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Five

Rain favors Indian food the way battle favors the swift, but an end of the year fast-food pledge approached with a chance for giving out a good grade.

Five Guys Burgers and Fries, the establishment, has been flowering like backyard morning glories, taking Southern California root, coming to the doorstep of my alma mater, planting itself minutes from my apartment. The red-checkered burger purveyor was hard to ignore and would be my stop for a to-go order on a wet Saturday evening.

I found parking closest to Broxton Avenue (it remains a constant challenge in the Village), and noticed a dynamic culinary landscape—hardly recognizable from three years ago. A surplus of great choices now existed for students, staff and denizens to dine after school or work, from The Lime Truck and 800 Degrees to Umami. Westwood was mid-food-Renaissance. Trying to stay dry as I advanced upon it, Five Guys appeared like a beacon gleaming brightly through drops on my watery lenses.

Inside my eyes followed a disciplined checkered motif that ran to the counter. Buns next to a chalkboard, scrawled with potato origins (Washington State) and ample peanuts on the countertop, to be shelled by those who wait for all good things. To my custom order, I added a regular side of Cajun fries with some sliced jalapeño ($9).

AmancayaFood in hand I ran to the car—the rain had intensified over the ten-minute wait. With my warm goods and a rally car pace I uncorked an Argentine red and plated the burger and fries as I walked briskly in the door. The tinfoil sphere yielded my customized burger with lettuce, tomato, raw diced white onion, pickles and a little mayo—standard setting—holding the bacon and American cheese for another occasion. The patties (about a quarter inch per) were bigger than expected and lightly seasoned upon first bite. The burger came together well and was exactly as I wanted, the accompaniment (bread ‘n butter pickles and raw onion) adding texture and depth. The extra bites of the pepper weren’t forgotten, jolting the palate intermittently, as I devoured the sandwich. The bun took the worst of the drive home, where the rest of the ingredients were still crisp, the sesame seed bread was quite squishy.

With the burger I was drinking Amancaya Gran Reserva—a blend of Malbec (65%), emitting those luscious black cherry, new leather and sweet spice aromas, and Cabernet Sauvignon (35%), lending structure and medium fine tannins that coated the palate softly. Every minute the Amancaya opened it better served the food.

Skipping curry and bharta could not have been a better idea. The pairing of food and wine was textbook, and my brief journey to Westwood was pleasantly surprising. A good showing for fast-food too, though I’m not sure where the purists will weigh in since Five Guys doesn’t make use of a drive-thru. Regardless, the burger was solid and one of the highlights in my fast-food hunt.

Rosewood Tavern BurgerA day of two inventories passed last Sunday. A long morning session, with a 2:00 AM wake-up call, spanning 13 hours til 3:00 PM, counting floor stock of all things liquid in my retail environment, before moseying over to the restaurant for a second dose of counting bottles. A double-header, I laced up the sneakers, not allowing myself a chance to let a rare Sunday off slip away to make-up sleep, even if that meant more work. The head sommelier was treating me to a burger lunch for allaying his counting woes. My mind’s eye trained on the prize—stories of an epic cheeseburger served on Fairfax Avenue would finally be corroborated or debunked.

Rather than kvetching about the grueling inventory of my primary job, it was actually exciting to finally participate in a restaurant count. The head sommelier and I began a thorough inventory of the cellar lasting about 2 ½ hours, which seemed easier than the 6 ½ hours I’d spent tracking bottles at my retail post, except that the chill of a real cellar put the hazard in the work and started to go through me at the 2 hour mark. Finishing with dessert and sparkling wines—we’d counted everything, and I was ready for lunch at The Rosewood Tavern.

I had heard plenty about this burger before we had arrived—mindful of the many great disappointments with past lunches/dinners where the buzz had fallen short. Regardless, it was going to be fun to have one of my favorite foods with our sommelier outside of dinner service and our regular tasting group contact, and drink a sterling bottle of wine.

2008 Conterno BarberaWe toted a bottle of 2008 Conterno Barbera d’Alba, to lighten our own inventory and sidled up to the bar. It was nearly empty on a Sunday afternoon, a large, dark and spacious décor. We would have two burgers—medium rare—no substitutions—with standard accompaniments. A winning combination.

Between musings on work and occasional glances at the football games we gave scrutiny to the Barbera. The Piemontese red showed a developing nose of black cherry, plums, leather, coffee, smoke and dried herbs. The first sip however, offered something more youthful, with a good core of fruit washing across the palate—indicative of a structured wine with a long road to maturity. The savory flavors reappeared on the finish behind crushed fruits (red but mostly black), carried by a medium plus acidity, and a long and clean finish. It was impressive on its own and would hopefully gather strength with the all-American cheeseburger.

Two massive cheeseburgers arrived after a fifteen-minutes, sharing their burdened plates with a hefty pile of seasoned fries, a picturesque film of cheddar cascading down the half-pound patty, crisp butter lettuce, red onion rings and tomato protruding, and a sturdy looking pretzel bun keeping it together—it was an inviting image.

The first bite suggested a better method would be to eat with utensils. Juice running freely from the medium-rare meat; the first time in a while I could see the evidence of a true medium-rare afforded me in a generous and coarsely ground patty. The fundamentals sound, only one minor flaw emerged—easily ignored—they had over-seasoned the burger. Nothing a little wine couldn’t fix.

A wonderful blend of flavors emerged with each swig of Barbera from the old world producer (the son carrying on the tradition of his father—the late Giovanni Conterno). The acidity waded through the overflow of jus from the grind and tamed down the salty sword of seasoning. A delightful combination of beverage and fare.

For the money—fifteen dollars for burger and fries—it represented great value; the proportions were hearty and fair, but more importantly, the burger was simple and satisfying. Nothing was over-complicated; rather the burger was dialed in and someone in the back of the house understood cooking times! A few pinches less of salt would’ve catapulted Rosewood Tavern to burger fame. A long day of inventorying wine paid dividends as I shared a bottle of one of my favorite Italian cantinas, with a good friend, over one of the finest bar burgers in memory.

Spending free time chasing down bowls of pho in Huntington Beach and slurping ramen off Sawtelle Boulevard (not right off the street of course!)only just began to feed an insatiable hunger for Asian soups, I’ve had lately, whetting my appetite for more. This isn’t anything out of the ordinary for me, oscillating between what I believe is the nexus of American food—the hamburger—and then breaking, craving giant bowls of soup that are synonymous with sustenance on an interim basis. I’ve only documented a few of my Asian experiences but I would love to add another to the annals of my wine & burger blog.

A Friday ago I visited Tatsu Ramen for take-out.  I had a flute of Gewürztraminer (of the Alsatian variety), chilling in the fridge that I hoped would be a surefire pairing with the spicy and salty broth; a brief night off for the German Rieslings.

When I had the items in their to-go containers, I was given instructions on home assembly before I was free to leave–they knew I wouldn’t read them. Once home, I selected a glass bowl, working the contents, submerging the noodles with chopsticks while I poured the 2010 Boeckel Gewürztraminer into my glassware.

I gave the ramen a few more minutes to come together, sniffing the aromatic white wine for that typical ginger ‘n lychee scent. The lychee was prominent, as were the white flower petals, but the ginger and other signature spices were muted.

My bowl of ramen grew indignant; jealous after I showered the wine with attention, and its savory aromas usurped the higher registered aromatics of the wine. It was an invitation to eat.

I readied the chopsticks, shoveling noodles, pork, garlic, green onions, and soft-boiled egg down the hatch. I would pause to take in a sip of the Alsatian wine, which did not seem at ease working side by side with the spicy soup. The two were at each other’s throats from the start. It wasn’t a horrible pairing but there was visceral tension. My choice of Gewürztraminer wasn’t terribly complicated on the palate, dry, medium-bodied with a similar arrangement of flavors (following the nose) on the tongue. It was pretty and carefree where the ramen was hardworking, hearty and with enough spice to bring one’s eyes to water. The eternals of food pairing dangled tantalizingly.

I might’ve had more success with a sweeter wine (Spätlese Riesling with greater acidity too!), neutralizing the capsaicin spice and salinity of the broth with a dosage of sugar for contrast. However the meal was not a total bust, it just failed to reach a satisfying cadence and harmony. With no shortage of do-well ramen joints, this mismatched experience served as another chance to get things right in the next burger hiatus.

It had been one decade since I last stepped foot in a Wendy’s. Despite the long absence, I have always held fond thoughts of the fast food chain, and especially for their late founder, Dave Thomas, the avid hockey fan and supporter of the NHL. Can’t find that combo too easily nowadays. Pushing headfirst forward into my survey of the fast food circuit I made a pit stop at Wendy’s to share a split of Chateauneuf-du-Pape over a ¼-pounder and a French film.

My customary order from Wendy’s was never a burger, but rather chicken nuggets; Wendy’s was never my go-to burgery, having eaten there less than a handful of times in my life. On the rare occasion that I went, I copied one of my hockey line-mate’s orders from afternoon practice in Tustin/Irvine. Then it hit me; this may’ve been my first actual burger from Wendy’s (!), as I rolled up to the drive-thru and placing my request for a ¼-pounder.

I made it out of the drive-thru through for just shy of one five-dollar bill, placing the tote with the warm and redolent contents next to my carefully positioned split. In my possession was a half bottle of affordably priced (though it was sample—free) Châteauneuf-du-Pape from Clos de l’Oratoire “Des Papes” from the less-than-stunning 2008 vintage. The bottle’s vintage label and surprising color scheme has always been attractive to me, even after I learned of Domaine du Pegau, Château de Beaucastel, and Château Rayas—whose labels might communicate a slightly more historic sense and their high prices certainly affirm their significance (of place and pedigree) along with their current acclaim. All this is to say that riding shotgun on the passenger seat, I had the workingman’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

When I pulled up to my friend’s house, with a copy of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos, food, camera and wine, our evening was close to underway. My friend oddly enough had already eaten at Wendy’s earlier in the evening and was just awaiting my review. I set up a mini photo shoot, opening the bottle and positioning my subjects while he readied the DVD. We sat down, while I ate and he talked about the happenings of the day before we started the gangster flick.

The presentation, much like my Burger King experience before it, was in good order. The ingredients looked crisp and fresh. The flavors were simple but the patty was a little dry—no doubt it fell victim to being chaperoned a mile and half out, instead of being wolfed down on the spot; I was willing to give it that. I washed down the mouth-drying burger and reached for a glass of the red wine that was brimming with darker berries and ripe plums, giving way to cracked black pepper, a faint meatiness, and herbal notes of thyme and lavender. It was delightful. I was smitten with the performance of the value-minded Châteauneuf-du-Pape, it elevated the food and certain savory flavors were extracted from the wine while I took my next few bites. It was a favorable exchange, as the Southern French wine did yeoman’s work to mask the only flaw of the burger.

Not only did the wine help the food, it eased us through the unfortunate ending that befell the star of the Melville film. That evening the working-class Châteauneuf-du-Pape was the highlight of the night, supporting both the cinema and food. The Wendy’s showing wasn’t terrible by any stretch, but just like some of my favorite fast-food chains, inconsistency issues can rise to mar the experience. I wouldn’t be against going back but I am in no hurry to do so.

I have been exploring Chardonnay in high volume lately, and while that grape can be found with at least moderate success in many nearby regions, I have limited my scope to examples hailing from Burgundy and few local expressions found in Santa Barbara and the Central Coast. My thesis is finding wines that share the best of the varietal, downplay the oak as a taste factor and skirting the malolactic notes (butter, cheese and yogurt) altogether in favor of a brighter Chardonnay, preserving the Granny-Smith-apple-acidity and leaving my mouth chockablock with minerals and lasting flavors of ripe Comice pears. Not too much to ask for! In staging my latest dinner party I planned a vegetarian-friendly menu centered on a couple different bottles of Chardonnay from producers I was eager to learn more about.

In the early stages I set up a cheese plate representing an array of different textures, though all the cheeses were bovine. I had peppadews and olives to break from the moo-juice based items and to keep the palate excited. Instead of going domestic in the first round, I broke the wax seal of a bottle of Domaine Savary Chablis “Vieilles Vignes” to demonstrate an important function in wine.

There are a few things that make Chablis very special but one of the most exciting elements for my money is the preservation of acidity that comes with the terroir. It is cold in Chablis—the northernmost vineyard area of Burgundy—, which translates to grapes that can struggle to ripen. The harvested grapes are often vinified in steel or neutral barrels to encourage the natural expressions of the fruit. In addition to the sometimes intense mineral flavors that come from the Kimmeridgian Limestone soils, the Chardonnay that exemplifies this appellation is lean, age-worthy and powerful, but, most of all, food-friendly.

I wanted everyone in attendance to bear witness, trying the Chablis with the D’Affoinois Brie to affirm the magical. We grabbed our scoop-vehicles (crackers) for moving the spreadable cheese, consuming them carefully and trying to allow the cream to saturate our mouths while raising our stemware to our lips to complete the demonstration. Once the transaction had completed, eyebrows perked and mouths were curiously refreshed. There was no sign of cream lingering on the palate, in its place, fresh green apples with a squeeze of lemon and a hint of chalky mineral tap-danced atop the taste buds. It was an elegant event, seamless and mystical, a surefire way to illustrate the racy acidity. And it warranted repeat trials.

Post cheese plate, we assembled the vegetarian dinner, each of us working on different facets of the meal to complete the recipes. They were simple and tasty. We traded in our second wine, a domestic Chardonnay for an Italian red, forgoing the compare and contrast part of dinner. Though I was interested in seeing what the Sandhi Chardonnay had to offer, the dinner was great and the Italian red worked well. However, for me there was nothing finer than showcasing the defining attributes of the vieilles vignes Chablis.

It was inevitable that I would want to test the heralded and native red grape of Umbria, before departing the region, with… a hamburger! We all saw it coming. Despite Sagrantino di Montefalco probably never encountering the likes of a 25˚ hamburger, the two together seemed apt…foredestined. My plan would come to fruition (some minor alterations included) with a mutual buddy from Michigan, while visiting a friend who had recently relocated from the Great Lake State, to his new apartment in Franklin Village.

Close to the UCB—Upright Citizens Brigade theatre—our friend (Harry) and his girlfriend found a fitting dwelling that suited their artsy and comedic aspirations. A little pocket of Hollywood that I never knew existed but seemed to have everything I had always imagined Hollywood being without the commercial aspects interfering. We arrived with a decanted bottle of 2006 Tinarelli Sagrantino di Montefalco in tote. We took a look around their place, surveying the handiwork and decorative touches that were applied by his girlfriend. We caught up for a moment and then discussed our lunch options, settling on the closest eatery that had a hamburger.

Within a few minutes walking we had arrived at Franklin & Company. Mostly a beer-heavy gastropub, the tavern poured some carefully chosen wines, but we were sticking to our Italian seven-fifty. We paid a hefty corkage on a bottle I had picked up for only ten dollars at a Trader Joe’s (Shhh! Don’t tell my employers). I was unable to wrap my head around the absurdly low asking price for the Umbrian red wine, yet I snatched it up as if I were stealing it. While I wasn’t sure of its provenance or quality, I was confident that it was the best fit for the casual lunch. It also happened to serve my thesis for the months of dedicating myself to central Italy’s other red wines.

Minutes in we hit a slight snag; the burgers that the tavern offered were not of beef—no, that was Thursday on a themed evening—but of poultry. I had it set that I wanted a burger and was not about to fold over a turkey patty. To be fair, the meal was a play on the Southwest tropes, with tomatillos, roasted onions, and pepper jack cheese, cradled within a signature gourmet brioche roll. I settled. There was a lot used to mask the weak flavors of a turkey patty and we nearly all decided to order the turkey burgers, save for one, who remained doubtful. For two dollars more I traded up my side of potato chips in favor of Brussels sprouts.

A measured glance revealed the Johnnie Walker stairs and the skylights that made Franklin & Company unique. While we talked playoff hockey and studied the environment, our food arrived. Nice presentation, my brioche bun gleamed brilliantly under the sunlight and the other plates looked equally neat. We doled out the wine and were ready to get started.

The turkey burger was nothing special, the flavors masquerading above the patty, as anticipated, helped make the transition a little smoother but in the end, it was still a turkey burger. However, the brioche bun finally found its place on a sandwich, rather than disintegrating under a sopping beef patty, it stayed intact through the duration of the meal.

The wine also helped grease the wheels for the burger, making the entire transaction (bite+juice) a little tastier. The Sagrantino from Tinarelli was a little rough on its own initially, medium plus acid, heavy tannins, yielding dark and earthy flavors. Over the course of the lunch the wine eased up and expressed more, becoming a little easier to tolerate once our plates were clear and where it was the only show at the table.

The dishes were fair, ingredients were good, and my Midwest company was better—all and all we were not completely ruling out a return visit to the tavern. The environment was pleasant and after a UCB offering I could see a group of us mosey down a couple storefronts for a bite. The Tinarelli Sagrantino from Trader Joe’s definitely over-delivered for its price…and the million-dollar answer to burgers and Sagrantino? Totally as successful as Muscadet and oysters!

Umbria’s shadowy landscape was making itself clear to me, the more I read about the region, and tasted, the more secure I was becoming in recognizing native varietals like Grechetto, Procanico, Sagrantino, and Verdello that make up wines unique to a key region in central Italy. Yet, I still hadn’t tasted a Sagrantino—the price point was too steep for casual consumption and almost all the Italian tastings I have attended focused on Super Tuscan or Piemontese wines (Barolo, Barbaresco, Barbera, etc.) because they capture a larger share of the market. My Umbrian curiosity would culminate in a menu built around a wine I had only read about, staging a late night dinner to highlight the prized red wine from Umbria.

I had a few people over for a dinner that would feature the recipes of Latium (Lazio)—the home of the Latins. The region of Lazio shares some overlap with Umbria, at Orvieto, and I felt that would be the perfect segue into Lazio’s red wines. The region is southwest of Umbria and is better known for white wine production that blends Malvasia and Trebbiano. The recipes that were partnering with our wines were simple and savory; pork loin and polenta with marinated zucchini. I had a couple bottles ready for the dinner: 2006 Tabarrini Colle Grimaldesco Montefalco Sagrantino and a 2005 Castel de Paolis Campo Vecchio Rosso from Lazio.

A manageable crowd arrived late for a European dinner (later than 8:00!), beginning the prep work around 8:45 pm. We worked almost immediately, cleaning, chopping and of course drinking as we prepared the dishes. I had a bottle of 2009 Lang & Reed Cabernet Franc to get us ready for the dinner. At that time, I also uncorked the other bottles to allow for some breathing and to check for corked wines. The domestic Cab Franc was ripe, trading that Chinon greenness of ferns and bell pepper for a bucket of new world fruit. It was delicious and worked well with the soft cheese I had put out on the table.

The pork loin and polenta required participation from all of us, as well as the bulk of the ingredients. We opened a bottle of Orvieto for the sauce that would tie together lardo, vegetables and herbs. In various stages we layered flavors, adding more to the base (tomatoes and chicken stock) while the pork loin stewed. The polenta and zucchini took much less time, and about 10:40 pm we had the meal plated.

We started with the Castel de Paolis, which opened up nicely. The red had dusty fruits with savory characteristics that were enhanced by the foods. The acidity also helped balance the tomatoes in the sauce.

We switched over to the Sagrantino Montefalco halfway through the meal. The moment I had been waiting for had finally arrived and it was time to see if the wine could survive my high expectations. The Sagrantino was deeply garnet in my stemware, equipped with a moderately powerful nose of darker fruits, licorice, meat and herbs. It was complex and earthy; we could extract a passel of nuance from the nose. On the palate it had high tannins that a lot of people at the table were not fond of until they took a bite. It was also balanced by great acidity (medium plus) that helped it align with dinner. I was most surprised by the alcohol content (15% abv) that did not register while I drank it.

Our plates were cleaned and glasses emptied. The dinner was a success, everyone raved about the polenta and pork loin and how the foods were in harmony with the Central Italian wines. The Sagrantino might not have been at its ideal point of maturity (though I didn’t have a reference point before I read about my producer), but the flavors were complex and lasting. I felt pretty good about my introduction to Sagrantino and better yet, about sharing the positive experience with friends.

I thought I was dreaming Tuesday night when I ended up at one of the best pizza houses in LA.  Completely random and totally unexpected, I was caught off guard when I was asked to have dinner with a co-worker and fellow foodie on a night I was planning on playing hockey. I altered my schedule and gladly accepted the invitation, excited about the change of pace and the prospects of a great meal before the middle of the week.

I never saw Pizzeria Mozza on the horizon; we had originally slated a Thai restaurant nearby to be our post-work destination. We made our way to Culver City with Riesling in hand, to eat at Thai Boom—a well reviewed Westside Thai establishment—but were bested by faulty directions and unable to find it. After a few passes on the busy roads we gave up, flummoxed, calling an audible by selecting a pizza restaurant that was not too far away. As we backtracked to Westwood, we made a pit stop at my place to exchange the Riesling for an Italian red. We arrived at 800 Degrees with a seven-fifty of Rosso Conero from the Marche region of Italy. We scanned the place but it was not to our liking, we called snobbery on our decision to skip the pizzeria because it reminded us of a Subway. By this time it was getting late (10:15 pm) and our options were all but exhausted because of the waning business hours in the night. Restaurants were dropping like flies as we put our heads together to figure out a resolution… and then it happened. It was almost magical; she insisted that we head out to Pizzeria Mozza. The suggestion clicked, Mozza met all of our qualifications since it was open late and had a sterling reputation for pizza. We b-lined it, calling in a table, and arriving on the corner of Melrose and Highland Avenue just twenty minutes later.

The night was filled with many surprises for both of us. She learned on the car ride over that it was my first time at a the vaunted pizzeria that she had been to frequently, in fact, more than she could count on all of her phalanges. Once we were seated she guided me through the menu ordering many of her favorites. Dishes of bone marrow, Nancy’s chopped salad, squash blossoms, and two pizzas—a withering array of food for just two people to sort out. In addition to the food, we actually ordered an additional bottle of wine—Falanghina from Campania—to accompany our Rosso Conero. The plates came out almost on top of each other; suddenly we were out of real estate on our bantam table. We sipped and ate, to take advantage of the overwhelming flavors heaped in front of us, in the foods, as well as the wines.

The Falanghina was intensely aromatic; pretty notes of flowers and fresh fruits exploded, presenting a nicely balanced wine that paired well with the chopped salad and squash blossoms. Switching up with the heavier fare, the Montepulciano and Sangiovese blend offered dusty red fruits and cupboard spices with enough acidity to partner with the balance of the food. The pizza exceeded expectations. Its crust was ethereal and the fresh toppings and spiced sausage brought out the licorice and cinnamon nuances in the red from Le Marche.

After a sumptuous feast and a savory dessert we called it an evening. Pizzeria Mozza had secured its spot as eatery of the month and we all but forget about the Thai food that could have been. I was able to explore less common wine regions, sample a lot of great food and share an interesting evening with a new friend. However, I was in store for one more major surprise as the bill came—she treated me! I lost the arm wrestling match for the check, shocked by the generosity of an epicure. It went down as a remarkable Tuesday and I even had leftovers.

It’s official I am an adult. Yes, at 26 years old I threw my first genuine dinner party, propelling me squarely into adulthood. I have thrown and hosted other dinner parties before but never where I cooked the balance of the meal. In this case, it was the first where I invited a small group of friends to assist me in approximating regional cuisine, with recipes we were completely unfamiliar with, to be bound to wines of the Languedoc and Costières de Nîmes—or Southern France. As I found out, creating the menu and locating the ingredients certainly ups the ante on what a dinner party can be.

In deciding the menu I had carefully considered the guests—who were mainly vega-pescatarian—in my selection for an all-encompassing menu. I arranged the meal around a couple of Southern French white wines, planning to pair the 2010 Font-Mars Picpoul de Pinet with Croquettes de Brandade and the 2009 Lou Coucardié Rhône white with stuffed Artichoke and Shrimp in green sauce. While the latter dishes were distinctly Italian, I still thought the white wines of Southern France carried an edge over the Central Italian red wines that I had stocked. It was strictly a white wine affair.

I was particularly excited about the Picpoul de Pinet after my recent experience in San Francisco—the freshness of the wine, complimented by its racy acidity make it a food lover’s dream. I also love the price point, the Font Mars, much like the other Picpouls I have purchased in the past, have never registered for more than twelve dollars.

After selecting the courses and inviting my friends, it was time to find the ingredients. This became especially difficult in the case of salt cod (Bacalao), which was an integral component of the croquettes. I called about eight different fish markets while I spent the day in Long Beach, combing southern Los Angeles County for the salt-preserved fish with no luck, until I decided to change strategies. I called an Italian deli and market and was able to get the desired amount with no complications. The other ingredients were fairly simple to gather, culling from my home market here in LA.

I set the clock and began some minor preparations before the dinner began, making breadcrumbs from an older loaf, thoroughly cleaning the vegetables, and plating appetizers as well as cuing the music before my friends arrived. The execution was nearly flawless as the first guests trickled in; it was their first time to my apartment and their tour had put me back some on the things I needed to accomplish before their arrival. They immediately set to work, assisting me in getting the parsley, mint and garlic into form. Everyone wielding blades, and chopping accordingly, we had the croquettes well underway before my roommate came home.

To prime our palates, I poured a domestic Chardonnay, to accompany us as we cooked. The Sparkman Cellars “Lumière” showcased ripe Washington fruit that was soft on the tongue, brandishing a smooth mouthful of apples. The flavors eased us as we slaved over artichokes. Once the innards had been removed, we filled the cavities with the finely chopped garlic, mint and parsley and started their cooking. With pestle and mortar we ground a similar bunch of greens, garlic, and salt into a green sauce, lubricating intermittently with white wine vinegar and olive oil.

After nearly two hours we had plated the foods and had the first glass poured. In our glasses rested the fresh Picpoul, the straw colored wine was recommended to partner with the salt cod croquettes. This became obvious once we sipped the wine after our first croquette, the garlicky mashed potatoes and salt cod mixture was pierced by the crisp gooseberry and citrus-tinged wine. We were ready for the next bite as the Picpoul subdued the distinctly strong flavors of the croquette.

The white Rhône wine was next on deck; a mixture of flowers, honey and Asian pear it would hopefully tame the artichoke and enmesh with the shrimp with a matador’s grace. We ran the leaves between our teeth while we reached for the Roussanne-heavy blend and suddenly the stoic fruit was catapulted forward and the honey notes were accentuated. I learned that cynarin was the culprit for making everything a bit sweeter when eating artichokes. A much more balanced transaction took place with the shrimp in green sauce. After a couple more shrimp, our palates normalized and the flavors began to sync.

Short dessert—a minor oversight—the night went off without a hitch. My roommate remembered that he had a box of chocolates, and, acting swiftly, he shared them with the table to appease our sweet tooth and to cap the evening. Though the Picpoul shined with the croquette, I actually preferred 2009 Lou Coucardié. The honey kissed fruits and generous mouth feel seemed to live up to my fond memories when I had tasted it at a Rhône event earlier in the year. I entered the big leagues, getting the wines, planning the dinner and making the dishes (with help), which was truly gratifying. Dinner parties, much like my time serving wines at a local restaurant, are very addicting… It only took me 26 years to recognize this.

There is never a convenient time to eat a bad burger; one better, to have a bad meal, but it happens. I hate to complain about wimpy or over-complicated gourmet sandwiches but my latest experience, just three days before the New Year would really cut me deep and had that distinct honor of being a bad one.

I had envisioned a place–nothing exotic–rather a bare bones establishment that cranked out consistently delicious griddled/char-broiled fare. Oh yeah, it had to be close and have a BYOB policy too.  We found a candidate quickly, one that did not hurt the wallet because spending greater than $15 did not appeal to me that night. My friend and I were sipping on a bottle of 2008 Petra Lava Rosso (#3) from the D.O.C. of Etna while conducting our Yelp-aided search. We found a place that satisfied both needs but did come with mixed reviews. We were in agreement that Yelp reviews were not to be trusted because there was no accountability for many of the negative write-ups.

We went for it, finishing our glasses of mineral heavy Sicilian red wine, showing off its terroir beautifully. The volcanic soil provided the minerals and there was a layer of smoke coming through before the cranberry would make an appearance. The rosso was sleek like a polished obsidian stone. We corked the bottle and took off for our nearby burger joint in hopes of slaking our hunger.

After a quick jaunt down Olympic Boulevard we arrived at the dingy establishment. The restaurant shared a strip mall with a bevy of other random eateries and was affixed to a strip club. It wasn’t certain how bad the burger was going to be because we were open minded but dubious.

In our midst we had a bottle of 2008 Schild Estate Shiraz from Barossa Valley (#2) that was highly rated. We were confident that the Shiraz would partner exquisitely well with the fare. We ordered two different styles of burgers, going beyond the standard California style and immediately unscrewed the top of the Shiraz to allow for maximum breathing time.

Ten minutes passed before we had our reasonably priced grub. I picked up my order and immediately spotted a red flag, a Kraft-like single hardly melted on the exposed patty. I was nervous and beginning to regret my decision. I cradled the burger and felt the stiff wheat bun resisting my fingers as I applied my grip. The patty was desiccated and even the thousand-island sauce couldn’t save this burger—though curiously it was watered down. There was little taste to the sandwich and I reached for my plastic ware for comfort.

The Shiraz was already showing some deep notes of tar, freshly ground coffee, earthy bramble and buckets of fruit. It was complicated and only getting better as the food paled in comparison. There was talk of us going to In-n-Out to absolve us of our mistake but that passed.

A short drive home filled my car with a John Cage like composition of bitching and bebop Jazz mixing organically. The only thing that helped power us past the worst burger of the year was the promise of great wine, cheese and bread that lay ahead. In the New Year it is inevitable that I will come across some meager and downright awful burgers but let’s hope they come in the beginning of 2012, if at all.

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Wine of the Month

2014 Domaine de Pelican Arbois Chardonnay

Eatery of the Month

Battersby in Brooklyn, NY

Musical Accompaniment