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fundamentalA refined take on the burger was what I’d expected when I’d completed my dinner reservations for Fundamental LA a few Fridays back. What I left with was a remarkable evening centered on familiar ingredients surprisingly repurposed for the betterment and cultivation of one’s palate.

The restaurant’s space in the afternoon is filled with a warming glow and shows off the artfully industrial décor; at night, in the absence of the sun, the eatery heats up, transformed into a chic and grown-up destination that conjures images of dining spaces in the finest big cities in our country. It’s cozy square-footage, intensified by the animated buzz of patrons and staff, completes the day-night metamorphosis.

A menu divided by plant and animal themed fare and creative wine list work hand-in-hand to provide everything necessary for a great dinner at a modest price. However it wasn’t the sides or the elegant 2006 Gigondas decanted into a 1000ml flask that had me hooked. It was rather one entrée—the “bœuf burger.”

fund burgA fifty-fifty blend of short rib and brisket that had been dry-aged for 2-4 days, blanketed by a finely melted Tilamook cheddar, arugula, house made pickles, garlic aioli, ketchup and a brioche bun, arrived halved, flaunting the precise cooking time that achieved a medium rare and highly desired pinkish core.

Ostensibly quotidian, from the familiar ensemble of ingredients to the presentation, nothing appeared novel, but that was belied by the careful attention to detail. Not only was the cooking time flawless, the preparation brought out a savory and well-seasoned patty. Umami! As for the well-worn supporting cast, each played their part in completing a surreal burger; a careful spread of garlic aioli added a sharp undercurrent of flavor while the arugula delivered a peppery element. In this place, I couldn’t imagine their burger served on anything other than a brioche bun.

The burger experience was reminiscent of that girl next door, growing up awkwardly together, seeing her through her first attempts at make-up, and her wildly different fashions, until one day, as if out-of-nowhere, it all comes together gorgeously—no seams exposed—and you are left with someone you’ve known for a long time but that you don’t know at all. The burger at Fundamental LA is worth your acquaintance.

Grenache Strawberry Jam, not only the name of one of the most complete and visceral albums from Animal Collective but a tasting note found in one of the finest Californian Grenaches I had the pleasure of evaluating with my Tuesday tasting group.

The subject was Garnacha—oddly enough, after the reveal, no Spanish wines were found—and the 2010 Amor Fati Grenache emerged as a clear-cut winner.

Among Gigondas and Cannanau di Sardegna, my favorite wine of the night was born a few hours north, in Santa Maria Valley. The noticeable difference in color–medium ruby—had me intrigued from the start. The bouquet had a medium-plus intensity showing strawberry jam and lightly crushed raspberries—lavender, black pepper, leather and dried flowers. An effeminate perfume translated to a clean and exciting wine with medium body, medium-plus alcohol (pleasantly warm), medium-plus acidity and medium tannins (fine grained on the gums) that exploded with a medium-plus flavor intensity of a red fruit core balanced by dried herbs, flowers and cracked pepper.

Relative to the other Grenache of the night, once it was revealed we were stunned to find that this was a domestic expression. It was tense yet balanced, showing a lot of restraint from the winemaker’s hand while wringing out the most of an incredibly attractive red wine that was suitable for aging. A bit outside of our stated price range but well worth it—I would strongly recommend finding this bottle of Amor Fati Grenache.

Bacon fat, olive brine, truffle and any number of other complementary flavors make Syrah a pairing fascination of mine. It’s got spunk and has always been high on my list of wines to probe; less esoteric than some of my other highly ranked wines but more charming than most, with unabashedly out-there odors and its ability to pair with such a wide variety of food, there is little to dislike about this genuine varietal. I love the grape so much that I decided to make it the focus of my first group tasting (a new group) last week, to explore further terroir and the producer’s techniques—a scholastic approach to each wine than regularly figures in my other tasting group.

There were three of us—a manageable cadre—with no distractions, just three separate bottles of wine, glassware and our notes. Three bottles from three different continents (Australia, North America and Europe) between us: 2009 Tyrell’s Single Vineyard Steven’s Shiraz (#158), 2008 Moulin de la Gardette Gigondas (#157) and K Vintner’s “Cougar Hills” Syrah (#156). Though the Gigondas was primarily Grenache—as mandated by the AOC—we thought it would be fun to see how Syrah behaved when asked to play a supporting role.

We began the night with the Gigondas, listening to a succinct presentation about the wine and the region before dissecting the bottle before us. The coloring was ruby with light to medium depth in the glass. The complex bouquet of white pepper, mushroom, leather, red berries and Gorgonzola cheese had my mouth watering before I brought the Grenache-heavy blend to my lips and dabbed a tongue. I took my first sip, swooshing vigorously and expecting a lot, instead, I was alarmed by the paucity of discernible flavors; faint red fruit, moderate drying tannins, medium body and a surprisingly short finish. We were all shocked, the wine’s gorgeous bouquet translated to a truncated note—we were grasping for all that we could on that first bottle but we were left with a vanishing act. It was not a fair portrayal of Syrah so we detoured to the Pacific Northwest.

Moving on to Washington State, I gave a little talk on Walla Walla Valley—with its loess soils, dry (an average of 12 inches of rain) climate and more about the history of the AVA before discussing Charles Smith. We took a look at the wine; the “Cougar Hills” Syrah possessed a deep garnet hue in the glass. On the nose there was a decidedly meaty quality to it, with notes of bacon, barbequed meats and dark fruits. With just one sip the wine was definitely big, armed with mouth-jarring flavors of roasted coffee, blackberry, grilled meat, smoke and chocolate. The smoky Syrah from Washington State had a good hefty structure, moderate acidity, a nice not overbearing compliment (sic) of oak and a long finish that made us all but forget the previous wine.

The last bottle on the table had begun its life in the Hunter Valley, Australia’s oldest growing region, an area close to Sydney, famous for its examples of Semillon and Shiraz that grow in the well-drained red clay loam in the upper and lower parts of the valley. We poured Tyrell’s Single Vineyard Shiraz that was a composite of ruby and garnet in the stemware. The wine was powerfully aromatic with notes of red cherry, vanilla and worn leather. It was bursting with bright red fruit balanced by lightly drying tannins, moderate acidity and a long simple finish. The Shiraz did not showcase enough complexity on the palate to warrant a first place finish (if we were judging) but the unembellished style was done well and though singular, it was not without breadth.

I was impressed by the many suits of Syrah, from the darker, smokier impressions to brighter expressions of fruit—Syrah could do it all. I knew this going in to the tasting but it was nice to have it reaffirmed. Next time (and in the near future), I might limit the Syrah tasting to strictly Northern Rhône exemplars because Côte-Rôtie has eluded me to this point in my wine career.

Last week I had the pleasure of taking my parents out for a dinner at Lucques Restaurant for their annual Rib Fest, replete with cowboy hats, strewn hay, leather boots (minus the spurs), plaid shirts and lots of ribs—the only thing missing was Robert Earl Keen Jr. or Steve Earle. Number 201 had some sauce on it.

I was thinking about the pairing all day, leaning towards a Zinfandel or something with hulking body and an extra bushel of fruit that would compliment the different variations on ribs—there were beef, lamb, pork ribs aplenty—and the other fare: spicy chicken wings, collard greens, cole slaw, baked beans, grilled cornbread, wonder bread, corn and a watermelon mint salad rounding out the bountiful spread.

When I combed over the menu I gravitated toward Southern Rhône, finding value and unexpected beauty much like seeing that neighbor girl in a different light, having my index finger stop at Domaine du Ferme. I would be lying if I said that I knew that producer, but what did catch my eye was Gigondas—another stellar outcrop of Grenache outside the grips of Chateauneuf-du-Pape—where I could remember an excellent meal and a great bottle when dining at Jar over a year ago. Those bottles stay with you and the memories of the people you ate with last forever (or until, the onset of dementia), needless to say that is one that will last indefinitely.

Gigondas is just south of the Dentelles de Montmirail, and is an area renowned for producing spicy red wines comprised of up to 80% Grenache and then blending different proportions of Syrah, Mourvèdre and an even lesser amount of Carignan into the mix. Gigondas also brings to mind exemplary rosés but those were far from my thoughts when I was playing matchmaker with barbeque.

Domaine du Terme arrived at the table wearing the proud crest of Gigondas, after it was poured; we sat staring at the beautiful and bright coloring in our Spiegelau glassware. The wine had a moderate odor—not quite leaping from the glass—redolent of dried herbs dashed over raspberries, some fresh cracks of pepper and a little pomegranate. The juice was full bodied, with good acidity and a long finish of spiced red fruit, earth and a light echo of cedar and it was no surprise that this wine would be a good fit with barbequed meats.

When it came time for the pair to meet, the Gigondas and California barbeque were perfect for each other like Teemu Selanne and Paul Kariya, even the “too hot to handle” chicken wings were quelled by the acidity inherent in the wine. This was one of the best wine pairings I have ever had, much like the Clos la Coutale Malbec with the Louis III burger from Long Beach—divine.

The Rib Round Up was absolutely amazing, raising the bar from last year’s Lucques’ luster (with little room to improve!) and going down as one of my most successful pairings ever. I am growing my knowledge but sometimes I just get lucky and this time I was very happy to be so fortunate.

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