It's a chilled and frustrated Lisa and I that show up on Eden's doorstep for this year's incarnation of the New York Metro Area Jeeb Culinaire. We've taken a wrong turn while wandering amidst the rustic Metuchen housing developments, and a kind but slightly startled couple parking their car has to direct us back to the proper Court.
But we're here now, here with the foodies on a wintry evening in darkest New Jersey, and it is good. We're actually only fifteen minutes late, well under the aegis of social lateness, but foodies thrive on excessive punctuality--we're the last to arrive, and everyone else seems to have been here a good while. I wave to Jay Miller, there's Brad & Josie, Eden & Steve, Jody & her boyfriend whose name I can't for the life of me remember, Jennifer and Andrew Clark-Munro-Scott, Manuel, and the rest.
Along with my fish soup I've lugged along a Peillot altesse, and when Andrew spots it his eyes widen. "Another wine from the Jura!" he burbles. "We've got, like FIVE of them! It's a theme!"
"Okay whatever, who brought the snacks?" I plead. "I haven't had a single bite all day, and I'm starting to feel positively faint. I need food."
"Have a couple glasses of wine," suggests Andrew brightly. "That'll fix you right up!"
"Cool, right. But wait, first I need to attend to my cod." I flag down our gracious hostess and make what I think is a simple request: "Eden, may I put my fish in your pot?"
She flushes pink, "Well, I don't know, it's a little early in the evening for that kind of thing..." but soon accommodates me, my fish nestling comfortably, safe at last. Now at long last I can relax and begin the long and tedious intoxication/mastication process.
From here it gets momentarily blurry. But soon we're all gathered round the table, toasting our hostess and the Fifth Annual Culinary Jeebus, long may it live!
Or is it the Fourth Annual? The Sixth? We're not sure, and there's some considered discussion on the topic. I have notes on three so far, but I know we missed at least one, so I move that this be declared the Fifth Annual. Seconded, approved, and with that we're underway.
For those unfamiliar with the format, the idea is to bring a dish and a wine that you think will match well with that dish. Eden, our ringmaster, acts as coordinator to make sure there's no repeat of the three-soup-courses debacle of Year One.
Manuel's céviché is up first, spicy and cilantroey and creamily coconutmilkish. WIth it we have a F. Cotat Chavignol Rosé 2004. Pleasant rosé, not quite the sublime '02, but very decent with the fishy stuff. There's slightly candied dried-cherry/pink grapefruit flavors and light earthiness, but after a little while the wine begins to seem understuffed, two-dimensional. Both dimensions are very nice, but a sense of sustain and depth is absent, or at least hidden away. It's probably a case of engorged expectations, but I'd expected more than a cheerful, charming little rosˇ. Ah well, it's a fun wine, you sure could do worse.
The next course is Jay's sautéed bay(?) scallop appetizer in honey wine broth, served with Domaine de la Pépière Muscadet Clos des Briords Vieilles Vignes 1999 and a decanted Domaine de la Pépière Muscadet Clos des Briords Vieilles Vignes 1995. The 1999 still smells like a shower curtain, but it's also corked. The '95 seems quite relaxed, aromatically open and friendly--the usual coral chips drizzled lightly with honeydew and a twist of lime rind. There's a sense of relative looseness (okay, it's still Muscadet, you know what I mean), a gentle quality that I like very much. It reminds me of a scaled-down version of the '97, and it's in a good place right now, especially good with the tender-sweet bay(?) scallops.
Kane is insisting the '95 Briords is corked as well. Lisa, puzzled by this notion, suggests he try again, take another sniff. Kane keeps needling her--"What's the matter, Miss TCA, you can't smell it? What's happened to you since you've been in med school, you've lost your sensitivity?"
She doesn't like this at all. "Yeah, whatever, Kane," she snarls, leaning forward and training her eyes on his. "Look: I don't care what you say, this wine is NOT corked. It may be a little weird, but there's no TCA. And if you tell me one more time I don't know when a wine is corked, you're going to get hurt."
Awkward silence. I look around, see numerous scallop-laden forks poised in midair.
"Ooh, touched a nerve," says Kane nervously.
Lisa says nothing, glares back at him.
"Wait a minute," I interject, "Which Briords are we talking about here? THAT one is corked, the '99, not the one in the decanter."
"No, the one in the decanter is the corked one," says Kane, but he's beginning to sound unsure. After a few minutes of investigation he looks suitably sheepish. "Oops, I guess I got my glasses mixed up," he confesses.
"Was that an apology?" I ask Lisa.
"It's as close as I'm going to get from him," she mutters.
"At least he has the decency to flush a gentle shade of magenta," I point out.
In place of the corked Briords we have a J. Rijckaert C™tes du Jura Chardonnay 'les Sarres' 2002. Smells like yellow apples with a splash of creamed corn, although I mind that corny note much less than my fellow diners. Indeed, this is one of those wines that I can sense a conventional wisdom building before it reaches me, heads leaning together, much nodding. I see that coming and stuff my fingers in my ears, humming Men Without Hats' Safety Dance to block out the insidious taint of consensus. It works nicely, as I find myself at odds with everyone. Here's the truth: it's a lean wine, crisp and has a hint of applesauce about it, but there's focus and a firm thrust of semiripe yellowfruit that's food friendly and appealing. So there.
The next course is Andrew's gnocchi in sage butter. But while he's in the kitchen cooking he runs out in a panic and announces that he didn't use enough flour. This is a tactical error--you never want to plant the seeds of misgiving in your audience. "Stop that!" I shout back into the kitchen. "Never complain, never explain!"
When the gnocchi is served I take a bite. "Ooh, that could use some more flour," I announce to the room.
With the savory flourless gnocchi we have a Rudera Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch 2004. Gently spicy green apple aromatics, lime-zest hints with a minerally undertone. Tastes overstructured and puckery-crisp at first, relaxes a bit with air and a touch of honeydew skin embraces the zippy acidic spine. Maybe the first new world chenin that scratches that Loire Valley itch even slightly. I haven't been terribly impressed with South African chenin, but this is a fine specimen, a preconception-buster. There may be a touch of wood, but it shows as a subtle spiciness accenting the striking acidity. Good on our South African friends!
The old debate arises: Is Britney Spears 'common' or 'trashy'? Lisa comes down heavily on the side of common, others aren't sure they have an opinion or even know the difference between the two; nothing is settled.
Continuing our unintentional theme, here's a Puffeney Chardonnay Arbois 2002, which smells gently yellow applish, almost neutral aromatics, not much going on. Tastes simple, plain and unadorned, quiet yellowfruit, loose mouthfeel, medium-wan acidity. Innocuous, almost spectral wine.
Kane, meditating aloud on the idea of dating Beyoncˇ Knowles: "Eh. Pretty girl, not my type."
Eleven faces thinking all kinds of thoughts, no one saying anything until I come up with "I admire your choosiness, Brad--never settle for second best!" I choke back the "As if" that's attempting to leap out of my mouth, as it's my turn at bat. As I'm heading stovewards I hear Camblor say "What exactly is your type, Kane? Inflatable?"
I scamper into the kitchen to do the last prep work on my minty salt cod tomato-leek soup. With it I pour Franck Peillot Altesse de Bugey Montaignieu Roussette Cuvée Buster 2000. It's a good match, or at least just a good wine, hitting its stride these days, the layering becoming more striking, the midpalate spreading out spicily. There's just a whisper of sweetness, just enough to fill out the honey-apple flavors that coat the central minerality. It's loosened up a bit in the past few years, turning feathery at the edges, deepening down from the core in gentle layers. Damn good, really damn good.
The talk naturally turns codwards; I explain that I've soaked it for thirty-six hours, changing the water four times. Manuel tells me that his grandmother's Salt Cod Staff would change the water every two hours. "Hmph," I sniff, "that's overkill, that'll strip the cod of all its luscious coddiness, you'll end up with tilapia." No agreement is reached, but I feel Salt Cod Staff envy beginning to eat away at my innards. Shake it off, Coad, put the cod on the shelf.
Now that my turn is past I can relax and enjoy watching the traditional blood pressure testing. Jennifer volunteers to go first and hers is quite low, something like 90/50. We marvel that she can stand up or perform routine tasks. Josie comes in around the same, 90/50. Brad's is 145/80, in the normal range for a Kane. "Brad, your blood pressure is envious!" enthuses Andrew.
Jay frowns, says "Enviable."
"Jay, your grammar is envious!" enthuses Andrew.
Here's an interesting wine to match with blood pressure testing, a Baudry Chinon Blanc 'la Croix Boissée' 2004. Yes, blanc. It's a strange wine, not entirely successful or perhaps just too young. Smells like a blend of sawdust and chalkdust, touch of lemoncream, touch of rainwater. Firm acidity, the wine is compact, almost hard, and seems mostly young and coltish, some interesting raw material but awkward now. I'm put in mind of a young Foucault white, something to lay down and forget about until the as-yet unborn kids are out of college.
Kane is getting a little too happy about the medical turn of events. "Look in my orifices!" he whines, playing with fire yet again. Lisa takes the high road and ignores him completely, although I see the tiny veins around her temples begin a dangerous pulsation.
My BP is an envious 120/80, Manuel's 145/90,which Lisa seems to think is a little high. Steve has his taken and I miss his score, something like 130/90? At any rate, he then attempts to use his mind control powers to lower his score, going into the other room to meditate and achieve a kind of low blood pressure nirvana. Unfortunately, when he emerges to be tested again there's no perceptible difference. He vows to get serious about mind control and have this trick down by the time the next food/blood pressure event rolls around.
Jay has made biscuits! Crumbly, flaky biscuits! Zowie! Where's the butter? Butter, anybody? Butter? Margarine? Oleo? Jam? Marmite? No? Crap.
Now comes Kane's roasted goat. I find a strange Callahanian subtext to this menu choice, but the others seem oblivious, so I don't dwell on it. I select a few choice goat chunks, but Kane demands I take more, then more still. "Eat, eat!" he urges, yentalike.
With the succulent goat we first sample a Lapierre Morgon 2001. Ook, smells astonishingly like rhubarb jam mixed with paint thinner. Tastes shiny, melted strawberry-rhubarb candy, with a gentle fizziness. Weird, awkward and volatile. What's up with this stuff?
The Morgon being undrinkable, we head back to the Jura with a Domaine Ganevat Côtes du Jura 'la Combe' 2004, which hits closer to the mark. Medium pale ruby color. Smells earthily cran-cherried, tastes light and expressive, more loose treebark-laced cran-cherry fruit whose tartness amplifies the medium acidity. It's lightbodied, but there's a kind of Bourgueilish charm and foodfriendly drinkability here, a very likeable wine.
Kane has picked out a longtime favorite of his, a Château la Roque Pic St. Loup 'Cupa Numismae' 2001, which is Kaney enough all right, glossy-textured, generously candyoaky, medium-low acidity, just a plush little squishfest that's full of chewy redness. Pleasant enough, but bluntly generic. It's a great match with Burt's pedestrian pork, which is kind of like what we in Hawaii would call Kalua pig, except without the character or flavor.
To excise the taste of dreary pork and creamy wood candy, we sample a Garage Clark-Scott Pinot Noir Finger Lakes 2005. A product of the strikingly ripe '05 Finger Lakes vintage, this is another example of the good folks at Clark-Scott taking their fruit and going with it, as it's far outside what I'd normally think of as their house style. Pale light garnet color, light yeastiness in the nose over plum-rhubarb fruit. With air a gentle beety streak emerges. Tastes light and soft, ethereal wine that sacrifices mouthgrapple in favor of gentle expressiveness. It's almost fetal right now, still yeasty and awkward, but it's an interesting stretch for these iconoclastic craftspeople, good to see them not shying away from ripeness.
Jody's Tuscan style ribs are next up, and they're superb, or 'kickass,' as the kids like to say. Dryrub spicy, falling off the bone, matched with a Tommasi Amarone della Valpolicella 1998. Smells of ripe black cherry mixed with dust, just a little acetone, tar. Tastes broad and toned, young and tannic but on the mediumweight side rather than a bruiser. It's tough to read now, rough-edged and awkward but robust and flavorful. I've forgotten Amarone over the past five years or so; it used to be one of Lisa's favorites, and this youngster reminds me why. This is a striking pairing, the bumptiousness of the baby Amarone warring superbly with the spicy ribs, with everyone emerging victorious.
Also a fine match with the spareribs is a Luddite Vineyards Carignan Mendocino 2003. I like these guys, who seem to have a charmingly hippiedippie wine ethos--this is native yeasted, organic, all that shit. I found their cabernet franc to be a bit squishy; this has more definition, better focus. It is in fact a more interesting wine, dark blackberry-cassis aromatics, flickery-licorice undertones. Tastes firm and ripe, well-knit with just a bit of an edge. Nice balance, good composure, not terribly complex but rustic and flavorful with a brusque thrust of dark ripe fruit, fine stuff.
In the post-sparerib languor Kane incorrectly identifies the performers of a song, Iko Iko I believe. Jody has to race upstairs to Google the info to prove him wrong on the spot: Kane's not having a good night. From there we move onto a roundtable discussion of one-hit wonders. I'm desperately trying to call the name 'Dexy's Midnight Runners' to mind, but it's not coming, all I can think of is dexedrine, dexedrine, running on dexedrine. Which is I guess how they got their name, but it's not clicking now for me, as I can't even think of the Brandy, you're a fine girl people either.
Dessert is Eden's prune, raisin & almond tart with Armagnac ice cream, yowzah. The Armagnac ice cream is a bit on the flammable side, like Kane's Coq au Everclear offering of last year, but once one gets past that the tart is scrumptious, especially when matched with a Bodegas Toro Albalá Pedro Ximenez Cordoba 1971, which is like figgy-raisin motor oil, thick and sweet, liquified toasty marshmallow-raisin syrup. I'd even call it complex, but it's so damn sweet and thick that that label's a tough one to make stick.
The final course, one of my all-time favorites: fresh hot coffee!
The joe is creamy-rich, bitterly hot, just lightly oily and laden with bottom sludge. Man, that's some good java sludge. I lick it off my fingers because that's where all the vitamins are, or so I've been led to believe.
Aack, suddenly Lisa and Jody are walking into the parking lot, leaving without me. Wait! I snatch my notebook and bolt out the door, throwing myself onto the windshield of the departing car just in time to stop it long enough to let me in. On the way to the train station Jody confesses that Eden really made the ribs, but it seems fairly academic at this point. We hop on the Newark-bound train for the long haul back to civilization in Jersey City, full of food and wine and thanks to all involved, but most especially to our gentle hostesses.