Peeves & Passions


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Peeves & Passions


Writing this column over the course of the past year or so, I've come up with and dutifully filed away in the narrow, griping recesses of my brain a whole litany of stuff that both annoys and delights me about restaurants in New York City, and also about wine and wine service at restaurants. And now, rather than allow my stockpile to rot, in darkness, unaired, I am going to empty it out in front of you. It's a list. I know, I know. Listmaking is lazy journalism. But in this case, it makes sense. In this case, it's a list that (I hope) we'll all find useful. Buckle up. Bear down. Find something to chew on, or twist, because...


No, no, no, no. Foie gras, which has become so commonplace that I guess affluent parents are probably substituting it for peanut butter on their kids' sandwiches (with a bilberry preserve or artisanally stewed quince jam in place of grape jelly), just can't fly solo. It must be fiddled with and encased and robbed of its natural princely dignity so that New Yorkers will not be bored. Of course, in the process, what most people love about foie gras?the decadent silky mush sealed inside a firmly sizzled outer skin, the luxury of that small slab of a fowl's innards?is completely erased. What remains is a creation. So here's what I say: Look, when we order foie gras, we want foie gras. Take heed. Please be mournful enough of those sacrificial geese and our appetite for their overstuffed vital organs to treat a great delicacy in as hands-off a fashion as possible.


And furthermore: Get on the bandwagon with the foie gras-and-beverage combos. Foie gras, ideally, needs something like champagne?or, better yet, a late-harvest riesling, a wine with some sweetness?to make the match. My suggestion, then, is this: get those sommeliers on the job. The price of any foie gras appetizer should include a small flute of champagne, or a wine that would normally be served for dessert.


2. How about beer as an aperitif? Maybe somebody's doing this already, I don't know. If so, I apologize in advance for my ignorance. But here's what I think: The practice of consuming a cocktail prior to dinner is a bad idea. Why? Because a good dinner (or a good lunch) is as much about wine as it is about food, and a hardcore old-school martini or a few fingers of bourbon or, heaven forbid, one of those grotesque New Economy alcoholic milkshakes, or a sorority-girl default libation, a vodka tonic or whiskey sour?well, all of those load you up right away with too much booze and do a number on the taste buds.


Beer, on the other hand, in minor quantities?a third of a pint, let's say, and something tasty, like Stella Artois?refreshes. The yeast and mild fizz and bitterness also set one's palate up nicely for both wine and food. Whenever I have a big wine dinner on my schedule, a dinner at which I know I'll be eating a bunch of different dishes and washing them down with perhaps half a dozen wines, I really like to stop off someplace beforehand and drink a beer. How nice it would be to have that ritual incorporated into the meal itself.


3. Stop overfilling the wine glasses! It drives me nuts, this tendency of waiters and waitresses to periodically slide by the table and heft the bottle of wine and refill everyone's glass beyond a sensible level. That's my bottle of wine. I paid for it. And I know, exactly and unfailingly, how much wine I want in my glass. Almost invariably, it is less than the standard solicitous waiter pours.


Besides, this practice is a violation of sensible wine service. I mean, they go to great pains to present you with your bottle, showcasing the label, then ceremoniously uncork your bottle and pour you a taste, and then they come around every 10 minutes and top everybody off like they were pumping unleaded into a thirsty Wagoneer. They do this, obviously, to get you through that first bottle and on to number two. But often, by number two, especially if the party is less than four?and particularly if it's merely a couple?that second bottle is pointless. You're ability to taste, to enjoy, to relish?it's gone.


So listen: Get your mitts off my Caymus! I've been pouring for myself since I was at least 27. The above peeve applies mainly to red wine, because I have a whole different issue when it comes to white, involving...


4. The motherfucking ice bucket. I can't even begin to tell you how depressing I find ice buckets. I can begin to tell you how depressing I find an already overchilled Chassagne-Montrachet perched tableside in an ice bucket, its label peeling off, water offensively sluicing from its sides or getting mopped into a soggy napkin whenever more wine is deposited in my glass. That slushy ice-water sound?like nails on a chalkboard.


Let's try this: Any decent restaurant in New York these days should be investing in temperature- and humidity-controlled storage for its wine. This means temperature and humidity control for whites and reds (whites are typically served too cold, reds too warm). It can't be that much of a stretch to figure out how to provide temporary solace for that $85 bottle of chardonnay in one of these EuroCave-ish cabinets. Dispense with the ice bucket altogether. Put that waitstaff to work shuttling the white wine back and forth between storage and table. Otherwise, just let the wine sit out, bucketless. Melting ice is a fairly unreliable (it seems to me) medium for maintaining a predictable coolness. In most cases, the whites will be too chilled to properly enjoy right away, but over the course of a meal, they'll warm to the correct temperature. And even if the diners are slow drinkers, the wine won't slip far enough toward the warm side to make much of a difference.


5. Do something about the obscene wine markups, especially at the low end. Yes, I know?restaurants make a huge chunk of their nut off beverage service. But honestly, proprietors aren't doing themselves any favors by peddling $15 to $20 wine for twice that. For example, Flora Springs produces an extraordinary Napa merlot that retails for around $20, depending. Any restaurant that put this wine on their list, and then pushed it (after all, it is merlot), could probably sell case after case of the stuff. No reason to jack the price up to $40, or more, according to the 100-percent markup rule. Sell it for $25. Look for other quality, accessible $15 to $20 wines and price them five dollars higher, no more. Get international, if need be. Chile. Argentina. Australia. Heck, France. (Languedoc anybody?) Patrons who notice quality but cringe when ordering wines that cost more than $30 will thank you, and return, and spread the word, and I'll bet you'll make up the difference in volume over time. (Note: Anybody in the business who wants to argue this point with me, go ahead. I can be reached through the paper.)


6. Stop putting paper down over the tablecloths. I wear a jacket, a lot of the time, when I eat out. Those big squares of paper that many places use to cover the tablecloths, for obvious reasons, always get stuck on my cuffs. It drives me crazy. For years, I have been folding under the irritating edges of these paper squares, even at restaurants of reputation. So what say we give me a break and discontinue this cheesy practice? Do some laundry. Buy some backup tablecloths. Or else forget the tablecloths altogether. Trust me, we can live without pristine white tablecloths, as long as the food doesn't make us vomit.


7. No music. Especially live music. New York restaurants, with few exceptions, are intimate affairs. Some would say cramped. Others territorially combative. Most, when packed, get noisy. Adding music to that din defeats the motive that many have for dining out in the first place: to be together, to join for banter and gustation. As for live music: In 15 years of eating out, I have never once had a decent meal at a restaurant that was hosting a band. This includes pianos and guitars, played solo. And violins. Enough said.


8. Waitstaff costumes are stupid. I've been beating up a bit on waitstaffs, so here's one for them. In particular, I'm thinking of Tabla, where the waitstaff is forced to wear this getup that resembles the daily uniform of a Bombay hotel bellhop, or else the inopportune collision of Nehru and a coolie railroad laborer circa 1875. Well, maybe not everyone is forced to wear it. But it was in evidence the last time I ate there. I think every single waiter and waitress in New York (with notable exceptions?the extreme upper crust, the old guardists, the white-shirt-and-black-bowtie legions, and so on) should wear flat-front chinos and blue denim shirts. Let these people retain some self-respect, for chrissakes.


9. If you decide to tour the wine country of Northern California, and you find yourself in Napa at the end of a long day of tasting, in the attractive town of Yountville, be sure to stop by Mustards Grill for one of the best burgers around, and have a beer, and then after maybe meander over to the Yountville golf course and whack a few balls off into the sunset. All right, this last one has nothing to do with New York, but it's good advice, nonetheless. Go out there. It's the patriotic thing to do. The golf course is pretty nice, too. As are the sunsets.


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