I love New York. Really, I do. And I love it, along with eastern Massachusetts, a bit more after the ten days I just spent there. What are some of the pluses I ran into during my time back east? Well, to steal a page from that NYC television icon, David Letterman, here’s today’s Top Ten, mostly wine-related, of the Big Apple and beyond, in no particular order.
1. The wine list and service at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminal, which is always a fun and relatively affordable place to eat. Time there is especially positive when the waiter reveals an unknown gem like the 2007 Sherwood House chardonnay from the North Fork of Long Island. It’s about $15 retail but drinks a bit above that price point. Because SHC is unoaked, and grown in cool, rocky soil, you get a crisp, clean, juicy, and flavorful glass of wine. Look for it.
2. Everything to do with wine at Smith & Wollensky. Okay, before I get grief for throwing away my Everyman persona a bit too quickly, let me say that I’ve only been to S&W a handful of times in the past 30 years, and always for a special occasion, which this visit was. So much there to like: the wine list is labeled, playfully and in mock-serious fashion, “The Wine Tome,” and that’s the abridged version. The official list really is a tome. They have a diverse selection of half-bottles. Mark-ups are kept below nose-bleed altitude. They use great glassware. Service is attentive but not suffocating. These are only a few of the several pleasures of drinking, I mean, dining there. Plus, they grill a mean steak; and, don’t even mention their hash browns, which certainly must be mixed with sugar and cocaine. It’s nearly impossible to stop eating them once your fork hits the plate. Normally, I like a cabernet when having steak in a restaurant, but I’m also a big fan, anytime, of Patz & Hall‘s wines. So, when I spotted an affordable (for a restaurant) 375 ml of their 2008 Sonoma Coast pinot noir, I went for that. It had all the fruit, acidity, and body weight to stand up to the monstrous rib eye that got parked in front of me, all without sacrificing its essential pinot nature. I just read that the winery itself is sold out of this vintage. If you run into it at your local wine shop while shopping for a special bottle, grab it.
3. The bar service at the Fitzpatrick Hotel. What I noticed first was the way the bartender checked each glass before using it. I complimented him on his careful work, and he admitted, “Ah, no problem. Really, it’s because the dishwasher’s lousy. Never know when it’s gonna do a good job. Gotta check them all.” Still, it’s nice to see that sort of attention paid to customer service, along with the absence of personal attention when attention is not what’s wanted. If only the hotel’s food and beverage manager paid that much attention to the wine list. But that’s fodder for tomorrow’s post.
4. The wine service at Dino’s in Worcester. We were back at Dino’s (see Hope Springs Eternal post) for another fun meal of good food in ginormous proportions, and I ordered a bottle of the 2005 Banfi Chianti Classico Riserva, which sported a pretty friendly markup. The waitress brought the wine and a glass, and proceeded to open the bottle. I still had an appetizer and cocktail in front of me, so she asked if I wanted some wine now. I thought we were about to go through the usual taste-test ritual, so I replied, “yes, please.” Well, no ritual this time. The waitress simply smiled and enthusiastically poured me a super-full glass of wine. It was a moment of such unpretentious, generous, and friendly service, that all I could do was smile back at her and say thank you. Wine with your meal. Maybe the way it’s supposed to be. The Banfi, by the way, for those keeping score, was a solid match for the perfectly grilled, medium-rare, NY strip steak smothered in mushrooms and tomato sauce. My daughters could barely finish their huge entrees, so, of course, we all had dessert. Dino’s scores again! (Note: Massachusetts law allows for the recorking and bagging of wine for customers, so leftovers might be taken home for further consumption at a later date. Just a bit of trivia for those who really are keeping score.)
5. The Guinness stout at Triona’s and Slane Public House, both in Greenwich Village, a few blocks apart. Friendly, Irish-accented bartenders, comfortable stools, and properly poured, creamy, cool pints. And, while at Slane, I received a generous portion of advice for my upcoming vacation from two Irish women visiting NYC from Galway. If there are lucky pints of beer, these were two of them. Sometimes, taking a break from wine can be just what the doctor ordered. Guinness IS good for you.
6. The 2009 Bielsa old vine garnacha from Campo de Borja (Spain). I grabbed a bottle of this at a well-stocked shop in Hingham, Massachusetts, after visiting my cousin and his wonderful family (okay, he’s wonderful, too). I’m a big fan of garnacha and have tasted a fair number of them over the years, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never had one that was a greater value than the Bielsa, which ran me all of $11.99. Balanced, full of juicy fruitiness (fruity juiciness?), and in a smooth, modern style, this wine impressed the hell out of me. The importer, Jose Pastor Selections, tells me I can find it in the Bay Area. Guess what I’m shopping for this weekend?
7. The KJ Baaron’s Fine Wine and Spirits store in Worcester. Living in the Bay Area, especially the East Bay, you get spoiled when it comes to good wine shops: they’re everywhere. Not so in many places back east, where you’re too often likely to find a liquor store that happens also to sell some (mediocre) wine. When I go to Worcester to visit my daughter at college, I know I’m not going to be left high and, god forbid, dry by the lack of good wine stores. KJ Baaron’s is the place to go in Worcester when looking for wine. Oh sure, they have booze and plenty of it, but they also have a smart, global wine selection, fair prices, and a staff that is knowledgeable, friendly, and helpful. I love stepping into Baaron’s because I know that I’m going to leave happy. Not too many stores can guarantee that sort of experience. Baaron’s can.
8. Bed Bath & Beyond, especially if there was one on Southbridge Street in Auburn, Mass.. Wine related, you ask? Well, sure. Imagine you’re staying at a motel that only supplies its rooms with plastic cups, and the thought of drinking a glass of delicious garnacha out of plastic cups just doesn’t do it for you. Wouldn’t it be nice to find a store that sells nice, cheap, er, affordable, wine glasses? And wouldn’t it be even nicer if the store was only a stone’s throw away from your motel? Wouldn’t it? Hypothetically, of course. Just letting my imagination run freely here for a few seconds. But, in a situation like that, I think you’d be happy if you found a nice wine glass nearby. Again, all hypothetical. I’m just thinking out loud.
9. The Full Moon Pizzeria on the corner of 187th Street and Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. Early in my freshman year at Fordham University, a few friends and I, exploring the neighborhood around campus, came across a little pizzeria on 187th Street called the Half Moon. Opened in 1976, this pizza counter has gone through a number of architectural changes and expansions over the years, but what hasn’t changed is the quality of its food. The pizza, which was terrific in the late ’70s, is just as delicious today. I got a big kick out of introducing my daughter, who will soon join the Fordham family, to the Full Moon. She’s not a big pizza lover but she agreed that the slices we enjoyed the afternoon we were there were superior. And, as further circumstantial evidence, perhaps, that things at the Full Moon just don’t change, I noticed that the middle-aged woman running the cash register was the same woman who, as a teenager thirty-some years ago, took our orders and handed out the slices at the Half Moon. Maybe some good things do last forever.
10. Indaba merlot from South Africa on Jet Blue going home. When I order a Munchkin magnum of wine during an airplane flight, my expectations are usually pretty low. Most in-flight wines are sort-of wines, with that mass-produced, one-dimensional, suggestion of flavor that makes you think of wine as you sip the yellow or purple beverage in front of you. Jet Blue claims they are working hard to raise their wine game, to let the folks in coach enjoy wines you might normally find in business class, which means real wines. Well, after my flight a few nights ago, I believe them. On the six hour-plus flight back to Oakland, which was really eight hours, thanks to sitting on the runway at JFK for about an hour and a half as rain forced the airport’s closure, I ordered two 187.5 ml “bottles” of Indaba merlot. At $5.99, which means about only a few bucks for a half-bottle in a store, a very fair price, these little glasses of South African red were a real surprise, and went a long way towards warming my rain-soaked bones. Most days of our trip gave us rain and unseasonably cold temperatures, leaving us with a damp chill that never seemed to let up. But this wine helped. And, reading that Indaba donates a portion of their profits to create job opportunities in the wine industry for the youth of South Africa went a little way towards also warming my chilly heart, which is a condition that has nothing to do with the weather.
Next, a few things that weren’t so right on this trip.