny Montrachet at $17.50 a glass. This goes on record as the most I’ve ever paid for a glass of wine. However, compared with buying an entire bottle (an extravagance I couldn’t justify at the restaurant-markup price), getting a glass for under $20 was a relative bargain. They’ll also pour you a glass of Taittinger Brut or Prestige Rosé Brut for $16.50 or $19.50 respectively. Other treats include a Pessac-Léognan Chateau Larrivet-Haut-Brion, a red Bordeaux, for $19.50, and branching out beyond the French stuff, Californian Cabernet from Provenance for $17.50 and a Chardonnay from Hanzell for $19.50. Yes, there are much cheaper pours, but I was tickled to see such exciting by-the-glass options.
But, back to my wine. I remember well that 2003 was the year of France’s deadly heatwave. When I was in Burgundy in 2007, I tried a lot of red 2003s, which were richer than normal due to the tremendous ripeness of the fruit that year. But when I tasted the Puligny Montrachet (a white Burgundy) there was no overabundance of fruit. It was very well balanced: the fruit was there, but restrained, and the influence of the oak enhanced it beautifully. It had the fragrance of candied walnuts. Two of my friends who joined me that night were dyed-in-the-wool red wine drinkers, and even they were wowed by this expressive white wine.
Our dinners were wonderful—steaks are heavily featured on the menu, and my friends and I all ordered different cuts. My hanger steak with shallot sauce was delicious, and the Bernaise sauce that my friends enjoyed with their steak was perfect. We naturally had a bottle of red wine with our meals, and I choose a 2003 St. Emillion “Les Halles”, bottled for the restaurant from Chateau Toinet Fombrauge (a reasonable $38). This was a big wine (once again the heatwave vintage) dark in color (although difficult to judge in the dimly lit restaurant) with lots of tannin and fruit. A delicious accompaniment to the juicy steaks.
The red wine section reads like a wine map of France: Alsace, Bourgogne, Beaujolais, Provence, Languedoc-Roussilon, Sud-Ouest, Vallée de la Loire, Vallée du Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and Bordeaux are all represented. A few other countries have wines listed, too, but honestly, with so much delicious French wine to choose from, and while eating all the classic French food from the menu, I don’t know why you’d bother. This restaurant has all the French brasserie specialities: steak and moules frites, cassoulet, a house paté, and much, much more. If you long to eat and drink French, and are in the mood for brasserie fare (rather than break-the-bank gourmet cooking), Brasserie Les Halles fits the bill.

Monday, September 15, 2008

If a Vodka Tonic Were a Wine…

Summer’s not done yet, as evidenced by a weekend of hell-like humidity hovering around 72% and heat around 90 degrees here in NJ. The furnace blast upon leaving our air-cooled home wilted our clan as we cheered son Dylan’s first outing in the WOHS Marching Band during an afternoon home game (West Orange creamed Bayonne 47-6).
Stopping by Home Liquors later, I blew some of my NJ Homestead Rebate check on an assortment of wines.
I picked up a Spanish white that was not only unfamiliar, but also unpronounceable: Txomin Etxaniz Getaria 2007. Reading up on it online, I discovered that it’s similar to Portugal’s Vinho Verde. It comes from a tiny region in northeast Spain, close to San Sebastian in Basque country.
I chilled it well and served it over ice, just to add to the refreshment. I was tickled to see that it has a little spritz and bubbled slightly as I poured. It even looked refreshing: near-transparent with the faintest hint of yellow. It has a fresh, crisp scent and the flavor really wakes up your mouth—zesty, full-on lime. This wine is a wonderful, cooling palate pleaser on a sticky night. Its alcohol is on the low side, at 11 %.
I’m not much for mixed drinks anymore, but it’s hard to argue with the hot weather appeal of a nice vodka tonic. Now I have a wine that refreshes equally well, with a mouth puckering lime flavor to boot.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Horsing Around at the Saratoga Wine Festival

This year my indefatigable friend Lori joined me in New York State for the annual Saratoga Wine and Food Festival. This well attended fest in the heart of race country was fun, fun, fun.
First of all, the food was divine--and plentiful. Local restaurants served up osso bucco, pulled pork, sushi, squash bisque, blueberry cobbler, and more, all adorably arranged on tiny plexi-glass plates. The crowd was upscale—tickets were, after all, $80—but quite friendly, a nice combination for our day’s drinking partners.
We really enjoyed the lecture by Burt Wolf, pictured above with me, and Kevin Zraly, my old Windows on the World Wine School teacher.
We also enjoyed meeting the guys (and tasting the mouthwatering samples) from Brooklyn’s own Wine Cellar Sorbets and mixing with the other gregarious attendees. I give this wine festival two thumbs way up. The fest was well-managed, the crowd was great, and the wine and food lasted until the end. Next September, I recommend to all Northeast wine lovers to check out Saratoga. But for now, enjoy the photos from this year’s event.

Register Today for Discover the Wine Regions of France

There’s still time to register for my class at the South Orange-Maplewood Adult School for just $18! Follow this link and scroll down to see all the details. I hope some of you can join me for a fun night discussing the prestigious wine regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, and the Loire Valley. Come see a slide presentation and you’ll be sure to learn something new about these beautiful wine-producing regions. The early-bird price ends tomorrow, so sign up today!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

A Toast to Back to School

It finally came—the end of the summer. Now, don’t get me wrong, I loved the season in New Jersey. We enjoyed sunshiney, blue sky days that stretched for weeks at a time. But for our family, late August meant camp was over, day care was sketchy, and Sponge Bob and Guitar Hero were constantly on the tube, often at the same time on different floors.
So, this week I’m raising a glass to school starting again. And speaking of the end of summer, as I put away my Capri pants and sandals, I’ll also be taking my last sips of the luscious pink Tavels and racy Sauvignon Blancs I’ve been drinking. Because when the sweaters coming out of the closets, the big reds return to my wine rack. In the warm months, I sipped a few Beaujolais, but unless I was grilling steak, I steered clear of the heavier stuff. But by the time October rolls around, I’ll be well into the Cabernets, Zinfandels, and Shiraz again.
So here’s to school in session! The kids are well-occupied and properly stimulated. And I’ve got one last bottle of Sancerre in the fridge waiting for the perfect Indian summer evening.