Eating Food Wine

Miguel Merino

Just before vendimia 2006, I had the luxurious fortune to spend time with a great neophyte winemaker from the Rioja Alta, Miguel Merino. Solera was the host restaurant, and the guest list was put together by my feisty colleague from Frontier Imports, Mickey Vail.

The occasion was festive, what with everyone jockeying for position next to such a humble, successful winemaker. With Pedro Romero Aurora Manzanilla in hand, we chatted about wine and New York City and Spanish gastronomy. Mr. Merino looked refined, but with his ear to the ground, was immensely gracious and soft-spoken. I learned that he took over the winery on a dream and a whim, perhaps with some help from being an attorney for so many years prior. His first vintage was the glorious 1994, and he freely admits that even he could not screw that up.

Nervous energy transformed into delirious chatter, as talking with Miguel Merrino the man brought out more appreciation for the wines themselves. Mr. Merino’s opening words were aided by a few glasses of that delightful manzanilla, as he commented about his boys back home and the upcoming harvest, more importantly about how he felt about wine and the people who love it.

The 1998 Reserva was paired with a piquillo pepper stuffed with morcilla and lentils, a tapa that was fantastically crafted and a joy with the wine. Mr. Merino said that the ’98 was a bit feminine. We all agreed, partly in expectation of it to reach full maturity, and partly because we were so happy. Then came the 2000 Reserva, a fabulous poached egg atop a potato and chorizo stew, a hearty man’s appreciation for all things good in Spain. The 2000 needed more time, prompting another few words from Mr. Merino, thus far emanating a tremendous warmth in his explanation of the vintage.

Before we could make further comparisons, a plate of sea bass with pimiento chorizero was matched by the superlative 1995 Reserva, an introduction into one of the finest wines of Spain if there ever was one. Light-bodied, but full flavored, well integrated tannins and complex fruit, the 1995 was a stunner. Things were really humming now.

Exquisite lamb chops sided by potatoes Riojas and Roncal crisp proved to be an ideal pairing to the imperial 1994 reserva, a wine that had everyone swooning. A collective but unspoken “Wow!” was felt throughout the room, and everyone looked around as if searching for witnesses. The 2001 was also served as Mr. Merino felt the two vintages had tremendous similarity. Assorted Spanish cheeses and cookies were then offered with a barrel sample of the 2004 vintage. At this point I was looking for any leftover 2004 to polish off.

Mr. Merino remained affable and generous. I felt like I had a new friend in la Rioja, and anxiously accepted an invitation to visit in the future. Many good memories linger from that evening, and I scrambled home to see if I was smart enough to put away any of the ’94 or 95’ bottles. Chef Danilo Paulino put on a superb show, and the service and course of events were masterfully orchestrated by Maitre d’ Ron Miller. Solera is an excellent choice for fine Spanish dining, and I will be looking forward to reviewing it in the future.

Eating Experiences Food

Spain in the city

Specialty shops thrive in neighborhoods that were once delineated by the type of immigrants. In an age where every ethnic store is under attack from wealthier franchises such as Starbuck’s and Duane Reade, the survival of these shops is at critical mass. Imagine Arthur Avenue without Teitel’s, Washington Heights without bodegas, or Greenpoint without the local Polish kielbasa butcher. Curiously enough, certain countries appear underrepresented. Perhaps because a country like France is so diverse, items like olive oil is sold separately, so is chocolate, etc.

Nowadays a consumer can find ingredients over the internet, almost taking away from the pleasure of shopping in these types of general stores, where a family behind the counter and free samples are the norm.

Spain, however, has been well represented for over twenty years. Jackson Heights has been home to Despana brand products and recently has opened a Broome Street branch.

Jovial owner Marco and his lovely wife Angelica have created a slice of Spain, showcased in a trendy format, fitting for its new address.

The store is visually astounding, with black lacquered shelves opposite shiny white tiles, separated by an attractive glass casing displaying artisanal cheese and meat products. A fabulous collage of Spanish life centers the back wall, and a large leg of jamon Serrano keeps the eye on the prize. The shelves are stocked with everything from Arborio rice to honey to jams to olive oil to whatever the well-stocked Spanish kitchen should have, with little tastings offered along every step of the way. Towards the rear is a glass enclosed open kitchen where delectables are put out daily by Chef Ignacio, a great interpreter of Spanish cuisine. To the right is a small eating area, flanked by a cooler of wines, waters, and ciders. You can buy boquerones, the prized white anchovies from the Cantabrica coast, and even buy sangria pitchers or paella pans too. Whatever you don’t see on display, you can order from the Queens flagship store, and after a round of fried almonds, cheese, olives, and sausages, you’ll be hard-pressed to leave empty handed.

Aside from the traditional chorizo, there are other pork sausage products offered such as fuet, chistorra, butifarra blanca y negra. Don’t miss out.

Many tastings and classes are scheduled at Despana, and they usually are taught by an expert flown in from Spain. They should not be missed, as invariably there is a meal at the end of the rainbow, delicious and refreshing.

At a recent event, I learned much about Spanish olive oil. Categories include Hojiblanca, Picual, Arbequina, Greca Empeltre and Gold Empeltre. The Gold happens to be my favorite. It is an extra virgin olive oil that is even, smooth, silky and golden. The Greca was a bit harsh, but tasted of almonds. The Hojiblanca was strong and pungent, almost woodsy and raw. The Picual tasted of figs and was very fruity. Finally the Arbequina was medium bodied, herbal and grassy. It boasted a long finish and seemed to be the most balanced.

Then a repast followed. First a pea shoot salad with Serrano and melon balls. Then boquerones under tomatoes and anchovy paste. A stellar black mushroom risotto anchored the meal, followed by a salt cod with cured Serrano ham. A mousse in the shape of a chocolate pyramid capped things off with a few glasses of albarino as the paired wine.

Then the ham expert was on hand, giving a slicing demonstration, and offering delectable pristine, glimmering slices of jamon Serrano. He explained the slicing technique and preservation tactics. It was all quite fascinating. The ham was of course delicious.

The famous iberico de bellota (pata negra), or black footed pig will finally become available in the states, and Despana is the place to get it. These pigs dine only acorns, yielding a meat that is swirled with high levels of flavorful natural fats, tasting like no other ham in the world. The hams will prove to be very expensive, but call the store for scheduled free tastings.

Sometimes you stroll into Despana and you’re in the middle of a party, with people mingling, noshing and having a good time. That’s is what Despana is all about, promoting the culture, cuisine, and spirit of Spain, all from a modest ethnic shop.

Perhaps this is a model other stores can adapt to, keeping the claws of franchise at bay.

Eating Food

Angel of Harlem

West Harlem is the target of much construction and renovation lately, and the gentrification has its good points and bad ones. Rents go up, forcing long term residents to move elsewhere, and the more affluent slip in like Cinderella. Crime goes down, and the community starts to take notice. But long time shops close too, leases are lost, and the flavor of Harlem is threatened.

One way to keep Harlem rising is to support the businesses that make this neighborhood unique. That means shopping on 125th street and eating in the environs. There are lots of restaurants distinctly Harlem, due to the owners, their charisma and perseverance, and the charms therein. Some places are well known, such as Sylvia’s, Amy Ruth, Charles Southern Fried, and M & G Diner, just to name a few, but other less ambitious spots still exist.

One such survivor is Lee Lee’s Bakery located on 118th street, right off of Frederick Douglas Boulevard. It’s a small shop with three tables and is designed for take out for the most part. There is a large chalkboard with specials scribbled on it and a collage of gift items for sale along the right wall, just in case you need a last minute gift to go along with that birthday cake. Most of these curios are a blast from the past or something you might find at a dollar store.

At the tiny counter you place your order, after informal salutations with Mr. Lee, of course. The kitchen always looks disorganized, as Mr. Lee is always distracted by baking many things at once. The glass counter displays what’s available, unless you’re ordering breakfast, one of the best in the city.

Mr. Lee soft scrambles two eggs with breakfast sausage patties and cheese, a simple but well done combination stuffed betwixt a fresh sweet roll, all for $2.50. There are days I yearn for this breakfast beauty, and coordinate my departure according to Mr. Lee’s availability. You see sometimes Mr. Lee opens at 8 am, and sometimes 8:15 am or 8:30 am even. There is no rhyme or reason. It just depends on the day.

Of course there are pastries. Mr. Lee has been making rugelach for over thirty years. To quote Mr. Lee, “I’m tired of making them. But people keep eating them, so I’ll just keep making them.” He bakes bread pudding and danishes and a revolving array of pastries each week. There are special cakes made to order, such as the famous red velvet cake, African American dessert at its best.

The shop is full of characters, similar to a barber shop, denizens who talk politics and religion, and life’s daily problems. Mr. Lee’s shop is a hub, a town hall for the pulse of Harlem on that street. There’s a new thriving African patisserie around the corner called Les Ambassades. The bakery is spacious with outdoor seating. They offer Wi-Fi and very French pastries, some good, some so so. I go there occasionally, but I prefer old time Harlem, the salt of the community. If I’ve got loose change, my bet’s still on Mr. Lee, angel of Harlem.

Eating Food


As a New Yorker I anticipate signs of change, marked indications such as the cherry blossom festival at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, the rising hemline on Spring Street, outdoor picnics on the Great Lawn, and sidewalk cafes extending out into the street. One harbinger of good times to come is the soft shell crab, now in season and making appearances on menus across the city. Some recent tastings have caused me to reflect and compare different preparations.

Chan Noodle on Mulberry Street lightly batters their crabs and deep fries them to crisp perfection. Slivers of garlic and scallions are added to enhance the flavors.

At Phoenix Garden, the Cantonese method of deep frying prompted this response from my friend Ola, “This crab makes me wanna punch somebody.”

Tomoe Sushi on Thompson Street cuts a delectable Spider roll, soft shell crab battered and fried, balanced by cucumbers and wrapped in wakame and rice.

Sripraphai in Woodside, Queens offers good value with a pile of soft shell crabs, spicing things up a bit with Thai chilis.

Though not soft shell, Fatty Crab is home to the chili crab, a piece of work that easily could pass for the most divine crab dish in New York. The shell must be cracked, and you must protect against a big mess with a tucked napkin in your shirt, but the slow, steady labor pays off handsomely.

All of these soft shell crab preparations have two elements in common: proper crispy texture with succulent, moist crab meat filling.

I dream of a soft shell crab festival, not unlike the festival of San Gennaro or the upcoming barbecue tasting near Times Square. Just substitute for crab, and add a glass of champagne or two. Dazzling.

Eating Experiences Food The Chef

Jury Duty Blues

The magic slip with the red bar code came via mail two weeks ago, and that can mean only thing: jury duty. The mere words strike anxiety and panic into the busiest metropolitans, and excuses are prepared in advance as if lining up for a confession.

Crisis in Chinese also means opportunity, the chance to seize the day or go down with the ship. For me, it means several well-timed meals in Chinatown, a foodie neighborhood I have been researching for years. Over a two day stint, that means four breakfast spots, four lunches and a couple of early dinners.

In the mornings I headed to Mei Lai Wah, that bastion of a coffee shop known for their pork buns. They come baked or steamed and are exquisite, fluffy, a bit sweet and savory. Only great discipline can prevent you from ordering more. Several other bakeries provide arrays of eggs with croissants, pork bun variations, coconut pastries and shumai. The quality is fairly even, so form your own alliances according to service. The excellent dumpling house is a sure-fire way to unload your Washingtons, testing economic theory that there is no more bang for your buck. One dollar yields five pan fried dumplings or four juicy buns. What a bargain! There’s no time for dim sum, otherwise I would be firmly planted at Tai Hong Lau (70 Mott St.).

For lunch, the sky is the limit. Though Chinatown holds its perils, and the wrong turn can yield an unforgettably bad meal. Understand also that chefs come and go as quickly as the moon tides. Some family run businesses will actually close if they can’t keep a chef from within the family.

I headed over to Big Wong on Mott street for a roast meat sampler. Roast duck, roast pork, and chicken with ginger usually does the trick. I follow this up with fresh shrimp crepes and barbecued spare ribs. Big Wong stands for the tremendously phallic donuts they serve which are more novelty than nutrition.

I love to top off lunch with a bowl of soup, not the run of the mill wonton, egg drop, or sweet and sour kind either. Several shops are dedicated to soups with choice of noodle, dumpling, won ton, and roast meat which can adorn a healthy bowl of Chinese goodness. Judge a soup by its broth first. It should be translucent like a consommé, full of chicken stock flavor ready to be slurped from the bowl. The rest of the ingredients are up to you, as I have rarely not enjoyed the dumplings, or the noodles, or the roast meats.

Later that day I was released early. Before my next appointment, I headed over to Grand Sichuan for a spicy double pork lunch special, sliced, tender pork and scallions heaped on top of fiery Szechuan peppercorns, easily one of my favorite dishes in all of Chinatown. I whet my appetite with the won tons in hot oil in preparation for a meal of true grit and ecstasy.

The next day I replicated my breakfast routine, except that I supplemented my regimen with a coconut banana chocolate croissant from nearby Bouley Bakery, just for stark contrast. At lunch I dined at Chan Noodle, and excellent soup shop on Mulberry known for the fried rice. The fried rice with two sausages is the real deal, and because they’re in season, the soft shell crab was light, crispy, and ethereal. I ordered some soup dumplings at Joe’s Shanghai just because, and of course had an encore of the baked pork bun at Mei Lai Wah.

When I was ultimately released from service and handed a letter for proof like some sort of empty diploma, I contemplated the Peking Duck House for some great duck-filled tortillas, but was running late and had to forgo one last Chinatown sup.

Between siestas for those two marvelous days, visions of dumplings pranced in my head, and a note of sadness came over me as I left 111 Centre Street. It will be another six years before I perform my civic duty again, the crisis with the great foodie perks.