IN THE LAIR OF THE FOODIES



All week long Lisa has been performing stealthy rituals in the kitchen, arriving home late at night with bags full of inscrutable ingredients, working alone until the wee hours and finally collapsing into bed at dawn, flour-stained and smelling of seafood. After a troubling night of fending off raids by marauding cats, she rises to begin the whole strange procedure all over again. I watch with my usual benign trepidation, waiting to see what will come of these exertions. Little do I suspect that she has become an unwitting instrument in the flour-covered hands of THE FOODIE CULT.

Just when I thought it was safe to go out into the plague-laden streets of Manhattan I find myself dragged into the strange underground foodie subculture, traipsing through the streets of Soho, arriving finally in the unassuming foyer of an unassuming building which opens inexplicably into a vast foodie compound--acres of counterspace, state-of-the-art gas ranges, every gleaming kitchen utensil that haunts the fever dreams of Ferrous Chefs everywhere.

The ever-courtly Jay Miller is acting as the ringmaster; he introduces me to our generous hostess Corinne, who has unwisely allowed many drunken camels to get their noses into the tent of her fine establishment. Or something like that. My metaphor generator is down tonight and I'm having to do it by hand.

Lisa leaps into action, chopping and dicing like there's no tomorrow. I do my usual amiable doofus-style socializing, greeting the always effusive Elyse Fradkin and the Edenic half of the Blum Sisters' Travelling Roadshow, meeting a gentleman by the name of Burt whose last name I didn't get. As I attempt to quietly seize a glass of bubbly and melt back into the woodwork I'm astonished to realize that the couple that are manipulating eggplants are none other than the elusive Asher and Marni Rubenstein, whom I had been convinced were merely a figment of Brad Kane's fevered imagination. But here they are in the flesh, madly doing foodie things over in their little corner of foodie heaven.

H. Billiot & Fils Champagne Brut Reserve NV is a biscuity mouthful of fizz, broadly toasty-bready and well balanced, an unsubtle yet perfectly amiable and full-flavored glass of bubbly.

Next up is a Brewer-Clifton Blanc de Noirs Santa Maria Highlands 2000; this one has a gamy gunpowdery streak on the nose above a core of cream soda smellies. Spends its bubbles all at once, going flat quickly. Creamy and limpid, blunt mouthfeel and there's that firecrackery note again on the finish. Odd, not very pleasant.

As we're slugging back the bubbly Lisa is slinging her signature crab cakes (with white basil & remoulade sauces) and infant quiches at us. I must remember there are dozens more courses and pace myself, but it's difficult.

Here's a Jacques Selosse Champagne Blanc de Blanc NV: Elegant, toasty-yellow aromas, a bakery festooned with yellow flowers, smooth and velvety in the nostrils. The wine is lively and poised, with a lovely thrust of cool toasty lemon-pear fruit and zippy acidity. Not as exuberantly flavorful as the Billiot, but whip-strong, with a long humming finish. Very nice.

Who's that at the door but The Latin Liquidator and Josie? We thrust glasses of bubbly at them; they do not resist.

A Billecart-Salmon Champagne Brut Reserve NV rounds out the bubblies. Very quiet nose, traces of yeast, chalk and faint gingery-yellow fruit. Tastes rather neutral, middling acidity, decent sustain of what little is there, light tickly finish. Doesn't leave much of an impression.

Our fizzes now are ended, and it's time to approach the sacred table and submit to what awaits us. Elyse serves up a hearty curried squash soup, and, to face the travails ahead, I fortify myself with a Muller-Catoir Riesling Haardter Burgergarten Spatlese Trocken 1999. It takes a little encouragement to get this one to come out of its shell, but some swirling does bring out a restrained nose, vinyl and white peach hints, turning towards lime rind with more air. Dry and tight, the crisp acidity clamps down hard on my tongue without any cushion of sweetness, but it fills out well in the midpalate and rallies further with a long tropical-limey finish. Very young, a well-structured wine that needs time to loosen up.

Blanc de Lynch Bages Pauillac 1999: Smells of creamy, creamy oak, and lots of it, along with light lemon and waxy hints. Tastes smooth and rich, well balanced and crisp, oppressively oaky and young. Try again in 30 years. Jay makes a sour face and explains that he doesn't get White Bordeaux. I say "Would that .sasha were here to explain."

Weingut Blankenhorn Gewürztraminer Schleingener Sonnenstuck Trocken 1999: Lightly and pleasantly aromatic, yellow flowers and freshly-peeled lychee. A sip, and the sweetness of the nose evaporates as a rather severe mouthful of dryass gewürztraminer clamps down on my tongue. A distractingly hard wine, I keep trying to like it more than I do, feeling somewhat ashamed of the Kanean urge to pour a teaspoonful of sugar into it to see if that will draw the fruit out of its armored shell. I peer about furtively, then realize that I'm supposed to be on my best behavior. The madness passes.

A Weingut Kurt Erbeldinger und Sohn Scheurebe Beckheimer Hasensprung Kabinett 1999 smells cooly tropical, waxy--someone says 'lipstick!', which is just about right. It's got a trace of sweetness, good acidity, but it's rather two-dimensional.

Before I know it I am facing Manuel & Josie's black bean veloute. What in the world is a 'veloute'? I ask out loud to no one in particular, but get no answer. It looks very much like soup, and it's a meal in itself, thick and robust, with dark earthy-beany fruit and a forty-five second finish.

The Clos Rougeard Chacé Saumur 1998 is tonight's chameleon. Upon first nosing it I am appalled--it's just as severely oaked as the Lynch Bages, and the wood sits even uglier on chenin than it does on semillon-sauvignon. But an hour later the loud vanilla-toastiness has melted away and a strong chalky-mineral streak has emerged in its place, allowing the chenin to peep through and begin to unfurl itself. Yet another hour later the oak has reasserted itself, but the minerality remains amidst a rising weightiness, an almost unctuously waxy-creamy mouthfeel like a young Rhône. After that I throw in the towel. Another wine that is way too young to be consumed now. If you're thinking of opening one soon, DON'T DO IT--FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DON'T DO IT.

Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt Scharzhofberger Riesling Spätlese 1997: Classic kerosene-beanbag hints hovering over pale yellow lemon-appleness, a pleasure to smell. Lightly sweet, bracingly crisp, racy and tangy, with flashes of slatiness at the core. A happily aromatic wine that is bright and young and vivid, wrapped snugly around itself but smiling sweetly nonetheless. A very interesting match with Mr. Miller's onion tart.

The final white swings by in the form of a Weingut Glatzer Gruner Veltliner Dornenvogel 2000, and here's a grunery poached pear-baked pineapple yellowfruit nose, flecked with white peppery hints. Squeaky-dry and rather large, the wine has a bumptious side but manages to stay on this side of the chunky line. Finishes prettily and peppery, a very decent young gruner.

Corinne's melt-in-your-piehole roasted salmon arrives, and with it the pinots...

Thomas Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 1997: Light red cherry fruit limned with subtle dark earthy notes. Simple and decent enough at first, with good balance and little focus, but takes a turn towards astringency in the midpalate and finishes with a flurry of unforgiving tannins. Mediocre, a bit better with air and food.

Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 1996: Here's an insubstantial wine, a bit of cherry cough-drop and cola on the nose, but tastes even more diffuse and vague than the Thomas. There's a bit of the same cherry right at first, then in the midpalate a light earthiness waves spectrally in the direction of my tongue, and finally the wine just melts away. Evanescent, a ghost wine.

Neill Pinot Noir Two Paddocks Central Otago (New Zealand) 1998: More medium red cherry fruit, this time with more of a clovey undertone. The fruit is somewhat more focused than the first two wines and there's a more noticeable amount of heat, but really it's another fairly simple, amiable two-note pinot. Inoffensive, unremarkable.

Juan Maréchal Savigny-Les-Beaune 1999. The real deal. Pretty tea hints on the nose, red cherry over a base of stony minerality. Somewhat aggressively sharp upon first sippage, relaxes a little as it thrusts into the midpalate and sheds a skin of spicy red stony fruit to linger beguilingly in the finish. A deceptively lean wine with an edge, racy and coiled, with a whiplike spine. Finally a wine worthy of Corinne's salmon. Quickly wins the Thunderbird Prize. Try again in ten.

Out of the corner of my ear I hear Camblor at the other end of the table berating the Maréchal as 'hollow,' and am thus forced to lob a 'Hollow my ass!' in his direction, which ignites a brief if amiable tussle. He claims not to like Maréchal in general, I accuse him of heresy and idolatry and close by calling him a Philistine and a possible hen-teaser. Orthodoxy enforced, I settle back for some of Asher & Marni's beguiling eggplant-lamb "sandwich" creations.

A Gaja Barbaresco Costa Russi 1979 is a bit faded, brown herbiness and a light tobacco-sawdusty quality hit my nose first, tired red fruit and hints of limestony minerals. A sip, and some leathery stewed-tomato redfruit surfaces in the midpalate, slides away quickly. Nice balace, but this bottle is over the hill.

Lungarotti Rubesco Torgiano Reserva 1980 is more lively, dark and muted red berry fruit, bay leaf and a dark truffley-shoyu streak. The color has a medium ruby-red core, bricking towards amber at the rim. Somewhat rustic and broad, but in a friendly way. Good balance, a bit tired but still kicking. Astonishingly, we are told that this bottle has been stored for upwards of twenty years in a cabinet in this very room. Just another reminder that wine is not as fragile as rumor will have it.

The Lungarotti matche wonderfully with Burt's sensually smoky roasted pork, very much like something called 'kalua pig' in Hawaii.

Château Suduiraut Sauternes 1986 is the poor lone sweetie to accompany scads of desserts. Eden serves up a white chocolate sculptural piece in cake form that tastes as good as it looks, Jay comes 'round with a lemon pie that bites back when you taste it as well as a pumpkin chiffon pie that just about does me in. I decide the pumpkin goes best with Sauternes and settle in, belt loosened a few notches.

Oh, the wine. It's a medium gold color, smells thickly of marmalade, butterscotch, vanilla and apricot. No botrytis evident, but there's plenty of other nasal action. Gives a nice whomp of orange-rindy/caramel flavors up front, and half delivers the goods in the midpalate, but fades a bit, not much follow-through, and ends in slightly bitter wood tannins. Some good if slightly broad character, pleasant enough to drink but not a complete package.

There's more, I'm sure, but the evening is now mostly a happy blur of food, wine and conviviality. The only question that lingers is: why didn't anyone think of doing this before?




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