Some people gush over movie stars, rock musicians or, here in DC, powerful politicians. Me, I’m a sucker for anyone in a chef’s jacket. I’m proud to count a few of DC’s finest as friends and more as acquaintances, and if you get me in my cups I’ll be happy to tell you about the time I interviewed Alain Ducasse for The Washington Post. Well add a few more Michelin stars to my firmament – I met Joël Robuchon.
I arrived in Las Vegas for my day job and headed for the MGM Grand, hoping to spend my free evening at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, the first US outpost of the man heralded by his publicists as “the best chef in the world.” The place was closed for a media event. Food writers from around the world were to be feted for two nights to celebrate the restaurant’s grand opening. I whipped out my business card, self-printed with Microsoft Publisher on medium-grade card stock from Office Depot, and explained to the pretty young thang at the hostess stand that she was in luck, for I had arrived by happenstance and would be quite content to squeeze into a corner and enjoy the meal and I really wouldn’t get in anyone's way, thank you very much.
She wasn’t buying. The irony, the irony.
So I returned 48 hours later, dusty from tromping around the desert all day and hoping to score a decent meal before hitting the redeye home, when I see the man himself standing in front of his restaurant with a suit and a younger chef. I drooled for a few minutes, then threw modesty to the wind and introduced myself. Monsieur Robuchon complimented me on my pathetic French and then introduced me to his copains (who turned out to be the VP of food and beverage for the hotel and Philippe Braun, the chef in charge of L’Atelier) as if I was a long-lost buddy from his days in the resistance. I said I was there to dine at L’Atelier as soon as the doors opened and let him go on his merry way.
Shortly after 5:30 another cute young thang tried to shunt me into a corner, but my new friend Philippe guided me to the center seat around the U-shaped bar that is L’Atelier’s signature. This format was considered quite revolutionary in Paris and Tokyo when Robuchon came out of retirement a few years ago to offer “casual” cuisine, but the idea of diners watching their food being cooked and even interacting with the wait staff is not new to Americans. I felt like I was sitting at an expensive diner counter. Small plates are not new here either, though the wait staff kept explaining them as if they were.
That said, I’ve never eaten so well at a diner or tapas bar. It was perhaps the best, and most expensive, meal of my life.
I splurged on the menu degustation, a multicourse offering of small plates for $85, and gave Pascal Bolduc, the Quebec-born sommelier, carte blanche to match me some wines. (For some reason, the restaurant does not offer flights of wines matched to the tasting menu.) For the sautéed foie gras with a citrus and apple sauce, he offered an “ice cider” from Quebec called “Neige,” made from apples frozen on the tree like grapes on the vine for ice wine. I may go to my grave believing this was the ultimate food-wine pairing.
I’ll spare you a blow-by-blow, bite-by-bite account of my meal, except to say foie gras made three appearances overall and I may be spoiled forever for salmon. One can eat less expensively at L’Atelier by picking and choosing among the small plates (full entrées are quite expensive) and showing restraint with the wines. And while the “casual” concept may seem old-hat to American diners, the cuisine Robuchon is not to be missed.
(L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Nev. There is also Joël Robuchon at The Mansion, which is really expensive and aims to recreate or reinvent Robuchon’s three-star cuisine. For more information, see www.mgmgrand.com .)
The Two Brothers label burst upon the value wine scene three years ago, offering a bargain red from Chile with high quality and a philanthropic reason to buy it - the proceeds go to breast cancer research. The wine was a tribute by Alex and Eric Bartholomaus to their mother, Liliana, who succumbed to breast cancer, and was such an instant success that the brothers have contributed more than $500,000 to the cause through 2004, with another $250,000 projected for this year.
Now they expand their line with the delightful 2003 Syrah from Colchagua Valley in Chile. It is soft and supple, instantly appealing with blueberry and cherry fruit and the telltale smoky flint of Chile. It lacks depth, but makes up for it with plenty of charm. Okay, so I'm a flirt.
I love Sauvignon Blanc, a grape that never seems to get the respect it deserves. It lives in the shadow of Chardonnay, king of the market, and grapes such as Riesling that have regal status among wine writers, or grapes such as Gruner Veltliner that catch a trend and become a passing fad.
This may be because Sauvignon Blanc lacks an iconic identity that defines the grape. Chardonnay = white Burgundy, Riesling = Germany. Even France is schizo when it comes to SB, with different styles in Loire and Bordeaux. Winemakers working with SB have no model to copy.
Of course, this can be great for us, as we can experience the various ways SB can express itself around the world. I hope you'll follow my exploration of "A Sauvignon World" on WineReviewOnline, a new Web site devoted to finding the world's best wines.
Two wines that I experienced for the first time in researching this column are from Sauvignon Republic, a new California-based negociant firm that aims to market Sauvignon Blanc from various regions around the world to showcase how it performs in various terroirs.
Sauvignon Republic's first two releases are from California and New Zealand, arguably at opposite ends of the SB flavor spectrum. The 2004 Russian River Valley is just a tad high in alcohol, at more than 14%, but unlike many in that range it has fruit to match the heat - mango and creamy papaya flavors and a medium-long finish.
The 2004 Marlborough has the grassy-vegetal flavors typical of New Zealand, but it shows admirable restraint in that it doesn't push these characteristics over the top. It also has great texture and body, which add complexity.
I've enjoyed two especially good wine-food pairings recently in restaurants. At Zola on F St NW in DC, I winced at the thought of matching a red wine with prawns and gingered grits, as shellfish always seems to kill red wine for me. But on the advice of Ralph Rosenberg, Zola's beverage manager, I tried it with Schloss Gobelsburg 2001 St. Laurent from Austria (Terry Thiesse Selections). Quite similar to a Pinot Noir with its delicate floral nose, but with a smoky bacon note that also suggested Syrah, I was glad I wasn't asked to identify the wine blind. The palate was dominated by cherries, with a medium mouthfeel and long, delicate finish. It was a beautiful match, especially with the ginger in the grits, and it had the acidity to match the prawns.
It was a more traditional pairing I enjoyed at Johnny's Half Shell on P St NW near Dupont Circle, as I enjoyed chef Ann Cashion's grilled scallops, squash and endive with a glass of Lucashof 2004 Riesling from the Pfalz (HB Wine Merchants, Manhasset NY). The wine was long, with apricot and passion fruit flavors and a stony, mineral finish. It contrasted beautifully with the sweetness and smokiness of the scallops and squash, and the bitterness of the endive.
Newsweek has been running wine notes from Wine Spectator, but the rarified air of wine snobdom may be too much for the news mag's plebeian journos. The October 10 issue ran this amusing correction:
"Our Tip Sheet item on wine 'Uncorked: World Pinot Noir' (Sept. 26) listed the wrong price for the G. Roumier Bonnes Mares 2002. It is $120, not $12."