Tag Archive: Sparkling Wines

Maat, Cabernet, Sparkling Wines

Cuisine & Vins
December 2006, page 46

cuisine insider tips
Argentina for beginners

It’s bad enough that being on vacation is license to forget about your diet, exercise, budget, and more simply, any sort of self-restraint. Top that off with heading out at holiday time, a period that’s sure to call for occasions of over-eating and too much drink, and you know you’re in trouble. Since you already know it, just relax and accept it – take our recommendations for celebrating the festivities, Buenos Aires style.

Gascon Rose BrutThere’s no question that holiday dining and partying calls for a bottle or two of bubbly. Forget all those theories about “true Champagne” being the one and only choice. Anyone who drinks enough sparkling wine knows there are some amazing ones out there from other parts of the world – and different areas have their own distinct styles. Miguel Escorihuela Gascón Rosé Extra Brut “Pequeñas Producciones” 2004 may simply be the finest rosé sparkler produced in the southern hemisphere. It’s a one hundred percent Pinot Noir, methode champenoise espumante from the Luján de Cuyo subsection of Mendoza. Absolutely bone dry, that is light, delicate, and elegant. The structure is backed up by delicious mixed berry fruit that lingers on the palate. The wine has a simply stunning pale pink color. For celebrating, this one is a solid winner – and sure, it may set you back a whole 90 pesos or so in a store, but remember, you’ve ditched your budget while you’re here.

bohemeRos´ champagne, or “pink champagne” may have a bad rep in some circles. There are folks out there who consider themselves to sophisticated to even give it a try. If you just know you’re stuck with a couple of those at your holiday gathering, or if you’re willing to admit that that describes you to a “t”, you’ll have trouble doing better than Luigi Bosca’s “Bohème” Brut Nature. A classic blend of the three “Champagne” grapes – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier – this vibrant wine is packed full of complex flavors that require a deep breath just to recite. With incredible structure and great acidity, the profile combines wonderful aromas of lime blossoms and wildflowers with rhubarb and strawberry pie, touches of citrus and tropical fruits. The absolutely dry character of the wine gives it an austerity worthy of comparison to some of the world’s best sparkling wines. This wine will set you back 150 pesos at retail price, and it’s worth every centavo.

Visitors to Buenos Aires are often surprised, and perhaps even a bit disappointed, to find that there aren’t a lot of big public celebrations for Christmas. Many Latin American countries have major events going on in the center of the main town square (we don’t really have one here), and there are festivities all over the place to join in on. Some of that definitely goes on in other cities in the country, and especially smaller towns. But here, Christmas tends to be a very family oriented event, and the streets can seem eerily quiet as everyone disappears inside to spend time with family and friends. It’s also, of course, not a place for a “white Christmas”, falling at the end of spring, beginning of summer, and it can often be hot and humid. Because of the family focus, a large number of restaurants are simply closed, and dining out becomes an exercise in search capabilities – hotels become your best friends.

On the flip side, New Year’s Eve is, as in many a big city, party time. You won’t find the drunken street brawls of, say New York City, but every major hotel, and most of the major restaurants will offer up some sort of prix fixe menu with champagne, dining, and maybe even a little dancing. We’re, of course, all about food and wine, and pulling out all the stops, so a couple of recommendations for some of the finest food and best wine lists in the city are in order.

Cabernet restaurant
In the heart of Palermo SoHo is the trendy, and truly excellent Cabernet, Jorge L. Borges 1757, 4831-3071, where you can dine in the elegant and simple dining room, or better yet a festive night under the stars in their beautiful garden. With one of the best wine lists in the city, and one of the few lists of breadth that doesn’t ratchet the prices up to silly heights, you can afford to have them pop more than just a celebratory bottle of champan and delve into their excellent selection of wines from all over the country. The food is cocina de autor, which more or less means “chef’s whim” – in this case more or less Mediterranean in style with touches of Asian fusion thrown into the mix. Portions are big, the food is delicious, and it won’t completely strain your wallet.

In a totally different vein is the semi-private club, Maat, Sucre 2168, in Belgrano, 4896-1818. I say semi-private, because although Maat bills itself as a “private gourmet club”, they are open for dining and wining to the public, with a slight limitation – that is, that non-members are only allowed to make three reservations a year (of course, you can take turns reserving with your friends should you care to dine there more often). Extraordinarily creative French based cuisine is served up in an elegant palacio – a gorgeous old two story stone building that’s been restored and fancied up into something worthy of a dining club. The wine list is easily in the top five in the city, and service is formal, with a tuxedoed sommelier and all – but no attitude.

In October 2006, I started writing for this Spanish language magazine, covering their English language section for travellers. I wrote for them for about two years. The copy editor, apparently not fluent in English, used to put each paragraph in its own text box on a two column page, in what often seemed to be random order, making the thread of the column difficult to follow. I’ve restored the paragraphs to their original order.


Silver Screen

Outlet Radio Network
March 20, 2005

Silver Screen

James Bond roars across Europe in an Aston-Martin and tens of thousands of people rush to their local car dealer demanding to purchase one just like the one he drove. No? Make that Dr. No and let him mention Dom Perignon ’53 (which he preferred to the doctor’s ’55), and the public rushed their local wineshops demanding the ’53. The same scene is basically repeated in Goldfinger; yet in Thunderball, he goes for the ’55, and in You Only Live Twice, the ’59. Marilyn Monroe was a big fan of the ’53. Various vintages of Bollinger champagne are featured as well… ’69, ’75, ’88, and ’90. The ’34, ’47, and ’55 Chateau Mouton Rothschilds from Bordeaux make their appearances as well. (I won’t get into all the rest, there’s [was, no longer in existence] a great site for James’ drinking habits at Make Mine a 007… I’m only using these to make a point… soon.)

Demi Moore offers Michael Douglas a bottle of ’91 Pahlmeyer Chardonnay in the film Disclosure. Sales of Pahlmeyer wines, and not just the ’91 Chardonnay, rocketed. It became “the” cult wine to get for a short time. Prices were raised.

And now, we have Miles in Sideways proferring pretentious wine advice on Pinot noir, Merlot, and what have you. Sales of Pinot noir have climbed, sales of Merlot have dropped. It will no doubt be temporary. But try getting your hands on the three featured wines in the film. Many retailers and restauranteurs (not to mention the wineries themselves) have raised prices or are doling them out in small quantities. Tourism in Santa Barbara has gone up (well it is beautiful).

I won’t go on and on, though it’s possible to, I’d rather get to my point. Starting back from my opening line, the point comes down to… hey folks, it’s a movie. Some scriptwriter wrote it. Some director directed it. Actors were given scripts and lines to say. In many cases some winery, or at least their marketing company, horror of horrors, shockingly, paid for the product placement!

Now, I’m not disparaging the tastebuds of Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan, Demi Moore, Michael Douglas or Paul Giamatti, or anyone else who appears in a movie. I haven’t a clue. I haven’t gone out to dinner with any of them. Some of them might have amazing palates when it comes to wine. But here’s a little secret…

Dom Perignon 2265Sean Connery did not personally recommend to you that you go out and buy 1953 Dom Perignon. Really, he didn’t. Paul Giamatti may play the pretentious wine snob well, but he did not personally recommend that you run out and buy Hitching Post’s Highliner Pinot noir, Sea Smoke’s Botella Pinot Noir, or Fiddlehead Cellars’ Sauvignon Blanc. Really, he didn’t either. And without knowing their personal tastes, even if they had, why would you run out to buy it?

Nonetheless, “the herd instinct is strong,” as someone posted on one of the wine geek websites.

Now, I have to get back to explaining to my trekkie customers that the 2265 Dom Perignon (opening sequence of Star Trek VII: Generations) won’t be produced, if at all, for another 260 years… and no, I cannot get them a sample bottle…

I started writing food & wine columns for the Outlet Radio Network, an online radio station in December 2003. They went out of business in June 2005.


Pop My Cherry

Outlet Radio Network
October 13, 2004

Pop My Cherry

Sorry, that was just to get your attention.

I’m on a bit of a mission. It’s somewhat casual, I can’t say I’m devoting a huge amount of time to it. But nonetheless, it’s a mission. I want to bring back the popularity of Maraschino. The liqueur, not the cherry. In fact, I find no excuse for the cherry.

That’s not entirely true. There is an excuse for the cherry, but that’s all it is, an excuse. Originally, maraschino cherries were made from various wild European sour cherries. They were steeped in Maraschino liqueur for days on end, much like brandied cherries are now. Packed in jars, they were shipped off to the wilds of gay Paree, where, in the late nineteenth century, they were all the rage.

Then came Prohibition. Another example of our country carrying a joke too far, something, as I keep reminding you, we’re quite good at. Somehow these wonderful, wild, sour, European cherries that had spent their days lazily floating about in liqueur were converted into what is, simply, an abomination. Some minion of evil, unknown to me, took sweet cherries, pickled them overnight in salt, sugar and alum to bleach them, then soaked them in red food coloring and a sugar solution to produce the vivid vermillion balls we now find sunken in our drinks. So that’s the excuse.

To finish off with the cherries themselves. Try making your drinks with brandied cherries, which are readily available in fine food shops. You’ll be surprised at how much more interesting they are. Even better, if you’re making drinks at home, make your own. It’s not that hard to put a bunch of cherries in a jar and fill it with brandy… or better yet, the original, Maraschino liqueur, and let them soak for a few weeks.

Which brings us back to my mission. It was a serendipitous find, this liqueur. Well, sort of. You see, I was reading a novel of historical fiction – a fascinating book, Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson. The details of the book are irrelevant, but there was a passage in the book where two of the characters pop open a tin of caviar. A discussion ensues in which one asserts that the typical vodka or champagne accompaniments are just plain wrong, and that the original drink that the czars of Russia imbibed with good caviar, was a good shot of chilled Maraschino.

I had to try it. My friends and I were stunned at how well the two went together. The slightly bitter, slightly sweet, intensely cherry flavored liqueur balanced perfectly against the briny, crunchy sturgeon roe. It was a match made in heaven. Not that I eat much in the way of caviar on my budget, but I doubt I’ll ever have anything else with caviar again.

Which led me to explore this liqueur. Again, once wildly popular, it has for the most part become one of those bottles on the back bar, or even hidden away, or even non-existent, at most drinking establishments. To the best of my knowledge only two brands are currently imported to the United States, though they are by no means the only ones made. Luxardo and Stock. The former is probably the most recognizable – coming in a thin green glass bottle, the lower two-thirds covered in wicker. The Stock is slightly sweeter, and has a less interesting bottle. The Luxardo has a touch more of that bitter note.

Maraschino is a clear liqueur made from marasca cherries. These are grown throughout the Dalmatian coast area, i.e., Croatia and Istria. The liqueur is made from both the juice of the cherries and the essence of the crushed cherry pits, which is where the hint of bitterness comes from.

There are dozens upon dozens of old cocktail recipes (and here and there new ones) that make use of this spirit. Any good bar book will direct you to several, the top bartending websites like Webtender and DrinksMixer list, respectively, 49 and 117 cocktail recipes that make use of it. I recommend it. I urge you to try it. Oh just go out and buy a bottle, throw it in the freezer, buy a tin of good caviar, and serve shots alongside. You won’t be disappointed.


2 ounces of dry gin
½ ounce of dry vermouth
2 dashes of bitters
½ ounce of Maraschino

Shake these ingredients with ice. Strain into a martini glass where you will delight to the beautiful soft peach color. Garnish with a proper cocktail cherry, i.e., either a homemade Maraschino cherry as discussed above, or a brandied cherry.

Wine picks for this column:

Cantina Nalles & Magre Niclara Pinot Bianco, 2003

Pinot Bianco, or Pinot Blanc, is one of my favorite white grapes. In the hands of a skilled winemaker it somehow seems to combine the steeliness and dryness of a good Pinot Grigio with the delicious aromatics of a Pinot Noir. Not surprising, since all three come from the same family of grapes. This is one of those delicious examples. My only disappointment – the wine in former vintages used to come in a bottle with a beautiful label adorned with a Venetian print, and was called “Lucia”. Now it comes with a somewhat ordinary label with a little countryside scene, reminiscent of a dozen other producers’ wines from the Alto Adige area of Italy. Still, the wine is a find. Pair this up with spicy preparations of seafood, vegetarian dishes or lighter meats. From Village Wine Imports, 212-673-1056. Around $10.

El Chaparral de Vega Sindoa, 2002

Spain, and the Navarra area in particular, is the current source of many of the new, hot wines hitting the market these days. It is worth your time and effort to explore as many of these as you can. This particular gem has been a favorite vintage after vintage, and the new release of the 2002 is no exception. Made from old vine Garnacha (Grenache) grapes, this is a concentrated flavors of raspberries and slightly sour cherries, peppery, simply stunning glass of wine. This is a great wine to go with grilled and smoked foods, or just to have on its own. From Jorge Ordonez’ Fine Estates from Spain, 781-461-5767. Around $12.

I started writing food & wine columns for the Outlet Radio Network, an online radio station in December 2003. They went out of business in June 2005.


A Sparkling February

Outlet Radio Network
February 2004

A Sparkling February

February is one of my favorite months. It’s not the weather, which is usually abysmal, at least any place that I’ve ever lived. It’s a combination of several holidays – Groundhog’s Day, Presidents’ Day (and all four presidents individual birthdays that happen during the month – can you name them?), Valentine’s Day, and Lupercalia.

Our little furry friend did or did not see his shadow, I can never remember which one is the good one. Nonetheless it is currently snowing and sleeting out my window, the sky is grey, the temperature is diving faster than Michael and Janet Jackson’s popularity with sponsors, and I’m in a perfectly delightful mood.

Valentine’s Day, a modernization slash christianization of the ancient fertility festival of Lupercalia (you were wondering, weren’t you) has to be my favorite holiday of the year. Except for whichever other ones are. I’m a holiday junkie. There’s something about all those cute little candied hearts, sending “Will You Be My Valentine” cards to all the girls in school (I wonder what would have happened if I’d given one to a boy in first grade), chocolates, roses, chasing naked maidens around with goat skin whips… sorry, slipped back into the old holiday.

But mostly, for me, it is, like all holidays, about the food. Valentine’s Day gives a chance to play with all sorts of seductive, sensuous and ostensibly aphrodisiac foods. There are those we are familiar with here in the U.S. – chocolates, oysters, caviar, honey, figs, strawberries… just to name a few. But with cultural variations there are so many other possibilities – truffles, coriander seeds, pinenuts, vanilla, nutmeg, ginger, garlic…

In fact, there are so many possibilities that it might almost be easier to list the foods that no one has claimed as an aphrodisiac than those that have been!

Now for me, there are a few simple rules. First, there must be somewhere there to share the experience with. If there’s not, I’ll just go draw a bubble bath and sip a glass of champagne. If there is, oh wait, I’ll go draw a bubble bath and break out the champagne anyway. The food should be sensual and slippery to the touch – part, no doubt, of the reasoning behind the crowning of the oyster as king or queen of the aphrodisiacs. And, you should be able to feed each other with your fingertips. No cutlery involved! Which kind of moves oysters out of my spotlight, unless they’re raw on the half shell.

I have to admit, the first thing that always comes to my mind for a seductive tLte-a-tLte is a strawberry dipped in warm melted chocolate alongside that glass of bubbly. In truth, I can rarely think of anything in the food world that is much more appealing.

Okay, the food is taken care of. I know, you thought I was going to give you a recipe this month. Sure, sure… melt some dark chocolate, get some fresh strawberries, dip, feed them to each other, hop in the bubble bath. Use your imagination.

No, via a circuitous route, I’m headed to the bubbly in the glass. Because for me, that’s where the romance part of the aphrodisiac comes into play. Maybe it’s the alcohol. Maybe it’s the bubbles. Maybe it’s the mystique. Champagne can, for me, make or break an amatory evening.

So, what’s the point of this all… Oh yes, to recommend some Champagne for you to drink! Whether for Valentine’s Day, Lupercalia, Groundhog’s Day, George Washington’s Birthday, William Henry Harrison’s Birthday, Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday, or Ronald Reagan’s Birthday (you didn’t think I’d leave you hanging, did you), here are some prime recommendations. Try something other than those “name brands” that you see everywhere (not that there’s anything wrong with them, but be adventurous). And, with the exception of the last recommendation, most of these will cost you less than the “usual suspects.”

One of my year in, year out favorties is Larmandier-Bernier’s Blanc de Blancs 1er Cru Brut, N.V. Oh my, what does all that mean? Let’s split it up a little… Larmandier-Bernier, the name of the estate, currently run by Pierre Larmandier. Blanc de Blancs literally means “white from whites”. As you may or may not know, Champagne can only be made from three different grapes – Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay. The former two are red grapes, the latter white – Blanc de Blancs being a white wine made from only white grapes – i.e., 100% Chardonnay. 1er Cru, or Premier Cru, is a classification by the French government that groups various vineyards into a ranking system – the highest being Grand Cru, then Premier Cru, then all the rest. So Pierre’s vineyards are in the second tier – but trust me, that’s not a bad thing. Brut is a level of dryness, which is a function of the amount of residual sugar in the bubbly when it arrives at your table. There is a scale for Champagne that goes from sweet (Doux) to bone dry (Brut Zero). The most common has just a touch of remaining sugar, and is called Brut. And finally, N.V. – Non-Vintage, which very simply means that the wine is a blend of more than one year’s production. This is quite common in Champagne as it allows the winemaker to keep a consistent style year after year by blending the results of several vintages to keep your tastebuds happy.

Back to the wine in question – laser focused purity of fruit with delicious apple and yeast flavors, medium bodied, and absolutely delicious!

A. Margaine Demi-Sec is my current fave when I want something with a touch of noticeable sweetness. Perfect with a cheese course or with dessert, this demi-sec, or semi-dry, has beautiful floral notes and a solid touch of minerals on it. As the importer puts it – “Are you man enough to like a wine because it’s pretty?”

Chartogne-Taillet “Cuvée St. Anne”, N.V. is a just plain “wow” sparkler. Big, rich, and just plain remarkable, this wine is a blend of all three champagne grapes. Flavors of baked apple, butter, and golden beets with a creamy finish make this a fantastic main course bubbly!

Beaumont des Crayères “Fleur de Rosé” is one of my favorite pink champagnes. Once the provenance of call girls and “stage door johnnys”, rosé champagne is not (and truly never has been) sweet pink swill. A few brands that were popular in their heyday gained that reputation, but truthfully, most of the stuff is elegant, dry, and delicious. The pink color comes from a blending of the red (remember the Pinot Noir and Pinot Meuneir) and white (Chardonnay) wines prior to the bubbly process. Which brings up a point – while white grapes can only make white wine, red grapes can make red or white wine! Bite into a red grape and notice that the red color is virtually all in the skin – with careful pressing, part or all of that color can be left behind in the winemaking process.

Duval-Leroy “Paris” is a winner not just for the delightful wine in the bottle, but for the bottle itself. A dark blue, wide bodied bottle, with a gold silk-screened Paris café scene created by artist LeRoy Neiman is beautiful to display. But pop the cork and find a blend heavy on the Pinot Noir with Chardonnay topping it off that yields a delicious quaff with flavors of honeysuckle, white flowers, and hazelnuts.

Comte Audoin de Dampierre “Cuvée des Ambassadeurs”, N.V. is made by a real count. Well, okay, he owns the place, he doesn’t make the wine himself. And the “Ambassadeurs” comes from the wine being the “house champagne” at nearly four dozen French embassies around the world. A delectable fifty-fifty blend Chardonnay and Pinot Noir has a wonderful golden color, and notes of wood smoke, flowers, and grapefruit. Quite nice!

Last, but by no means least (and the most expensive one listed here) as one of my favorite champagnes of all time, Vranken-Demoiselle “Cuvée 21”. Created by Champagne Demoiselle (now owned by the corporate Vranken Group), as the answer to champagne in the 21st century, this is a lush, rich champagne with flavors of fresh baked biscuits topped with apple butter. Oh, and the gorgeous bottle trimmed in gold and served up in its own blue velvet sack is pretty damned enticing as well.

Happy February all!

I started writing food & wine columns for the Outlet Radio Network, an online radio station in December 2003. They went out of business in June 2005.


Champagne Cocktails

Q San Francisco
November 2002
Pages 48-49

Champagne Cocktails

champagnecocktails1It was 1933 and Prohibition had just ended. Sherman Billingsley moved the world famous Stork Club to its third and final incarnation in east midtown Manhattan. Already famous for treating favored guests to a round of champagne, something inspired him to introduce them to the “champagne cocktail.”

It was, perhaps, a natural development. There were already cocktails that employed white wine, red wine, and port. Every liquor and liqueur had being mixed and matched with abandon. Why not throw things into a glass of champagne?

The cocktail itself is a simple affair: a cube of sugar is drizzled with a few drops of cocktail bitters and rested in the base of a wide, saucer style champagne glass which is topped with a bit of bubbly. It became all the rage of the era’s “jet set” (not that they had jets).

Purists today still shudder at the idea. After all, champagne is a venerable drink in its own right. It is relatively expensive, and, for many, the pinnacle of winemaking. Nontheless, the wave that this introduction created became a veritable storm as bartender after bartender in top hotel bars and clubs felt the need to not only duplicate, but re-create.

Looking through varied and sundry bartending guides is an easy way to see the wide variation on the theme. My favorite guide from the era, The Gentleman’s Companion, lists five interpretations from as far afield as Rajputana, India; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Shanghai in China, and the bar on the Ile de France ocean liner. The online bartending guide, Webtender, lists no less than eighty-seven champagne drinks. And the recently published Champagne Cocktails lists more than one hundred!

Admittedly, these authorities include concoctions that stray far from the classic. So do many of us with our kir royales and brunch mimosas. At my restaurants we do versions that include such exotica as puréed litchis and pomegranate molasses!

Afficionados of the genre lean towards the saucer style glass for this cocktail. Legend has it that the original saucer was molded off of Marie Antoinette’s right breast. A rarity in the typical bar today because “it makes the bubbles go away to fast”, the champagne coupe has practically disappeared. Simply, if your champagne is going flat, you’re drinking too slowly.

It’s a shame, because while it may be classy, or maybe just plain yuppie, to sip contemplatively from a narrow flute, it’s just not the same when you entwine your arm with a loved one’s and sip from each other’s glass.

Likewise, many “mixologists” have taken to using granulated sugar or sugar syrup instead of the classic sugar cube. Sure it provides the sweetness (though, with a cube, it’s gradual), but does it have class?

Here are a few classic recipes guaranteed to please your holiday guests.

Classic Champagne Cocktail

Place a sugar cube in the center of our aforementioned champagne saucer. Drop two to three drops of Angostura bitters directly onto the cube. Top with decent quality champagne (Laurent-Perrier Brut is my “house” choice for this drink) and add a twist of lemon peel. Contemplate how much better life just got.

There are recipe books out there that call for the addition of an ounce or so of good quality brandy to this drink. Traditionally, this is known as a Business Brace, rather than a Champagne Cocktail. Some fun variations, however, are to substitute other bitters for the Angostura – possibilities include orange bitters, Campari, Dubonnet and Punt e Mes – use your imagination.

Kir Royale

This is among the simplest of champagne drinks. A mere half ounce of crème de cassis (black currant liqueur) topped with champagne and garnished with a lemon twist. Use really good quality cassis to truly make this drink, my favorite is a “double crème” from Liqueurs Cartron.

Mimosa or Bucks Fizz

Three ounces of freshly squeezed orange juice topped with champagne and garnished with a twist of orange peel. What could be simpler at brunch? Please don’t use O.J. out of a carton, there’s just no substitute for quality ingredients! An ounce or so of Grand Marnier added to this drink makes the Grand Mimosa, and adds a certain something to it. I personally like to use Gran Torres orange liqueur from Spain which just gets my maracas shaking…


The true classic Bellini is not some formulation of peach liqueurs and orange juice and champagne. In fact, rather than champagne, it uses Prosecco, a light, crisp sparkling wine from northeastern Italy. And the peach flavor comes from fresh peach juice, in much the same proportions as the Mimosa has with orange juice. A dash of bitters would not be out of place in this drink. Garnish with a slice of fresh peach. Come on, you bought that juicer for something, get it out from under the counter!

French 75

Named, basically, for a large gun, this is a good cocktail for considering questions of world peace and whether to take that summer share. Mix a quarter ounce each of fresh lemon juice, Cointreau and gin and then top with four to five ounces of champagne. Resist the urge to add sugar as many recipes call for, that’s what the Cointreau is for.

Q San Francisco magazine premiered in late 1995 as a ultra-slick, ultra-hip gay lifestyle magazine targeted primarily for the San Francisco community. It was launched by my friends Don Tuthill and Robert Adams, respectively the publisher and editor-in-chief, who had owned and run Genre magazine for several years prior. They asked me to come along as the food and wine geek, umm, editor, for this venture as well. In order to devote their time to Passport magazine, their newest venture, they ceased publication of QSF in early 2003.


The Ultimate Cocktail Party

Q San Francisco
July 2002
Pages 46-47

the ultimate COCKTAIL PARTY

Sean_Connery_James_2362858aIn my mind, the ultimate cocktail party is one straight out of a James Bond film. (Points here if you can name all seven actors who’ve played the part – without doing an internet search.) The parties are all similar: a classy locale, lots of martinis, champagne and caviar, good music, and interesting people. Party crashers, like James himself, who was virtually never an invited guest, are always welcome and treated well. Preferably, they wouldn’t beat up the hosts or other guests looking for information about diamond shipments, moon rockets, or nuclear submarines.

Key to all of the planning, and a successful party, is inviting interesting people. Virtually all else can be forgiven if your guests can enjoy themselves with each other. And unless you’re looking to have your furniture dismantled, don’t invite those two ex-lovers who go straight for the jugular on sight. It may be amusing for a few minutes in some warped world, but it gets tired quickly. A mix of people from different walks of life keeps the conversation lively. If you just invite a group of people from your own industry, everyone just talks about work.

Next, the venue. Most of the time that means our apartments, houses, or a friend’s apartment or house. All well and good, but make it look different from the way you live in it day to day. A little thought to decor, lighting, flowers, maybe rearranging your furniture for the evening, all go to make the space seem special.

Music should be picked to fit the event. Do you want people dancing? Do you want them lying about on couches? Either way, keep in mind that the primary function of the evening is a chance for people to socialize. If they have to shout just to be heard two feet away, you’re playing the Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” too loud.

Now, on to my favorite topic: food and wine. Since we’re thinking 007, the food is caviar. First, let’s have a little primer on fish eggs. Only sturgeon eggs (roe) may be labeled caviar, a word derived from the Turkish havyar,which means “egg.” The sturgeon is an ugly, toothless, bony-plated, cartilaginous fish that can live over a century and weigh more than a ton. Among the couple dozen sturgeon species in the world, those that really matter to caviar are found in the Caspian Sea, which borders Iran on the south and Russia and Kazakhstan on the north.

Back in the thirteenth century, when the Russians first made caviar, they named the biggest of their sturgeon beluga; the middle-size, osetra; and the smallest, sevruga. The fourth, the sterlet, produces “golden” caviar, and is so rare that only those of you with unlimited expense accounts need look for it.

Caviar should be served with a minimum of accompaniments. Toast points, blini (little pancakes), or thinly sliced cooked potatoes are traditional. All that chopped egg, onion, chives, sour cream garnishment is so I-have-no-idea-what-I’m-serving. The idea is to savor the flavor of the roe as they gently pop in your mouth, not turn them into a sideshow ingredient. Oh, and don’t use a metal spoon to serve the caviar, it changes the flavor.

At anywhere from $25 to $75 an ounce, there’s no question that caviar is expensive, but remember, we’re putting together a cocktail partyto entertain James Bond aficionados and the jet set.

There are three classic drinks to serve alongside your caviar sampler: black tea, iced vodka, and champagne. I will add a fourth, premium saké. For this column, and the throwing of cocktail parties, I will not delve into the riches of tea leaves and brewing. However, if you have the sort of friends who appreciate fine teas you may want to provide your guests with a diversified selection from around the world.

Every time I turn around there seems to be a new premium vodka on the market. The latest trend seems to be to package them in a bottle that in some way resembles an old apothecary bottle (Ultimat and Precis immediately leap to mind). My current faves for iced shots, are Van Hoo and Mor. For those of you who simply must have flavored vodkas, check out the line from Charbay here in the good old U.S. of A. For our caviar party, perhaps stick with the Meyer lemon or blood orange flavors.

Each time champagne comes up in this column I inevitably turn to my classic favorites, Krug or Demoiselle Cuvée 21. Given that we’re splurging on the caviar, why not? For some interesting other selections, and certainly a little easier on our already stretched wallet, try Laurent Perrier Brut L.P., Larmandier-Bernier Blanc de Blancs, or the newly introduced Iron Horse Vineyards “Good Luck Cuvée”.

When it comes to saké, it is important to choose your selections carefully. First, we’re not talking about that hot swill served at your local sushi bar. Most of that is the equivalent of wine-in-a-box, and often comes in that form. It is heated to disguise the fact that it is basically undrinkable. There are some premium sakés that are made to be heated, but trust me, those aren’t the ones you’re getting for under $10 a flask.

Good quality saké is made to be served at room temperature or slightly chilled. It comes in grades that can set you back anywhere from twenty to several hundred dollars a bottle. For our fantasy cocktail party here, go for a “daiginjo” saké, which, for practical purposes, is the upper level. A list of some of my favorite daiginjos includes Tsukasabotan “Shizuku”, Fukucho “Moon on the Water”, Masumi “Sanka” (nothing to do with decaffeinated coffee), Takatenjin “Shrine of the Village”, and, if you really want to splurge, Otokoyama.

With everything arranged as outlined above, you’re sure to have a party your friends will be talking about for months to come. However, if you want to really have a true 007 experience, consider asking your guests to come attired as one of their favorite James Bond characters. I for one can never get enough of Pussy Galore, Honey Ryder, Rosa Kleb, Jaws and Oddjob.

Q San Francisco magazine premiered in late 1995 as a ultra-slick, ultra-hip gay lifestyle magazine targeted primarily for the San Francisco community. It was launched by my friends Don Tuthill and Robert Adams, respectively the publisher and editor-in-chief, who had owned and run Genre magazine for several years prior. They asked me to come along as the food and wine geek, umm, editor, for this venture as well. In order to devote their time to Passport magazine, their newest venture, they ceased publication of QSF in early 2003.


A Taste for Champagne

Q San Francisco
November 2001
Pages 52-53

A Taste for Champagne
12 Great Choices to Make Your Holidays Sparkle

laurentperrierMy friend Theresa keeps a bottle of champagne open in her refrigerator. Each night, before bed, she has a glass of bubbly. By her standards, we don’t drink enough champagne, and this is her stab at increasing intake. A bottle lasts her four or five days, then on to the next one. She likes to try a new and different champagne with each bottle, 70 to 80 new taste sensations each year.

While I may not jump on the fizzy bandwagon that she has adopted, I understand the urge. Champagne and other sparkling wines can pick you up when you’re down, turning a day of blues into a day of blue skies. At this time of year, what better approach to the holidays is there?

Champagne is not just a wine, it is a place – a place I had the pleasure to visit this past spring. It’s a beautiful region of France in the countryside to the northeast of Paris with quaint towns and villages. Bistros serving up goblets full of the local sparkle abound. The champagne houses themselves are nestled on back streets. Stately homes have attached fermenting tanks, bottling lines and miles of underground caves. The experience was completely invigorating, and has given me a new appreciation for the whole process.

Let’s look at a couple of my favorites… On the light and delicate side are the wines of Laurent Perrier. A leading light in the champagne world for many years, “LP” was founded in 1812. Laurent Perrier has steadily climbed its way to become the fourth largest champagne brand in the world. One of the first houses to introduce a large percentage of chardonnay into their blend, Laurent Perrier produces a delightful range of champagnes.

The “house” sparkle from Laurent Perrier is their Brut L.P., a crisp, clean, elegant wine with a delicate, lingering flavor. I find it a style that suits many champagne drinkers, especially as a starting point for the evening. Of particular note is the Cuvée Rosé Brut, a beautifully hued pink champagne with elegant berry flavors that is a perfect match for chilled vegetable and fruit soups. It is my first choice of wines to serve with gazpacho. LP also produces a “tête de cuvée”, their delicious Cuvée Grand Siècle. This is a wine elegant enough to serve at your most tony cocktail party.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the wines of Champagne Krug. The fizz from this famed house tend to the big and muscular. Family owned since its founding in 1843, every level of operation is overseen by one member or another of the Krug family. The firm is famous for its insistence on slow, low temperature aging of its wines in oak barrels, something few champagne houses take the time or effort to do. It also creates a unique house style.

The Krug “Grande Cuvée” is the entry level brand, priced at the level that most champagne houses price their tête de cuvées. This solid, yet still amazingly elegant wine, is the “desert island” wine of most wine geeks I know. Advancing further up the price spectrum is the famous Clos de Mesnil, a pure chardonnay champagne made from a single walled-in vineyard in the village of Mesnil. Pure fruit flavors, a beautiful minerality, and big structure, make this a perfect steak champagne.

There are so many other champagnes that, like an Oscar winner attempting to thank everyone, I will no doubt miss some that I would go out of may way to drink. Here, in no particular order, are some favorites.

Perhaps the best rosé champagne produced is the Pommery “Cuvée Louise”. This is a massive wine, suitable for drinking with red meat or even cheeses. Produced only in exceptional vintages, as the saying goes, “it ain’t cheap.” With a bit more delicacy, the De Venoge “Princesse” Rosé goes down smooth as silk, and puts little stress on the wallet, leaving you enough for the cab ride home.

Heidsieck “Diamant Bleu” comes in a beautiful cut glass bottle that only begins to hint at the elegance and deep flavors of the sparkler inside. Heidsieck has made the smart move of slowly doling out its “library stock”, meaning that older vintages that have had time to truly mature are often available. Also in the world of champagnes that age beautifully is the Taittinger “Comtes de Champagne”, a 100% chardonnay, or “blanc de blancs” that develops delightful nuances as it rests.

There are plenty of less well known, harder to find, but easier on the budget champagnes that are worth the search. Larmandier-Bernier Blanc de Blancs is an elegant, creamy pure chardonnay champagne that will convert non-drinkers of the stuff in a split second.

Every now and again I like a champagne that has a touch of sweetness to it. The A. Margaine Demi-Sec is a perfect solution. Rich fruit flavors with a clean line of minerals through it make this a great choice at dessert time.

For pure elegance, both in presentation (a gorgeous cut glass bottle served up in its own cloth, drawstring bag), and flavor, try the Vranken Demoiselle “Cuvée 21”. This stunning blend was designed to take this smaller champagne house into the “21st century”, hence the name.

While personally I like to drink champagne on its own, or perhaps with a small spoonful of caviar on a blini, I understand the need to come up with compelling hors d’oeuvres. Champagne, in my view, calls for simple, uncomplicated accompaniments. A touch of salt, a touch of sweetness, not too much spice. A champagne party is the perfect place for a “raw bar” of oysters and clams on the half-shell, shrimp cocktail, perhaps some simple sushi, peppered mussels. Keep it basic, and let the flavors of the champagne shine through.

Q San Francisco magazine premiered in late 1995 as a ultra-slick, ultra-hip gay lifestyle magazine targeted primarily for the San Francisco community. It was launched by my friends Don Tuthill and Robert Adams, respectively the publisher and editor-in-chief, who had owned and run Genre magazine for several years prior. They asked me to come along as the food and wine geek, umm, editor, for this venture as well. In order to devote their time to Passport magazine, their newest venture, they ceased publication of QSF in early 2003.


Throwing the Perfect Oscar Night Party

Q San Francisco
March 2001
Pages 56-57

Throwing the Perfect Oscar Night Party

martiniglassI have never been nominated for an Academy Award. I’m informed by friends in the know that this relates to my not having acted since a production of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas in fourth grade. I narrated; Brilliantly, I might add. Regardless, I don’t find myself in possession of one of those golden statuettes, affectionately dubbed “Oscar”. Hollywood’s most enduring symbol of achievement was described by screenwriter Francis Marion as “the ideal symbol… an athletic body… with half its head, that part which held his brains, completely sliced off.” At 13-1/2 inches high it would be just perfect as a centerpiece on my dining table.

The true purpose of the Academy Awards, for those of us living in the forgotten fringe of theater stardom, is to see and be seen. It is far more important to be seen IN an Oscar de la Renta than WITH an Oscar de la Statue. The golden boy on your arm should be slightly more pliable than cast metal, and preferably earning his own paycheck.

In this regard, it is truly the Oscar Party that is more important than the awards ceremony. Who’s at the Governor’s Ball? Who’s at Spago? Who’s at Pagani? Who’s with whom? I might note, nobody’s asking, “what did they eat?” Lets face it, more than one salmon canapé and they’ll start popping out of their Cynthia Rowley gowns. Wolfgang Puck may have roasted his chicken breasts with risotto and black truffles, but it didn’t make the front page. As long as there’s champagne and cocktails, everyone’s happy. Not me. Personally, I can’t tell the difference between a Vera Wang and a Vera Charles; But I’ll whip up a Snapper Veracruz or a Pasta PrimaVera faster than you can fasten your seatbelts. There may be no statuette on my sideboard, but I can put a Veal Oscar in front of you that’ll make you forget about Cher’s new dress.

To throw a fab Oscar party begin by inviting those friends you can make catty comments about the movies with, get a big screen TV, and set up the dining table where you can watch the whole thing while you wine and dine. Also, bring out the good crystal, china and silver service – let’s do this right!


Start the night off by preparing “real” cocktails, not cosmos and apple-tinis and woo-woos. If you must drink those, please do it in secret. Martinis and Manhattans are perfect for this sort of party; simple, elegant drinks. A couple of notes about Martinis: First, they involve two ingredients, either gin and vermouth or vodka and vermouth. Looking at the vermouth bottle does not constitute making it an ingredient – that’s a glass of vodka or gin, up. I know we’ve all been raised to think a dry martini doesn’t contain the stuff – it does – just less of it. The original martini was 1/3 vermouth. A dry one should be about 1/8. Try it, you might find out that a martini is actually capable of having flavor. Also, let’s put one fallacy to rest her and now, gin doesn’t bruise. You can shake or stir to your heart’s content. The only thing that shaking does is dilute the gin (or vodka). The same will happen if you stir too long.

When it comes to preparing cocktails, always use good quality ingredients. My current faves for vodka: Mor, Van Hoo, and Rain. Save the more commercial brands, albeit good, for cocktails where the other ingredients are providing the flavor. For gins: Old Raj, Tanqueray #10, and Junipero. Noilly Prat makes a good, basic dry vermouth, but you might try one of the new, interesting brands like King Eider or Vya.

In my book, Manhattans contain bitters. Just a couple drops, but like the vermouth in a Martini, they add to the complexity. A Manhattan is also classically made with rye whiskey. Bourbon makes a good drink as well, but for a change of pace, why not try the original?

Again, good quality ingredients are key. For rye, Canadian Club Classic (12 year old) makes a great drink. My favorite, Van Winkle Family Reserve (13 year old). For sweet vermouth I prefer Martini & Rossi. Also give a look at Vya, which makes a unique style.


Veal Oscar

The classic Veal Oscar is a cutlet of veal topped with white asparagus, crabmeat, and Bearnaise sauce. With a little inspiration from a chef friend, here’s my, slightly different, version. Serves six.

6 thin veal cutlets
1 package of “dashi” flakes (about 5 grams)
3 sheets of “nori”
freshly ground black pepper
3 dozen asparagus spears
1 pound lump crabmeat
½ cup rice flour
2 eggs
1/4 cup cooking oil

juice of two lemons
3 tablespoons stone-ground mustard
2 egg yolks
1 cup olive oil
1 branch of fresh tarragon leaves

Dashi flakes are dried, shaved bonito (a tuna relative) that are used to make broth. Nori sheets are the large green seaweed squares used in making sushi. Both should be available at a good grocery or certainly at any Japanese market.

You will need two small plates and a bowl to prepare. On one plate put the rice flour, on the other, a finely processed (in your food processor) mix of the dashi and nori. In the bowl, lightly beat the two eggs with a couple spoonfuls of water. Season the cutlets with salt and pepper. Coat in the flour, dip in the egg wash, and then coat well with the dashi/nori mix.

Saute in the oil in a large skillet until golden brown on both sides. Place on a warm platter in the oven to hold until ready to serve. Meanwhile, cook your asparagus in just a little water and butter until tender. Season with salt and pepper and reserve on the side.

In your blender, on fairly high speed, whip together the mustard, lemon juice and egg yolks. Gradually add the olive oil – you are basically making a light mayonnaise. At the last moment, drop in the tarragon leaves (not the branch) and process till finely chopped.

In a small pan, warm the crabmeat and when it is hot, stir in enough of the sauce to thoroughly coat the crab. Remove from the heat.

To serve, place a cutlet on each plate, decoratively arrange a half dozen asparagus spears, and top with a good dollop of the crabmeat mixture. Pop a bottle of champagne, or pour another round of cocktails, and seal your bets on Best Picture with a toast.

Q San Francisco magazine premiered in late 1995 as a ultra-slick, ultra-hip gay lifestyle magazine targeted primarily for the San Francisco community. It was launched by my friends Don Tuthill and Robert Adams, respectively the publisher and editor-in-chief, who had owned and run Genre magazine for several years prior. They asked me to come along as the food and wine geek, umm, editor, for this venture as well. In order to devote their time to Passport magazine, their newest venture, they ceased publication of QSF in early 2003.