George Orwell’s Gastropub

Spotted Pig

The Spotted Pig serves its food on tables barely big enough for a pint glass and some pork scratchings, let alone a full meal. A trough might be more appropriate since the tables are so close you can feel your neighbor breathing. Infuriatingly, you have to get through the airport security at the front podium to get your chance to perch on the doll’s house chairs which are wedged into this tiny dining room.

The maître d’s Dickensian swagger infuriates even before you join the queue to beg for a table. Like swine waiting for slops, you push and nudge, nose to tail, until the snaking line forms a figure of eight that might lead to the booking desk or maybe to the latrines. The only sense of order here is arranged by the customers themselves who have a formed a democratic system worthy only of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. When you eventually bag your table for an unwanted midnight slot you feel that although all animals are equal, some are more equal that others.

Having been brainwashed into thinking that queuing for a table is cool you accept that $25 for a burger is fair and that appetizers are worthy of their $20 price tag. You gnaw on the scrawny shoestring fries in the certainty that the chef must know best and that by questioning the overpowering blue cheese on top of the delicately flavored burger you will expose yourself as a philistine. Surely the crisscrossed grill marks on top of the burger bun (and not on the burger itself) are some kind of postmodern joke? Shouldn’t you just grow a beard and laugh along?

 

Wine Tasting in The Hamptons

Channing Daughters

I can see why The Hamptons are a playground for the rich and famous. A short train or car journey from the metropolis and you are in another world, full of Farrow and Ball painted wooden houses, yachts, boutiques and tasteful eateries. It reminds me of Walberswick in Suffolk, UK, a seaside town where I managed to star-spot Juliet Stevenson (Truly Madly Deeply), Geoff Hoon (former UK Defense Minister), Bill Oddie (ex-Goodie and bird-fancier) and even Jesus Christ himself (well, Robert Powell of Jesus of Nazareth fame) on the same summer’s day.

But, we were in The Hamptons to get to know the local wines rather than eyeball Madonna or Taylor Swift (who probably live in LA anyway). The dusting of snow and minus 18 conditions might have helped to keep the luvvies at bay, but that surely meant we had the place to ourselves – well, almost. Being a bank holiday weekend celebrating President’s Day, and also the day before Valentine’s Day, the place was over run with lovestruck couples, and our merry band of five.

BologOur first stop was a relaxed, pre-tasting lunch at Page on Main Street, Sag Harbor. A juicy burger topped with blue cheese, two lobster BLTs and a couple of insanely good Bologneses (made from ALL of the meats) set the bar very high, alongside some spicy Bloody Marys and a thirst-quenching Provencal rosé or two.

To top it off, our celiac friend was over the moon with her gluten-free version of the bolognese, so hats off to Page for delivering this fuss-free.

So on to our first winery of the day, Channing Daughters in Bridgehampton. Wine tasting costs $12 per person here unless you join their wine club, which we did. As wine club members you can bring as many people as you like to sample the wines and you won’t spend a dime. Membership entails signing up for 6 two bottle shipments per year – an outlay of around $390, which is divided and billed in equal sums every couple of months. In addition, club members receive invites to exclusive parties and tastings throughout the year.

Channing Daughters

Channing Snowy Vines

Channing Daughters is an award-winning winery which pushes the envelope when it comes to winemaking. The climate here allows them to experiment with many relatively unknown grapes that are better known in countries like Austria and Germany, as well as old favorites like Cabernet, Sauv Blanc or Chardonnay.

Over and OverTheir Over & Over red blend is a non-vintage wine, produced in a solera system, most famously used in the sherry making process. The style is not oxidized like a sherry; it is fresh, vibrant and berry-ish like a Piemontese Dolcetto or a young, lightly oaked Barbera. Older wine is re-passed over the new vintage wine and combined to form a new blend of young and old wine. Re-fermentation begins and some wine is barreled and bottled to become what they call a Variation. The current Variation is number 8, the work of 8 vintages and re-fermentations. The combined processes of Ripasso and solera are highly unusual but the wine is completely accessible – one for the wine geeks and the everyday drinkers.

We also got to try an ‘orange wine’, a white that has undergone a couple of weeks skin contact to give extra color and some hints of tannin from the grape skins, and even their chili-infused vermouth, which was delicious. Every one of their wines has a story, made in an exciting, artisan way which is a far cry from most wines you’re likely to encounter in your local wine shop. It’s really worth a visit to capture the spirit of this refreshingly different winery.

Wölffer Estate

Wölffer Estate

Wölffer Estate is the most famous winery on Long Island, well known for making solid, tasty whites and reds in a beautiful setting. The estate has packaged itself wonderfully, creating a go-to place for tastings, food and just plain socializing. The bank holiday weekend called for live music and this meant there were no tastings available, although wine could be purchased by the bottle. We settled on The Grapes of Roth, named after Wölffer’s winemaker Roman Roth, a luxuriously soft Merlot with a lightly tannic bite to balance. This would be ideal with a nice big steak or barbecued meats, but on this occasion was an easy partner to some jaunty jazz numbers in the late afternoon sun.

Wolffer CassangoOur ‘tasting team’ opted for another glass, so to mix things up we ordered Wölffer’s  Cassango Cabernet, a blend of almost 80% Cab with 20% Merlot to soften the robust fruit. This Bordeaux-style red had a well balanced, velvety texture, with hints of vanilla and blackcurrant on the nose. It was the perfect red to end our day of wine tasting out in The Hamptons, but before we left we popped into the cellar door shop to buy up most of their stock. Like Channing Daughters, they offer discounts and tickets to parties and tastings throughout the year if you join their wine club. By this point we were prepared to agree to virtually anything and so signed up there and then for The Grand Prix club which ships to you quarterly. I don’t think we’ll be running out of wine or things to do any time soon!

Gramercy Tavern – the perfect match

IMG_1190A Michelin-starred Tavern? Well I never…

Gramercy Tavern is less like a Tavern as the Brits would know it, and more like a modern restaurant masquerading as an alpine lodge with a well stocked, buzzing bar to the front. It is quintessentially NEW New York – clean, sophisticated and confident. I visited for my wife’s birthday, managing to book a last minute table for two one Friday lunchtime. We opted for the tasting menu with wines, assuming that we would never be able to afford to come here again.

It was the right choice but the wrong assumption; after tasting the carefully presented selection paired with wines, I know for sure that I will definitely be coming back – as long as I can bag a table the second time around. For some people the portions might seem a little sparse – and certainly I could have done with a drop more wine for each pairing – however, the skill displayed in each mouthful is enough to fill the soul with joy. Plus, at $65 for food and $48 for accompanying vino at lunchtime, this is pretty good value for this kind of quality.

The Beverage Director, Juliette Pope, was recently voted 2016 Wine Person of the Year by the wine trade’s Imbibe magazine, and you can see why: the wine pairings for this menu were daring, interesting and pretty damn perfect. Personally, I could have done with a bottle of something not-so-good on the side just to quaff in between courses, as I ended up sipping away at the wine before each course arrived, leaving very little to go with the food.

For starters we had Lobster with Celery Root, Apple and Horseradish paired with a non-vintage Brut Rosé from Languedoc’s famous Mas de Daumas Gassac. The light bubbles lifted the creamy horseradish and accented the bite of celery and apple; the hints of wild strawberry and cranberry in the wine perfect with the meaty lobster.

The next course was Smoked Arctic Char with Sunchoke, Pistachios and Preserved Lemon served with a blend of Viognier and Marsanne from the Sierra Foothills of California called La Clarine Farm, Jambalaia, 2014. Being a bit Euro-centric in my wine knowledge, it was an eye-opener to taste such as classically structured wine from California. The clean, crisp lines of the peach, lemon and honey-scented white were a lovely match for the smoky fish and bold moorish accompaniments.

A pasta course of Cauliflower Tortellini with Salsify, Parmesan and Black Trumpet Mushrooms was matched with a dry 2012 Hungarian Tokaji made by Királyudvar. The light-as-a-feather pasta was complemented beautifully by this sprightly, lightly aromatic white; though it’s interesting to note that the current wine listed online with this dish is an Oregon Pinot Noir – a good reason to go back!

The Lamb Loin & Shoulder with Carrots, Kale and Sunflower Seeds was next, a joyous celebration of intense meaty flavors, with vegetables that even a fussy teenager would devour. The pure lamb-iness of the dish went fantastically with the Goubert Gigondas 2011 from France’s southern Rhone. The wine was bretty, but its gamey, leathery aromas went down a treat with the high octane, lamby flavor.

Sadly, the final course on the tasting menu was a bit of a let down. The Caramel Flan with Maple Syrup, Toffee Popped Sorghum and Cara Cara Orange was just a too sloppy in texture and was the only plate to be left half finished. However, our waiter came into his own when suggesting wines to pair with the pudding and a cheese plate I ordered as an alternative to the sweet.

IMG_1191Elderton’s Barossa Valley Botrytis Semillon was advertised as the match, but our server treated us instead to the best wine of the meal, Schloss Schönborn‘s 1993 Berg Schlossberg Riesling. This fabulous wine was as fresh as a daisy despite being over 20 years old, full of burnt orange, caramel, lime citrus and hazelnut notes which complemented the sweet perfectly. The cheese plate was matched with a wonderfully labelled madeira from the Rare Wine Company, their New York Malmsey bottling. Not the most mind-blowing madeira you’ll try, but a nice walnutty, honey and citrus accompaniment to the blue, brie, goat and hard cheeses on the plate.

As a tasting menu, this was the perfect introduction to Gramercy Tavern’s dedication to quality and flavor. I look forward to sampling the rest of the menu very soon and even popping in for dinner in the bar area (the Tavern proper). You see, this is a kitchen and dining space capable of many things and I could quite happily come here for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Maybe not with matching wines at all three services, though.

 

 

 

 

 

Slovenly Wine

I was seriously underwhelmed by the Slow Wine tasting event in NYC, Wednesday 3rd February. I love Italian wines and was looking forward to “a night of wine tasting, Italian bites, and live entertainment” as it was advertised on their site. The Stevie Wonder tribute act OvSchermata-2016-01-21-alle-10_Fotor.jpgerjoyed could not make up for the lack of joy emanating from the venue and this supposed ‘wine tasting’.

Why the organizers chose the Highline Ballroom, I cannot tell. A sweaty post-punk rock club is not the place to conduct a tasting of “50+” wines and to “meet the people….who represent the Slow Wine values.”

The wines were positioned around the tiny venue in a haphazard manner akin to the aftermath of a student party. It was impossible to get any insight about the wines or the producers from this bizarre arrangement, and the attendees resorted to helping themselves to the bottles strewn around the club.

The Slow Wine brand is fairly unknown outside of Italy, but has a strong image that would chime well with the organic-loving denizens of NYC. The message was completely lost on the attendees, clouded by a fog of vicious boozing and cranked up Stevie tunes. By the end I was feeling more Uptight than Overjoyed.

 

 

 

Hakkasan NYC

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Hakkasan NYC had a lot to live up to – the original, located in the back streets of London’s not-so-plush Oxford Street, is one of my favorite restaurants due to its clandestine subterranean location, sheer confidence and downright deliverability. The cocktails are also some of London’s best. Ironically, the UK version seems more ‘New York’ than NYC’s outpost: however, this is still a smart, atmospheric restaurant specializing in tasty, high-end Chinese cuisine in a clubby setting.

The service got off to a bad start. Due to the atmospheric near-darkness, with single down lighters at each table, it is nigh on impossible to see any of the staff in black T-shirts. However, their roles seem to be that of stage hands at the theatre, bringing in the props (glasses, cutlery, plates etc) and hiding in the shadows. Due to a very strict demarcation of duties, the black T-shirt clad serving staff can’t take your drink orders, but they seem to be able to serve them. Our, shall we say, ‘food hostess’ was dressed in a body-clinging red dress and was extremely visible. But only sporadically, like some kind of shapeshifter. At one stage, in frustration, I broke protocol and waved over an 8 foot tall man in a suit who seemed to work there. The drinks eventually turned up, so I’m guessing my hunch was correct. Either that or he was as frustrated as I was and had taken it upon himself to get the place in some kind of order.

As an appetizer we ordered the pan-seared Shanghai dumplings and stir-fried mushroom lettuce wraps with pistachio and pine nuts. Both were fresh, healthy and precise – yet full of flavor and texture. Our initial frustrations soon subsided and all was good in the world again.

I’d been looking forward to ordering the French beans with minced pork and preserved olive leaf  – a dish I’d been craving since I tried it in London – and was not disappointed. The Wok-fried lamb tenderloin with Szechuan peppercorn sauce was also a winner; the tender, yielding meat balanced with the gentle warmth of the pepper. A prawn dish of lemon and black pepper was a bit sweet and garlicky for me, but the prawns were big and juicy none the less.

The venue and the food are both excellent and deserve a return visit. However next time I’ll order the water and the wine at the same time and maybe tip the waitress in advance to keep the drinks coming.

Quality Meats – does what it says on the tin

Calling your establishment Quality Meats is a bold statement. And let’s face it, a piece of quality, well-sourced meat is not the guarantee of a good meal. But, fear not, the simplicity of the concept at Quality Meats is executed to perfection and delivered to the table with flair.

My first outing to Quality Meats set the benchmark for a second visit a couple of weeks later. My advise to myself on this second visit was simply to avoid the temptation to order a plethora of side dishes, even for a large party, as the enormity of the steaks and meats negate the need for carbs. My first visit involved fries, baked potatoes, brussels sprouts, side salads etc etc which proved a distraction from the main event – the Porterhouse. But let’s not forget – there are other meats! Our table ordered a sublime pork chop and juicy chicken dish which were both beautifully cooked and presented.

The second discovery from our first visit was the ridiculously good value appetizer of a whole lobster, served with three sauces which when combined form a brilliant marie rose. So, for our repeat visit, we cut to the chase and ordered two lobsters for four and then steaks, chicken and a veal chop. We cut down the side dishes to a solitary one – fried potatoes. Even so, a salad would have probably done.

A Chateau Montelena Chardonnay 2012 from Napa at $98 was picked from the interesting wine list to wash down the lobster; its light, buttery aroma and saline crispness the perfect match for the luxurious lobster.

To accompany the burnished, juicy medium rare Porterhouse and the soft, herby white meats we chose a Tinto Pesquera 2012 Tempranillo from Ribera Del Duero in Spain – a snip at $81. This medium bodied red, with good acidity and a smoky richness, was a great match for the steak and other meaty choices as it didn’t overpower the flavors of the fine cuts.

I suppose the wine list (and service) was the third discovery from both visits. Lots of choice at lots of price points; plus the relaxed sommelier really knew her stuff.

This is fun restaurant with a fine bar and excellent food. A place for romance, business, parties and more – just bring your best elasticated steak eating trousers and you’ll be fine.

Plain Jane has pretensions

IMG_0880_FotorUgg – the word Brunch sends shivers down my spine. It’s an excuse to serve eggs with donuts and nachos. If I read a review online that says, “Great for brunch!” I usually run a mile.

There are times, though, when the booking of a restaurant is out of your hands and you find yourself with a 7pm reservation at a “Great for brunch!” place, knowing that the venue is probably usually famous for pouring treacle over spaghetti and sprinkling it with candy, like a scene from Elf.

The particular “Great for brunch!” venue that I have a beef with this week is called Jane. Now, first off, what kind of name is that for a restaurant? No one who works there, or owns it, is called Jane. To give you some more background, Jane’s website proclaims that the people-not-called-Jane used a set designer to configure the restaurant lay out. Well, good for them and their attempts to highlight the restaurant’s artifice over anything that could be described as authentic.

We began the evening propping up the bar and sampling the below-par offerings of the over-priced by-the-glass wine list before were led to our cramped table for four. Despite the best of intentions, our clueless, yet exuberant, waitress had to ask for advice on most of wine choices. When my first choice of a Fontanafredda Barbera turned out to be their entry level Briccotondo label my initial thoughts were confirmed; this was a rip off wine list. Charging five times retail is really not on and pretty cynical to say the least.

Instead I plumped for a Chianti Classico hoping the $60+ charge would be worth it. I was wrong.  I have the feeling that the light bodied Briccotondo may have been heavier than the waif like structure of this pathetic red. Any aging in barrel had been for the briefest legal minimum, while the grapes must have been dragged screaming from putrified vineyards only just qualifying as Classico. The wine had absolutely no character whatsoever – the perfect house wine for an establishment like Jane.

On to the food, I chose the grilled filet mignon, butternut squash potato gratin and glazed cipollini onions with balsamic. This was the most expensive item on the menu at $39 and so had a lot to prove. It only proved how ineffectual this restaurant is at delivering food that is worthy of the price. The over-charred outside made the steak look like human remains found by CSI after an arson attack.

Thankfully the steak was juicy inside, but the acrid crust was overbearing for such a delicately flavored meat. The balsamic onions clashed with the bitter, burnt steak while the pretentious rendition of potato gratin was woefully undercooked. Overall the textures were ill-conceived and too much of a stretch for a joint that specializes in Eggs Benedict and Vanilla Bean French Toast.

My advice?  Bring down the prices and go back to basics, but – most of all – be honest with yourselves and your clientele. Only then will Jane become more than just your average Joe.

 

Totto-lly Great Ramen

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Totto Ramen on W 52nd St was one of my first discoveries in New York, but that’s not to say it was much of a secret – there were three queues of people snaking out of the door and onto the street.

It was definitely worth the 20 minute wait in the basement doorway of the neighboring property. Once inside, and perched at the counter top overlooking the spicy soup-making action, I was treated to ramen nirvana.

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Like the black rooster motif of Chianti Classico, its clear that Totto’s insigna is the seal of quality slurping. Their rich broth is crowned with scorched pork slices and a peppery, meaty paste which is stirred into the soup. The tang of feathered spring onions and the light crunch of bean sprouts is the counterpoint to this rich, steamy, spicy liquid gold.

Don’t come here for a romantic date as you’re likely to get soup splashed liberally down your front as you navigate the hearty bowl of goodness. Come here for a short sharp hit of intensely flavored ramen, then make way for the next wave of ramen devotees from the steps outside.

Palmer hands down favorite…almost

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Being newbies in town, a carnivorous friend of ours, @Baconchop, passed on a list of 10 of the best steak houses in Manhattan, as compiled by website New York Eater. As we were on 50th, we opted for 53rd street’s Charlie Palmer restaurant, and were not disappointed.

Although Charlie may sound like a 1960’s British spy coupled with a New York jazz performer, he is in fact a celebrity chef here in the US. Despite his celebrity status, the restaurant was virtually empty when we arrived one Friday night. Any alarm bells that might have been ringing were soon muted by the food that followed.

My go-to steak these days is a Porterhouse for two – a larger version of the famous T-bone. The cut includes tenderloin (filet/fillet) and strip loin (sirloin meets ribeye). It therefore covers all the pleasures one craves from a great steak – rich, meaty flavor and a soft, melting texture. It’s the steak to order if you can’t decide which steak you want and have a hungry partner who is suffering the same confusion.

Palmer’s version has an exquisitely crisp, charred crust which provides the perfect contrast to the soft, medium rare, juicy flesh. The steak arrives on a skillet and is finished with a pour of buttery pan juices which bubble on top of the steak, keeping it succulent.

I’d go as far as saying this was the best steak I’ve ever eaten – perfectly cooked and needing almost no accompaniment. We ordered the truffled mac ’n’ cheese and brussels sprouts and the steak came with homemade steak sauce. The mac was amazing but completely unnecessary with the dish – I would, however, happily come back just for a bowl of that on its own.

The only let down I would say is the atmosphere. The relaxed bar, booths and tables for two are on a par with most New York steakhouses, but on this particular weekend night there was not enough human spirit to get the joint jumping.

The smart surroundings and great food need a shout out, so I’ll do my best: “Go! And bring lots of friends!”

Neapolitan to die for

American pizza hasn’t got the greatest reputation in Europe. If you’ve ever been to Naples, you’ll know what the Italians can do with 3 ingredients, some dough and a very hot oven. Over the Atlantic, you guys like to call your pizzas ‘pies’ – a pretty good indication of the heaviness of the toppings and the depth of the dough.

A pie does have its place, much like a British ‘greasy spoon’ breakfast after ‘a night on the tiles’ – the fat, meat and fried bread consistency perform similar roles in soaking up the booze. Equally, a night in front of the telly watching a blockbuster is rarely better than with a mighty meaty with a stuffed crust.

However, the best pizzas in the world do not travel well and do not make great delivery food. A wood fired oven kicks out enough heat to cook a doughy Neapolitan style pizza in a matter of minutes. Once cooked, it should be on the table and scoffed as quickly as possible, taking time only to inhale the drool-inducing aromas of the lightly charred crust.

And so we come to Don Antonio on 50th and 8th, Midtown, New York – one street from the theatre district. The pizzas here should be terrible, surely – fodder for the pre and post theatre crowd. But no – as the sign says, “Don Antonio – New York, Naples”. Once inside it becomes clear that this is no theatre hangout – It’s 8pm and bursting at the seams. Some Italian voices ring out above the clatter of diners as a bunch of local Italian-Americans greet the front of house staff like family.

We are whisked to a tiny table and drinks are ordered at breakneck speed. Next, Pizza choices – but I am well prepared after the short wait near the well stocked bar with the menu. I order the sausage pizza which has crumbled, fennel-infused pork with mushroom, mozzarella, tomatoes and a hint of basil. Of course, I don’t have to wait long – the pizza is ordered, cooked and on the table in about 10 minutes tops.

I have to say that this pizza joint is a cracker – it has booths and a bar that mark this as classic New York. But the pizzas are the real knock out – so authentic, the real deal. The twang of the cheese, the aniseed aroma of basil, the ridiculously pleasurable waft of bready dough along with the yielding fennel sausage make these so moreish. So moreish in fact that I have been back time and time again since – for the same pizza. I’ve tried others, and while good, nothing quite beats my favorite dish.

Why’s it so good? Well, Don Antonios has one of the few wood-fired ovens in New York – the perfect fuel for making unforgettable Italian pizza (the coal-fired ones are for those American-style pies).

So forget Little Italy if you want real authentic pizza; there’s a little piece of Naples waiting to be discovered up on West 50th.