Category Archives: Drinking

Sidewalk Affair

Weekends in New York become more European during the spring time. By that I mean restaurants and cafes offer outdoor seating so that New Yorkers may bask in the sun and people watch. In Europe, however, the outdoor cafes may face a beautifully lined architecturally notable street, or are perched on a hillside cliff, or dot the shores of a sandy beach. The effect is the subtle waft of a chalky ocean breeze, the aroma of lavender misting the hills, or a piece of industrial art posing as a building. In the big apple, these streets are few, since we have no beach or foothill, and the peril of dining between skyscrapers lies in noise pollution and the schmutz the taxi cabs brush in as they speed. Not to mention the preponderance of pooches sniffing your leg, or the rock pigeons swooping down for a morsel of your bialy.

Some neighborhoods are more civilized than others though, and often are home to proper outdoor spots for musing without having to wait on some ridiculous brunch queue. In Tribeca, I spent the afternoon at Bouley Bakery. This was not my plan, for I had a laundry list of things to do, as do most New Yorkers on a Saturday off. The plan included Chinatown for shopping, and on the weekends, if I time it right, I usually head there for dim sum. Alarm clock notwithstanding, I missed dim sum at 70 Mott Street (less variety the later you go), and settled for a pastry at Bouley Bakery. Although settled is the wrong word. I started with a harmless Neopolitan, stuffed with custard and raisins, but soon fell victim to my eyes. The apricot croissant was next, followed by a crisp, thin pizza, a pear & chocolate croissant, a croquet monsieur, and a coconut, banana & chocolate croissant to be washed (hosed) down by a large latte. Now, I was not alone, but my friends Dr. L. and Dr. Y. did nothing to discourage our “quick” snack before lunch. We sat outside passing the duchie on the left hand side and devoured. Gorged. We even went back for more.

Tribeca had taken over, and not by force. How calm Tribeca seemed. How tranquil everyone looked. Sun mixed with bright breezes. That’s what New York is about. Skip shopping. Skip studying. Just skip anything. Bite into another lovely pastry and sip a spot of tea. Before that we had tried to brunch at Blau Gans, closed for a private party. A restaurant that doesn’t take reservations and selectively closes without warning? Not cool.

A quick perusal into Vino Vino for a glass, closed for a private party. A sharp turn into Double Knot for the Turkish delight (rugs) and the mesmerization continued. An artful prance into the DFN Gallery, and we were beginning to get the picture. Life is different down there, and any tresspass into another hood could spoil the mood. But Chinatown has its charms, mostly in foot rubs and cheap eats.

The New Wing Wong Restaurant serves a bowl of soup with won tons, roast duck or pork, and noodles that will cure you of your allergies. The soup costs $4.50, but buyer beware. Sometimes you’ll get charged five. That’s what happened to Dr. L., who claims it’s happened before. A strange snafu, but nothing that can’t be handled. Just politely point it out, and they will change the bill for you. Besides, at that price the soup is almost free.

In Nolita we stumbled upon a bar with a large open window and comfortable seating. The rose was terrible (Australian Grenache), but the smooth Bossa Nova beats kept us humming in our window seats. Some time passed and we noshed at Xicali, a tapas spot with strawberry sangria and chorizo. The wind was whirling, and that cool spring breeze turned into a nasty wintry whiplash. Safe by the closed window, we were still able to keep momentum while planning for our next place. But by then night had crept into our lives, and the scene had changed. There would be no more lounging around like a Parisian. But for one fine Saturday, outdoor New York held court just fine.

Viva Mexico!

The holiday of Cinco de Mayo, the 5th of May, commemorates the victory of the Mexican army over Napoleon and the French at The Battle of Puebla in 1862. Puebla is renowned for their artisanal furniture-making, and this holiday is celebrated throughout the state as well as the city.

Celebrating this holiday has become very popular, especially near the U.S.-Mexico border, in states where there is a naturally high population of Mexican immigrants. As a result, several cities have caught on to the spirit of Cinco de Mayo by holding parades and throwing big fiestas. New York is home to a quite a few Mexicans, and many restaurants will take full advantage of the chance at festivities.

Like New Year’s Eve, I prefer a balanced mix of house party and going out. You save some money that way, control your environment, and above all, can go all out on the food and wine, in this case spirits.

One memorable Cinco de Mayo party I’ve attended in the past was at my friends’ flat, Peter and Hope. Hope, who is part Mexican, crafted some delicious Mexican fare, from moist duck enchiladas to rich moles, to perfect guacamole, just to name some highlights. Partnered with Peter’s lascivious margaritas with fruit purees, and forget about it. I’ve spent one or two of these holidays comatose on their couch. With their recent addition of Isabella, the adorable one, parties have simmered down just a tad.

For going out, I like to bar hop. Some of my old haunts include Zarela, Rosa Mexicana, Rancho’s, Mama Mexico, and Rio Grande. If I’m feeling lucky, I’ll head over to 116th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues for the real deal, complete with mariachis. This little enclave is like Little Mexico, smack dab in the middle of El Barrio, with a few Italian businesses still hanging on for good measure.

Then of course there’s the good house party, which is made up of good country Mexican music (for lamenting and screaming), good guacamole and chips (to keep from being smashed too quickly), and proper tequila (margaritas too).

Have each guest bring a bottle so you never run out, and have some for next year. There are some fancy tequilas on the market now, and they can be as expensive as a single malt scotch. Reserve those only for sipping. Some of my favorites are Centenario, Tres Generaciones, and Don Julio. But for mixing, try a reposado like Cazadores, although run of the mill stuff like Sauza Comemorativo and Cuervo Especial will do the job.

While in Puerta Vallarta, Mexico, a good friend of mine (who happens to be a general in the army) opened up the back of his SUV and declared, “En mi pais (In my country), hay dos necessarios (there are two essentials), mis tequilas (my tequilas) y mis armas.(my guns).” Neither ever left his side.

Engage in wild dancing and screaming contests, and rejoice in the independence of the Mexican people, and people all over the world who have had to struggle against oppression for their right to party.

For my recipes go to www.chefmateo.com

Haru Next Door

Lately I have been obsessed with underground traditional Japanese bars, but that’s no reason to forget the many good ones above ground. In this case, Haru, not the restaurant, the offshoot bar at 76th street on the east side, fits the bill quite nicely. A sort of Haru next door, if you will.

From 10 pm to close (11 pm on Fri & Sat), all their specialty drinks are six dollars a pop, the drafts are three, and add to that a small selection of rolls for three or four bucks. Shochikubai sake can be ordered hot or cold. This is no junmai or ginjyo, but then again sake for four bucks isn’t supposed to knock you off your feet any more than the Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR – $1.50) I regularly order at my favorite wings place.

The bar flanks a pseudo restaurant, for patrons who want to sit on bright orange and white chairs, further sinking into the somber dining area. Take a seat at the bar instead, made plush by bright red techno décor straight out of a Hong Kong karaoke spot.

There’s a cocktail for just about every mood, and not all are sake based. Try the Haru lychee mojito or a green tea margarita, for a twist on classics. The vodka lycheetini delivers a wallop, while others such as the rum punch or komodo dragon run a tad sweet.

The alternative is a sake cocktail, and the saketini is well balanced and pleasureable. The sake mojito may even edge the lychee version. Order it again and again. The cherry blossom tastes like candy. Forget it. That leaves you with champagne mixes, but prosecco is used instead. If you must, try the enter the dragon with pomegranate juice.

After you’ve knocked a couple back, it’s time for a few rolls. The shiitake cucumber roll is savory, and the crunchy spicy salmon has good texture. The other rolls end up tasting very similar, so you might order nigiri sushi a la carte to augment the snacking. I always go for ikura with a quail egg on top, which at Haru was just fair, if not forgettable.

But value-wise, Haru next door should not be looked over, the value is there in a comfortable setting. It’s a good place for a hit and run, then off to an underground bar downtown, where everybody knows your name.

Super Tuscan Groove

On the surface, the concept of a wine that is made outside the governing controlling bodies is an idea we as Americans applaud. After all, we tend to celebrate individual efforts, and revel in Horatio Algers rags to riches stories. Pioneers in every art form and industry take the norm and follow the old adage “necessity is the mother of invention” to create something unique, even if appreciated only posthumously. Not so for so called Super Tuscans, incredibly rich, opulent wines crafted by the hands of a maverick with the means and a dream. Add to that great terroir and old vines, necessary components, and the result is the possibility of a great wine.

The problem is that these conditions help to create a sort of wine cult following, driving the price through the roof. Yes, you get what you pay for, but how much are you willing to pay? You have to ask yourself why you want to seek out these particular wines. If you’re buying these wines to enjoy, be sure to check out other wines with the same flavor profile for the price to compare value. You might find similar wines for less. If you’re collecting for later consumption, buyer beware. Do your research, because as super as some of these wines are, some do not age well past five or six years. That’s good news if you want instant gratification, bad news if you sunk over one hundred dollars on a wine, and then stored it for ten years, only to have it take a turn downhill.

Recently I tasted a 2000 Super Tuscan by Castello Di Querceto called Cignale. The wine boasts a signed artistic drawing of a wild boar to commemorate when these creatures wiped out the first vintage. The wine is 90% cabernet sauvignon, rounded out by 10% merlot and is fashioned in an international style, yet another factor to consider, should you be an old world fan.

It was luxurious, smooth, and a pleasure to drink. The tannins were well integrated. It was not an intellectual or complex wine, just a wine to enjoy. But here’s the thing, after an hour in the decanter, the wine started to fade. It lost its luster, its pinnache, its joie de vivre. Which is to say that this wine wouldn’t improve if it spent one more minute in the cellar. I suspect this isn’t the only Super Tuscan that won’t hold up under old age. Perhaps if the style is old world, the wine is constructed for the long term. If the style is new world, drink it within its first ten years of life. This is not a hard and fast rule, but certainly a guideline to consider.

When treading through the treacherous world which is the wine market, know what you like, and don’t be swayed by critics. That is to say seek out as much info from as many sources possible, and buy according to your drinking needs and budget. So depending on your scenario, a Super Tuscan could be just right for you, or fall back on some other wines, old, reliable friends.

A Chip and a Chair

I have a confession to make. I like to play poker. My father taught me when I was a little boy, and I was hooked then as I am now. But for several years I left the game, choosing other sporting arenas to satisfy my thirst for competition. That is until the World Series of Poker became televised and brought poker back from the dead.

So now I host a weekly poker night (usually Friday), and am just as fascinated and passionate about it as a good bottle of single grower champagne.

I read books, watch poker on the tele, and even have an on-line account. I have also played at underground poker clubs which are hard to find, especially since they are being raided every other week.

Anyone who says they play poker for fun and not money is lying, but I do not feel like I will be turning pro anytime soon. We play for low stakes ($20.00) and only play No Limit Texas Hold’em, with an emphasis on tournament style. Every player buys in for $20.00 and receives 2,500 in chip value. First place keeps the pot, second place gets their money back.

Winning is nice, but love of the game comes first. Oh, sure we keep score – I’m comfortably ahead in earnings – but it is outsmarting your opponents that brings the real rush. You can go “all-in” at any moment, putting your tournament life on the line. Poker is a mixture of psychology and nerve, competitiveness and acting, patience, and above all luck. It is better to be lucky than good, and no matter how much you play and try to master the game, you can never master the luck part.

Before you judge that poker is an expensive habit, let’s compare costs. For thirty bucks (ten on food or beer or wine) you can play several hours of cards with your friends in the comfort of your own home. You can bring whatever you want to drink, and snack on whatever everybody else brings to eat. Try to spend the same for a night on the town with your buddies, and check out the difference in cost.

Poker night is a perfect venue for sharing food and wine and discussing topics other than poker. Poker allows the flexibility to eat, drink, and talk between hands, and can be a very satisfying, social gathering.

Being the foodie that I am, I often take these opportunities to experiment with food and taste out of the ordinary beers and wines. You have to think outside the normal box of pretzels, peanuts, pizza and everyday lagers. Live a little.

As an informal panel, my poker/martial arts buddies, Scott, Neil, & Blake, aside from possessing fearsome fighting powers, also have very discerning palates. Scott usually brings party favors from the 1970’s like Pez or Sweet Tarts, as well as an oddball humor and propensity for TV trivia. Just ask him to recite any TV show theme song and be amazed. Neil can always be counted on for his extensive beer knowledge and zanyness, a quality needed on some slower nights, and Blake brings his chiseled smooth singing voice and voracious appetite for quaffing.

Over the course of two months, my friends and I have been sampling barley wines, which are beers originally brewed by the British, but currently is also being crafted here in America. Barley wines require a prolonged fermentation, thus yielding a higher alcohol content, ranging from nine to fifteen percent.

We sampled over thirty barley wines and enjoyed the quirky names of the bottles and the general nutty, creamy bitterness of the beers. Some of our favorites include the Old Marley, Hog Heaven, and Old Boardhead. For a unique, mind-blowing taste, tops on our list was the 2004 Thomas Hardy’s Ale and the bizarre 1999 Harvest Ale.

On other occasions we tried some Trappist beers, world- renowned for their complex and distinctive styles, made ever more enticing because the Belgian monks are responsible. The flavors ranged from sweet to dry, and the colors were opulently rich, from dark nut brown to golden amber in hue. These ales dazzled us with creaminess, and wild, spicy aromas of fruit. Aside from the well-known Chimays and Duvels, we really swooned over the Westmalle Trappist Tripel, the Allagash Tripel, and the Bavay Biere de Gard. The consensus favorite was the Chimay Peres Trappist Grand Reserve.

Wine is always a welcome guest to poker night, and we have sampled several interesting bottles from all over. Recently we tasted a cabernet franc from the North Fork of Long Island, the 2005 Pindar Pythagoras. The wine displayed good fruit and expressed balance while demonstrating the strength of Long Island’s terroir for this particular grape.

Just last week we tasted a 2001 Boscarelli Vino Nobile de Montepulciano, which after an hour of aeration, paired admirably with a quick, one-hour perciatelli and Bolognese sauce.

My friend Peter played on his birthday, and we toasted to a very solid Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve, which was medium-bodied and slightly nutty. Served with a spicy roast pork tenderloin (Kala’s recipe) with sautéed shitake mushrooms, it was pure delight.

On another night we tasted a couple of Albarinos, white wines from the Rias Baixas of Spain. We tried the 2004 Nora, a 2004 O Rosal, and the 2004 Gran Bazan.These rich, young, citrusy whites went down very smoothly and accompanied the jamon Serrano and salty bar snacks.

We try to steer clear from spirits – it clouds judgment – but bottles which made an indelible impression to me recently were the Balvenie 10 year and the Havana Club anejo reserva. Single malt scotch transforms the man, and if you can get it, the Havana Club is one of the most refined rum drinking experiences in the world.

Instead of the standard deli sandwiches, one night we all chipped in to buy tasty salumi, an herbed Rosette de Lyon, Spanish Palacios ham, Portuguese prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, and provolone cheeses. Garnished with piquillo peppers, enveloped by flat onion nan and a little Dijon, and off to the Delonghi panini press. Follow that up with a nutella panini for dessert. Sweet bliss!

I’ll often put out some blue cheese and serve it with honey, crushed black pepper and nuts. There is never any left over. And if I’m feeling ambitious, I’ll make some homemade bread pudding with crème anglaise, a welcome sweet break from the tension of a late night.

I will always pursue new adventures in food and wine, and I guess for me, poker is also here to stay. If you can mix your passions in a similar way, don’t hesitate. Wait… What’s that? I think I just got dealt pocket rockets (two aces). I’m all in!
For recipes, refer to the recipes section of my website